An unwanted, unexpected visitor shows up to help - Chapter 1 contest entry
|I had friends here once. There were even people here who accepted me as family. But that was a long time ago. That was before I'd begun the study of my craft.
Some call it witchcraft, or I've heard devil's magic too. Either way, very few like to be associated with a guy who spends his days making potions and casting spells. I admit it does seem a little out there, but from time to time I find even the deniers faced with something unexplainable and sinister. Something that's slithered in from my side of the tracks, and something they can't possibly overcome on their own. That's where I come in.
Before my social life completely sunk down the tubes, Chad Donahue was my closest friend. Until one day—just as it had with my other friends—things fizzled out not long after I left for Colorado. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, they say, but I'd wager it only makes one accustomed to separation. People simply stop missing each other after a while. With Chad, the phone calls got less and less frequent as it went on until he didn't feel the need to call at all. One of the last things he said to me, "Who even calls people these days?" But I wasn't about to blame our falling out on phone calls no longer being the trendiest way to communicate.
I heard he'd gotten married, gotten a job selling real estate, and had two kids, a boy and a girl. Things were going well. I was glad for him regardless of wherever we stood as friends.
Then, one day not long ago while on a hiking trip with just him and his son, the boy had gotten himself separated. Chad looked back on the trail to see nothing but encroaching woods and an empty trail leading off. He couldn't have gone far. Chad would find him. He hollered out after the kid, searched the woods, returned to the trail, went off in another direction. Hollered and hollered. Hours passed. Night came. By morning's first light, he was still out looking for his son with no sign of him anywhere. Chad stayed in the mountain for days afterward till his voice gave out, his water dried up, and his supplies were spent. Rescuers had to relieve him of the search and get him to a hospital when they finally tracked him down an entire week out from his expected return.
Word of this came to me when I happened upon the story on the news while sitting alone in a coffee shop. The authorities were baffled by the disappearance and the lack of any trace of the missing kid. I began to wonder if there was more to the disappearance than anyone ever could have anticipated. 8f course I hoped not, but there was no denying that this wasn't the typical disappearance case.
I usually keep away from people and their affairs. Particularly those who'd wish that I remain out of their lives. Sometimes, though, you've got to help those who can't help themselves and leave pride out of the equation. Whether Chad might call me a friend or not, he needs my help. Whether he wants it or not he's getting it because I may be the only person in or out of his life with the means to solve this. And lucky for him, all I needed was a place to start. Thanks to the news, I had that.
Tibble Lake and the surrounding wood is an area I knew well in my younger years, but after setting out into the world right after high school, I never looked back. Never crossed my mind that I'd step foot here again, either, but you can't ever predict these kinds of things.
It was a place you didn't stop for, a place you trekked within range of and only on the way to greater heights and a number of picturesque vistas and awe-inspiring landmarks beyond. Tibble Lake had been nothing more than another mountain lake where wildlife came to drink and loiter undisturbed. Now, two docks stretch out from the shoreline side by side. The carpet of weed and grass had been razed to reveal sand that gives way to gravel, which then gives way to tarmac and the road that took me here. And I understand that at the right hours of any summer day, its coast is covered in a riot of beach towels while visitors drift along on kayaks, paddleboards, anything without a motor. Today, I've beaten the crowds, but I don't make for Tibble, I make for the trees. My course takes me past the high hill and heading easterly from the waters.
I've brought a shovel along, tipped over my shoulder as I tread around bushes, over bulging tree roots, and beside rising slopes. Fluid swishes in my flask against my movements, and I recommit to downing it all before I've reached my stopping point. Already my head is woozy, and my own plodding footfalls hum from my ankles to my cheeks, making my ears throb. The air is a damp veil that tingles my skin on this cool morning.
Even while I may be the only human in site for miles given the hour, I've likely shown up too late. I curse myself for indulging in the previous contents of my flask from the night before. I'd woken up groggy and sluggish, barely able to pull out of bed. The new mixture came together well, though, and I've recounted all of the ingredients in my head over the long drive here. I haven't missed anything. My body, my mind, this is exactly how it should feel.
I stop and lean the shovel against a tree. My imagination conjures up a notion of battery acid. The mixture stings my tongue and its miasma sears from sinus to nostril. It goes down and does worse to my belly, and I know in minutes from now the aches going through my skull will outdo it all. After wincing off the bitterness, I right myself and give the flask a whisk. I need to drink more, but not now. I'm not sure I can take another dose of it so soon.
I steel myself and down it all anyway.
Roughly an hour's passed and I'm stumbling along when I find a trail listlessly dragged through clumps of grass. It's hard to spot at first, and I could have intersected it a dozen times before I noticed it, but I see it now, veering off in a different direction. This should tell me not to follow it. I imagine I'm lecturing those goofs back home for a second.
"Under these circumstances, while under this kind of influence, there can be many paths that will interrupt your course and conspire to dissuade you from the correct way ahead. But you have to keep on anyway." I say with my chin high, standing as officiously as possible.
I know this, but I examine this new path anyway, ignoring my own advice. Things can't always be so straightforward, and I ought to give allowance for that. And more importantly than any rules or anything owing to logic, it feels right. I no longer wish to go the direction I set out on, and I head down the new way before me.
As I travel on, I find that the trees here are more mature, healthier, and clustered in such a way that their tops consume much of the light, leaving little opportunity for vegetation to creep in, but the grass remains persistent here, and the trail never falters or fades.
The shovel tumbles off my shoulder and clatters against a loose stone. The handle gets a good whack in on my ankle, getting a swear out of me. I grunt and lean to pick it up. When it's in my hand and I start to stand, the sensation hits. I try to rise, but I kneel instead. My ears tingle, and all I can do is close my eyes and wait for it to pass. I'm glad to be on an empty stomach, but that's only consequence of what the ritual requires.
Several minutes pass. I can't wait any longer. If I'm to do this, I need to press on. The shovel is supporting me like a crutch with the spade dug in. I rise, somehow, trying not to teeter. Peering down at the shovel in hand—I see my arm is trembling—it feels as though I'm anchored to it while being flung around in circles, looping and looping with the handle at the center.
It settles down with time. When my bearings come to me, my stomach is still pinwheeling violently, but otherwise I'm holding it together. One hand on the shovel still, and one hand clutching at my guts as if I can grab a hold of myself and dam up the pain. I stand straight and assess my surroundings.
I'm not seeing any visual cues that alarm me. Something has caught my attention, though, and I scan over the area. It's cooler here, but the tree cover is thicker. I attribute it to that. It's also darker. The thicker tree cover takes the blame for that as well. Maybe it's just a feeling with no cause, borne of nothing. Maybe, maybe not. It's hard to say one way or another, and especially at a time like this. As a general rule, I try to pay attention to those little intense bursts of intuition when they come, but in this instance, I think I'd better disregard it. The drink, after all, has played its tricks on my perception already.
But I missed something, and it's taken hold of my attention from just out of the corner of my eye. Not far along is a tree. At first, it doesn't appeal to me or catch my eye, but its unmistakable blunt edges and square corners distinguish some of its features as manmade. I peer harder through the thickening darkness. It is a tree, but a knotted rope hangs down from somewhere up high. Boards are nailed to the trunk leading up to a structure. A window above is curtained with shaggy fabric that's sporting holes and brown stains. These drapes are agape and it's far too dark to make out the interior.
"So this is the spot then," I say, stabbing the shovel back into the dirt.
After I've dug away the vegetation sufficiently, I gather stones and form a round pit in the center of that clearing. The driest pieces of wood go in after the kindling. Mainly browned pine needles and traces of bark shed from a felled tree as well as a number of twigs. I've brought along a lighter and a few strips of paper that catch easily. The kindling takes to it as well, and soon the twigs glow and then flame. Fire whips upward in a flimsy wave. It starts like that. But soon it's gone much larger. I bend and retrieve a stone large enough to plant my seat upon and take up by the growing fire.
Waiting is what comes next. And darkness. Morning should bring light, but things are different here now. I upend the flask and shake loose a drop. It falls into the flames, and the flames are gone. No smoke, no hiss, just gone. I stare at the crisped wood pieces and the curling trail of smoke rising from it. This part always amuses me. The same flame as before blooms up at once in a loud poof, and the fire continues as if it had never let up.
Then, the creaking of wood catches my ear. I start to turn toward it. I start, but I stop. I've seated myself so my back is to the tree and the treehouse. A treehouse that I'd stumbled upon long ago and many times thereafter, but never in the same spot and never here. Always a new place, always to be found.
More sounds of creaking wood. I lick my lips. The urge to turn is nearly unbearable, but I resist it even as I'm met with the sound of straining rope, the sound of rope rasping against hand and shoe, and then the sound of leaves flattened by someone landing behind me.
The steps come slowly. I listen to the tempo. Consistent footfalls mashing down leaves and crackling over twigs. He's beside me. I still don't look. To stave off the impulse to glance his way, just the one time, as the impulse urges, I close my eyes. Opposite of my own, I've arranged a stone on the other side of the fire. The boy sits there, and I open my eyes, but I keep them averted. From the edge of my vision, I can see he's prodding the logs with a doddering twig thinner than his white-cold fingers.
Then, he looks my way. I meet his stare for an instant. He focuses on the fire. Brief as it was, that exchange of glances was enough to seal the deal. He could have stood and left, but he looked at me, and now he won't leave until the fire's gone.
"Daniel?" I venture.
"Yeah," he says without moving.
"Daniel, you're not here, are you?"
He shakes his head and mouths, "No."
Of course he's not.
In response, I nod, ready to jump at him with questions. I didn't expect to see the boy. I certainly hoped I wouldn't. Chad really was over his head. I said that before, but I never expected this. I imagine for a moment how it'd sound if I tried to tell him what I found out. With that, I'm reminded of how pointless of an exercise this entire thing might be.
But I'm here, and while I'm here, I'm going to make the most of it.
"Daniel?" I say again.
He brings his feet in a little closer to his body, thumping one of his boots against the stone. The same boot I figure he was wearing when they went out camping. It'd been three weeks since his father lost him out in the woods, and one week since the last searchers gave up the hunt.
Daniel says nothing.
"Where are you, Daniel?"
He looks at me and shrugs, eyes dipping back down to the fire. But then he points at the treehouse and my eyes follow. I know that can't be right.
"The treehouse?" I ask anyway.
He nods and wipes at his dull blue eyes. I'd seen pictures of Daniel before. His eyes had always been a few shades browner than they were now. But then again his skin had looked different too. He'd looked alive. Not like this.
"You're not in the treehouse, Daniel."
I'm lecturing a bunch of dark arts dunces and rejects again in a small room set aside within a library. We were set up there under the guise of a shared hobby in making authentic dreamcatchers. I didn't know the first thing about dreamcatchers, honestly, but that was a field of study I'd always wanted to explore, which I found a little ironic. The two forms compared a bit Llke flyfishing as opposed to standard fishing. Dreamcatchers belonged to a craft that was older, insular, and therefore more primitive, but in ways more powerful, and in other ways, weaker.
Within the small room, with all six or seven sets of eyes on me, I said, "If you ever manage to commune with the dead, there's one thing you need to remember. The first, you need a fire. The fire will protect you if your potation is done correctly. And if you don't botch that part of it, you drink it all. If you have a drop or two left, that's fine. In fact, you need it for the fire."
"What about the dead?" someone blurted.
"What about them?" I asked
"Can you actually talk to them?" I remember a girl with thick glasses and a bad complexion.
"You can, but you can't look at them."
"I thought you said—"
"It's better if you don't look. Might as well not at all."
"How does it work?"
"Is it just like talking to them if they were alive?" Someone else.
I chose to answer that one. "No, it's not the same at all. Not if they've been dead a while. After a week, their memory starts to go. They slowly, slowly become more and more untethered from this world and their senses fade. They fade. In two weeks, not much different from the first. In three, they're almost incoherent. By a month's time, you can't even summon them anymore. So if you've got some kind of fanciful notion of calling on Abe Lincoln, forget about it. Cleopatra? You probably weren't her type anyway."
I look at the boy. I may not have much longer with him before the fire goes out, so I try to focus on the important questions, questions that can bring me closer to the truth.
The stick is still in his hand, and I'm surprised to see the end has a steady little sprout of flame bobbing. He swishes it around, eyes transfixed on the glowing part.
"Daniel?" I say again.
He tosses the stick into the fire. It lands to one side and almost tumbles out.
"Yeah?" he says.
"Can you tell me what happened?"
He brings his hands together, bare hands, and rubs them harshly. I know his plight. I know the fire can do little to warm him now. He looks up and says, "Something bad."
"Did someone do this to you?"
The question is pointless. I know Daniel was with his dad and no one else on the day he disappeared. But I asked it anyway. It simply sprung out of me unbidden.
He shuffles on his seat and looks toward the treehouse, the place I've conjured him from.
It should take more than it does to get it out of him. The boy looks at me, and I startle. His eyes are keen and filled with another layer of fire. "It was my dad."