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June 25, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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They said not to go alone. It was stupid saying that, of course; nobody wanted to go by themselves anyway. But parents insisted on reminding their children. The Little Ealing Ghost Society had a standing offer of £50 for anyone willing to stay an hour in the place. But mothers shook their heads and said to each other, ‘Remember that nice Mr. Barrlow.’

Olive didn’t remember Mr. Barrlow. Most people didn’t. He’d come to the village almost twenty years ago to see the old cliff house for a piece on forgotten places of the past. Everybody recalled him differently, especially after what happened, until the only thing people could say for sure was that he smoked. He hadn’t left; at least not that anybody could be sure of. That was why they spoke of him. The last anybody ever saw of nice Mr. Barrlow was when Ms. Gillwater, driving by on her way to church, glimpsed him opening the front door.

Olive didn’t want to go alone any more than anyone else, so she made Ben go with her, and if Ben was going so was Caleb. They complained. ‘Why would anybody want to wander around a giant ruin?’ But they went along. Ben would always go — he’d had a tiny crush on her for years — and Caleb was too conscious of his 15-year-old dignity to admit he was scared. As for Olive, she was going because she was bored, tired of the same pebbly beach and gray stone houses and damp patches of fields.

They dumped their bicycles on the grass and pushed against the wind up a green hill. Olive led the way; she was the one who’d dragged them there, after all. The two boys unconsciously bunched themselves behind her as they crested the hill and saw the old pile for the first time.

The house leaned ominously toward the cliffs, buffeted by wind and a smatter of raindrops. Members of the council had proposed restoring it and charging admission, but no tourists came to a tired little village without a single decent beach and it had proved too expensive to tear down, so there it stood, quietly turning into stone chips and rot.

Once, it had been magnificent; a large manor that still retained its medieval austerity under the many layers of improvements made by a long line of inhabitants. The last of these, a wealthy gentleman in the mining business, had gone bankrupt in the 19th century, but not before adding a conservatory and a modern east wing that looked not so much out of place as decidedly garish. The house seemed to close in over it as though attempting to hide a deformity.

When the gentleman had packed up and left for his family home in Scotland, the place stood empty. Furniture slowly crumbling, paint and plaster peeling off stone walls.

***

The house watched the three figures from its empty windows. It tried to shift itself on its foundations, but it was so old now, the stones went deep into the earth.

Why did they come here? They never stayed. Not even the thin one, black-haired, sallow, full of ideas. A gentleman, that was what he said. With a pocket watch. He’d liked it; open and shut, click, click while he waited. They’d ripped up floorboards, torn down walls, scraped plaster across raw boards. The house remembered pain.

Was there a pipe? The house thought. No, that was a different one. He’d smoked apple and hickory tobacco that smelled like neither. He hadn’t wanted to stay.

The house felt itself becoming angry. That wasn’t any good. They wouldn’t come in if it was angry.

***

A sharp wind rattled round the front lawn like old bones shaking. Ben had his hands in his pockets, head drawn into his windbreaker like a turtle. “Jesus, it’s creepy, Ollie.”

Olive flicked her black hair and shrugged. “I don’t see it. It’s just old, like everything else in Little Ealing.”

“Old and dangerous. I heard one guy dropped through the ceiling of some old house and broke his leg. I don’t think we should go in.” Caleb said this with as much casual disinterest as he could manage.

Neither of the other two said anything for a minute, staring at the blank windows and rough walls stained with runoff from the roof. Then Olive said, “It’s fifty pounds! You don’t even get an allowance.”

Caleb looked uncertain. “Why is there even a reward?”

Olive shrugged. “It’s stupid, there’s nothing in there but damp and an old sleeping bag this homeless guy left behind. My brother told me.”

Ben scoffed. “No way has he been in there.”

“His friend has!”

“Nuh-uh. Why do you think nobody’s claimed the £50? Dad said it’s been empty for almost a century and nobody goes in there anymore, not even the historical society.”

“Well then, I’ll be the first! I want a new pair of earbuds, and if you guys don’t want your £16, then fine.” Olive turned and marched across the weedy lawn to the front door and twisted the handle.

The two boys let her go all the way in before slowly following.

***

The house remembered children. Nasty little beasts that carved their names into the walls. But what did that matter now? The walls were scarred by more than that. And these three didn’t look like children. Maybe they would be kind.

***

The door only opened halfway, Olive had to shove it with her whole body before it would budge. Once through, she saw it had been blocked by thick, dead vines like traveler’s joy that must have wormed their way in and died. The outdoors had certainly made itself comfortable inside. Fungus, too, had crept up the walls and across the rotting floorboards, blooming in a sick kind of beauty on a squashy mound that must have once been a rug. Some kind of tiny ivy had come down the chimney and was happily growing along the drooping mantelpiece, across the wall and over the big, glass-less windows.

She heard the boys pushing their way in behind her and waited for them to catch her up. Caleb looked freaked; he was trying to hide it and almost succeeding, but Ben only wrinkled his nose and kicked at a fat mushroom.

“Gross in here,” he said. The mushroom lost its cap in a little shower of spores and spongy nastiness. “Eww, it’s on my shoes.”

Olive rolled her eyes. But she was glad they’d decided to come with her. It was too quiet in there. She led the way again through the main foyer to what used to be an airy drawing room. They could still see traces of the pale blue plaster and fine white molding along the ceiling, but most of it lay in chunks on the floor, showing the dull gray medieval walls underneath. A bird had nested in the big chandelier some time in the past.

The place had an eerie kind of beauty; a strange, almost insidious fascination about it. They could hear the wind whining round the corners, moaning down the chimney. But inside it was so still, so still. Somewhere, in a deeper part of the house, a door slammed. Caleb jumped and swore.

Olive would’ve laughed, but she felt unaccountably nervous herself. It was bright enough; there was plenty of filtered, gray light coming in through the windows to illuminate every dusty corner, but she felt suffocated by something undefined. She wanted to keep moving.

“Come on, lets see if the stairs are still safe.”

This time Ben took the lead. He was the tallest, and if the rotting wood could take his weight it could take the other’s. The sweeping staircase was a more recent addition and looked relatively sound. All went well until they reached the top and found a gaping hole in the hallway floor. After some debate, which Ben settled on his part by jumping across, Olive dragged a long board into place for her and Caleb to inch along. It bent dangerously in the middle, but held.

Upstairs, the damage was more from damp and mold. The long corridor had once been delicately arched and painted in pastoral or hunting scenes. Black smears of mildew obscured all but the edge of a spreading tree and a little seated dog. Olive had an urge to wipe her hands across the rest of the paintings, but she didn’t fancy getting that gunk all over herself.

The rooms appeared to be bedrooms, though it was difficult to tell since they weren’t all furnished, or even enterable. In one case, the door had been splintered at the bottom and the room itself filled with mud, broken wood and branches from a hole in the roof.

***

The house groaned in the wind. It was so lonely. Nothing but cliff and sea for miles. It was so looking forward to her staying. The little one, with the black hair and the eyes like chips of glass.

***

Ben wandered a little way off from the other two, looking into rooms and over the carved bannister. He was a little bored and more than a little tired of the oppressive atmosphere. Down a few wide steps, he realized he’d crossed into an unimproved part of the house. No plaster covered the old stone, no painted ceilings. He picked his way more carefully, since the floor was uneven after all those centuries. The room was bare, not even a single mushroom-covered chair leg remaining. It looked uninteresting, until he noticed an opening low on the wall.

Muted light filtered out of what looked like a short tunnel, perhaps only the distance through the thick medieval wall, but sloping downward so that from his vantage point Ben couldn’t see what was on the other end. He turned and shouted.

“Guys!”

Olive joined him first; Caleb following, his nervousness momentarily forgotten.

“What is it?” Caleb put his head down the hole as far as he could lean.

“Dunno. But there’s light on the other end. One of us should go through.” Ben looked at Olive. She was smallest.

“No way! I’m not going down there unless you can get me back out!” She said, adopting a defensive attitude as though she thought they might try to lift her in bodily.

“You could climb back up, it’s not that steep,” Ben pointed out. He looked at the stone again. It was rough and full of handholds, easy.

“No way,” she repeated.

“What about using your belt as a rope?” Caleb had an idea at last. Ben considered this, then whipped off his belt and put one end through the buckle to make a loop. It was sturdy leather, it should take Olive’s weight no problem.

“Fine. But I swear, if you guys pull anything like a prank, I’ll tell your parents you came here with me.”

Caleb threw up his hands and shook his head. “I wouldn’t, I promise.”

***

The house watched them decide. It could barely contain its creaks and wheezes. They were going in. The big one, curly hair, was wrapping the belt around his hand. She was sitting on the lip, sliding down, one hand gripping the loop. The house waited.

***

Olive couldn’t see where she was going, because the tunnel was so narrow. She had to lean her head back and slide and it was making her more uncomfortable than she’d anticipated.

Ben shouted from above her, “That’s as far as I can reach.”

So she let go. But nothing very bad happened. The tunnel was only about as long as she was tall, though it looked longer from above. Ducking, Olive slid the last few inches and stepped into a small room. The only light came from a small hole in the wall, about eye level, where a few stones had fallen out. On the floor…

She shrieked and leaped backward. The floor was littered with bones. Not mice or even larger animals, but human skeletons. Stretched out, reaching toward the light, or huddled on top of each other.

“Oh my god! Ben! I’m coming back up.”

There was no reply from above. Turning around, Olive tried to see out the opening. Neither boy’s face looked back at her. Instead, she saw something else. A rusty iron grate covering the hole. Anger replaced her fear and she began to pull herself up, using the broken stone for assistance. Ben had been right, it was an easy climb.

“I’m not kidding Caleb! You promised you wouldn’t do this to…” Olive stopped, trailing off into silence as she looked at the grate in front of her. It wasn’t propped against the opening, it was bolted there. With thick, rusted iron bolts drilled deep into the stone.

There was no way Ben and Caleb had done this.

***

For a while, she called. Until her throat got sore, and then she slid back down and put her back against the wall, staring at the skeletons. They were dead. She wasn’t dead. The word ‘yet’ drifted on the cold breeze through the hole in the wall. Olive shivered.

Where had they gone? They would never leave her here. It was all some joke she didn’t get yet. Gingerly, stifling her extreme distaste, she lifted what looked like an arm bone and took it with her up to the opening. Wedging it securely, she bore down. A soggy snap and the bone broke in two; one end rolling back down to rest against its companions.

She wasn’t going to be able to get that grate off. Even if she could somehow maneuver her legs around to kick it, it was too securely fixed in place. That was done for safety, she could see that. Well, it wasn’t keeping her safe now.

She considered crying, but decided that when the boys came back she didn’t want to be all tear streaked and scared. It would be better to have an interesting story to tell them. She looked at the skeletons. Some of them had died more recently than others. A few had their clothes still rotting on them. Had they all come down here to explore and been shut in? But not all of them would’ve brought friends with them. Who had shut them in, then?

It came back to her, her mom telling her not to go up to the old house on the cliffs by herself. Fat lot of good it had done her to take her friends.

Something shining in a little patch of light caught her attention. Picking up a piece of stick, she fished into a ribcage trying to knock it onto the floor. It was dirty and tarnished, but, once she’d picked it up, unmistakably a pocket watch.

Strange. The man who’d died here, he might have engraved his name into the lid. Olive rubbed her shirt across the top. Nothing. She pressed the latch and the watch popped open with a satisfying click.

Campbell, 1892

Campbell…wasn’t that the name of the last owners? Olive couldn’t remember. History had never been her strong subject. Idly, she shut the watch, opened it again. Click, click. It almost echoed in the heavy silence. Even the wind seemed to have died.

***

It was so dark. Olive had never known darkness like that before. Little Ealing seemed comforting now, where before it had only been stifling. What she wouldn’t give to be back there. She had cried. She was scared. She’d screamed for the boys to come back a thousand times until she had no voice left.

It was so dark. Cold wind whispered through the hole in the wall. She could hear the surf, far away and faint, but she could hear it. That made it worse, so much worse than she’d ever thought, to see and hear freedom and space but be unable to get out. And she was hungry now, too. Her stomach felt like it was eating its way out of her body. She’d only skipped one meal; that didn’t bode well for her if she couldn’t even take that little sacrifice.

In the darkness, she smelled something new. A warm, woody scent, mixed with something sweet, fruity almost. It reminded her of her uncle, who smoked vanilla tobacco.

Something scraped against the stone.

Olive felt her heart begin to beat faster. It was probably just a rat, or even a bird. But something told her it wasn’t.

More scraping. Then a rasping sound and a delicate creak, creak. Pressing her back against the wall, Olive prayed for moonlight. If she could just see what it was, she wouldn’t be so scared.

As if in answer, a thin little moon clawed its way over the horizon, illuminating the space in front of her.

Olive screamed.

She thought she died as the long white shapes raised themselves off the floor and crawled toward her, empty puppets on the house’s strings.

Desperately, she tried to run, but there was nowhere to go. At last, cornered, Olive wrapped her hands around her knees, sobbing as their cold bone fingers touched her face, insisted she stay.

***

Welcome, the house thought. It was so lonely. So hungry.

Credit: Rosemary Hamend

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Young Love

June 24, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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She’s perfect.

That’s all Matt could think as he sat on the bus throughout the entire, bumpy trip to the campground. He was thinking of Emily. Emily had dirty brown hair, kind eyes, a sharp wit and a dazzling smile- and Matt was going to spend the last weekend before freshmen year of college, camping with her and three other friends in the mountains, two hours away from his high school, at some place called Camp Babbenke. He couldn’t believe his luck.

Matt had been in love with Emily for two years now; of course, she had no idea. But Emily seemed to like Matt, as a friend at least, as did the rest of his camping buddies. Honestly, Matt couldn’t understand why; he thought he was terribly awkward and boring, compared to everyone else. When they asked him to join them on the camping trip, he was almost too anxious to agree. But his sister had yelled at him to nut up and go, so here he was, and now he was determined not to screw the trip up and reveal to everyone how big a loser he deep down was sure that he was.

Matt felt someone poke his head, and he snapped out of his daydream. It was Ron, his best friend, who’d introduced him to the rest two years ago. Thank God for Ron: without him, Matt was sure he’d have no friends at all.

“Dude, say something,” said Ron. “You’ve been sitting there for the past two hours, practically drooling.”

Matt nervously looked down at his shirt, but it was dry. “Practically, dude, I said practically,” continued Ron. “Look, we’re gonna be there in a few minutes, and if you wanna have a good time, you gotta talk to people. Be chill. Relax. Trust me, you just gotta rip off the band-aid, loosen up a little, and you’ll be fine.” Now, Ron smirked and leaned in. “So, how are you gonna make your move with Emily?”

Matt turned red, his eyes grew huge, and he scanned the bus, making sure nobody was listening. “Relax, Matt, she can’t hear you,” Ron assured him. “She’s up front having a conversation with Ben. Do you know what conversations are? You should try one some time, they’re pretty fun.” Matt glared at him. “Seriously, though dude, you’ve wanted this since you were fifteen,” Ron continued, a little more seriously. “This is your last shot before college. What do you have to lose? It’s not like you’re gonna be seeing her around much longer anyway.” Ron glanced past Matt, out the window. “Shit, looks like we’re here. Ok, well, grab your bags, pull the stick out of your ass, and let’s have ourselves a weekend, alright?”

God, the lake is buggy, thought Matt, as he swatted the umpteenth mosquito from his arm. He was happy that the campsite was further up the mountain; there were almost no bugs where they had pitched the tents. But here, by the water, they were eating him alive.

He looked around the fire pit and saw that his friends were all just as red, sweaty, and uncomfortable as he was. Ron was as sunburned as Matt had ever seen him. Anna’s hair, which she normally kept meticulously straight, was a frizzy mess. Ben had taken off his shirt a few hours before, probably to impress Anna, and he now had mosquito bites in the small of his back, which he could just barely scratch. Emily, of course, looked perfect, but Matt was probably just biased.

“Ok guys, I think it’s time to break out the beer,” shouted Ron. He opened the cooler behind him and pulled out cans, two at a time, lobbing them at everyone around the fire. Matt had to catch his with two hands, but was just happy he didn’t drop it. He’d never had a beer before, but he figured now was as good a time as any to start.

They all sat in their fold-up chairs around the camp fire, just barely able to see each other’s faces over the crackling flame. They drank and they laughed as the sun slowly set, forgetting their earlier exhaustion and itchy bodies. Eventually, it was dark, they were all full of s’mores and Budlight, and the conversation began to lull. At this point, Ben leaned in.

“All right, guys, it’s scary story time.”

Anna groaned. “Ben, why do we have to do this? We aren’t kids anymore, these ghost stories are stupid.”

Ben grinned at her. “Anna, we always do scary stories, it’s tradition. Matt’s never gotten to hear them, we owe it to him to keep it up. Sorry if you’re scared, if you can’t handle it you can go wait in the tent.”

Anna glared at him. “I’m not scared, Ben, I’m just not eight. Besides, you only know, like, three stories, we’ve heard them all fifteen times.”

Ben put on a hurt expression. “Hey, not cool Anna. My stories are always super original. But this year, I got something special. See, every year we go camping, true. But we always go to the same old place. This is our first summer here at Camp Babbenke. And I may know some stuff about these woods.”

Anna raised an eyebrow. “Stuff?”

“Spooky stuff,” came Ben’s reply.

Anna rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you do, Ben.”

Ben looked genuinely annoyed this time. “Yeah, Anna, actually, I do. I heard it from my older brother. Who’s full of shit, most of the time, yeah, but then I looked online and found a lot about what’s happened here.”

Anna looked supremely unimpressed. “So, the internet and your idiot brother. Great sources. So what is it? Ghosts? Werewolves? Killers in hockey masks?”

Ben gave her a look, then began to speak. “They say there’s something evil in these woods. That groups of kids go in and don’t come out. No, Anna, it’s not some guy with a mask and a knife. It’s not a wolf either. Online some people said it could be the Rake. Remember the Rake? I told you about him last year. But there have been no sightings around here; he usually pops up way further South. The best explanations say that the evil here does not have a body… or rather, not a body of its own. They think it gets into your mind, poisons you, makes you sick, makes you do terrible things.”

“People say that about every place in every story,” Anna said, rolling her eyes. “And guess what? People come to Babbenke, all the time, and nothing bad happens. Kids camp here every year, I think we’d notice if they started dropping like flies.”

Ben did not look happy to have been cut off. “Yeah, well, there are rules. These woods can’t get you just because you walk in. You have to be vulnerable.”

This time, Ron jumped in. “Vulnerable? What do you mean, vulnerable?”

“Well,” said Ben, “Apparently, you have to be asleep. Like I said, it doesn’t have a body in the real world, so it has to attack in your dreams, I guess. Also, you have to be alone, out in the woods. If you’re sleeping in a tent, or in a group, nothing ever happens, which is probably why most people are fine. And lastly, you have to be, well, scared. They think that fear lets this… being, this evil thing, into you. Oh, and also, it happens pretty quick, but it’s not instantaneous. So if you leave the woods before it really grabs hold of you, you’re fine.”

Anna laughed out loud. “Oh, so that’s pretty convenient. What, did they do a scientific study? I call bullshit, I call SO much bullshit.”

“Oh, do you, Anna? You call bullshit?” Ben was annoyed; Anna was spoiling the mood. “Well, if you’re so sure, why don’t we make this interesting?” Ben started searching around his feet. “Say, what if everyone who’s not scared of my story draws straws, and whoever loses sleeps outside their tent? Beautiful weather tonight, no reason not to, right?”

“Oh my god, Ben, you are so immature. We’re going to college next year, not the sixth freaking grade.” Anna clearly did not want to give Ben any satisfaction that night. “What are you doing, anyway? Are you looking for straws? Straws don’t just grow out of the ground, Ben.”

Ben was crouched over, with his back to everyone else. “Not actual straws, Anna. Creativity is the spice of life.” He stood back up, clutching a few blades of grass. “We can use this. Lemme just shorten one….” He wound the longest blade around his finger and snapped it, discarding the bottom. “There! Now, how many people think I’m full of shit?”

Everyone looked at each other. Finally, Ron grinned. “Sorry, man. You know I love you, but you also gotta know I never buy any of this monster stuff. So yeah, keep a piece for me, this sounds like fun.”

Emily laughed a little. “Yeah, what the hell. It was a good story, Ben, it really was, but, I mean, just cause it’s creepy doesn’t mean I believe it. So I guess it’s me versus you, Ron!”

Matt did not want to play. He didn’t really believe the story either, but he couldn’t help feeling a little freaked out. Besides, even if the story was fake (even though the story is fake, he told himself firmly), outside the tent, a snake could always crawl into his sleeping bag, or there could be a bear or something. But he couldn’t possibly impress Emily if he showed that he was more afraid than she was, could he? So he put on his most confident voice and called out to Ben: “Yeah, uh, what the hell. That story wasn’t even scary. I mean, yes it was, it, uh, just wasn’t believable. Yeah. So, um, I’ll play.”

Why does everything I say make me sound like an idiot? Matt though furiously to himself.

Ben carefully organized three pieces of grass in his hand; already, Matt had forgotten which was the short piece. “So,” Ben said, his eyebrows held high and aloof. “Looks like everyone’s in, except little Miss Skeptic over here.” He gave a quick little nod in Anna’s direction. “So, maybe you’re a little scared, then, after all?”

Anna looked uncomfortable. “What? No. No, I’m not scared, God. I just don’t want to sleep outside like some kind of idiot.” Her voice was getting high and squeaky, and the words were coming out fast. “I mean, like, there are bugs, and, and what if it rains or something?”

Ben looked like he was finally enjoying himself. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, first of all, it is not gonna rain. We waited all summer for a weekend with a perfect forecast, and this one weekend delivered, so don’t even try to use that as an excuse. And if I knew you were so terrified of bugs, I would have set the bar a lot lower for my story. What don’t you like about them?”

Anna looked livid. “Shut up, Ben.”

“Is it the legs?”

“Shut up, Ben.”

“It’s totally the legs, isn’t it?”

“Ugh, I said shut up, Ben, my God! You’re so annoying!” Anna was very flustered now, and her face was getting redder and redder. “If it will get you to shut your stupid face-“ (“Oooh, stupid face, she got you man!” joked Ron) “then I’ll play your stupid game and disprove your stupid story. Ok? Are you happy, asshole?”

“Ecstatic,” Ben said levelly. He adjusted the now four blades of grass, then beckoned everyone to approach. “Ok, you all know the rules. Three long blades, one short. Whoever pulls the short one, or whoever’s left at the end, gets to sleep alone and prove my story wrong. But if you get scared and chicken out –“ He looked at Anna. “-I don’t mind.”

Anna scowled.

They all stood awkwardly around Ben, until finally, Ron spoke up. “All rights, pals, let’s get the ball rolling. Excusez-moi.” He reached forward and pulled out a blade. It was long and perfect. “Looks like I’m in the clear! Woo!” He left the circle to grab a beer.

This time, Matt didn’t want to lag behind Emily. “I’ll go next. Um, if you don’t mind,” he muttered, haltingly. He reached in and grabbed a blade, which also turned out to be long. He smiled with relief.

“Ok, I’ll go!” Emily said. She reached in. She pulled out a blade. She held it up.

It was short.

Instantly, and inexplicably, Matt’s insides ran cold. Not Emily. He immediately said, without thinking, “Oh never mind, I’ll just do it.”

Everyone stared at him blankly. Emily looked at him, almost annoyed. “What?” she said. “You don’t think I can do it?”

As fast as it came, the icy feeling was gone, replaced by the all-too-familiar feeling of embarrassment. “Oh, no, it’s not that, I just, uh….” Matt now remembered that he was a terrible liar, on top of everything else. “I could tell which blade was the short one. So I didn’t choose it.” He paused. “And I feel bad. So I’ll just do it, I’ll sleep outside.”

Everyone still looked confused, but eventually, Ron said, “Well, I guess that’s that. Matt’s being a gentleman and sleeping outside so we don’t have to. Very heroic.” He took a giant swig of beer. “Yeah, I don’t think anything’s gonna happen tonight to top all that. I’m ready to head back to camp, anyone down to come with?”

The whole group agreed they were tired. They put out the fire, packed up their stuff, and started the trek back up the mountain to their campsite. Along the way, everyone joked about the night so far. Matt tried to laugh along with the rest of them, but deep down he wondered why he couldn’t just keep his big mouth shut.

It dragged itself into the clearing. One arm out; grab the grass; pull. Other arm; grab; pull. Its head was held just barely off the ground, its jaw held slackly, so that its chin scraped against the cold, wet earth. Useless, shuddering breaths escaped its mouth, and its chest rattled as air left its dry, papery lungs. Yellow, corroded shoulder blades, covered by threadbare strands of brown muscle, pierced the grey-green skin of its back. It pulled along its dead, desiccated remnants of entrails, which emerged from its open abdominal cavity. Its spine, dangling freely at its end, and held together only by connective tissue, formed a perverse tail. With a great deal of effort, it pushed itself up with its long, spindly arms. It surveyed the scene.

Two tents in the clearing. A picnic table. A cooler. And in the center, a mound. A mound, moving ever so slightly, rhythmically, to the beat of a peaceful, healthy respiration, so unlike that of the creature which observed.

It lowered its head and continued its horrible journey. One arm, drag, then the other. Finally, it arrived at the mound. It slid alongside the mound, and rotated its head, to catch a glimpse of the being contained within. It saw a young man’s face, eyes closed, blissfully unaware.

It placed a withered hand, with bone and sinew poking through broken skin, upon the mound, delicately searching for a way in. It discovered a zipper. Slowly, it pulled it down, releasing the boy from his cocoon. Gently, almost lovingly, it removed the soft, top layer of the mound. The boy, now exposed shivered in his sleep.

It turned itself around and pulled itself toward the boy’s legs. It slid his pant leg up and examined his calf. Satisfied, it gripped the boys ankle with one hand, and under his knee with the other. It pulled itself closer to the leg, and lifted the leg a few inches off the ground. It rocked its head back, its jaw flopping down. Its brown, mossy teeth were just visible in the moonlight. It swung its head down, hard, and the teeth entered flesh.

Matt lurched awake, in a cold sweat. There were shooting pains down his leg. Where was he? He was camping. He was outside, in his sleeping bag. Ok.

Then, he remembered his dream, and the frightful creature he had seen in it. No; the creature he had been in it. He swallowed hard. It had been such a horrible dream.

His leg was still smarting, so he unzipped his sleeping bag and inspected his calf. Right where he felt the pain, he saw a raised bump in the dim moonlight, nothing more. In the dark, he couldn’t see the color, but it seemed like a particularly nasty mosquito bite to him. Had he been scratching in his sleep? Maybe he made it worse? Or… could it be a spider bite? Could there be a spider in his sleeping bag?

The thought freaked him out. He considered opening his sleeping bag all the way and inspecting it, but in the darkness, he knew it wouldn’t amount to anything. Besides, he was so tired. So very tired.

After a few minutes, his leg pain seemed to dissipate. He drifted off to sleep. This time, no dreams bothered him.

Pound. Pound. Pound. A stabbing, screaming headache. That was how the morning greeted Matt. He then realized the pounding pain was accompanied by a clanging sound. He cracked his eyes open to see what was happening.

Ron was standing on the picnic table, banging a wooden spoon against a saucepan. “Everybody up!” CLANG. “Rise and shine, pals!” CLANG. “Breakfast time! HOW YOU LIKE YO EGGS?” CLANG.

I’m gonna kill him, thought Matt. I’m actually going to kill him. He watched a similarly displeased Anna stick her head out of the girl’s tent and squint into the morning sun.

“Ron, if you hit that pan again, I’m going to light you on fire,” she said, flatly. Ron stared at her, doe-eyed, and very carefully, deliberately, solemnly, banged the saucepan again.

By now, Emily and Ben were also making their way out of their respective tents, puffy-eyed and miserable-looking. “Looks like the team is all assembled!” Ron shouted joyfully. “Oh, wait, I almost forgot! Matt!” He turned towards Matt’s sleeping bag. “’Ey! You awake, bro?”

Matt finally sat up, rubbed his eyes, and nodded. “Woo!” shouted Ron. “Matty boy 1, evil woods 0! Looks like you’re full of shit after all, Ben!”

20 minutes later, they were all sitting around the picnic table, eating eggs. Matt stared at his plate. He had never been less hungry in his entire life. Strange; he hadn’t eaten for at least eight or nine hours, where was his appetite?

“So, Benjamin,” Ron said, talking through a mouthful of eggs. “What’s on today’s agenda?”

“Ok, here’s the plan,” Ben said. “We’re gonna grab all our stuff and hike up to this cabin about four or so miles from here. Apparently, every year, graduating seniors hang out there and leave something behind for the next batch. There’s supposed to be a footlocker with a Masterlock, and unless my older brother’s screwing with me, the combination is 20-4-2. Hopefully, the last class left us some good shit.”

Emily’s brow furrowed. “Wait, what are we leaving the kids after us?”

Ben smiled. “Don’t worry, I got it covered. My parents keep a whole lot of liquor under the cabinet… which they never drink. Don’t suppose they’ll notice if a bottle of Svedka goes missing, do you?”

Everyone cheered. They finished their eggs and began to clear up and pack for the hike.

As Matt got up from the table, he felt a shooting pain in his leg. Suddenly, the dream, and the mosquito bite- or was it a spider bite?- came rushing back to him. Had he been scratching it again, without even realizing it?

He pulled up his pants and checked it out. The bite looked really nasty, now; there was no top layer of skin over it at all, and it was oozing a pinkish fluid. It didn’t seem to be really bleeding, but the whole area around it was really red and warm; he didn’t like the look of it at all. This had to be a spider bite, no mosquito ever did anything like this.

“Hey Ben? We have a first-aid kit, right?” Matt asked.

“Yeah man, yellow backpack,” Ben replied, pointing. “Why, what’s up?”

“Oh, I, uh, just wanted to make sure we didn’t forget it, you know, when we go to the cabin,” Matt lied. He didn’t want anybody worrying about his leg, and definitely didn’t want to admit he was worried about it. “I’ll grab that bag for our hike, ok?”

“Yeah, cool, thanks,” Ben said, distractedly.

Matt sneakily bent down and fished around inside the bag for the first-aid kit. He pulled out some disinfectant and a big band-aid. He applied them to the bite, which stung him like crazy, but he felt much more comfortable knowing he had treated the wound.

“All right, gang,” Ben called out. “Ready to roll?”

And after a chorus of “yep”s and “yeah”s, they were off.

Matt must not have known how long four miles was, as the hike seemed to take an eternity. They walked on, and on, and on. The backpack chafed against his shoulders. The temperature had risen to an oppressive degree, and every part of him was drenched with sweat. He drank and drank from his thermos until it was dry, and still his mouth was parched.

Every step sent a twinge of pain through his leg. After the first half hour, that twinge had evolved into a searing pain, radiating up his inner thigh to his groin in one direction, and down to his heel in the other. Soon he was trailing behind the others, while trying, desperately, to pretend nothing was wrong. Even so, he could tell the rest were deliberately slowing down for his sake, and he felt ashamed.

Finally, they arrived at a clearing. In the middle was a cozy looking cabin. Ben ran to the front door and grabbed the handle and shook it. It was locked.

“Right, right,” Ben muttered to himself, looking around the floor. He bent over and wiggled a stone out of the ground, grabbed something from the pit where it had sat, and stuck it into the keyhole. There was a click.

“Welcome, friends, to the Babbenke Senior Cabin,” Ben said mysteriously. They all piled in, through their bags to the floor, and made themselves at home. After a few minutes of frantic searching, Matt was delighted to find a working faucet. The water was gross and warm, but it was still water, and Matt gorged himself.

“All right, bud, where’s this footlocker?” asked Ron, who rubbed his hands together and grinned.
“Over here!” Emily called out excitedly, pointing to a black plastic box beside one of many armchairs in the cabin.

While the rest of the campers crowded around the footlocker, Matt silently grabbed the yellow backpack and moved to another, quieter room. He pulled up his pant leg and looked at the bandaged bite on his leg. There were now bright red lines radiating out from under the bandage, which was dark and discolored from absorbing whatever fluid was leaking from the leg. The inflamed area had grown to cover almost the entirety of his calf, and the center around the band-aid almost seemed to be pulsating.
Grimacing from the apprehension of what he might see, Matt pinched one end of the band-aid and began to peel back. The band-aid was moist, and seemed stuck on the leg less by its own adhesive than by the sticky fluid it had absorbed.
When the bite itself became visible, Matt was almost overcome with nausea. The center of the bite was now an angry red, surrounded by a black and green ring. A thin coating of yellow-green slime was oozing from the bite. There was a powerful smell of rot emanating from the sore. Worse, two thick black lines were coming out of the top of the sore and working their way under the skin up the back of Matt’s knee.

How had this happened? Matt thought. I put on the disinfectant and everything. Besides, don’t infections take longer than this anyway? He had a horrible thought; what if this was the effect of some poisonous spider’s bite? He seriously considered going out and telling everyone, but decided against it. That would ruin the trip for everyone; he didn’t know how to get back, and he doubted any one of them would want to leave the rest to help him get back to civilization; most likely, his announcement would end the trip for everyone.

Including Emily.

He put on some more disinfectant and a fresh band-aid and headed back into the main room. Everyone was smiling widely.

“Dude, where’d you go? Never mind, look at all this shit!” Ron said ebulliently. He was holding a bottle of Bacardi in one hand and Captain Morgan in the other. Matt looked around and saw Emily and Anna pouring each other shots from three other bottles, laughing hysterically. Only Ben looked a little uneasy.

“I didn’t expect there to be all this stuff,” he said stiffly. I kind of feel bad about only leaving them one bottle of liquor, but I mean, how many bottles can I steal from my folks? Maybe I can pay an upperclassman to get me some at college, and come back here some time to drop it off…”

“Dude, who cares?” Ron said. “Matt, get a load of this. Craziest thing in the footlocker, you’re never gonna guess. It’s freakin’ nuts.” He reached in and pulled out…

A mother-fucking shotgun, baby!” Ron screamed. He started looking down the sights, pointing the barrel every which way.

Suddenly, Emily called out, deadly serious. “Ron, put that thing away right now. I told you before, the longer it stays out of the footlocker, the more certainly someone’s gonna end up getting hurt.”
Ron rolled his eyes. “Whatever, mom.” He started posing with the gun, checking himself out in a dirty mirror hanging on the wall.

“No, seriously dude, she’s probably right,” Ben said. “Especially since we’re drinking and all. Someone’s bound to do something stupid, it’s probably better if that stupid thing doesn’t involve a gun.”

“Actually, guys, maybe we should get everything ready for the rest of the day, before we’re too drunk to do anything,” Emily suggested. “For example, this place doesn’t have a kitchen, which means we’re gonna need a fire going on outside tonight if we want to eat dinner. Since collecting wood at night is a pain in the butt, who wants to help me do it now?”

“Emily, who needs food, we’ve got alcohol,” Ron declared.

Emily wasn’t amused. “Come on, seriously. Anyone? Anna?”

“Sorry doll, not really feeling it right now,” Anna replied. “Probably ‘cause I’m already four shots in. I’m like, almost starting to like the Bacardi. Almost.”

“Actually, Emily, I would go,” Matt volunteered. He ignored the massively obvious wink Ron sent his way. In truth, Matt wasn’t even trying to get alone time with Emily; he just couldn’t stand the thought of drinking right then. The smell of the liquor alone was making him feel sick.

Thank you Matt,” Emily said. “See, I’m glad someone is willing to be helpful. Come on, Matt, let’s go. Guys, try not do burn the house down.”

And out they went.

Matt and Emily walked together to the edge of the clearing. They silently collected twig after twig, branch after branch. Much of the wood was damp, rotten, or both; they had to walk fairly deep into the woods to find good sticks for burning. It got to the point that it took almost a full ten minutes to walk the wood back to the campsite and return.

Matt desperately wanted to talk to Emily; the complete lack of conversation was unnerving and uncomfortable. However, he simply could not think of anything to say. His mind felt cloudy. His brow was sweating, and he could feel his blood pounding through his neck. Every time he bent over to pick up a piece of kindling, he felt faint upon standing back up. Still, he was happy to be outside, at least; it had to be better than the noisy, booze-filled cabin.

Emily called out: “Hey Matt, I’m gonna run back to the cabin to drop off this wood. I might run inside for some water, but don’t worry if I take a few extra minutes, I’m coming back!”

“Ok, Emily! Take your time,” Matt called back. He heard her footsteps taper off as she walked away. Matt continued picking up sticks. Bend over… stand up… bend over… stand up….

And suddenly, he couldn’t do it anymore. He stood up, felt pounding in his head, and weakness in his knees. He crumbled under his own weight and allowed the branches he was holding to fall to the floor. He leaned forward, supporting himself with his arms and sitting on his legs. A new wave of nausea hit him; this time, he simply couldn’t keep it down.

He threw up in the space between his hands. The vomit was thick and syrupy, with reds, greens and blacks mixed into a foul smelling pool. He threw up again, and again, until he was just retching at the ground. He forced himself to take some deep breaths, the closed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and pushed against his knees to stand himself up. Once on his feet, he stumbled in the direction of the cabin. He managed to get twenty feet or so from his puddle of sick before collapsing again. He pulled himself to the nearest tree and leaned his back against it, just trying to breath.

After a few minutes, he heard someone approaching. Emily. God, he didn’t want her to see him like this. But what could he do? He was too weak to stand, never mind get away from her. He looked up and watched her approach, her face gradually becoming more concerned as she neared.

“Matt, what’s wrong? You don’t look so good,” she said.

Matt tried to smile, but could only grimace. “I don’t feel well, Emily. I feel like shit, actually.”
Emily crouched down and looked him in the eye. “I thought something was up. You haven’t been yourself all day.” She squinted and leaned in closer. “You’re so pale. I think we better get you inside for now, and once you feel a little stronger, maybe we should cut the trip short and head home. You need to get out of these woods in case you get worse and need to get to a hospital.”

Matt painfully pulled his torso forward off the tree, forcing himself to support his own weight. “No, Emily, I don’t want to ruin this trip for you and everyone else. You’ve all been so nice, letting me come with you. Everyone’s just starting to really enjoy themselves, now that we’ve reached the cabin, and I don’t want to get in the way of that.”
Emily smiled and shook her head. “Matt, you’re more important to me than a stupid camping trip. I just want you to be ok. So let’s get you back to the cabin.”

Her beautiful face was just inches from Matt’s. She seemed so warm, so kind. Her eyes were a glowing chestnut brown in the dim light of the forest. And her lips seemed so red and full. Those lips, those wonderful lips….

Matt couldn’t help himself. He felt a pull towards her, the culmination of all the feelings he’d harbored for the past two years. He leaned in, he felt her against his lips. He was happy. Incredibly happy.

Then she screamed, and Matt, with sudden horror, realized what he was actually doing.

Emily jumped back, confusion and fear written across her face. She held her hand against her mouth and cheek. Blood was oozing from between her fingers. The same blood that Matt could taste over his teeth and tongue.
“Matt, what… what the FUCK was that?” Emily screamed.

Matt tried to answer, but instead a high pitched growl, like a hyena’s, came out of him. He felt strength returning to his limbs. Jerkily, he started crawling towards Emily, who was now crabwalking away from him, struggling to get to her feet. Matt felt desire. He had tasted her, and he realized he liked it. He wanted more.

Emily had turned and begun to run. Without even thinking, Matt began to pursue. They crashed through the branches toward the edge of the clearing. Emily began screaming for help as soon as she saw the cabin, while Matt continued his hair-raising shrieks and snarls. By the time she reached the door, Matt was just a few feet behind her. She threw it open and ran inside, attempting to slam the door behind her.

Matt was too quick. He managed to fit his hand between the door and the frame before it slammed shut. He felt his bones crunch, but he didn’t care. He reached around with his other hand and pulled, easily overpowering Emily, who was still attempting to pull the door shut. She bolted, screaming over and over, “He’s crazy! He bit me! What the fuck is wrong with him!?”

Matt tried to follow her through the house, but he was quickly blind-sided by a tackle from Ben. The two fell to the ground. Ben thought he had Matt pinned, but Matt managed to pull Ben’s hand over to his mouth. He bit his wrist down to the bone, and with strength he’d never felt before, threw Ben to the side. Savagely, he pushed against Ben’s chin with his broken hand and swung his head down, sinking his teeth into Ben’s neck. He tasted the warm, salty blood shooting from the wound. It was good.

But not as good as Emily’s had tasted.

Matt looked up. He saw Anna, standing in the corner, sobbing hysterically, transfixed. In a moment Matt was on her, biting and tearing, ripping strips of flesh from her bare shoulders and face. She attempted to fend him off, beating his chest with closed fists, but to no avail. In seconds, she collapsed to the ground. Then, Matt saw someone else in the corner of his eye. He whirled around to face them.

He found himself looking at a monster. Its skin was pale green, with thick, black lines coursing beneath. Its eyes were bloodshot, more red than white, with sickly yellow irises. Blood dripped from its mouth, which was twisted into a grotesque, hateful grin.

And suddenly, Matt began to laugh. He laughed at the monster, and the monster laughed at him. A high, terrifying, insane laugh. Finally, he was seeing himself as the hideous, unlovable creature he always knew he was, thanks to that dirty mirror on the wall.

And then he heard his name, his dirty, ugly name. “Matt!” He turned to face the speaker. It was Ron. He was holding the shotgun. And he was crying.

“Matt… Matt, what are you doing? Matt, please stop.” Ron was shaking with sobs. “Matt, don’t make me… I don’t want to… please, just, let’s go home, let’s leave this place…”.

Matt started to chuckle again. He took a step toward Ron, then another. “Please, Matt… no…”. Ron was backing away, stumbling drunkenly. “I don’t want to shoot… I don’t want to shoot…”.

Matt was almost on him now. In a moment he would be in range, he would jump, he would rip, he would kill. And suddenly- CLANG. A massive impact to the back of his skull. Matt, surprised, whirled around.

There was Emily, fearful but defiant, wielding Ron’s frying pan. She looked delicious. With a snarl, Matt lurched toward her, arms outstretched.

BANG.

Matt fell to the floor, stunned. His head rocked back and he saw Ron, behind him. Ron threw down the shotgun, dropped to his knees, and started sobbing into his hands.

With the last of his strength, Matt pulled his head forward, looking at Emily. He felt his fervor, his sickness, draining out of him through the bullet holes in his back. Where he once felt mania, he now felt only a profound sadness.

He looked Emily dead in the eye and inhaled. “Emily,” he said. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

He watched her face shift from fear to concern, even caring sympathy. Her eyes regained their warmth. Despite the caked blood on her face, her torn clothing, her disheveled hair, she looked beautiful. As his vision faded to black and Ron’s sobs dimmed to a high static, Matt had just one last thought.

She’s perfect.

Credit: Ai841

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Blood in the Water

June 20, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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The mountains rose high in the distance, the snowy, white caps breaking through the thick layer of clouds that blanketed the sky above. Below the line of snow, fir trees washed the mountain in a bright sea of green. The rolling hills that stretched out for miles at the base of the mountains were encompassed by a vast forest of evergreens, stretching as far as the horizon, lost to the curvature of the earth. Birds could be heard tittering away, taking to the skies. If one paid enough attention, squirrels and deer could be seen cautiously exploring the forest floor in search of food. Beginning near the mountain’s peak, a vast river meandered down the face of the crag, cutting a swath through trees and stone alike, widening as it neared the bottom. At the point where the river met with the highway, running parallel with it for several miles before abruptly changing course, it was nearly several hundred feet wide.

Hearing an approaching noise, the woodland creatures scattered, taking cover. That noise was one all too familiar to the dwellers of the forest. Though they knew not what it was called, the noise belonged to an automobile. Cars brought humans. In the experience of nature’s creatures, humans generally brought death, a travel mate that they rarely went without, an old friend of the species, welcomed with open arms by most. Humans tainted all that they came into contact with; they were an infection, a disease, a cancer spreading across the planet. They respected nothing. Not life, nor death, not even the planet that sustains their existence.

Almost as if to prove the point, a beer can, not quite empty, bounced from the highway, clanging loudly in the peaceful surroundings. Frothy suds poured onto the street, immediately beginning to dry on the steamy black asphalt.

“You asshole,” a female voice said from within the vehicle, an old Jeep that had seen its prime pass long ago. “That’s littering. Do you have any idea how long it takes for something like that to break down and decompose?”

“Chill out, Mallory,” the young man beside her said. He laughed and began blocking her feeble slaps at his arms. “It’s just one can. It won’t hurt anything.”

“Is that really how you see it, Worm?” she asked, her eyes narrowed at him, measuring him up. “What if everyone thought that way? What if we just all threw our trash anywhere we could? What do you think the world would be like then?”

“Don’t call me Worm,” he said through clenched teeth. “I hate that name.”

“Shut up, Worm,” Clinton said from the passenger seat, half-turned to look at him in the back. “You’re six two and a hundred and fifty pounds. Tall, long, and gangly: like a damn worm. Deal with it.”

“And don’t throw things out my window,” Sheila said from behind the wheel. She didn’t turn to look at him, but she sent a stern look to Worm through the rearview mirror. “I don’t want a ticket.”

Worm looked around dramatically, absolutely dumbfounded. “Who’s going to give you a ticket? Smokey the Bear? We haven’t even passed another car in over an hour. There’s no one around.”

“That’s the point, jackass,” Clinton chimed in. “We came for scenic views and peace and quiet before finals. The interstate and all the traffic would defeat the point; now wouldn’t it?”

Worm said nothing. Instead he slouched in his seat, crossed his arms with a sigh, and stared out his window. This was a scene that the other three passengers in the vehicle were well acquainted with. Worm was a notorious pouter. Whenever he felt that he was being outnumbered and maneuvered against, his reaction was always to go silent and sulk. He would remain in this posture for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, they knew. After that, he would be perfectly happy again. For a while, at least.

Mallory leaned forward. “So how much farther to your uncle’s cabin?”

Sheila considered the question for a moment. “Not too far. We’re about two hours from St. Louis. The cabin is about an hour beyond that.”

Mallory leaned back with a frustrated exhalation. They had been driving for hours, their last stop almost four hours previous. Her legs ached, her back as well. She shifted constantly in her seat, her body unable to get comfortable. And they had the same drive to look forward to on their way back to school? She could scarcely contain herself at the thought.

Sheila’s eyes flitted upwards, into the rearview mirror. She saw the weary exasperation on her best friend’s face. Mallory had never been one for extended drives. As children, she had complained incessantly whenever their families took long trips. But she noticed that Worm was also fidgeting, although he suffered silently, not wanting to interrupt his sulking prematurely. She looked at Clinton in the passenger seat to see him with the same behavior.

“We’re going to need gas soon,” she announced to her weary passengers, hoping to lighten their moods. “I say we take a break from the car then. Stretch our legs a bit. What do you guys think?”

“But aren’t we almost there?” This was Clinton, always her voice of reason. “Wouldn’t it be pointless, a waste of time that we could be spending at the cabin?”

“I need to get out for a bit,” Mallory said. “I need to stretch and walk around.”

Sheila looked to Clinton. “We won’t be long. I think fifteen to thirty minutes should be good.”

“What about that place?” Worm asked, leaning forward, pointing over her shoulder to a building just appearing on the horizon.

“I don’t care where we stop,” Mallory said, her voice beginning to tilt towards a whine, “so long as we do. And soon.”

“Fine by me,” Sheila responded. “We have more than enough gas to get us to the cabin.”

“I thought you just said that we needed to stop for gas?” Clinton, curious, puzzled.

“Not really. I just wanted to get everyone out of the car.”

They passed a giant billboard on the side of the road. Missouri Surf. Best In The World. Ahead on left.

“Did that say surf?” Clinton asked, craning his head back, watching the sign grow smaller as they drove on.

“I think so,” Mallory answered. “That can’t be right, can it?”

“This is a landlocked state,” Worm chimed in, completely past his need to pout. “There are no beaches to surf.”

“Well that’s what it said,” Mallory replied, her tone defensive.

“Maybe there’s a wave-pool or something,” Sheila offered, hoping to squash the squabble before it had a chance to start, dousing the ember before it could catch.

“I have to see this,” Clinton said giddily. The excitement was clear in his voice. He leaned forward in anticipation, as though, by doing so, he could reach the shop sooner. “I’ve always wanted to surf; it’s on my bucket-list.”

Sheila, ever the cautious one of the bunch, turned on her blinker, despite not having passed a car for almost an hour, and pulled into the parking lot. The loose gravel crunched audibly under the weight of the tires, the sound of thousands of tiny bones breaking.

“Doesn’t seem like much,” Mallory said as she climbed from the backseat. She shut the door and stretched, her back popping loudly. “I don’t see a wave-pool either.”

“Maybe it’s inside,” Clinton offered, still hopeful, always the optimist.

“Do you see the size of that building?” Worm asked, incredulous. “The four of us could barely fit in there. Much less a wave-pool.”

The four young travelers stood by the Jeep, staring at the unlikely surf shop on the western edge of a landlocked state, just a short distance from the mountains. Worm was indeed correct. The shop was scarcely larger than a shack. It was modeled after the bungalows found in the photographs of countless island paradises. The tall, sloping roof was made of dried palm fronds which hung down, tickling any passersby. A small porch lined the front of the store, decorated with bright paint of numerous shads: reds, yellows, oranges, greens. Large daisies were painted on the posts that supported the roof’s overhang. A rack of surfboards in varying colors and sizes sat in the corner. The front wall was comprised entirely of glass, adorned with bright decals shouting what they assumed to be brand names. On the glass, the words ‘always open’ were written in colored shoe polish, the same kind used by car salesmen the nation over.

“Is this some hippie convent?” Worm asked, obviously displeased with his newfound location. But when exactly wasn’t Worm displeased with one thing or another?

“I like it,” Clinton said, walking to the front of the Jeep. “It catches the eye. I find it quite aesthetically pleasing.”

“You would.” Worm had followed suit and was now standing beside Clinton in front of the vehicle. “You’ve always teetered on the brink of dirty-hippiness.”

“I like it too,” Sheila said, lacing her fingers through Clinton’s.

“Don’t stick up for him,” Worm said, almost spitting the words. “It does nothing but encourage him. If it weren’t for me, Clinty here would’ve been a dirty hippie long ago, some half-stoned beatnik snapping at some other dirty hippie’s terrible poetry, wearing a douchie turtleneck. Yeah, you’re welcome.”

Clinton shook his head in disbelief. Sometimes he couldn’t remember why he had remained friends with Worm for so long. He was an asshole, through and through. He never denied this about himself; rather, he embraced it, owned it, became it. But, when no one was around, Clinton knew that Worm had a huge heart. He was loyal to a fault, willing to go to bat for him at a moment’s notice. Thinking of this always reminded him of why they were friends, and why he loved him like a brother, albeit the asshole brother that you want to punch in the face most of the time.

As her three companions made their way towards the entrance, Mallory alone hung back, hesitant to proceed, unsure of why. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about this place gave her a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach. No, more. It was a deep-seeded sense of unease. She tried to tell herself that this was ridiculous, that, strange as it may be, it was nothing more than a surf shop. But the feeling persisted. Suddenly, she wanted to be back in the Jeep, on the road, headed to the cabin for the weekend. But most importantly, to be headed away from here.

“Are you coming?” Worm asked. “You don’t want to miss all the hippie shit, do you?”

The sudden noise brought her back to reality, back from a daze that she hadn’t realized had even begun. She shook her head from side to side slightly, clearing the last few remaining remnants of the miasma from her mind. And just like that, the feeling was gone. Poof! Like it had never existed in the first place.

“Huh?” she said after a few moments. Her mind finally making sense of the question, she answered, “Yeah, I’m coming. Not sure what that was. Tired, I suppose.”

She trotted up the single wooden step to Worm’s side, looping her arm through his and leaning against him. Together, they opened the door and walked in to join Clinton and Sheila.

The first thing one noticed upon entering was the scent, strong and unavoidable. The shop smelled of sea water, that salty, cool scent of the ocean. Beneath the scent of the ocean, the smell of processed wood hung in the air, the scent of a lumber yard. Very faint, almost completely hidden beneath the powerful smells of both the ocean and the forest, was the chemical odor of wax, a greasy, oily scent that felt like it could cling to your nostrils with just one whiff.

The next sense to register in the shop was sound. A gentle lapping of waves striking the shore could be heard clearly. Fainter, as though from a greater distance, the sound of waves breaking, crashing down, imploding on themselves. Through it all, seagulls could be heard, their loud squawking complaints. These sounds, when taken in conjunction with the scents that hung in the air, gave the impression of standing in a real surf shop next to the ocean. Were they to close their eyes, they would be able to visualize the scene in breathtaking detail. Try as they might, none of the four were able to spot any speakers projecting the music of the sea.

A multitude of racks, filled with surfboards, covered the center of the floor. The range of colors and designs on the boards was staggering. A few racks sat behind the boards, men’s and women’s bathing suits hung neatly from hangers filling them. Shelves lined the walls, hung over myriads of posters of bands and surfers, pictures of the sea and tidal waves. Various items filled the shelves: waxes, cleaners, new straps, replacement fins.

Once the initial shock and awe of the place had passed, the four friends separated, each mingling amongst the items. Sheila and Mallory each perused through a rack of bathing suits. They slid the hangers aside quickly, removing any that caught their eye and holding up to their bodies, judging the appearance. Clinton walked amongst the boards, his eyes enraptured. He traced the sleek, waxed boards with his with his fingertips. Finding one he liked, he picked it up, marveling at how lightweight it was. All the while, Worm traced the outer walls of the shop. He had no interest in the items the shelves in front of him held. Instead, he took in the photos and posters on the wall. He smiled as he went from picture to picture: a surfer just beginning to shoot the tube, another with the surfer in the air, performing some sort of trick, in another he was actually able to see the silhouette of a shark in the wave, curiously following the surfer. This last was autographed. Kelly Slater; the name meant nothing to him.

The sound of a belt-sander could be heard coming from a room at the far end of the shop, a high-pitched grinding. From beneath the door, small puffs of dust and wood shavings flew out.

“Do you think we should knock?” Clinton asked, eager to see what this surfing business was all about.

When no one replied, he walked to the door. He raised his hand to knock, but before starting his downswing, the sander stopped. The sudden silence was eerie, freezing him in place. The sounds of the ocean played their soothing melody. The door opened suddenly, causing him to start.

The man, young, tanned, sun-bleached hair, jumped as well, startled to find someone so close upon opening his door. He pulled down the respirator mask he wore, allowing it to hang on his chest. He smiled widely, his bright white teeth flashing in the sunlight that filled the store.

“You scared the hell out of me, man,” he said. His voice was soft, mellow, and he spoke slowly, as though great thought and effort was taken to form the words. His tone was cheerful, despite the scare, good-natured, friendly even.

“Great,” Worm muttered. “A stoner. I knew this was some dirty hippie commune.”

Mallory was at his side in a moment, pinching the skin of his elbow. “Stop it,” she scolded, her voice a whisper. “Be nice.”

“Ow. Shit.” Worm rubbed at his elbow, a grimace on his face. The pain was already receding into nothingness, but he got the point. “Fine.” The word was short, curt, almost spat out.

“Sorry,” Clinton said, a bit embarrassed, backing away from the door. “I was about to knock. You know, in case you didn’t know we were here.”

The man smiled again, his bronzed cheeks rising up, turning his eyes into horizontal crescent moons. “It’s ok, man. No harm, no foul. Doctors say a good scare occasionally is good for the ticker.” He patted his chest, then held out his hand. “I’m Declan, and this,” he raised other arm in a grandiose sweeping gesture, “is my place.”

Worm fought to stifle a laugh, only a muffled snicker managing to escape. This was just too much. First the lecture in the car, then the shop, in all its day-glo glory, and now this guy; it was like he had woken up in some liberal nightmare. The thoughts dissipated, along with the urge to laugh, as Mallory poked him in the ribs, none too lightly. He heard her hiss at him through her clenched teeth. Jeez, you’d think she was his girlfriend, the way she constantly reprimanded him.

Sheila remained silent, watching thoughtfully.

“So what can I do for you?” Declan asked.

Clinton took the man’s hand in his own. “Well, the sign said best surfing in the world. We thought you might have a wave-pool and we wanted to try it. But we can see that you clearly don’t, so we’ll just be on our way.”

Declan stared at him, his eyes bright and watery, filled with the pure glee that he wore openly on the rest of his face. He appeared utterly blithe, as though nothing could ever upset him or cause his mood to falter.

After a few seconds, he replied, “No, man, no wave-pool. Sorry.”

“So how can you say best surfing in the world without a pool?” Sheila interrupted. She was clearly growing annoyed with the pretty boy and his sun-bleached, burnt out mind.

“I have something much better,” he said, the words almost seeming to take an effort he spoke them so slowly. He drifted off, his mind wandering, losing the follow-up details.

They waited a few moments for him to continue.

“Jesus Christ,” Worm exclaimed. “This guy’s wasted. Let’s get out of here.”

“Wait,” Clinton said without turning. His next question was directed to Declan. “What do you have?”

Declan’s eyes looked into Clinton’s, finally coming back into focus. “Huh? Oh! I have the sea, my man. Best waves you’ll find anywhere. Hawaii, Bali, Australia: all kiddie waves compared to these.”

The guy was obviously insane. Yet Clinton couldn’t help but be fascinated.

He continued the conversation anyway. “We’re in Missouri,” he said matter-of-factly, as though the detail were up for debate. “There’s no ocean for at least a thousand miles in every direction.”

“You just don’t know where to look, brah.” He spoke with such assurance that, for a split-second, Clinton almost believed him.

He looked out at the four strangers, the serene ecstasy written on his features never wavering for even a moment. Finally he said, “So you guys want to ride some waves or what?”

“We don’t understand,” Mallory spoke up. “How can we possibly surf?”

“You just leave that to me. Who’s interested?”

“Fuck it; I’m in,” Clinton said hastily.

“Me too,” Sheila said. “We can always just leave if it’s bullshit.”

“We’re just supposed to take your word on this?” Mallory asked. Her bad feeling from earlier had begun to creep back on her, ebbing away at her comfort level. “And I guess we pay first, right?”

Declan just looked at her, smiling. Finally, he said, “You don’t have to take my word on anything.” He looked at Clinton. “Go open that door right there, man.”

He pointed to his left. Four heads turned almost in unison, following his finger. Tucked in the corner of the building, carefully camouflaged, almost completely hidden by the posters, was a door. There was only the faintest hint of the edges of the door, outlined by the edges of the posters. A small, dull iron knob protruded through a hole cut in the poster. No one moved.

“Well, go ahead, brah,” he said. “It ain’t gonna hurt you to open the door.”

“Christ,” Worm said, exasperated, as he strode to the door. “I’ll do it, if only so we can see this nutbag’s game and be on our way.”

He grabbed the knob and turned, pulling the door open. He was instantly washed in a warm light, so bright he had to shield his eyes with his free hand. It was a clean, white light, that of the sun, not the yellow of a manmade bulb. His short hair fluttered as a breeze rolled through the door, carrying with it the scent of seaweed and kelp. Grains of sand were blown in with the wind, piling up against his feet, forming miniscule dunes on the wooden floor. With the door open, the sound of the waves and gulls intensified greatly.

“Aw, man,” Declan said, his tone barely above that of a whine. “Now I have to sweep again.” He said this as though it were the most natural thing in the world, as though everyone had a room like this in their house.

Worm’s eyes widened as he looked through the door, out at the paradise beyond. “Son of a bitch,” he said, more to himself than to anyone else.

“Oh my God,” Mallory said, walking up behind him.

They were quickly joined by Clinton and Sheila. Clinton said nothing; he was completely taken aback. He blinked his eyes rapidly, as though it were but an illusion and he could will himself to see the truth. Yet it remained as it had been. Sheila gasped, her mouth falling open, her hand raised to cover it.

Declan walked up behind them. He crossed his arms over his bare chest, his toned muscles flexing and rippling with each movement. A thin layer of wood dust covered his body, making his torso appear lighter than it truly was. He looked out, just as lost in the view as his four prospective customers. His eyes were full of longing; a longing, a need, a compulsion to be in the sea, floating amongst the waves atop his board. Ask any real surfer, whether pro or just weekend pleasure boarder, they’ll all give you the same answer; that was his true home, the place he felt happiest, serene and secure amid the waves.

He let a sigh so full of love for the water that even the four young adults knew the cause. “I know, right? It’s beautiful.”

“What… what is this?” Clinton asked, his mind still fighting acceptance.

Declan looked at him as though he didn’t understand the question, or the reason it had to be asked. “It’s the ocean, brah.” His tone was that of a parent explaining a fundamental truth to their child.

“How is this possible?” Shelia asked, her hand still covering her mouth.

“It isn’t,” Worm said, his words final, free of doubt. “It’s just an elaborate prank. The surfing stoner hippie got one over on us. Good for him, considering…” He trailed off.

“It is though, my man,” he said to Worm. “You don’t even believe what’s right in your face.”

“But… how?” Sheila.

“It just is. Don’t fight what is. Enjoy the ride; it’s what I do.”

He returned to staring through the doorway, that craving returning to his eyes. A few short moments passed before he asked, “So, anyone interested?”

“Hell yeah,” Clinton said eagerly. Not only was this his chance to surf, and in such a setting no less, but it wasn’t just that. He felt this was his chance to really do something, to be part of something truly spectacular.

“Why not,” Sheila added, not to be outdone. “It’ll make for a great story later.”

She turned to Mallory, who looked past her, staring at the scene with a hesitant eye. After a second she said, “Well?”

“I don’t know.” That feeling of unease had taken full hold once again. “This is just too weird.”

Sheila’s face dropped. “Come on,” she said, her voice pleading. “Don’t make me do this alone.”

Clinton began to take offense, but the feeling passed as quickly as it had arrived. In the end, it was more of the same; Sheila never wanted to do anything unless one of her friends, chiefly Mallory, was participating as well.

“Fine,” Mallory sighed, making no attempt to feign excitement.
Everyone turned to face Worm, awaiting his answer.

“I’m not surfing,” he said, matter-of-factly. “But I’ll go chill and sit on the beach.”

“Well, alright,” Declan said, clearly content with the decisions. “First, we need to get you suited up, and with the right equipment.”

He stepped through the loose group of customers and shut the door. The sounds of the beach were muffled once more, the smells muted until they were but faint remnants of themselves. The room darkened as the source of light was shut off, leaving only the sunlight that fell through the windows and the dim white light of the fluorescents overhead. The closing of the door left an absence in the room, but not only that. The door closing, temporarily sealing off the marvel behind, left an absence in the body, a void in the heart. They all felt the desire to open the door for just another moment, for just on more peek at what lay beyond. This was a feeling Declan knew well; he understood it, shared it even.

After the door clicked into place, he walked back to the center of the shop, his gait a leisurely stroll.

“Do any of you have suits?”

Mallory and Sheila, who had both planned on spending time on the deck of the cabin, overlooking the placid lake, taking in the sun and relaxing, both said that they did. Clinton, an avid swimmer, confessed that he had planned swimming the lake each morning, so he, too, had a swimsuit.

Worm picked a hanger from the rack, a pair of bright blue boardshorts. He checked the tag, ensuring he had the correct size. “I’ll take these.”

“And boards?” Declan asked.

“We’re in Missouri,” Worm said, speaking slowly, stressing each word. “Of course we don’t have boards.”

Declan seemed to mull this over, nodding to himself. He finally laughed. “Very true.”

Worm couldn’t be sure to which part of the statement he was agreeing to: the obvious fact that they would have no boards, or the even more obvious, blatant fact as to their whereabouts.

“Anyway,” Declan continued. “You don’t have to buy boards. I rent ‘em out; most of my business is walk-in like you guys. Although I do have regular clientele. Slater still comes by at least twice a year.”

“You know Kelly Slater?” Clinton asked, impressed.

“Yeah, dude. Most of the big surfers by. Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater, Layne Beachley. Even Tom Blake came in before he died.”

His face once again took on that distant appearance, though one bore of nostalgia this time.

He came back to the present a few moments later, smiling, more to himself, to his memories that floated back to him like detritus on a wave, caught in the tide, than to any of the others.

“So the it works is I set you guys up,” he explained, “then you go have a blast. When you’re done, you come back and pay up. Price depends on how long you stay.”

“Like a pool table,” Clinton said.

“Or a parking garage,” Sheila murmured.

“The boards I rent are over here,” he said, pointing to several racks to the side. “If you want- and I have several that do this –you can buy a board and keep it here. I have a storage space in my shaping room.”

“Shaping room?” Mallory, confused and, were she to be honest, just a bit curious.

“I make all my boards,” he said proudly. “Look around; you won’t find any fiberglass garbage in my shop. I’m a purist, and old-school. I’ve made each and every board you see. You can see my mark on the fin.”

Clinton looked at the nearest board. Sure enough, on the tip of the fin was a scrawling signature in tiny letters, with a crudely-drawn logo beneath. The logo was in the shape of an eye; in the pupil, a wave was drawn, a small silhouette of a man on a board riding it eternally.

“We’ll just rent for now,” he said. “You have some impressive work here. You certainly have a gift.”

“Do you surf?”

“No, but I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always been fascinated.”

“Excellent. I’m glad your cherry is lost to me.”

After picking their boards, Declan helping to find each a board that would most suit their rider, they walked back to the car to fetch their suits. A feeling of anticipation had overcome them, of doing something truly special. Even Mallory forgot her earlier trepidation and unease, falling into the general excitement, swept up in the tide along with the others. Worm, whose somber moods were well known, freely wore a smile when they returned from the Jeep.

Declan stood between the door and them, staring out at their makeshift lineup. His eyes passed over each of them, appraising what he saw. He ran through the basics of surfing for them, apologizing for not accompanying them- someone had to mind the shop, after all –and assured them that should they need anything, he was right through the door.

With that said, he stepped aside, his arms extended to the doorway in a welcoming gesture.

“It’ll be an experience you’ll never forget,” he said as they shuffled past him. “I guarantee it.”

What an odd choice of wording, Mallory thought, readjusting the board under her arm, cumbersome thing that it was. Not ‘you’ll have a great time!’ or ‘you’ll never want to leave’. Instead, his words seemed to strike her as vaguely ominous.

None of that mattered as she stepped through the door…

…and into a vast tropical paradise. White sandy beaches ran away at both sides, disappearing over the horizon. The beaches were pristine, unspoiled, the surface a perfect flow of tiny dunes, constantly changing and shifting in the wind. Palm trees dotted the sand in small copses intermittently. She turned around, the door still open, and looked at Declan and the interior of the shop, like some mind-blowing magic trick. Behind the outline of the door frame, there was nothing. No building. Almost twenty-five yards back she could see a tree-line marking the interior of the land, a thick, gloomy jungle.

Clinton stared out at the sea ahead of him. It was the most beautiful scene he had ever been privileged to witness, and felt blessed for having had the opportunity. Small waves lapped at the shore, leaving dark shadows on the sand as they retreated, small bits of kelp floating lazily within. Further back, small waves crested, spilling over in foamy splashes. In the distance, large waves rose high in the air, pushing along the surface of the water until finally rolling in on itself, forming a perfect tube of water for but a few brief moments. Off to the right, seagulls gathered in the water, standing atop a coral reef nestled in the shallows, a shadow darkening the bright blue of the ocean.

The water reflected the flawless blue sky. Not a cloud was to be seen. The sun hung high overhead, embracing the world in its warmth. A cool breeze rolled in off the water.

Worm couldn’t believe his eyes. It was a beauty that he had never imagined possible, all laid out before him. It defied reality, scoffed in the face of logic. All the laws of science and nature spoke to the impossibility of such things. Yet, despite it all, here it was: a world within a world, within a closet really.

“This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen,” Sheila said, breaking the stunned silence.

Clinton stuck his board in the sand and walked to the water. Wet sand crumbled beneath his toes as he wriggled them around. The incoming tide splashed up around his ankles; the water was surprisingly warm. Foam slid past his feet, tickling lightly. He shouted loudly, laughing, and ran into the water. Waves splashed up around him, falling back to the sea like heavy drops of rain. He splashed playfully- a child could not have had a better time –watching the waves he created expand. Once the water was to his waste, he dove into the water, skimming the ocean floor as he swam.

Sticking her board beside Clinton’s, Sheila followed suit. She laughed merrily as the warm water splashed over her body. She turned, calling for Mallory to join her. Not paying attention to the oncoming waves, she was struck from behind and sent sprawling into the water. She jumped up quickly, gasping for air as though she had been submerged for several minutes, and spitting out a mouthful of water. She wiped the water from her eyes and looked around, a bit embarrassed, to see who noticed.

Everyone did. Including Clinton, who seemed to come out of his reverie just long enough to see her fall and laugh, then returned his focus to the sea.

Mallory dropped her board, not bothering to wedge it in the sand, and started towards the water as Sheila called her a second time. She stopped just shy of the tide line, her sense of unease making itself known once again. The dark line of sand that marked the limits of the water’s reach seemed foreboding, ominous. She spared a glance over her shoulder. Worm was watching her curiously, the tree-line behind him in the distance. Between the two stood the door, closed, that solitary soldier standing watch over the sea. Seeing the door alleviated her apprehension, and she walked into the water.

Worm took a seat beside the abandoned boards, plopping down into the sand. He riffled through his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. From where he sat, he smoked, tossing the pack of cigarettes in the sand beside him, and watched the girls playing in the water, splashing each other, throwing and dunking each other. He watched with longing as the water rolled down their bodies. He wondered, not for the first time, why he had never slept with Sheila. The desire had certainly always been there. And he had had opportunity. So why hadn’t he? He supposed that it came down to Clinton.

Both having the misfortune to be born in a practically nameless, shithole town, fate had seen fit to place them on the same street. In a town with too few residents, much less children, they had struck gold in each other. A friend, a playmate, co-conspirator, wingman, brother: they had been all of these and more to each other since they were seven. Despite their changing tastes and personalities, they remained close, loving even the perceived faults in the other.

And then Clinton had begun seeing Sheila. From that moment on she was considered sexual non-grata. Off limits. Worm may be many things, but he would never betray his best friend.

“Come in. It feels wonderful.” It was Mallory that tore him so violently from his thoughts. she stood before him, water running down her cream-colored body in sheets.

Worm looked up at her, peeling his eyes from Sheila’s body. He stared up at her saying nothing. He flicked his eyes out to Sheila once more, then back to Mallory. He still said nothing. Instead his mind conjured up images of the three of them, and all the depraved things he would do given the chance.

His train of thought was derailed as Mallory took him by the wrist and pulled him to his feet. He quickly moved his hand to conceal his hardening self. He felt relieved when she immediately turned around and began dragging him back to the water.

The four friends splashed and played, roughhoused and swam, for nearly an hour before ever considering the boards on the beach.

Time passed, as is its custom. Clinton finally trudged up out of the salty water. A chill immediately spread through his body as the cool breeze hit him as it rolled off the water. Goose-pimples rippled across his flesh. he paid no mind to the calls from his friends still in the water, inquiring as to where he was going. He had begun to grow distant, socializing with the others less as the minutes had fallen away. He found himself staring out at the endless expanse of water before him, listening to the waves as they crashed down. It was almost as if they were calling to him, beckoning for him to join them in the depths. Stranger still, at times he fancied that he understood them.

Come, they called to him. Your place is with us.

Without a word, he grabbed his board, still standing where it had been wedged in the sand, and returned to the water. He walked as far as he could. Once it was too deep to continue walking, he dropped his board in the water, clambered aboard, and began paddling farther from shore. He watched, fascinated, as the water shifted color, from the bright, crystal blue of the shallows to the dark navy of open water.

Just shy of a mile from the shore, arms burning from the rigorous paddling, Clinton stopped. He sat up, straddling his board, legs dangling in the cool water, and allowed himself to drift amongst the waves. His arms dangled at his sides idly, his fingers creating wakes as they trailed through the water. His mind was blank, his eyes vacant. He watched the waves, seeing them and not seeing them together, seeing through them, beyond, into the world hidden away, this world of gliding and unknowable monsters. He paid no mind to the calls from his friends, so lost was he within his near trance-like state.

“Are you deaf?” It was Sheila. She had grown tired of being ignored, and just a bit worried, and had paddled out to join him. She shoved him, causing the board to teeter in the water, almost knocking him in.

“Huh?” he asked. He turned and looked at her, stars in his eyes, blinking away the daze that he had been in. His board see-sawed in the water as he shook the cobwebs from his mind.

“We’ve been calling to you for like forever,” she said.

He shrugged. “I’m in my own little world I suppose.”

“I’ve noticed.” She stared at him affectionately. “What’s with you today? Ever since we got here you’ve been all spacey.”

“I think it’s this place. I’ve never seen the ocean before; it’s amazing.”

She put her hand on his chin, turning his wandering face back to her. When their eyes met, she said, “But you’re ok?”

“I’m fine,” he said, smiling at her. Seeing that she was still unsettled, the smile faded, replaced with a look of utter gravity. “I promise.”

Sheila continued staring at him for almost a full minute, studying his features closely. Finally she smiled. “Ok. I’m going to try and surf since I’m out here. Care to join me? Or at least watch me so I don’t drown if-and-when I fall?”

“I’m going to stay here for a bit, watch the water. It’s peaceful, serene.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “But I’ll keep an eye out for you, just in case, until I join you.”

“Have fun,” he called to her as she paddled away. Once she was out of speaking range, his eyes slid back to the water. He could feel it calling to him while his focus was directed at Sheila. It had pained him not to look while she was present, only stopping himself through sheer force of will.

“Maybe you should go talk to him,” Mallory said.

“If he doesn’t snap out of it, I will,” Worm replied, staring out over the water, watching his best friend float aimlessly.

“Good.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Now I’m going to go try and learn to surf with Sheila. I won’t ask you to come, but watch out for me? Don’t let me drown.”

Worm gave her a half-hearted smile and adjusted his body, digging out a comfortable hole in the sand. “Sure.”

As she grabbed her board and waded into the water, Worm lay down on the sand and closed his eyes. The warm sun felt magnificent on his bare skin. He felt grains of sand bounce off his body, blown around by the cool breeze. In just a short few moments, he was asleep.

Sometime later, a scream pulled him from his doze. Worm sat up straight, squinting into the bright light. He looked around, confused, his sleep-addled brain unable to tell him where he was. How long had he been asleep? The sun was lowering in the sky, the bottom almost touching the horizon, the sky turning into a blanket of fiery color.

Another scream pulled him from his thoughts. Acting solely on instinct, he charged into the water, running towards the source of the screams. His mind was focused on the sound of screaming. He spared no thought as to the cause, only reacting.

This was bad; he could tell before he ever got close to the girls. Sheila was in the water, holding on to her board. On the board, Mallory appeared to be unconscious. Oh god. Please just let her be unconscious. But he could see a thick stream of red flowing over the board. Sheila paddled towards him, the board in tow. A thick cloud of blood muddied up the water in their wake. When he reached them, he took the board and began hauling it to shore, careful not to tip it, spilling Mallory into the water.

“What happened?” he asked as he drug the board onto the sand.

He winced as he looked at the wound on Mallory’s head. A large swath of flesh had been ripped away and hung loosely in a grotesque flap. He could see the white of her skull in the brief moments between spurts of blood. Small pieces of bright pink rock were caught in the soft flesh. Not rock, Worm noted as he picked it out, trying to clean the wound, coral. This was beyond bad; it was damn near tragic. If they didn’t get her to a hospital, fast, Mallory was going to die.

“She hit the reef,” Sheila said. “It happened so fast. If I hadn’t been looking at her at that exact moment, I think we would’ve lost her for good.” Her words were a frantic blur, spat out quickly in her panicked state.

“Get my shirt,” Worm said, pointing to the crumpled mass of fabric on the sand behind them. He put his hands on the wound and applied pressure. Blood flowed through his fingers, over and down his hands, dripping and staining the sand below.

He took the shirt from Sheila and wrapped it tightly around Mallory’s head in a shoddy turban. In just a matter of moments, flowers of blood began to bloom through the fabric.

“Shit,” Worm said, putting his hands back on her head, putting his weight on the injury. “This isn’t working. We have to go. Now.”

He looked around, noticing for the first time that the fourth member of their party was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Clint?” he asked, his voice frantic, almost panicked.

Sheila pointed out to the water, where Clinton still remained, drifting in open water, lost in the miasma that had fallen over his mind. “He keeps ignoring me when I call. He doesn’t respond, doesn’t even turn to look. I could see him when I screamed; it was like he didn’t even hear me.”

“What the hell?” Worm asked, more to himself than Sheila. He turned and looked back at her. “Can you get her back? Drag the board to the door if you have to.”

She was confused, frightened. Her eyes were giant saucers, staring at him, looking for direction. “What about you?”

Worm pointed towards Clinton, jabbing furiously at the air. “I’m going to get him. I don’t care if I have to damn near drown him to do it. Don’t wait on us,” he instructed. “Get to the car and drive to the hospital. I’ll snag us a ride and meet you or you can come back for us after. But for now, just go.”

With that said, he was off, bolting into the water, blood still dripping from his hands. He dove into the water headfirst and began swimming to his best friend. His arms sliced through the water furiously, propelling him through the water like a torpedo.

Sheila wasted no time in trying to save her friend. She grabbed the tip of the board and lifted, a grunt of exertion escaping her lips. In small, shambling steps, she began back-pedaling to the door. Her legs burned and her back ached, yet she continued to drag the board. A line of blood in the sand marked her progress, making her nauseous. Several times the sand slipped beneath her feet, almost causing her to topple backwards, pulling the heavy board down atop her.
She spared no energy or time looking over her shoulder, instead merely acting on instinct.

After what seemed an eternity of hauling the board, loaded down with Mallory’s unconscious body, over the troublesome sand, a small pile of clothing appeared at her side. She felt pure elation at the sight. The clothes were theirs, tossed aside after they had arrived. Small divots in the sand marked where their boards had been, already being filled in by the wind. The door wasn’t much farther. She felt a renewed vigor and doubled her efforts.

“You hang on,” she said to Mallory. “Do you hear me? Don’t you fucking die on us!”

There; she set the board down carefully. She spun around, hand out to turn the knob, and froze. Her eyes widened, a gasp issuing from her throat.

“What the hell are you doing?” Worm asked through ragged gasps of air. He held onto Clinton’s board, keeping himself afloat. His arms and legs screamed at him, begging, pleading for a brief respite. “Do you not hear what’s going on?”

Clinton said nothing, merely staring out over the water, the constantly shifting, flowing surface gleaming in the setting sun. He gave no indication that he heard Worm or even recognized his presence, not even a quick flit of the eyes.

Worm felt anger welling up inside. He was exhausted and terrified. To be completely ignored was just too much. He brought one hand out of the water and curled it into a tight fist. Using the board to pull himself partway out of the water, he swung, solidly connecting with Clinton’s jaw, twisting his head violently to the side. It was the first time he had ever dealt a serious blow to his best friend, one with the strict intent of harming him, in all the years they had known each other. A lifetime of friendship with no physical altercations. It pained him to do so now.

When Clinton still refused to speak or acknowledge his presence, Worm swung again, harder. Clinton’s head snapped to the side and he almost toppled from his board.

“Can you hear it?” Clinton asked. He spoke in low tones, barely more than a whisper.

“I heard your damn girlfriend screaming is what I heard,” Worm replied, his voice brimming with anger. Then his voice changed, lower tones, almost pleading. “Do you not hear that? Mallory is hurt, badly. We have to go.”

Several moments passed in silence. “They speak in hushed whispers because they don’t want us to hear. But if you listen closely, you can hear it, and then you can start making sense of it.”

“Huh?” Worm was lost, completely dumbfounded by the sudden change in his friend. “They? Who the fuck are you talking about? You know what, it doesn’t matter; what matters is Mallory is dying. And you’re just sitting here when you should be heading to shore.”

“I think I’m going to stay,” Clinton said. “You guys go on. I like it here.”

“What? No! Come on!” He was no longer asking; he was demanding. When this elicited no response, he grabbed the edge of the board and began towing him to shore.

Clinton sat placidly, gently rocking in synch with the ocean. Realizing what was happening, he began prying Worm’s fingers from the board, pushing him away.

Worm fought against the attempts. As he struggled, he found it harder to stay afloat, his already-exhausted limbs threatening to give out entirely, allowing him to sink to the depths. A wave rushed over him, pushing him under the surface. As he fought to surface, another wave broke above him, driving him back under. Wave after wave crashed atop him. He fought for air in the brief moments he could before being pushed back under. It was as though the sea was murderous, wanting him dead. Worm began to panic, his lungs on fire.

A hand broke the surface of the water. He felt a burning pain shoot through his scalp as the hand grabbed a handful of hair and pulled him to the surface. Worm grabbed onto the board tightly. He coughed and sputtered, spitting out water between gasps of air.

“You should go,” Clinton said, his voice flat, devoid of all emotion. “They don’t want you here. It isn’t safe for you.”

“I don’t understand,” Worm said, almost imploring for answers. This was too much. He couldn’t deal with his best friend losing his mind on top of Mallory’s condition.

A wave rose up, breaking on top of his head, driving him back under the water. With lightning-fast reflexes, Clinton reached under, taking him by the wrist and pulling him back up.

“Go now,” Clinton urged. “They don’t want you here. I won’t be able to keep you up for long.”

“Come with me,” Worm insisted. He thought to ask whom Clint was referring to, but thought better of it. What did it matter? There was no one around.

Clinton pushed him away from the board as another wave began to swell a short distance away, growing in size, building momentum as it sped towards them. “Go!”

Worm tread water for a brief moment. He stared at Clinton, tears welling up in his eyes. He didn’t like this. Something was wrong, but there was nothing he could do about it.

“I’m coming back for you,” Worm said and began swimming for the shore.

“No,” Clinton said, his voice a hushed whisper. “You won’t.”

“What the hell are you still doing here?” Worm asked as he clambered out of the water.

Sheila ran up to greet him. “It’s gone!”

He was being given far too much to process in such a short time. Too much seemed to be going on. Everything that could go wrong, was. It was Murphy’s Law in action. And he wasn’t sure for how long he could keep up.

“The door,” Sheila screamed. “It’s gone. We’re stuck here.”

Worm looked over her shoulder, his eyes widening. The place where the door had been, where it should have been, was empty. Instead, all he saw was a bright band of sand, back-dropped by a dense forest. He ran to where the door had stood, looking around, trying to keep his panic at bay.

“What do we do?” she asked, her voice frantic, begging for direction.

Worm just stood there, slack-jawed, staring at the spot the door had been. He looked down at Mallory. Sheila had wrapped her head with fresh articles of clothing, but blood was already spreading across the wrinkled folds of fabric. The sand beneath her was a dark crimson. Yet he could see her chest rising and falling rhythmically, albeit shallowly. That was something, at least. He turned and looked back at the water, at Clinton, who was still adrift on his board, entranced, lethargic. Tears began to fill his wide eyes, blurring his vision, as he realized just how fucked they were. He was at a complete loss. Finally he looked back to Sheila, saying nothing; all he could do was shrug his shoulders.

Sheila watched, her heart hurting for Worm, as his eyes filled with tears. The sight nearly broke her heart. She had always known him to be strong, both physically and mentally, confident, bordering on cocky, and always so sure of himself. He had his flaws, she knew this; he was highly intolerant, with a quick temper, cynical as any person could be, and his harsh words were often prejudicial and, at times, racist. But now? To see this side of him, to see him at his weakest, vulnerable, she wanted to reach out to him, to comfort him. As the first tear spilled down his cheek, glistening in the sun, its wake shining brightly, her own quickly followed.

Seeing her cry, Worm pulled Sheila close, wrapping his arms around her, in a comforting embrace. Despite his feelings of hopelessness, he was acutely aware of the feel of her naked flesh pressed against his own, soft and warm. He felt oddly aroused, given the circumstances. He pulled away from her.

“What about him?” she asked, pointing over the water.

Worm stared blankly. He sighed, saying, “I don’t know. He’s out of it. He won’t come out of the water. I had to biff his ass twice just to get his attention.”

“You couldn’t tow the board in?”

“The water’s too rough out there. Much worse than it looks,” he explained. “I almost drowned. The waves just kept coming, pushing me under. He saved me actually.”

“So, what, we’re just going to leave him there?” Her voice was high and shrill, her tone accusatory, as though the blame rested solely of his shoulders. “That’s been your best friend for over fifteen years! Now you’re just abandoning him when he needs you the most?”

Worm ground his teeth, his jaw clenched. He was trying his best to keep his cool, to not flip out on Sheila. She was scared, just as he was. He took a deep breath through his nostrils, held it for a few seconds, and exhaled from his mouth. He opened his eyes and looked at Sheila.

“There’s nothing we can do about him for now,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm to even his own years. “There are more important things to worry about first,” –he gestured to Mallory- “when we figure that out, we’ll come back for him.”

Sheila nodded. He was right and she knew it.

“And don’t you ever tell me that I’m abandoning him again. You understand me? I’ve been with him for much longer than you, helped him through shit that you’ll never know, shit so bad that he refuses to talk about it. I was there then, and I’m here now.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes downcast apologetically. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just scared is all.”

“I’ll get him, I promise. I’ll either haul him in myself or die trying.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than he regretted saying them. He wished he could take them back. But as the saying goes: there were three things that you could never take back: time wasted, moments missed, and words spoken. Oh how he wished it weren’t true. As soon as he uttered the sounds, he was overtaken with an ominous feeling, a looming dread, as though by saying so, he had seen a foreshadowing of events to some, as though he had predicted his own future.

He cast the feelings aside. They were useless to him right then. Such thoughts could only hinder, never help. If he allowed himself to dwell on a feeling such as that, he could frighten himself, possibly badly enough to prevent him from doing what needed to be done.

“We need to find a way back,” he finally said. He pointed down the beach. “You go that way. I’ll go the other. Maybe we just got turned around and the door is down the beach.”

She knew this was not the case, but she said nothing. She was certain that Worm knew this as well. But maybe walking the beach could still help. They didn’t know where they were. It was possible that they could walk up on a beach town. Or maybe just spot a boat. It offered more hope than standing idly by while their friend bled to death.

“Turn around when it’s dark and we meet back here,” Worm instructed. “Be careful.” He gave her a brief hug and started walking down the beach.

She had been walking for nearly an hour, but without result. On her quest for help, she had encountered nothing. There seemed to be no sign of human civilization here, wherever here was. She saw nothing but a seemingly endless expanse of sand ahead and behind, and a wall of dense foliage to her left. She had almost begun to give up hope when she saw it.

In the distance, she thought she could make out a figure on the beach. It was nothing but a dark silhouette against the unblemished white sand, especially in the fading light, but the figure looked distinctly human in shape. It was possible, she supposed, that it could be only a mirage, nothing more than her hopeful mind conjuring the sight, but she didn’t believe this to be the case. She quickened her stride, closing the gap between the stranger and herself.

The minutes ticked away. No, the stranger was definitely not a mirage. He or she definitely seemed to be getting closer. Without thinking, her stride quickly turned into a run then into a sprint. The ground was treacherous under her feet. The sand slid and shifted, threatening to send her sprawling face-first into the coarse grains. Yet she pushed on. It was odd, she thought, that the stranger seemed to be running as well.

The jubilation she felt at the thought of rescue soon turned to dismay. Her pace slowed to a trot, a jog, until she was finally walking again. Her breath came in harsh gasps. Her lungs burned. She walked up to the person, hands on her hips, fighting to catch her wind.

“What the hell is going on?” Worm asked, his breath labored from his sprint towards her. He had likewise entertained the thought of rescue, seeing a person in the distance, a wavy form, shimmering in the rising heat, that he had originally mistaken for a mirage.

“How small is this island?” she asked in response once she had managed to control her breathing.

“The sun’s almost set. We may as well head back. Tomorrow we can search the interior of the island.”

“Why?” Sheila shouted. A flock of seagulls rose in the air, squawking angrily at the disturbance, just a short ways up the beach. “What’s the point? There’s nothing here. We’re trapped here and we’re all going to die here!”

“Stop,” Worm yelled at her. She was frantic, at her wit’s end. “Don’t start that shit. It won’t do anything but cause trouble.”

He took her by the arm and started guiding her down the beach, back to Mallory, back to Clinton. They walked in silence, each lost to their own train of thought. Sheila’s mind was a scattered array of thoughts. one moment she was fretting about Mallory’s well-being, the next she was worrying about Clinton, about whether or not his mind had truly broken, wondering if his sanity was even salvageable. She longed for home, the safety and security of her dorm room, where everything made since, where logic and rationality ruled. As he walked, Worm evaluated their situation, tried his best to form some sort of plan for the morning. Searching the interior of the island was a necessity, no matter how small it may be. They would need food and water if they were going to survive. In his mind he had accepted that there was no going back. Not through the door from whence they had come at any rate. Worm silently cursed Declan, that damn dirty hippie, and his little magic door. He swore to himself, to the island, the endless expanse of water, to all of creation, that if he got home, he was going to find that son-of-a-bitch, and when he did, he was going to kill him. Kill him and throw his body through his little magic door so it would never be found.

The sun had all but vanished beneath the horizon when they reached what Worm was already considering their camp. The sunlight glinted from the surface of the water, turning it shades of fiery silver and gold. The sky was a deep crimson that bled to violet and finally to black. The brightest of stars had begun to show, pinpricks in the blanket of darkness.

Sheila shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. The breeze had picked up and was now a strong wind, pulling the cool air over the water and distributing it over the land. Her hair whipped around her face, trailing out behind her. With the sun gone, taking its steady flow of warmth with it on its arduous march west, the night had quickly turned brisk. She cursed herself for not having the forethought to bring extra clothing. But, then again, she hadn’t intended to be stuck here.

Worm knelt over Mallory, his ear by her mouth, trying to listen to her breathing, no easy task in such a driving wind. He checked for a pulse, switching from neck to wrist and back again, panicking momentarily when he didn’t immediately find it. After repeated attempts he was able to find it, the beating of her heart. It was faint, slow, and weak. She needed help, soon. Her lips had turned blue and she shivered uncontrollably under the barrage of wind. He stood and looked to Sheila.

“I’m going to get some wood,” he told her. “We need to build a fire or we’ll freeze tonight.”

Sheila nodded and sat beside Mallory, watching silently as Worm walked away. She put her arms around her friend and laid her head on Mallory’s chest. She could hear the weakened heartbeat echoing hollowly beneath her head. Even if she was unconscious, she wanted Mallory to know that she wasn’t alone, that they hadn’t abandoned her. She had read that it was possible that people in comas could sense when they had visitors, could hear the words that were spoken to them, even if they didn’t remember it upon waking. She desperately hoped that this was the case.

“We’re here for you,” she said softly. “We’re trying to get home. We haven’t given up on you. Don’t give up on yourself. Do you hear me? Fight, fight with all you have to survive.”

Worm returned almost fifteen minutes later, arms loaded with branches, leaves trailing behind him, blowing away in the wind. Dropping the load, he walked wordlessly to the edge of the water and fished out the surfboard that had been abandoned, now washed ashore, and dragged it to the pile of branches. He jammed the board into the sand on its side and pushed piles of sand up to either side, parallel to the water. With his makeshift wall erected, he set to build a fire. He meticulously place limbs in a loose pile, forming a cone of sorts, a teepee of twigs. Using leaves and palm fronds, he stuffed the heap with kindling. He crawled to where he had been seated before catastrophe had struck and grabbed his pack of cigarettes. He fished his lighter from within and closed the pack. Using his body to shield the prevailing wind, he stooped over the pyre and lit it. He blew the flames into life softly.

After pulling Mallory closer to the warmth of the flames, he sat down beside her and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, relishing the smooth warmth of the smoke filling his lungs, the calming effect of the nicotine. He exhaled, a contented smile beginning to turn the corners of his mouth, the first in what felt like a lifetime.

“Can I have one of those?” Sheila asked, pointing to the cigarette in Worm’s hand.

He offered her the open pack. “Since when do you smoke?” he asked as she pulled one of the tobacco-filled cylinders from the pack.

Sheila leaned close, her hands shielding the wind, while Worm lit the end. She inhaled deeply, the cherry glowing a fierce orange in the dim surroundings. She immediately burst into a series of violent coughs. Once she had control of herself, she took another drag, smaller this time.

“Now seems like as good a time as any to start,” she said, exhaling puffs of smoke with each word. She was already lightheaded, the nicotine already going straight to her unaccustomed brain.

Worm shrugged his indifference. He finished his cigarette in silence, flicked the smoldering butt into the flames, and stood.

“I’m going to get more wood,” he said, noticing the curious, anxious look on Sheila’s face. “This needs to be going at all times, nonstop. Hopefully a boat or plane will pass and see it.”

He had been gone for quite some time, and Sheila was growing worried when she saw his form come swimming out of darkness, a hazy silhouette set against the backdrop of utter blackness. He appeared to be dragging something but she couldn’t make out what it was.

Worm grunted as he hauled the giant limb towards the fire. Atop the branch, he had piled high a mound of smaller limbs and leaves. He fought against the unkind terrain, his feet sliding, the sand building up in front of the wood, impeding his progress. Despite the cool night air, sweat beaded on his forehead.

He dropped the limb and plopped down on the sand. He laid back, arms beneath his head, and stared up at the stars. He was exhausted. Between the physical exertion: running, walking, swimming, dragging; and the mental and emotional stress wearing him down, he was completely tapped out, spent, all his reserves of energy depleted. His stomach rumbled loudly and he rubbed it absentmindedly. It would have to wait until morning. He didn’t want to move. He watched the stars twinkle from their homes so high above, hypnotic and entrancing in their rhythmic, erratic patterns, always changing, never repeating, and soon his eyes began to grow heavy. In just a few moments, he was sleeping soundly.

The sun woke them both the next morning as it peeked its face over the tops of the trees. Worm looked down at Sheila, who had curled up next to him in the night to fight the cold, or maybe just for the comfort of human contact in such a strange place, who knew. And did it even matter? He smiled at her as she looked up at him.

“God, I thought this had all been some twisted nightmare.” She sat up, removing her head from his chest, and grabbed a handful of sand. “I guess not,” she muttered, watching the white grains slipping through her fingers, carried away in the wind.

She scooted away from Worm, who was now sitting up beside her. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I guess I got cold during the night.”

Worm shrugged and began adding limbs to the fire, which was now barely more than a smoldering pile of ash and embers, the faintest glow of red and orange within them. He piled the tinder high, using all that he had retrieved the night before. During the day, the fire would have to be much bigger to attract attention. He made a note to grab plenty of fresh leaves and limbs, still alive. Green foliage tended to create much more smoke, vital for gaining some attention.

“I’m going to get more wood,” he said. “Then I’m going to explore a bit, see if I can find anything to help. I should find some food, if nothing else. As I bring the wood back, make sure to keep the fire up, but also try to make a sign in the sand. Something that could be seen from high up. Write help or SOS or something.”

“Ok,” she replied. She moved herself next to Mallory and checked her pulse and breathing. “I think she’s getting worse.”

“I know, but there’s nothing we can do for her except try and find a way home.”

Worm’s eyes rose, scanning the water in search of Clinton. After several seconds, he managed to find him. He had drifted farther from shore, now only a speck on the horizon, a faint blob of darkness against the endless blue sea that seamlessly melded with the sky above. Squinting, Worm thought he could make out his form, still sitting astride the board, his back to the shore, staring out at the water. What the hell was going on with him? He looked away as tears began to sting his eyes. That was his best friend out there, his brother. To see him in such a state pained him.

Knowing that there was nothing to be accomplished standing around, he started up the beach, towards the tree-line.

Sheila watched him walk away. Once he had disappeared into the thicket of trees, she kissed Mallory’s hand gently, told her to be strong, and rose from the sand. She set out down the beach in search of something with which to make a sign. The beach was spotless, the pickings scarce. Beneath a small copse of palm trees she found a pile of stones. Exerting herself, tapping reserves of strength that she hadn’t known she had, she set to work moving the stones out into the open. Sweat poured from her face, falling and plopping into the sand softly, creating small, darkened spots. Her back ached terribly, her arms on fire. Yet she continued, pushing the pain aside.

Once her supply of stones had been depleted, she stared down at her progress thus far, hands on her hips, breathing labored. While she was far from completion, she admired her handiwork. She all but collapsed down on the sand, hoping to take a brief respite before setting out to find more material for her sign. Knees drawn to her chest, she laid her forehead on them and closed her eyes.

Sheila. Sheila. Hushed whispers.

She raised her head and looked around. Mallory’s status had not changed. In the distance, she could see Worm emerging from the trees, a fallen tree trunk dragging the sand behind him. She turned her eyes to the ocean. As expected, Clinton was still lost in the waves. Puzzled, she looked around again. She could’ve sworn that her name had been called, twice. It was faint, barely registering in her mind, but it had been there just the same; she knew what she had heard.

She managed to convince herself that it had been a trick of the mind, nothing but her stressed, exhausted brain forming words from the almost hypnotic music of the ocean, and put her head back down.

Come. Come, Sheila.

She jerked her head up quickly, positive that it had not been her imagination that time. Her head whipped side to side, her hair swinging out widely. She was alone. Worm was still making his way towards her, struggling with the log, but he was too far to whisper. In fact, he didn’t even seem to notice her.

She was suddenly overcome with a deep sense of unease, an unsettling feeling that cut to the core of her. She stood and began jogging to Worm, sparing a single glance at Mallory, still unconscious, unmoving, as she ran past. She suddenly didn’t want to be alone any longer. She trotted to the other end of the tree trunk.

“You look like you could use a hand,” she said. She bent and grabbed the trunk, lifting it with a loud grunt. The weight of the wood threatened to drag her to her knees, but she held firm.

“Thanks.” It was all he could afford to say, his arms aching from the weight, shards of shattered wood jabbing the palms of his hands. Small beads of blood dropped from his skin, tiny crimson teardrops.

Together they shuffled across the sand, back to the beginnings of the message. Once in the correct place, they dropped the trunk. Sand puffed up in the air, only to be whipped away by the wind, deposited some unknown distance down the beach. Worm riffled through the cargo pocket on the side of his swim trunks and pulled out a leaf curled tightly around some hidden item. He held out the leaf to Sheila.

She unwrapped the leaf to find a small bundle of berries, mostly squished into paste. They were strange berries, like none she had ever seen. They were bright orange, with tiny hairs protruding from the soft skin. She eyed them speculatively. “What are they?”

Worm shrugged. “No idea. Found a whole thicket of them back there, in a small clearing.”

“What if they’re poisonous?”

“I ate a few handfuls. I’m fine.”

Sheila stared down at the berries. Juice began to run over the edge of the leaf, spilling onto her hand. Juice ran over the edge of the unrolled leaf, spilling on to her hand, staining her skin. She sniffed at the berries. She would be remiss to eat such a strange berry. Her stomach rumbled, almost as if on cue, and she felt a sharp hunger pang, immediately erasing her trepidation. She raised the leaf to her lips and dumped the contents into her mouth. Her mouth burst with flavor as the juice covered her parched taste-buds. They were perhaps the most delicious fruit she had ever eaten. Juice dribbled down her chin. She wiped it off with her finger, licked it clean, then proceeded to lick the juice from her palm, and finally from the leaf itself.

Her stomach rumbled. She wanted more. Still anxious for company, she offered to accompany him on his return trip, citing the productivity of two sets of hands at work as opposed to only one as her reasoning. She also explained that there was nothing she could do for Mallory if something were to happen, that the best way to help her would be to get help sooner. There was also water to consider. Millions of gallons surrounded them, but they had yet to find any drinkable water. Worm was hesitant at first, but, after seeing the logic in her argument, relented. Together they started for the trees once more. But first, the berries.

After eating their fill, the pair set out to search for some source of drinkable water. The island was small, no more than a few square-miles at most, but the inland area was thick and treacherous. Trees were closely packed, their knobby roots protruding from the ground, making the footing perilous and a fall outright deadly. Making matters worse, the ground was piled high with a thick blanket of fallen leaves, dead and decaying, and while providing comfort for their bare feet, rendering the roots and knots almost invisible. Thick vines hung from the branches overhead in giant, lazy hoops. The thick canopy was so tightly woven that the sunlight was barely able to penetrate it, casting the world in a dismal gloom. Spider webs clung to branches and vines, hosting spiders as big as a fist. The trees acted as a buffer, canceling out the constant rush of waves, casting an eerie silence over the landscape, save for the chittering and rapid clicks from scores of insects unseen. With the exception of the insects and seagulls, there seemed to be no sign of animal life on the island.

And no water.

They searched for hours with no luck. Not even so much as a rain puddle. With downtrodden hearts, they set out back to finish gathering wood and check on their friends. As they expected, Mallory’s condition had not changed, and Clinton was still adrift. After almost an hour, they had gathered a sizeable heap of branches and leaves and their SOS had been completed. Exhausted, drenched in sweat, they nearly collapsed on the sand.

“We need to drag Mallory under those trees,” Worm said, pointing to the small thicket that Sheila had taken the stones from. “She shouldn’t be in the sun like this. Especially when we have no water for her.”

“There’s always that.”

Worm followed her finger. To the east, foreboding black clouds had begun to roll in, blotting out the sky. In just a matter of minutes, sunlight was a thing of the past, the clouds enveloping the world in a grey haze. The temperature seemed to drop drastically. The wind kicked up, turning into a full gale. The surface of the water was choppy, restless, and the waves grew larger as the wind pushed them along. They crashed on the shore loudly, almost roaring. A fine mist filled the air as the waves broke, immediately whisked away in the wind. Thunder boomed loudly in the clouds, so fierce that the grains of sand beneath their bare feet rattled and vibrated wildly. The black clouds lit up in portions as bolts of lightning streaked across the sky, turning them shades of grey and purple the shade of a bruise.

“Start dragging her to the trees,” Worm said. “I’ll be right back.” With that, he started trotting to the tree-line above the beach with no further explanation.

He came back almost ten minutes later. Arms loaded with branches. Pieces of vine hung down, bouncing off his legs as he ran back, threatening to tangle and trip him. He dropped his load beneath the copse of palm trees and grabbed the vines. Tying them securely around the trees, he strung them up. He began picking up the branches and palm fronds, carefully laying them across the suspended vines, forming a makeshift shelter. It wasn’t great, but it would help. He looked around for Sheila.

Sheila sat beside Mallory, face in her palms. Worm could see her body trembling, lightly convulsing as she sobbed and he made his way to her. He didn’t need to be told what had happened, but he asked just the same.

“Why aren’t you moving her?” he asked impatiently, praying she wouldn’t give the answer that he so feared.

Sheila looked up at him. Her eyes were glassy and bloodshot, puffy. She had been crying, just as he had suspected. She stared at him, her face filled with pain and grief and despair. She didn’t speak, instead only shook her head in response.

Worm refused to accept this. He bent and grabbed the tip of the board. Before he could lift, he was halted by Sheila’s hand on his forearm. He looked at her, then down at Mallory. Tears stung his eyes, blurred his vision. He tried in vain to blink them away.

“Don’t,” Sheila said, her liquid whisper barely audible over the roaring wind. “She’s gone, Worm.”

The words unleashed the flood that he had been fighting so dearly to keep at bay. The tears poured down his cheeks in thick rivers, cutting a swath through the caked-on grime that had accumulated in the forest. He dropped to his knees above Mallory’s head. He bent over her, their foreheads touching, and wept openly. Almost as if on cue, the heavens opened up, as though they mourned the passing of this woman, so young, still in the prime of her life, her future still open before her, waiting to be written. Worm kissed his friend on the forehead gently and rose.

Digging Mallory’s grave was no easy task in such a torrential downpour. Using their hands, they scooped out sand as quickly as they were able, only to lose the battle when the rain collapsed the sides of the hole. Water filled the grave quickly, turning it into a large, murky puddle. When they were finally finished, they lowered her body into the grave gingerly, board and all. After covering the remains, they walked to their shelter, silent, morose.

The pair sat in silence, each mourning the passing of a dear friend. After a few minutes had passed, Sheila stood and left the shelter. Worm thought to ask where she was going, but the answer became readily apparent. Sheila crouched over the sand and began to dig. She continued to dig until she had a hole sizeable enough to suit her liking and walked back under the shelter.

“Drinking water,” she grunted, then slipped into silence once more.

The storm seemed as though it would never relent. Rain fell in thick sheets, obscuring vision of anything beyond the scope of their shelter. The signal fire had long since been drowned. Lightning crashed, thunder boomed. Wind whipped the water around in beautiful eddies. The sand was an ever-changing pattern of dots and spatters as raindrops relentlessly assaulted it. Occasionally, when a bolt of lightning would tear the across the sky, casting its glorious white light across the chaotic scene for the briefest of moments, the wind would part the deluge of water just enough for them to make out the dark shapes of limbs tossed through the air on the gusts of wind like so many twigs. Waves crashed loudly behind them, many more than twenty feet high before they finally broke. It was a monsoon of note, of record, rivaled only by that of the Great Flood in the bible.

As the night wore on, the two castaways finally laid down. worm couldn’t help but wonder how Clinton was faring in such weather. Surely there was no way he could survive such a storm sitting on the water with nothing but his board to keep him afloat. He wished now that he had tried harder to pull him in. He would try again when the storm abated, provided that Clinton was even still out there, alive. His logical mind suggested that he was most likely to find the board or Clinton, possibly both, washed ashore in the morning, the latter as lifeless as the former.

A chill sliced through the night air. Dressed only in swimwear, drenched by their time in the rain, the mist blown on them, and with no fire to provide warmth, the two quickly found themselves on the verge of hypothermia. Their teeth chattered loudly, resonating in their skulls. Their skin had taken on sickly shades of blue.

Sheila scooted her body beside Worm’s, hoping to both receive and provide body heat. She curled up beside him, her head on his chest, his arms wrapped around her. Worm began idly rubbing her back, causing her to snuggle up against him. She looked up at him, saying nothing. Without thought, she leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

Worm looked at her, puzzled. He craned his neck to return the kiss on her cheek, but was instead met with her open mouth. They kissed passionately, the warmth finally returning to their bodies. Sheila broke away and rolled onto her back in the sand. She reached across her body, grabbing Worm, and pulled him on top of her. Their lips met as they resumed kissing. Their clothing was slowly removed, piece by piece, and cast aside. The storm raged on around them as their bodies came together, mindless of everything except the other.

Once they were finished, Worm rolled over, panting heavily. Sheila resumed her former position on his chest. Together they fell asleep in post-coital bliss to the sounds of the driving rain and billowing wind.

Worm awoke sometime later, alone. He looked around for Sheila but she had left the shelter. Her bikini still lay in a crumpled heap on the sand. He rose and pulled his shorts on, then left the shelter in search of Sheila.

The rain had slackened, now barely more than a steady rain. He called out to her, but his voice was lost even to himself beneath the sounds of the wind and waves. Lightning tore across the sky in a brilliant arc, illuminating the beach for a brief moment in a dazzling white. Another bolt of lightning crashed down, just mere feet in front of him. The air crackled from the energy charging it. The hairs on his arms and neck stood on end, charged by the electricity in the air. He looked down at the charred patch of sand at his feet. In the center of the patch, outlined by the scorched beach, a beautiful white substance glowed softly, glass formed by the superheated sand, still gooey; water sizzled as it landed on the substance, hardening it.

He turned around as another bolt of lightning lit up his surroundings. There she was, standing by the water, staring out over the endless expanse of the restless sea. Her naked skin almost glowed in the darkness. He walked up to her, curious.

“You’re going to get sick out here,” he said as he walked up.

Silence. Maybe she just hadn’t heard him. The wind and waves, not to mention the rumbling peals of thunder, still caused quite a disturbance.

He touched her shoulder softly, trying to gain her attention. Her skin was gelid, almost freezing, to the touch. She stood motionless, not even so much as a shiver running through her body, completely comfortable in her nakedness, or oblivious to it.

“I can hear it,” she finally said, her voice a muted whisper. “They woke me up.”

Oh god, no. her words sent a chill down his spine. He knew those words, that empty tone. He had heard those same words, in that same tone, from Clinton when he had tried to pull him ashore. It couldn’t happen to Sheila as well. He couldn’t lose all of his friends in a single weekend; he couldn’t take it. He couldn’t go through this alone; he just couldn’t. He had to snap her out of it. He thought back to his encounter with Clinton at sea, to what had seemed to bring him clarity, if only for a moment. Worm shook his head, raising his hand as he did so. Reluctantly, he brought his open hand across her face, using a good deal of force. There was a loud smack and her head flew to the side, but it seemed to have no effect.

“They want me to come out,” she said, her eyes instantly returning to the water. “For me to join them. To join Clinton.”

“Who?” His voice was almost pleading. He was terrified, confused, and beginning to fear for his own life.

“The waves,” she said, as though the answer should have been obvious.

He was taken aback by this answer. “What the hell are you talking about?” He pointed out over the water. “It’s just waves. Water moved by wind and shifts in the planet’s crust. Nothing more. They aren’t alive. They can’t talk, or want you to do a damn thing!”

“Oh but they are,” she replied, speaking as a teacher to a young child. “They are alive, and are conscious. They want us all, in time. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“We wait for help.” He was almost screaming in his desperation. “When the rain stops, I’ll light the fire again. I’ll burn this whole fucking island if I have to, but eventually someone will pass by.”

“No one is coming.” Her voice was cold, indifferent. “We aren’t home. Or are you too stupid to realize that? No one will ever come. Eventually the waves will have us all.”

That was enough. He wouldn’t fault her for her words- clearly she was not in her right mind- but he wanted to hear no more. He grabbed her by the arm, his grip tight, and began to pull her away from the water. She screamed in protest, a shrill, piercing wail, and began fighting him. She kicked and punched, but his grip held steady. It wasn’t until she raked her fingernails down his face that his grasp finally faltered.

Not wasting a second, Sheila jerked her arm free and began running. She charged into the waves. Water splashed up wildly around her. Her presence seemed to calm the sea, almost as if it were parting to allow her access.

Worm ran after her, ignoring the pain in his face. The scratches stung as the salt-water mist hit the wounds. He cast the pain aside and continued after her. He was of a single-track mind, thinking of nothing but saving his friend. He stared at Sheila’s back, determined not to lose her in the all-encompassing darkness. So intent was he on Sheila that he never noticed the wall of water rushing towards him.

He almost had her. Just a few more steps and she would be within reach. Suddenly, he was thrown from his feet, blown backwards as a giant wave, over thirty feet high, crashed down between Sheila and himself, separating the two of them forever. The concussion forced the wind from his lungs. He tumbled through the water, his body bouncing violently from the bottom of the shallows. He was rolled wildly, until he lost all sense of direction in the black water.

He woke up on the shore, water lapping against the lower half of his body. The cloud cover had broken while he was unconscious and he had to squint against the blinding sunlight. He sat up, his bedraggled body aching as it protested, and looked around frantically. He knew it was pointless, but he had to try. As he had expected, Sheila was nowhere to be seen. She was gone. Taken to the sea with the current.

His eyes focused on a speck on the horizon. He squinted, shielding his eyes with his hand, trying to make out the anomaly on the pristine surface of the water. Could it be a boat? Could he really be that fortunate?

“Son of a bitch,” he said, quite incredulously, as he realized what he was looking at.

It was Clinton, still alive. Against all odds, and much to Worm’s amazement, he had somehow survived the night. He was farther out, and Worm didn’t know if he could make that distance, but he knew he had to try. Clinton was the only friend he had left, and he’d be damned if he’d just wait around while he died too.

Worm charged into the water. The cold liquid shocked him into full alertness, vanquishing whatever sleep had remained clouding his mind. Once he was deep enough, he dove into the water and began swimming furiously to the speck in the distance, that blob of darkness set against the clear blue sky. Arm over arm, stroke after stroke, he closed the distance. It wasn’t until it was too late that he realized his mistake.

A wave rose high above him, appearing from thin air. He took a large breath of air and dove beneath the surface, allowing the wave roll past by overhead. He continued underwater until his lungs begged for oxygen. He broke the surface, gasping for air. That was when the next wave struck.

It crashed down on his head, driving him beneath the water. He was whipped around like a doll, caught in the current. He fought for purchase in the water, stroking and kicking madly, but there was none to be had. He was carried along at high speeds, his body tossed around like so much detritus caught in the current. Seaweed caught of his face and body as it slid by him in the water, leaving a slimy residue in its wake.

His body was turned in the water, almost maneuvered intentionally. His eyes widened, his hands instinctively shielding him from the blow. It was of no use. The last thing he saw was the coral reef speeding towards him before he was slammed into it. Clouds of blood filled the water as his body was torn to shreds on the coral. The waves continued to carry his body, dragging him down the length of the reef, pieces of flesh torn away like cheese on a grater. The pieces of coral broke away, lodged in his body. Bones snapped. His lungs were punctured. Fingers were torn back, and finally off. The current died, allowing his body to slip into the eternal darkness of the bottom of the ocean.

“That’s all of them,” Clinton said, weeping openly at the loss of his friends. “What now?”

All around him, waves crashed and broke. They seemed to whisper, a voice heard only by those who listen intently. Clinton listened, nodding thoughtfully.

He swung his leg over the board and dropped into the water. He made no attempt to stay afloat. Instead, he held his arms above him, streamlining his body so he could descend rapidly. He watched as the light slowly diminished, until it was nothing more than a speck in the distance so high above. With the last bit of fading light still reflected in his eyes, Clinton opened his mouth and inhaled deeply, feeling the cold rush of water as it filled his lungs.

Credit: William Davis

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Return to Funland

June 13, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Please consider reading Funland, by the same author, before proceeding with this story. Thank you!

I live in a small town in Massachusetts where nothing big ever seems to happen. However, a few years ago, my older brother was in a pretty bad car accident that seemed to leave him more mentally damaged, as opposed to physically. Our parents ended up putting him into the local psychiatric facility, Tewksbury State Hospital. My family has never really talked about it much. I was too young to understand what exactly was going on at the time. All I knew was one day my brother was perfectly fine and then the next day, he was up at that creepy, rundown place they call a hospital. I didn’t even know it existed until then, and I’ve lived here my whole life.
The incident happened when I was a freshman. It had been raining out and my brother was driving on Main Street. He hit a pole in front of our local Domino’s Pizza. But from what I’ve heard here and there, from whispered conversations between my mom and dad, and stories from upperclassmen, the accident had something to do with this abandoned park right next to the Domino’s, across the street from the Country Club. It used to be a mini-golf course called Funland. I never even glanced at the place more than once or twice. All I ever saw were trees and a fence. But recently I noticed some of the trees had been cut down and I could actually see into the park for the first time. What could be in there that did so much damage to my brother? I needed to find out.
My friend Matt knows more about the park than anyone else I know. He’s really into creepy, abandoned places. His girlfriend Jenny has been taking pictures since her first art class. She likes going to these random places and taking photos. The old Funland park has been on their list of places to explore for awhile now. They came to me a few weeks ago and asked if I wanted to check it out with them. Matt is the only one of my friends that knows what happened to my brother, or at least all I know about it. My parents have forbidden me to talk about it to anyone. I’m not even allowed to ask them questions. It’s something that’s been gnawing at me for the past few years. I want to know what happened to him. I want to know what’s inside that decrepit old park.
We finally went there about a week ago now. Matt insisted we go about half an hour before sunset, that way Jenny could take some pictures in the daylight and he could scope out the park for safety purposes.
“You can never be too careful in places like these,” he told me. “You never know what could be there.”
According to him, some local kids have been getting over the fence from the back left side, behind what used to be batting cages. It was a good thing we went during the dry season. That whole area is prone to flooding. Heck, the whole town is. Who’s bright idea was it to build on swamp land?
When we got to the fence, we could tell where and how people have been getting into the park. There were several spots where the fence was actually crushed down or raised up, allowing us the option to jump over or crawl under. We picked the first option, using a convenient pile of boards to boost ourselves up. Matt dropped down first, making sure the area was clear before he helped Jenny over.
Once we were all officially in the park, I sort of just stayed back and let Matt and Jenny do their thing while I looked around. Jenny was off taking pictures of the old batting cages. It was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. There were even baseballs left in the automated pitching machines, but they were rotted and brown with decades of exposure. When I looked over at her, she was beaming from ear to ear, her camera snapping away at one of the machines. It’s coat of green paint was faded, but you could still see the number 6 written on the side. Matt was standing in the central area, just outside the cages themselves. It looked like someone had set up a makeshift skate park. There was even a go-kart sitting there, still intact.
“Let’s go around the golf course first. It looks like it’s still going to be hard maneuvering in there, even with most of the trees gone.” Jenny and I nodded in agreement as we followed Matt further into the park.
The course was even more run-down than the batting cages. The fake green turf at each hole was muddy and covered with old leaves. The first structure we saw was what we assumed, at first, was a shed. It turned out to be a doll house that was even taller than me. It even had a balcony. There were bits of glass from the windows that were scattered around, smashed and cracked, either from decay or vandalism. I was actually pretty impressed that there wasn’t more vandalism. It’s one thing if you want to appreciate an old place by just looking at it and taking pictures, but it’s another thing to break stuff or spray paint over everything. That’s just not right.
If there had been anything in the fake house before, it was all gone now. Moving forward, we saw a little wishing well. The roof was red with real slating and the foundation was brick. We found a huge, white rocket ship that sat at the center of the course with the word ‘Funland’ written on either side of it.
“What’s that over there?” Jenny asked, pointing in the direction of a smallish white building at the entrance.
“I think it was an arcade,” Matt replied. “And that little one in front of it looks like where you get the golf balls and putters, you know?”
“Yeah,” I replied, scanning the area. Then something caught my eye. “What’s that thing over there?”
It looked like a weird little wooden shack with a sort of transparent door. The turf area was inclined and went under the door.
“The 18th hole,” said Jenny, snapping another picture. “It says so right there.”
“Yeah, but what’s it supposed to be?” I asked.
“It sort of looks like an outhouse,” Matt pointed out.
“Oh, I see it now. Weird.”
“‘Ring Bell For A Free Game With A Hole In One.'” Jenny read. “Hey, what’s this?” She bent forward, brushing some of the leaves out of the way of what she was seeing.
“What is it?”
“It’s a cell phone,” she said, turning it over in her hand. The thing looked ancient and caked in dirt. “There’s no use trying to get it to work. At least I can get a picture,” she said, placing it back down on the ground to do just that.
“It looks like something should be inside here,” I pointed out, stepping onto the turf mound as I peered through the transparent door.
“We’re losing sun,” said Matt, gesturing for Jenny and I to follow him as he turned back to where we came from. “I want to take a look at this storage shack.” Jenny and I followed after him.
When we reached the rectangular white building, Matt and I both searched for some way to peek in while Jenny took her last few photos in the twilight. There was a large metal door on one side, but it was clearly padlocked. On the opposite side, hidden behind some brush and one of the batting cage nets was a normal size door. It was also metal but it was a bit rusted and it didn’t have a noticeable lock, just a metal bar that read, ‘PUSH’.
“Are we going in?” I asked.
Matt looked around carefully before deciding. “If we can,” he said, pushing down on the metal bar. The slightly rusted door moved about an inch, if that, but with a few good kicks, it slammed open with a echoing thud.
“So much for being quiet.”
“Let’s go,” Matt said, turning his flashlight on as he stepped inside the building. Jenny followed him, her eyes scanning every corner for a photo op. I took my own flashlight and causally looked around.
There was stuff everywhere; clubs, bats, golf balls, baseballs, some go-kart parts, and random pieces of wood and metal. But besides all of that junk, there were plaster and wooden figures, and other pieces from the mini-golf course. A huge gray elephant looked like it had been tossed in a corner, and a giant giraffe with weird, alien-like eyes was shoved on top. They looked so strange just laying there, as if they were dead.
I almost turned back, feeling a little creeped out, to be honest. Then something else caught my eye. To me, it looked like an old mascot costume of some sort, but then I noticed the wires coming out of it, as well as the glint of metal limbs. I stepped close and shined my flashlight right on it. I couldn’t even tell what animal it was supposed to be, the fake fur was just too ratty. The wiring and metal that made the arms and legs were exposed here and there where the fur had ripped away. The head of the thing was sitting oddly on it’s shoulders, somehow making it seem more alert than the figures around it. I still couldn’t tell what the thing was supposed to be, so I knelt down in front of it and shined my flashlight in it’s face. It was a dog; a big, goofy dog in overalls. One of it’s eyes was completely gone, with just wires pouring out of the socket and down it’s face. The other eye was in better condition than I would have guessed; the black dot that was the pupil looked as fresh as the day it was painted. Shining the light around, I could see the entire metal structure of the head. Only the fur on the side with the good eye remained intact.
“Guys, come look at this,” I called out. “I found some kind of animatronic thing.” I reached towards it, wanting to lift the good section of brown material up to see the whole face, I figured Jenny would love to take a picture of it.
Suddenly, the eye moved. I cannot stress this enough, I saw the eye move. I let out a sharp word or two and fell backwards onto the ground, dropping my flashlight in the process. I watched it roll just out of my reach before I turned back to the animatronic. My eyes widened. It was standing up. The weight of it’s head looked like it would fall to it’s chest if it had to look down, but it could see me perfectly with the head cocked like that, I could feel it. I watched it’s jaw creak open as if it were about to speak, but the whole thing snapped down with a clang, dropping a few inches down, barely being held up by the wires in the dog’s face.
Without of any sort of man-made sound from a voice box or anything, the dog spoke. It’s words were chillingly smooth, as if a person were standing before me instead of a hunk of rust and wires. It was angry.
“What do you think you’re doing?” It asked, taking a shaky, clanking step closer.
I was too afraid to move. I was frozen, staring up at the dog in terror.
“Get out,” it whispered, the angry tone still noticeable in it’s voice. “Get out of here. Now.” The ‘now’ was significantly deeper, almost demonic.
“Where are you?” I heard Matt call. “You’re supposed to keep your flashlight on.
I turned my head to call out to him, but no words formed. I heard the animatronic’s eye move in the same direction, before it once again peered down at me, regaining my attention. We stared soundlessly at one another until Matt spoke again.
“I found your flashlight,” he said, having picked it up from the ground just a few feet away, scanning one side of the room with it while passing his back to Jenny. Then I was blinded as one of the beams of light was turned right at the animatronic. It looked even more terrifying standing up.
Then I heard Jenny scream. “Wh-What is that? Why-How did it just move?” I heard the shudder of her camera and watched the flash light up the dog’s face even more. She gasped and the camera fell to the ground with a thud. “Matt! We have to go. Now!”
“C-Come on!” shouted Matt. “Get out! Both of you! Let’s get out of here!”
I clamored to my feet at his voice, only to be stopped just before I turned to leave. One of the arms of the animatronic shot out, the cold metal hand wrapped around my throat in a vice-like grip. I couldn’t breathe. I stared astoundingly into the one good eye of the thing, trying to pry the sharp, metal fingers off. I winced, feeling them pierce into my flesh. Growing weak from the pain and the lack of oxygen, I hung limp in the dog’s clutches. My eyes never left his, until I felt myself fly across the room and smash against the wall, before everything went black.
When I finally gained consciousness, I was lying on my back in the parking lot beside Matt’s car.
“You’re awake!” Jenny said, tearfully. Looking into her face, I could tell she had been crying.
“Get in the car! Get in the car!” I could hear Matt yelling.
Jenny tried to help me up, but she couldn’t muster the strength and I couldn’t manage to move; I’m not sure if it was from the pain or the shock. Matt shooed Jenny away and pulled me into his backseat. He and Jenny got in soon after and we peeled out of there as soon as Matt’s foot hit the peddle.
They took me to the hospital and said that I fell while skateboarding and rolled down a hill. It was totally plausible; I skateboard at the park almost once a week and the hill they were referring to was a man-made rocky hill. Both the hospital and my parents believed the story, so the three of us could at least feel some relief.
After that, the three of us became very withdrawn, at school and at home. I want someone to talk to about this so badly, that’s why I’m writing this. Maybe in some weird way it will actually help. But I have to be quiet about it. I can’t tell anyone what happened in there. None of us can. If we do, our parents will just put us away like they did my brother. Jenny wants to go back so she can find her camera, but Matt keeps telling her to just let it go.
I’ve been having these nightmares every night since. I’m running through the park and the dog is right on my heels. I’ll never forget that clanging sound. I still hear it. If we could get our hands on that camera, maybe people would believe us. Then they’d have to let my brother out. He isn’t crazy. None of us are. I saw it! I saw that dog. …I still see him, standing in the corner of my room. He doesn’t say anything, he just stands there, staring at me with his one good eye. I’ve considered trying to take his picture one more time, but he won’t let me. I can fight him off eventually, I know I can. I’m stronger now. I can get my brother out of that place. I’ll find the proof. I just…I just need to get away from this dog.
I should never have set foot in that old park…

Credit: Daron Silvers

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Neverscape

June 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“We’re going down!” Captain Raul Santana yelled over the intercom. “Everybody, brace for impact!”

Hazard lights blinked a pulsing symphony of angry red while alarms bleated in terror. The plane’s nose tore through the final layer of thin white clouds as the island rushed up to catch the doomed airliner. The 747 shook violently. Screams from the passengers strapped into the cabin pierced Santana’s ears. A buried image of his final tour in Afghanistan erupted before his eyes. He winced, shoving the burning intrusion back into its shadowy box, and wrestled with the yoke. Santana’s co-pilot desperately fought for the radio controls as turbulence tossed him against his seat restraints.

The island’s golden beach taunted him as it swelled in front of the cockpit’s forward windows. Santana let his body go slack: stiffening up on impact was a guaranteed way to break bones. He turned to offer the same advice to Jenkins.

The plane slammed into the earth with a deafening boom of crunching metal. Its wings sheared cleanly from the fuselage, peeling back metal skin like a banana, throwing free the broken bodies of those too slow to buckle in. The jet’s carcass carved a path of fiery ember across the pristine beach. A flock of birds nestled in the palm trees at the sand’s edge panicked and took to flight in a flurry of flapping wings.

Get your head out of your ass, Marine. We are leaving!

Santana’s eyes popped open at the sound of his old sergeant’s voice and a gigantic breath burned into his lungs. His temples pounded like an angry war god beating a drum. The cockpit swirled as he cut through the cobwebs in his mind. He coughed a few times. With shaking hands he fumbled for the restraints’ release mechanism.

“Fucking Christ, we’re still here.”

The shoulder belts snapped free with a liberating click. Santana massaged the back of his neck and turned to Jenkins. “You still with–”

Jenkins lay slumped over the co-pilot’s yoke. The control column had splintered during the crash and impaled the young pilot through the heart. Jenkins’s hollow eyes stared back at Santana, arms dangling lifelessly. Santana reached over and closed his partner’s eyes with a gentle hand. He thought of Jenkins’s wife and their unborn daughter that would never know her father.

“I’m sorry, brother.” He wrapped his fist around the gold cross hanging from his neck and muttered a quick prayer. Santana clutched Jenkins’s shoulder as he made for the cockpit door. “I’ll check in on them.”

The cabin reeked of sudden terror and suffering. Oxygen masks hung limply beneath broken overhead compartments that had vomited their contents into the aisles. Bodies, bloodied and battered and broken, sat strapped into their death thrones, heads lolling. Some wore masks of eternal surprise. A fortunate few found their faces frozen in peaceful resignation. Santana slumped against the cockpit doorway.

“Mother of God.”

Santana’s stomach soured. He pressed the back of his hand against his mouth to fight back the retch aching to free itself. The scent of salt water wafted in from a gaping hole in the plane’s side. Santana picked his way down the aisle towards the slanted column of moonlight marking the new exit. In a seat halfway down the aisle, the body of a man in his thirties leaned over the chair to his right. The still body of a boy rested beneath his father’s sheltering arms.

Santana fought back the lump in his throat and straightened the boy’s Red Sox hat. He patted the sleeping angel’s head, repeated his prayer, and stepped outside.

Sterling moonlight painted the landscape. He squinted and panned around the crash scene. Wreckage from the plane and discarded luggage littered the beach. Fire crackled from two dozen burning piles left in the plane’s wake. Waves gently breaking against rocks sounded from a nearby crag. It’s all a joke, he thought, or a dream.

Any minute now and I’ll wake up at home.

Santana squeezed his eyes shut tight and held his breath for a moment. A shrill bird call pierced the air. He opened his eyes and looked out over the endless dark ocean blue.

“No such luck, I’m afraid,” a man’s voice, accented in heavy French, called from alongside the plane.

Santana tracked to the new voice, squinting against the glare of one of the larger fires. The man had dark skin and was dressed as though he were due to deliver a keynote speech at the U.N. And tall. Ridiculously tall. “What’s that?” Santana said.

The man loosened a bold red necktie and the top two buttons of his tailored shirt. “We all had the same feeling once we got outside. That this was all a dream.” He shrugged off his suitcoat. “My name’s LaSalle. And, sadly, I can assure you that this is no dream.”

Several sets of footprints headed away from the hole in plane’s side. “How many survivors we got down there?”

Lasalle’s head sunk. A moment passed before the Frenchman answered. “Only myself and two others.”

Four.

Only four souls out of 113 had lived to share the misery of being stranded. The weight of the perished poured concrete into Santana’s lungs. He had seen friends, more than he could count, cut down in combat. Indeed, Lawson’s final screams had haunted his nightmares right up until last night. He had lost his father one breathless gasp at a time to lung cancer. But the deaths of so many at once…

Marine, we are leaving!

Santana shook the memory of his old co-pilot’s voice free. He nodded back at the cabin. “I’m gonna check the emergency supplies. God only knows how long we’re gonna be stuck here.”

“No need. We have already salvaged all we could.”

“There’s a few other things I gotta check,” Santana replied.

He worked his way back towards the cockpit, stepping over the sprawled remains of a woman whose neck was twisted obscenely backwards. Inside the cockpit, he tapped a few buttons on the main control panel. Hidden computers whirred and a warbling beep groaned before dying. The lights on the emergency locator beacon dimmed. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” Santana said. He picked up his headset and punched a few buttons on the radio, drawing nothing but static. He checked his wristwatch, then wrestled his cellphone from his pocket. Both faces showed no signs of damage. Neither responded to his frustrated tapping.

“Wonderful.”

God only knew how long it would take for the flight to be declared overdue. He entered the five digit passcode into the keypad mounted on the captain’s locker. After a satisfying click, he opened the door, and retrieved the old Marine Corp sidearm. He stuffed the Glock-19 into the back of his waistband, taking comfort in the cool, familiar presence.

Moments later, LaSalle lead Santana a short distance from the fuselage wreckage to the survivors who had taken refuge in the shade of a wide palm tree. Santana didn’t like the look of the supremely fair-skinned man who introduced himself simply as ‘White’. Probably the shifty eyes, Santana thought. White’s neck craned upwards to Santana’s lean silhouette. The intricately tattooed swastika covering his throat smiled back at the pilot.

Santana extended a hand but White only smirked. Santana tried again with the heavyset woman seated to White’s left. Purple streaks flashed through her jet black hair. She sat with her arms folded and her chin resting against her chest. “I’m Santana.”

The woman took his hand and gave it a weak shake, before jerking her hand safely back. “I’m Melody.” Sweat glistened at Santana’s temples. He swiped at salty beads with the back of his wrist. “Nice to meet you Melody. Try and relax, everything is gonna be just fine.”

White chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Why is it every time something bad happens you G.I. Joe types are always telling people that everything will be alright?” He pinched a smooth stone between his fingers, letting it roll across each digit like a poker chip. “You know that sounds like total bullshit, right?.”

“We say it because it turns out people don’t really like hearing things like ‘Holy shit we’re all gonna burn’,” Santana replied. “And whether or not it’s true, people who believe everything will be ok can focus and be useful.”

LaSalle moved beside Santana. “He’s right. We all have to stay focused if we want to survive. Captain, how long before we can expect a rescue?”

“Tough to say, but this far out to sea standard procedure when a plane falls off of the ATC grid is to scramble a pair of Navy interceptors– F-18’s to do a fast pass of the last known location. Trouble is…”

“Go on,” LaSalle replied.

Santana sighed. “The trouble is I don’t think they’ll have any idea where to look.”

White scoffed. “Look I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but didn’t you just say they’ll just fly on out to the last place the plane was on the GPS or whatever you call it? Look at this flaming pile of shit. The smoke has to be a mile high at least. Even Mr. Fucking Magoo could see it, especially from the air.”

“Normally I’d agree with you. But since this island isn’t supposed to be here I’d say we’re looking at some pretty out of the ordinary bullshit coming our way.”

LaSalle touched Santana’s shoulder. “What do you mean it’s not supposed to be here? How can an island just appear from nowhere?”

“Yeah, professor. How does an entire island just pop up?” White added.

Santana threw White a frigid glance. The muscles tensed in his shoulders, but he resisted the urge to ball his fists and go to work. “I have no idea. But what I do know is that I’ve made this flight a thousand times and it’s never fucking been here.”

A bird cackled from within the dense jungle. White mimicked the laugh and raised his hands in mock defense. “Hey, take it easy soldier boy. If you say it’s never been here then that’s perfectly fine by me. But I think I’m speaking for me, Beanpole and Chunky over here when I say then what the fuck are we supposed to do?”

Santana didn’t see the point in holding back the truth. They were all in the same boat. They were all facing the same longshot odds. They deserved to know exactly how long. “I don’t know. And the radio’s down… along with our locator beacon.”

Sand flew as White scrambled to his feet, throwing up his arms in exasperation. “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that not only are we stuck on a island that doesn’t exist, but there’s no way we can call for help?” White kicked over a stack of cases of bottled water. “Well isn’t that just the icing on the fucking cake.”

LaSalle stepped forward to calm White’s outburst, but the pale-skinned man swatted the gesture away without a second glance. He marched a few steps towards the doomed flight’s captain. Santana let his right hand drift to his waistband, letting it rest just shy of his concealed sidearm.

“Well what’s the plan, Captain America? It’s your fault we’re all stuck out here on this little slice of paradise. What’s our play?” White stabbed at the air in front of Santana’s chest but wisely avoided contact.

A voice cried out from the back of Santana’s buried subconscious. Lawson. Screaming. Burning. I should have done something. He shook the memory off. “Take it easy. We’ll figure something out.”

LaSalle nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes. We will find–”

The arrow tore its way through LaSalle’s throat, spraying a mist of warm blood over White’s face. The tall man staggered back, clutching at the wound. His breath came in ragged wheezes and gurgles. He sank to his knees in the soft sand. Surprise swelled in his eyes as he looked to Santana for explanation, but the pilot’s own wide eyes were little more than a reflection of terror.

Before Santana could react, a second arrow exploded through the back of LaSalle’s skull, spearing an eye free of its socket, momentum plowing the dying man into a face plant. Santana snatched his pistol from his waistband and took aim at the wall of emerald jungle. “Everybody move! Now!”

“Where the fuck did that come from?” White shouted, pointing at the gun.

“Go!” Santana yelled back at the other man. An arrow sailed by his cheek, missing by inches. Santana dropped to a crouch and squeezed off two shots. A cluster of wide fronds rustled but no screams retorted..

Melody struggled to her feet, sandals flapping, nearly tumbling forward onto LaSalle’s twitching body. Her arms waved frantically for balance as she stumbled. She grabbed for White, but he knocked her desperate hands aside and bolted back for the wounded plane.

“Asshole!” Melody shouted after the fleeing man. The coarse sands scattered as her heavy footsteps plodded in pursuit. An arrow whistled from the canopy. The razor sharp stone head tore through her calf, shooting a steak of searing agony up her leg. She collapsed with a scream. “Help me!”

Two more arrows thunked into the sand by Melody’s outstretched hands. White ducked an arrow of his own, diving behind a hulking piece of wing debris. He peeked around the torn metal. “Sorry, sweetheart. Seems like we got a ‘survival of the fittest’ thing going on here. And you don’t look all that fit.”

White quickly scanned the treeline and then bolted the last twenty feet to the makeshift entrance torn out of the plane’s side. As he breached the jagged threshold, an electrifying jolt surged through his system, throwing him aside like a discarded toy. Steam wafted from his chest while the world swirled in front of his eyes.

Santana kept the pistol raised as he reached down and pulled Melody to her feet. Icy shivers swept over her in violent waves. Her lower lip quivered as her eyes darted back and forth over the trees. He grabbed her by the chin and locked his eyes with the woman’s. “I’ve got you. We’re gonna be fine. But we gotta move now. I can’t do it alone. I need your help.”

Melody gave an unconvincing nod. Santana returned the gesture and pointed to the trees. “We need to get out of sight. And by the looks of it, that racist asshole twitching on the ground proved the plane isn’t an option. On two we’re gonna run to that break in the trees. Looks like there’s a path there.” Santana took a deep breath.

“Ready. On two. One–”

The arrow sliced through his shirt, nicking the skin just beneath his underarm. He jerked away from the sudden sting and yelled. “Go now!”

Melody hobbled for the trees, wincing with each step at the burning in her calf. Foliage crunched under unseen footsteps hidden behind the trees. Santana took aim and fired once, freezing the hidden assailant. “Keep moving!”

Fighting his better judgment, Santana raced across the beach. White had already begun to stir by the time the pilot hovered over him, pistol swinging back and forth over the treeline. “I’ll probably live to regret it, but I’ve decided I’ve lost enough people on this flight.” He reached and pulled White to his feet by a handful of T-shirt. “Even a piece of shit coward like you. Now move.”

They caught up to Melody a few minutes later. She cowered behind a wide palm tree at the side of a sandy path a hundred yards from the beach. She had gnawed the nails on her left hand down to bloody nubs. Dark eye liner traced streaks from the corners of her eyes down her cheeks. She glared at White, her eyes thinning to slits.

“Asshole.”

“Yeah, yeah. I heard you the first time,” White replied.

“Shut up, both of you,” Santana said, scanning the surroundings, “If we have a prayer of getting out of this you need to stay calm and stay quiet.”

White scoffed. “Easy for you to say, captain. You’re the one rocking the piece.”

Santana ignored the barb. There was no movement behind the trees. No more arrows. The jungle had grown deathly still; quiet as though it were holding its breath. Santana was suddenly aware of the ache in his shoulder from having kept the Glock at the ready.

“I think we’re ok.”

Melody raised a trembling hand. “Uh, arrow in the leg. Definitely not ok.”

Blood trickled down her meaty calf. Inklike streaks crawled away from the wound. Santana crouched beside her, inspecting the injury. He had seen more than enough gore from improvised anti-personnel traps in Afghanistan. “Holy hell.”

“Is it bad?” Melody stammered.

It broke his heart to lie to the doomed girl, but Santana knew the telltale signs of a neurotoxin at work. “You’ll be dancing again in no time.” He reached for the arrow, then paused.

“This is going to hurt.”

Melody bit her lower lip. “Just do it.”

Santana didn’t hesitate. He snapped the arrow’s shaft and pulled it free. Melody winced but managed to will most of the pain into silence. Santana tore a sleeve of his shirt free and quickly cinched a tourniquet. He forced a smile. “You did just fine. Last time I tied one of those the guy cried for an hour.”

White pressed a hand to his chest in mock sentiment. “How moving. But seriously, what the hell are we supposed to do? We got a bunch of assholes out there shooting arrows at us, something threw some serious smackdown on my face when I tried to take cover on the plane–”

“You mean when you ran like a coward and abandoned me?” Melody said.

A derisive grin spread over White’s lips before he continued. “And no one knows we’re here.” He gestured with a sweep of an arm. “Wherever the Hell this is.”

He hated it, but Santana knew that White was correct. He nodded. “That about sums it up.”
Melody winced. The burning in her leg unleashed a hot barb that sent her hands reaching for the injury. Tears stung her eyes, but there was an ember of fierce determination slowly being stoked behind the misty veil. “Well then what do we do? I don’t want to die here.”

“Hang on a second,” Santana said. There was a faint roar of water coming from the trail leading towards the island’s jungle heart. He was suddenly aware of the rough, scratching sensation in the back of his throat. He knew that if they were to survive long enough to escape they would need fresh water sooner than later. “We need water. We’re gonna head deeper inland, maybe find somewhere to hold up until we can figure out our next play.”

The trail wound away from the smoking wreckage and gentle lap of the ocean tide. Santana took point, head on a swivel, weapon snapping to any rustle or snapping of foliage that sounded larger than a small animal. Melody hobbled close behind, slowing every now and then to check her saturated bandage. White trailed a short distance at the rear, shirking from shadows that the cool breeze scattered over the path.

Walls of steam-soaked plant life enclosed the path, threatening to collapse on it like an emerald avalanche. The non-stop flitter of birdsong and chattering animals was overpowered by the constant buzz of unseen insects. Santana tugged a couple of shirt buttons open. He hadn’t sweltered like this since his last trip to the sandbox.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go,” Melody panted between breaths.

Santana caught a quick glimpse of her leg. The bandage was saturated with blood and a trickle of thick pus oozed down her calf. She fell, catching herself against a tree trunk. He threw her arm over his shoulder and helped her back upright. “Look,” he said, pointing, “there’s water just ahead. We’ll get you cleaned up best we can and take a rest.”

The waterfall’s cascading flow glistened in the moonlight like a million diamonds washing away from the cliff above. It crashed into an oval-shaped lagoon painted a similar glistening coat of sapphire. Together, Santana and Melody worked their way down the hill towards the promise of freshwater. White ran past them without a second glance, falling to his knees at the lagoon’s bank. His hands were a blur as he frantically scooped water onto his face and into his mouth.

Santana eased Melody down to the golden sand and turned back to the jungle, scanning it before setting to work on the woman’s dressing. “It was stupid to run down here like that. There could have been more of them waiting.”

White flipped a final handful of water onto his head and massaged the back of his neck with the cool fluid. “Chance I was willing to take, boss. What else could go wrong?”

“You have no idea,” Santana replied, taking a drink of his own. His eyes followed the edge of the lagoon’s perimeter. Halfway around it appeared to vanish into the rocky cliff face. Santana tore his remaining sleeve free. He gave Melody a warning not to look and then quickly peeled off the old bandage. A moment and a pair of tears later, Melody’s leg, swollen and purple, was clean and ready.

A deep sound like a rhino’s bellow shook the trees behind the survivors. Their heads twisted in unison.

“The hell was that?” White asked, quickly springing to his feet, ready to bolt.

Santana’s Glock stared down the sudden, deafening intrusion as the pilot dragged Melody once more to her feet. Puffy bags had appeared under eyes, stretching her makeup into distorted shapes that streamed down her face. “Christ if I know. But we’re moving. And we’re moving now. Go!”

Fifty yards to their rear, the lush tropical vegetation feverishly rustled. A group of muscular figures clad in animal skins, carrying primitive bows emerged from the trees. Crude brands and ugly scars marred the skin of their faces and chests. Their eyes were hollow sockets of leathery skin. Melody screamed and hobbled faster, dragging her wounded leg with Santana’s assistance.

A hulking figure emerged from the growing horde. He was dressed in similar filthy pelts and scars. A necklace of sharp fangs dangled from his tree trunk neck. His left arm ended at a mottled stump below the elbow. A three-foot long length of shark jaw had been driven through the bruised flesh. Serrated teeth clung to the jaw fragment, eager to feed.

White stumbled a few steps. He leveled a shaky finger at the nightmarish figure and the horde massing at his back. “I’ll say it again. What the hell is that?”

“Don’t know, don’t care. And unless you wanna ask him why he’s missing half a limb I suggest you move,” Santana called back over his shoulder.

Santana trotted as quickly as he could, Melody’s arm draped over his neck, finger resting on the Glock’s trigger guard. The picturesque lagoon disappeared into the rocky cliff face, the moon casting a long throw of shadows over the sparkling water. A smooth path dared the survivors to enter at the edge of the golden sands.

“You can’t be serious. We’re really going in there?” Melody asked, looking ahead at the gloomy darkness.

A chorus of war cries reverberated in the night air, boring its way into Santana’s skull. He winced at the chilling sound. “I know you’re scared. But it’s either the cave,” Santana said before nodding back at the pursuing horde, “or them.”

“To hell with Fatty, here. I’m heading in,” White said as he pushed his way by.

Santana’s fist tightened around the pistol’s grip. Melody eased him off with a nervous smile. “Don’t worry. I’m used to it. Price you pay for being a chocoholic.” The bloodcurdling sound of the mob closed. Melody’s chin bobbed in the affirmative. “Cave. Now.”

The path leading into the cave looked like the maw of a lamprey: circular and with rocky crags for fangs that looked as though they’d be happy to clamp shut the moment prey drew close enough. It was dark beyond the entrance but the straining moonlight revealed a narrow passageway winding off into the shadows.

White disappeared inside first, anxious to put as much space between himself and the creatures hunting them. Santana and Melody followed, limping along as best they could manage. A moment later White’s voice echoed from around the bend.

“You guys are definitely going to want to see this.”

As they rounded the final bend, they found White staring slack-jawed at the far side of the voluminous cavern that was easily the size of a football stadium. A collective gasp escaped their lips. But it wasn’t the size of the enormous space that stole their breath.

“Jesus Christ,” Santana whispered, awestruck.

Towering above the embankment on the far side of the lagoon was a stepped pyramid that nearly touched the cavern’s ceiling. Several slanted spears of silvery light gleamed on the pyramid’s glossy obsidian facade. A long rope bridge stretched from the survivors’ promontory, reaching all the way to the steep stairs climbing to the pyramid’s entrance.

Santana recovered from the bewilderment first. “Come on. We have to keep moving.”

“Where?” White replied. “Do you honestly want to cross this rickety ass bridge and investigate the temple of doom over there? Are you insane?”

Santana shifted his weight, but did not let Melody down to the ground. He had no intention of waiting around for committee votes to be tallied. Inaction is what gets Marines killed. He knew it better than most. He had seen it happen before all too many times.

Move to live, Marine!

“Look, you can stay here and meet the locals if you want. But we’re moving. We’re gonna reach the temple, lock down what we can, and hopefully live long enough to regret asking you to come with us.”

The sounds of the hunters grew louder. It would be only moments before they surged around the bend. Santana tested the first plank of the bridge with his foot. The board groaned but held fast. He nodded to White. “You go first. I’ll send Melody next and cover the rear.”

White opened his mouth to protest his role as guinea pig but the steely glare in Santana’s eye convinced him otherwise. “You’re the boss, boss.” The pale-skinned man took a handful of the rope rail and took his first tentative steps onto the bridge. He flashed a gap-filled grin. “See you on the other side.”

Santana covered the cavern’s entrance while White made his way across. He was just about to guide Melody onto the bridge when long shadow wrapped around the corner of the passage. The Glock roared and a shower of bright sparks burst from the passage wall freezing shadow in place. Murmurs of a hushed language Santana didn’t understand seeped around the bend. He turned back to Melody whose knuckles had blanched from squeezing the bridge’s rope handrail.

“That won’t hold them forever. You gotta go. Now!”

Melody inched her way across the first two planks. Santana dropped to a crouch, taking aim at the lone entrance. Beads of frigid sweat trickled down the back of his shaved scalp. He reigned in his focus and began a tentative retreat to the bridge.

White reached the opposite side, collapsing to the ground as though he’d just run a marathon. He rolled to his knees and wildly swung his arms. “Hurry! The bridge isn’t as solid on this side.”

“Oh God,” Melody squealed, strangled the rope, her progress grinding to a halt.

The support cables of the bridge swayed. Santana’s hand flew on its own to the guide rope. Stabilized, he shouted for Melody to move. Instead she screamed.

Mako breached the entryway flanked by his band of hunters. Silence smothered the cavern. And then came the wretched groan of bows being drawn. Santana fired into the killbox framed by the narrow passage. Blood exploded from the chests of two hunters. One fell to the ground; the other slumped and fell from the promontory. The body splashed into the lagoon below, shattering its serene surface.

The body floated face down in a cloud of crimson. A moment later dozens of tooth-filled jaws tugged at the hair and flesh of the fallen man. Santana’s stomach lurched as the piranha ripped the hunter’s arm free to the sound of tearing meat. The captain recovered quickly. He had seen more than his fill of dismemberment and had learned long ago how to bury the ugliness of the world. Santana backed his way further down the bridge, firing a shot every few paces to ward off the hunters’ arrows. They seemed happy to remain safely away from the bridge. All but Mako.

Mako’s jaw stretched unnaturally as though it had come undone at the hinges. The gaping maw revealed row after row of serrated teeth that matched the fearsome weapon impaling his arm. He threw his head back and thrust his chest out, unleashing a roar that chilled the very air.

“Hey, I’m no expert, but I’m thinking maybe your next seven or eight shots should probably hit the asshole with the fucked up arm,” White shouted.

Santana leveled his sidearm in agreement. “Grab Melody and head for the temple or whatever the hell that is.”

White found the courage to venture five steps out onto the bridge to meet the limping woman. As she reached for his hand a crunching exploded into a snap. Melody’s uninjured leg drove through a rotten plank. She flailed for White’s hand, but he had already retreated to solid ground. She plunged through the jagged splinters of broken planks just managing to grab a fistfull of the bridge’s lower rope. Shrieking, she dangled above the piranha filled lagoon.

Santana quickly panned to the endangered woman. “Melody! Hang on.”

Mako’s demonic maw shortened to tooth-filled grin that stretched ear to ear. He dashed over the promontory, rushing for the bridge and the promise of prey. Santana darted across the rattling planks as though it were a perfectly level piece of race track. A step from Melody, he spun on a heel, took aim and fired. The bullets stung Mako’s chest and shoulders like a swarm of angry yellow jackets. The giant staggered to a halt, shielding his face with his arm’s lethal prosthesis. Santana clamped down on Melody’s wrist and began pulling the woman up. White re-appeared at the bridge’s end. Holding a long survival knife.

“Sorry, boss. Can’t take any chances.” White set to work, sawing at the bridge’s anchoring ropes.

Santana’s eyes widened to saucers. “No! What the hell are you doing?”

White ignored Santana’s desperate plea and let the serrated blade work itself through the rope. The first line snapped, causing the bridge to lurch wildly as it dropped. Santana fell through the planks, grabbing a length of rope with one hand, clamping down on Melody’s wrist with the other. The Glock tumbled from his hand, seemed to freeze in mid-air for an agonizing second, then disappeared into the crystal-blue waters. Arrows sailed over the bridge, shooting for the opposite promontory. White shrieked in pain. He cursed at the hunters before his footsteps faded into the distance.

Melody’s lips quivered as she dangled twenty feet above the dark waters. “Please.”

Every muscle in Santana’s body twitched. Veins popped in his temples and neck. The rope tore into the skin of his fingers. His jaw clenched and he pulled at Melody’s wrist with everything he had. Her soft skin slid through his vice-like grip until he held her by little more than a handshake. Santana’s face burned a hot red. “I’m sorry…”

Melody’s scream rattled the massive cavern, rousing bats from slumber amongst the stalactites, and drawing a round of guttural cheers from the hunters. Mako roared his approval and pumped the serrated teeth of his handless arm into the air.

She splashed into the lagoon with Santana’s eyes locked onto the doomed woman the whole way down. A moment later bits and pieces of rent flesh and fabric floated to the surface amidst a plume of red.

Santana sealed his eyes shut. The rope cut deep into his hand and for a moment he considered letting go. He had lost so much when the plane crashed; lost even more in the sandbox. He had watched men die before, had seen the child-like look of innocent terror of not knowing what would follow the dimming light. But Melody was different. Melody hadn’t signed on the dotted line. She hadn’t boarded a transport plane into some third world shit hole that time had forgotten. She was just a kid flying home.

Something sparked in the back of Santana’s head: A tiny voice demanding justice. It clawed its ways through his mind until only a singular, laser-focused thought remained.

White must die…

Santana ignored the plinking of arrows deflecting on the promontory and slung his free hand up to the rope. He pulled himself onto the tattered bridge and maneuvered over the final swaying planks. Behind him, Mako held his position at the bridge’s halfway point. Blood seeped from his bullet wounds.

“I’ll be back for you later,” Santana said as he trotted off, following White’s footsteps, “but first I have to deal with a more pressing pile of shit.”

The climb up the obsidian pyramid’s front stairs set Santana’s legs and lungs on fire. They terminated two stories beneath its the peak, leaving him facing the blackened maw of a twelve-foot entrance. The crackling of fire snapped from within.

Santana slowly let the darkness swallow him. Leading with his hand sliding along the smooth, glass-like wall he slowly advanced, using the snap and pop of the fire as a guide. He rounded a bend and was greeted by the faint light of a lone torch flickering on the wall. He pulled it free of its brazier when it hit him: why would White have left a trail?

The torch swooshed as Santana swung it ahead into the dark. Dancing shadows on the walls revealed the tight corridor advanced in a subtle circular fashion while the telltale burn in his calves indicated a gentle incline. Rodents squeaked and scurried somewhere in the blanket of blackness. Scenes from old mummy movies ran through Santana’s head. “Better not be any snakes.” He looked up at the sky that wasn’t there. “At least give me that.”

The passage finally emptied into a dome-shaped room one-hundred feet across. A ring of burning braziers circled the chamber, bathing the walls in a fluid, amber glow. Santana’s eyes fell immediately on the room’s centerpiece. Four columns of strange greenish stone stood watch, towering nearly two stories over the floor. Angular symbols that looked as though they’d been crudely carved with nothing sharper than primitive tools of rock decorated the tall stoneworks. Reflecting pools of still water rested beneath each column.

Santana approached, eyebrows raised at the amazing sculpture before him. The hair on the back of his hand stood on end as he reached for the nearest column. A shriek echoed along the fire-dressed walls. White bolted into the chamber from a darkened entrance at the opposite end, screaming as though he’d looked into the Abyss itself. Santana raised his fists and dropped into his stance, focusing his breath. “Come on, you fucker,” he muttered.

The screaming man blew right by Santana without even acknowledging he was there. He barrelled into the wall face-first by the chamber’s main entrance. White’s nose gave a sickening crunch and the pale-skinned man tottered and collapsed. Blood bubbled from his ruined face, pooling behind his head.

Santana hesitated, then approached. White’s alabaster fingers were wrapped tightly around the survival knife’s handle. Santana stepped on his wrist, securing the limb to the ground. He pressed his fingers into the side of White’s throat. Dead. Santana tilted White’s broken face to the side. “What the hell happened to you?”

Scarlet track marks lanced White’s features from the top of his skull, over the swastika tattoo at his neck and over his heart. The Marine reached to touch one. An abscess welled up beneath a large inflamed line and raced from White’s cheek down into his neck like something crawling just beneath his skin had been startled.

“What the–” Santana said.

A second abscess erupted in the middle of White’s forehead. Santana glanced at the door, then White’s weapon. He pried at White’s fingers but the stubby digits may as well have been set in concrete. “Come on, goddammit.”

Several more roving abscesses raced from White’s skull and disappeared into the side of his neck. Santana stood hastily from the writing mess and drove the heavy heel of his shoe into White’s wrist. On the third stomp, bone snapped and White’s ghostly fingers snapped open. Santana snatched up the knife and then retreated to his dropped torch. White’s body twitched. Santana’s eyes all but burst as White pushed his way back to his feet. Abscesses at his face and arms ruptured to the grotesque sound of sucking mud, spilling an oily green mucus onto the ground.

“Nope. Nope. Not happening,” Santana said. He scooped up the torch and held it towards White’s shambling corpse as though it were a sword. White advanced, feet shuffling, moaning. His neck rippled as though something were trying to claw its way free. There was a tearing sound–

“To hell with this.” Santana flung the torch at White’s bloated feet. The fire roared as it surged up White’s pants, greedily consuming his rotten torso in seconds. A high-pitched death wail came from the unseen terror dying within White’s throat. Charred skin peeled back over burning flesh until finally White collapsed in pile of burning rot.

“Impressive. Most people forget about the torch.”

Heart still pounding, Santana spun to the voice, knife at the ready. His jaw slackened when he located the source of the heavy French accent. “I saw you die.”

LaSalle smiled, flashing a mouth full of gleaming, oversized porcelain. He stroked the length of the arrow spearing his throat. “Oh this?” he said, casually pulling the arrow free. “Not to worry. I’ve had worse..”

The sandy floor crunched as Santana subtly shifted to a more defensive stance. “Last time? What are you talking about, last time? This temple, this whole damn island isn’t even supposed to exist.”

LaSalle’s laugh echoed through the chamber. The well-dressed man adjusted his tie, cinching it tightly in place. “And yet here we both are.” His voice dropped to a mock whisper as he regarded the stone columns. He shielded his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ll let you in on a little secret… they’ve been bringing people here for years.”

“Who?” Santana replied. His hand instinctively reached to the back of his waist where the Glock should have been.

“You know, I’ve never actually met one of them in person. One of the Others, that is. They come in my dreams. They let me know when they hunger. They tell me which plane to get on and before I know– boom! Here I am again.”

Sweat trickled down Santana’s temple. “Those eyeless fuckers outside? The ugly bastard with the mutilated arm? How the Hell could they bring a plane down?”

Again LaSalle laughed. “No, no, no. Of course not. They’re just the sorry shits who lived here when the Others first arrived.” LaSalle closed his eyes and tilted his head back as though he were basking in the glow of a tropical sun. “They can do things you couldn’t dream of.”

“Like crash planes full of innocent people? And then you do what? Make sure any survivors find their way here? That seems like a really stupid method to secure dinner. What if no one survived the crash?”

“Christ be merciful, they were right. Humans are dense. They know who will survive. The Others aren’t after meat. Hell, they’re not even after our blood despite the centuries of urban legends about bloodthirsty monsters creeping in the shadows,” LaSalle replied, wiggling his fingers as though he were telling a ghost story.

“What then? Can’t be our brain power according to you.” Santana’s hand balled into a fist around the survival knife as the Marine advanced. “What else is there?”

LaSalle snapped his fingers and pointed excitedly at Santana. “Ah, there it is. The Others thrive on consuming the urge for conflict in other beings. That part of the soul that consumes the warrior’s heart when battle is near. The Others drink it up like fine wine. It’s powerful stuff, believe me I know. It’s extended my own lifetime decades beyond what it should have been. It stretches theirs into immortality. They can sense that spirit in certain humans. They use me as an anchor that they may draw them in.” The dark-skinned man paused a moment before continuing. “But there is a price to be paid.”

“A price of what?” Santana asked, barely controlling the rising fury in his voice.

“Why blood for life of course.” LaSalle said, smirking.

Santana assumed a fighting stance. “I’ll see that I get plenty of yours then. Melody’s blood, the blood of the whole flight and God knows how many others, is on your hands. And I’m going to make sure you understand that as you die, you son of a bitch.”

“Ah, my dear Captain Santana, I won’t be doing any fighting today.” LaSalle nodded to an entry way at the chamber’s far side. Mako emerged from the shadowed entrance, striding forward, chest puffed out. Thick, dark blood dripped from the teeth protruding from the length of shark jaw spearing his arm. The bullet wounds at his chest had healed and shrunken to minor scars.

“Sure. Why not? I figured something like this would happen,” Santana said, shrugging his shoulders loose.

LaSalle stepped aside, freeing the floor for the combatants. “The rules are simple, captain. You both fight. One of you dies. The other lives if he survives his injuries. But I want to be clear on a single, most important point: The Others are watching. If they feel as though you’ve not fought to your fullest, they will simply force you to repeat the ordeal.” LaSalle looked down his thin nose for emphasis. “From the plane crash onward.”

Santana considered the entrance to his rear but something told him there was little point in retreating. Nothing about this strange island made any sense. It was as if he were living a nightmare for someone’s viewing pleasure. In that moment, Santana decided to give them their money’s worth.

Mako moved to the center of the space framed by the quartet of runic columns. In the brazier light, blood from the shark’s jaw molded through his arm spattered onto the floor. His lips curled into something resembling a ghoulish smile.

The sight of the demon chilled Santana’s blood. A shiver climbed his spine as though Lady Death herself had softly blown on his skin. He gave up an easy sixty pounds and at least two feet of reach. To win meant getting in close. And striking with brutal efficiency. He would let the beast come to him and then carve out his heart.

Mako circled left, then, with a burst of speed alien to most beings his size, slashed his arm at Santana’s throat. The Marine was well-prepared. Santana ducked the blow and thrust the knife at what should have been a soft spot between Mako’s ribs. The knife deflected harmlessly, nearly throwing Santana off balance. Mako hardly seemed to notice the scratch.

“What the Hell are you?” Santana shouted at Mako. LaSalle’s disembodied voice answered.

“He is the instrument of the Others’ will. Nothing more. Persevere, my good captain, and I assure you you will emerge victorious.”

Santana barely heard LaSalle’s cryptic reply. Instead he changed tactics. He rushed Mako, feinted another slash at his belly, and then sliced at the demon’s eyes. The blade bit into the soft flesh. His roar echoed through the chamber and the knife came away sheathed in blood.

“So you do bleed. Good to know,” Santana said, smiling. He advanced again, dodging a furious backhand and then a savage overhead slash, before cutting into the thick muscles and tendons behind Mako’s left knee. The demon staggered to one knee with a howl. Santana moved in for the kill, but Mako’s deadly arm sliced across the Marine’s abdomen. Santana cried out and teetered backwards. He pressed his free hand to the stinging gash stretching across his stomach as the demon fell.

Santana held his bloodied hand in front of his face. It blurred around the edges, then seemed to separate into three images. An invisible hand squeezed his throat. It took a moment to cut through the panic, but eventually he understood. Poison. The knife clattered on the floor as he clutched at his constricting windpipe.

The room spun and Santana’s legs felt like rubber. The braziers’ light muddied into rings of filthy yellow that raced through his vision like warped halos. He pressed his fists into his eyes.

A man’s voice, heavy with sorrow, whispered. “You left me there. How could you just leave me?”

Santana stumbled, nearly toppling into one of the reflecting pools at the base of a column. “No. It can’t… You can’t… be here. You’re dead.”

When Santana finally pulled his hands away, stinging tears burned his eyes. But he saw him clear as day. Lawson stood not more than five feet away. Still burning. The spectre’s skin was a grotesque mixture of mottled and singed. Its voice deepened into the accusatory as a furious finger was raised. “You sorry piece of shit. You said you would always have my back.”

“This isn’t real,” Santana muttered. Lawson’s once strong features were gone, melted away by the blast of the anti-aircraft missile that tore his UH-1Y Venom from the sky. Lawson had been the only crew member not able to rescued from the wreckage before the auxiliary tank had ruptured.

“You left me in the fire! You left me to burn!”

A chorus of moans rose into a hellish symphony of screams. The acrid scent of the helicopter’s burning bones poured a bitter taste into Santana’s mouth. He jammed his hands over his ears like a child who refused to hear his parents. He shouted at the top of his lungs. “You’re not real!”

The chamber went suddenly still. The ghost of Santana’s deceased crew member and the collage of horrible details of that fateful memory had vanished. Santana’s heart pounded and his lungs ached for breath. Mako’s heavy breathing hissed at Santana’s back, his shadow falling on the Marine like a storm cloud. Santana spun on a heel and drove the survival knife deep into the soft flesh beneath the creature’s jaw, burying it to the hilt. Mako gurgled oily blood through the corners of his sealed mouth, teetered as he clutched at the blade and fell face first into a reflecting pool. His lifeblood stained the pool, clouding the fire-lighted water.

A flash of emerald surged at the center of the four columns, then arced into the quartet like lightning. Applause came from nowhere. “Nicely done, Captain. It has been years, decades probably, since a Mako was felled. You have earned the appreciation and gratitude of the Others. You may rest assured that they will be slumbering easy for some time and that your services will not be required again in the immediate future.”

Santana spun in the chamber, panning for LaSalle. “What do you mean immediate future? You said if I survived than I was free.”

LaSalle’s haunting laugh echoed through the chamber. “My dear, dear captain. I said that if you survived than you would live. We made no such deal regarding your freedom.”

Nausea welled in the pit of Santana’s stomach. He squeezed his hands into fists, ready and willing to pound LaSalle’s skull into sand. “Why don’t you come out so we can make a new deal.”

“Ah, but I’ve already told you captain. I won’t be doing any fighting today,” LaSalle replied.

Pain flared through Santana’s left arm, starting at the fingertips and scorching its way through his elbow. He screamed in agony as inch by inch the layers of skin and meat and bone crumbled to ash and fell away. He fell to his knees, cradling the grievous wound, only vaguely aware of the sound of footsteps behind him.

Several of the hunters entered the chamber and pulled Mako reverently from the reflecting pool. They rolled the creature onto his back and quickly set about preparing the body for the ritual burial. Santana turned and watched in horror as one of the hunters ran a crude stone knife through Mako’s mutilated arm, freeing the shark’s jaw. The eyeless man held the severed limb over his head like a prized trophy. He regarded Santana with a nod.

Realization crushed the breath from Santana’s lungs as the hunters circled him. A pair of muscular brutes held him down while the man with the jawbone impaled the flesh of Santana’s stump with his replacement arm. The Marine struggled against his captors, hurling curses and screaming in anger and pain as the weaponized limb was attached.

A tiny spark of euphoria took hold. Santana thought at first he was going into shock. He fought to block out the searing pain in his arm and keep track of his mind. His name. His home. His final flight. Minutes later the details suddenly seemed less important and he felt the memories floating away. He had a new mission now.

Santana didn’t even flinch as the hunter took the stone knife to his eyes.

Credit: Ghost of Seven Echoes

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The Cellar

May 26, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Rating: 7.9/10 (244 votes cast)

“So how much farther until we find this ‘really awesome place’ that I just ‘had to see’?” Patricia asked impatiently, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She pushed aside a low-hanging limb and walked past it, ducking low, her eyes cast upwards in an ongoing search for spider webs.

“It isn’t too much farther,” Zack answered her. “Why do you sound so irritated? Trust me; you’ll love this.”

Patricia slapped absent-mindedly at insects crawling on her neck, searching for a suitable place to feast. She missed her intended target, her neck stinging from the blow, sending the bugs to flight once more, where they circled about her, waiting for the opportune moment to land and drink.

“I’m irritated,” she began, “because I’m walking through the woods; I’m hot; I’m sweaty; I’m being eaten alive by insects; I got spider webs in my hair and now feel like they’re crawling on me; and I’m tired.” She exhaled loudly. “All this to see something that you insist that I’ll love, but you refuse to explain.”

A loud clap of thunder shook the earth beneath their feet. Large black and purple clouds rolled overhead, blotting out the sun, casting the world around them in ominous shadow, like a foretelling of tragedy to come. The trees began to shake and sway wildly, rhythmically, as a forceful gale blew through the tree tops, stirring up the still, humid air.

Patricia smiled cynically and shook her head, her sweat-drenched auburn hair swinging to and fro through the air. “Perfect. Just perfect.”

“You aren’t going to melt,” Zack said, clearly becoming annoying at Patricia’s disdain for the situation.

“We’re going to get soaked; I don’t want to get sick.”

“You won’t get soaked, and you aren’t going to get sick.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because we’re here.” Zack smiled widely.

Patricia shrugged, looked around, and held out her hands, palms up in a questioning gesture. “Wow. This is so amazing. I can barely contain my excitement.” Her voice was brimming with sarcasm. She pointed to her face. “You see this? This is my excited face.”

“Do you really have that little faith in me? How long have we been dating?”

“Since freshmen year.” It wasn’t lost on him that she chose to ignore the first question.

“So, three years. Have I let you down even once in all that time?”

She exhaled loudly. “No.” She was sulking; her voice showed it, although her body tried to hide it.

“Thank you. So what makes you think that I did this time?”

She looked around, an over-exaggerated gesture purely for his benefit. “Well, I certainly don’t see anything that makes this trip worthwhile.”

Zack shook his head despondently, annoyed and hurt by Patricia’s lack of confidence in him. He turned around without speaking and faced the wall of foliage that grew behind him, obscuring any view of what lay beyond. He raised his arms and wedged his fingers into the thickly woven vines and limbs. With a small grunt of effort, he parted the wall of plants like a theater curtain. The vines, limbs, and leaves crunched loudly as they were torn free of their chosen resting place. Small leaves fluttered to the ground softly.

He stepped through the newly-created opening. Once on the other side, he turned and held the limbs aside for Patricia to walk through. He dropped the limbs and wiped his hands on his jeans, feeling the tacky, sticky feeling of sap on his fingers cling to the denim. He looked over at Patricia and smiled, quite content with himself.

Patricia stared in awe, her eyes wide with amazement. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She had to give it to him; Zack knew what he was talking about. This was the most spectacular thing that she had ever been privileged enough to witness in all of her seventeen years. The view that her eyes beheld was, without a doubt, worth the inconveniences that she had to endure to get here. She felt a twinge of guilt at the attitude that she had so readily handed to Zack on the trip there.

They stood at the edge of a small clearing, completely edged by the thick curtain of foliage. Despite the lack of trees in the clearing, branches hung thickly overhead, stretching out over the clearing, casting it in dark shades of grey. The limbs swayed in the wind, causing the shadows to shift and dance on the ground beneath them. A large cluster of boulders sat to their left, covered in moss. Patches of mushrooms grew sporadically throughout the clearing, mixed among the overgrown, vibrant green grass. An eerie silence filled the clearing, the sounds of birds, insects, even the wind rustling the limbs, completely absent. The air had a stale quality; it felt as if it had been locked in a container for ages, something from another time.

A structure stood in the center of the clearing, a cottage. It was an old building, dating back well over one hundred years by her estimation. The walls were made of large pieces of stone. The roof was constructed of straw and hay. A stone chimney rose from the far side of the building, protruding from within the straw. Two windows were set into the wall that faced them. Even from the distance that they were from the cottage, perhaps twenty-five yards, she could clearly see the small ripple in the corners of the windows, a by-product of the glass blowing process used in that long-ago time. A small front porch, wooden, held what appeared to be a homemade swing and rocking chair. A door, also wooden, was ajar, leading inside. The airspace directly above the cottage was clear, the limbs that wove themselves above their heads seeming to grow away from the cottage, almost as if they refused to go near the building. Even the clouds that had rolled in and blacked out the sky seemed to steer clear of the cottage. A thin beam of sunlight shone down on the structure, like a spotlight, highlighting it in the surrounding gloom.

“How did you ever find this place?” Patricia asked, her voice teeming with amazement.

“Mom and I got into it, so I just started walking, trying to cool off and think. I was just wandering.”

“And you just happened to stumble upon it?” Her voice hinted at disbelief.

“I did. It’s amazing; I’ve explored these woods all my life, and this was just over a mile from my house and I never saw it before two days ago.”

A cacophony of thunder broke the otherwise silent surroundings. Bolts of white lightning tore through the sky, illuminating the black clouds with hues of purple and grey. The first drops of rain, frigid in the warm air, began to fall at their feet.

“Let’s go in,” Zack said. “We can wait out the storm while we look around.”

Patricia took Zack’s hand in her own, lacing her fingers between his, and began to walk towards the cottage. All was forgiven, Zack noted. He had come through, as he knew he would.

“Have you gone inside?”

“No. When I found it, I immediately thought of you. I know you love all of this ancient architecture and artifacts stuff. I wanted to wait until you were with me.”

She felt another twinge of guilt for her earlier behavior. She looked at him, eyes watery, and smiled sweetly. “Awww, babe. That’s so sweet and considerate of you.”

Zack smiled back at her, returning her open display of affection. He squeezed her hand gently. “It can be our own little adventure together.”

The wooden boards that comprised the small porch bowed slightly under their weight as they took the small step up from the ground. Several of the boards groaned and squealed in protest. When was the last time that someone had stood upon the threshold of this structure? Months? Years? Decades?

Their footsteps thudded hollowly, the sound rising up to them softly. Their steps, the sounds they produced rather, seemed hollow to their ears, muted somehow, dead. As did the creaks and groans of the aged planks beneath them. In fact, the only sound that seemed full, genuine, were the peals of thunder from above.

Zack stared at the rocking chair with interest. Made by hand, he found it to be an intriguing artifact from a long-ago time. The frame had been formed from thick tree limbs, bent and molded to the desired shape. Smaller, more pliable limbs formed the back and seat. Long grasses and straw, brown, dead, were woven in and out of the supportive limbs, a tapestry of nature. Spider webs filled each available crevice, but, Zack noticed, the webs appeared old, unused, with no trace of the creatures that constructed these magnificent feats or architecture in sight. He gave the chair a soft push; it rocked backwards, moving as smoothly as the day it had been constructed.

Patricia examined the swing with the same interest that Zack had shown the chair. Wood framing, smaller lattice work, grass and straw support: it seemed to be constructed in much the same manner as the chair had been. The swing hung from the rafters by means of an ancient rope, worn and frayed, yellowed with age. The rope was partially obscured by a bright green growth of moss and lichens. As tempted as she may have been, she rebuked the urge to sit in the swing, not trusting the weather-beaten strands to support her weight after the test of time.

Above them, they could hear the wind whipping through the trees as the storm continued to worsen, muted, muffled, as was every other sound. On the ground, the air was as still, as stale and old, as it had been upon first entering the clearing. The only sign of the squall was the growing rapidity of rain drops splattering silently on the ground just beyond the reach of the porch’s overhanging roof.

Zack pushed the front door open slowly; it glided smoothly on its aged hinges, free from the expected rust. A dim rectangle of light stretched out across the room, his silhouette clearly outlined on the floor. He leaned forward, his head crossing the threshold of the doorway, and craned his head around, peering from side to side.

“See anything?” Patricia asked nervously.

Zack didn’t, couldn’t, speak for several moments, so taken aback was he by what he was beholding. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, there was no way that he would believe the tale. Even as the one to behold the sight, his mind tried to refuse, to tell him that this was not possibly what he perceived.

“Zack?” Her voice was growing more nervous. Within that nervousness, Zack thought he heard her impatience mounting; the rash, impetuous girl that he had dated for three years was falling back to her basest urges, the need to know, and the need to know Right Now.

She prodded him lightly, causing him to start. She couldn’t suppress the small chuckle that fought to free itself from her throat at this. In fact, she didn’t even try.

“Huh?” Zack asked, almost as if he were rousing from a deep sleep. Her question finally hit home, so he answered. “Actually, yes, I do.”

“Well then go in. I want to see too.” Impatient. Eager.

Zack didn’t say anything in response. There was no point; Patricia usually got what she wanted. He had been dating her long enough to know that little fact by heart. He knew he was partially to blame for that. He did always fold under her demands after all. And what of that? He liked to please her; her happiness made him content. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that he loved her; he was much too young for that, being only seventeen; but he knew he cared deeply for her.

The young couple walked into the cottage. A small gasp escaped both of them; Zack was especially impressed with his own gasp, being that he had just seen this view from outside just seconds ago. He couldn’t help it, though; even if he saw this many times, he would feel the same sense of shock each and every time. It was just that amazing.

Stepping into the cottage was something akin to stepping into a different era. The sight brought to mind scores of movies that he had seen, movies in which the scene took place in a small house, a house very much like this one. But there was something odd about it, something off kilter, just not quite right. He knew that it was something blatant, an in-your-face discrepancy that he should see, but couldn’t. What was it? He dismissed the feeling, figuring that it would come to him in time; all he had to do was step away for a time, not focus on it.

Patricia walked up and stood beside him. She was speechless, which went against her usual chatty nature. And who could blame her? What words were there to adequately summarize viewing a sight such as this?

The cottage appeared to have been divided into two rooms, judging by the view of the outside. A wall on the far side of the room held a door, presumably to the bedroom. This room, which encompassed a large portion of the cottage, was a combination of a receiving room and the kitchen. A large stone fireplace sat in the corner of the room, cold, long unused, perhaps centuries long. Two large battle axes sat atop bolts that dug into the mortar of the fireplace, crossing handles in the typical display fashion. A grouping of chairs, made in the same manner as both the rocking chair and the swing outside, sat before the fireplace; the five of them facing each other, spaced equidistance from each other. The floor and walls were covered in carvings, some ancient, dead language that the pair was unable to decipher. Randomly scattered amidst the words, various images had been carved: pentagrams, crescent moons, hexagrams, and ankhs. The words and pictures all spiraled out from the center of the room, which held, displayed prominently, a large beast carved into the floor.

Although it was nothing more than a rough sketching, this carving, the beast so prominently displayed was beyond fearsome. If the picture was to be believed, it seemed as though it stood twice as tall as a man. It was a massive, hulking beast with six arms, standing atop four legs. A large tail protruded from its rear, with the head of a snake as its tip. In each of its six hands, the creature held a portion of what appeared to be a human body: both arms, both legs, head, and torso. Its mouth was open revealing a large maw filled with large, sharp teeth. A cluster of eyes, much like spiders’ eyes, sat above its mouth. Two large, curving horns, similar to those of a ram, protruded from its forehead.

Patricia inhaled sharply and drew closer to Zack, looping her arms around his right arm. “I don’t like this place,” she said, refusing to relinquish her hold on him.

“Scared?” Zack teased. “There’s no reason for it. This is all just ancient superstition.”

“I don’t care. This place gives me a bad feeling. Can we just go?” Her voice was trembling.

Zack looked down at Patricia, their eyes locking. In that moment, he could see the terror in her eyes. His heart reached out to her, empathizing with her. He smiled down at her, his eyes lighting up. He began nodding his head gently.

“Of course we can.” He took her by the hand and turned back to the door.

As he pulled the door open, it was blown back forcibly by a large gust of wind, knocking them both to the floor. Heavy mists of rain were blown in in waves, frigid, icy. The pair clambered to their feet and walked to the door, stunned.

Outside, the light drizzle had worsened, turning into a torrential downpour of hurricane proportions. Thick sheets of rain fell from the sky, hindering any view beyond the porch. Strong gales whipped through the clearing, pushing the torrents of precipitation chaotically. The sky had darkened considerably, intermittently set alight by bursts of lightning. Thunder rumbled overhead, now muffled as was every other sound in this strange clearing.

“We have to wait,” Zack said. “Do you feel how cold this rain is? We could freeze to death before we ever reached my house.”

Patricia looked out the doorway despondently. “OK,” she replied. She spoke with calmness and assurance, but her expression gave truth to the turmoil of feelings that raged within her. She was terrified, and desperate to be rid of this house, this strange clearing.

Zack backpedaled into the dismal cottage, pulling Patricia along gently. Once back inside, he closed the door, pushing roughly against the battling of the intruding wind. He turned from the door and put his arms around his girlfriend. My God, she was shivering. Did that picture scare her that much? No way. She was probably just cold; they were both fairly damp from the rain that had forced itself into the cottage.

He pulled her in tightly and began rubbing her arms and back. “It’s ok,” he said, trying to be reassuring. “As soon as the weather is better, we can both get out of here.”

“I’m ok,” she replied. “I’m not sure why that picture got to me the way it did.” She pushed him away gently. “I’m fine now. Seriously,” she added after seeing the doubtful look on Zack’s face as he stared down at her solemnly, his eyes searching her face methodically.

She walked to the circle of chairs and took a seat. She stared into the vacant fireplace. “I’m cold,” she said, more to herself than to Zack.

Zack walked into the kitchen area of the room. “May as well finish looking around since we’re stuck here anyway.”

He walked over to the iron wood-burning stove and flipped open the hatch. Within were the ancient remnants of a fire, mostly burnt logs and piles of ash. Finding nothing of interest, he swung the door shut once more. It clanged with the now-familiar and expected muffled quality.

He turned and his eye landed upon a small wooden cabinet. Kneeling down, he pried the door, stuck after years of sitting, open, expecting to find nothing more than chopped firewood or ancient cutlery, old and rotted, perhaps swarming with termites or some other insect. What he found was nothing of the sort; in fact, it was far worse, far more disturbing.

The cabinet was composed of three shelves. The top shelf was lined with books, ancient, leather-bound. He gingerly pulled one from the shelf to examine. The leather was like no other he had ever felt or seen. It was soft and his fingers left small indentations momentarily after he moved them. The material was pulled tautly and fastened on the inside with twine that ran through eyelets cut into it. He opened the book. The pages were brittle and yellowed with age, thick, like parchment, as opposed to the thinly produced sheets so common today. The pages were filled with the same ancient words that were so prevalent on the floor and the walls. The ink was of a strange nature; rather than black or blue, it had dried to a dark reddish color, maroon or burgundy. The margins of the pages were filled with symbols, some being those that had been carved into the floor, but there were others, many others. He slid the book back onto the shelf, returning it to its rightful position; suddenly he didn’t want to be touching it anymore. It seemed unclean, unfit to touch with bare hands. He wiped his hands on his jeans absent-mindedly and continued his search.

Vials and bottles filled the second shelf. Liquids and powders of various thicknesses and colors. Leaves and flower petals, roots, pieces of vines and different types of grasses: the shelf held a plethora of items used for what he could only assume, when taken in conjunction with the carvings and books, were used in some sort of alchemy or potion-making processes.

He moved on to the bottom shelf, which was, by far, the most unsettling. Several cages held the skeletons of some long-dead animals. He was able to identify the remains of a few of the animals: rats, snakes, and bats; but there were others that, even upon closer inspection, he couldn’t identify. There were things with more legs than he had ever seen outside of the insect or cephalopod kingdoms, things that appeared to have wings that clearly shouldn’t have. He shuddered, feeling the spasm trickle through his body. A basket sat in the far corner of the shelf, larger than the cages. He pulled it out, and jumped backwards, startled and just a bit frightened by the sight. In the basket, the skeletal remains of an infant lay. The baby appeared to have been deformed, its skull misshapen, and was clearly missing some limbs.

Zack shoved the basket back into the cabinet and slammed the door, disgusted. He stood and peered through the window, trying to erase what he had just seen from his memory. Outside, the storm not only continued to rage, but appeared to have worsened. Waves of water beat against the window silently. The thought occurred to him to share what he found with Patricia, but to what end? It would serve no other purpose than to further frighten her. No, he would leave it be, and hopefully forget it; although he doubted that he would ever lose that image. Even when the haze of senility began to corrupt his mind in the twilight of his life, he knew, that image would always remain crisp.

He turned from the window and faced Patricia. She was still seated in the chair, staring into the empty fireplace, a vacant look in her eyes. She was still shivering, rubbing her arms furiously. She would remain just so until they were finally able to leave. He knew her well enough to know that her exploring had reached its conclusion.

So be it. He didn’t want to just sit around, and had no intentions of doing so. Granted, the cottage was creepier than he had expected, creepier by far, but it was just a cottage; nothing more. Empty. Vacant. Abandoned. The previous tenants long dead. There was no reason to be scared.

Zack walked to the door that led to what he assumed was the bedroom. He placed his hand on the door, ready to push it open, and froze. He suddenly had an urge to not open the door. From what he had seen thus far, who knew what unspoken horrors could possibly lie in wait.

Zack shrugged it off; it was an irrational fear, that’s it. Whatever was in the room was inconsequential. The fact still remained; the house was empty. He took a deep breath, and pushed the door open. He fought to stifle a small yelp that tried to escape his throat. His jaw hung low; it refused to close. The contents of the room were just unbelievable; he really didn’t believe that he was seeing what his eyes were telling him he was.

The room was small, barely larger than a normal sized bathroom. It was almost completely empty. Almost. To say that the room was sparse was an understatement. It was completely devoid of all furniture. In the corner of the room, a small pile of straw sat idly, no doubt having once served as an attempt at a bed. A small wooden bucket sat beside the straw; he hated to think what that had been used for, considering that there were no bathrooms. Chains hung from the wall above the straw, shackles at the end of each chain. They were the only ornamentation on the walls. More chains hung from the ceiling, large, barbed hooks attached to the end of each.

A door was set into the wall on the left side of the room. Zack pulled it open tentatively. It was a closet-sized room on the other side. A small table stood just to the right of the door, covered with a tattered, threadbare cloth. He reached out and plucked away the cloth. His eyes widened as they focused on the contents of the tabletop. Various blades of differing length and width sat atop the table. The dark blades were stained with blood, dried and crusted.

A small trapdoor was cut into the floor beside the table, filling the remaining floor area of the closet. An iron ring was bolted to it, intended to lift the door. Without thinking of what he was doing, Zack reached down and grabbed the ring, lifting it out of the wooden recess in which it had lain for so very long. It was quite heavy in his hands.

He froze, dropping the ring, without lifting the door even an inch. The ring fell back into place with a dull thud. And did he feel an air of disappointment in the room? It was almost as if an excited tension had been building within the room as he drew closer to finding the trapdoor; the air felt charged with it. Now that he had relinquished his hold, moved further from opening that door, that tension, that expectation that seemed to fill the area, that anticipation, seemed to dissipate.

He dismissed the feeling and stood, turning out of the closet. A thought had occurred to him, something that had been gnawing at him since stepping through that front door. He had suspected that it would come to him if he had just left it alone; he had been correct. He walked out of the room, careful to mind the chains, those chains with their deadly hooks, hanging from the ceiling.

“Have you noticed,” he said, walking back into the receiving room, “that this place is so clean? No dust anywhere. No cobwebs. And all this straw, wood, and hay: how is this stuff not rotted?” He was looking down at his feet in concentration as he spoke. “There’s no sign of age in here at all.”

His words were greeted with silence. He looked up. Patricia was gone. He could call out to her, but there would be no point. The cottage only consisted of two rooms; this one was vacant, and he had just exited from the other room. Maybe she was on the porch.

He pulled the door open, bracing himself against the expected pressure of the wind outside. He stepped onto the porch. The wind whipped around him, blowing swirls of rain around his body. The small drops stung as they struck his face, icy needles pricking his skin, numbing it. The rocking chair rocked wildly, blown around by the storm. The swing jerked and spasmed at the end of its ropes.

But no sign of Patricia.

Zack walked back into the cottage, forcing the door closed behind himself. Water dripped from his body, forming puddles on the floor beneath him. He shivered uncontrollably. He felt a mixture of worry and irritation building up within him. How could she just leave him there? And without even mentioning her departure to him? The rain was far too cold, and she didn’t know her way around the woods; how could she expect to get back to his house without freezing to death? Did she really expect him to follow after her in this weather? Well, to Hell with that.

He pulled off his shirt and wrung it out, water dripped onto the floor, fueling the small puddle at his feet. Stepping over the puddle, he walked to the chairs and sat down in the same chair that Patricia had been seated in. He could still feel the warmth from her accumulated body heat; it felt nice on his chilly skin, soothing.

His mind was slowly drawn back to the trap door. What was hidden down there? Why was the door hidden within the closet? Did he really even want to know what was down there, after seeing everything that was in plain sight? It gnawed at him, called to him, beckoning, taunting.

He tried to push the thoughts from his mind, banishing them from his consciousness. But it kept coming back, that door. It was like an addiction, like someone who kicks the cigarette habit, only to have the craving constantly calling to them from the back of their waking mind.

So, like most people when their urge is stronger than their reasoning, he began rationalizing to himself, making the decision to descend below seem reasonable. I’m pretty cold, he thought. I suppose getting up and moving around would warm me up.

But it’s a cellar, the clear, rational part of his mind argued. It would only be cooler down there than it is up here.

Zack sniffed. There was a scent in the air, one that hadn’t been present just moments ago. It smelled as if something were burning. His eyes focused on the fireplace, the most natural place for one to expect a fire. Small tendrils of smoke had begun to rise from the ancient cinders. They slowly began to glow a deep orange. Suddenly, a small flame flickered into life. The flames spread quickly, engulfing the aged log remnants in flame. Smoke billowed upwards, rising out of the chimney.

Zack jumped up, knocking the chair over. His eyes widened and he felt his heart racing within his chest; it beat relentlessly against his sternum. He heard a faint scream from below, muffled through the wooden floorboards. Zack cocked his head to the side, disbelieving, straining his ears to listen should it repeat itself.

Another scream. This time it was unmistakable. That voice belonged to Patricia. But how had she gotten downstairs?

He wasted no time pondering the subject. He turned and jumped over the fallen chair, running into what he know thought of as the torture room. Reaching the door, he stopped short, his momentum almost toppling him over. He coughed and retched, finally turning his head and relieving himself of the food that he had eaten that day. The sight was horrific.

The once-vacant room was now far from so. The chains that hung from the ceiling, with the large hooks attached to each end, had been empty upon his leaving just a short time ago. This was no longer the case. Human bodies hung from the hooks, swinging freely in the air. Five of them hung there, impaled by the hooks through different portions of their bodies: one through the back of the head; another through the soft flesh under the chin, hanging by the jawbone; through the shoulder blade, supported by the collarbone; through the sternum; and the last through her back. The bodies were stripped naked. The surface area was covered in hundreds of lacerations and burns, crossing each other, some so deep as to expose the white of bone beneath. They were grey with decay, their bodies putrefying. Their stomachs were distended with gaseous buildup. Their eyes, those that still retained their eyes, bulged from their sockets. Their tongues hung from their mouths, swollen, like limp scraps of flesh. Pools of congealed blood, tacky, almost black in the persistent gloom of the cottage, sat beneath each body. Maggots crawled within the holes and cuts, writhing and squirming, some falling to the floor, becoming stuck in the pools of blood. The stench was overpowering, filling the room with the noxious odor of decay.

Another scream snapped him from his horrified trance. He pushed past the suspended bodies, edging along the wall, careful not to come into contact with the sickening cadavers that swung so gently through the air. He reached the closet and took a firm grip on the iron ring set in the trapdoor. With a mighty heave (it was far heavier than he expected), he pulled open the door, grunting from the exertion.

A cool, damp air rose up to meet him. The air was old, stale from an unknown amount of time trapped beneath the disturbing cottage. The door opened to a set of stairs that descended down into a complete and utter darkness. He could hear whimpering below, rising up to meet him, calling to him with their sadness, begging him to relieve her of her pain and worry, the soft, tortured sobs of his girlfriend. With no further thought, he began his descent, losing himself in the abysmal blackness.

Behind him, in the cottage’s largest room, Zack didn’t see the flames begin to crackle and billow. He didn’t see an orange ember fly from the fireplace with a huge pop. He didn’t notice that it landed in the center of the room, right in the middle of the carving’s many eyes. And he certainly never knew that that ember came alight, the flame tracing along the floors and up the walls, all the etchings, words and pictures, glowing a fierce orange and red.

If he had, maybe he would have reconsidered his actions.

The air thickened as he descended the stairs; it grew colder, almost frigid, and damp. His breath came out in smoky plumes with each exhalation. The moisture seemed to seep into his clothes, his skin. With one hand on the earthen wall to guide himself, he quickly, but carefully, went down the stairs, his feet clopping softly of the wooden steps. The darkness closed in further around him, enveloping him within, like a baby within the womb. It pressed in tightly, threatening to choke him, like a sentient being, a mind of its own. The stairs seemed to never end, as though he were descending into the pit of Hell itself. Finally, his foot landed upon the soft dirt of the cellar’s floor.

Zack waited for his eyes to adjust, but it was to no avail. The wan light from the doorway, now nothing more than a small grey rectangle high above, was unable to penetrate the darkness. He rummaged through his pockets, finding his cellular phone, and pulled it out. As he fumbled with it in the darkness, his cold, numb fingers clumsy, trying to find the button on the side, he prayed that the rain hadn’t shorted it out. Finding the button, the fear proved to be unfounded.

The tiny screen illuminated, emitting a low, pale blue light. He shined it around, using it to help him find his way. The light didn’t shine far, as if the darkness fought against it, trying to reclaim the space that had been its dominion for so very long.

Small puddles of muddy water had begun to build up on the floor, rain water that seeped through the walls, collecting in the open area. He could hear faint splashes in the distance, and chose to believe that rats were the cause, but fearing that that was just a misconception, the wishful thinking of his scared mind.

He felt his way along the walls, fearing the consequences should he venture into the center of the cellar. Thick rills of water ran down the walls, bringing with it pieces of mud and rock. The light glinted from the water, like flowing rivers of filthy diamonds in this subterranean enclosure, like the fabled rivers of King Solomon’s kingdom. He continued to walk forward, stepping lightly, straining his ears for the sounds of distress that had called him down.

Judging by the distance that he walked, the cellar ventured out farther than the walls of the cottage. The further he walked, the larger his dread seemed to grow. He felt an overwhelming presence looming over him, menacing, malicious, just beyond the scope of his phone’s light. He had an image flash in his mind, one from a myth that he had learned in school. The minotaur: did it not dwell within the shadows of the subterranean labyrinth, lurking in the shadows, waiting for unsuspecting trespassers? The thought was ludicrous, of course, but the feeling of impending doom persisted.

He felt himself as if in a vast maze of underground tunnels and caverns. Were there such things in this part of the nation? Maybe, maybe not. He had no way to know, so he pushed on, ever mindful to keep his right hand on the slick wall beside him.

From his left he heard the scared whimpers. He took off in that direction, taking note of which direction he headed, having no intention of becoming lost below the surface of the planet. The sounds became louder as he closed in on them. A form began to swim out of the darkness, slowly taking shape out of the shadows. Small, hunched over, sitting in the mud and dirt: it was Patricia.

He knelt down beside her, his knee resting in an icy puddle of water. “We need to get out of here,” he told her, trying to get her to her feet. “Patricia?”

She didn’t respond. She resisted his pull, merely sitting stationary, sobbing. Tears streamed down her face.

“Seriously,” he tried again. “This is a bad place. We need to go.”

“We can’t,” she replied. Her voice was barely more than a choked whisper, raspy from her screams and crying.

“What do you mean? Of course we can,” he urged. His voice was almost pleading. “You just have to get up. How did you get down here anyway?”

She finally stood, reluctantly. “I don’t know. I was sitting in the chair, just waiting to leave. I felt some sense of dizziness, like moving way too fast. Everything seemed to slide and shift; it all bled together. Then I was here.”

Zack began walking back in the direction that he had come. He tugged at her hand gently, but her movements were slow. It was as if she had no determination, nothing more than a shell of who she had been.

“The stairs are just up here a ways,” he said once he had found the wall.

Patricia jerked her hand free from his and stood her ground defiantly. “You aren’t listening,” she said angrily, almost spitting the words. Her face was twisted in anger and despair, frightening in the dim, blue light. “It won’t let us.”

Zack was confused. “What won’t?”

“It,” she said with finality. “That picture on the floor. It’s down here. They conjured it up, and it killed them. But they managed to trap it down here. Now it intends to feed.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked, his voice quavering. “How could you possibly know that?”

She shrugged. “I just do. It makes sense. Why else would it be down here, instead of roaming the woods, terrorizing hikers and anything else that happens across it?”

Despite the overwhelming darkness, Zack looked around. “There’s nothing down here,” he said, more sharply than he intended. Her ravings were beginning to frighten him.

“How do you think I got down here? Why do you think I didn’t find my way back up on my own?” She spoke with anger, like a mother talking to her petulant child. “It. Won’t. Let. Me.”

Splashes of water to their side, lost in the darkness. Heavy thudding, rumbling the ground, growing closer.

“It kept me alive to get you down here. Can’t you see that?”

Before Zack could respond, she was suddenly jerked backwards, quickly, violently, beyond the perimeter of the light. He heard a terrified scream, the sounds of crunching and snapping bone, the sounds of wet, chewing. Finally, silence.

“Patricia?” he called out weakly. His voice was only a shell, lost in fear, nothing more than a whisper.

Growls, low and guttural, echoed from the walls. Footsteps closed in, shaking the ground beneath his feet due to the sheer enormity of the beast.

Unmindful of direction, lost in his terror, Zack ran. Any direction, it didn’t matter, as long as it was away from that awful, hidden beast. His footsteps echoed lightly as he ran. Water splashed up, soaking his pants’ legs, as he sped through the puddles.

Which way was the door? Where were the stairs? He had no idea. In his terror, he had lost his bearings. He continued to make his way, running blindly into the void, praying that he came upon an exit, but fearing that he was only delving further into the catacombs. He finally stopped, out of breath, panting, wheezing. His lungs ached, burning like swallowed fire. He thought he may have lost it.

From over his shoulder, just behind him, he began to hear the steady hiss of a snake. A rather large snake. One that possibly served as the tail for a monstrous terror. There was no escape; he knew that now. Patricia had tried to tell him, but he refused to listen. He closed his eyes, accepting his fate.

Credit: William Davis

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