This story is by Michael A. Hemmings and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was dark and cold on the mountainside. Jamie opened his eyes, sensing a door had opened and closed, moving him across a threshold. He saw cumulonimbus clouds against a dark background, unmoving and threatening.
“Tim? Deb?” Silence. Nothing but the fire, down to a few smoking cinders, ready to flame if encouraged. He crawled out of a sleeping bag and threw on more wood. Panic rose.
“C’mon, enough’s enough. Jenn? Alf?” He circled the fire, looking outward all ‘round, felt the familiar rage climb up from his belly to accompany the panic.
“You’re confused,” a professional-sounding voice said. Another said, “this will make you…” and he felt a puncture in his arm. The voices faded out.
He touched his arm and whirled. “Who said that?” He stood for a long time while the fire burned and the panic rendered down to a gelid boulder in his belly. The sun rose and looked over the mountain.
“Friends! Shit! Why are they gone?” A familiar bitterness rose. He sat, staring at the flames then the ashes. He packed his knapsack and rolled the sleeping bag. He trudged to the top of the mountain and looked back.
“I am sure we came from that side.” He looked down the other side of the mountain. “So we must have been going to go down this side. God, it looks ugly out there.” The trees were dark and close. A streamlet made its way downwards by a thin ravine. The valley below was a yellow desert, crisped by the sun. Beyond that was a fog-covered swamp.
Hesitating, he heard voices from where he had come,“Hey, anyone there? Can you help me?”
“Sure we can.”
Another said, “we will!”
Still a third murmured, “Keep going. You will come to us.”
A fourth, Jamie wondered, said “Shut up!” Then he sniffed tobacco, a liquorish smell.
The trees rustled and the boulder in his belly exploded as green-skinned creatures ran from the trees. Without a further look or thought, he fled down the streamlet side of the mountain. He tripped and rolled amongst rocks, thistles and ants until he slid into the dark trees.
“Damn it! What the hell is going on!” He carefully sat up against the tree that stopped his fervent fall and felt himself. “Nothing broken; small mercy.” He wiped blood from his cheek and peered though the branches. Eyes and shadows on the ridge above him peered behind bush, tree and rock, seemed content to stay were they were. The eyes disappeared but he heard what he thought was laughter. He turned away, puzzled, sullen and tired.
On his way down he broke through the trees into a small glade which contained a circle of stones with a fire-pit. “Halloo!” He yelled. “Anyone here? Please! I’m lost.”
“That you are,” said a voice. He whirled about. He couldn’t see anyone.
“Can you help me?”
“That depends; what help do you need?” It seemed to come from everywhere. Like the air itself speaking. “Do you know what you are?”
“I am afraid.”
“That is not what you are; that is what you feel.”
The silence of a waiting
“I…I’m human, and lost, and alone.”
“You can stay here in the safety of this ring of stones, make of it whatever you wish; a castle, a cottage, a home of sorts. We will provide everything you need.”
“You go forward and find what you need.”
“Need? For what? I don’t understand.”
The voice faded as it said, “You will if you have the courage… to keep going.”
The voice was gone. Jamie sat down amidst the circle and stared at dead ashes. Whether it was a dream or a vision, he saw himself inside a mansion the way he had always imagined it, if he had had enough money. Embedded in the mountain side it had orchards, a library in which he could spend countless time travelling inside stories and digging up ideas, with food and all the necessities, except there were no humans, not even other animals. He would be alone. He came to himself, put on his backpack and walked down to the valley of sand.
It was a relief to reach the mountain’s feet and the end of the forest which had not ceased its quarrel with him. Its trees had ripped his clothes, bitten his skin, and he felt ragged and bruised but he was out and away. The sun was warm in the desert mid-morning; it was not yet at its apex. He refilled his bottle, drank as much as he could of the water from the streamlet and walked beside it, which seemed to run straight to the swamp.
The sun was soon high and hot, the sand hotter, and the mountain hours away when the streamlet turned into mud and then dry sand. He had filled his bottle at the last possible moment, drank and lapped as much water over himself as he could before going on. It was too late to turn back (And to what? he wondered.). So he kept going. He knew he was delirious because he kept hearing indistinct voices around him. He felt sure he should be able to name the persons to whom the voices belonged, barring two or three, but he could not think past the singular need to get out of that damned desert and find his ‘friends’.
He didn’t notice he had fallen onto the sand, hat covering his head, until he licked grit into his mouth. A thin, pointed voice that sounded like himself and then like another person jabbed itself into his mind.
“What’re you doing, idiot? How did you get into this mess?”
“Piss off, you, whoever you are…”
“Whoever you are? Why I’m you, of course. Time to sleep, sleep forever.”
His body woke but he still heard echoes of the argument. He pushed himself to his knees and then stood as they argued.
“I will get through…I will not hear you…”
The voices became indistinct. He walked until, eyes closed, lips parched he tripped into one of the cold fog-draped water holes scattered here and there in the spongy ground beyond the border of the desert. He opened his eyes, looked at his clothes and shrugged. Finding a deeper water-hole, he slid into it, water up to his armpits, cooling down.
He woke when his body reacted enough to tiny fish and larger crabs nipping a little too much skin off and he dragged himself out. Both thirsty and hungry he turned his hat upside down, allowing water and fish to fill it. He filled himself with water as the rest flowed through holes in his hat, and ate raw as many of the wriggling fish as he could. Then he laid down to rest on the spongy ground beside the hole.
Inanimate for how long he didn’t know but then someone tilted his head, “Come sir,” said a female voice, “drink up, this will make you feel better.”
“Who’s that?” he slurred. “Deb? Jenn?”
“No, dear. Forget them! You are with us now. They abandoned you, remember? We won’t, ever!” He slept uneasy and woke alongside a pool under an umbrella. A classic cool mint julep was sitting on a table beside him. He shifted to get off the lawn chair when a pair of strong but gentle hands pushed him back. “Now,” said an exquisite woman in a nurse’s uniform, “We mustn’t move. You have only just arrived and we’ve cleaned you up. But you need to rest.”
He sat back, drowsed and then through bleary eyes looked about. There were others here as he, in lawn chairs with drinks beside them being attended to by… ‘they abandoned me’, ‘with us now,’ ‘won’t abandon…’ He sat up and the scene changed. He was alone on a stage, dark around all the edges, with creatures touching him, feeding. They were short and green, bearing fangs and horns and smoking liquorish smelling cigarillos. He screamed then leapt up kicking and wailing, punching…
… “He’s coming out of it!” the voice he had heard first on the mountain said. The stage, the creatures disappeared. He was in a hospital bed, surrounded by family and friends.
“How? What happened?” he croaked.
That voice belonged to a doctor and she stood beside the bed, “Welcome back Jamie; you had a depressive episode. Your friends, scared for you, carried you off the mountain from the hike you were on and brought you here.”
“The dark trees, the desert, the voices, the mud flats, the spa… the green Greek chorus… ”
“All in your head young man.”
Jamie settled back, looked around and grimaced. “Thank you.” As he faded back to sleep, he muttered, “But it was no less real, a true, haunting.” The last thing he noted was the tang of liquorish.