This story is by Andrew Heathfield and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Heralding the shortest day and longest night of the year, the winter solstice had become his norm, a barometer by which he perceived every day. It was a recurrent event. On that one day, every year, they adorn his enclosure with balloons, streamers, and banners which hang like exotic, bloated fruits, and tattered jungle vines. Perhaps it was their arrogant intellectual superiority or divergent evolutionary perspective, but they seemed unaware of the irony in such a celebratory gesture. The colorful decorations mock him. They bring him no cheer, nor were they intended to. They are for the spectators, not the exhibit. Unlike an anniversary that celebrates or commemorates a worthy remembrance, what happened to him on that night five years ago is something not to extol, but condemn. For Daniel Cage it precipitates mental stupefaction and physical ataxia.
What begins as a twitch in the corner of his eye quickly progresses to an uncontrollable trembling of the limbs and a palpitation of the heart. Blood, become ice, tears through his veins while his mind wrestles with impending stupefaction. The festooned, varicolored garlands trigger an inexorable fear in his unconscious mind, and suppressed memories wash over him like a tsunami of horror and despair.
Expect the unexpected; no one really lives by that adage-it’s a cliché to explain the occurrence of misfortune and the dilemmas of daily life. When going about one’s business nobody considers what is the worst that can happen? Maybe insurance assessors do, or stuntmen, or astronauts. Daniel Cage did not. He was a weather reporter. Getting hit by lightning was his worst-case scenario and that statistically is one in a million; depending on where you live and the prevailing weather.
At the behest of concerned farmers anxious over the welfare of livestock, and with his professional curiosity aroused, Daniel embarked on a fact-finding hike through the hills and forested slopes of Bracksford County. Motivated by puzzling satellite data that coincided with the oncoming winter solstice, he was intent on investigating firsthand unusual local weather anomalies and homesteader chatter regarding peculiar lights and sounds. Inquisitiveness propelled Daniel Cage into something inexplicable and what would quickly become a night he would never forget.
The tangled and broken terrain proved difficult to navigate as the winter sun swiftly descended to the horizon. As Daniel emerged through a dense coppice, it struck him. Something cut through the chill December air and illuminated the early dusk like an atomic blast. Soundless and without heat. A celestial beam silhouetted the tall elms and ash groves; a concentrated shaft of light that at once stole his vision and froze him to the spot. Conscious but paralyzed, as if in a waking trance. Cut off from all his senses, he dropped his equipment. And amidst a wave of panic, two thoughts flashed through his mind. Am I having a medical episode, or have I indeed been struck by lightning?
Neither, it seemed, was true.
How long he stood there is unknown, but a faint mist now wreathed the forest floor and a winter chill had penetrated his clothing. His vision slowly cleared, though the immediate surroundings remained a blurred, flickering coalescence of light and shadow, as if he had stared too long at a raging fire. He could discern large shapes moving about and odd sounds like popping corn and whistling kettles. Feeling returned to his numb limbs and his mind, recovering from the induced stupor, attempted to understand his immediate plight. Confusion and rising panic triggered a survival response, and adrenaline surged through his body. Unfortunately, Daniel’s brain could not decide whether fighting or fleeing was the safest course of action. Ultimately, his legs buckled, and he slumped to the damp forest floor. He sprawled there amongst the fallen leaves and trampled earth, bewildered, weak; all the energy drained from his body, leaving him vulnerable and afraid, like an animal run to ground with nowhere to go.
He found himself lifted by ‘hands’ that squeezed his ribs painfully. It seemed a helpful gesture, but the strength applied seemed beyond the normal constraints of considerate support for a fellow human being. And that was when Daniel Cage turned his head and looked at his benefactor and realized with a stomach-turning terror that he/she/it was not human at all.
What held him in an inescapable grip was a monster. Though his vision was impaired, and his mind reeled with imminent hysteria, he looked in what may have been an eye and recognized an alien intelligence and purpose that spoke of unknown and unguessable intention. The creature produced rapid popping sounds through tiny fissures on its ‘face’ and through tiny trunk-like appendages air whistled, oscillating to a frequency painful to Daniel’s ears. Darkness again overwhelmed him, but this time a blessed unconsciousness accompanied it.
Daniel eventually regained his composure as the memories played to their dreadful conclusion. This was his new reality and had been for a long time; a repetitive semblance of that one night so long ago. Daniel cursed the horrors that bought him here. Their single-minded, literal interpretation of his needs frustrated and angered him. He could not decide if they really were hyper-intelligent or insufferably ignorant; likely both. Communication had proved impossible. The gap between man and monster was insurmountable. Here, far from the world he knew, they had created for him what they believed was his natural habitat.
He gingerly peered out the window of his small wooden shack at a waiting crowd of grotesque alien things. Smaller monsters, perhaps children, waved pennants emblazoned with his face. A cacophony of popping corn and whistling kettles filled the air and threatened a return of the catalepsy he fought to control. Suddenly a hush fell as one creature raised its scaly arms and discharged a long, undulating blast from one of its trunks. It popped and hissed animatedly while the others listened. The oration concluded with a fanfare of shrieks and whistles. At this signal, an enormous banner unfurled. To Daniel’s surprise it was a face not his own, but that of a woman.
Suddenly an unseen door slid open to his enclosure and through it staggered that same woman, almost unrecognizable. Fear distorted her face; eyes staring wide with terror and confusion. The alien audience whooshed as one. Immediately she began shivering in the immutable winter chill, and as if on cue, the light of the diminished day faded while the ceiling glowed with simulated starlight. Daniel Cage walked out the door of his shack and gently beckoned to the frightened woman. He cast a venomous glance at the now wheezing spectators and simultaneously felt profound sympathy for this poor woman, abruptly ripped from her world, and infinite thanks that he would no longer be alone.
“Come inside,” he said. “It’s winter here all year round. Short days and long nights… in time you get used to it.”
These incomprehensible alien intelligences had bought together a breeding pair.
Happy anniversary indeed.