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Creepypasta Contest: Gaming Pasta Challenge [Entries Closed, Winners Announced]

April 19, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Thanks for all of your entries! Here are our top three:

1. Willow Creek (Congrats to moonlit_cove on your flask!)
2. The Shame
3. Razor Games

Some entries were deemed very close-but-no-cigar and as such will be posted to Crappypasta for further refinement. It’s our hope that they will be reworked enough to eventually end up on the main site! Please keep an eye on the Crappypasta Round-Up category if you are interested in giving feedback to the stories in question, or simply check in with Crappypasta regularly.

As mentioned in the April Discussion post, this month we are having a writing contest!

I’m going to just go ahead and copy/paste what I wrote before:

If you’ve been active in the creepypasta community for a decent amount of time, it’s highly likely that you’ve encountered gaming pasta. Such stories are often referred to as “Haunted Cartridge” pastas due to how many of them involve protagonists who, for some reason, are willing to pay for obviously counterfeit versions of old NES games and then have to deal with the consequences of whatever weird angry gaming spirits they’ve invited into their console of choice.

The genre gets a (largely deserved, let’s be honest) bad rap mostly due to how many gaming pastas are nothing more than retellings of the original, more novel haunted game stories. For example: while Pokemon Black was novel at first and did creep some people out, the countless “Pokemon Blood Orange” or “Pokemon Burnt Sienna” spin-offs that sprung from its loins got really tiresome, really fast. Likewise with the “Ben Drowned” rip-offs – people started churning out variants that essentially were just mad libs, replacing just the game and Ben’s name. There’s really no faster way to kill a creepypasta subgenre than overloading readers with a glut of indiscernable copycat stories – even when a decent and/or original entry appears, readers seem to be too jaded from the ” crappypasta overload to give anything in the genre a chance.

With all that said, I do believe there is hope for gaming pasta. Even if it doesn’t receive many additions, I do retain the Haunted Games tag for a reason – there are those of you out there who truly do enjoy your creepy video game stories, and when they’re done well, I fully agree that they can be enjoyable.

So this month, I have a challenge for all you writers out there: write and submit a good gaming pasta.

From April 19th until May 5th, I will open up a special submission form where people can submit gaming pastas only; anything unrelated that gets sent in via this form will be deleted. The moderation team and I will read through all of the submissions and pick three winners that we feel best accomplished the goal of writing a good gaming pasta. The top three submissions will have their story hosted here, of course, and the top-ranked eligible author will also receive a Legend of Drink Gaming Cartridge Flask:

The Legend of Drink

  • The mods and I will be reading and discussing the submissions amongst ourselves as time allows. Please allow up to a week after contest submissions close for us to choose our winners.
  • Only ONE winner will receive the flask. In order to receive the flask, you must have a shipping address in the US/Canada and be 18 years of age or older. If this doesn’t apply to you but you still wish to submit a story to the contest, that’s fine, just know that you won’t be eligible for the physical prize – it will be given to the next placed author that fulfills the eligibility requirements. However, your story will still be eligible to be declared the overall winner of the contest.
  • TO BE CLEAR: DO NOT SUBMIT YOUR CONTEST ENTRY VIA THE NORMAL SUBMISSION FORM. USE THE FORM ATTACHED TO THIS POST. Submitting your story to the wrong form is likely to result in your story not being read until after the contest is over, as it won’t go into the priority contest queue.
  • Just because I know some of you will read that last sentence and think you have a clever plan to get your non-contest story read quickly: if you submit a non-contest story using this form, it will just be deleted. Don’t try to game the system, it won’t work.

The form is attached to this post under a cut and can be accessed by clicking here (or simply by clicking the post title). Submissions for this contest are now closed! Thank you to everyone who participated.

I look forward to seeing what you guys can produce!

*There is an affiliate code present in the link to the flask on Amazon. This means that if you buy anything on Amazon after using that link, the site will get a small kickback – which goes back into the pot to fund more giveaways like this one. If you use our affiliate link, thank you!

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July 2014 Creepypasta Book Club: Cults, Conspiracies & Secret Societies – PLUS “The Secret World” Giveaway [Winner Chosen, Congrats to Kristela!]

July 1, 2014 at 12:00 AM

Welcome to possibly the longest-named post on the entire site! It fits, because this is going to be a long post – I’ve got a lot of ground to cover about the whole book club idea before we begin. Exposition, go!

Today we’re going to start the “creepypasta book club” that was discussed in previous announcement posts. If you’re not familiar, the idea is to read some books together that will help cultivate inspiration and nurture more original ideas in our writers. I don’t believe that I’m overestimating when I say that lately, a solid 75% of the incoming submissions are simply retreading the same few topics – I suppose that, for whatever reason, serial killers, haunted games, and fanfics of previously-created Creepypasta “characters” are extremely trendy right now.

The problem is, though, that after the 5000th rip-off of Jeff the Killer or the latest attempt to copy-and-replace Ben Drowned with the writer’s favorite game franchise, these stories get mind-numbingly boring. New ideas and inspiration are CLEARLY necessary now, because I for one am absolutely sick of reading about serial killers. I’m not sure if it’s just because they’ve been so in lately in pop culture (what a strange thing to say, but it seems to be true – Hannibal, Dexter, Jeff the Killer, so on and so forth), but we’ve gone way past the point of oversaturation.

You guys need to find something new to write about.

So that’s where this book club idea comes into play. Every month, I’ll select a general theme and give you guys one or two books to read. Now, to avoid confusion, this won’t be about reading already established “creepy” fiction like King or Chambers. Though we may do that another time, the book choices for the inspiration club will be, primarily, nonfiction (though some selections will definitely be “nonfiction” – we’re going to indulge in some pseudoscience and conspiracy books because, after all, we’re trying to get ideas for fiction anyhow). This will hopefully allow you guys to expand your comfort zone of creepy into realms like secret societies, cryptozoology, high-risk exploring like mountaineering, ancient cultures and pseudeoarchealogy, aliens, mysterious disappearances, and more.

The other added benefit of using nonfiction is that spoilers won’t be a concern. Since this post’s comments will act as the discussion forum for our book club, we need books that people can easily discuss at all sorts of different points of progress without ruining each other’s experience.

So, yes, to alleviate some of the confusion and concerns that initially came up when I presented this idea:

THIS POST is your book club. The comments here are where you should air out all your thoughts and ideas that spawn from reading the suggested books. There’s no requirement for how fast you progress through the book(s), whether you read both books or only one, or even if you finish the book(s) or not, so please feel free to jump in and discuss the books whenever you’d like.

If this takes off and you guys want it, perhaps in the future we can try and organize some sort of chat at the end of the month, but for now please don’t worry about that and just post here whenever you have things to talk about regarding this month’s books.

Okay, all that said – here are the two books I’ve selected for July 2014. As stated in the title, this month we’re going to explore the world of cults, conspiracies and the theorists who love them, and secret societies.

It should be said that these books were chosen with mature readers in mind. If you are under 18, please do check with your parent/legal guardian before reading these books. I’d really prefer to avoid a pitchfork-mob of angry parents who find this topic inappropriate for their kids. I’d also like to say that the opinions expressed in the books are, of course, the opinions of their authors and the people profiled only – I’m not advocating or co-signing any of the groups covered in these books. I’m not telling you to believe in the Illuminati or anything, I just think such topics are a cool and fun thing to learn about and will probably inspire some people to write better pastas.

The first book is by Jon Ronson, a British author/humourist that I personally really enjoy. Them: Adventures with Extremists is exactly what it says on the tin – Ronson meets and spends time with a lot of famous faces in the world of conspiracy theories and extremist beliefs. David Icke, Alex Jones, Omar Bakri Mohammed, and more – as Ronson says, the only criteria was that the people/organizations he features have been called ‘extremists’ at some point in their careers. Each episode gives you a look into the beliefs, day to day lives, personalities, and habits of the the various extremists that he profiles. If you’re interested in writing a character-driven story about conspiracies, cults, or societies, this book will be helpful. It also tends to be rather irreverently funny, which is a plus.

As a bonus, Jon Ronson was recently on WTF with Marc Maron, where he gave some behind-the-scenes details on this book (they also delve into The Psychopath Test, another book I’m considering for future months if this book club turns into a long-term thing) as well as more personal opinions and anecdotes. You can stream/download the episode here for now (it will eventually become a premium-only episode, so keep that in mind – based on the pattern, I’m guessing it will go premium-only sometime in August).

If you want to go more in depth, the second suggestion is Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illuminati, Skull & Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order, and Many, Many More.

Unlike THEM, this book isn’t really a narrative – rather, the author has researched many of the world’s more infamous and interesting cults, conspiracy theories, and secret societies, and he’s done nice write-ups on each. The entries are organized thematically and can easily be read out of order if you’re so inclined. Beyond the organizations in the title, he also covers the origins of the Assassins (it’s not just a random word), Area 51 and all it encompasses, the Yakuza, the Kennedy assasinations, etc etc and so on. This book is really useful and interesting if you’d like to get a sort of crash course in this month’s topic.

Lastly, to celebrate the first book club post, I’m giving away ONE online game code for Funcom’s online game The Secret World.

Since the raffle is over (congratulations to Kristela A. for winning!), I’m putting the rest of this entry under a cut. The main page has so many stickied posts at the moment that I think it’s necessary to de-clutter wherever I can.

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How to Write a Vidya Gaem Pasta

April 1, 2014 at 2:00 PM
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(A last hurrah to the Haunted Game ‘genre’, as it were.)

So, you’re wanting to write a video game crappy – erm, creepypasta? Think you have what it takes? To be honest, you probably don’t. But fear not! With just the submission form (who needs proofreading? Or drafts? Hell, who needs edits? Not you, that’s for sure!) and this handy guide, you’ll be writing terrible pastas in no time!
Wait, did I say ‘terrible’? Like, out loud?
I meant ‘beautiful’.
Yep.
Totally.
————–
First of all, you’re going to have to pick a topic! Maybe you should go for something well known? Maybe try your hand at more obscure games? It’s your choice! Let’s get creative!
(And by ‘get creative’, I mean ‘write the same shitty pasta that’s already been written a thousand times before’. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever.)
>Try a Pokemon pasta! They were the most popular video game pasta subject for a reason, you know. Don’t know anything about Pokemon? Doesn’t matter – just as people who have never played Pokemon can pick it up easily, you don’t need to know anything about it to write a pokepasta! Just throw in some peekachoos and charozords and you’re all set!
>Maybe a Minecraft pasta? Just like how you can do so much in Minecraft, you can write so much about it too! ..Or you can just write about Herobrine! ‘Who’s a hero brown,’ you ask? Why, only a slightly original monster that was mutated into a cliched horror monster by thousands of bad fan misinterpretation!
>Try your hand at a Legend of Zelda pasta! Hey, you remember that one ‘ben drowned’ pasta you read about a year ago? Well, let’s write that again, but with all grammar or decent writing absent! I’m sure it’ll get thousands of upvotes! (read: downvotes)
>Something a bit more obscure? Why not? You could be contributing to the large amount of stories that only make sense to a small, unknown group of people! A scary story… about lawyers? Farming? Why? Why the hell not?

Wow, that took a while! Time for deciding the name of the pasta! This is nice and simple!

[GAME NAME]: [DESCRIPTIVE WORD] [WORD RELATING TO THE PASTA]

Sounds relatively simple! Let’s try it out a bit!
Pokemon: Bloodied Diamond
Minecraft: Curse of Herobrine
Ace Attorney: The Demonic Testimony

Do you like those names? I like those names. Let’s move on!

Of course, your main character has to get their game in some way. What’s that? Introducing the character? No, no, no, no, no. You’re doing it all wrong.
>”I got it from a garage sale/market sale/yard sale” – The oldest and best one in the book. If 99% of people write it this way, then it can’t possibly be bad, can it?
>”Some shady guy/girl/being of unidentifiable gender gave it to me” – Sometimes, we just want to skip the boring introduction and get straight to the action, and there’s no better way to do it than this.
>”I downloaded it online” – Who goes to garage sales anymore? Keep up with the times with this new, hip trend!

Moving on to step number three – of course, because this is a creepypasta, the game has to be haunted, right? But what’s it going to do?
>Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary – because hey, if you put in no effort here, you can use that effort later, right? That’s how it works, isn’t it? Right? Right?!
>A couple of graphical glitches – because nothing makes your viewers tremble more than the screen flickering a little or some colours changed. This is a true fact.
>Noises. – More specifically, weird noises. Glitchy sounds. Muffled screaming. The usual.
Okay, those are some basic ones, but why not step it up? Add some blood! Lots of blood! Also, make sure to use some of these words at least three times in the story…
>Hyper-realistic
>Bloody
>Demonic
>Ghostly
>Scary
Alright, we’ve got some scary shit going on, but if the main character ran away now, the pasta would stop half-way, right? Let’s choose an excuse for them to stay around.
>”I thought it was just a glitch”
>”I thought it was just a glitch”
>”I thought it was just a glitch”
Just kidding. You get no choice on this one. Trust me, this is for the better.
Alright, now just fill in the rest of the story using more glitches (as always, consider adding more blood and hyper-realism to your story), until WHAM! Something really scary happens! This can be anything – hell, it doesn’t have to be scary. Just as long as your main character responds fittingly. Or, alternatively, not-so-fittingly.
How will your protagonist respond to the sheer creepiness? How will this story meet its conclusion?
>Throw their console out – Destroy their DS! Pulverise their Playstation! Erm, throw a TV out the window? Whatever. It works.
>AND THEN THE PROTAG DIED – Dead things are creepy. People dying are creepy. Why not kill off the protagonist? I’m sure that, with the large amount of characterization we gave them earlier, it will really shock the readers. Honest.
>YOU’RE NEXT – Did you know that all creepypasta readers have a constant fear that there’s a monster behind them? Use this to your advantage? Everyone’s terrified of walls!

Alright, now we have the main story and –
Oh?
Did you think that was finished?
Oh no, this is the fun part. Now we add some… er… personality to your story. And by ‘personality’, I mean ‘bad writing skills’. I mean, let’s face it, nobody really misses punctuation. I sure don’t.
Choose one of the following typing quirks – I mean, writing styles.
>capital letters. get rid of all your capital letters. no-one likes them at all. too old fashioned.
>WHY NOT HAVE LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS? BE NEW AND DANGEROUS. MAKE YOUR ENTIR STORY CAPITAL LETTERS. (Obviously, don’t use this one with the previous one.)
>Make Every Capital Letter Refined And Pronounced. This Makes You Seem Posh And Smart.
And at least one of these. You can have more, if you want to be EXTREME.
>Motherfucker, let’s get some fucking swears up in here. Swears are bitchin’ as shit. It makes you sound fuckin’ hip and cool. Fuck yeah.
>No punctuation ever at all because seriously having things just constantly flow is so much easier and better in every way wow
>Waht if you where unabel to spel things right? Sonds fun!
———————
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely just finished writing your first video game pasta! Now just publish your beautiful (read: horrendous) story (read: crap heap), and watch it get thousands of upvotes (read: downvotes) like it deserves! Good luck!

Credit To – Yu “The Operator” Meigns

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Succession Of Nightmares

August 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM
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Nightmares.

We all have them, one time or another.

Everything has a dark side, our dreams were meant to be a place of jubilation, and contain our most wonderful fantasies.

This is kinda like an award. Some of us work our asses off all day long, and then come home to a nice cozy bed. Sleep by itself is a nice gift for our turmoils, but dreams make sleeping hard for us to want to wake up sometimes.

But there is of course a darkside…there is always a darkside.

Nightmares have a certain way of creeping up on us when we don’t want them to…its almost like they know…

Some may say that nightmares are our own fault. Watching scary movies, or reading scary stories can fuel our nightmares.

But….what if there are things out there…that can control our dreams?

What if there are beings who can purposely give us nightmares.

What if these things are there to drive us insane…to the point where we want to sleep forever.

Now is when I tell you about my nightmares…

A couple weeks ago I started to get really into reading creepy stories. All humans have this certain want of excitement…but sometimes we take it way to far. You know what I’m talking about. Surfing videos on the internet late at night, reading creepy stories, or making our own stories.

You know how it works. You sit there, tired in front of your computer. The room is dark, the voices in your head are telling you to shut off the computer and finally get some fucking sleep. But then it happens. You find a video that has a creepy description. Perhaps a video about a ghost encounter, or a video of aliens.

This is how my nightmares started.

My friend Zack has a youtube account where he plays video games and gives them commentary. You know, a “Let’s Play.”

But one day he decided to do something different. He narrated a story off of a website called “creepypasta.com.”

I have heard of this somewhere, I know I have. Its hard to surf the interent for so many years and not hear about something so popular.

He told a story of a man called “Slender Man.” Now I had obviously heard of this character. I’ve seen the MarbleHornets videos, and I’ve seen the fan art, and the so called “pictures.”

The story was interesting, and it made me want to read more, so I did.

Within a few days, I had read all the populare stories that this website had to offer. “Squidward Suicide” “Ben Drowned” “Dead Bart” “Jeff: The Killer” “The Tails Doll” “Smile Dog” And all the Pokemon hacks.

These stories…they give you a feeling of terror. You start to notice all the small things around you, all the creaks and moans. You look over your shoulder and think you see a shadow of some sort. Nothing…huh…silly you.

You finally get the courage to go to sleep, and then you start to understand the position you just put yourself in.

I understood what I was doing to myself…but I didn’t stop.

I saw them all…I saw all the creatures from those stories in my dreams.

I saw the Smile Dog try to make me spread the word…I saw Jeff telling me to go to sleep…Squidward staring at me with his bloodshot eyes…

Jerking myself awake everytime I encountered one of these freaks got old real fast.

But then, the nightmares begin to get so much more real.

No longer was I imagining the characters from the stories…but now…my nightmares were taking their own shape. Contorting themselves to make me even more uncomfortable.

One night, I was laying soundly in my bed. It was almost like an out of body experience. You see, I had a bird’s-eye view of myself. It was as if I was laying on the ceiling. I was laying on top of the covers, and my eyes were closed. I must note that I was not breathing. No snoring, no indication of my stomach rising and lowering. In fact, I was utterly motionless.

My room was pitch black as it usually is when I fall asleep, but I could see myself perfectly. Its as if I had some type of night vision, but it wasn’t all green and shit like it usually is.

Then my eyes shot wide open. It startled me a bit. I just stared up at the ceiling. It seemed as if he was looking at me, like I really was on the ceiling.

A drop fell…a ruby colored drop of blood fell onto my face. Then another…and another…and another…
The drops began to fall slow, but then they picked up speed, similiar to when rain begins to fall.

The version of myself laying on my bed then begins to smile. The blood soaks his teeth, and started to drip into his eyes. But he did not blink or close his mouth. Just let the blood fall on him.

Suddenly, the view switched to me being on the ceiling. Now I was the one laying on the bed.

On the ceiling…was a bloody, mangled, wounded version of me. My eyes were missing, and my teeth were missing as well. But I had the same smile as the version of myself on the bed.

My hands and legs were pinned to the ceiling…almost…as if I was being crucified.

Then the view began to slowly zoom in on my face. Blood still fell, and my view was being distorted. I wanted to see what was going to happen, so I tried my best to see. The view then zoomed in on my face at an alarming rate, and then I spoke.

“I am your God now.”

I woke up. Breathing fast and hard. I felt paralyzed, like I was stuck.

I felt liquid around me. Did I really just piss the bed from this nightmare? Or….or was it blood? I quickly jumped up and found out that I had knocked over a cup of tea in my sleep, and I was laying in it.

Sometimes when I have dreams I feel as if the interactions of objects in the real world affect my dream. In one dream I was being stabbed repeatedly in the arm, and I could actually kinda feel it. I awoke to my friend obnoxiously poking me in the arm with a pen. I thought that him poking me in the arm made the stabbing from the nightmare be all the more real.

Since dreams and nightmares are derived from our brains, we can experience things in our dreams that seem real. When you eat something, you can taste it. This is because you remember how the object tasted.

This dream made me not want to sleep anymore that night, so I didn’t.

But that wasn’t the end.

I had this same nightmare over and over again for a few days. Happening the same way everytime. There wasn’t anything I could do. I couldn’t change the dream even if I wanted to.

This nightmare scared me everytime. You think I would have got use to it…but I didn’t.

I began to think about ways I could avoid this nightmare. This was my first thought.

I can’t remember ever having a nightmare while I was napping during the day. So my frist plan was to sleep during the day, and stay up during the night. Hopefully this would work.

First day, no nightmare. I was relieved. I thought that I had found the solution. I had no problem sleeping during the day, I didn’t sleep much as it was already.

Second day, my plan failed. The same nightmare happened again, but this time. There was no smiling from the body on the ceiling…actually…there were no emotions at all. My head was missing…more blood fell quickly this time making the dream end faster. My body laying on the bed looked down, and my decapitated head was laying in my lap. And it was smiling.

I’m pissed now. What, I just can’t fucking sleep anymore? Fine, I won’t. I’ll stay awake! Yes, that will work. I’ll stay awake until I pass out from exhaustion. I won’t encounter the nightmare unless I absolutely have to!

I wrote this…quite a while ago…back when the nightmares first started. It’s been about a week since I decided I wasn’t going to sleep.

I’m so tired…I don’t think I can stay awake anymore. My bed…sounds so heavenly right now. I guess my plan didn’t work how I thought it would…

I’m going to go to bed now…I think I could stay up for a few more hours but…I don’t want to.

I want to see my smile…I want to see my bloody body hang from the ceiling…It sounds so interesting to me now…Oh how that blood felt so refreshing cascading on my face.

I have a bottle of pills…extra strength…I’m going to take them all with some alcohol…

I don’t want to be awake anymore. I’ve been awake for a couple days…and I now realize how horrifying it is.

I’m seeing all those creepypasta characters in real life now…I’ve gone completely fucking insane.

I know they won’t be there in my dream…they were never there before.

I’ll sleep forever…so I can look and smile at my God for the rest of days.

I just swallowed the pills…I’m going to have a quick drink, then I’m going to bed.

Why not join me?

It will be your God soon enough.

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The Evil of the Exsor

July 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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If there’s anything I’ve learned from my experience with the Exsor, it’s that I’m not afraid of monsters.

Monsters that roar, ghosts that shriek, and demons that howl… none of that scares neither me nor anybody else. No, the true pedestal that all of these manifestations of chaos are built upon is the unknown. That true horror is the basis of all fear. It is that entity that lurks within the darkest regions of the night, that cold hand brushing down your back when nobody’s around, that blur out of the corner of your eye. It is that which you always imagine is behind you, ready to strike as soon as you become away of its presence.

The worst part is not knowing what it looks like, and that is what makes them unknown. We put faces on our fears because it makes them real; because it makes them less scary and brings them closer to our understanding, but that one thing that remains invisible and faceless… that terror comes from our imaginations.

That terror comes from us, but sometimes in the most hellish situations… that terror comes from something else.

I cannot even begin to describe the creature, nor do I want to. The very sight of the abomination made my mind begin to unravel, and I was forced to look away before it could claim my very sanity as it had claimed so many others before. In fact, I immediately vomited at first sight of the monster. I now believe the insanity that lurks in its presence is due to an aura of sorts because I can clearly remember being around it and feeling tense and terrified when I was in its presence. I can also remember what little of it I actually saw without feeling any effects, aside from the sickness I feel whenever I think back to that dreadful evening.

It was a fresh, cool October evening when I first got the call from Gavin. It was the first warm evening in quite a while, and I took advantage of the change from the frigid temperatures to spend my evening outside, reading a mystery novel in a chair on my back porch. As the sun began to set, the quiet serenity of dusk was shattered when a shrill ring erupted from inside my house. I immediately recognized it as the phone, and I hurried inside to see who it was. Delighted to see that it was from a close friend of mine, someone I hadn’t spoken to in a few weeks, I quickly swept up the phone and answered.

Professor Gavin Thomas, the man on the other end of the phone, was an archaeologist who had recently returned from an excavation. He had called me in a frantic hysteria before he left to travel to the dig site, claiming that it was the greatest opportunity of his life. The excavation, he told me, was of a town from the 1800’s that had been buried when an earthquake caused a chain reaction that sank the town and buried it beneath an avalanche. He said that a man representing a wealthy benefactor had approached him after work one evening and asked for him to join the excavation crew as the head archaeologist.

The benefactor had given Gavin all kinds of information about the dig site to get him excited, and Gavin accepted the offer to join the crew. Gavin said that such a find was unprecedented, and he couldn’t believe his luck that he would get to witness the excavation firsthand. I wished him well before his departure, and hadn’t expected to hear from him for over six months. An entire buried town would be quite the time-consuming project… or so I thought.

Now, almost three months after he had left, I was confused to see that he was calling me. I answered the phone and hesitantly greeted him.

“Hello? Gavin?”

“Devon!” Gavin sounded like he was bursting with excitement, but I detected an edge to his voice… was that nervousness…?

“Why are you back so soon? Did the excavation of that town end early?”

“You could say that,” Gavin replied. “Look, I need you to come over here, to my house.”

“The sun is setting. It’s almost night.”

“Devon, this is important,” Gavin assured me. “I wouldn’t ask unless it wasn’t. I… I found something in the town. I… I just need someone here.”

“You have it with you?”

“Yes,” Gavin slowly answered, his voice shaking. “I-It’s a huge discovery. Something impossible. Just… just get over here, alright? I can tell you everything when you get here. N-Not over the phone.”

“Gavin, are you-” I tried to ask before I heard the sound of the phone clicking as he hung up, “…okay?”

~~~~~~

Of course I thought Gavin’s behavior was odd, but he was still my friend. So, with only the slightest sense of foreboding about what terrors tonight would birth, I climbed into my car and drove to Gavin’s secluded forest home.

Gavin Thomas lived in a modest two-story home on the outskirts of the city of Marwind Heights, where we had grown up together and currently worked. He taught at the local college until his archaeology career had forced him to take a leave, but the house wasn’t very far from the college. I pulled into his driveway to see that he was waiting for me on the porch. Almost every light in his house was on, and the brightness shone through the windows, turning his house into a beacon in the dark forest. Large, towering trees sent menacing shadows over his unkempt lawn, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread for no particular reason. The sun was still setting, but the sky had been bright red and streaked with orange before I had driven into the woods. After entering the dense trees, it was as if I had traveled into a moonless night.

“Devon! Good to see you again!” Gavin greeted me warmly as I climbed out of my car and slammed the door shut. As I began to walk over to him, Gavin stood up from where he’d been sitting in a chair on the porch and extended his arms as I drew closer, and then we hugged when I got close enough. He was my best childhood friend… and still was.

“You seemed worried on the phone,” I said, peering at him with concern when we pulled away from each other. “What exactly did you find on that dig?”

“Hurry. Inside,” he motioned me toward the front door, and his worried eyes swept across the trees quickly, as though he were looking for something. I was growing increasingly unsettled by his behavior, but I went inside anyway and he quickly followed, locking the door behind us. I followed him across the house to his den, where we sat next to each other on the couch. In front of the couch was a coffee table with a worn-out leather satchel resting atop it.

“So… about the excavation,” I murmured, breaking the ice.

“Right, right,” Gavin took a deep breath. “As you know, we were digging up a buried city; the city of Nightshale. It was a very prominent city in the 19th century, but has faded to relative historical obscurity in recent years. It was found beneath tons of rock and dirt because, you see, it was buried during an earthquake.”

“An… earthquake?

“Nightshale was built around the Mitis River, at the foot of a mountain,” Gavin continued. “One day, the ground began to shake, and a ravine opened up beneath the town as the earth itself split in two. What little of Nightshale that remained after that was buried or destroyed when an avalanche swept down from the mountain, burying the town and everyone in it.”

“That’s horrible,” I said in disbelief, “but it sounds like it was a pretty big job. It takes some people weeks to dig up a dinosaur fossil, yet your crew excavated an entire town in three months?”

“No, no,” Gavin waved his hand in dismissal, “we actually dug up a very small portion of the town, but we still made very good progress in those short months.”

“So why did the dig end so early? Why are you back so soon?”

“It, uh… it’s a long story, Devon,” Gavin grinned, but I could tell it was forced. If I’m being honest, he looked terrified, but I didn’t see it then. Maybe because I didn’t want to see it.

Gavin leaned forward with his arm outstretched as he grabbed the satchel. Taking it, he leaned back against the couch, and reached into the bag. As I watched, he pulled out a shiny red jewel that was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand.

“Ooh…” my eyes widened in awe. “How did you…?”

“This is the Nightshale Strange Gem,” Gavin explained, staring more at it than me as he talked. “I… I shouldn’t have it. I think I’m in danger because I do.”

“What do you mean? What kind of danger?”

Gavin gently placed the gem on the coffee table, where it appeared to glow radiantly. Next, he reached into the bag again and pulled out a leather notebook.

“These are my notes, my journal,” he told me. “Everything that happened during the dig is recorded right here. I-”

Gavin stopped, his face turning white and his eyes widening as he stared past me. I turned around in time to see something big duck out of view of the window. I jumped to my feet, and Gavin began trembling.

He’s here…” Gavin whispered, his voice shaking.

“What?” I demanded, making a move to get out of the room, but then Gavin leapt off the couch and grabbed my shoulders.

“Devon, NO!” he shouted. “Just… just wait here, okay? I’ll go take care of it; I’ll be back in a minute.”

“What was that?! Is there someone outside the house?” I exclaimed. “Gavin, what’s going on?!”

“Everything’s fine!” Gavin managed to say before he raced out of the room. “Devon, don’t follow me! Just wait here! It’ll be fine, I promise!”

I heard Gavin running around the house as he searched for something, and then I turned back to the gem and the journal. I didn’t like it, but I knew there was something Gavin wasn’t telling me. Something that was in the journals.

I sat back down and listened to hear if Gavin was coming back. Once I was satisfied that he wasn’t, I picked up the leather notebook and began to read Gavin’s notes. I heard the front door open and Gavin hurry outside, but made no move to get up. It was time to learn what really happened during the excavation of Nightshale, even if Gavin wouldn’t tell me himself.

~~~~~~

From the journal of Professor Gavin Thomas:

August 19th, 1988
Today, I arrived on the excavation site. Unearthing this town is going to be difficult, and quite frankly, rather expensive. Fortunately, our benefactor has spared no expense. He claims that the old city of Nightshale was quite a sight to behold hundreds of years ago, and from what I’ve seen so far, I believe him.

Nightshale was a very pronounced city during the 19th century, built around the gentle Mitis River at the foot of a mountain. The earth had split and the mountain had all but collapsed unexpectedly one day when an earthquake hit, sending an avalanche careening down the mountain’s steep slopes and burying Nightshale and all of its citizens beneath hundreds of feet of mud, rock, and debris. The city had apparently been forgotten after that, so I’m not sure how our benefactor knows of it. Still, it should yield some incredible discoveries if the dig goes well. Today, a forest surrounds this sandy area, and I can’t help but wonder if those trees have been left over from the forest that was outside Nightshale before the catastrophic earthquake.

By the time I had arrived, the excavation had already begun. There is an abundance of collapsed buildings all around the area, but amazingly, some have remained standing despite being buried all those years ago. The others, an excavation team consisting mostly of diggers and excavators, but also of a few archeologists such as myself, were excited because they had discovered a particularly large structure, and they believe it to be the Honeycomb mansion.

The Honeycomb family was the heart and soul of Nightshale back in its prime, and their generosity with their wealth is what built it into the awe-inspiring city it once was. Tales of the heart they put into the city and its citizens brought settlers from far and wide to start families and businesses here. The fact that the mansion may still be intact is only an example of how strong they made this forgotten city.

Assuming nothing from the avalanche damaged the interior, it may be possible for us to enter the mansion in less than a week, though I have no doubt that a few sections of the mansion have caved in. As I said before, our benefactor’s money is plentiful, so this dig may very well last for months. Maybe even over a year. All that he asks is that we find something special. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll find what he’s looking for in the mansion, if it hasn’t been obliterated.

August 22nd, 1988
We’ve managed to dig up a bit more from the surrounding area, but we’ve mainly focused our efforts on the Honeycomb mansion.

Apparently, a body was found in the area that the old Mitis River once flowed through, but now the river is a dry trench in the sandy landscape. Nothing preserved, only a few brittle bones and torn clothing from someone who must have drowned in the river before the disaster. Nevertheless, they aren’t necessarily a bad find and I can feel high morale for the dig.

The mansion is an enormous, two-story structure, and I have no doubt of the valuables inside. I wonder if our benefactor was after money all along? We’re hoping to enter the mansion through an upstairs window tomorrow. It will no doubt be dangerous, but the reward will be tremendous. Lord only knows what’s buried in there…

I am going to bed earlier tonight. I keep getting a paranoid feeling, as though there were something watching us dig. Such irrational thoughts are no doubt the product of a disordered, hyperactive mind. There IS something ominious about the forest around us though, so I’ve decided to stay away from it and advised the others to do the same.

August 23rd, 1988
Finally! At long last, we’ve entered the Honeycomb mansion! I could hardly contain my excitement when we entered. The damage from the avalanche had broken a few windows, if not all of them, so we had to clear away all of the dirt that had spilled into the mansion, but surprisingly, there wasn’t very much. The windows must have held up a lot better than we thought, or all of the rocks from the avalanche stopped a lot of the dirt from entering. We started thinking that the wreckage wasn’t very bad at all, but then we found that a large portion of the mansion- presumably the portion that had absorbed the blunt of the destruction from the rocks- had caved in. So much for luck…

The interior of the mansion is the 18th century in all of its glory. Colorful, artistic paintings cover every wall. There are elegant rugs stretching from one side of the mansion to the other via a long hallway, and who knows how many rooms there are. It seems that as much as the Honeycombs built up Nightshale, they were also stylizing their mansion, though I am believe that most of the more gaudy decor comes from Bella Honeycomb.

Bella was a wretched woman who married her way into the Honeycomb family, and she became the sole heir of the family fortune when an illness swept through the city and claimed the lives of the other heirs, including her husband. She was greedy, and stopped using the money for what it always had been used for, Nightshale, and used it on herself instead. According to my research on the city, Bella had died under mysterious circumstances only months before the avalanche. I can’t help but wonder what they were.

We didn’t find anything today, and the feeling of being in a buried house without support beams up got to us before we could do a very thorough inspection, but we managed to see every room that was still intact. I still have goosebumps from exploring that place, and can’t wait to do it again tomorrow. There WERE some rooms that were destroyed by the avalanche, but we can dig them out when the support beams are in place, hopefully without ending up burying ourselves…

August 26th, 1988
Great. Just great.

We’ve been exploring the mansion for the past few days, and I am always shocked at how large it is. We’ve only cleaned three rooms so far. I personally inspected everything even suspected to be valuable, and nothing of significance has been found yet. Only a few intact 19th century vases and paintings, which aren’t BAD finds, but from the way our benefactor spoke, I can’t help but feel like we’re looking for something on a scale unlike any other. Something that could change the field of archaeology as we know it.

Today, a digger down by the river by the name of Henry scared everyone into a frenzy. He was digging when he suddenly started shouting about how he saw something in the forest, but nobody else saw it. Some of the more mature diggers went into the trees to look for a wild animal, but they came back and said there was no sign that anything had been there. Henry swears that he saw something, and asked me to move him somewhere away from the forest… which is going to be difficult, considering it surrounds most of the area. I suppose I could move him to the mansion, if he can handle it.

Now everyone is on edge, and some of them are concerned about if there ARE animals in the forest. I cannot allow myself to be distracted by such irrational fears. Everyone is just letting their imaginations get to them.

THERE IS NOTHING IN THE WOODS!

August 30th, 1988
Still nothing to report. The mansion seems to go on forever, and we’ve gotten nowhere despite clearing three more rooms. I DID find a neat amulet on a rotting wooden shelf, but that’s it. And I was so sure this dig would get somewhere quickly… but it looks like Nightshale isn’t as amazing as everyone thought it was. We’ve begun to dig out a large quarry around the mansion so we can see the full scope of the destruction, but it honestly does not appear to be very bad. Only a few rooms were destroyed when a part of the roof caved in, and a few more were buried, but it could have been much, much worse.

August 31st, 1988
Bad news; some of the workers were clearing dirt out of one of the rooms when suddenly it collapsed. Fortunately, there was a loud creaking overhead before it happened, so they quickly evacuated the area and most of them got out in one piece, but when the ceiling caved in, two diggers were struck by debris and another wasn’t fast enough and was buried from the waist down in rock. He was screaming in agony the entire time we were trying to dig him out, and then we had to call in the helicopter to airlift him out of here.

I got a telephone call from the benefactor today in response to the injury. He says that the injury “was an unfortunate mistake” and he hopes it doesn’t slow our progress. It’s as if all that man cares about is money or whatever he hopes to gain from what we find here.

Henry, the digger who swears he saw something in the forest, hasn’t caused any trouble in days, which is good. I think people around here are starting to relax, but I can’t be certain. I’m still having trouble sleeping, and I hate to admit it, but Henry’s story must have gotten to me as well. The paranoia has only gotten worse, and I am almost inclined to believe Henry DID see something in those woods… but not a wild animal…

I’m just being foolish. The accident today must have worked me up more than I thought.

September 3rd, 1988
Finally. We found something.

We reached what appears to be a bedroom that caved in under the rocks, and began digging. We weren’t even finished clearing it out when we found a body lying on the bed beneath the rocks and dirt. I didn’t have to be a forensic scientist to see that whoever it was died when a rock cracked their skull; their skin had long been gone and they were left with only dusty bones and ragged clothing when we found them. It looked like whoever it was somehow knew they were about to die, because clenched in their skeletal hands over their chest was a small, metal chest. I suspect that they wanted it to be found.

The chest is VERY small; small enough that I can hold it in one hand. We pried it from the skeleton’s lifeless, yet firm grasp and I opened it. Inside the chest was a carefully-folded piece of yellowed paper. The paper was thin, and felt like it was made of dust, so I made sure I was gentle as I removed it from the chest; it felt like the slightest rough treatment would cause the paper to fall apart.

I unfolded it, and written in faded ink was the following poem:

Fear the Exsor
Flee my child, flee to the endless sanctuary anon
Lest ye linger, best escape this place ere it comes
For it shall arrive, snarling in the everlasting night
Ah, for those whom dare look upon shall deathly succumb

Breaking the dusk with a cry of rage
Before starting hither with a yearning to play
Hide within thine empty house, dare not go outside
For when the beast comes, it is best to pray

With eyne of darkness and mouth so sharp!
Fear the dread Exsor, my child!
Lest thee end as another victim!

Back to the wood forthwith it goes yon
Dare not give chase as it returns
For behind you now, its mouth stretches wide
To look at him, the temptation burns

Eyne of oblivion doth he possess
As madness claims, you begin to scream
Those eyne now glow, his mouth opens wide
Thy mind unravels at the seams

Fear the dread Exsor, my child!
Only leaving wanion and black insanity in its wake of paranoia
Flee my child, and yet there is no sanctuary from the dread Exsor.

I don’t know what relevance this poem had during the 1800’s, if any, but it wasn’t the only thing in that chest. Beneath the poem, there was an old, dull golden key. At this time, I am unsure of what it unlocks. Careful analyzation of the author’s words hasn’t yielded any clues, but I’m focused on the line “Back to the wood forthwith it goes yon”. The poem is saying that this “Exsor” thing comes from the forest, and I find my thoughts returning to what Henry said. I wonder, could it be possible…?

No. I’m being foolish again. A poem is all it is. Just a poem.

The author of the poem remains unknown, but I suspect it was neither the skeleton nor a Honeycomb. If that’s the case however, why was it sealed in a chest in their mansion?

I’m keeping the key in my pocket at all times now. I know that’s a tad unprofessional, but I suspect we’ll find out what it unlocks soon enough.

September 5th, 1988
I’ve read the poem so many times now, searching for anything I might have missed. I feel as though I could recite it from memory at this point. I don’t know why, but I feel as though it has some kind of deeper meaning. And the mystery of this key continues to baffle me…

There was another injury today. One of the diggers over by the Mitis River area suddenly fell into a panic about something he had seen. We suspect it was a hallucination of some kind, because he was the only one who saw anything, but this man screamed, dropped his shovel, and tried to run from the imaginary monsters. He kept looking over his shoulder, and didn’t see the edge of the quarry around the Honeycomb mansion until it was too late. He fell in headfirst, rolled down the slope and got a few awful cuts from the rocks before landing on his arm at the bottom, snapping the bone.

Again, we had to call in the helicopter. The other diggers are worried now, and I swear I heard one of them say Nightshale was “cursed”. Injuries are COMMON on a dig as massive as this, albeit not on a scale like this, but common nonetheless. No doubt that Henry is the source of these whispers. I’ve talked to him about it and made it very clear that he would be kicked off the dig if his behavior continues, and I think he’s starting to understand. Only time will tell!

I am still focused on finding whatever this damn key unlocks. It’s driving me mad. First the poem and now a key? I wonder if this mystery will lead us to whatever our benefactor is so keen on finding…

September 9th, 1988
Pointless. All of it is POINTLESS!

We’ve looked through almost every room in that mansion, and I still haven’t found what this key might unlock! On top of both that and all the injuries lately, Henry is still telling stories about that ridiculous forest, and I am seriously considering kicking him off this dig. The last thing we need is to get everyone all worked up over nothing.

I’m feeling very angsty as of late, no doubt due to sleep deprivation. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and usually have no idea why. For example, last night I woke up, climbed out of my cot, left the tent, and was halfway to the Honeycomb mansion before I realized what I was doing.

I need to find what this key unlocks. Every day that goes by until then is another day spent struggling for answers.

September 13th, 1988
I inspected the room we found the poem and the key in again today. I looked everywhere: in the bookshelves, under the bed, and in the drawers. I even searched the skeleton to see if there might be anything else on him, but we had gotten everything already.

Another room caved in today, but fortunately there was nobody in it. I keep wondering if whatever this key unlocks was in that room, and have to force myself to think of things besides the key.

I don’t understand why the key was with that poem in the chest. The Exsor sounds like a fantasy monster, like something that isn’t real. Still, I’ve toyed with the idea that this key could unlock a cell or something where the monster, or more believably a serial killer with that name, is locked up, but that would be impossible. Nightshale has been underground for over a hundred years. If there was some monster or serial killer locked up somewhere, it would be nothing but bone by now.

No, I think this key leads to something else. Something bigger.

September 17th, 1988
I did it.

I did it I did it I did it I DID IT!

I finally found what the key unlocks, and it is the most remarkable discovery that I have ever made. This will be what makes my career. This will be the prized attraction of a very lucky museum. This will be the only good thing that comes out of the cursed city of Nightshale!

We were searching another room today, one that appears to be a trophy room full of vases and paintings, all of which we were removing from the mansion. One of the men pulled a painting off the wall to take it topside, and yelled that he had found something behind the painting. I rushed over, and sure enough there was something, a hidden compartment, behind the painting! It was a small alcove, with a small metal chest identical to the one we found the skeleton holding. I pulled the key out of my pocket and tried it on the chest, and it opened. The interior was made of velvet, and there was a gorgeous red gem sitting neatly at the bottom of the box. I immediately closed the chest and took it topside, back to camp for further inspection.

The gem is an odd shape. It’s round and smooth on one side, but sharp and jagged on the other, as though it were unceremoniously torn off a larger jewel. Through the glistening red color, the gem is transparent, but sparkles in the sunlight. When I held the gem and looked through it, I was amazed to see what appeared to be something moving INSIDE the gem! And then the gem fell from my hand as I dropped it, because I could swear, it PULSED.

Was that just my imagination, or is the gem… alive? Just the fact that I’m doubting myself should prove that I cannot accept the truth: the gem moved.

I’ve placed it and the Exsor poem in a small leather bag, and I’m keeping that satchel with me at all times.

There was also another cave-in today in the mansion. If anything, this should only prove to me that we should start focusing our efforts elsewhere. Nightshale had a fabulous museum in its past life. We should have started there when we began this excavation… it’s my own fault for letting my interest in the mansion guide our dig.

I called our benefactor today to tell him about the discovery, and he seemed thrilled about the gem, even though I only described what it looks like. I didn’t mention the movement or the pulsation, but I suspect he already knows the mysterious nature of the Nightshale Strange Gem, or so I’ve been calling it. Honeycomb Strange Gem probably would’ve been a better name.

He’s asked me to bring the gem when I meet with him at the end of the month to deliver a progress report. I’m keen to hear what he says about the Strange Gem…

September 19th, 1988
I don’t know why I can’t sleep. I notice myself being bitter toward everyone else because of sleep deprivation, but what’s really bizarre is that I’ve been noticing these same emotions in everyone else. It’s probably just the enormousness of the dig.

Henry went for a walk in the woods and hasn’t come back yet. I find it strange because he was so determined to spread his rumors about animals in the forest. It’s only been a few hours though, so I’ll probably go with a few other diggers before nightfall.

September 20th, 1988
Henry is dead.

I went with four other diggers when the sun was still just over the horizon, and we walked through the woods calling Henry’s name. I noticed a putrid odor coming from somewhere within the trees, and this was almost enough to get us to turn back. We pressed on though, and soon noticed a large mass of flies over in a certain direction. Out of curiosity, one of the diggers went to see what they were circling, and then he yelled for us.

It was Henry’s body. He was still wearing his work uniform, which had thick cuts down the front so we could see where the razor-sharp claws dug into his chest and stomach. His eyeballs appeared to have been torn open with the same claws, and his mouth was hanging open loosely. As I watched, a fly crawled out of his mouth on his tongue before flying away. His right arm was broken, and it was bending the wrong way so the white bone poked out of his skin.

This was too violent to be an animal, but I am forcing myself to believe it was a bear or some other large creature.

The excavation has ended. Everybody is packing their things, and this whole site should be clear in a day or so. Nobody is going to continue working when they’re tired, afraid, and now in danger. I can’t believe that this, the dig that was going to make my archaeological career, has ended on such a horrible note, but it’s really for the best.

May the cursed city of Nightshale forever remain undisturbed.

September 21st, 1988
I was up all night overseeing the helicopters and everyone leaving. I packed my gear in a trunk and climbed onto the last helicopter. I swear I could hear the echoes of a cave-in from within the mansion as I left the excavation site for the last time.

I still have my meeting with our benefactor on the 30th, and I expect he’ll require a full report of the Nightshale Incident, which is where these journal entries are going to come in handy.

I didn’t realize the Nightshale Strange Gem was in my trunk until the helicopter was already far from the excavation site.

September 30th, 1988
I met with the benefactor, who asked to be referred to as “Mr. S”, this evening.

I drove to his home where he greeted me at the front door and pulled me inside. It was storming, so I was grateful to be out of the rain. It was a large manor, but nowhere near as impressive as the Honeycomb mansion. I was mostly intrigued with the benefactor himself; we hadn’t met in-person up until this point. I was expecting an older gentleman, but the man who showed me into his home was fairly young, and he was wearing a black hoodie with the hood up, as though he were determined to hide his face from view. He wasn’t at all who I imagined he’d be. We sat in two chairs facing each other in his living room with a table between us.

“First thing’s first, Professor Thomas,” he said. “Let’s see the ‘Nightshale Strange Gem’, as you call it.”

I produced the satchel and placed it on the table. He swept it up, opened it, and shook it upside down so the gem and the folded-up piece of paper fell out onto the table. He grinned at both of them.

“This was a very difficult find, Mr. S,” I informed him as he gently took the gem in two fingers and brought it up to his eye for a closer look, “The Honeycombs kept it locked in a hidden chest.”

“I must congratulate you for finding it,” he praised halfheartedly before gesturing at the paper. “What’s this?”

“We found the key to the gem in a chest in another room,” I continued. “This paper was with the key. It’s a poem about something called the ‘Exsor’. Have you ever heard of anything like that?”

He sighed, “The Exsor was just a Nightshale urban legend back before the avalanche. I don’t remember the details, I just remember it being pretty standard monster stuff, like a werewolf or vampire, just a story about a monster. Looks like you’ve found some uninspired writer’s work.”

“And the Strange Gem?”

“Again, this was a spectacular find,” Mr. S said excitedly, still observing the gem. “Look closely into its shiny red exterior to its transparent inside… and they say you can see fire dancing.”

Fire! It must have been the movement I saw in the gem. I listened to Mr. S more intently as he stood up, pushing his chair aside as he did so, and turned away from me to walk over to a ceiling-to-floor window to stare out into the storm.

“You’ve put a lot of research into this, Mr. S,” I noted.

“Indeed I have, Professor Thomas,” he replied, still gazing out the window and watching the rain slowly slide down the glass. “Nightshale’s demise was an unfortunate historical event, but with this gem… this gem has powers.”

“Powers?” I asked, a fearful knot forming in my stomach. Surely he had noticed the extraordinary pulse of the gem… but had he been expecting that? Was the gem what he was after all along?

“The people of Nightshale were too weak to use the gem’s abilities,” Mr. S said through grit teeth, “but I… I can wield them. I can use them.”

“What kind of abilities?” I leaned forward in my seat, intrigued.

“I suppose I’ve already told you too much, Professor Thomas, and I do not wish to bore you with outlandish tales,” Mr. S shook his head as he stared out the window. “Your check is in the envelope labelled ‘GAVIN THOMAS’ on the counter. Leave the gem. Pick up the check on the way out.”

I slowly, unsurely, rose from my chair, and looked back at Mr. S, the benefactor to our insane excavation, who still refused to look at me. At this moment, I knew I had to make a choice… and I don’t think I’m comfortable with that choice.

I quietly took the gem and placed it back in my pocket. Mr. S didn’t turn around, and I left the envelope sitting on the counter as I hurried out of his manor. I stole the Nightshale Strange Gem from a man who definitely has more of a claim to it than I do. I found it, but he paid for everything. He found the city. He was the one who brought me onto the excavation in the first place.

So why did I take the gem? I can’t say; I was overwhelmed in the heat of the moment. I am certain that Mr. S is mad if he thinks he can use the gem for some nefarious purpose, so was it really the right choice to steal the gem?

He’s coming for me. I’m sure of it. Mr. S has money and influence, and I’m certain that he could make me “disappear” fairly easily. I need to find someone who can take these journal entries to a safe place. As for me… I need to do something with this gem.

I need to get rid of it.

~~~~~~

The last journal entry was dated a week before he called me.

I set the papers down in disbelief. No archaeologist that I knew of had ever had to deal with an excavation that was so dramatic. For a moment I thought Gavin’s story was too fantastic, too impossible, to be real. I almost believed that it was false too… until a loud gunshot rang out from the other side of the house.

“Come on! Come on!” Gavin was yelling outside. “No- ah! AAAHH!

Gavin!” I cried out as I dropped the journal onto the table beside the Strange Gem and leapt off the couch. I hurried out of the den and tore through the hallway to Gavin’s front door. A cool breeze drifted into the house from the doorway; Gavin had left the door wide open when he went outside onto his front porch. Nothing but the porch light illuminated this soulless night, and I stepped outside slowly and cautiously. I froze, listening for a sound, but I heard nothing except the unending roar of nature in the trees around the house. I took another step, this time off the porch, and felt my foot kick something, so I glanced down.

The grass was damp and slippery with dew, but it was also stained crimson red. The toe of my shoe had kicked what appeared to be the barrel of a shotgun. My gaze followed the gun to see a hand, rigid and limp, over the trigger. My eyes peered at the hand, and then at the arm, and then at the body, sprawled on its back in the grass.

Gavin’s lifeless eyes stared up into the night sky. His lips were slightly parted, and a thin trickle of blood dribbled out the side of his mouth. Already, it seemed as though his face, now locked in its last, terrified expression, was growing pale. I gasped and covered my mouth with my hand as my jaw fell and my eyes widened in sheer horror at the brutal display before me. My legs buckled, and I fell to my knees beside my deceased friend. The front of his shirt had been torn to pieces, and a long, bloody slash was visible. It was no longer oozing blood, but whatever knife had done this had cleanly carved through his skin.

The world seemed to stop. I couldn’t even scream. I couldn’t even react… until I heard a snarl from behind me.

I can’t explain exactly what it sounded like. It was a high-pitched wail, but it also resembled a dog or a bear, mixed with the sound a rattlesnake makes, all combined into a single, chilling growl. I pried my terrified gaze away from Gavin and looked over my shoulder to see a dark shape moving through the shadows on the edge of the house. There was a shuffling sound as it moved through the grass, and my blood turned to ice when I realized it was coming toward me.

Without thinking, I threw myself away from the body onto my hands and knees, and I frantically crawled onto my feet again as I desperately made a run for the front door. The creature in the shadows let out a bellowing roar, and out of the corner of my eye I could see it emerge from the shadows into the light of the porch, but I was too focused on escape. My feet barely touched the porch as I managed to get into the house. I quickly whirled around and tried to slam the front door, but I turned too fast and lost my balance, falling onto the door as it closed. Just before it could close all the way, something slammed into it so hard that I nearly went flying away from it.

Beyond the door came another howl, and I gasped for breath as I pressed my body against the door, fighting to close it. Whatever was on the other side banged on the door, causing it to shake, and I saw the dull-golden doorknob twisting as I grit my teeth, pulling away from the door for an instant before pushing myself into it with all my strength. The creature must have been caught off-balance, because the door finally clicked shut, and with a grunt I reached toward the knob and locked it before falling to the floor with my back against the door, breathing heavily as trickles of sweat traveled down the sides of my face. The thing on the other side of the door pounded on the door, enraged, but the door held and a few moments later I heard its heavy footsteps on the wooden porch leaving.

It was gone.

I took a deep breath, trying to steady my racing heart. My mind raced as I tried to comprehend what was happening, and I buried my face in my hands and took another deep breath. Whatever that was, I was sure that it wasn’t Gavin’s deranged benefactor, but the worst part was that I didn’t know WHAT it was. For a second, I had a crazy thought that it was just a wild animal, but animals couldn’t turn knobs or bang on the door like that.

But right now, it didn’t matter. Gavin had been worried about someone stealing the Nightshale Strange Gem, and I struggled to think if this creature was after it. It couldn’t have been a coincidence, Gavin stealing the Gem and then this thing showing up, but judging from the shotgun he had, Gavin had been prepared.

You went down fighting, buddy, I thought to myself, now realizing what I had to do. I had to escape with the Gem, and take it where nobody would find it, but shiver after shiver ran down my spine. Visions of my own body outside my house flashed through my mind; if I took the Gem, would this thing come after ME?

I couldn’t take any chances. Maybe I could still escape from Gavin’s house and somehow find the benefactor and give it to him. Anything just to get rid of it.

It was completely silent on the other side of the door, and I carefully got to my feet. The floorboards made little creaks as I tentatively made my way across the house, through the kitchen and into the hallway. Doors hung open, to a bathroom and to Gavin’s bedroom, but the den was at the very end of the hall. There was no door there.

The lights were on in the den, which I was thankful for; the whole room seemed bright, which was an enormous relief after the darkness outside, as though some black fog had covered this whole area. The Gem was still on the table next to the journals and the satchel, and the way it glistened under the lights seemed to mock me. I moved over to the table, picked up the satchel, and was about to put the gem and the journals back inside, but then I paused when I noticed a piece of yellowed paper stuffed in the bottom of the satchel.

I examined the paper suspiciously before reaching in with two fingers and gently pulling it out. The paper had been folded in half, and I unfolded it to see words written in a fading black ink. Immediately, I recognized it as the Exsor poem that Gavin had transcribed in his notes. “With eyne of darkness and mouth so sharp, fear the dread Exsor, my child…”

Hadn’t Gavin mentioned that Henry, the poor digger who had died during the excavation, had looked as though he were killed by a wild animal? Just like Gavin…?

I blinked a few times as something connected inside my mind. He had mentioned feeling strangely paranoid during the excavation, as though something in the forest were watching them. He had also been curious about the Exsor when the poem said it went into the forest. The key to the Gem had been found alongside THIS poem… that couldn’t have been a coincidence. Could… could the thing outside really have been…?

“The Exsor…” I whispered, my lips hardly parting as the words escaped me. It couldn’t have been. It was only an urban legend from a long-dead city, but at the same time it felt completely real to me. The monster that had plagued Nightshale over a hundred years ago… it was back. There was no way it could have been real, but there had been something impossible about the creature that had chased me. The mystery of it all was unbearable, and I wanted answers more than anything.

It was then that I realized it was too quiet, and felt the eyes on the back of my neck.

Slowly, my hands shaking as I did so, I turned my head toward the window. My eyes widened, and the room immediately began to spin around me as my vision blackened dizzyingly, making me sway as I stared at the twisted vision in the window. Out of the shadows of the night, two yellow orbs stared back at me while teeth like needles twitched across a wide gash in the monster’s face, where it looked as though its skin had been torn in half. All I could see were its eyes and teeth; nothing else was visible behind his spasming visage that shook and twisted as I looked for a few seconds, as long as I could bear it, and then I turned and puked yellow chunks onto the carpet. My skull felt like it was roaring as I endured a searing pain in my head, as though my cranium were being split in half and the jagged pieces of bone were poking into my brain. This feeling faded almost as soon as I looked away from the monster, but my head still ached and my hands shook even worse than before. My heart was racing fast, too fast, and I wondered if I might have a heart attack.

I wiped off my mouth as I struggled to catch my breath. Sweat flowed from my forehead and dripped to the floor, and I tried to stop shivering, but only the act of looking at the creature had swept me up in wave upon wave of nausea and terror. When my nerves had calmed a bit, I risked a look back at the window to see that the Exsor had gone, but on the glass were four long scratches that appeared to have been made by claws or a knife.

I exhaled without realizing I had been holding my breath. It was gone, for now at least, but to where?

There was no time to worry about that now. I took the satchel, put the poem, journals, and gem into it, and took it with me as I made my way out of the den and stalked down the hallway as quietly as I could. I was passing through the kitchen toward the front door when I saw the Exsor again, this time leering at me from the kitchen window. I dropped the satchel in shock, but couldn’t look away in time. Fortunately for me, all I saw were its orb-like eyes; it darted out of view as soon as I saw it.

Sighing a bit to calm myself, I bent down and retrieved the satchel from where it had fallen. Once it was in my hands, I thought about how I would get out of Gavin’s house. There was no way I could just open the door and run to my car, not without being caught by the Exsor. I wondered if there was a way to lure it behind the house while I ran toward the front. Gavin had secured his house, but I couldn’t stay in here forever. I noticed the telephone sitting on the counter, and a rush of adrenaline hit me. Could I CALL someone?

I picked up the phone, dialed 911, and held the receiver up to my ear, silently thanking the Lord for this miracle. There was a click, and a man’s voice said “Hello?”

“Yes, hello, you have to help me,” I breathed into the mouthpiece, trying not to sound like I was ranting. “I-I’m at Gavin Thomas’s house, in Marwind Heights, the address is 1915 Maple Avenue. There’s some kind of creature outside, i-it mauled him. You need to send somebody, please, it’s going to kill ME!”

There was silence on the other end of the line, and then the man’s voice spoke again.

“I’m sorry Devon, but I can’t do that.”

I stopped breathing. I didn’t move. My heart stopped.

“W-what…?”

“The Exsor is a wonderful creature, isn’t it?” the man on the other end of the line sighed fondly. “So vicious. So unpredictable.”

“You… oh my God,” I stammered. “Y-you’re the benefactor. You’re Mr. S!”

“I go by many names,” he replied, “but, look, here’s the gist of it: Gavin stole the gem, so the creature came after him. The Exsor wants that gem, Devon, and it WILL take it. Even if it has to rip you to shreds to do so. I’m sorry that you got involved in all this… unpleasantness, but that’s the way it has to be now. I’ve taken the liberty of sabotaging the phone lines, so you won’t be calling for help.”

“No…” I whimpered. “Please, I’ll give you the gem, just call off the monster-”

He laughed, “You think I control it? Ha! Nobody controls that thing. You’re dead. It’s going to kill you and then it’s going to take the gem. Anyway… it’s been nice talking with you Devon. I’ll send the police to your location tomorrow morning… after the Exsor is done. Don’t worry: I won’t be sending anyone else to Nightshale for a very long time. Oh, and one last thing… you’ve probably figured this out already, but DON’T look at the Exsor. It doesn’t like that.”

With that, the benefactor hung up, and the dial tone hummed in my ear as I stood, paralyzed with astonishment and complete horror. I gently hung up the phone, and stood, leaning against the counter, for what felt like hours, just staring at the wall. Was there NOTHING I could do now to avoid my fate?

No. There had to be something. There just had to be.

I was snapped out of my dread-filled trance by the sound of glass shattering, and then that familiar, yet haunting roar resonated from the den. Even as I broke away from the counter, satchel in hand as I ran toward the den where the sound had come from, I knew in my stomach that the Exsor had broken the window while the benefactor had distracted me.

It was inside.

I had barely gotten into the den when a blur slammed into me, knocking me to the ground as it snatched the leather satchel from my hands. I cried out as the wind was knocked out of me, and lie on the ground wheezing. The sound of papers tearing echoed through the room as the Exsor ripped the satchel open and tore the journal apart, sending the pages raining through the room. The poem fell to the ground in front of my face, and I looked up in time to see the Exsor holding the bright-red Strange Gem in one gnarled hand, or was it a claw, or tentacle? The pain in my head returned as I stared at the Exsor, unable to pull away my gaze, and I let out a scream as I felt my brain pulsing. For a moment, I swear that I could see a small, golden fire rise up from the gem. A face made of fire seemed to rise from the flames, accompanied by a hissing sound that resembled windy laughter.

The Exsor seemed to contemplate this gem for a moment, and then it crushed it.

My eyes rolled up into my head, and I blacked out, finally succumbing to the trauma the Exsor’s appearance had on my mentality. I fought to remain conscious, listening to the sounds of the Exsor pulverizing the gem into a powder. I opened my eyes a little, enough to see the remains of the gem, now dust, fall to the floor. Either I was hallucinating again, or a pink smoke rose from the gem. The Exsor stood over the gem and me, and I weakly tried crawling away from it. As soon as I looked away, my strength returned, albeit slowly. I managed to get to my feet again as the Exsor snarled, and then lunged at me like a wild dog, but I was already bolting. Behind me, I could hear the Exsor’s pounding footsteps echoing on the floor as it chased after me, determined not to leave any witnesses to its insane act.

I reached the front door, silently cursing myself for locking it, and desperately unlocked it and twisted the knob. I managed to pull the door open before the Exsor hit me at full speed, hurling me off my feet, over the porch, and into the grass beside Gavin’s corpse. The Exsor roared again, ready for its last kill, and my hands moved through the wet grass as I tried to push myself onto my hands and knees, but it was too late. The Exsor threw itself at me, a blur except for those snapping needle teeth ready to rip into my throat. At the same time, my hand brushed against Gavin’s gun in the grass. My fingers curled around the trigger, and I reacted without thinking. In one smooth motion, I rolled onto my back with the gun in my hands in time to see the blur of the Exsor barreling toward me. I squeezed the trigger, and in an explosion of light and pus, the Exsor was thrown backwards by the force of the hail of bullets fired by the shotgun.

It fell to the ground and tried stumbling away, like a wounded animal, but I pumped the slide and fired again as I climbed to my feet, marching after it. This time, the monster fell to the grass. Shadows obscured its details from my vision, so I surprisingly didn’t feel any pain from looking at it, so I fired one more onslaught of white-hot lead at the Exsor before the gun was empty. The Exsor lie in the grass and didn’t move. I lost my balance and toppled onto my knees as the gun fell out of my hands.

And that’s when I passed out.

~~~~~~

I awoke less than an hour later, and quickly got up to see that the shotgun was right where I had left it, as was Gavin’s body. I couldn’t see the Exsor’s body in the dark; the shadows had only gotten darker as the night grew deeper, and a looming gray cloud hid the moon from view.

I went back into the house, breathing in weak gasps. My head ached like someone was pressing a railroad spike into it. I limped into the kitchen, and grabbed the phone, dialing 911 again and expecting to hear the benefactor’s cruel, taunting voice once more. I looked out the window as the phone rang, and from beyond the window, I heard a muffled but familiar sound.

A low snarl.

Unable to believe what I had heard, I looked out the window, mesmerized, to see two yellow orbs staring back at me. Then, as I watched, the orbs slowly moved away from the window. Without looking away from me, they drew further and further away before finally disappearing into the night. I stood there, stunned, with the phone still up to my ear.

“Hello, 911, what’s your emergency?” a woman’s voice asked from the other end of the line, “…is anyone there? Are you hurt? Hello?”

I hung up the phone.

I don’t know if the Exsor is still out there or not because, looking back, I realize that I don’t actually know that much about it. Its motivations, what the gem was supposed to do, or why it spared me that night… all I know for sure is that I never want to hear the name “Nightshale” again.

Nightshale was a town that was truly haunted, and all the excavation had done was unleash the curse.

Credit: Alex Sorrow

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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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