This "short" story was too big to fit in one file
|Emma woke up from restless sleep, wiped her eyes, and looked into the darkness of her room. She looked down at the box next to her. It seemed innocently still, yet the room felt different. Everything drooped and the air felt thick. The doorframe that seemed straight before now slouched to the side. The windows sagged from the weight of water that dripped down onto the windowsill, as if they were sopping rags wringing out the absorbed water. She closed her eyes and looked again. In the far corner a faint glow of light appeared. Squinting to get a better view, she thought that maybe her eyes were just blurry from sleep. The glow grew larger and larger until it lit her entire room. Nothing like this had ever happened before, which worried her, but the glow seemed harmless. It was just a light.
Emma got out of her bed and walked closer to it, still wearing her pajamas. She reached out her hand to the light to see if she could touch it. Slowly she moved toward it until she stood where the wall should have been. Only there was still empty space, so she moved forward. As she stepped through the light, she felt heavy warmth, everything around her glowed. She kept moving forward in the brightness and the air turned muggy, as if her room suddenly became a dense swamp. She could hear drips and tinkles of water all around her. When she breathed, it felt like she gulped down a cup of water. She took another step and her surroundings began to show. She saw trees, what looked like a river or pond, big flowers, and leaves surrounding her. It was a swamp. She walked slowly forward until her feet sank into warm water. It was up to her ankles. Nothing looked familiar to her; she was definitely no longer in her room.
Suddenly, something brushed against her ankle. She quickly looked down. In the water were snakes and baby alligators slithering around her. It was as if they were going somewhere. They could have easily bitten her ankles because she wore no protection. Her legs were completely vulnerable to snakes, insects, alligators, or anything else that lived in the swamp, but none of the animals seemed to pay any attention to her. They were all swimming in one direction. Even the birds that chirped and made so much noise overhead flew in that same direction, like they were either running from something or were going to some kind of gathering. Emma looked behind her; nothing seemed dangerous. There must be something up ahead that the animals headed toward. Emma’s curiosity kept her moving forward with the animals.
The swamp thickened as she sloshed in the muck. Hanging vines and trees grew closer together. Snakes and other swampy creatures constantly brushed against her, making her very nervous. They still seemed too preoccupied to notice her though. Just as she started to lose courage and wonder if she would ever find her way back to her room, she came to a clearing. More animals congregated there in the clearing from all sides. There were more animals than she could have ever thought possible, all close together. She saw what seemed like thousands of different kinds of snakes, hundreds of alligators, birds covered all the tree branches overhead, flying insects swarmed and swirled underneath the canopy of trees, and lizards of all kinds clung to tree trunks gazing expectantly in the middle of the clearing.
In the middle stood a large stone covered in moss, swampy vines, and yellow flowers. The stone looked like a platform of some kind, about two feet tall and four feet wide. In the center of the stone sat a frog, large and bloated. It couldn’t move. Its stomach protruded forward making its front feet suspended above the rocks. Its feet stretched, but they couldn’t reach, so it just sat there helplessly with its eyes open and looking around, gasping. She looked at the other animals as they watched the frog sit there and try to breathe. They looked somber, as if they pitied the frog for some reason. They looked at it with sadness, but did nothing. They just watched.
Emma looked back at the frog. Its pleading eyes searched the swamp. From when Emma first entered the swamp nothing seemed to notice her, but as the frog looked at the congregation of creatures that came to look at it, it finally found her there and stared. At first, it startled her that she finally was noticed in all the commotion, but she stared right back at the frog, mesmerized by its bright green eyes. Something familiar in the frog’s eyes held Emma’s gaze, as if it had a human quality, as if she looked in her own eyes. She kept the stare for a long time until she finally realized that the rest of the animals in the swamp were looking at her too. It seemed like all they blamed her for the frog’s state. Emma suddenly realized that she was very out of place in this swamp. The hair on her arms stood straight up and she felt an uncanny tingle in her spine. She needed to get out of there, fast.
Slowly at first, she started walking backwards as the animals continued to stare at her. She looked back at the frog and its mouth moved, as if it were trying to say something or maybe just gasping for air. Emma turned around and sloshed away as quickly as she could. She looked back over her shoulder and noticed that the animals started following her. They moved fluidly in the swamp, it was their home after all, they were used to the mud and water. She walked faster and lifted her feet out of the water, trying to make it easier to move. The mud under the water became more and more sticky. Each step was harder to make. Snakes swirled between her legs and the birds swooped low, chirping angrily at her. She felt all the animals following closely behind her, coming down on her. The mud that clung to her feet felt like weights slowing her down. The trees swayed violently causing a tremendous roar that filled the swamp. Emma tried to scream for help, but nothing came out. Her mouth just opened and closed, gasping like the frogs. Just as the swamp and all its animals were about to overtake her, she bolted up in her bed and shook violently under the covers. The magic box lay innocently next to her.
* * *
Emma spent the day at school in a haze. She refused to take notes, forgot to turn in assignments, and barely talked to anyone; she just sat in her desk, looking down. After school, she still couldn’t even muster enough energy to spend some of the gold coins she got that night. She just went back to her room to look at the box and count how much money she had left.
Emma really had nothing to buy. She bought all that she could have ever wanted without it being blatantly obvious to her parents. The gold she accumulated over the weeks piled up. She had to find a way to store the gold and save it. Her initial thought of using it for the family vanished. Now she could only think of herself. She thought about how terrible her life had become because of all the stuff she had but wasn’t able to show it off. Her parents didn’t understand or care about what she did every night for them, and her friends only cared that she all-of-a-sudden had money. They wanted to mooch off her. Nobody cared about her anymore, they never had. She felt completely alone in the world with nothing to live for and no one to care about except for the box. She cried that night, which produced more gold coins.
Soon after Emma fell asleep after a long night of crying, she woke up stranded on the edge of a large canyon. A strong wind blew all around her and the bed sheet that still covered her blew off, twisting in the air as it fell to the bottom of the canyon. Emma rolled on her stomach and tried to hold on to something solid before she blew over the edge as well. She laid on a platform that stood alone in the middle of a huge canyon. It was small, only ten feet in diameter. She lay in the middle of it with cliffs all around her. One false step and she would plummet to the bottom of the canyon, hundreds of feet below. The wind blew endlessly with violent rushes that threatened to push her over the edge.
As she started to gain her bearings, Emma could see miles in all directions. The canyon was beautiful and foreboding at the same time. It overwhelmed her. Emma forgot how perilously she perched at the top of this platform and stood to take in the full view. Just then, a violent wind pounded her and she lost her footing. She fell backwards to the edge of the cliff barely snagging a rock before she fell. There she hung, hundreds of feet above the ground where she would certainly die if she fell. In a panic, Emma scratched and pulled at whatever she could to get back on the platform.
Once she pulled herself from the edge, the canyon was no longer beautiful. She sat there and shook with fear. She hated this place and didn’t understand why she was there. This must be a nightmare. If it was a dream then it wouldn’t actually kill her when she fell; it would just wake her up, like she did last night, and everything would be okay. No matter how hard she tried to reassure herself, nothing seemed to help. It felt too real. Regardless of whether she was dreaming, Emma heard that if you were to dream yourself actually hitting the ground, you would die anyway.
As Emma sat, not knowing how she was going to get down from there, she saw a speck in the distance. It seemed to float towards her. It moved back and forth in the wind like a feather, changing directions suddenly. Sometimes it would drop several feet then rise back up again, then shift to the right, and then back. Finally, it came close enough for Emma see it clearly. She squinted to get a better look. It looked like a butterfly. As it came closer, she was sure of it. It fluttered there just over the edge and circled her. It had beautiful yellow and orange markings with large eyespots on its wings. She loved butterflies. Somehow, the butterfly reminded her of her grandfather he told her stories while she sat on his lap. Seeing it flutter just out of reach comforted her and gave her courage. She wanted to hold it.
Emma slowly stood up, stabilizing herself. The wind gathered strength but she held sturdy. Bracing herself against the wind, she inched closer to the edge of the cliff, but the butterfly fluttered just barely out of her reach. She mustered some more courage and got closer to the edge, leaning over it while holding her hand out. It seemed to notice her and again moved away. It fluttered around but never got close enough for her to grab, so she decided to talk to it. “Come on. I won’t hurt you,” hoping that it would come closer. Emma thought she could grab it if she leaned a little farther out, so when it fluttered close again she lunged, making her dangerously unbalanced over the edge of the canyon. Again, the butterfly moved just out of reach. Why wouldn’t it trust her?
Emma mustered all her courage for one final effort. Standing on the edge of the platform, she leaned over the edge reaching for the butterfly. Just then, another strong gust of wind came from behind and pushed her off balance. Emma’s entire body leaned out beyond her comfort level, and before she could correct her balance, she fell. She fell fast and spun out of control, giving her brief glances of the canyon’s floor as it got dangerously closer. The ground came hurling at her. In that brief moment of freefall, Emma was sure this was it. Her short, hard life was over before she could drive a car or kiss a boy. Before she could even scream, she hit the ground. Thump! Emma jumped up gasping for breath. She was back in her room, on the floor by her bed. A great sigh of relief came over her before she felt the sharp pain in her back. She reached under her and pulled out the box.
* * *
Emma felt groggy all day and the pain in her back made it uncomfortable to sit. She hated her life. She hadn’t slept in days and her so-called friends annoyed her to death. Emma refused to talk to them and avoided them as much as she could. During breaks, she walked through the halls of her school with a scowl. When someone came up to her, she gave them a dirty look that turned them on their heels. During lunch, she took her food out behind the school where only the rejects hung out. There she could be alone. She ate her food in silence and stayed away from everyone else for the rest of the day.
Her parents weren’t so easy to avoid. They sat in the living room as she walked through the door, waiting for her. As soon as she saw them, she rolled her eyes.
“Emma, we need to talk,” said her mom.
“We’re worried about you, that’s why,” answered her dad; “I took some time off work today because your mom told me how you’ve been acting. She also says that you’ve been locking yourself in your room, barely eating, and in a really bad mood all the time.”
“No honey, you’re not. I’ve never seen you like this,” her mom said, “are you having trouble at school?”
“No. Everything’s fine at school.”
“Are you having a fight with one of your friends?” asked her dad.
“Is something else going on that is making you so upset?” asked her mom. “We want to help because it doesn’t look like you’re very happy right now. We are here for you if you need anything. Please talk us.”
What they could get for me that I couldn’t buy for myself, Emma thought. “Everything’s fine guys, really. Just, leave me alone.”
Emma’s parents looked at each other and then looked back at her. Her mom scrutinized her closely before saying it.
“Emma, I’ve heard you crying in your room every night this week. I know something is going on. Just talk to us.”
She was right, something was going on, but when her mom said it aloud Emma lost control. Her face burned with anger. The face that usually would have melted when her parents showed how much they loved her, now hardened and twisted. She hated them for caring so much, for trying to undermine her need to stay… whatever. They didn’t understand what the box required. She had to stay isolated and angry; otherwise, she couldn’t cry. If she couldn’t cry, then she couldn’t… It didn’t matter anyway. They had no right to butt into her life right now; she did this for them. Didn’t they see that?
“That’s none of your business!” She shouted. “Quit bothering me all the time! If I need your help I’ll ask for it. Besides, its not like you’ve ever helped me before, since you both have to work so much. You guys are never around, and now, all of a sudden you are so concerned?”
Emma’s parents sunk into their seats. How could they respond?
Great, she thought, now their going to try to make me feel guilty.
“You make it sound like you care so much for what I’m going through, but you don’t even know what I’m going through! Mind your own business and stop trying to butt into mine! Just LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Emma spun around and raced to her room. When she got there, she felt terrible. After all, they were just trying to help. She knew that deep down, but she couldn’t help it. While spending so much time feeling sorry for herself and using that box, she got comfortable in her miserable state and resented anyone who tried to make her feel better. That night she lay in her bed, holding the box, and cried. She felt terrible for how she treated her parents, but she couldn’t get the courage to tell them the truth. It was a very productive night.
* * *
Emma woke up from the wind blowing through trees. She lay on a huge tree branch in the biggest tree she had ever seen. Emma rubbed her lower back. She looked down for where she perched and immediately felt dizzy. Quickly she grabbed the large branch with both hands and hugged it. She had fallen enough. Gaining her bearings, Emma looked around and saw that the tree stood alone in a large grass field. It towered in the middle of the field like the last warrior surveying a battlefield. The tree grew to well over a hundred feet tall. She perched halfway up on a sturdy branch, secure there, but when gusts of wind blew she could feel the branch sway, making her very unstable.
As she got more comfortable with her surroundings, she thought about how great it would be to build a huge tree house in it, like the Swiss Family Robinson. She could build the living room over there, which linked to her bedroom by a rope bridge over there. Over there she could build the dining room and kitchen that she could reach by swing. It excited her to think about the possibilities, but she wasn’t carried away. She knew that this was a dream, or whatever these journeys were, like the last two, and something had always gone terribly wrong. It was only a matter of time.
As she looked down at the tall grass she noticed that it moved strangely. Something down there must be moving it that way, but is hiding beneath the tall grass. At the base of the trunk, suddenly a cute animal jumped out from the field and scurried up the tree. It reached one branch, ran the end of it until the branch bowed from its weight, and then jumped to another branch. When it jumped, its legs stretched making its skin fan out like a blanket, flattening it and turning the little animal into what looked like a square Frisbee. She saw an animal like that on TV once. It was flying squirrel. It had the ability to glide for great distances between trees in sparse areas in order to avoid predators. Its large black eyes looked around spastically as it jumped from branch to branch and a single stripe down its back wiggled like a worm from its quick movements. The little squirrel scurried and squeaked in nervous excitement. It climbed higher and higher in the tree until it stopped close to Emma.
“Hey there little guy. What are you so nervous about?”
The squirrel looked directly into Emma’s eyes and jumped toward her. It opened it legs showing the full width of its expanded belly and glided over her head. She could have reached up and grabbed it out of the air if she wanted to, but suddenly a hawk burst through the leaves above her and snatched the squirrel out of the air. With a squeak, the squirrel lurched under the grip of the hawks talons and was taken away into the distance, sure to become its dinner.
Just then she heard a loud rustle. Out of the grass sprang ten, then twenty, and then thirty more flying squirrels. They covered the tree and glided from branch to branch. More squirrels kept jumping from the grass in droves until the tree rippled with movement from squirrels. The army of squirrels swarmed around her in seconds. She didn’t realize the kind of danger this put her at first, but she did know that she didn’t want a hundred little squirrel claws grasping her on their way to safety. She started climbing up the tree to avoid them and noticed what waited for the squirrels overhead.
Hundreds of hawks flew in a large circle over the tree like a storm, darkening the sky. The hawks swooped down snatching squirrels one by one, as they climbed the tree and jumped from limb to limb, tying to get to safety. It was a bloodbath.
“No! Don’t hurt them!” she screamed.
Why did they run out of the tall grass? It would seem that hiding under the grass would have been better protection from the hawks than bounding through a tree in plain sight. Below, on the outer edges of the field came larger, more vicious rodents, which chased the squirrels into the field. They were the size of small dogs but with oversized humps on their backs, and they ran strangely, like rats. Instead of a bark, they let out snarls and high-pitched screeches that pierced her ear.
The squirrels were trapped. Whether they stayed in the tall grass up in the tree, they were doomed to become food for either those strange rats or easy picking for the storm of hawks overhead. Emma felt so sorry for the squirrels and wanted somehow to help, but she knew that she could do nothing. She could only watch. The squirrels surrounded her and used her as if they would a tree branch. She felt the sting of their little claws on her skin and the wind from hawk’s wings as they swooped in for the kill. Emma realized that she could very easily be mistaken for a squirrel in the commotion. She definitely wanted to avoid dealing with those rats, so she started climbing up the tree again. The squirrels that scurried under her feet and on her back made climbing difficult. Their claws hurt and left scratches on her arm and neck. She stepped on them and grabbed them every time she tried to climb higher. The number of squirrels scurrying up the tree made it impossible. All she could do was sit there until the massacre finished.
Emma huddled up, covered her face, and waited. She stopped watching but could still hear everything. She heard the screeches and growls of the rats down below, tearing at the squirrels that were too slow. She heard the hawks call and the sound of their wings as they swooped down, snatching their dinner. She heard the squirrels as they were taken away in the hawk’s talons, squeaking in pain. Emma started crying and covered her face, rocking precariously on the tree branch until finally everything went silent.
The squirrels were dead.
She wiped the tears from her eyes and uncovered her face. Looking up she could still see the cloud of hawks circling the tree overhead. They were still there. Looking down she could still see the rats huddled at the base of the tree trunk. They searched the tree hungrily. An unsettling stillness held Emma captive. Why were the hawks and rats still hanging around when there were no more flying squirrels?
One of the rats jumped from the ground to the base of the tree trunk. It inched its way up the trunk slowly at first, staring with its bulbous black eyes at Emma. More followed until a swarm at rats climbed with ferocious fluidity up the tree straight at her. Emma climbed as fast as she could while the hawks swirled around her head, happy that their feast continued. Hawks swooped down on her, clawing at her hands and face.
As she climbed, she swung one arm defending her against the hawks. They tore at her pajamas, throwing her off balance and making it more difficult to climb. The rats below closed in and she continued to climb as best she could while swinging at the hawks with one of her arms. She hit one hawk on the wing and it plummeted down the tree unable to gain its bearings. A rat caught it and shook it violently, dragging it into the tall grass. She climbed as high as she felt she could go in the tree and in a panic she inched away from the tree trunk, outward on a branch hoping that if she had to jump, it would be a quick end rather than being torn apart from those terrible rats while still alive.
The branch sagged as she crawled away from the tree trunk. The rats reached her branch and steadily crawled toward her. The hawks continued to swoop and snag at her clothes. She tore off a twig from the branch and swung it at the hawks as they swooped close to her. She hit one and sent it reeling. The rats were so close now she could smell them. She swung the twig at the rat closest to her but it caught the twig with its teeth and shook it. The rat let go of the twig and she swung at it again. The rat caught the twig again and this time held on. It pulled the twig out of Emma’s hands and spit it out, letting it tumble to the tall grass below. The rat came closer, Emma could feel the heat of its body, and a wave of its stench choked her before it sprang. Emma’s arm tingled as she pulled the covers from over her head.
She was back in her room.
A big sigh of relief overcame her and she chuckled, realizing that she almost forgot it was a dream. Then she looked at her arms and noticed scratches, and she looked down at her torn pajamas. Emma felt her cheeks and realized that she had been crying. She sat up suddenly and looked at the box resting innocently beside her, overflowing with gold coins.