Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Uncharted (Part 4 of 4)

“You may leave with one of your friends.” She extended one hand to Connor, still wincing and gripping his side like it would fall apart if he didn’t. “Or you may stay here with me and your two friends may go.”

Her other arm floated up in the opposite direction and I turned to see Luke standing at the edge of the water a short distance from us.

“Alex,” he said, “Connor, I’ve found the way home.”


My gaze flashed between Luke, Connor, and the woman. All the memories that I shared with my friends came crashing back to me. Bus rides to our basketball games, where Mason would moon unsuspecting passersby. Our corner table in the cafeteria where we once got Luke to drink chocolate milk mixed with ketchup and salt. Dances in the gym where we sat in the corner on folding metal chairs and Connor and Trent made fun of the girls who danced all slutty to impress us.

I had a choice to make.

“Okay,” I said, trying not to crack. “I’ll stay.”

She cocked her head to the side and smiled. Then she flickered in and out, and disappeared.

“Dude!” Connor yelled. He grabbed my sleeve and pulled, but I planted my feet on mucky ground. “Forget this. Let’s go!”

I shoved Connor off of me and he stumbled back, knocking twigs and stones into the pond. The black water rippled and Trent’s white face and grey t-shirt seemed to come closer to the surface. The woman disappeared as the ripple moved out toward the center of the pond.

Beneath the surface of the water I saw them: The three missing hikers—one girl and two guys, probably in their twenties. And another woman. The mother of the dead kid we saw in the woods. And countless other nameless faces. All of them trapped there forever. Wrapped in the warmth that only death could bring in a place like this.

Alex. That sickening sing-song voice called my name. The woman was gone, but I could still feel her. Still smell her.

“Go, man!” I yelled at Connor. He stood there wide-eyed, staring down into the water, shaking his head.

“Guys, c’mon!” Luke shouted from somewhere far away. I couldn’t see him anymore.

“I saw Luke over there.” I tried to spot a way around the pond but there was no path. The thick trees pressed in making the forest around the pond so dense there would be no way to navigate it without getting too far off course. I swallowed down my fear. “We need to find a way across the pond.”

“I’m not touching that.”

“We don’t have a choice.” The woman was still nowhere in sight. My leg shook uncontrollably, jostling the loose change in my pocket. “C’mon.” I knew she had to be here. She had to be watching. I told her I’d stay, as long as she let Luke and Connor go. Maybe she’d take my stepping into the pond as proof I wasn’t backing out.

Connor grabbed my jacket just as the toe of my sneaker broke the water. “Wait. What if you can’t get out? What if we get stuck like them?”

He was right. What if I stepped in the water, and it washed over me, numbing me and making me forget. I couldn’t forget. I couldn’t lose myself.

“Pain. It helps you focus.”

“So what? I punch you, you punch me, till we make it over?”

That didn’t sound like the best option, but it was the only one we had. “Maybe not punch. But I cut my hand. What about you? What hurts?”

“Well, you socked me in the lung with your head, so there’s that. And this.” He pulled the neck of his shirt out so that I could see a dark gash on his collar.

“Good.” I squeezed my hand. It hurt like hell, and I wasn’t sure I could keep it up on my own. “I’ll keep pressure on your cut, you squeeze my hand, and we’ll get across without losing it. Deal?”

Connor cursed under his breath. “Yeah. Yeah, deal.” Connor took my hand in his and crushed it.

I winced and took the first step, careful not to step on Trent. I’d expected to sink to at least my knee, but somehow the water between bodies was shallow, like a sand bar. “I think if we step between them, we’ll be okay.” I dug my fingers into Connor’s cut. He gritted his teeth and his breath came in short puffs, clouding the air in front of our faces. He nodded at me, and we started our way across the pond.

The icy water wormed its way into my sneakers, lacing between my toes.

Alex. You promised.

I focused on the pain in my hand. Putting one foot in front of the other, stepping over faces that seemed to sink below the earth. One foot after another until we were almost there.

The smell hit me like a wall. Citrus and roses and underneath it all, the stink of decay. It swirled around me. Between my legs, crawling up my spine, and brushing the back of my neck, I felt it. Cold fingers.

“Alex! Connor!” Luke’s voice grew nearer. One more step and we’d be free. Connor let go of my hand and bolted for the trees.

“Connor, wait!” My mind told my body to run after him, but I couldn’t. My feet were stuck just at the edge of the pond. I could feel the numbness working its way past my ankles and into my calves. I squeezed my hand so hard I cried out.

The glowing mist thickened until I couldn’t see the forest. I couldn’t even see the edge of the pond.

Alex. Everything is alright now. You’re safe. Her voice burned into me. I clamped my hands over my ears, trying to drown her out. The icy fingers covered the backs of my hands, pulling them away.

“No!” I fell to my knees in the water, the frigid cold shocking my senses, and dug my hands into the muck. When I brought them back to my ears, they were caked in mud. Thick, stinking, mud. Mud so thick that could muffle the screams of those trapped beneath the water. Mud that could muffle that voice.

I packed the mud into my ears, choking back the bile the crept up my throat every time I caught a whiff of it.

You’re safe, she said, but it was muddled. I couldn’t hear the melody that had come along with her voice. Relief loosened my shoulders. I’d done it. Almost. I was still stuck.

I pounded my fist into the muck. Hot tears streamed down my cheeks. I bit the inside of my mouth. Anything to inflict pain and keep my head, while I tried to pull my feet from the muck.
With a slopping sound, I got one leg free. The feel of solid ground beneath my foot was enough to make me shout. “Luke! Connor!”

Even if they had called back, I probably wouldn’t have heard them. I fell onto the ground and pulled my other leg free. The thick mist dissipated, slinking back into the trees, looking for the next unsuspecting car on that lonely road.
I’d done it. I was free.

I fell back into the grass, panting and shivering from cold and relief. Her voice was gone. The smell was gone. She was gone and I was free.

I gathered myself up off the ground, knocking mud from my ears. “Connor! Luke!” I stepped toward the tree line where Connor and Luke had gone, but what I saw locked my knees in place. Instead of thinning trees and a way out, thick black trunks clumped impossibly close. All of them with leaves like tiny hands, fingers locking together and closing me in.
Alex. Her voice pulled me back.

The mist over the pond gathered itself into a solid mass. It twisted and pulled together, like a rose blooming over the placid water. Her robes unfurled like white petals and there she was.

The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.


Photo by Moa Svensson (Miss Moa) via flickr.

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