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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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Lapse

June 23, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Have you ever had a lapsing dream? It’s a very real thing, but I don’t talk to many people and I pay little attention to the media, so it is difficult to know what is unique to my mind and body. I turned the concept into a creepypasta because it scares me, or it frustrates and upsets me at the very least. A lapsing dream is entirely separate from more widely discussed occurrences in sleep like lucid dreams or paralysis incidents. It is not as immediately scary as sleep paralysis, but as someone who has suffered from both types of dream, I believe lapses to be the more insidious of the two. A lapsing dream lies somewhere between the illogical realm of fragmented dreams, which don’t seem to be very different from normal dreams except for their poorly defined and difficult to remember chronologies, and the timeless void of dreamless sleep. Lapsing dreams only seem to happen, or at least I remember them to only happen, at either edge of a period of restful sleep or throughout the course of poor, non-restful sleep. During a lapsing dream, random shards of thought or information spontaneously dart through the dwindling stream of consciousness, popping in and out in extremely quick succession as if hopping crossways over the mental flow. Sometimes, a lapse is composed of succinct, discrete bits of meaningless information that are too small in volume to hold any meaning. Other times, a lapse is composed of an amorphous mesh of many little thoughts ran together. All thoughts experienced in a lapsing dream do not appear in any tangible format such as text, imagery, or sound. They are all raw and unprocessed, and how they are able to be perceived, let alone remembered, is unexplainable. Any perception of self and existence is lost during a lapsing dream, but the experience is still present and able to be remembered. When someone has a lapsing dream, they do not see black or any other color, which separates this type of dream even further from all other kinds.

So why are lapses more scary than nightmares or sleep paralysis? Well, I think that lapses have the ability to slightly alter a person’s perception of reality. Lapses have a strange place within the continuum of the mind and sleep. Having a lapsing dream is probably as close as one can get to “experiencing” a deep, dreamless sleep, yet they occur at the times when the mind is most active and the consciousness is strongest during rest. That said, they seem to draw together areas of the mind that are usually kept separated, and the residual effects of lapsing dreams extend into the waking world in strange ways. After any given lapse, I woke up with memories that were entirely real to me until I noticed the absence of a particular object, location, or person, or someone belied the truths that had just manifested in my head. I know from reading various forums that it is not a very rare occurrence for dreams to cause false memories, nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to lapses, but this is somewhat different. Memories created by a lapse are very strong regardless of how implausible or glaringly false they are. After a lapse, somebody who had lost a loved one after a major tragedy might believe that the person lost was still very much alive, or that a tragedy had never taken place at all. And when that person’s memory is nullified by the truth, they might suffer the same grief that they went through when they were first exposed to news of the death. I know this to be true because I have been affected by lapsed memories multiple times. There have been many times throughout my life where I remembered owning items, usually things that I greatly desired, that I did not actually possess, or where my knowledge of the layout of a building or environment was overridden until I visited the altered locations. The most notable and exceptional cases concern a long-dead family pet and a grandparent who had died long before I was born. When I woke up one morning, I went into the living area of my house confident in the knowledge that I’d be greeted by my parents’ fluffy white dog Princess, who had been around since before my conception. I soon found out that Princess had died years ago, but I felt like I just lost my pet. I do not want to talk about my grandparent’s death in detail, but it is important to point out that I felt someone who I had never met was with me.

The incident with my dog presents another strange anomaly caused by lapsing dreams: distortion of the perception of time. After waking up that morning, I was missing a huge chunk of my memory. Of course, this occurred during the earlier portion of my childhood, and the hippocampus tends to be rather unreliable during that period. But what I experienced was far different than the gradual fading of memories. Additionally, I have the gift of being able to remember many scenes from my early life with extreme detail, including some from before the lost period. My recognitive ability does not, however, negate the fact that I am missing multiple years’ worth of memories, including the time when my dog died. I still do not remember witnessing or even hearing about my dog’s death even though I remember almost every detail about her looks and some details (although they may be confabulations) about my interactions with her. That is the power of a lapse, and they have not stopped since my childhood. The extent of their effects does not end with the alteration of experiences committed to memory, either. Lapses can also alter a person’s moment-to-moment perception of the passage of time.

By the supple age of 15, I felt like a centenerian in a few respects. I didn’t have the maturity or the experience of someone so old, and I knew that, but I was speeding through time like someone who had already experienced their entire life. Of course, the acceleration of time is a constant that affects everyone, but the shift in perception that I experienced was far too large and obvious to simply discount as a mere unpleasant marker of aging. Even now, when I look at my old digital clock sitting behind me on my dresser, I can see the delimiter blinking twice as fast as I remember it going in the past. Whole minutes run freely by whenever I do not concentrate on the clock. Even when I do focus on every instance of a second, trying to limit the implacable forward drive of time like an under-equipped traffic officer, every moment still seems fleeting. I am not sure why lapsing dreams do this, but I have noticed that during instants occurring on the latter end of a rest, there are sometimes very brief periods where the afflicted will regain a nominal level of consciousness. When these short bursts of wakefulness happen multiple times between intervals ranging from a few minutes to a few hours every morning, a cognitive effect of “time travelling” is created. It does not seem unreasonable to believe that an individual’s sense of time might be residually skewed from witnessing chronologically distant moments in quick succession (time is barely perceived during a lapsing dream), but I do not have the knowledge or the means to prove such a belief with empirical evidence or anything else. It is also impossible to tell if the problem is caused or exacerbated exclusively by interrupted lapses, or if this phenomenon is no worse than segmented sleep.

Lapses clearly diverge from regular dreams by a large amount. They present no tangible images, feelings, or sounds. All of their effects on temporal perception and the psyche are latent and lasting as opposed to contained within the dream, or, in the case of a nightmare, a short period during and after a dream. And they only seem to be partially connected to the unconscious system, holding no meaning or symbols unlike normal dreams. They certainly do not represent a defense mechanism or a manifestation of desire. I was not particularly regretful that I never got to meet my grandfather until I lost his confabulatory phantom to the truth, and I was much too young to understand the solemn concept of death when my dog actually died. Although objects that I desired were commonly written into my memory, so were random items and locations that had nothing to do with my emotions. If I am the only person afflicted by this, then perhaps lapsing dreams are an unappreciated but necessary mechanism of my powerful memory? It may be plausible, but there are a few other details about lapses that might negate such a possibility.

If a memory of a location is overwritten or created by a lapse, there is a chance that the mental image of the location will be extremely mesmerizing. The arrangement of light within the visualization will have an intoxicating effect on the mind, and the visualization might stay even after the overwritten memory has been corrected. The effect is impossible to describe beyond this, as the manner in which the light in the image is configured and the way that it influences the afflicted cannot be communicated verbally. The phenomenon is far too idiosyncratic and intangible for anybody to fully understand without experiencing it themselves. However, despite being hard to describe, these otherwise normal images steeped in an otherworldly aura are very real and very powerful to me. They are so pleasant that I have gained a love for nature and the inadvertent aesthetic of the environment just by being exposed to them, and as if being driven by Jung himself, I find myself drawing trees and other natural structures at random. It is when I make drawings and doodles that I think about those hexing visages, and I wonder about their cause and purpose. The most memorable of the images are usually very similar in form to an actual location that I have visited, but glazed over with a magical sheen. Others are more unfamiliar, and some are even abstract, but they all show an empty environment filled with nature, certain pieces of infrastructure, or a stark sky. A lot of them seem expressionistic in a way, which brings me to my point. I believe that the images of real locations are skewed by an enigmatic force because they show something that we cannot normally see. The rapid exchange of impalpable information during a lapse may serve to decode a moment of perception that the occipital lobe is not capable of handling. But what is a lapse doing when memories of people or events are falsified, or entirely fictional locations are generated?

I believe that lapses are as close as any being can get to witnessing and knowing Nihility: the Zero State. When a person dies, their brain goes out with a flurry of activity, and final dreams may occur. When a person is anesthetized, there are no dreams to be had, and nothing is experienced or remembered. I have walked in the fog, blind and deaf and stripped of somatic being, but I was still able to know something and remember it. Maybe the images of unseen things and the dead come from somewhere further down than the bright lights of our great scientific and analytical minds have yet shone? Maybe a lapsing dream is a toe dip into the watery membrane demarcating the eternal spaces? Maybe I have written nothing special, and a worldly, predictable logic that I am totally ignorant of tightly binds and regulates the dreams? I have no way of understanding the enigma that both plagues and blesses me. I am a weak, sentimental little thing who is probably only drawn to the mystical for fear of a harsher, scientific truth about my problems. Every tick in a tock pangs my existential fears as time is continually quickened, and my prized achievements and emotional treasures are slid to the edge of a steep mantle every time I go to sleep. I cannot help but speak of the lapsing dream like both a common affliction and a condition unique to me because I would like to think both cases are true. I am rendered lost by its mysteries, and I am too confused to write. Can I walk into that terrible fog even during the day? My mind has rolled onto a tangential track, and I am lost. It seems that this curse of mine is not something that I can speak about freely.

It is awfully late. The server administrator can confirm this if the submission date is accurate when this is sent in. It is time for me to sleep.

Credit: Sprite of the Wold

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Blindness

June 22, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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It’s true what they say – that when a person goes blind their other senses heighten in order to compensate. Knowing that, and thinking back on everything that happened to me, I still can’t come to a rational conclusion of how these events unfolded around me without my knowledge. Granted, I couldn’t actually see any of it happening, but I never suspected anything of this magnitude when judging solely on the minor oddities that I had experienced.

Sure, every once in a while I would hear noises, but my house was old and seemed to have a mind of its own. All of its pops and creaks had become just as familiar to me as navigating its interior without the benefit of sight. Even when things began to turn more bizarre, I always found a way to rationalize them away. Looking back, I ask myself, “How could I have been so…well, for lack of a better word, blind?”

My mother had tried to convince me not to move into the house alone. “Sarah, a young blind woman shouldn’t be living all by herself,” she’d said. But I wanted to – needed to. I needed to prove to myself that I was strong enough to do it. Besides that, as a twenty four year old, I didn’t want to live with my parents forever. And I sure didn’t want to wait around for a nice man to marry and move in with. That may never happen.

Having lost my sight at an early age due to a freak accident with industrial strength cleaning chemicals, I knew all too well the nuances of learning to create a mental map of my surroundings.

When I first moved into the old house I used my cane exclusively. I waved it back and forth in front of me with every step I took. I knew roughly where all of the furniture was since I was the one that directed the movers on where to put everything. I employed the cane for nearly a week, using its tip to develop a mental image of the layout. The learning process was slow and clumsy at first, but I eventually got to the point that I was able to shed my cane after several days and began walking cautiously with my arms extended. I progressed further and became familiar enough with the territory that by the end of the first month I was able to walk freely without the use of my cane, or arms or any other aid.

I became quite adept at moving throughout the house freely. Not only that, but the house was located in a somewhat urban area which made it convenient to walk to any place I had the need. The grocery was only three blocks away. There was a department store across the street from that, and a bank and coffee shop just a bit further on. I got used to listening to the flow of traffic and timing the lights in my head so I would know when the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signals were lit. Occasionally a kind stranger would offer to take my hand and lead me across. I would thank them and we would part ways once we were safely on the next sidewalk.

In those days I was working from home making phone calls to patients that had recently been discharged from the hospital. In essence, I was being paid by the hospital to administer surveys that were then used to improve their services. The hospital was kind enough to provide me with a laptop computer that contained several different voice-command software applications. I spent my days transcribing the recorded phone calls by speaking the customers’ answers into a microphone, and having the data fields automatically populate accordingly in the program.

The first odd event that I remember was on one particular day when I got up from my work desk for a lunch break. As I was headed into the kitchen, I kicked an object in the middle of the living room floor. I heard it slide a short distance on the carpet. I knew that I hadn’t left anything in the way of my path as I had just been through there not even an hour ago, and there was nothing on the floor.

I knelt down and patted around until I located the object. A book. By feeling its Braille title I recognized it as a book on national parks that I kept on my coffee table, some five feet away. I didn’t remember knocking the book off of the table. I stood there perplexed. The longer I thought about it though, the less frightening it became to me. I convinced myself that I must have simply forgotten about knocking the book to the floor, and I must have stepped over it or next to it during my other passes through the room. I returned the book to its place on the table and went about making my lunch.

That night, while lying in bed, I heard a sound that came from the kitchen. It was almost entirely masked by the usual sounds of the pops and creaks from the house settling, but I definitely heard it – faint as it was. It was a very light humming noise. So light, in fact, that an average person without enhanced hearing may not have heard it at all from this distance. I slowly got out of bed, listening intently, the sound increasing as I made my way down the hallway and through the living room.

As soon as I passed through the threshold into the kitchen I knew what the sound was. It was the compressor motor on the refrigerator, and it was substantially louder than usual. I approached the appliance and found that its door was standing wide open. I eased it shut and the hum returned to a normal volume.

“What on earth? Did I leave this open?” I questioned myself in a whisper. Maybe it didn’t close all the way the last time I swung it shut, I thought. I returned to bed, but had trouble finding sleep. My mind wandered and questioned how I could have overlooked the fallen book and the open fridge door when they’d first happened.

The next morning, I decided to go have breakfast at Espresso Express, the little coffee shop up the road. They served excellent coffee, and you could also get a ham & cheese croissant melt that was to die for. That alone was worth the effort of showering, dressing, and leaving the safety of the house to be plunged into a buzz of whizzing traffic, honking horns, and people clamoring on the sidewalks.

On that morning a gentle stranger helped guide me across the intersection just ahead of the coffee shop. I said, “Thank you!” as they released my arm, but there was no response. He or she was lost in the shuffle of people on cell phones, their conversations momentarily audible to me as they passed in front of and behind me. The tinny sound of a bicycle bell alarmed me, and I felt the breeze left behind when the rider whipped past. I entered the coffee shop to a much more serene environment and enjoyed my favorite breakfast at a seat near the plate glass window, bathed in the sunlight that washed in on me.

That afternoon I took a break from making phone calls to use the bathroom. As I was seated on the toilet, I heard something next to me. It was as if something had brushed against the sink – an ever so subtle sound. My heart rate rose and my brow furrowed as I strained to listen closer. All I could hear was my pulse throbbing in my ears. Suddenly a wall clock in the living room chimed four ‘o clock, startling me to the point that I jumped slightly while still seated there. I regained my composure, washed up and returned to the computer to transcribe the data from my phone surveys.

I closed the laptop and went to make dinner at 6:30. Over the years, I had learned to be extra careful when dealing with the hot oven and burners. Once I had accidentally set a plastic plate directly onto a burner that was still hot, resulting in a cloud of noxious fumes that lasted for days – long after I’d finished cleaning up the mess. I was lucky that it had burned itself out and the damage wasn’t any worse. After that close call, I bought a small fire extinguisher to keep on the countertop next to the oven.

On this particular night, I made my dinner without any risk of fire. However, the undertaking wasn’t completely without incident. As I proceeded to make dinner I discovered that the canned goods I needed for the recipe were missing from the cupboard. I have always kept my canned goods in very specific places on the shelves so that I would always know what was what without the benefit of being able to see the labels. I don’t remember using up the items I needed that night, but apparently I already had. So, I opted to make a casserole instead.

I sat at the dinner table enjoying the simple meal I had made. The television was playing in the background, filling me in on all of the day’s news headlines. I finished the first portion on my plate and reached to dip into the casserole dish once more. I scraped the inside of the dish, the sounds of metal on ceramic echoing throughout the kitchen. It was empty.

“I can’t believe it! I couldn’t have already eaten it all!” I said incredulously. I had thought for sure that I’d prepared a bigger portion than that, and I didn’t remember emptying the dish fully onto my plate. Thoughts ran through my head in an attempt to reason out the matter: Had it baked up to be less than I’d anticipated? Had I spilled some on the table while dishing it onto my plate?

In search of the missing food, I placed the palm of my hand on the tabletop and moved it steadily over the area within my reach. As I was doing so there was a distinct movement in front of me. I gasped and my heart rate immediately quickened. I felt the blood pulsing through my neck. This sound was not as subtle as the others I’d been hearing. It was obvious – a sudden motion of something moving across from me. I continued listening, but all I could hear was the much-too-chipper weather man on TV giving the forecast.

Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a feeling that I was no longer alone at the kitchen table. “Is someone there?” I called out, hoping there was no reply.

Silence.

I felt a shift in the air pressure as if something moved behind me followed by the creak of a floorboard. I froze. Something brushed against the back of my hair, gentle as a feather. I recoiled and let out a squeal.

I shot up out of my chair, made my way to the corner of the kitchen and turned to face the interior of the room. “Who’s there?” I demanded. No answer. By this time I was breathing heavily, practically hyperventilating. My chest and throat radiated heat as my heart raced inside, giving me the sensation of acute indigestion. I thought I might vomit.

I slowly made my way to the doorway leading into the living room. I stood there for what seemed like an eternity listening for something, anything that would explain the circumstance. Eventually I moved on and worked my way into the hallway bathroom. I locked the door behind me.

It took over an hour and a half for me to calm down. While in the locked bathroom, I wrestled with my thoughts. I reasoned with myself. I didn’t want to admit that my mother was right, but maybe I shouldn’t be living alone. It appeared to be taking its toll on me. On the other hand, all of these things could be logically explained, I told myself. If I wasn’t blind, I’d have seen whatever it was that caused the noises and it would be so obvious. I’d laugh about how ridiculous it was to be scared of it, I’m sure. At least that’s what I tried to convince myself.

What finally brought me out of the bathroom was the ringing of the telephone. I admit it startled me at first, but only because it had been so quiet for the last two hours. I cautiously opened the door and entered the hallway. My phone was in the living room. I approached it quickly and answered.

“Hello?”

“Hey Sarah, it’s Jill.”

Thank God, it was just my friend Jill. “Hi Jill, how’s it going?”

“Oh, I’m doing good. I saw you at Espresso Express today,” she said in a playful tone, which I didn’t understand initially.

“You did?”

“Mmm hmm. I saw you in the window when I walked by on the sidewalk.” Still in a playful tone.

“Well, why didn’t you come in and say, ‘hi’?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Disturb me? Why would you be disturbing me?”

“Because, silly, I assumed you were on a date. Who’s the lucky guy that was sitting with you?”

My mouth slacked open. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t form words.

“Sarah?” Jill asked, “Are you okay?”

I dropped the phone. I could still hear Jill’s muffled voice even though the speaker was face down on the carpet. I frantically made my way around the house, arms flailing in front of me.

“Who are you?” I yelled into the house. “What do you want?”

I was terrified, but also angry. I felt violated. I didn’t necessarily want to encounter whatever it was, but I couldn’t go on hiding in my own house any longer. I spent hours searching every square inch of the property and found nothing. I finally went to bed after I was able to calm down, but I did not fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning.

A light rustling sound woke me not long after I fell asleep, still in the dark hours of early morning. I wasn’t sure at first if it was real or if I had dreamed the noise. As I was about to get up, I noticed that the sheets next to me were pulled back. I stretched out my right arm into the empty space beside me. It felt warm as if someone had been lying there with me. The events of the previous day flooded back into my memory. My sightless eyes welled up with tears as I began to question my own sanity. Frustrated, I bolted up and out of the bed. I threw on some old clothes and headed toward the front door with the intention of fleeing the house, unsure exactly where I was going to go – maybe Jill’s place. She lived fairly close.

I wanted to take my cane with me as I always did whenever I went outdoors. I searched the house frantically, unable to remember where I’d left it. I almost always left it propped against the wall by the front door, but it wasn’t there. I made my way along all of the perimeter walls, feeling desperately for the cane.

When I neared the kitchen I still had not found my walking aid, but I made a discovery of a much more startling nature – a barely detectable vertical crevice in the wall I had not known about previously. I used all my fingers to follow the crease up the wall, across the top, and down the other side. It was a doorway designed to fit perfectly flush within the wall. I leaned my weight inward against the panel and felt a slight give on its right side. I worked my fingers into the crevice on that side the best I could, eventually prying the panel free. It swung open to the left. I gasped in shock and my pulse quickened. A hidden room right in the center of my house.

How I wish that I would have had sight at that moment. I faced a completely unexplored territory inside my own house with the possibility that someone else was in there with me.

I entered slowly, arms extended. “Is someone in here?” I whispered, afraid to ask the question. There was no response. I stepped forward. To my right I discovered a flat surface – a tabletop. I ran my hands along its surface. On top of the table I was able to make out several unopened cans of food. No doubt these were the missing canned goods I’d been looking for. The table also contained silverware and a can opener that disappeared weeks ago.

My heart rate increased even more and my palms began to sweat. I worked my way forward until I came to a wall that I knew bordered the living room. I found a hole the size of a quarter at eye level. Sweat began to form on my brow as well. I found another similar hole on the next adjacent wall. This wall bordered the bathroom. Tears started to well up in my eyes. I was able to find two more holes on the two remaining walls bordering the kitchen and the bedroom.

I dropped to my knees in absolute horror and disbelief. How long had this person been watching me? How could I have not known? My hands were on the floor in front of me and I felt something soft. I investigated further with my fingertips. It was some sort of comforter or sleeping bag. At one end was a fluffy pillow.

At this point not only was I terrified beyond description, I was also furious. How dare someone spy on me covertly from within my own walls! I knew I had to run out of the house and get to safety immediately, with or without my cane. I decided I would go to Jill’s house and we’d call the police from there.

I made my way to where I remembered the hidden door to be, my arms sweeping the area ahead of me in a panic. Instead of the open door, my hands found the warm torso of a human, a male, standing silently in the doorway. He grabbed both my arms and pulled me out of the hidden room and into the house.

We struggled in the kitchen. I kicked at him and screamed as loud as I could into his ears. I was able to get one arm free and I used it to grasp for the fire extinguisher that I knew would be by the oven. He attempted to pull me away, but my fingers reached its nozzle. I swung it at him, feeling the metal cylinder connect with the back of his skull. He released my other arm and I pulled the trigger in his direction, enveloping him in a cloud of white foam.

I ran into the utility room off of the kitchen where I knew my only advantage existed – the fuse box. I found the box and tripped every lever I could find, eliminating all power from the house. If this perverted psycho wanted to kill me, he’d have to do it on an equal playing field – in the dark.

The intruder had not followed me into the utility room. The fire extinguisher must have dazed him. I remembered the toolbox I kept in that room, and I quickly retrieved the longest screwdriver I could find. I stood in the corner and listened carefully. If he was still conscious, he would not be able to move around in the pitch darkness without creating a noise. I would surely detect his movements.

I held the screwdriver against my chest, gripping its handle tightly with both hands. I felt my wildly beating heart against the side of my fist. After an eternity, I moved forward a bit. I may have knocked him out, or even killed him. I had to make sure.

I left the utility room and entered the kitchen. There was still no sound from anywhere in the house. I passed into the living room and headed toward the front door. Halfway through the room I could feel his presence. Something in the air around me had shifted. Without warning there was breath on the back of my neck followed by a deep whisper directly in my ear, “The showers were my favorite.”

I screamed and swung around, stabbing the screwdriver into empty air. I ran for the door. It was merely a few feet away, but I couldn’t reach it due to the resistance I met when the voyeuristic brute’s arms wrapped around my waist. He wrestled me to the floor and straddled me. I tightened my grip on the tool and plunged it as hard as I could into his side.

I shudder to think about it when I recount the feeling of the steel shaft separating two of his ribs. It was horrid, and I was only able to stomach it knowing that if I hadn’t acted, my life would have ended then.

The man winced in pain and let out a deep, growling grunt. He fell backward and rolled off of me. I turned over onto my chest and pushed up off of the floor, then crawled over to the couch and used it to get back onto my feet. I still held the screwdriver, a warm trickle of blood seeping onto my knuckle.

I could tell that the intruder was writhing around on the floor near the doorway. I would have to exit through the back door. From the opposite end of the living room, I entered the sun room where the door was located. I wasn’t as familiar with this entry point, causing me to fumble around with the deadbolt and screen door locks for longer than I would have liked.

I knew there were concrete stairs there leading to a flat patio. How many steps? Four? Five? I couldn’t remember. I proceeded slowly. The last thing I needed was to fall and twist my ankle. After navigating the steps, I came to the end of the patio, which emptied into a narrow alleyway between the shotgun-style houses behind mine.

My steps were slow and cautious. My hands told me there was a brick wall to my right, and a brick wall about five feet to my left. The sides of the two houses. I was entering unfamiliar territory without the benefit of my cane. My breathing was frantic and the tears continued to fill my useless eyes. I kicked something and nearly fell over. It felt plastic – a child’s toy maybe. I was moving much too fast compared to my level of comfort with the surroundings. But I had no choice as footsteps were approaching behind me.

I picked up the pace, waving the screwdriver out in front to buffer my impending collision with any obstacles. Ten more feet of forward progress and the screwdriver alerted me, with metallic clanging, to the presence of a chain link fence connecting the two houses.

I stopped and cried out, my voice breaking up through my tears, “No.” I turned around, my back to the fence. I began swinging the screwdriver violently.

“Leave me alone!” I screamed.

More hyperventilating.

More tears.

The man approached slowly, and then stopped just a few feet away from me. I got the feeling he could see what he was doing. Either there was an electric light in this alley or the dawn had already crested enough that ample ambient light was available. I didn’t know which one was the case because I had no idea what time it was.

Knowing I was about to die, I just wanted answers. “How long?” I managed to ask. “How long have you been in there?” My voice was angrier than I’d expected.

“Since before you lived there,” he replied calmly, his voice deep. “I got lucky with you – a blind girl. With the others I couldn’t come out in the open when they were home. I couldn’t sit and eat their dinner with them. I couldn’t stand over them while they worked at their computers. I couldn’t go to the coffee shop with them.” There was a pause as he moved even closer. “I couldn’t stand next to them in the bathroom.”

I cried uncontrollably in a whirlwind of emotions. I had never before felt so violated, so angry, and so terrified all at the same time. There was sudden movement again in front of me.

“Don’t touch me!” I demanded as I held up the screwdriver. I don’t know exactly how it happened. I don’t know if he didn’t see the tool or just didn’t care, knowing that he was caught. But as he lunged forward, he managed to impale himself on the screwdriver and pin me up against the fence. My hands were still gripping the handle, but it was so deep inside him that his shirt was touching my fist.

His breathing became gurgled, and his last words to me were, “I couldn’t snuggle next to them in bed either.”

We collapsed together as one unit. The fence tore at my back as we slid down onto the ground. His dead weight nearly crushed me, but I managed to push him off and crawl away. I crawled all the way back to my house, in through the back door and into the living room to my phone. I sobbed hysterically as I keyed in the digits 9-1-1 and fell to the floor.

Credit: moonlit_cove

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A Well-Lit Place

June 21, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I think you misunderstand what I mean when I say dark. I don’t mean the night time, when the sun goes beyond the horizon, with the light fading into bruised decay. I don’t mean when the electricity goes out and you’re in the shower, soap in your eyes, frantically searching for a towel.
When I say that monsters find you in the dark, I mean an empty, lifeless place. An abyss. A place well-lit can be filled with despair. Empty and lifeless.
I remember meeting a monster, face-to-face, for the first time. It was a warm fall afternoon, with the sun shining bright as could be. I’d just finished working early and went for a walk in the park, wrapping my fingers around a paper cup of coffee. Just cream, no sugar. It had just finished its swirl when I looked up in time to receive a shoulder to my face.
My nose was spilling blood everywhere, on my clothes, on her clothes, and mixed in with the brown liquid. The pain was excruciating and my ears had been filled with a sharp ringing. My nose wasn’t broken, but the pain hadn’t still pretty bad. Holding my hand up to my bleeding nose, I finally looked up.
She was beautiful, my monster. Her hair was long and red, much like the leaves falling around us. Her eyes were green and dancing, and I thought I could see a merry soul in her. Her black coat was wet, and her face was aghast.
“I’m so sorry!” she had said. Her hands were digging in her purse, looking for tissues. “I’m so careless.” I watched her, my eyes wide. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. I could barely manage a thank you when she handed me a few tissues with her small, gentle hands.
Shaking her head, the monster had taken my other hand in hers, eyes wide. “Do you need me to take you to a hospital?” She seemed desperate to help me. I shook my head. I was thinking of two things at that moment: how fast had she been walking to do that much harm, and how I could just stare at her forever. Clearing my throat, I finally spoke.
“Please, don’t worry about it. I wasn’t paying that much attention either, really.” I fake laughed, trying to make it seem like everything was fine. My clothes had been perfectly ruined. She was dissatisfied with that answer, pulling out a small wallet. “At least let me buy you coffee. Are you free?”
Again I was stunned. I nodded before my mind comprehended what I had just done. Smiling suddenly, she had grabbed my hand gently and pulled me behind her, back to the coffee shop I had just come from.
A few minutes later, I was sat across from this woman with a fresh cup of coffee, with both cream and sugar in it. I had no idea what to say. I thanked her, thinking she’d leave right after. But she stayed. I found it quite odd, but as she’d already had such an effect on me already, I hadn’t minded all that much. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” she said all the sudden, startling me.
“W-what?” I managed, picking up the coffee. “What do you mean?”
Running her light fingers over a stray length of red hair, she said, “Well, you look very familiar. I don’t know too many people, even for living in this place for as long as I have.” Mid-sip I looked at her, confused. I had wondered what she was getting at.
“Well, perhaps a name would help,” she said finally, looking at me expectantly. Her lips tugged into a sincere smile, her hand holding up her head. I was slightly reluctant, but I complied. “I’m Bri,” I said, placing the cup on the table. “Bri Leeds.”
“Bri!” she exclaimed, looking excited for whatever reason. “What a beautiful name! Do you work at Greta’s?” Greta’s Stop was a design boutique. My friends convinced me to apply after graduating two years ago, so I had more time to spend with them. I nodded again. “Yep, I work there full time. You shop there regularly?”
“Oh, yes!” she said, sitting up straight. “I buy most of my clothes there, actually!” I had noticed some of her clothes looked familiar when she said that. But I realized she hadn’t offered up her name. “What’s your name, then?” I asked, looking her in the eye. I wasn’t letting it slide by.
She paused, her green eyes darting. The monster, now that I think about it, looked a bit trapped. “Melanie,” she replied, her voice now low, more serious. “Not as lovely as your name, that’s for sure.” I managed a small smile. “Nice to meet you, Melanie.” I felt my nose had stopped bleeding at that point and took the tissues away from my face. The pain had subsided too.
“My, what a beautiful face you have,” she said, twirling her hair now. “I do so apologize for walking so fast. But, perhaps, it’s fate, as I get to meet a beautiful girl such as you.” Despite the weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, my face had turned slightly pink at the compliment. My heart skipped a beat, watching those gentle fingers twisting, turning that long red hair. “T-thank you,” I stammered, “but really you are much prettier than me.”
Leaning forward, her green eyes had widened. “Oh, no! It’s rare to find one with eyes like yours, or hair so dark, like the night sky!” Referring to my brown eyes, which many had told me changed colors in the light and with my moods, I blushed even more. “They are nothing compared to yours.” And it was true. No one could have hair that red without dying it. Or at least in my experience. I looked down, staring into my cold cup of coffee. The light and dark had mellowed out, settling into a murky tan. Bland and boring.
And it was then the monster’s hand touched mine. I lost then. I should have realized my misfortune in those green eyes, in the lips that whispered that I should take a walk with her, in the way she knitted her fingers between mine. But I was enamored from that moment, and I remember when I had unlocked the door to my apartment and led her inside. I can still feel those fingers running through my hair as her lips touched mine. They were ruby red, pressing desperately. And her scent entered my blood as I touched her skin, entwined in her hair like a web that I still can’t escape. Her soft voice and gasping breath were the only things that I heard. Her trembling body under mine, above mine, nearby as we lay there was no different from my own.
But most monsters hide in sheep’s clothing.
It was another bright day when I opened my eyes. The only thing covering me was the comforter and her arms, wrapped around my waist. Crème walls intensified the sunlight. I heard her groan, pulling closer.
I felt odd, at best. My body didn’t feel quite right. No, it was my soul. It felt so… empty. I remember when I held my hand in front of my face, staring at it in the light, I could see every detail, but not understand it. I had wondered if it was my body that I was looking at, or a stranger’s. I felt her stir, the monster from last night, whispering for me. Bri, right? Yeah, of course. Why would I question my own name?
That’s when I realized just how cold her hands were.
Her hands held tighter and tighter, and I wondered if I could remove them without waking her. She was already awake, though, looking up at me. But her eyes were not the same. They were still the same shade of green, the ones that had peering at me in the darkness of my room, searching me for all of my vulnerabilities. Except they were deep and hollow, with no end to them. They were an abyss. They were dark.
I froze. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe. This woman had been so beautiful and bright and cheerful, like the fall leaves. She was the same person, but there were the holes, the crinkling shape and curling edges, browning. I pushed myself out of bed, pulling her hands away from my waist. Mirrors hold many truths, and the one mine showed me was terrifying. I was me. I was the one I’d always been. But I looked desaturated, like all the blood had been drained out of me.
The light and dark had mellowed out, settling into a murky tan. Bland and boring.
Her red lips had been next to my ear, whispering again. “Bright eyes, such as yours, are odd for hair so dark.” Her fingers laced themselves into my hair, more like talons now. Her lips trailed from my ear to my collar bone, and I felt the sensation, but tinged with fear.
“I’ve searched for a feeling such as this for many years,” she said, her fingers trailing. I gasped, my body growing colder and dimmer. “It’s hard to find many so willing at just the touch of a hand.”
I remember, as her hands cupped and fondled my fading self, detaching and looking back, and seeing her. It was the same woman, the woman with the long red hair. But she was different. In the light, she seemed to adjust. And by adjust, I mean her body shifted, like a chameleon camouflaging.
She was definitely a monster, with eyes dark, and she knew that I saw.
Today, her eyes are brown, changing color in the light. Today, her hair is black like mine used to be. Today, I have counted 543 wounds on my arm. She puts them there, the monster. Her long nails cut into me every hour, counting down the hours before I surely bleed to death. But the feeling of her touch takes the pain away, for sure….

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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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Overmorrow

June 19, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Overmorrow

The old woman had said that nothing was beyond the reach of the Overmorrow. She had said that if you earned its favor, you would be handsomely rewarded.

All you had to do was bring it gifts. But Kaylee didn’t have any money, and, besides, it was hard enough to know what anybody would like as a present, let alone a … something … that lived in a swamp. Kind of a swamp. More like a pond. A wet, swampy pond out in the woods, down a long path that Indians used to use, and now only deer did.

Luckily the old woman, old Nan, she was called, had told Kaylee what to bring, and when. At the rise of the full moon, she must bring, first, a thing of BEAUTY. Then, at the next full moon, something PRECIOUS. The next, and final time, she must bring a thing of INNOCENCE.

Kaylee didn’t like this idea. The whole reason she was doing this, talking to a creepy old lady who hadn’t left her house since the TVs were black and white, was to GET things she wanted, not give them away!

So she compromised, and for its first gift, brought things that were essentially worthless, but that a thing that lived in a pond might find beautiful. A bag full of carefully cleaned jelly jars, which where quite pretty, in their way. Their labels were, anyway, and the clean glass was sparkly. She was supposed to have taken them to the recycling, but she took them to the woods, instead. Wrapped in a plastic bag and thrown in the swamp, ploosh! She said the words she was taught as they sank:

“Overmorrow, Overmorrow, all Knowing and Generous Power! The Breath of the Wind, the Giver of Life; Fire, Water, Day, Night! Be my Guide, accept my Gift. My heart, my soul, for this my Wish!”

Then she was supposed to list the things she was asking for. Which were, essentially, to be rid of everything she hated, and to have all the things she loved. To live in a mansion! That was first. To own treasures, and not have to share. And, above all, to never, ever have to see her parents again. All they ever did was try to make her feel guilty and unappreciative. Stand around and look at her with disappointed faces … she was sick of it. She couldn’t help it if she liked nice things. Was that such a crime?

The second gift was somewhat harder. It had to be something “precious”. She wasn’t sure what that meant. So she looked it up:

precious [pre-shes]
adjective
1. costly, or of high monetary value.

Kaylee was disgusted. If she had anything of “high monetary value”, she wouldn’t be trudging out to the woods to ask the magical swamp monster for more, would she? She kept reading:

2. beloved, dear:
Memories of my grandmother are very precious to me.

Kaylee thought for a long time about what she might have that fit that second definition. She did have some things that were very dear to her, mostly from when she was little. Stuffed animals, dolls, other toys. But one, in particular. A pink, plastic pony toy, with a purple mane and tail that shimmered like silk. It had come with a comb set. How many hours had she spent combing its hair until it glowed … she had lost count. Peggy, she had named the toy.

The night of the second full moon, Peggy was taken to the woods and tossed into the pond. Tears flowing down her cheeks, Kaylee watched it hit the surface of the black water, but it didn’t sink. It bobbed back up, her gentle smile still intact on her delicate pony muzzle. The glitter stickers Kaylee had decorated her rump with winked like crystals in the moonlight. The toy rotated lazily, like a leaf, on the surface, and Kaylee didn’t know what to do. Was the Overmorrow rejecting it? Should it have been something that fit the first definition? Like her cell phone (NOT a smart phone!), or her new sneakers? Just as she started to worry that she had made a mistake, the water found some way into the sealed plastic shape, maybe from the hair follicles of the mane and tail, and it began to fill, and sink.

Kaylee watched while the toy slipped gradually beneath the surface, and she imagined it sadly biding her adieu, but understanding, all the same, with the terrible, patient understanding of toys. You’re selfish and you’re mean, Kaylee, Peggy was saying, as the film of muck closed her blue eye forever, but I love you. I’ll always love you.

The third gift was even harder than the second. Innocence. What did that mean? She knew what the word meant, of course; she didn’t have to look it up. But what was a THING of innocence? She had a month to think about it, and as it got closer and closer to the next full moon, Kaylee still had no clue what to bring the Overmorrow. She knew, Old Nan had told her, that if she didn’t get the gift there in time, her first two gifts would be forfeit; the whole process would have to start all over again.

Kaylee didn’t think she could go through with that again. She had seen Peggy, sinking away, into the slime, every night since it happened … no, she absolutely could not go through that again.

So when she happened to notice the neighbor’s little boy, Hunter, playing in the yard behind his house, she realized what the thing of innocence could be. Hunter was eight, just a few years younger than she. Because of that age difference, she’d never paid any attention to him. But now … but HOW to do it? He was a chubby kid, whose mother was always pushing him to play outside. Get some sunshine, she’d say …

It was easy to make friends with him; all she’d had to do was offer him candy. Once, she even gave him a fudg-sicle. The best part of it was, he wasn’t supposed to have treats, because of his weight, so they had made a pact not to tell their mothers, or anyone, about their clandestine junk food binges behind his back yard shed.

Talking him into sneaking out at night was a little tougher. The moon was full again at last, hanging in the sky like a bloated bullfrog’s belly. The woods were still, the black branches of the trees were grasping, twisted fingers; a light mist hanging just above the ground. Hoots, cries, and sudden scurryings of night creatures sounded all around them as they made their careful way.

“Jeez, Kaylee, what’re you thinking, hiding candy down in a place like this?” Hunter complained, following along behind her, kicking at things, coming in and out of the blue-black shadows.

“I had to,” Kaylee said, in a quick whisper. “I don’t know about YOUR mom, but mine finds EVERYTHING I try to hide. I really wouldn’t be surprised if she’s found THIS, either,” she added darkly, for good measure.

Hunter said: “I hope not. I don’t wanna have come all the way out here for nothing. This place gives me the creeps. Are we there yet?”

“Almost,” answered Kaylee.

The trees cleared ahead of them, and the moon, bright enough to read by, shown on them like a spotlight. They walked down to the edge of the pond, strong, earthy smells, mossy smells, emanating from it. There was a short, rotting, wooden dock, who knows how old, that jutted into the water. Kaylee lead him out onto it.

She started the incantation. The boy interrupted her. “What are you doing?”

“Shh!” she ordered. “This is how I always do it.”

“Oh,” he said, glumly, and was silent.

She said:

“Overmorrow, Overmorrow, all Knowing and Generous Power! The Breath of the Wind, the Giver of Life; Fire, Water, Day, Night! Be my Guide, accept my Gift. My heart, my soul, for this my Wish!”

She repeated her wishes, and then turned to face Hunter. He was scratching his elbow, looking around, frowning impatiently.

“Okay, Hunter, come here.”

He walked to her, and she pointed at the end of the dock.

“It’s all there, tied under the dock. It’s sealed up in Ziploc bags,” she said, when he looked skeptical.

“Geez, you sure are serious about hiding stuff,” he said, and went down to the creaking edge. Kneeling, he felt around underneath the boards.

“I’m not finding anything. It’s really gross under here. Are you sure this is where …?”

But he didn’t get to finish, because Kaylee had picked up the biggest rock she could lift, and brought it down on his head.

The rock bounced off the pier and plunked into the water. It had been heavy, and hard for her to handle, and she had lost her grip on it just as she hit him, but it had done what she’d hoped.

His body slumped against the planks, his head hanging out of view. She went to him and pushed, but he was solid, weighing the same as she did even though she was nearly a foot taller. He didn’t budge.

She sighed, blew a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, and got down on all fours to get more leverage. She planted her hands against his side, and she saw his face now; blood was running down the side of it. She saw it drip steadily into the murky water in heavy drops.

What could she do? How could she get him into the pond?

It was then she saw a black, thin shape, some sort of vine, shiny with water and ooze, uncoiling itself over the edge of the dock. It crept nearer and nearer, closer to Hunter, reaching out for him … The Overmorrow, she thought. The Overmorrow had come to claim its last gift, and reward her for her faith …

“Just hold still, Hunter,” she said quietly to his inert form, watching the snake-like thing in fascination as it slid toward him, as though seeing him, as though it had eyes …

To her surprise, the vine passed the boy and twisted around her own ankle. She tugged her leg, but it held fast. A shadow fell over her and she looked up quickly. Up, and up, at the shape that blotted out the moon.

At first she thought it was a tree, but, squinting at it, she saw it was only the general shape of a tree. A huge, vertical, black shape, that, instead of being one solid hulk, was actually a collection of branches, webbed with moss, and spackled with a patchwork of dead leaves. Water streamed down off its sides in a spraying, cascading waterfall, and she realized it was rising out of the pond.

Peering at it, she saw things trapped in the spidery grip of its boughs—things not found in nature. The bent front wheel and rusty handlebars of a bicycle, an old carpenter’s saw, a bit of tread from a huge tractor tire, the faded chrome of an antique car bumper. Many of the things were very old. Some she recognized, like a Victrola, complete with horn, and the remains of a Revolutionary War era musket, but other things, she didn’t. Moonlight glinted off smaller items, too, carried aloft and nestled in the spirals of branches and gnarled roots. A child’s doll, plastic body smeared with muck; a toy fire truck with a ladder. A silver tea pot, now mottled with lichen. A pair of ladies pumps from a by-gone era, their in-soles curling up and water spilling out …

She could only stare, wanting to scream, needing to, but her throat had closed on itself, and nothing could be forced out.

“Kaay-leee .., ” came a voice, saying her name slowly and deliberately. Her eyes jerked up, to the top of the Thing that waved with moss-covered twigs. “Kay-lee … we are pleeeeased with your gifts … ”

She could not speak, could only stare into the slick black faceless clump.

“We are pleeeeased and wish to give you all that you desiiiire … ”

Kaylee felt the thing around her ankle tighten, and begin to pull. She looked down—the vine had wrapped itself around her leg, up to her knee, like ivy around a pole. It was pulling her toward the pond …

“Let me go! It’s him you want!” she screamed at the thing, trying to free herself. It just clutched tighter.

“You’ve won your reward, Kaay-leee,” The voice was deeper now, wet sounding, like an old man with a mouth full of spittle. The vine pulled and pulled, steadily, unhurriedly, forcing Kaylee nearer. “You asssked for riches and comforts … As you see, we have riches—all the precious things anyone could want!”

The Thing wagged itself, horribly, to show off all those items which had once seemed so precious, but which were now only so much sodden trash.

“But I—”

“And our mansion,” It interrupted. “ … has many, many rooms, all the luxury you would ever neeed!”

“What ‘mansion?’” Kaylee demanded shrilly, with fear and revulsion. “Where?”

“Down … there … ” said the Overmorrow, pointing toward the surface of the water with a squiggly root. “All you could ever want is down there, Kaay-leee … and we promise, you’ll never, ever have to seee your parents again. Never … ever … ”

“Wait!” the girl screamed, as the vine dragged her over the ancient planks. Her feet were in the water now—it was cold and cloying. She felt it filling her shoe … “Wait! I don’t want it anymore, do you hear me? I don’t want—ANY of it! Let me go—!”

“Of course you want it, Kaay-leee,” said the horrible voice, in its slow, horrible way. “You wanted it so much, you offered us an innocent’s blood … No one ever went that far before, Kaay-leee. No one had your will, your … desire … Truly, you belong with usss, Kaay-leee … Come down with us. Come down … ”

She screamed and she fought, but it didn’t stop the vine from dragging her into the water up to her knees, then to her hips, then to her waist. She held onto the dock as long as she could with a desperate grip. She was completely in the water now, which was shockingly cold, and slimy against her skin. Her arms flailed as she slid all the way in, splashing, panicked; terrified. She could feel other things coiling around her limbs. Some of them felt like more raspy vines, but others felt like slithering things, scaly, even tentacled, things …

……………………..

Hunter woke up slowly, a sharp pain in his head. He rubbed it, and his hand came away wet, with something dark smeared on it. Then he remembered—Kaylee. Kaylee and her dirty tricks. She had hit him with something when his back was turned. Told him to dig around for the candy and then, pow! He sat up and looked around. There was nothing but the moon, lower now, settling into the crowns of the black trees, casting its slightly wobbling brightness on the surface of the pond. He called out for the girl, but there was only the steady chirp of crickets in answer.

His head ached. She was probably home right now, having a good laugh at him, he thought angrily. Probably never had any candy anyway. What a dirty trick.

Hunter picked himself up, holding his head, and started back through the trees.

THE END

Credit: J.Faunch

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