This story is by K.L. Russell and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The dark is stifling, to the point of suffocating. It brings thoughts of monsters and other terrors unknown. Existing in the light is much worse. The faces and events are real. The silence and lack of illumination is soothing. Here in this unknown blackness conjures up an uneasy foreboding. I must be dreaming. A different dream, more realistic. Beth reasons.
She calls out into the black, not knowing if there’ll be a response. “Anyone there? Name’s Beth.”
“Jared. How long have you been here?”
“Same here. Why are you here?”
The room floods with luminescence as the door opens. This man, his features are indistinct. Except the eyes. They’re a radiance of fiery red and then like ice shards piercing, making the blood run cold. The hint of someone from her past is strong. For an instant the face looks familiar. A shiver tingles her spine.
“Good morning. I hope everything’s comfortable.”
“Who are you?” says Beth.
“Let’s just say for now I’m in charge. As to my name… Not important. You’re here to discover the end and possess what your heart desires most.” They nod. “Next to you are supplies that will aid in this quest.”
Jared glances to his left and wonders. Where did this backpack come from?
“Where is he? I glanced away for a second.” says Beth. That familiar foreboding of uneasiness combined with a rush of adrenaline hits her.
She stares before daring to speak a word. “Jared, don’t you remember me? Us?”
“No. Not the answer you want, is it?”
If this is my dream, can I control it? “I guess I’ll check for a map.”
“Better than wasting time.” says Jared.
“The place is kind of creepy. The map shows only a vague description of our path. We should be careful through this maze of thicket and rugged chasms.” The air is heavy, intending to stifle them. The warmth forms sweat with a breeze, causing a chill on their damp skin.
“Sure.” I don’t know why he remembers nothing. The point is, at one stage in my life he provided stability in my world. I suppose it’s him. No matter. If this is a competition, am I competing alone? Will there be a winner? If I win, what I want, desire, is to be somewhere quiet. A house by the ocean, to listen as the waves crash on the beach. No raging nightmares or incessant screaming, who no one hears but me. A wish to experience peace.
The underbrush is thick, as it rakes both their bodies with scrapes and scratches. It’s a continuous twilight under the tremendous canopy of branches and foliage. A sinister feel of torment is present, allowing the possibility that the dead exist here. This forest of overgrown brush desires to punish. Her senses keep alerting to a suspect of sorts following them. Turning to inspect, shadows are ultimately all she sees. The trend of fear swells and subsides. The night is free of horrifying memories and the continuous screams. For a few hours, her mind is silent and empty of chaos.
The rays from the sunrise warm even the heaviest of hearts. Gigantic oaks, beech and ash trees litter the landscape.
“A storm is brewing. Clearly heading our way.” says Jared.
By late afternoon clouds roll in and the sky darkens to an ugly gray. Thunderous booms and streaks of lightening flash across the horizon. A loud cracking noise and a branch falls. Jared grabs Beth and pulls her out of harm’s way.
“You okay?” says Jared.
“Yeah. Why’d you do that?”
“I couldn’t let you get hurt.” For a minute, his eyes show a warmth in them. “Let’s find some shelter.”
Another surge of emotions flow through her. This time a tiny piece of her senses are at ease.
“I’ll have a fire going. We’re both soaking wet.” says Jared.
Her lips caress his for a moment. “Thank you.” If someone is lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce and destroy everything, end it now. Don’t wait. Her body moves closer to his for comfort.
By sunrise, the morning shows the optimism of clearing for the time forward. The landscape is rugged and looks to provide a challenge as time progresses.
Their conversation during the period is frequent. Nothing very personal. By early evening, the awareness of being followed still grips her. Their enthusiasm builds. The end of the climb is nearing the finale. Without even looking, she hears Jared slipping. The gravel and rocks sliding under him. Then silence.
Her frame is shaking. Calm is what she needs. “Are you alright?” asks Beth.
“Yeah. Help will be good.”
By the sound of his voice, everything seems fine. No serious injuries. “Give me a minute.” Using the rope and harness from her pack, the climb down takes a half hour, and with her aid they locate their way to level ground. “Farther ahead, there’s an area to rest for the night. Can you make it?”
“If we move slow.”
“Figure I owe you since you kept the tree from falling on my head.” Beth smiles.
“Guess we’re even.” says Jared.
“My turn to get the fire started tonight. Probably some food in the backpacks.” says Beth. The meal is palatable, and conversation is lighthearted. “Tomorrow we’ll be at the finish line. I was imagining the journey would be more difficult.”
“Well, you almost being smashed by a tree and me sliding down a mountain. Not too bad.”
She smiles. The ebb and flow of positive and negative emotions overwhelm her mind and soul. He looks at her in the firelight and realizes how beautiful she is. “Beth, thanks again for today. Means a lot.” He leans over and places a gentle kiss on her mouth. She falls asleep with her head on his chest hearing in the distance the waves lapping on the shore. A remembrance of happier occasions.
The day appears earlier. By her estimate, the conclusion is only in an hour. She is hoping for longer. “Almost to the finish area, aren’t we?” says Beth.
“I just want to say thanks, Jared. I’ve enjoyed myself. If you can believe that.” She reaches up and kisses him. “You run along.”
“No. I believe I’ve been here to encourage you through this passage. The mansion is in front of us. We should continue.”
“Jared, I don’t think I’m able. It’s so foreboding and terrifying. Please don’t make me.”
“You have to. I’ll be with you. Every step. Promise. It’s right for you to go on. You’ve never pushed yourself this far before.”
“If you’re with me.” The emotions are tumbling, tossing inside her. A ship in a storm. Alone on the sea. How she wishes that’s where they were.
They walk up to the front door and open it. Inside, she discovers the man she saw at the beginning. The guy is a suggestion of the stepfather who committed unspeakable acts. He’s right in front of her. How could she be so blind? So naïve to consider she could control this dream. It must be him. But how? He’s dead! She turns and Jared’s gone.
“You’ve been following us! Where’s Jared? Why is he gone?” In a blinding rage, her knife is lunging for him. “Not again. You bastard! No heart’s desire. This isn’t happening. It’s all a lie!” Tears stream, falling upon her face, and the black comes, but the wailing in her head remains.
“Doctor Baldwin. Agent Thomas, FBI. This is Beth? I was told you’re working with an unusual therapy. The hope is to help her regain her memories.”
“Yes. It’s not that simple. It’s called Simulated Dream Therapy. We force a patient to fantasize about their catastrophe. The idea is to guide them in the right direction. Beth’s in a sort of catatonic state. It means she’s awake. Unaware of her surroundings. Unable to communicate. My only goal is to encourage her to resolve it and live a normal life. We hope that one day she’ll be clear of the demons that lurk in the deep recesses of her psyche.”
“I’ve read over the case files. Such a cruel misfortune. The stepfather abused the family for years. The agencies never acted on any of the complaints.”
“This is a breakthrough. Her first words in three years. I’m not comfortable with the idea of you coming here assuming you’re going to blame her for those murders.”
“You’re correct. We’re confident the father committed the crimes. Not positive if she killed the stepfather. We assume she came back for her younger sister. I was hoping you might shed some light on the event.”
“Not yet. The memories fill her world in darkness.”
“Who’s Jared?” asks Thomas.
“Don’t know. First time I’ve heard his name. Possibly a boyfriend or lover.”
“Another avenue worth pursuing. Doc, buy you a cup of coffee and you explain this therapy in more detail.”