I can't stop it. This bright, red-- ugh. I pull the gauze tighter around my thigh and blink back the tears of panic. My damp tent whips and snaps at me in the wind. A single glass-encased flame sits in the center of my flat bedroll. The sticky liquid pools in the dents on the ground and is soaked up by the limp cotton in my bed.
This never happens. It's not supposed to happen. Wandering off the trail; people do that all the time. Why the hell am I the only the one that can't make it back? Right now I'm more frustrated at myself, almost enough to make me forget that I'm bleeding to death in the middle of a tempest. The wind slows for a moment and snaps back in full force. The side of the tent raps me in the back of the head and knocks over the lantern. The flame is snuffed out in a red puddle. I reach over to try and right it, placing my hand in several inches of my own blood. Bile lurches up my throat and I slowly gag it back down. My throat burns.
I wish I knew where I was. My compass is a worthless, dollar-store piece of crap that's more eight-ball fortune than anything. I shake it up and get a different answer every time.
I try to lay back down, but the feel of the sticky liquid sends a chill down my arms. That, and my leg hurts like none other. No doubt it's getting infected from the algae-covered water I used to rinse it out.
I sit up and partially cross my legs. My eyes slowly adjust to the dark and my ears tune out the storm. I rock back and forth slowly and put my head between my knees. Right as I begin to nod off, thunder screams across the canyon and lightning sears my vision.
I'm not getting to sleep, and I'm certainly not finding a way out of here like this.
Tonight is going to be horrid.
‘ “Stop staring at that wall,” Gerek frowned at me. It was his fault for putting in such an ugly wall, and I made a point to tell him so. It was orange with red lines curving and twisting across its surface. Whenever I can to see him I could hardly take my eyes from it, so engrossing was the pattern. It leapt at the eyes, punishing them with disturbed shades that had no connection to each other. At least, I think there isn’t a connection. I have to make sure. If I look at a specific point, it seems like there is a pattern, but as soon as I move my eyes the sense of it dissolves.
“You can here to talk about a map,” he shoved at my shoulder.
“Yeah, it’s in my backpack.” I had been trying to find something for about a month now. The map was really blueprints to my old place. Supposedly the last owner had hidden something. It isn’t that important though, this wall–
“These are the same blueprints from last time,” Gerek grumbled. “This is the fifteenth time you’ve come. We agreed that–“
“It wasn’t there.” If I start at the center of the wall, it spirals out, but then everything separates. Surely there is a starting point that makes sense? “Does this wall have a pattern?”
“No, you’ve asked every time, now let’s try again.”
“Just gimme a few minutes, I want to figure out this wall.” Left, bottom corner is all straight lines and right angles.
“You said that last time, and the time before, come here.” He was angry.
Right hand, top corner, nothing, just a smooth splotch of red and orange like mashed bugs rubbed into the wall. Does it move out from there? No…
“You’ve been coming for weeks about these prints and all you do is stare at that wall. We’re done, go.”
Moving closer to the wall, I pressed my hand to it, touching my knife with the other. “There’s something here. I’m going to find it.”
He shouted at me then. He always had a hot temper. I don’t like it when people yell at me. I will find the pattern, the way in the maze. He held me back. He was hiding it from me.’
I rose in front of the officers who held me.
‘Can you remove his body now? I need to find the pattern on the wall.’
The stars were bright that night. I don’t think they’ve ever been brighter. It’s funny. The whole evening had been that way.
The twilight had been more golden than I had ever seen it. It gilded everything it touched, glimmering on the drops from the afternoon’s rain. The humidity in the air was warm and caressing, nothing less.
And the rays of the sun as they touched the skies, lending its tinctures to the clouds in varying shades, can only be described by one word: magical.
Even her eyes that night glowed with a sheen that transcended her consuetudinary effervescence.
Ironic. When I felt at my worst, the world is at its best.
When I felt in the depths of despair, the world around me was in the heights of glory.
Even when the tears hung on her lashes like the last raindrops hung from the leaves of the trees; even when her face was as moist as the sodden earth; even when she could hardly keep her voice level, she was smiling at me.
That smile. She always smiled. Always. I’ll never forget it. That memory will be all that remains to keep me company.
She told me it was over. She told me that friendship was no longer possible, the way she felt . . . and the way she knew I felt.
But she told me she wasn’t ready for anything more. And in my heart I knew that I wasn’t, either.
And now I’m lost. And alone. And waiting, and searching. Perusing the profundity of my broken heart and my wounded soul.
Time. It can be an impasse as substantial as any other. Incorporeal or not, it’s more insuperable than most, for there is only one way to overcome it.
Let it pass. Let it go by.
It’s a mire. It’s daunting. But I have to trudge me way through. I have to wait.
How could I do anything else? It’s all I can do for her, now. I always swore I would do everything; how could I turn back now?
When I made the pledge with but God as my witness, I had no idea the task she would require of me would be as hard as this. But I’ll find my way through. I have to.
I love her. How can I do anything else?
“...take the blue pill, and wake up in your bed tomorrow morning with no recollection of the events. Or, you can take the red pill and discover how deep the rabbit hole really goes.”
“What about the purple pill? What does it do?”
“There is no purple pill, Neo.”
“What? Neo? Who the – oh, I get it.”
Jackson stood from the old debilitated chair and walked over to the fire. Before any of the people in the room could comment on his actions, Jackson shoved his sleeve up and then reached his bare arm into the fire. Pain immediately lanced through his body upon contact and his body jerked before his vision faded to black.
He bolted upright into a sitting position, tossing his blanket onto the floor in a heap. The sun was shining through the window, and he could make out the particles of dust floating around through the air in front of him.
That’s the fourth night in a row. He thought.
Each night he’d been having the same dream, with a figure who called himself “Morpheus” offering him a choice between two pills, one red and one blue. The dream always began at the choice, and so Jackson had no idea what it was all about. But each night his methods of removing himself from the dream had gotten progressively more dangerous. The first night he’d simply pinched his arm – now he was sticking his arm in a fire.
Hands trembling slightly, he scratched his head subconsciously as he carefully picked his way across the bedroom, making sure not to step on any pieces of plastic that would surely drive right through his feet. He gasped softly when his feet first touched the cold hardwood flooring of the hallway, and he tip toed as fast as he could into the washing room. Once inside, he stared at the mirror. His blue eyes distracted him as they had been the last several weeks, as if they were a mystery to be solved. His dirty blonde hair was dishevelled from the night of sleep, and a rather large pimple on his chin seemed to mock him. He reached up and pinched, his face scrunching in pain as he popped it.
Once finished, with his dream still weighing on his mind, Jackson made his way to the kitchen and opened the cupboard, pulling out his bottle of pills, which rattled as he removed it from the shelf. He twisted the cap off and gasped, his hand beginning to shake when he saw the assorted red and blue pills inside.
“You can take the blue pill, and wake up tomorrow with no memory of these events. Or, you take the red pill, and discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
He could hear the voice in his head as clear as day.
That evening, Jackson shivered as he climbed into bed, trying to calm himself enough to get the rest he needed. Surely it was nothing - surely he wouldn’t have the dream again...
“You need to make a choice, Jackson.”
Jackson bit back the urge to scream as he found himself in that cursed chair once again, facing the figure of Morpheus.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am the one who is offering you the choice.”
“What is that choice, exactly?” he asked.
“You stay, or you go.”
Jackson shook his head, pushing off of the chair as he stood. He turned, unsure of what he was planning to do in order to remove himself, but he was stopped by the voice of Morpheus.
“It will only get worse if you ignore it, you know. All of us must make a choice someday.”
“I don’t even know what this is about!” protested Jackson.
“Many of us never learn. What is important is that you make it, and why. Not what the choice is about.”
“I beg to differ.” Jackson said.
“Then remove yourself. What will you do when you have jumped off the roof? Where will you go then? The choice becomes far more pressing with each moment, and your methods of evading it must become more extreme as a result.”
Jackson bit his lip, hesitating.
“I’ll take the red pill.” He said tentatively.
Morpheus smiled. “I had hoped so.”
Jackson grabbed it and threw it in his mouth, swallowing in one shot.
“Now... now we live with the consequences.”
The Fear Would Come
A branch swayed and snapped in the wind far above him, and he felt it shudder, shudder down the tree, into his feet and his mind, and he moved. Sharp and sudden movements brought him out of the hollow in the tree trunk, and he felt the deep grind of bark against bark where two branches lay against each other. Then he was across and scrambling up the bole of the second tree. Up and down and over. The forest was full of murmuring. Leaves rustled and swished in wave upon wave as he passed amongst them, skittering from branch to branch, and the sound of waking insects drummed a dull and distant sound in the evening air. He should go hunting for them...yes he should, but not now. Not yet. The forest sound swelled and moved around him, and yet it could not hide the noise of a horse whinnying in the distance or the scuff of leather on stone, or the rasp and clink of metal links. Foreign sounds, but he knew them, somehow. And he had to see.
The cover of the leaves broke as he scampered across another branch. A dead branch. The tree stood alone upon the edge of the forest, burned out and broken by the white, angry fire of a storm long passed. His feet were sooty as he whipped along the thinner branches, away from the safety of the forest. Out into the open. He was exposed here. Completely exposed. The air was cold and foreign upon his face, and yet there was no fear in him. That was strange. No fear at all.
Up, up, up. The dead branches were crumbling, but they were still firm enough to support him. Claws dug into the yielding bark, and it came away in strips. He was forced to scrabble for a hold a few times, and the fear almost returned then, leaping up out of the depths where it had been somehow buried. He almost yearned for the fear. This place was not his place. Not his way. The fear was natural. It was safe.
But there was no safety here. Perched upon the highest branch thrusting above the ruinous black tree-crown, he looked out into the vast, empty space that marched up to the walls of the living wood, clear and cold and so very open. But the space was not empty. Not empty at all. The air was full of noise and strange smells, rising on the autumn wind to sweep against the barriers of the forest. There were men on the plain. Men. How did he know them? Still no fear. There were horses with them. Horses he knew. They were wrapped and saddled with strips of hide, and some of the men sat astride them. Many. So many.
Metal flashed and flickered in the evening gloom. It jabbed at his eyes, this strange light, and he shied away. But no, it was not strange to him. Why would the fear not come? Armor and swords and mail. Helmets with spikes and sharp blades hanging from grasping hands and spears, spears, spears. He longed for the fear. Screamed for it. Rise up and sweep me away, away into the deep, green safety of the trees. Send me fleeing from the cold and the sound of shod feet beating the earth. It was too much. Too much!
The wind howled and rattled the dead tree as the squirrel shivered back, back along the branch. Back. Back. Please, back!
And then the fear came.
The severing was sharp, like breaking the surface of deep water. The sharp intake of breath sounded strangely harsh in the air as his mind readjusted to the dull hearing of man. But then he was back, and his hand pulled away from the rough bark of the tree. He was a man again.
“Anything?” the soldier’s voice whispered. The daylight had fallen below the edge of the mountains to the west, casting the forest into deeper gloom.
The scout rubbed his eyes, clearing his head. “Two outriders,” he said, “and a column of men coming behind. They’re trying to flank us.”
“Good, good.” The older man was crouched down at the base of the tree, squinting at his map.
“They’ll have to loop south once they reach the Gorge,” he said. “We’ll be ready by then.”
He folded the map and straightened up, clapping a hand on the younger scout’s shoulder. “Been too long since we had a proper pathfinder along,” he said, chuckling. “You’ve done well. Tomorrow you’ll get a taste of battle, I expect.” The soldier laughed gruffly and moved away toward the horses.
Tomorrow. That soon.
The scout shivered and pulled his hood tighter as he followed the soldier. He ought to be excited. Excited or terrified. One of the two. He wished he’d had more time to prepare himself. But now...tomorrow. He felt numb. His fingertips were cold as he untied the reins of his horse, and the palm of his right hand still ached where he had pressed it into the rough tree-bark and sent his mind out searching for a creature to serve his purpose.
He had made that creature fearless for a time. It was always a strange experience. He knew he should be terrified now. He was sure of it, but he couldn’t think. No, not yet. Tomorrow.
The fear would come.