Free-Range Fiction: Chef Coast

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A fellow writer, S. Rain Lawrence, nudged me to get active in my Free-Range Fiction again this week and try out the flash fiction challenge by the ever penmonkey, Chuck Wendig. So, I rolled the dice and got Chef’s Coast. I took creative license and dropped the posessive, to create the 2,000-word story, called Chef Coast. I also saw this meme with Stephen King, which along with some dreams from my husband and I this week, the story took shape. If you enjoy this, please, please comment here on the blog — it takes just a second to prove you’re not some hacker bot and leave your love, suggestions, and comments. I do not poo-poo any positive response on social media, but the love here will help me down the road when I’m trying to sell my brand to agents or publishers. I appreciate you taking the extra step to support me in this manner.

Without further ado…

CHEF COAST

 

On the shores of Lake Superior, Chef Coast’s life changed forever. He had been ordered by his doctor to take two weeks off from his restaurant in New York City. Completely offline. No computer. No phone. Nothing.

“I want you to go somewhere and find some quiet. Be in nature. Take some photos. Hike slowly. Smell fresh air. Get away from the city and your too stressful job.”

Chef Coast returned to where his father had taken him as a boy to camp, fish, hike, and just watch the sun rise and set on the greatest lake in the world.

As was his nature he had made a list of everything the doctor told him to do. The one thing he hadn’t checked off after a few days was “Take some photos.” So he browsed the little boutiques on Main Street in Paradise, Michigan, which wasn’t much, but enough for him to find a first-generation digital camera. It was on a “gently used & clearance” section of the store called “All You Need & More.” The man behind the counter was a crusty, old, and limping creature who had seen too much in his life, he wore the ribbons of pain and joy all over his face and his piercing eyes made Chef Coast feel like he was rudely interrupting the old man’s solitude.

“Will that do, eh?” he grumbled.

Chef Coast tapped a finger on the huge behemoth of a camera, “I will need the data card for it, if you have it?”

“Should be in it,” he said. “Otherwise, I can’t help youse. What I can help with is this, and he pulled up a little baggie with various cords and charging bricks for the beastly Cannon.

Chef Coast looked at the camera and sure enough the digital data disc was in it. He scoffed and nodded, “This will do me.”

The man gave a bit of a sneer when Chef Coast held out his credit card, the old man noting the scars on the Chef’s hand, “We prefer cash,” he said.

Chef Coast looked like a scolded school boy, cramming the credit card back in his wallet and emptying the cash out to cover it. He hoped the diner down the way would take his card for dinner.

“Appreciate it,” the old man said, “Especially on the gently used consignment items.” Chef Coast’s face relaxed and he nodded. “The previous owner’s estate had a tab it needed to square up with our establishment.”

Chef Coast raised an eyebrow, “Well, I hope we’re square now.”

“Indeed,” the old man shoved the money in the registered and it dinged when he closed the drawer on it.

Chef Coast got in his rental SUV from the place down in Sault St. Marie and steered the vehicle towards White Fish Point and the Lighthouse. It was a scenic drive he and his father used to take as well. There wasn’t too much traffic on the road, it was a middle of the day on a Wednesday and only the early season tourists, including him, were here on this mid-April day. Patches of snow still flecked shaded areas and some of the higher elevations throughout the Peninsula. But the sun was out and he was starting to forget about his New York Life. His doctor would be pleased. Chef Coast was pleased.

Once at Whitefish Point, he parked and fiddled with the camera a bit. It looked like it was all ready to go and had enough battery to last enough until he got back to his motel room and his lap top. He headed towards the platform built around the working lighthouse hosting a few tourists and those giant binoculars to look out onto the water. The wind whipped as it often did here in Spring, but the sun was so brilliant, the water so clearly of Superior – with its not quite blue, but not quite green colors swirling in the surf at as it hit the upper Peninsulas’ northeast tip. He found a spot on the platform and gazed out, thinking of his father and how he himself must look like his old man now, squinting into the lake that looked like an ocean. His father worked in the shipping industry, however. Chef Coast toiled in the cut-throat stainless steel prep tables of competitive restaurateurs. He felt alone. His father was never alone, his union buddies never farther than a beer run away. He raised the camera up and looked through its lens out at the water. He decided to put it in manual mode – harkening back to his high school journalism classes, before he decided chefs could make more money. The water was soothing, even within its monstrous power. Click, click, click went the aperture. He snapped away, getting lost in the landscape, shifting his view ever so slightly after a few shots and then clicking the button again to capture the scene. After he had a full panorama of shots of Lake Superior, he focused his lens on the beach. There was a grandfather type entertaining two young girls. He looked through the lens at them and sharpened the focus. What he saw through the camera lens, however, was not what he had just seen with his naked eye outside the camera’s lens. He blinked, brought his line of sight out of the camera and looked plainly down on the beach. Grandfather and two granddaughters. He poked his nose down below the viewfinder and looked through the lens again. The man and the two girls had hair all over their bodies. Laughter from them showed fangs. When the smaller of the two girls held up her hands to the man, he could see dark, sharp claws. Chef Coast shook his head, brought the camera down and looked again with just his eyes. Just three people, one old, two young. He looked at the lens. He removed it, took it off, and put it back on again. He tried to see if there was something funny about his camera – maybe the old man at the gift shop had played a practical joke on him? He certainly was the butt of too many coworkers’ pranks to believe the “All You Need & More” was selling hoaxes in the form of cameras.

He went to the edge of the platform and took photos of the lighthouse only. It’s light dark in the presence of the sun, but oh how the glass of its tower shimmered in the Upper Peninsula spring sun. Chef Coast took a big breath, let out his anxiety over the scene on the beach and took more photos of the arrow-like lighthouse, painted all white, with a red-clay colored roof.  Then he maneuvered his way off the platform, nearly being mowed down by the two little girls he had hallucinated over, they were crying for “Grandma!” The old man followed shortly after them and he smiled and nodded to Chef Coast.  It made Chef shiver, but he blamed it on the wind coming off the lake.

He made his way to the beach, stepping gingerly around patches of snow laying in the shade of the lighthouse, he wasn’t really dressed for snow or sand, but it was vacation, and he could easily drive back to the hotel with the heat blasting and melting or blowing off any detritus from Whitefish Point. Right now was all about pictures, all about checking off the doctor’s list.

Within moments he was in the spot to look up from the beach and take a shot of the lighthouse. What would he do with these photos? His inner critic chimed in his head. He shook off the negativity, feeling the spray of the very cold Lake Superior sprinkle upon him. It was about taking the photos. He had no commitment to actually use them.

“What a waste,” the inner critic said, sounding dreadfully like his mother, for whom he had not seen since his father’s death.

“Just take the photos, Coast,” he mumbled to himself. He decided to do a panoramic from the water’s edge to the capture the whole tourist scene. He started to make a 180-degree semicircle around himself. But, he had to keep stopping every time he looked through the lens at any human in his line of sight: hairy monsters, skeletal monsters, wart-covered monsters, all of them, monsters. He wished he had a wife or a cherished friend with him at this moment, or best yet, his father were still alive. He could see if they saw what he saw – monsters in the skin of banal tourists. The realization then jack-hammered his heart and his adrenaline spiked. Monsters.

He scrambled then as quick as he could, looking all of his 45 years, to the rental. He tossed the camera on the passenger seat, locked the doors and looked out. No one was chasing him. No one was paying attention to him at all. He looked in the rearview mirror, no one behind him. However, his cheeks were flushed with the anxiety of what he had just witnessed and the sprint to the car. He took the time on the drive back to Paradise to practice the breathing exercises his therapist had taught him.

“Jesus, Coach, you’re a mess. The doctor was right, you need to get a grip,” he harangued himself all the way back. For 20 minutes, stuck behind a very slow tractor-trailer, he pissed and moaned at himself to “quit being a wimp.” He pulled into the gas station next to the hardware store and filled up his vehicle, breathing deeply, and calmly talking to himself in his head.

Just as he was putting the nozzle back in the pump, a huge group of bikers pulled up to the gas station, stretching out the whole length of the station and the hardware store. One by one they pulled up to the three pumps and started filling up. Chef Coast was blocked from moving forward or from reversing out of the station. He noticed he just had to wait for one more biker to move around and then he’d be clear to move out. So he pulled the camera up and placed it on the dash so he could see through the viewfinder without actually touching the camera. More hairy creatures stood before him putting gas in huge road bikes. There were a few women on the backs of the bikes that had long fangs and whose eyes looked completely black.

When back on the road he decided to skip dinner and just order a pizza for delivery at his motel room. Back at the Paradise Lost Motel, he did just that. When the delivery kid was at the motel room door, he answered and asked if he could take the kids photo because he was learning to use his new camera. The kid shrugged and made it look like he was posing for a billboard advertisement for Little Caesars, holding out the pizza box just right. Chef Coast put the viewfinder up to his eye and saw that the kid was mutilated and decaying all over. He snapped the photo and kept his best poker face.

“Everything alright, mister? Does the camera work?”

Coach Chef nodded and paid the kid, “Keep the change.” He practically closed the motel room door on the kid’s face.

He put the pie box on the tiny table in the room, and went in front of the mirror. He lifted up the camera aimed right at the mirror and looked through. Scales were all over his arms and legs, and his head had a ridge of thorny bones in the center of his head. He couldn’t look through the viewfinder and see his face, however, the camera so behemoth in size.

He put the camera down and stared and stared into the mirror. He touched his arms, it was skin. He picked the camera up again, and looked through the lens. Scales, slime, and a mutant pale yellow cast looked back at him.

 

Free-Range Fiction: Taking #TBT A Bit Further

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Along the Serbian-Macedonian Border on Patrol.

A little back story. I posted this photo today for #TBT and then remembered I still hadn’t done a Free-Range Fiction. I wanted to participate in the weekly challenge at TerribleMinds.Com.  Regarding the photo:  I entered the service during a time of relative peace, but it didn’t last long. I started my Army enlisted career just as the Senior Bush president was leaving office and Clinton was taking over. I left during the Obama Administration. I deployed so many times, I lost count. It’s only recently that I am examining those times and mining the memories for stories. For instance, I was a part of this little known mission called Operation Able Sentry. We watched the border between Serbia and Macedonia, keeping the peace. We even got to wear the United Nations Peacekeeping blue beret.  I’m not allowed to tell you what we did on our patrols or when we were pulling duty on the mountain top observations posts. Just know that we kept things in check. But keeping the peace didn’t mean we could really do much to change the tension or the culture that the imploding of the Former Yugoslavia wrought. Our Macedonian hosts just didn’t want a Bosnian or Kosovo situation. We’ll leave it at that. I guess it helped because Serbia didn’t get aggressive with Macedonia and Greece didn’t have to get all prickly about that either.

Chuck Wendig, that word rascal, once again helped me focus and sit down and get something out.

Here’s what came out based on his prompt. It is a true story in less than 1,000 words.

ON A SKOPJE BRIDGE

by casondra brewster

We’d been outside of Skopje, Macedonia for months, almost halfway into our six-month rotation. One American Battalion. The Macedonia military was across the air strip. The Fins, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch, Brits, Aussies, and others got the good digs downtown. We were all a little stir crazy having spent the holidays away from home. The first signs of spring were hitting the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (that’s what you had to formally call it so as to not irritate our Southern NATO allies, Greece). So the commander, who played my Detroit homeboy Bob Seger incessantly to the point I almost swore off Seger forever, allowed us some R&R time. A good chunk of us got a two-day pass to go into Skopje or wherever. Some headed to Sophia, Bulgaria; some to Thessaloniki, Greece. The rest of us lower enlisted slobs just went downtown to party with our European Blue-Beret Wearing comrades.

There were two other enlisted women on the make-shift post. I was senior to them, both in years on Earth and years in the service. They played social director and I just went along for the ride. I was so looking forward to just being Casz and not Specialist (promotable) Brewster. I could pull my hair out of its tight braid and eat local food and drink local wine (and man, is Macedonian wine yummy!). We met some of the other Soldiers at a rally point close to the hotels we were staying in.  I have little memory of the hotel I stayed in because it was literally a small bed, a small bath, and a painted shut window. Communism’s footprint was still very evident in 1995.

This was the time before cell phone cameras. It took a lot to get a photo while out on patrol or deployed. These are kind of sacred images to me.
This was the time before cell phone cameras. It took a lot to get a photo while out on patrol or deployed. These are kind of sacred images to me.

At the rally point it felt a bit like a high school dance, since there were a few single folks. The plan was to get food, do some shopping, and then meet up with some of the other NATO boys for some drinking and dancing. But everyone was just kind of shuffling their feet and starring at the cobblestones of the square.

“I’m starving,” I said. “Can we find some food?”

“Brewster is that you?” one of the Prime Power guys said. No one recognized me out of uniform. Ever.

“A starving Brewster, yes.”

One of the combat engineers had heard about this great restaurant where they flame-cook the meat at your table. The group, now eight strong, agreed. So we walked from the central square and headed to cross a bridge that had been there since conquering Roman times.

One of my fellow soldiers snapped this shot before we left our camp to head in for that fateful R&R. I don't think I look anything like Madonna.
One of my fellow soldiers snapped this shot before we left our camp to head in for that fateful R&R. I don’t think I look anything like Madonna.

A group of eight Americans – even out of uniform – seemingly was unnerving to the older members of the Skopje population. They would move quickly out of our way and look down and scurry past. The younger populations, however, would come up to us and talk to us, in much better English than our Serbo-Croat, and ask us about American things, like popular Music, the NBA – basketball is big in Yugoslavia, I learned – or about our clothes.

“You look like Madonna,” an older teen boy said to me and my bunk mate. “You look like the Papa Don’t Preach Madonna,” he pointed at me. “You look like the Vogue Madonna,” he pointed at Pfc. Billy, the second of the three women in our group. We laughed.

Moments later we reached the Vardar River and the damn Roman bridge that everyone had been talking about. I imagined how much history I was walking across. At the apex of the bridge sat two little boys on a square of cardboard. The youngest of the two did not have shoes on. He had the bluest eyes and the most jet black hair. They were begging for money. I don’t remember what I gave them, like 20 MKD (Macedonian Denar). It was like nothing. But the boys faces lit up.

“Blagodaram!” They tried to touch me, in a gesture of gratitude, but the heavy equipment sergeant stepped in front of them and said, “Nema! Stoj!” He was telling them, No, Stop. I smiled and winked at the two little beggars. The group kept walking. I followed. But, I was worried. It was cold. Couldn’t be more than 4 degrees Celsius.

As we continued to the restaurant and were waiting for the host to set up our table for eight, the motor pool sergeant gave me a hard time, saying the kids begged for money all the time and just went home and gave it to their parents, that it was a scam, even sometimes to pick pocket us.

“Brewster you’re a sucker,” he said. I said nothing. In my heart I knew I did the right thing.

The meal was awesome. We were fat and happy. We bought trinkets in the market. I have photos where we are all so happy, and clearly buzzing from the delicious wine. We needed to cross the bridge again to meet our NATO party hosts. As we approached the apex, the cardboard square was there and there was something curled up on it. Suddenly the thought of Roman Centurians ghosts gave me chills. A few steps closer and I knew the older boy was gone. On the cardboard was the little boy with no shoes. He was blue. The temperature had dropped with the setting sun below freezing. I touched him. No pulse. A Skopje Police Patrol was coming through at that moment, I called to them in my butchered Macedonian, “Pomosh! Policija!”

“Shit, Brewster! You’re going to ruin the night,” I don’t remember who said that, because later I would have punched them.

The Police questioned us. Again their English better than our Serbo-Croat. We told them what happened. Some sort of ambulance came and took the boy. As they put his curled-up frame in the vehicle, I saw clutched in his hand was the Denar I had given him.

I pointed it out to the mechanic, “I’m a sucker, eh?”

The ambulance left. The police left. All my comrades left for the dancing and drinking. I went back to that one-painted-shut-window room and cried.

Free-Range Fiction: Random Cocktail Challenge

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downloadHerr Wendig is at it again This week’s flash-fiction challenge revolves around adult beverages randomly generated. The one I got is Bondage’s No Problem. Yes that’s a real cocktail. It has vodka in it, for which I’m allergic, so I’ll never taste it unless you maybe sub some whiskey instead. Below is where the title Bondage’s No Problem took me — in 999 words. It’s easy to believe that maybe this might be a much longer story, clearly I could continue it. But, I think it works as it is, as well. Read it. Comment below. Much appreciated.

BONDAGE’S NO PROBLEM

by Casondra Brewster

They call it the Golden Handcuffs. You have no idea. It really is a life of slavery and bondage. But it’s not a problem, really. What else are we going to do with our time? At least we’re not getting shot at? No one is going to die in this nine to five.

I wrote that to my old Army buddy ten years ago after we’d both hung up our boots and put on civilian ties. Now I could think of lots of things to do with my time other than put in time in this seven-by-nine-foot cubicle. I called it my civilian foxhole. Was it still true we weren’t getting shot at? Sure– well at least until one of my coworkers has had enough. Maybe his wife leaves him. His kid turns into a drug addict. His balloon payment on his mortgage is due and he can’t manage it. Instead of coping, dealing, turning his life around, he blows us all away here sitting near these pale blue, fabric walls lulling us into security, when nothing is secure. It’s all impermanent. No one is going to die. I said it. But I was dying. My soul was a sucking chest wound.

Here it was another Wednesday. The hallway sentiments about hump day fell flat at my feet.  Stacks of work – reports to analyze or create – to my left and right and a pile of email to answer, flag, or archive lurked inside the screen in front of me. I had zero motivation for it. I wanted to runaway. Scream. Hide. End it all. I spent ten years in war. For this?

“Hey, Phil,” I looked up. It was Roger, the guy from development. He lived in the same apartment complex I did. We sometimes had lunch together in the cafeteria. You know, one of those convenience friendships, but the two of you didn’t really dig deep. “Are you going to the after-work shindig to say goodbye to Josie?”

I shook my head. Josie was one of the communication team leads. She was always saying in company-wide meetings that her job was to “herd the cats of all the different departments.” I wasn’t a cat, but I did sometimes want to scratch the smile off her face.

“Oh, bummer; I was hoping to grab a ride home from you.”

“Sorry, pal.”

“Well, if you change your mind, let me know,” he said and moped away.

I started just mass deleting all the emails. If it was really important, they’d send me another one before lunch. I put my headphones on, but there was no music in them. They were a detractor from would-be interrupters who would wreck my work flow by darkening my cubicle opening. I went to work on the report analysis. This part of my work I didn’t dread completely. There was an art to it, although for the most part it was black and white. It didn’t talk back. It didn’t expect me to smile, be grateful, and all that other Zen crap. It just was.

Before the afternoon coffee break, I start to feel bad for squashing Roger’s hopes.

I send Roger an email saying, I’m going to the pub for Josie’s thing and I’ll drive him home. He’s at my desk at 4:59 with the stupidest grin on his face and carrying a brown-paper sack.

On the walk over to the pub Roger tells me he’s had a hard-on for Josie for years. But, he has a don’t-date-coworkers policy. I don’t tell him I think Josie likely has a don’t-date-dweebs policy.

The pub smells like old peanuts, stale beer, and too much cologne and perfume. My eyes start to water. I’m wishing I had my balaclava to throw up over my nose. Not kosher in this environment, however. Roger gladly buys the first round, “Thanks again, buddy for having my back.” I shrug and nod. The beer actually tastes pretty good. Better than the Rainer I’ve been stocking my fridge with; that’s another slow kind of death.

I watch as people give farewell gifts to Josie, including Roger. I hadn’t his little brown-paper was a gift. I thought it was a snack. Everyone quiets around Josie as she takes out two tickets.

“What they to?” some douche bag from sales hollers.

Roger beams a wide, toothy smile and says, “The Blindfolds & Cuffs Burlesque Show.”

Josie flinches and flushes. Then, always the PR professional, swallows, and says, “Thanks, Roger. You’re sweet.” He whispers something in her ear and she feigns distraction by yelling back at the sales douche, “You’re just jealous, Keith.” She then promptly picks up another little gift baggy, leaving Roger to slip back into oblivion. He ends up next to me.

“She left you OTF, buddy,” I say, taking another swallow of beer.

Roger doesn’t respond.

We watch in silence for a few more minutes while people make toasts to Josie, some dude passes out her new business cards to everyone, and coworkers and friends alike wish her well in her new job, some sort of consulting gig. I only half listen. Roger goes to the bar again, but comes back with nothing.

I watch as the bartender brings Josie a drink. She raises the glass and nods to Roger.

“Ready whenever you are,” Roger says his voice even meeker than normal. We walk in silence back to my pick-up.

“Why did you buy her a drink after she left you out there hanging, dude?” I ask Roger.

He shrugs, “I felt like it.”

I shake my head.

***

The next morning at work, I decide to check on Roger at his desk. He’s not there. Before lunch word gets around he was found blindfolded and cuffed to his bed, an apparent autoerotic asphyxiation casualty. The police are looking for Josie. Her business card was found in his hands, with the words “Bondage is No Problem” scrawled on the back.

Yeah, nobody’s getting shot. But somebody just might die.

 

 

Free-Range Fiction: Flash Fiction Challenge Part 4, The TimeKeeper

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Readers, here is the fourth installment of the The Short Story in Four Parts exercise that Chuck Wendig set forth for all his blog readers. Being the PenMonkey that I am, I couldn’t let it go to not finish a story. I chose to complete The Time Keeper originally penned by Mark Gardner, then followed up by Mozette, and then continued by Angela Cavanaugh. I’ve included all parts of the story, with notations of the authors. The last part in bold is my completion, which comes in at 999 words. Ouch! So hard. I had to kill about 150 extra words that lent to the scenery and personality of the protagonist and other characters. But Herr Wendig said 1,000 words. Good practice for us word smiths. Regardless, as I commented to my fellow authors, this story has potential to be a serial. Can you say TV show? Anyways, please enjoy the story. Comments are always welcomed. 

The Time Keeper

(Originally by Mark Gardner)

I sat in the booth pouring sugar into my coffee cup. The pawnshop across the street should’ve opened twenty minutes ago, but the open sign hung in the window dark. I reached into my pocket and felt it, knowing today could be the last time it touch the antique. I hated to part with such a treasure, but these were hard times.

A figure staggered down the sidewalk barely awake. The figure, not the sidewalk. A tendril of light smoke wafted from the cigarette pinched between his lips. Even from across the street, I could see the red cherry get brighter as he breathed. Orange-red brilliance, followed by a compounding of the tendril; twin exhausts rushed from his nostrils before lazily dying in the still morning. He staggered up to the door of the pawnshop, inserted a key and walked inside, the door hanging open at an unwelcome angle.

Although the neon sign welcoming patrons remained off, I signaled to my waiter, knowing what must be done.

“Anything else, miss?”

I cleared my throat, fearing he would charge me extra, but I suspect this part of my plan was integral. “Can I get a cup to go?” I asked sheepishly.

He smiled. “Sure thing,” he smiled, “let me get you one.” He paced the bill facedown on the table and walked away.

I placed the crumbled bank notes on the bill along with the rest of the change from my pocket. I knew the sad pile of currency covered my coffee and the hour I sat across the street from the pawnshop. I knew the tip wasn’t spectacular, but I now had no money to my name. This plan better work, I thought as I stood and met the cheery waiter with my steaming cup. I remember thinking how cheerful he was – I don’t trust people who’re that happy.

I murmured thanks for the cup and walked out the door. Perhaps if I’d known the magnitude of the events to follow, I’d’ve savored the moment. Perhaps said a few words to the universe to honor the occasion. I don’t know. Adventures such as this are rarely what they seem in the beginning.

* * *

(This section, Part Two, by Mozette)

“We’re not open yet.”

I removed my hand from the reinforced steel door. The bell that signaled my closing the door seemed comical – such a small sound, barely echoing in a cavernous room filled with trinkets and electronics.

I raised the still-steaming cup as a peace offering. “I’m in no hurry, but it looks as if you could use this.”

The aged man smiled and motioned me towards the counter with an excited wave. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he replied in a gravely voice. No doubt due to the cigarette habit.

I placed the cup on the glass counter as my brain processed what he said. “Waiting for me?” I stammered, fear rising.

He smiled, lines forming on his sun-damaged face. The greying whiskers seemed like a field of tree stumps after a recent logging expedition. “Not you, dear,” he said with desire, “but the coffee you bear.”

He seized the cup and drank greedily. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps his gravely voice isn’t from cigarettes. After a moment, his eyes rolled back into his head. I detected a slight shudder and the skin of of tree stumps transformed to a shade of red – making the grey contrast all the more against his skin. “That’s terrible,” he exhaled. “But, oh so welcome.” He set the cup on the counter. “What can I do for you this fine morning?”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my last remaining possession. I laid the hunk of silver on the counter, next to the coffee cup. The man nodded, and the silver was lost in his large hand. He ran his thumb along the edge of the watch. “Timekeeper one-seven-two,” he whispered.

I knew I had him where I wanted him. At the time I was only interested in a handful of banknotes to get me through the week. In retrospect, it was he who had me… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

He placed the silver down with a tenderness I mistook for a love of antiques. “I want to show you something,” he declared, and reached into his own pocket. He pulled out his own silver, dangling from a silver chain. He placed it next to mine and my eyes grew wide.

There sat an identical watch. His was shiny and well cared for. Mine was dented and tarnished. I could see his watch shiver slightly with the tick of the second hand, as mine lie there silent and sad. I began to think I had overvalued my piece, and my confidence wilt, but then my eyes were drawn to the final difference between our timekeepers: the number etched into the side.

“Ah,” he breathed coffee breath across the counter, “you see it.”

Where mine features a fading one-seven-two, his shiny etching proclaimed his to be more than a hundred newer. I reached out to feel the etching of his watch against my fingers, but a static discharge repelled my reach.

“Be careful there,” he whispered, “time is a fickle thing.”

I felt compelled to respond. The words didn’t seem to be my own. When I tried to hold them back, my head began to ache. “But,” I blurted, “it forever heeds its will to the timekeeper.”

The man nodded and withdrew a steel box. He unlocked it with a key and withdrew several banknotes. He laid five of them on the counter. “You have a decision to make,” he declared.

I reached towards the counter, confident of the payday the currency represented, but my hand seemed drawn towards my timekeeper of its own volition.

“Be certain,” he said, “adventure awaits with either decision.”

I closed my eyes and made my decision. A decision I know now was predestined. A decision at sometimes I regret, but mostly, I cherish. A decision that resulted in sudden life.

***

(Part Three by Angela Cavanaugh)

Before I opened my eyes, I caught a whiff of flowers, of the sharp sea air… of… home.  They snapped open and I found myself standing outside my father’s bakery in the seaside town I had been born in.

Exactly how did I come to be here?

The place looked as though it had come from a dream I had just after my father died.  It had that hazy appearance of ghosts gone in another life, in another time where I couldn’t possible have … then I saw him, my father, serving Mrs. Wilson from down the road.  She was a lovely old dear who died just weeks before my father did.  So, this must have been a dream!

The wind died down for a moment and I could hear a ticking sound.  It was gentle and I almost missed it, until I looked down and found that my left hand was closed over something and I was holding it against my stomach.  On opening it, I found the time piece all fixed up, prettily ticking away and looking as though it was brand new.  I gawped at it for a good minute as the second hand went around and made the hour hand moved very slowly towards the twelve.

It was almost 4pm.

I smiled.  Then, I refocused my eyes on the tiny face of the time piece and realised I may have moved back in time, but physically, I had stayed exactly the same.

Looking up, I stared back at the bakery again.  If I were to go inside there, I’d be a stranger to the man serving at the counter.  Just as I was beginning to wonder what I was doing here in the time of my teenaged years, my stomached grumbled loudly that it was time for food.  Looking both ways, I crossed the empty street, ducking under the awning just as the first drops of rain began to fall and thunder drummed around the surrounding mountains.

Pushing the door open of the store, I heard the bell ring to announce me.  The man looked up and smiled as I approached the counter.  I never saw this side of my father – ever. This was the side everyone else saw.  I saw the strict, disciplinarian who would make me eat all my vegetables, forced me to study over my weekends while it was sunny outside and kept me from the best parties over the bay in Bestian’s Bay County.  Kids at my high school thought I was either stupid or very boring; but it was my father who kept me from having a cool social life.  I wondered just how he kept these two personalities in check the whole time… I mean, was this man really my father?  Or was all the controlling just for show?

Then, a woman walked in from out the back with a long apron on, a woman I knew well.  She worked here and I knew she did wonders for this bakery because she had come from France.  It was Celine… a brilliant pastry chef who could turn any bag of flour into the most delicious-tasting bread, lightest sponge cakes, sweetest cookies… yes, it was her.  She had her dark curls up in a hair net, but it was her.  She walked in humming a tune as she carried a tray of freshly baked, sliced and wrapped bread out and shimmied them into the trays behind the counter.

My father walked up to her grinning, “How many more to go?”

“This is it for today, then, I have the cake for Mr. Jones to finish icing.” She replied, sounding like a backwards playing record to my ears, but perfectly fine to him.

“Good, good.” He patted her well-curved behind, kissed her on the back of the neck, and moved past her a little too close to get to the counter I was standing in front of.  It took all of my strength not to say anything to him as he turned and smiled, “Yes?  How can I help you today?”

“Um… do you have more pies left please?” I looked over at the warmer and found it was half-full.

“We have chicken, steak and kidney, steak and mushroom and vegetarian.” He said, “The last are new for the weird people who don’t like meat.” Yep, it was my father alright.

Walking to the warmer, I looked in on the pies.  They were fresh, delicious and wonderful, and I knew it, “The steak and mushroom, please.”

“Want peas with that?” he asked grabbing a plate off the shelf, “And you better eat here, just look at that rain out there.”

I turned and looked as the rain overflowed the gutters and swelled in the streets, “Wow… it’s really coming down.”

“Here ya go.” He smiled, “That’ll be $3.50.”

I pulled out my purse and pulled out a $5.00 and handed it over, got my change and walked to a nearby table.  As I sat down, with my meal, I noticed he went out the back of the bakery, where the sounds of work suddenly turned very quiet.   I tried to ignore the fact I was the only person sitting in the place eating and watched the time tick slowly by, wishing I knew what was going on, but the more I wanted to spy on the two out the back, less I wanted to know… was he kissing her?  Was he having sex with her?  Was he…? I dug my fork into the steaming hot pie.

It wasn’t my business.

The door opened quickly and a woman walked in, slamming it against the wind.  Shaking her umbrella, she dumped it in the holder, didn’t remove her jacket and let herself behind the counter.  Allowing herself out the back, I then heard what I suspected:

“How dare you!  With that French slut!  How could you?” she raced back out again.

I tried to look anywhere but where the noise came from, but failed.  Instead, I stood, leaving my meal behind and went outside and wished I had never come here.  The dampness of the wind refreshed me and chilled me at the same time as I pulled the pocket watch out of my pocket, held it close and closed my eyes, wishing I was anywhere else but here…

I ran out into the rain, desperately trying to escape to the image of my father’s affair, and the hurt in my mother’s voice as she found them.

I’d rather be anywhere but here! I screamed inside my head.  I squeezed my eyes tight.

The sound of the rain stopped.  I opened my eyes and found that I was back in the pawn shop.  The lights were off, and the place appeared closed.

I heard the door jingle as a key slid into the lock.  Confused by all that had happened, I decided it was best to hid.  I ducked behind a shelf of old books.

The shop owner staggered in with his cigarette on his lips.  He shuffled to the glass counter in the center. I was about to leap at him, yell, and ask what had just happened to me and why. But the echoing sound of the bell at the door stopped me. I could just see the counter from the space between the books.

My heart nearly stopped as I saw myself standing at the counter, offering the owner coffee. I could barely hear their words, but then, I didn’t need to. I had just had this conversation. I, she, pulled out her watch and showed it to him. He pulled out his own. The strange words were spoken. She was standing there, faced with the choice of money or adventure. I wanted to shove over the bookshelf and tell her to take the money and leave that cursed watch behind. But I couldn’t. I opened my mouth to yell, but no sound came out. She reached for the watch, and disappeared.

The shop owner laughed and put the money back into the register.

“It’s always strange the first time,” he said out loud.

I stayed put, unsure of who he was talking to.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I know you’re there. You can move now one-seven-two.”

He was right. I found that my body was no longer stuck in place. I marched over to the counter. He hardly paid me attention and continued his morning prep to open the store.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I should think it have been quiet obvious. You traveled through time.”

“Yeah, I get that. But why did I travel through time? And why did I have to go there?”

He stopped messing with his register and looked at me.

“The first journey is a very personal, and typically, very powerful one. I’m not sure where the watch took you. But whatever it showed you was something that you needed to see.”

“Why would I have needed to discover that my dead father was cheating on my mother?”

“That answer lies in you. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s because the watch likes to remind us that all people are people. No matter how infallible or one-dimensional they seem to us. They have lives outside of our perception. It’s important to keep that in mind when taking an assignment.”

“Assignment? If you think I’m going to-” he cut me off.

“I know that you are going to. Soon you will understand that time is not linear. You have no idea how many times we’ve met. We may even be friends.”

Somehow, I doubted that.

“Also,” he continued, “I happen to know that you’re strapped for cash. It’s why you came in here to sell the watch in the first place. Am I right?”

I looked down, confirming with my silence.

“I thought so,” he said. “Having a destiny can actually be quite

profitable.”

“Destiny?”

“Of course. How do you think you came to possess that watch? Where do you think those numbers inscribed on it came from? How did you know what to speak in response to me?”

I didn’t know the answers to any of it. I thought that I had happened upon the watch. But the memory was fuzzy. In retrospect, it seemed like something that had always been with me. I had never thought to question its origins.

“So you’re telling me that someone is going to pay me, to what, time travel?”

“It’s more that they provide for you. And while time traveling will be involved, there is far more to it than just that. On this first trip, you were merely meant to observe. But what happened when you came back?”

I recalled the motionless sensation of seeing myself.

“I could move or talk.”

“Paradoxes have their place. But you can break through that. You can alter things. And believe me, there are many things that need to be altered. Another challenge you’ll face is keeping your grip on reality. You see, a traveler’s mind is uniquely gifted. You will recall the way things were, and the way they are now. Both sets of memories will exist in your mind and seem equally valid. At first, it isn’t difficult. But in time, there are a lot of realities to shift through.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“But,” he said, “it isn’t all bad. You’ll go places you never dreamed. See things that you’ve never imagined. And best of all, you’ll save lives. You will have purpose. No more pawning your possessions just to get through another week.

Lately my life had been lacking in purpose. Since I lost my mother, my last bit of family, I’d lost my place in the world. I’d been drifting from temp job to temp job, about to lose the apartment I hated. Worse, I had begun to hate myself. Maybe I needed a little adventure.

“And you’re going to train me?” I asked.

“I will offer you some techniques. But most of the training is done on the job. What do you say? Are you ready for your first assignment?”

I swallowed hard, summoned my courage, and nodded.

“Take out your watch,” he said.

I dug in my pocket and removed the silver time peace. The hands began to spin, and suddenly, I wasn’t in the shop any longer.

***

(Part Four, by yours truly)

I looked around. People milled around sitting on benches and strolling along a worn gravel path. It was spring wherever I was. This was clearly a park.  I heard a cough and turned around, there was a man, he wore a black leather newsboy cap and wool overcoat. He was smoking a cigarette and holding a pocket watch. He crooked an eyebrow at me. I began to walk over to him and heard the click of high heels. What? I rarely wore high heels. As I approached closer, he pulled out a piece of paper out of his overcoat.

“One Seven Two?”

I nodded.

He handed me the paper. I unfolded it.

Eiffel Tower, 6 p.m. was scrawled on it. I looked up. The man was gone.

I spun slowly in a circle really taking in the lay of the land. To my right I could just make out the tip of the Eiffel Tower. I was in France. I’d never been to Paris, let alone out of the United States. I walked in the direction of this famous landmark and then realized I had no idea what time it was. I instinctually looked down at my wrist. A stylish watch adorned my left arm. It was nearly 4 p.m.

I was sensing a theme here. I saw signs that directed me out of the Jardin du Ranelagh and towards the Métro. Once at the La Muette station, my lack of French was a handicap. The colored lines and landmarks on the map gave me an idea of what I should do, but then there was the fare. My feet were killing me and walking the rest of the way to the Tower was not my idea of fun. I saw a restroom sign and headed into it. I looked in the mirror. I was stylishly dressed in a black and white dress that looked like it jumped from the pages of 1970s Vogue. I held a patent leather clutch purse. I opened it. Brush, wallet, lipstick. The wallet held French francs. Enough, likely to get me through the mission, I surmised. Like the $5 for my meatpie in my own past. My head was swimming in wooziness and nausea. Perhaps time-travel messed with you on a molecular level and I was having some kind of allergic reaction. This trip felt less dreamlike, more space-age. Like I lost gravity and my coffee and steak and mushroom pie from earlier was going to come right up. Maybe that was it, maybe I was just hungry.

“Mademoiselle, êtes-vous d’accord?” a very young, dark-haired woman gently touched my shoulder.

“I’m sorry?” I whimpered, my hand around my queasy stomach.

“Are you alright?” the woman said. “Are you American?”

I nodded and then had to turn to the toilet and the pie and coffee were rocketed out of me.

“Oh, you poor thing,” her voice, her accent was so familiar.

“I’m fine; I’ll be fine.”

“Well, even if you don’t feel well, your dress is magnifique!”

I wiped my mouth with toilet paper and flushed the time-travel evidence.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Well, I better be off; the train waits for no one.”

“Oh, right! Say, hey, can you help me? I need to get to the Eiffel Tower before 6 p.m.”

“Oui! I’m headed there now; I have to sell pastries to tourists this evening; I can take you there.”

“Oh, Thank you. I mean, Merci,” I tried to sound as French as possible.

“I’m Celine,” she said and held out her hand.

“Jane,” I lied.

Celine. It hit me. It was the Celine. The wonder baker, pastry chef, French Slut.

It didn’t take long for us to emerge onto the street from the Bir-Hakeim station near the Eiffel Tower.

“It’s just a short walk,” Celine said. “You are so brave to wear those shoes.”

“More like stupid,” I snorted, envying her sensible black flats with tiny bow.  

“Is your stomach feeling better?” she asked.

I nodded, wondering if meeting her was a fluke or part of the mission. Had I been vexed with the pukes just to run into Celine? If so, how did this woman fit in with the timekeeper’s missions?

Under the Eiffel Tower, which I failed to appreciate, because I was so focused on what I was supposed to be doing there, whatever that was, Celine took me to where several little kiosks were set up to sell food, drink, and trinkets to the tourists.

“I’ll have to let you taste one of my pastries,” she smiled. “That should make you feel better.” She donned an apron and switched places with a young boy who had been manning the booth. He winked at me, and then disappeared into the crowd.

This was all so surreal.

Celine handed me a donut looking thing, “Palmier,” she said. “Mange.”

I took a bite. It was light and fluffy with just the right amount of butter and cinnamon. I nodded and smiled and greedily took two more bites in rapid succession.

Just then a couple walked up to Celine’s kiosk. I concentrated on my Palmier. They ordered a couple of different treats and Celine boxed them up in a tiny pink

“Oh, these will be a lovely treat in our hotel, honey,” the woman said.

“My friend, Jane is American, too,” Celine pointed at me.

I looked up and looked at the couple. I dropped my Palmier and a cold sweat hit me hard. This was father and mother. I remembered they had said they had met Celine while traveling in Paris. My father, always so affable with strangers held out his hand to greet me as Americans do. Instead of accepting the handshake, I puked on his shoes, which drew a scream from the young version of my mother. Celine moved to help the young couple clean up the mess on their shoes.

With the now familiar whoosh of reality buckling I was back in the Pawn Shop.

Free-Range Fiction: Flash-Fiction Challenge (Pt. 3): ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’

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This is part three of the four-part story flash fiction challenge Herr Wendig over at Terribleminds put fourth nearly three weeks ago now. This story was started by Peter MacDonald and continued by Richard (aka PoorDick) from just over the bridge here in Seattle. You’ll note that each part of the story references a Robert Frost Poem, first Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, and then, The Road Not Taken. For my part in this collaborative effort, I chose Frost’s Storm Fear. Those verses are in italics in the text. I believe the use of all of these falls under fair use. If you feel their use is inappropriate, please contact me and let me know. In the interim, please read, comment. Thanks to Peter and Richard for the fun. I hope you like my additions.

IMG_8707PART I:

The snow was up to Jake’s knees and still wasn’t quite done falling. While most of the snowfall had passed, there were still a handful of wayward flakes drifting down from the heavens, belatedly joining their brothers and sisters on the ground. It was the first real snowfall of the year, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last; before the month was out, the passes leading into the mountains he called home would be completely blocked up, and he would be alone until the spring thaw.

He bent down to check the last trap on this run. It was, unsurprisingly, empty. Game had been scarce for the past week, which boded poorly. If this kept up, he would have to dig into his stores, which might mean a lean winter. With a dejected sigh, he stood up, brushed the snow off of his knees, and started down the mountain towards his home. As he walked, he began to sing out loud a poem his father had taught him:

 Whose woods these are I think I know.

 His house is in the village though;

 He will not see me stopping here

 To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He took a deep breath between stanzas, and the crisp winter air chilled his lungs. The warmth of his breath had fogged up his glasses, and he took them off for a moment, cleaning them with his shirtfront. He’d been wearing the same pair for three years now, and they were starting to wear thin; one of the legs had been clumsily repaired with bailing wire two weeks ago, after he’d taken a nasty fall on some frozen ground. Hopefully, a trader would come through with a new set before the pass closed.

If any more traders came through at all. It had been more than a month since he’d seen one.

My little horse must think it queer

to stop without a farmhouse near

 Between the woods and frozen lake

 the darkest evening of the year.

As he finished the second stanza, a distant rumbling made him look up, and see the black storm clouds moving in from the distance, the setting sun resting behind them. It seemed he’d misjudged the snowfall; it was letting up now, but it was only a brief reprieve before a true winter storm came down upon him.

I should cut through the woods, he thought. He normally avoided the deep woods whenever possible; he’d lived around them his whole life, but he still got turned around in them sometimes. Plus, the woods were full of unfriendly animals. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally stumble into a bear’s den, or get surrounded by a pack of wolves. But he wanted to get caught by that storm even less, and taking the direct route through the woods would get him home a lot quicker than walking long way around.

The woods were dark and twisted, and as he peered through his broken spectacles to keep track of the path, he sang the next stanza to keep his spirits up:

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

of easy wind and downy flake.

As he spoke the final words, he stepped into a clearing and stopped short at the sight in front of him. The snow – including, he slowly realized, the very snow he was standing on – was stained red, and covered in the bodies of…creatures. There was no better way to describe them, but they were unlike anything Jake had ever seen in the twenty-three years he’d lived on the mountain. They were messes of tooth and claw, amorphous masses of limbs and mouths and eyes and tendrils. There were more than a dozen of them, but no two of them were alike, except for the one thing they had in common: they were all dead, rent apart by deep gashes and still slowly oozing blood.

The smell came upon him suddenly, and he doubled over with a sudden rush of nausea. His mouth filled with the taste of iron, and he nearly threw up onto the snow. He stepped forward in a daze, compelled to investigate. The creatures’ forms sickened him, but they fascinated him as well. He had to know more. Had to see more.

There were only a few of the creatures at the clearing’s edge, but the center was a solid mass, bodies piled together and on top of each other until you could barely tell where one ended and the next began, all of them coloring the snow with their ichor. Jake approached slowly, suddenly acutely aware of the sound of his boots crunching against the snow, of the fogging of his breath, of that terrible, terrible smell. He extended a hand to touch one of them. It was still warm. It had not been dead long. Its skin was thick and rubbery.

Jake jumped backwards as he heard a groaning sound. Panic made him clumsy, and he tripped over his own feet, falling down to the bloody snow. A moment later, another, louder groan could be heard. Jake lay very still for a moment, and then slowly rose to his feet as he realized that none of the creatures were moving. They were not the source of the noise. He stepped forward again and peered over the very top of the pile.

At the center of the clearing, at the very center of the mound of flesh, lay a woman, no older than he was. Her hair, blonde, her body, slim. Her cloak was stained with blood, and he could see that her clothing had been torn by tooth and claw. Her shoulder was a horrific mess, covered in what looked like teeth marks. But she was breathing. She was alive.

“Holy shit,” he gasped, clambering over the dead to get to her. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” His mind seemed to be stuck, unable to process any more than that. He knelt over her, quickly stripping off his gloves and then doing the same for her furs, wincing at what he found beneath them. Whoever this woman was, she was badly hurt.

His eyes fell on something bright: a pendant, hanging around her neck, which seemed to glimmer in the non-existent moonlight. For a moment, her injuries were forgotten. He reached out carefully to touch it, then lifted it up to inspect it. It was made of wrought silver, and shaped into a complex spiral of loops and whorls. He lifted it higher still, captivated by its light.

A sickening noise lifted up from the other side of the clearing, shocking him out of his stupor. He dropped the pendant and sat up, looking fearfully in its direction. One of the things – almost in the shape of a wolf, but with too many arms, too many jaws, and a body of roiling tendrils – was moving. It let out another sound, a rumble which got right into his gut and churned it, and then to his horror it sloughed up off of the ground and started coming towards him. Its legs were broken, its body covered in cuts, more than one of its limbs ended in stumps – but it was coming, leaving a blood red trail on the ground as it dragged itself towards him. It made it two, maybe three paces, and then with a keening moan it slumped over and died.

Jake crouched fearfully for a moment, waiting to see if it would start moving again.

snowy_pawprintsPART II:

That moment stretched out for what felt like an eternity. He stooped there, frozen. Adrenaline surged through his body while it prepared to possibly fight or fly. He could feel his blood thundering through his veins and hear his heart thumping in his ears. He could see every breath he took as it condensed in the bitter winter air.

As the moment started to slip away and the tension started to leave his muscles, his eyes glanced over to the prone young woman and he whispered

The woods are lovely, dark and deep 

But I have promises to keep 

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

The eldritch chimera Jake had been watching roared to life. Its chittering howl resounded throughout the clearing as it erupted forth in a splattering of fresh gore. Deep in the most ancient parts of the young man’s brain; a simple command was issued:

Fly.

Scooping the distressed damsel up in his arms, he pivoted away from the many mawed beast that lunged at him and immediately felt his world give way underneath him. His feet had not been able to find their footing under the combination of half melted snow, oily ichor, and rubbery flesh.

Tumbling down the mound of bodies, he felt the pile shift. The malformed mutant struggled its way to the place where Jake had just been, and he heard the snap-crack-crack-snap-snap of its many jaws. Holding the woman close to him as he fell, he did his best to protect her already wounded body from any further harm.

While the nameless terror glibbed and roared from atop the mound, Jake felt himself slide into the fresh, soft snow at its base. He wasted no time gathering himself to his feet and scanning tree line. Without even thinking, he began to susurrate another poem his father had taught him.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Jake didn’t notice the silver pendant around the woman’s neck start to shimmer again. He didn’t notice the thousands of brilliant sparkles that formed in its endless, Escher-esque loops and whirls with each of his words. His eyes were fixed the edge of the forest – at the path in the snow he had made to reach the clearing.

There’s no way he could make it back to the other side of the glade. Not with that thing chasing him. Looking down, he saw a small trail of fox prints leading off into a thicket; only a few feet from where he stood. If he was lucky, the underbrush would be thick enough to slow or stop the nightmare behind him.

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

Congealing blood, melting snow, and liquids perhaps better left unknown had seeped into his boots; mixing into a sickening, thick slurry that now encased his feet. The biting cold of winter had seeped in too, and the chill worked its way up his legs and into his bones. The riotous chattering of teeth rang in his ears. He covered his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound, but the chattering continued.

A shower of severed limbs and bodily fluids exploded over his head and were accompanied by an explosive whickateracking. Not sparing even a second to look behind him, Jake forced himself forward; ducking down under the low hanging branches. Hunched and cradling the unconscious woman, he trudged with as much speed as he could muster through the knee deep snow.

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Above him, the empty boughs had grown to form an impenetrable canopy, yet the knee deep snow still seemed to be piled just as high as it had under open sky. Behind him, he heard a great cacophony of crashing, snarling, galumphing, and tchixicoring, but he dared not look back, even as the sounds grew more and more faint.

He pressed on into the dark, thick underbrush for what felt like hours. His thighs and calves burned from being forced to hobble swiftly though the thick snow, his back groaned and ached from being hunched over, and his arms felt so weak under their load; but that the least of Jack’s concerns. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes anymore. It wasn’t that they were cold. He couldn’t feel them at all.

He knew this wasn’t good. He needed to get home to his cabin, and fast; but he didn’t even know where he was at this point. He didn’t want to look down; to see the state of his unprotected fingers in the cold. Yet, he glanced down anyway, and saw the woman’s silver pendant twinkle.

There was no way any light could be shining down from above. No illumination could make it through the thick, interwoven branches above them. Endless, inky black yawned out before them. Just as he was opening his mouth to speak, his eyes caught glimpse of a yellow-orange flicker in the distance. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, maybe only twenty yards way. In the distance, unearthly gnashing and wailing still echoed.

Digging deep inside himself, Jack drew up all the strength he had left and made his way down the last leg of the trail. When he reached the mouth of the path, he peered out from the sheltered darkness. Reaching up, he crudely adjusted his broken glasses with his numb fingers. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

38086463289bfe9c910ad52be394aa52Part III

First it was the malformed mutants, now this. Jake’s mouth gaped open. Even though he didn’t go through the woods normally or often, he had been through this place before. This, however, this place, had not been here. He was certain. Jake stared, his eyes moving rapidly over this near wall in front of him. It was a forest inside a forest. Vines everywhere, but within the vines Jake could faintly make out openings, like windows. He blinked, not trusting his broken glasses. From the windows a warm glow of light blasted out onto the path. He strained his neck upwards, and could make out the outline of what looked like a castle turret. Yes, the trees around, the vines, the growth, it all silhouetted a castle turret. He shuffled the unconscious woman in his arms and then moved forward. With ever step he felt a heat, but it wasn’t coming from the …what would he call it? A cave? a castle?

WHEN the wind works against us in the dark,          

And pelts with snow   

The lowest chamber window on the east,       

And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,

“Sanctuary,” a whisper came from the bloodied waif he carried. Although she was slight, after the chase from the unnatural creatures, she didn’t feel insubstantial anymore. He was aching with the weight of her, his feet and hands still numb from the gore and cold. He needed a sanctuary for sure.

“Hey, you’re going to be okay,” Jake said. “Stay with me.” As he surveyed her condition the pendant on her necklace glowed and was emanating the heat he had been feeling. Inhaling in disbelief, he suddenly felt a wave of strength and trudged in packed-down snow, which made approaching the entrance effortless. He was a mere feet from the lowest level of vines when the sound of stone on stone echoed, followed closely by another unearthly echo of snarling.

The beast,                  

‘Come out! Come out!’—          

It costs no inward struggle not to go,

Ah, no!

A bright light poured out from in front of Jake, enveloping him and the barely conscious woman. The light moved around them, as if in corporeal form. Arms of warmth twisted and turned around Jake’s near-frozen feet and hands. As the golden brightness swirled around him, he began to feel sensation in his fingers first, allowing him to get a better grip on the woman. Then before he could actually wiggle his toes, the light shoved him forward and the echo of stone on stone punctuated his rapid movement. The sounds of the monsters behind him were gone. In front of him was a great hall with a ceiling that rose near the whole height of what Jake thought was the entirety of this jungled turret. Shadows of the vines from the windows were peppered throughout the hall. At the end of the hall sat a woman, much like the woman he still carried, slight, blonde, pale. She raised her hand and motioned toward him. Jake wondered in a whisper if he must be passed out in the snow, the storm already crushing him.

“This can’t be real,” he finally said clearly and loud enough to any and all in the room.

As he got closer to the woman seated on an unremarkable chair, he saw she wore a necklace much like that the injured soul. At that moment, both of their pendants shone and vibrated, and Jake watched in complete awe as the woman was elevated out of his arms and floated to a table to the right of the seated woman. More waves of light swirled and flittered about her. Jake watched as the bloodied cloak became an illuminated ecru, all evidence of the blood, tears, and bite marks erased.

I count our strength,       

Two and a child,           

Those of us not asleep subdued to mark         

How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,—        

“Wait,” Jake stuttered. “How?” He gasped as the woman sat upright and smiled at him. Both the creatures before him were ethereally beautiful and he took his now warm fingers and pinched his arm. He was awake. He was living this moment.

The waves of light moved away from the woman he’d found near that pile of blobby-toothed creatures and towards him again. It cleaned the fifth and entrails off of him and warmed him more. He felt completely rejuvenated, as if he could run a marathon without getting winded.

“Where? I mean, Who?” Jake tried to get the questions out, but the woman on the chair shook her head. He watched as the woman in the chair dematerialized and turned into a swirl of light, mimicking the pendant of her necklace and then bursting away.

How drifts are piled,  

Dooryard and road ungraded,           

Till even the comforting barn grows far away                   

And my heart owns a doubt   

The woman on the table now moved to the chair. Jake watched as she pressed her hand on the armrest and a panel opened and a box of gears rose from within the armrest. He watched her pale finger press one of the buttons. A chair was pressed into his backside forcing him to sit, as if gravity was suddenly a thousand times more powerful. He couldn’t even move his feet or his hands. His butt was planted in the chair.

Whether ’tis in us to arise with day    

And save ourselves unaided.

His breathing slowed. He felt a pressure, like when you’re super sleepy but still need to drive home. He wished he could get fresh air to wake up. The ground beneath him shook and shimmied – an earthquake. But he knew better. They were moving. This turret, covered in overgrown brambles and vines and filled with waves of light creatures, was moving.