A short story I wrote for the Blank Page Challenge. I didn’t win, unfortunately, but I was up against some stiff competition! There was a 2000 word limit and we had an image as a prompt.
Lessons learned: Don’t start from scratch four times, plan ahead, hit your goals.
Paul’s mobile bleeped repeatedly. He fumbled around his nightstand, squinting at the sunlight piercing the gap in his curtains. He finally grabbed his phone and saw it was his brother, Mike.
‘Ugh,’ Paul uttered, discovering his mouth was bone dry.
‘Hey! You awake?’ Mike shouted. Paul pictured him hanging from a cliff face, yelling into his hands-free kit.
‘I am now, yeah,’ Paul replied in a monotone, dry-mouthed drawl. He shielded his eyes against the sunlight.
‘Listen… I sent something back. Are you in all morning?’ Mike asked. His voice crackled with a layer of static – high altitude, no doubt.
‘Uhh… yeah. I’m at home all day,’ Paul said, pulling himself upright with a grunt. He didn’t go out much since the divorce.
‘You know I was saying we found a cave? Well, we abseiled into it yesterday,’ Mike said, enthusiastically.
‘Cool…’ Paul said, automatically, throwing off the covers. He sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes.
‘Dude, we found a shrine or something. Carved right into the rock!’ Mike said with an excited cadence.
‘In Alaska?’ Paul asked, with a rare trace of enthusiasm in his voice.
‘I know, right? Anyway, there’s this book, just lying there on a stone table. You’ll see. It’s weird.’
Mike occasionally found odd things on his travels, arrowheads, old tools, diaries, that sort of thing.
‘Want me to put it in your salvage box?’
‘It won’t fit. This thing is big, heavy and really old.’
‘Can I have a look?’ Paul asked, finally opening his eyes.
Mike sighed. ‘Have a look, but don’t fuck around with it. It’s probably valuable.’ He said, sternly. ‘The clasp is rusted shut. Don’t force it, okay?’
‘When are you back?’ Paul asked, stretching in front of the window. ‘And no, I won’t fuck around with it.’
‘Should be home by the weekend,’ Mike said, followed by a pause. ‘How’s the house hunting going?’
There it was. Mike’s way of saying in case you forgot, you need to move out. The truth was, Paul hadn’t looked in over a month. Getting out of bed was hard enough.
‘Not that good.’ Paul replied, glumly.
There was an awkward pause.
‘Okay, we’ll talk about it when I get home,’ Mike sighed, finally. He’d given up masking his disappointment years ago. Paul was used to it.
‘I’m trying, Mike,’ Paul said, apologetically. ‘It’s been… tough.’ He hadn’t found the words to explain how he felt, especially not to Mike – he wouldn’t have understood. He was the troubled brother of a success story, living in the shadows of expectation. He harbored a terrible, helpless self-loathing that his brother would have sectioned him for if he knew how broken Paul was. Fortunately, they weren’t that close.
‘I know, bud,’ Mike said. ‘Go get some exercise. It’ll do you good. Catch you soon.’ Mike disconnected.
Paul put the phone on the nightstand and sighed.
Paul closed the front door and lumbered the hulking book from the doorway, gently resting it on the glass kitchen table. He tore off the packaging eagerly. A strange excitement had come over him.
The tome had a rough cover, dark brown and maroon in colour. The pages were crinkled and yellowed with age. Sturdy leather bindings reached together into a rusted clasp. It had a musty, damp smell of sweaters left in old basements. On top of the tome was a Polaroid of Mike. Paul picked it up and examined it. In the photo – which he thought looked like the front cover of a mountaineering magazine – Mike was stood between two snowy peaks, nothing more than a silhouette, really. The light cone from his torch beamed up into the sky like a searchlight, sending eerie light throughout the icy gully. Written on the back of the photo was a note in messy handwriting:
This is why I do it.
Paul tossed the photo aside and ran his hand over the tome’s cover. It looked like leather but had the texture of marble. Placing his palm fully on the cover, he shuddered as an image flashed in his mind: A crypt of some sort, lit with a sick glow. Arcane symbols were scrawled on the walls, seeping fluid like a fresh wound. The book Mike found was placed upright on an altar. It glowed with a dark red aura – the shadows it cast with its unholy glow danced on the walls in demonic, inhuman shapes.
Paul staggered backward, tripping over a chair and landing in a bruised heap on the kitchen floor. His feet squeaked on the linoleum as he tried to pick himself up. Looking up, he noticed wispy tendrils of smoke drifting from the book lazily snaking their way downward, spiraling toward him.
Getting on his feet, he dashed to the front door, pulling it open unexpectedly easily, overcompensating and nearly falling over again. The snakes of black smoke were closing in, wisps splitting off from the main body and touching Paul’s shoulders. The door slammed shut as if pulled closed from outside. Paul turned with a grimace to face the horror. In a veil of smoke, it invaded his senses, pouring into his mouth, funneling between his gritted teeth. Then there was nothing.
An empty void. An infinite darkness.
‘This is the place outside places,’ an echoing, indistinct whisper began, ‘There is no moon and there are no stars.’ The eerie voice seemed to come from nowhere – and everywhere.
Paul tried to step forward in the darkness and was hit by an overwhelming sense of vertigo. Wherever he looked felt like he was staring into an abyss. Gravity felt off-kilter. He dropped to a knee, his legs buckling beneath him.
Something moved closer from in front of him somewhere, rough debris skidded across the floor and tapped against his kneecaps.
An unknown entity whispered arcane words in his ear; he could feel it’s breath. It made his headache, throbbing with each impossible word.
Suddenly, there was no sound other than Paul’s hitched, gasping breaths. He clutched at his head, tears wetting his knees, convinced he was too far gone – that he’d finally snapped.
Light began to creep in from above as if someone had opened a trap-door. The light came down in a strong beam. A beautiful scarlet-haired woman stepped forward, her pale skin glowing in the light from above. Her long hair fell loosely over a nondescript black robe. As attractive as she was, there was something cunning in her eyes, something dark, something mysterious. Beholding to the terrible beauty, Paul knelt in front of her, his mouth agape. She gently reached out and stroked his cheek, wiping away the stinging tears. His mind began to fill with otherworldly words and chants – whispers of the past. Alien memories pervaded his senses as his eyes rolled back into his head. He faded away.
It was born formless and nameless. Naught but an eerie whisper on the wind or a chill over flesh, the feeling of being watched when one was alone. It was brought into the world by men with prayers and incantations over many ages, under many names – under many religions. The strength of the priests and acolytes’ collective will ripped it through the veil into the material realm. It chose the form of a scarlet-haired woman, who was offered to her as a sacrifice. It inhabited her body after she was killed. She was pleased to be called ‘she’ or ‘her’. It was a sense of self that she hadn’t been aware of until then. With it was born a sense of self-preservation.
The men prayed for her to perform miracles, nurturing crops, healing the sick or reviving the dead. She was bound to them by their strength of belief, but each feat she performed came at a cost. If a child was healed, another child would get sick, and so on. The men who worshipped her came to fear her. Damning her to an eternity trapped within a tome, they called her ‘demon’, and she felt their hatred.
For centuries, she sought to escape, clawing and tearing at her prison in muted rage, damned to darkness. She sensed the world only on the fringes of her perception and intuition. Frustrated and afraid, she blindly reached out with her consciousness, but there was no answer. She eventually succumbed to a deep sleep, lasting hundreds of years. She was awoken by a burst of light breaking in between the pages. Passing through so many hands and minds throughout the ages, she chose Paul.
The vision ended. Now he understood, he could feel her pain. He felt a strange sense of solidarity with her.
Another vision flashed into being: Two snakes intertwining, melding into each other, eventually becoming a dragon. It had emerald eyes.
‘What do you want?’ Paul asked, helplessly. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I want to share you, and all the light and warmth you offer. I want to see something other than darkness,’ she said, emotion filling her voice. ‘In return, you will know what I know. The mysteries of all things. You will not get sick or die young.’
Paul considered for a moment.
There was a gentle sigh in his ear. Another vision manifested itself, this time it was of Paul. He lay, broken and bruised. His skin was ashen, his eye sockets purple. He lay dead on a bare mattress, surrounded by pill bottles in a damp, dark basement.
‘This is your choice,’ she said from the darkness. ‘But you will die at your own hand. It is a gift of mine to see such things.’
He knew it was true. It was a small miracle he was still alive, having been resuscitated before. It was only a matter of time before life got the better of him again. He knew he couldn’t suffer anymore.
‘Fuck it. Let’s do it.’ He said, finally. He felt her surprise. He felt his own.
‘Break the clasp on the book.’ She said before the darkness faded. ‘Free me.’ Her words lingered in the air as the world returned.
Paul woke on the floor. His body ached like he’d climbed a mountain and his head throbbed. With an effort, he pulled himself to his feet and stared at the relic on the table. Without hesitation, he walked over and pulled at the clasp, the rusty edge tearing into his finger. He didn’t notice. Desperate that his chance for his redemption was waning, he threw the book to the floor. Standing on the tome with one foot on the book, he pulled with both hands, with all the strength his spindly, atrophied arms could manage. The clasp broke and shot across the room, embedding in the fridge. He stood back, the book began to float into the air, creaking open like a fly trap. It glided in front of his eyes. Archaic runes and impossible shapes glowed like embers in fire. The glowing words floated off from the page and drifted towards his eyes. They hovered there as if waiting for permission, like obedient snakes.
‘Do it,’ He said, clenching his fists. ‘Please.’ He didn’t care, knowing he’d offered everything for a chance to make a change.
The glowing words shot into his eyes. Searing pain screamed through his head; he squeezed his eyes shut. Staggering through the kitchen, squinting through the pain, he guided himself to the bathroom, arms outstretched. Stumbling in, he threw himself against the sink and opened his eyes. Except they weren’t eyes – they were glowing emeralds. Paul wiped them with a towel and stared at himself in the mirror. He smiled back at himself, caressing his face, as if it was the first time. Paul realized he wasn’t controlling his hands.
Wait, wha– His voice began. His lips didn’t move.
The emerald eyes gave Paul a pitying look.
What’s going on?! He screamed without words.
She grinned at him, with lips that weren’t his anymore.