The Game Is On

This is the fifth part in an ongoing series circling around the character Vanessa Riley. It might work on its own, but I recommend you also read the previous parts to get the full story: I, II, III, IV.


There was never a time in his life when Devin Murdock did not feel haunted – be it by his past, the law or his own restless thoughts. But this is something different, and he knows it. Can feel it with every fiber of his damned being. If there ever was a haunted house, this is definitely it. And he just so happens to have the ill fortune of living here. If he’d been religiously inclined he would call it Karma. Now he just ascribes it to a cursed conspiracy between his own astronomically bad luck and the pettiness of the universe. And what a grand fucking conspiracy, at that.

One signal, two signals, three sign–

“Carlito’s Clean House, how may I be of–”

“Dude, it’s me, Dev. You have to send someone, this it getting fucking unbearable.”

A second of silence. “Look, we’ve talked about this. You can’t keep calling me here. Seriously. You’ll get me in trouble. I already hit you up with a place to stay, didn’t I? Despite you being a wanted fugitive and all that.”

“Pfh. They can’t possibly be looking for me anymore. That shit was long ago. And besides, this ‘place’ you got for me is already occupied. By fucking dead people. So if you–”

“Not looking for you anymore, huh? Then tell me why the fuck you’re hiding. Nah, ain’t no fooling me. If those coven people, or whatever you call them, found out you’re back in town they’d have your head. And that’s the truth, plain and pretty. I want nothing to do with that, or them. Or you, for that matter. I helped you once already, and if that house is not to your liking, well, you can find a nice shrubbery to sleep under for all I’m concerned. I’m getting married, Dev. I’m not risking anything more for you.”

“Carlos, don’t do this. You’re the only half decent exorcist – hell, the only half decent person – I know around here anymore. I need you, man. You can’t leave me like this, these ghosts won’t let me sleep, and–”

“Dev, let me put this simply for you. I. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck. Make peace with the dead, or don’t. I tried to warn you back then when you started fucking around with that dark stuff, but you didn’t listen. You knew what the penalty was, and now you’ve gotta live with it. You, not I. Sabes?”

“Carlos, listen. I’m back in town for a reason. Someone I knew, let’s call him an old mentor of mine, died and left some stuff behind. Powerful stuff. If I can only figure out where he hid it, I’ll be able to do… Well, close to anything. I’ll make it all up to you, and more. But to find it I must be able to think and plan, and those damned specters won’t let me do that. I’m going mad here. If you could just–”

A deep sigh. “You never learn, do you? Good bye, Dev. Don’t call me on this number again. Or rather, don’t bother calling at all. I’m blocking you.”

“Please, Carlos, I–” But the line is already dead.

And he’s standing, phone in hand, alone in a much too empty and extraordinarily haunted house at the outskirts of a city that doesn’t want him. The planks and boards all around him are already resuming their ominous creaking and the stale air is once again drawing breath for all the disembodied whispers that are to come.

Carlos has made his point, Dev can expect no more help from him. And now the radio’s going on in the next room, maddening static echoing between the silent and hungry walls.

Deeevin”, a barely audible voice slithers through the cracked speakers.

“Fuck this”, Devin says and leaves the house.

***

The problem with being a sacromancer of at least some renown is that pretty much everyone in the know either hates you for being “evil”, or wants to hurt you for their own gain. This rule makes no exception for Devin Murdock. He’s been on the run for almost a decade now, and the sweet taste of the vagabond life is beginning to turn sour. This alone would probably not have been enough to lure him back to the city from where he was once exiled, were it not for the extra persuading factor of the news that recently reached him.

Teneo is dead. The game is on.”

This short message had reached him in the middle of the night seven days ago. He had been busy getting drunk together with a priestess of Eir in an impressively pimped out hotel room, and initially he had just tried to ignore the vibrating phone. As soon as he had read the message, however, he had already been cold sober and on his way out the door. The blessings of heathen goddesses be damned, this was not an opportunity he was going to miss out on. The next morning had caught him already on a westbound plane, nervously tapping his fingers on the armrests of his seat.

Teneo had been Devin’s mentor before the latter was banished from L.A for practicing taboo. Now he is apparently dead – whether by more or less natural causes, Devin doesn’t yet know. What he does know, however, is that the person who brought him the tidings, though once a brother in learning, is now his mortal enemy and rival. Their mutual mentor has left unimaginable scholarly resources behind, and whoever finds them first will be the new king of the hill, as it were.

Devin can only speak for himself, but if he should come out the victor, the first thing he’ll do is to neutralize the competition. He doesn’t harbor any illusions whatsoever that his rival is not thinking the exact same thing.

***

He’s sitting on the porch, face in hands, when the red Ferrari pulls up outside the iron gates. He doesn’t notice it at once because cars often pass by on the road on the other side of the tall garden walls, but when the sound of the loud engine just won’t fade into the distance his curiosity finally forces him to look up.

The gates are closed of course – his paranoia wouldn’t have it any other way – but the rusty bars are far enough apart to allow him a clear view of the short driveway on the other side. Just as he lays eyes on the red streamline monster its driver’s door opens and a woman steps out. There’s something eerily familiar about her, and in Devin’s world that is not a good thing. To him, familiar equals danger in this city.

He rises slowly from the porch, unsure of whether to take refuge inside the house or to remain where he is. In the end, he ends up doing neither of those things. He starts cautiously walking along the overgrown stone slab path toward the gates, all the while fighting to keep his breathing and heartbeat in check. He’s not entirely sure why he’s approaching the woman by the car, but he is. Too late does he realize that this in itself is a bad sign, and too late does he remember to try to read her to learn her intentions. He is almost at the end of the path when he makes his attempt, and the instant mental resistance that as good as hits him across the face in response is all he needs to realize that this is really, really bad.

He freezes, just yards away from the woman in black watching him from the other side of the gate and a pair of mirror tinted sunglasses. Now that he is closer the feeling of familiarity has grown even stronger. Something, a memory perhaps, keeps itching at the back of his mind. He knows this woman.

“Hello, Devin”, she says and removes her sunglasses with a gesture worthy of Hollywood.

And the penny finally drops. “Vanessa Riley.” He can’t stop staring. She was just a girl, and now…

“It’s Vahri now, hun. Please never use that name again. Forget it if you can. Or else I’ll help you with that.”

He closes his mouth. Hopes vainly it did not hang open for long. Vahri. He nods. “So you finally awoke, did you? I knew It was just a matter of time, didn’t I tell you that?” He flashes her one of his rehearsed, sly smiles in a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation.

“Dev, darling, that trick might have worked when I was seventeen. But I’m not seventeen anymore, am I? And I have learned a thing or two since then, so please spare me the condescending pickup lines and open this gate and let me in. I need to talk to you.”

And for the second time in just a couple of minutes he finds himself doing exactly what she tells him to. “How did you know I was back?”, he asks as the ancient gates creak open. “How did you find me?”

“Oh, that was easy”, she answers as she walks past him towards the house. “I just wished upon a djinn.”

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-07-04

On Dreams, Myths and Not-So-Ordinary Hunters

This is part III of the story about Vanessa Riley. It probably works as a standalone as well, but if you want to read the two previous parts you can find them here and here.


A sudden noise and sleep is gone like a spell. Deep, black shadows drape the room. It’s impossible to see. She sits up in her bed. No, some other bed, but still hers. Confusion, like in a nightmare. Where is she? Who is she? Her eyes wander the room. A sudden movement over by the door catches her attention. Her heart skips a beat. She freezes.

Don’t you fucking move”, he says. She is staring straight into the barrel of his gun.

She doesn’t fucking move. “You’re… that guy from before. From my party”, she hears herself stammer – though it’s not her voice. Far from it.

The stranger nods. “Yeah. And you’re the djinn we’re looking for. So now just tell me. Where’s Walter?”

Her eyes grow even wider. Djinn… What the f— But she doesn’t even finish the thought, because now she realizes there is a tattoo on his right hand and she has seen that symbol somewhere before and this is bad really bad and–

“Shit!”

She sits straight up in her bed. No, not hers, she remembers. Neferthali and that guy Ivers have turned hers and her vampire godmother’s floor into a love nest, and Vanessa herself has taken refuge in one of the exclusive hotel rooms that make up the lower floors of the tall building.

She’s breathing heavily, fear still clinging to her every cell. Fear still lingering from the nightmare, from what she saw in it. Who she saw in it. And as her breath catches up with her and her heartbeat and racing thoughts slow down just a little, she realizes two things. Firstly: the tattoo she saw in the dream. It belongs to that boogeyman group, or club, Neferthali has warned her about. And secondly: That wasn’t a fucking dream at all. The djinn we’re looking for… “Shit”, she repeats and jumps out of bed.

Vanessa is already out the front doors before she realizes that she has forgotten her phone. The hell with it, she decides. She has already wasted enough precious time. Frantically she hunts the street with her eyes for a taxi cab. As she stands there a red Ferrari pulls up right in front of her by the curb. It stops, and an expensively dressed youth with an expensive haircut climbs out of it.

“You the valet?” He lifts his expensive sunglasses for a split second to look at her over the roof of the car.

She… nods slowly, not entirely believing this is actually happening. “Yeah”, she murmurs, not sure if she’s even making herself heard.

He flashes her an expensive smile and throws her the keys as he breezes past her. “I’ll buy you a drink later, okay sugar?”

Vanessa slowly turns to stare after him as he enters the hotel and disappears. What the fuck just happened? She holds up her hand and looks at the car keys in disbelief. Nobody is this lucky. Nobody, if it’s not with the help of– And suddenly she remembers why she’s even out here in the street. Who needs her help, who is probably desperately wishing for help – maybe not even consciously. That settles it. She dives into the low car, head first, and has the engine running before the hotel doors have even closed properly behind the car’s original owner.

Chino. She hasn’t seen him since two nights ago at that club, but she heard his thoughts that evening and would recognize their resonance anywhere. It’s like a color, but… loud. As she races through the night city in her not-exactly-stolen car she knows that it was Chino’s room she saw in her dream, that it was his mind she must have slipped into by mistake. It has happened before with others, though not often. She knows that everything she saw and heard in the dream was real, and that it happened in real time. She floors the pedal and hopes against hope that she will not be too late. He had such kind eyes…

The only reason she knows his address is that she was bored and looked it up the other day – and the only reason she was able to do that is that the stupid mother fucker is dumb enough to be using his True Name in the address register. It must have been a simple thing for the hunters to find him. Idiot.

But anger leaves her and is replaced by something that is embarrassingly similar to fear as soon as she pulls up outside his building and stops the car. She knows which window is his, and it is dark. Not just to the eye, but to the mind as well; as she lets her mental tendrils wind their way past the glass and the walls and the doors she feels instantly that there’s no one inside Chino’s apartment. It is completely empty.

Fuck, shit, ass!” She beats her palms against the wheel and screams straight into the silence. Of course they’re not here anymore, they’ve taken him. They’ve taken him for the Club, and now he’s going to be– And then she hears it. Or rather, she senses it. Like a tingle at the back of her soul, or a twitch inside her thoughts. Like a color, but loud. And she realizes that it’s him, calling. Not to her, but to anyone with the sense and senses to listen.

The weakness of the call, together with its crudeness, makes her believe that he’s not even aware he is calling out. That he is only desperately fumbling in his mental darkness for random straws to free himself with. She tries to answer him, but his loud colors are already lost again in the astral buzz of the mad city. No matter boyo, she thinks to herself as with revived resolve she restarts the stolen car. I know where you are now.

As she drives through the neon city and finally out of it she struggles ceaselessly to keep track of his movements. Every now and then she feels a flash of his presence far away and knows that she is still on their track. Suddenly, however, the presence disappears entirely. A cold hand clutches her innards; this can mean many things but none of them is good. She swallows, tries not to panic. By now she has already left the city behind and is speeding down a night black desert road. They cannot be far ahead of her now, and there are no alternative routes for them to have taken. For good or bad, and whatever has happened to Chino, she has them now.

Then she spots it. Further down the empty road, parked right at the border between asphalt and hard packed sand, sits an old, white Volkswagen – lights off, doors open. She doesn’t slow down. Out in the open landscape to her right she can also see shadowy shapes moving. Then the moon breaks through the clouds and for a heartbeat she can see them clearly.

There are three of them, one of the shapes standing a few feet away from the other two and aiming a gun, as one of the other two slowly circles the third shape in a fashion that seems both wary and mocking at the same time. The third shape doesn’t move at all, is standing still as a statue, and that’s what worries Vanessa – because she knows without a doubt that this third shape is Chino. What the fuck have they done to him?

And suddenly she catches herself and realizes that she is actually pissed off. That it’s not just the hunters, slash kidnappers, that are pissing her off – and that she probably hasn’t really ceased being pissed off since last time she saw him that night at the club. Also: that tonight’s events haven’t changed anything about that. You stood me up, you fucking idiot, and for my vampire granny at that. And now you have the nerve to disturb my sleep and drag me out on a rescue mission in the middle of the night. And to… to worry me, damn you.

She hits the brakes a bit too fast and the car, with its brand new everything, literally jumps to a stop. She lounges forward and for a heartbeat she is certain that she will go though the windshield. But thanks her lucky star (or whatever it is that people like she have) she has somehow, despite everything, remembered to fasten her seat belt somewhere along the road – and the air is just knocked out of her.

“Yolo”, she breathes painfully as she leans back from she strained belt, unfastens it and stumbles out of the car. She leans against the door for a couple of seconds as she catches her breath and decides that no ribs have been broken by the impact. Understanding that this is both a dangerous and embarrassing position to be caught in, she then hastily straightens up and walks around the car. It has come to a halt only a few yards behind the white Volkswagen – the kidnappers’ car. She casually draws her trusty knife and punctures the back wheels before she starts walking into the open field by the side of the road.

The three dark shapes still loom there, seemingly without having moved much at all. She keeps a steady, determined pace and doesn’t for a second take her eyes off the small congregation still far off in the field. As she draws closer she can hear voices in the distance.

“We only need to know where Walter is, you know. If you tell us we won’t hurt you”, the circling shape is saying.

“Well, not so much anyway,” the one with the gun adds.

The first one is silent for a moment, perhaps shooting his partner an angry stare. “If you tell us, no harm shall come to you. Or to your loved ones. If you don’t–”

“If you touch them I will kill you, you hear me?” Chino’s voice. Desperate.

“…if you don’t, on the other hand”, the unarmed man resumes after a deep sigh, “I want you to know that the little circle you are trapped in right now is spacious compared to, say, a bottle. And I will put you in one and leave you on a dusty shelf if you don’t cooperate.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Chino sounds confused now, and afraid of that which he don’t understand. But Vanessa understands all too well. Ritualists. Damn. She starts walking faster.

The unarmed man laughs. “Oh, so you don’t know? There are many things I can do to you. I know you’re a djinn and that djinns can’t die, but there might be worse things than dying, you know. And I just so happen to have an entire catalog of such things. So be a good boy now and tell us where we can find Walter, and this whole unpleasant business will go away. Just like that.”

The man with the gun must have heard her approaching, because now he turns around with a surprised look on his face. He nervously re-aims his gun at her. “Mike, there’s someone –”

The man called Mike tears his eyes from Chino and turns to her, an irritated look on his face. “Look, lady”, he says. “We’re in the middle of something here, so if you could just–”

But Vanessa, the old-blood magician also known as Vahri, just waves her hand and the armed man’s gun is knocked out of his hand. “Shit, Mike, she’s a–” She reaches out, places her hand on his forehead and causes him to instantly slump to the ground. In the flash process of forcing his mind into temporary slumber she also learns his name. Pete. How convenient.

The one called Mike adapts quickly to this new turn of events. “Back off”, he commands as he swiftly reaches behind his back and draws a gun of his own. In the light of the moon she just about catches a glimpse of the arcane silver symbols engraved on its sides. Jeez, I don’t want to be shot with that thing.

Vanessa doesn’t back off, however. She’s tired of backing off – sick of it, actually. “Fuck you”, she says and snaps her finger. And his time stops. He doesn’t die, mind you – he just, well, stops. Frozen in one single moment the one called Mike can do nothing but stare as Vanessa, Vahri, steps forward and with her brand new golden Converse shoe smudges out part of the circle drawn in the dirt surrounding Chino.

“Come”, she says as Chino stumbles out of the broken circle. “Before they come to.”

“But… What did you do to him? And that one on the ground, is he…?” He is confused and scared and she has no patience for this at all.

“No, he’s just sleeping. Come on now. I’m not sure I can do this again any time soon.”

“Why? Are your… powers, like, used up?”

“No, stupid. I’m just not angry enough anymore. Hard to be, what with you looking like a lost puppy and all. Let’s go.” She walks a few paces, then stops. “On second though, well, fuck it.” She walks back towards Mike, who is still standing just as she left him. She gives him one of her wriest smiles, knowing that for the moment he can do nothing – but that he still sees and hears everything. “Big bad ritualists like you shouldn’t play with guns, hun. It doesn’t become you. Here, I’ll take care of that for you.” And with this she reaches out and plucks the engraved gun from his tattooed hand. The symbols make her shiver, but she hides it well. “Until next time, sugarplum”, she says, turns her back on him and walks away with Chino close behind her – just like a lost puppy.

She keeps the gun in her lap on their drive back to the city. She doesn’t trust it, doesn’t know it. But she likes the weight of it, and for some perverted reason the closeness to those dangerous runes thrills her. Makes her feel alive.

She doesn’t tell Chino that the car is stolen, or that he is stupid for using his True Name when he is so obviously stalked by hunters – especially when those same hunters seem to also be expert ritualists, and maybe something more as well. She doesn’t tell him much at all, actually. Because she has her own troubling thoughts to ponder. Thoughts that she is apparently young and stupid enough herself not to have thought until now, when the damage is already done. After the initial panicky babbling on Chino’s part it thus becomes very quiet in the car for several minutes.

“Vahri, I–”, he starts finally.

“Don’t thank me”, she interrupts him.

“I wasn’t going to, I–”

“Yes you were. You’re an open book to me. So don’t thank me, because I think I have just made everything so much worse than it already was.” She doesn’t take her eyes off the road, except for the flash moments when she scans the rear view mirror to make sure they are not being followed. Yet.

Chino casts her a frightened glance in the mirror. “What… what do you mean ‘worse’?”

“Just what it sound like, I’m afraid. Worse. I suggest you take your friend Ivers and check into some incognito hotel tonight. I have to check on Neferthali.”

“But–”

“Chino, those were not ordinary hunters, okay? They weren’t prepared this time, but next time they will be. And we can’t let them get the first strike when that happens.”

“You called him a ‘ritualist’… is that what you mean when you say ‘not ordinary’? Because not much of what happens to me nowadays is ordinary to me, and if you expect me to know stuff about–”

“Sorry for interrupting you all the time, but that’s the exact reason why you should listen to every word I say like they were quotes from the Bible. Well, or the Quran, if that’s what you prefer.”

“I’m not religious.”

This actually surprises her. For a heartbeat. “Alright, well, then you listen to me like I had the key to your maths test or whatever, okay? Whatever rolls for you. When I say you have to hide, you hide. Understand? And I suspect your friend has to hide as well, because now those hunters are pissed off and they won’t settle for truth anymore. They’ll go for dare. And in their dare, you die. Capish?”

A moment of slight hesitation. “Okay… I guess I’ll hide. For now. And I guess I’ll be able to stand Ivers. For a while. But you have to tell me what’s going on, Vahri. You said before that those hunters weren’t ‘ordinary’ hunters. What did you mean by that?”

She bites her lip. Just thinking about the possibility of her fears being true is making her feel sick. They were just supposed to be myths, ghost stories to scare young, reckless mages into submission with. Gods forbid, can they actually be real? “Did you see their tattoos?”, she says finally.

“Well, no”, he snaps back. “I was totally busy with not being killed or tortured or whatever sick stuff those people were threatening me with. Of course I should have paid better attention to their gang tattoos instead. But please enlighten me, were they of the Azusa 13, the Bloods or the Crips? Because that really makes a difference now, doesn’t it?”

She shoots him an angry glance, and he falls silent. “You fucking idiot, you haven’t grasped one thing I’ve told you so far, have you?” She takes a deep breath and chews at her thumb nail. “You’d be lucky if it was one of those gangs that came after you instead of what I suspect this is. Have you every heard of the Enjoyment Club?”

He opens his mouth to reply, then just shakes his head.

“No”, she sighs. “Of course you haven’t. I wouldn’t have, either, if it weren’t for my, well, special family conditions. Neferthali knows just about everything, and I guess she thought this was one of those things I needed to know as well. But I always thought… I never suspected that the Club was real. Never.”

“But… What is this club?” Chino must have picked up on her change in attitude, because now he sounds worried as well.

“The Club is… Well… If they’re real, it’s really, really bad.”

“What the fuck, Vahri, just tell me!” Fear is turning into anger now. An entirely human reaction, she observes.

She considers for a moment. “No”, she says.

“But–”

“I can’t tell you anything about them yet, because I don’t know how much of what I think I know is reality and how much of it is fairy tales and ghost stories. I have to find out more first. It might be that I’m entirely wrong, and then telling you about them would be just stupid in all ways. Give me a couple of days and I’ll find out more, okay?”

Chino doesn’t seem entirely pleased with this answer, but finally he nods. “Okay”, he says. “A couple of days. But after that I’m not hiding with Ivers any more, okay?”

She says nothing, just concentrates on the road until they are well within the city limits again. She lets him off outside his apartment, after making him promise to just go inside to pack the most important things – and then leave. Contact Ivers and go into hiding. He actually promises before disappearing into the darkness of the stairwell.

Vanessa herself lingers outside for a few minutes, until she sees the light go on in his apartment windows. Then she starts the not-exactly-stolen red Ferrari again and drives off into the dawning Los Angeles morning. I have to make sure Neferthali is okay, she thinks. And get that damned Ivers out of our home. He’s nothing more than trouble waiting to happen. And then… Then I’m not going to rest until I find out what the fuck all this is about.

And as she drives homeward for the last time in very long, she can’t yet possibly know that in a few days’ time she is actually going to look back on this very moment and wish to gods she never believed in that she had simply walked away and let this whole thing just be.


(Part IV of the story about Vanessa Riley can be found here.)

Chris Smedbakken, 2017-06-10

They Are Always Watching

This story has taken me several months to write. I’m going through a pretty heavy dip right now and inspiration is a scarce commodity. Therefore I am doubly happy with at long last being able to produce something creative. Feel free to comment, I’d love to hear your feedback.


She was singing when they found her. The forest was dark and the swamp was hungry. The small shape on the log almost blended with the humid and murky night crawling forth from beneath rocks and amongst drooping branches. But only almost, because murky nights do not sing pentatonic songs in seven disparate languages under perfectly aligned stars – and neither do they commonly come in the shape of a five year old child.

Later, the Pascal women always told her about the knowing darkness in her eyes as she watched them approach. Later they told her that the first words she uttered after she ceased singing and they stopped one man’s length away from her and asked for her name was a warning in perfect French.

“Fear”, she said as she turned to face them. “All of them are watching.”

Then she slumped from the log and into the water as if invisible strings had been suddenly cut from her naked body. When next she awoke in a warm bed and with seven silent and wondering women standing over her she did not speak a word of the languages they had heard her use in the midnight forest. She did not speak a word of any language at all.

They taught her French and magics and the ways of men and she was a quick learner. With the ease and efficiency of someone taking in knowledge for the second time she picked up on everything they told and showed her until she could barely be told apart from any other child her age in New Orleans – save for the magic of course.

But if her saviours had been hoping to learn the mystery behind this child when at long last she was able to speak, they were soon to be dreadfully disappointed. For at the very same rate as she was learning new words and names and customs, her memories of what had passed before drifted from her memory. In the end even she could barely tell herself apart from the other children – save, of course, for the magic and the fact that most other children knew at least one of their parents.

Her seven mothers slowly learned to be content with not knowing, with silently fearing whatever it was the child had warned them about but would apparently never be able to explain further. With time they almost learned to forget that she was more and less than other children, and that they had initially doubted whether or not she was really human at all.

Her seven mothers endowed her with many names, one at a time, but none of them stuck. They all glanced off of her like mercury poured on ice. They were all girls’ names and she didn’t listen to them because she was not a girl, and in the end her seven mothers gave up and let her decide. The name she chose for herself was Seth, and before long none of the seven Pascal women could even understand how they had ever thought of any other name for this child.

They wanted her to let her hair grow long, just like theirs, but she always kept it as short as the blade of a sharpened knife would allow. They wanted her to wear flowing skirts and ornate jewelry just like them, but she chose to dress simply and practically and never wore any symbols or signs that rigorous and concentrated study had not made her choose to really believe the meaning of. Some of the superstitious symbols worn by her seven mothers she made the choice never to don at all. She made her own choices and her own way and her only regret was her inability ever to remember what she had been before she was a dark eyed human with olive coloured skin.

That starlit night was long ago, but the dark eyed child was me.

I repeatedly catch myself thinking about stars as I make my way down the rain soaked pavement below oh so many blankly staring windows reflecting the cloudy night sky. I decided long ago that I am not a star, that I might once have been many things but never that. However, the stars have always fascinated me. If I were only able to hear their music and musings, I am positive that I would like it.

I see a glowing point rising on the sky before me like a shooting star in reverse, and from beyond the heavy clouds I hear the thunder of a roaring engine. My bag is not heavy but still I am weary of carrying it. I hurry to the waiting cab fighting off the warm rain with frantically dancing screen wipers. The airport behind me never sleeps, but I long to crash into bed and not wake for days.

The backseat of the taxi is warm and smells like too much subtle perfume. I need no psychic powers to tell that we are being followed. If I knew that I had something to gain from it, I would bet my left eye on the pursuer being the same man I have spotted several times on my journey here from Los Angeles. I don’t like his vibe, nor his suit, and would rather just return home, hoping for my intuition to be nothing more than paranoia this time. But I know better, and I’m not so stupid as to lead a fox straight into a rabbit hole. So I tell the driver to turn left and left again.

The forest is dense and the darkness is scraping against the sides of the car like soft, slender fingers clad in heavy velvet. Looking out through the rear window I can see the headlights of the other car illuminating the trees from behind a bend in the broken road. Not so smart, this one. That, or entirely confident in his own ability to take down his prey even without being in the least discrete. Possibly – probably – both.

I almost feel sorry for the driver, I know he didn’t sign up for this. But such is life, that you seldom or never get exactly what you bargain for or deserve. I calmly ask him to stop the car, pay him what he is due and then step out into the night. I leave my bag in the trunk and when the driver tries to remind me of it I give him one of those glances and he is off along the road again. I shouldn’t do that to people, I think. I really shouldn’t.

The light from the cab isn’t even entirely gone behind the trees before the road is again lit up, by a colder type of light this time. It is almost as if the headlight of the pursuing car reflect the aura of the man behind the wheel. I don’t know enough to estimate his abilities, but still I wait by the tree line a few more seconds to make sure that he spots me. Just before the anonymous car comes to a halt on the rocky forest road I start making my way into the woods.

There is no path here but I can hear the trees and the moss and the breath of the rocks on the ground. I need no light in this place, I don’t know why but I suspect it has something to do with me once having been born under these crowns and amidst these trunks. I am in no hurry, I can hear him too as he stumbles forward through the vegetation. He is probably armed but shouldn’t be able to get a good shot just yet. Maybe I should be afraid, but I’m not. Because somehow I feel I know something that he doesn’t.

He doesn’t gain on me and I keep on going. I wonder who he is, why he wants to hurt me. Because I can feel clearly that he wants to do just that. If he wanted to kill me he could have done so much more easily many times on our journey here. He wants something else, but it isn’t something good. Not for me at least. Then I wonder suddenly if he, too, can hear the song of the stars, or if it’s just me.

And then I step into the clearing and the darkness gives in to the soft illumination of the moon and the glowing clouds and the singing stars. I don’t know where I lost my shoes but now my naked feet tread softly upon the moist moss and the shiny rocks in the dark puddles. When I get to the middle of the clearing I can feel his eyes and his gun on me. I brace myself and turn around.

“Did you really think that you could run from me?” His voice is as neutral as his ashen suit and nondescript features. The only thing alive about him is the light reflecting off the worn silencer fastened to his weapon.

“No”, I say. I really didn’t think so. I watch him choose a better stance upon the porous ground without taking his eyes off me for even a second.

“Good”, he says. “Do you know who I work for?”

I shake my head. I don’t know. I want to tell him that neither do I care, but maybe that would be pushing it too much.

He seems to be looking at me, but in reality I know that he is looking down on me. He knows that I cannot run, he knows that he can afford to slightly prolong this finale of his victorious hunt.

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?” I feel strangely calm and this is not really a question.

He laughs softly, falsely, imperiously and almost invisibly shakes his head. “No, I’m not. I am going to subdue you and put you in the trunk of my car. If you force me to I will hurt you, but I’d rather not. That would probably take away from the sum I can get for you. But make no mistake, damaged goods is much preferable to no goods at all.” And I can hear that this is hubris talking, in this place of all places.

“Goods? What is this, some kind of trafficking?”

He nods and smiles viciously. Takes one step forward on the swampy ground. “In a way, yes, you could say that. The people I deliver to pay well for exotic specimens like yourself – not entirely human but not entirely not, either. Or your friend in L.A. I’m sure you’ll want to tell me all about him in a couple of hours.”

I feel cold suddenly. Not frightened, just cold. “The Enjoyment Club”, I say.

He stops two men’s length away from me, a surprised smile spreading across his face and his gun still trained on my forehead. “So you have done your homework. Good girl”, he says.

“I’m not a girl”, I say softly.

“What?” But he doesn’t care for me to repeat myself. Instead he starts walking again, talking to me in a calm voice all the while. Like a mendacious predator striving to lure its prey into a false sense of safeness before going in for the kill. “The Club love their little treats of vampires or werewolves or maybe even the odd djinn every once in a while. The rarer the better – and the more expensive. You’re going to make me rich, little witch.”

“I’m not a witch either”, I say and start backing away from him.

“No?” He laughs softly and follows. “Not a girl and not a witch. What are you then?” He is so close now that I can see straight into his eyes and detect all the truths hidden in them about what he plans to do with me. The Enjoyment Club consists of ruthless humans with way too much money, time and arrogance on their hands. They feast on paranormal creatures in every thinkable and unthinkable way before disposing of them in ways that are probably just as unspeakable. This man works for them, and he is planning to make a fortune by selling me to those human monsters. I can hear the stars singing clearly now as the clouds are dispersing.

“I am Seth Pascal, a freelancing priest”, I say and stop. We are in the middle of the clearing now and both ankle deep in murky water. I can feel the cold mud and soil and moss beneath my naked feet.

He reaches me in one big step and puts his gun to my forehead. The metal is cold and resonates with anger and excitement. The look on his face is one of victory, he know that he has me now.

“Witch, priest, potato potato”, he smirks. “You have nowhere to run now, little girl. But don’t you worry, I’m sure they won’t eat you or make you into a rug. With those dark eyes and slim body you’re probably gonna be put to much livelier work.”

I meet his gaze along the barrel of his gun and see him flinch involuntarily. Underneath my cold feet the ground is stirring restlessly, boiling and throbbing deep down in the nameless darkness. He hasn’t felt it yet.

“Aren’t you afraid?” He tries on one of those patronizing smiles but it doesn’t quite go with the glint of sudden fear in his eyes.

I shake my head slowly, the barrel of his gun moving together with my forehead. I am cold, but not afraid. Because the ground is pulsating beneath my feet and a memory has come to me suddenly. I smile, broadly.

“What?”, he says and darts a glance around the clearing. “What’s so funny? Remember what I said, I will hurt you if you try to pull something.”

I form the long unused words with my mouth, trying them, tasting them. I realize that I like the taste and smile even wider. He knows so little about the world, this little man with the gun.

“What? What?” He is yelling now, his finger trembling on the trigger. “What did you say?”

I look up at the congregation of stars gathered above the clearing, listen to the last stanza of their thundering crescendo and then lock my eyes with his once more.

“Fear”, I say calmly. “Because all of them are watching.”

He opens his mouth to say something, but before he can form the words the heart blood of the clearing, of the world, boils over and gushes up to engulf him. He screams as smoldering mud and soil and water explodes all around him, melting his skin and crushing his bones. He fights for his life against the earth that crashes into his eyes and his ears and his mouth. It fills his lungs and smothers him. He whimpers, he cries and sobs as he is pulled down into the mossy water, before the pressure from inside his soil packed lungs becomes too much and they explode in a cascade of blood and mud spurting forth from his mouth and his nose. He struggles pathetically in the shallow water for half a heartbeat before finally he becomes still and the hungry clearing devours him entirely. The surface in front of me calms instantly and all that remains of him is a speck of oil and dark blood floating silently on top of the murky water, and the worn silenced pistol lying uselessly where he dropped it in the dark moss.

I pick up the gun and turn it in my hands. He was never going to kill me, but there are things worse than death and that was the fate he had in store for me. I wonder how many people and unpeople he has wounded or murdered with this gun. I put it in my deep pocket, not wanting to desecrate this place by leaving it here.

The clearing is silent, but I know that it is not empty. They are all watching. The memory that felt so lucid and clear just moments ago is slipping. I try to hold onto it, but I know that the struggle is useless. I remembered briefly because I was told to, by the stars or by the forest or the darkness, I don’t know. And I realize that the loss of this memory is perhaps what makes me human, what allows me to carry on this sort of existence. The thought strikes me that maybe my oblivion is a gift, and that without it I would become again the something that was once found here, in this very clearing, and was made human only through the care and love and teachings of seven mortal women. Perhaps forgetting was a choice I once made by my own volition, in order to become what they wished me to be. Perhaps I made that very same choice again just moments ago. I wouldn’t know, because I cannot remember anymore. I stare into the darkness between the trees and wait for an answer, but there is none.

With the gun weighing down my right pocket I then turn around and make my way back across the clearing. I don’t need to watch my footing, the ground tells me where to tread. I watch the stars, listen to them, but they are silent now. I enter the woods and feel roots and thorns caressing the soles of my feet. When I reach the road I seat myself behind the wheel of the dead man’s car and narrowly turn it around. The headlights cut like knives through the old darkness and I turn them off. I don’t need them right now. I floor the pedal and make my way back to the airport from whence I came. The man who got eaten by the world spoke about my friend in Los Angeles, and I know that I have to warn him.

My name is Seth Pascal. I am a freelance priest who wears no symbols that rigorous and concentrated study has not made me choose to believe the meaning of. Other than that I wear the mark of every plausible god and deity just to be sure, and I know the incantations and rites of every religion commonly known to man. I never curse, because you can never be sure who is listening, and I am up for hire by anyone who needs my services – whatever faith they might follow.

Apart from that there is much that I don’t know about myself, about who I am and what I was before I was human. But the thought doesn’t scare me as much as it used to and I don’t feel as lonely anymore. Because at least I know one thing, and what I know is this: They are always watching.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-02-06

Sleepless

The alley was gloomy but the red sky prevented it from being truly dark. It was never really dark in Las Vegas, the sleepless city where saner people journeyed in pursuit of their dreams. Still she herself had come here in mindless flight from her own. When closing your eyes means reliving the end of your world, the screaming, the blood, the silence afterwards, the best place to be is somewhere that will stay awake with you. Or so she had thought.

After spending several nights, all her money, herself and her final resolve on this her aimless vigil she had done more than to change her mind about the city. It never slept, yes. And it was cold and heartless and anonymous enough for her to consider it a fitting purgatory for what she had done. But these nights in wakeful self destruction had also made her realize that even coming to this place had been pointless. She might deserve this agonizing emptiness and all the terrible things she let happen to herself here, but in the end all she really wanted was for the memories to go away, for everything to go away. And finally there was only one bullet proof way to do that.

She had decided to kill herself three days ago when she had awoken in an echoing stairwell to a stranger touching her, and had realized that she did not care. The man had pulled away when he met her eyes, maybe shocked by the emptiness he saw there. She had just looked at him as he scrambled away, hadn’t said anything. She had known then that there was nothing that other people or she herself could do to her that would drown out the numb pain that grew and grew inside.

Since that morning she had found some solace in preoccupying herself with planning how she would go about ending her own life. After considering several options she had come to the conclusion that shooting herself was the way she’d prefer to go, and for that she needed a gun. And so here she was, in this gloomy alley that was denied total darkness by the light pollution of the distant Vegas sky.

When a dark shape emerged from the shadows at the other end of the alley she found herself almost hoping that he was a psycho killer, here to do her job for her. When he approached, however, it soon became clear that he wasn’t. His age, probably only a year or two older than herself, and his sympathetic looks even made her doubt that he was the fixer she had expected to meet here tonight.

“You’re the one they call Aiden?”, she said.

He nodded. “And you’re looking to buy a gun.” It was not a question.

“Yes”, she said and produced the stolen wallet. “How much?”

He laughed quietly. “Don’t you want to see it first? Decide if it’s any good?”

“Does it fire bullets?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then it’s exactly what I’m looking for.”

He shrugged and walked up to her, closing the gap that separated them. She stiffened but did not move. When he was standing right in front of her he stopped and produced a small package from inside his jacket. It was wrapped in newspapers and from the headlines she could tell that the packing had been done today. He started folding the newspapers back but then seemed to catch himself.

“You’re not a cop, are you?” He shot her a sly smile.

“Do I look like a cop to you?”

He thought about it. “Nah, way too young. What are you, fourteen?”

“Fifteen”, she snapped. “Look, are we doing this or not?”

His smile broadened as he made a face of theatrical defeat. “Okay okay, take it easy sister”, he laughed and resumed the unwrapping of the package. “Looks alright to you?”

In the dim light she could see that the gun was old and worn, but of course this did not trouble her at all. She took out the money and threw the wallet aside. She didn’t need it anymore. “Yeah. As I said, how much?”

He named the price and she started counting the bills, realizing that she could actually hand him the whole bunch but still having some idea about fair being fair. Besides, if she was going to give away her last money in this world, it should not be to some lowlife criminal like this guy – no matter how nice he looked. She handed him the money.

“I’m curious, what are you going to do with it?”, he said as he accepted the money.

“Kill myself”, she said flatly and nodded towards the package. “Now give it to me.”

He made a shocked face and started to reply, but then his eyes went to something behind her shoulder and the shock turned into fear. He backed one step. “Who are –”

She turned around, frightened by his reaction, but only got halfway before something struck her hard across the back of her head. Before she hit the ground, however, she heard the fixer scream in terror or pain.  Then everything went truly dark.

***

A warm summer night, junior high graduation done and the world at their feet. She has been kissed tonight, kissed for the first time. She doesn’t know if she should tell Indiana, it seems like one of those private things that make her separate from her twin sister and she kind of likes that feeling. Besides, Indiana would of course counter with having gone a lot farther, a lot earlier.

They have all been sitting on the roof of Dennis’  mom’s house for hours now, drinking and looking at the sky. She is lying on her back, smoking a cigarette and listening to her friends talking drunkenly about their dreams and hopes for the future.

This will be their last summer together. Most of them will start new schools next semester and even though they all promise to stay in touch they all know that is just words. They have to make the most of this time and tonight’s party is supposed to set the bar high. And thus they have been drinking and smoking tonight like there was no tomorrow.

Then Dennis’ mom gets a call from one of the neighbors and rushes home from wherever she has been. All hell breaks loose and everybody runs for their lives – except for Dennis of course, who has to stay and face the consequences.

Indiana shakes her sister and wakes her from her drunken thoughts. Reminds her that they have taken their own parents’ car to the party and that they are dead if it isn’t back by morning. She cries and says that she forgot about it, that she has been smoking weed and can’t drive.

She herself looks at her sister Indiana and says that she can drive, she will get the car and the both of them home before their parents notice anything. They can hear Dennis’ mom calling the police from inside the house as they drop down from the low roof and laughingly rush to the car. But they  don’t come home that night.

The impact is sudden. Either she fell asleep behind the wheel, or something jumped into the road. She loses control. The car crashes into something. The noise and the fear and the pain are terrible as the windshield breaks and the universe explodes.

Consciousness returns in flashes. Pain. Confusion. Hard to breathe. Blink. Indiana lifeless. Not breathing at all. Blink. Feels for her pulse, finds nothing. Only blood. Blink. Shocked. Nauseous. Terrified. This cannot be real. Blink.

She is walking down a road. Walking. Walking. Walking. No shoes, torn clothes, broken mind. Half of the time she can’t remember what she’s doing here or why her whole body is hurting. No cars here at this hour, no one to ask for help. Help with what?

She sees a building suddenly. A gas station. Her feet leave bloody footprints on the brick floor as she enters. A worried face says something she doesn’t hear. She needs to borrow a phone. Knows the three digit number by muscle memory only. Tells the voice on the other end that something has happened. Her sister Indiana won’t wake up. The car is ruined. She has lost her shoes. She doesn’t tell the voice that she was kissed for the first time that night or that the world is at her feet, because those things don’t matter anymore. Nothing matters now.

She puts down the phone and doesn’t know suddenly what to do. She doesn’t want this to be true. Doesn’t want to see the sirens when they come to get her sister. Doesn’t want to face her parents or her feelings or the cold truth. So she exits the gas station and continues walking, as if refusing to return to the car wreck can make all this go away. But deep down she knows that it can’t. Her sister Indiana is dead and it is her fault. And nothing can make that go away. And still she walks and walks and walks.

 ***

Her eyes blinked open slowly. Her head hurt and everything was spinning. The world was awry, she was lying on her side and could feel the hard concrete against her face. She blinked again. It was hard to focus and she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing in front of her. The fixer was lying on his back farther into the alley, arms outstretched and eyes closed. A dark shape was sitting on top of him, seemingly tearing at his throat with its bare teeth. She gasped in terror and the creature turned towards her.

It was a man, but judging by his pale skin and dead eyes he might as well have been a walking corpse. Blood poured from his open mouth as he smiled manically, revealing rows upon rows of razor-sharp, deadly teeth. She screamed and tried to crawl away, but her back hit the wall and then the creature was over her.

It was fast and strong. She tried to break free, she tried to call for help, but everything she did only seemed to make the man-shaped monster all the more eager. Her head was forced to the side as it tore at her clothes to get to her neck. The terror she felt when its teeth broke her skin made her realize that she did not want to die after all. It pressed her head against the wall as it drank, and all she could do was to stare at the body of the fixer who lay just a few steps away from her, blood still pouring from the wound in his neck. He was not moving at all and soon neither would she. And then she laid eyes on the gun.

The fixer must have dropped it as he tried to flee from the monster, and now it lay glistening in the shadows just within her arm’s reach. She tried to ignore the weakness and pain as the monstrosity on top of her killed her slowly by draining her blood, and she tried to refrain from giving in to the panic that was growing inside of her with every slowing heartbeat. She reached for the gun, the gun with which only moments earlier she had been planning to take her own life. She felt her fingers go numb, her consciousness slip away. And then she felt the cold metal in the palm of her hand. She grasped it desperately, hoping with the last remnants of her waking reason that it was loaded.

The darkness at the edges of her vision covered almost everything now and she could feel her body shutting down. With her final strength she raised the heavy piece of metal and put it against the creature’s head. More than anything else it was the muscles in her fingers acting reflexively that made her succeed in pulling the trigger. Then an explosion of sound and recoil blew away the remnants of her senses and she finally lost consciousness.

***

Heavy steps approaching. She blinked, felt terrible, weak, wanted to throw up. She didn’t know how long she had been out.

“Holy shit, you sure made short work of that motherfucker.”

Her eyes had been resting on the worn, black boots moving towards her through the alley. Now she struggled to look up. As she did so she noticed the bleeding corpse lying collapsed across her legs. Before she could react the big man in the black leather jacket bent down and pulled the creature away. Drops of warm blood spattered across her face from the crater in the creature’s head. She was too weak and shocked to do anything else than to stare as the man routinely stowed the body into a trash bin, sprinkled it with liquid from a pocket flask and lit a match. The smell was terrible as the corpse’s hair caught fire and the rest of it started to burn.

“What…” She tried to speak but realized that she didn’t know what she wanted to say.

“Hank Hooligan. Pleasure.” The man took a sip from the pocket flask and lit a cigarette with a match from the same box. “You freelance?”

She shook her head, confused. “What, no, I –”

“Nah, never mind. I know this guy. Real good at getting things done, this kid.” He had walked over to the body of the fixer and was now checking his pulse. “You with him?”

This was getting more absurd by the minute. “No… He, I, he was selling me a gun.”

“Ah”, the man called Hank Hooligan said and threw the lifeless body over his shoulder. “Well, you made good use of it at that, didn’t you? Anyway, can you walk?”

She wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure about anything right now. Who was this man? What had just happened to her? Was she going mad? Somehow she managed to climb to her feat and then stood there, leaning heavily against the wall as the world spun all round her.

“That won’t do”, Hank said. “I have to get this Aiden kid help quick as fuck if he’s not gonna die. Would be a waste. Either you get your shit together or I leave you here.”

That did it for her. She definitely didn’t want to be left alone in this dark alley with a burning, bloodsucking corpse as her only company. The mere thought of it almost made her panic. Hank nodded as she took a deep breath and started walking after him, using the wall as support for every step.

“Good”, he said. “I left my ride just down the street, you don’t have to walk far.”

“Who are you?”, she breathed strainedly while fighting not to collapse onto the ground.

“Told you, I’m Hank”, he said. “I hunt vampires and you just did my job for me. Means I owe you some help in return, don’t it? Looks like you could use some.”

She stopped. Only hours earlier she would have thought him mad. Now she didn’t know what to think. She looked back at the gun that lay dropped and forgotten on the ground next to a drying puddle of her own blood. She realized that she didn’t want it anymore, had probably never really wanted it.

She had come here looking for a sleepless place with terrible shadows to cut herself on. Tonight she had found exactly that, but also something else. She had found that the purgatory she had come here seeking for herself went so much deeper than she had ever dared dream of, and that the shadows concealed more than saner people realized. This could be more than a punishment for her – this could be a new start.

“You coming?” Hank had turned around at the end of the alley.

She nodded and struggled to catch up with him. He seemed to realize now the bad shape she was in, and offered her his free arm. Together they walked towards his car that stood parked further down the street. Hank put Aiden’s lifeless body in the back seat and she caught herself wondering if he would actually survive. He then opened the passenger door and helped her inside.

As he started the engine he turned to her again. “What’s your name, by the way?”

She was tired. Didn’t have the strength to come up with a lie. “Samantha”, she said. Nobody had called her by that name since the night her sister died.

“Samantha”, Hank repeated. Seemed to taste the name. “Nah, it’s too long. I’ll call you Sam.”

Samantha nodded. Might as well leave her old name behind as well. And as Hank Hooligan pulled out from the sidewalk and started driving at high speed through the city, she made a decision. The old Samantha might as well be allowed to have died there in that alley tonight. She had gone there to end it all, and that was what had happened. It was the old Samantha who was burning in that metal bin. Now remained only Sam, and Sam was not going back to the world of sane people. She was going to see just how deep this rabbit hole purgatory went, and she would never look back.

And as the car sped through the streets the sun rose upon Las Vegas, a sleepless city where saner people journeyed in pursuit of their dreams, and a new world started.

 Chris Smedbakken, 2016-12-03

River Ghost: A Poem

Gazing into the astrology
Wishing for what there could never be
“All of the stars I dedicate to thee,
the spirits of the forest and the songs of the sea”
She, the River Ghost of his long lost dreams,
singing mournful songs among the silent streams
Pale, dark eyes uplit by white moonlight beams
Beware, the fate of her is not what is seems
Frozen flowers, sunset eves
Deathcold breeze in the icy leaves
Autumn goddess surrenders and then she leaves
for Lady Frost to conquer a world that grieves
Her the River gave in to and turned to ice
Restless fay gave up a scream towards the pale blue skies
Fooled by a vision of Winter in disguise,
she lies down to final sleep in the white of her despise
He, the sun, weeps silently at her lonely grave
The lost dreams did not die with the River wave
Missing, longing for the water’s song, the happiness it gave
The sun mourned the frozen River, that its warm light could not save


This is a poem I wrote back in 2004 while I was still in senior high. However, I still like it very much and I hope that you do as well. 🙂

Across The Void

An audio version of this story can now be found here.


White light from the screen. A blinking prompt. The desk and the computer an island in the darkness of the room and of the world. Ice outside. On the ground, on the cars, on the dancing leaves still clinging to the sleeping trees. Darkness shining down from the saturated canvas of the sky. With it silence, emptiness, nothingness. The window a fragile shield against the cold and the loneliness radiating from the endless above. The world sleeping as island thoughts travel.

Putting thoughts to paper like a knife to a heart, making it bleed words. Easier in dark and silence and night. Burial in the headphones, all those noises and ideas. Here we are, up here at night. All that beautiful madness. Then suddenly a voice cutting through.

”What are you writing?”

Stopping, breathing, staring. Nobody on the line and still that voice in the headphones. ”Who are you?” The mic picking up words that should not be heard, but are.

”Someone who is wondering what you are writing.” Faint, distorted, almost part of the music.

”I am not writing. I am thinking.”

”Thinking about what?”

Nothing. Everything. Time. Space. Life. ”The world. I’m thinking about the world.”

A heartbeat of faint static. ”So am I. All the time.”

The music filling the gaps. Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown. The window is a shield.

”Where are you? Can you see me?”

You are not alone. ”I’m too far away to see you, but I can see your light. It’s like a star. And I can hear you through the night.”

”How?”

”Can you write about this?”

Fear stays out of this. Other rules in the night than during daylight hours. The window is a shield, the sky is a canvas. A blinking prompt. ”What should I write?”

I began to believe voices in my head. ”Write about someone lost, who went away into the unknown and can never return. Write about someone drifting through the blackness above, thoughts going mad and becoming one with the stars. Write about the loneliness between words and worlds.”

That this world that we imagine in this room might be used… ”Is that you?” …to gain access to other rooms…

”Yes, write about me.” …to other worlds… ”Write about the moment I had to tell you this.”

previously unimaginable. ”But where are you? How can we even speak?”

”I can see the world from where I am, but it is far away. I haven’t seen it in a long time and I don’t know if I ever will again. Your light is on my radar, guiding my voice to you. I’ve been calling into the night for ages and you heard me.”

”But why me? Why now?”

”I think space is thinner in the dark and the silence of the night. And you’re awake, and listening.”

Static, white noise. The night sky strewn with distant lights. ”Are you up there? What have you seen?”

”I’m outside of everything, and what I’ve seen… there are no words for it.” The music increasingly out-voicing the words. ”I’m drifting again. Write about this. Promise me. Write.”

”But who are you? At least tell me your name.”

The voice almost swallowed by the void. Almost. ”Tom. My name is Tom.”

Only the music again. All those noises and ideas. All that beautiful madness. The prompt still blinking in the silence, the light of the screen like an island, like a star. Stabbing thoughts through paper, making it bleed. Words. Words. Words.

Strange things and thoughts and times in the dark and silence and night. Reality an illusive companion to dream and imagination. Other rules, other fears. Looking through the shield, thoughts traveling across the canvas of the sky, through it. Obeying the blinking prompt, keeping a promise. Listening to Burial and writing about Tom.

By Christina Smedbakken 2015-10-30

Tracks

This text is from 2008, and was written as part of a short story project I never finished. I’ll read through it when I get back home and see if I need to make any changes. Feel free to leave a comment!


Happiness, laughter, naive delusions that life will last forever. In young years everything can have such a wonderful aura of invincibility, and in the eyes of the newborn explorer anything is possible. But this kind of imaginary reality is so frail, so easily shattered, that what seems in one moment to be the start of something, can suddenly turn out to be the end of everything.

The snow was falling intensely outside the windows, striking against the front of the small car like stars around a fast flying space ship in one of those movies. There were just the three of them, on their way to her family cottage some distance outside of town. They had been driving for about an hour, and were more than halfway there. As usual they were all joking and laughing, she in the back seat and her two friends in front. The sky was inky black and no star was visible in this long winter night – only the full moon helped light the shadows of the road where the car’s headlights were too caked with snow to do it.

Later she would remember these details as clearly as if she were still there in that car, in those last moments of the world. She would breathe these remembered moments as if were they oxygen and she drowning, alone and desperate in a dark sea. She saw them smiling back at her through the rear view mirror and then they all burst out laughing at what had just been said. They had known each others for years and knew that they would still be friends when they were all old and gray, sitting at some home and whining about the ways of new generations. This though, as it would turn out, was never going to happen.

She saw the one of her friends driving turn around towards her to say something. She heard her other friend scream suddenly, and saw the driver hastily turn his attention back to the road. He also screamed, and turned the wheel frantically in one direction. The car jumped and spun on the icy road. She screamed. They all screamed. She never even saw what had caused the commotion, and then everything turned black.

In confused and despairing lonely hours to come, despite the blurriness that had consumed every other memory of that fateful awakening back to light and reality, she would always be able to recall cold snow against her bruised back, someone screaming about a survivor and a blanket being wrapped around her shoulders by supporting hands – a blanket that was most probably warm but which she could not at that moment feel at all. Her senses registered no sound after that whatsoever, even though she was well aware that there should be sirens screaming since she could see them flashing, and a fire roaring since she could see the reflection of its flames against the glittering white winter snow. The flames themselves, though, she was not allowed to see. She was promptly turned away from them, even as several uniform clad men and women rushed past her to reach the source of their raging dance. She was all alone, even with all the people surrounding her and supporting her. She could not hear their worried voices, she could not see their concerned faces for all the tears in her own eyes. She knew nothing but that she was alone. The two stars that had once lit her darkness would never shine again, and her own fire was waning. But still no pain. Only tears and silence.

Just before they gently pushed her inside one of the waiting emergency vehicles, she managed one last glance back at the burning wreck that had once been her friend’s red car. The flames stood in screaming contrast to the dark forest and the black winter sky, and in a way it was all very beautiful in a terrible, terrible way. But what caught her attention most was not the fire, not the mashed metal of the carriage body or the limp arm of the person that was now being carefully lifted out of the car by two fire fighters clad in bright colours. No, it was neither of those things. Rather, it was something far more insignificant. Beside the burning car, in the snow that was melting by the fire even as she watched, were a collection of tracks made by small, small paws, trailing away from the scene of the tragedy and into the nightly forest beyond. And she would remember afterwards how she stood there, looking at those tracks, holding the hems of the blanket close together, and finally totally comprehending the full horror of the situation. And then came the pain. Then came all the terrible, searing sounds of the world. Then came the cold, the desperation. And she would remember nothing more.

She spent a long time in a hospital where everything was white, and everyone was smiling at her, talking to her in low tones as if the sound of human voices would damage her ears. She saw pity in their eyes and felt that she could not get away soon enough. But there was much inside her that was broken, not counting her heart, and her stay in that place would not be a short one.

Nights were her worst time, since it was then that everything around her went silent and she had time to think, to ponder and to grieve. Dreams were never easy on her and the memories she had of the accident she was forced to relive every time she closed her eyes. She grew to hate the white walls and the smiling people with the soft voices and the pitying eyes. She grew silent and withdrawn, and when at length she was allowed to leave the confinement of the white, accursed walls she had already sunk below the surface of herself. And slowly drowning, invisibly, unnoticed and seemingly irrevocably, she entered the world anew – but nothing was longer what it had been, and she least of all.

Spring came and with it memories. Memories of a time that had been happy and innocent, before the world ended and shades emerged to put up a pretense of blissful normality. She never returned to everyday life, to the things she had liked to do in the time Before. She only wandered and remembered, tortured herself with What Ifs and Whys. Her wanderings took her to places they had been together; an old playground, a steep hill destined to be covered in green grass when the weather got warmer, the roof of an old house where no one dared to live anymore in fear of wandering legends. In all these places she saw ghosts of her Happy Life, shadows of her lost friends laughing and singing.

Summer came and the steep hill gained its soft draping of flowing emerald. She lay there for hours gazing up at the sailing clouds above. Then she went down to the lake where they had used to swim on sunny afternoons. She sat down in the life-saving boat they had used to borrow-without-asking on several occasions, and gazed out at the dark waters. Nothing was as it should. Not anymore. She felt that she should have died in that car, too, which would have saved her from this agonizing existence. No shape of cloud and no song of water could ease her inner pain, and no bright summer sun would be ever able to light her darkness.

Autumn and falling leaves. Rain and thunder, wind and the crow of dark birds on otherwise empty branches. The season did nothing to help her, but she felt at home in it since it mirrored her inner feelings. The sorrow did not go away, as the others had said that it would. She hated the word “Eventually”, since the vocabularies of all the people surrounding her seemed to have suddenly lost all other words while they were in her presence. During stormy evenings she crept up into the window of her room and looked gloomily out at the darkening streets where falling water and wet red leaves seemed to compete furiously for the wind’s attention. Let me be a leaf, she thought. Let the wind take me and carry me away.

But she was no leaf, and when the air got cold and the wind grew biting rather than wet, she sat there still by her window, looking down at those streets. Soon the ground became white with frost and later covered by an even whiter blanket of snow. This was when she went out into the world again, to fully feel the pain of knowing that a year had passed her by and nothing inside her had changed even the slightest bit. She wandered the known streets. She left them for unknown ones, and ended up outside the areas of the most crowded habitation. Trees grew here, and the road was small and would not allow the width of two cars beside each other.

This road she walked, never looking back or up at what was in front of her, but always looking down at the ground, thinking and grieving. This is probably why she did not at first notice that someone was walking ahead of her. She saw the tracks before she saw the people; in fact, it was when she saw the tracks that she looked up from the ground at her feat, and noticed them. Shocked, she stopped on the road and only stared. For the two people that were walking some distance ahead of her could not be any other than the two persons that she missed most in the world, and also the two persons she had expected the least ever to see again. Two pairs of tracks trailed after them in the snow on the ground, and they seemed to be dancing where they went; dancing in the beautifully falling snow, just like they had used do in the past.

She called their names, but they did not seem to hear her. Laughing happily, they continued down the forest road, away from her. She called again and started to run after them, joy rising in her heart for the first time in a long, long time. Could this possibly be true? What had really happened on that night, since they were both here, now, alive? But she did not give these thoughts much time, since she had to run her fastest not to lose sight of them. Because however fast she ran, she never seemed to get any closer to them; they were always a long distance ahead of her.

They rounded a turn in the road and were for a moment hidden from her sight by the close growing trees of the forest. She hurried to catch up, but when she too had rounded the turn they could no longer be seen. Confused and disappointed she stopped. In front of her was a small bridge spanning a frozen river, but the tracks her two friends had left did not go any further than the beginning of that bridge. Then they were gone, without any sign of where they could have disappeared.

She gazed out over the river, and saw how the ice crystals on the snowy surface mirrored the twinkling stars in the dark heavens above. The forest was silent but for a murmuring wind that danced in the treetops. No laughter, no dance. Not even a nightly bird broke the tranquility. And nowhere anyone at all. Again she was alone. The bridge stretched empty in front of her, and on either side the world seemed to hold its breath and wait for her to think through the strangely wonderful thing that had just befallen her. But yet she did not understand.

Then she turned around to return the same way that she had come, and suddenly she remembered the tracks. There should be more tracks than her own in the snow behind her, if she had not imagined it all and was finally going mad. But the tracks of two pairs of shoes that she had been following were not there anymore. Only the depressions in the snow where she had put her own feet remained, and even they were being filled with falling snow as she watched.

With a heavy heart she was just about to take the first dreary steps on her journey back home, when she noticed them. Small, small tracks made by paws trailed along her own. Tracks made by two cats, seemingly playful, dancing, where the tracks of her friends’ shoes had been a moment ago. And suddenly she remembered. The very same kind of tracks on the snowy ground next to a burning car on a winter night like this, a whole year ago. Two pairs of tracks leading away from two persons killed in a tragic car crash on a dark road in the middle of nowhere. Two. And now the very same kind of tracks on a snowy night road where she had only moments before spotted her lost friends, very much alive and even dancing happily.

All came back to her then. Every memory, happy and sad, good and bad. The laughter, the screaming, the pain and the cold. She relived the end of the world, but not in the same way as she had done every night for the last year. Stronger, more painful. But then there were the tracks in the snow. It all ended and started with those tracks. Cat tracks. Two cats dancing in the snow.

A single tear rolled down her cheek, and she followed the tracks all the way back to where the houses begun. The silence was still unbroken, but inside of her a bright red flower had sprung up from soil that she had though of as dead and dry.

There are those who claim that the souls of lovers, if brutally and suddenly ripped from the world and from each other, can sometimes escape in the form of nightly creatures. Cats? Perhaps. I am not sure what to believe about that, but what I do know is that where a heart was earlier slowing, stopping, it is now starting to beat with more strength than it has ever had before. Someone who thought that all was lost suddenly discovered that nothing is ever, ever lost as long as there is a will to survive, to carry on. And as seasons change and the sun and moon continue to circulate the sky, so does hope return to a world that has ended many times but has been resurrected almost as often. For hope is our strongest force; a force that will outlive time itself.