Feel Again

“What do you feel?”  The question floated to me as if borne on a stiff breeze—the kind of wind that doesn’t stir or excite, but simply moves, brushing past you on its way.  The words did the same, lingering upon my ears for only moments before moving along.

What did I feel?  Nothing, really.  I opened my eyes, thinking that sight would bring some feeling with it, but my eyelids slid up to reveal nothing but a sterile white ceiling lit by harsh white light.  Still, I supposed I should answer the voice.

“I don’t feel anything.”

Hands fumbled across my chest, and with the metal on leather sound of straps sliding through buckles, pressure disappeared.  Funny, I hadn’t even realized I was being restrained.

“You may sit up now.”

I did so, and noted now the source of the voice.  Standing at the end of my bed, holding a folder, was a short doctor dressed in faded blue scrubs.  He was clean shaven, and his hair was cut close to the scalp.  He sniffled as he thumbed through his folder.  “Are you feeling better?” he asked.

“I suppose,” I said.  “I’m not really sure how I was feeling before.”

“You were feeling entirely too much.”  The doctor spoke without even raising his eyes.  “So many conflicting emotions.  You had a bout of hysteria—a bit of a breakdown.”

“And now?”

“Now?”  The doctor finally looked up, gazing at me over thick-rimmed glasses that I noticed for the first time.  I hadn’t really cared to look before.  “Well, I’ll have to run a few more tests, but you seem to be doing better.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said, and I supposed it was.

The doctor approached me, and I swung my legs off the bed so that I was sitting on the edge.  He held up a cautious hand toward my chest, and I raised my arms.  I wasn’t going to move any further—he didn’t seem to like the idea of that.  There had been something in his face when I moved, something fleeting but present.  Had it been worry?  Not that it mattered, it was gone now.

Now that he was sure I would stay seated, the doctor decided to reveal the contents of his folder.  He pulled out a picture and held it up to me.  “How do you feel about this?” he asked.

I took the picture and looked at more closely.  In it, a masked man held a purse underneath his arm as he ran.  Behind him, an elderly woman was attempting to rise from a chair, her mouth open and arms outstretched.

“Well?”

I handed the picture back with a shrug.  “He shouldn’t do that,” I said.  “Theft is not permitted.”

The doctor jotted down a note.  “Yes, but how does it make you feel?  Angry? Sad?”

Angry.  Sad.  I turned the unfamiliar words over in my mouth, finding them largely meaningless.  Nobody truly felt that way anymore.  I shook my head.

More notes, and then the doctor handed me another picture, this one of a child sitting up against a dog smiling ear to ear.  The dog’s tongue lolled lazily from its mouth.  “How about this one?”

I shrugged again.  It occurred to me that the child was happy, and likely the dog as well, but I wasn’t sure if that made me happy.  “There is nothing wrong with this one,” I said.

More notes.  The testing continued for a while in the same manner, but none of the pictures stirred anything in me.  Sometimes the doctor prompted me, asking if I felt worried or scared or excited, but mostly he presented the image without commentary, and answered me only with a scratching pen.

Finally, when all the pictures had been set to the side, the doctor set down his folder and went to the door, taking only his notes with him.  “I’ll be back with your test results,” he said.  “It shouldn’t take long; you’ve performed admirably.”

He shut the door behind him, leaving me in a cube of blinding whiteness.  Everything was white—the bed, the walls, the folder—and were illuminated by such a harsh light.  Even the pictures I had been shown were black and white.

I noticed something then; inconsequentially, as one might notice that a wall is blue or that the sky was cloudless.  Poking out from the folder was color: a picture I had yet to see.

That stirred something in me.  It was something small, but harmless enough that I let it rise to the front of my mind.  It wasn’t an emotion—those were dangerous—but a nagging curiosity.  Why was it different?  Forgetting what I had promised the doctor, I rose from the bed and opened the folder.  Inside was a simple portrait of a woman smiling.

Immediately, this picture was different.  It was as if the color seeped from the image and saturated the room, lending its vibrancy to all aspects of my experience.  Emotions rose unbidden in me, raw and primal. There was happiness and sadness together, tied up in a sense of longing.  There was loss there, yes, but also hope, which permeated my mind and lent a glow of optimism.

Beneath everything was a promise of more.  As powerful as this emotion was—and it consumed me—it was but a memory of feeling, something false that would pale before the real thing.  And I was certain the real thing was out there.  I would find it.

Knowing that it wasn’t permitted, I lifted the picture from the folder, folded it once carefully, and slipped it into the waistband of my smooth white pants.  It was the first time I had noticed my clothing—stark, loose, white shirt and trousers.  They were rough.

I crossed to the door, feeling freedom beneath my bare feet with every step.  Remnants of my conditioned mindset rose to meet me in the doorway.  Leaving was not permitted.  Those thoughts were quelled quickly, overwhelmed by a wave of emotion that was all the more powerful now for its prolonged absence.

The handle turned smoothly on the first try and the door swung inward on silent hinges.  Clearly, my return to emotion had not been anticipated.  Or had it?  Was this a final test?  I took a deep breath, then felt for the picture in my waistband.  When my fingers found it, I pulled it forth and unfolded it, smoothing the crease so as to better see the woman in it.  Just the sight of her caused a new surge of emotion, and I knew that if this was a test, I would fail it gladly.  I would face any punishment before relinquishing this new feeling.  Stuffing the picture back into my waistband, I stepped through the door.

More of the same white walls lay beyond.  I had entered a long, blank hallway, marked only by doors at regular intervals.  On the wall next to each door was a picture above a name.  On mine, a picture of me sat above the name H. Scoville.  It was my name, I assumed, but I couldn’t remember what the H stood for.  Henry? Harry?  Clearly, not everything had returned to me.

A quick glance up and down the hall confirmed that it was empty, so I chose at random to turn right and to follow the hall until I found freedom.  I was confident in nothing but my own resolve.  With barely a memory, luck would have to favor me.

Moving confidently but warily, I started down the hall, very aware that freedom and danger grew closer with every step.  It wasn’t until I passed the fourth door that my stride faltered.  There, mounted just to the right of the door.  Her picture, and a name.

  1. Wimm.

I don’t know how long I stood there staring at that name.  C. Wimm.  I had expected the name to bring memory with it, but nothing came but that same burning emotion.  It was more powerful now, strong to the point of overwhelming.  The hole inside of me was being filled so suddenly that emotions were nearly spilling at the edges.

  1. Wimm. And beneath her name, ‘RELEASED’. I didn’t know what that meant; it didn’t matter.  My fingers played over the nameplate and brushed the picture.  I had no memories of her, but the feelings even her picture evoked were the strongest I could recall ever feeling.  If she was beyond this door, I had to find her.

The door opened silently, though I only moved it a few inches.  The hinges, newly oiled, stealthily gave way, opening a crack through which I peered through.  Between door and frame I watched as the woman from the photograph rose from her bed—identical to the one I had just been restrained in.  Moving as if she was in a trance, she slipped from her hospital gown and began to dress.  Fading jeans first, then a simple white t-shirt.  It was just after the shirt slipped down over her bare back that I stepped inside.

“You are not meant to be here.”  She spoke monotonously and unthinkingly, barely looking up.

“Cynthia,” I said, not knowing where the name came from, but sure that it was the right one.  “It’s me.”

Cynthia fully raised her head this time, looking me over.  As her eyes wandered, they never once changed or showed any signs of life.  Her mouth stayed slack, her posturer slouched.  And then our eyes met.

Her pupils dilated, and the frost melted from her irises.  Suddenly they were as they had been: deep, warm brown, and full of emotion.  Her jaw dropped, and she choked on the first words she tried to say.  Shaking her head to clear it, she took a hesitant step forward and tried again.  “Hank?  Hank, is it really you?”

I nodded.  Strange, until that moment I hadn’t even been sure that I was Hank.  I held my hand out, and Cynthia took it.  Her grip was that of a drowning woman holding to a buoy.  Mine was no weaker. Hand in hand, we stepped into the white hallway.  And we ran.

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The Laughing Man

 

A bright peal of laughter announced his arrival, a bright herald washing over the dingy tavern.  Perhaps the bouncer at the door had told a joke, or he had seen something across the room that struck him as funny.  Or perhaps nothing had happened at all.  He usually didn’t need a reason to laugh.

He made his way to his usual table, joking with the patrons as he passed.  Fredrick at the bar brought over a single tankard of beer, as he did every night.  The man would drink that and no more.  He wouldn’t ask for another but would make the cup last for his entire stay.  The regulars knew him, and many pressed around his table, eager to speak with him.  He had enough laughter to share, and he did so readily.

He had come in every night for the past three years with the same smile, and yet nobody knew a thing about him.  Not even the regulars had a name to call him by.  He talked willingly, but never about himself.  Once, I had asked him if he lived nearby, and had been answered only by a soft smile and a slow shake of his head.

 

 

Craig sank deeper into his drink as the night wore on, submerged in the dark brown liquid.  Beneath the surface, he didn’t have to listen to the screams.  There was only a muted numbness that sound couldn’t penetrate—dullness overwhelming.

There were brief moments when his cup was empty, and the noise broke through.  He scrambled for coin then, throwing the money across the bar without a word.  Frederick knew what he wanted, and the cup would soon be full again.

But once, in the moment before Frederick spotted the coins, something broke through the haze in his mind: laughter.  It made him recoil.  More hateful because he wasn’t sharing in it, the laughter tore through the numbness that he had submerged himself in.

Standing on his second try, Craig found the source of the laughter.  Though most of the tavern shared in the revelry, a single man was it’s source, and Craig stumbled through the crowd towards him, anger rising in his foggy mind.  A target presented itself, a bright smile unwavering in his swimming vision.  That smile taunted him, flaunting the happiness that Craig couldn’t have.

Craig’s fist, balled and hardened by grief and drink, smashed into that smile.

“Shut up,” he growled.

 

Laughter turned quickly to anger.  The crowd surged forward as Craig stood over the laughing man.  They shoved him back, matching his anger with their own outrage.  He struggled, flailing wildly with heavy fists, but the weight of the crowd pushed him back against the bar and pinned him down.

As shouts rang from the bar, I followed another sound.  It was soft against the raucous yelling across the room, but it was unmistakable—a quiet chuckling.

The laughing man lay on his back staring straight up at the dark ceiling.  His smile was shattered—his front teeth broken—and blood ran from the corner of his mouth and pooled on the floor beneath him.  But still the laughter came, sputtering through the blood that lay so thick in his mouth.

Eager to look away from his mangled maw, I raised my eyes and noticed something I never had before.  His eyes were dead.  The laughter never reached them.  I had always been too distracted by his smile to notice, but there was pain there.  Not pain from Craig’s fist, but a deeper pain that outweighed anything physical.  And still he laughed.

 

Flood

A sharp crack shattered the strained silence, echoing though the mid-morning fog.  Other noises followed, but they were quieter—more apprehensive.  A boot scraped the dirt.  Hands tightened on the hafts of spears, and armor clanked as the soldiers shifted from foot to foot.

Twenty strong they stood, sweaty even in the biting cold, surrounded by silence.  To their rear, the town was deserted.  Open doors revealed cold hearths, and the streets were strewn with belongings dropped during the fleeing.  That had been days ago, and the still air smelled of rotting food.

Twenty strong they stood, the only ones who stayed.  Twenty out of ten thousand, they stood at the end of the valley, facing the end of the world.  For before them stood the Last Wall, a god-built monolith of black marble that rose to the heavens and stretched from mountain to mountain.  And it was breaking.  Through the fog, the soldiers could see a web of glowing red cracks snaking across the wall—fissures large enough for two men to enter standing abreast.  Before their bleary eyes, another crack appeared like crimson lightning.  Its thunder shook the valley.

The face of the wall mas now more red than black, so covered with cracks as it was.  Midmorning was made to look like midday by the angry glow.  Another crack shook the valley, and the soldiers stood like ants before a mountain, alone at the End of All Things.

Help had never come, not that the soldiers could blame anyone.  Who wanted to face Death, certain it was coming, but uncertain of its form?  Everyone had heard the stories of what lay beyond the wall.  In that unknown hellscape the skies rained flame, and monsters roamed.  Some said they were beings of fire, with ever changing forms that could not be harmed.  Others were said to be armored in black chitin, with razor claws and suns for eyes.  Others still were nothing but shadows that stole life in silence.  Whatever lay Beyond, the soldiers meant to fight them.

A final crack sounded, louder and more violent than all the rest.  Sensing the end, the soldiers stepped forward and lowered their spears, glad to finally be moving.  At long last, Death was coming.

The cracks began to pulse, and there was a sound like an underwater explosion.  The wall didn’t fall, but seemed to dissolve into the crimson light, which grew more intense and began to rush towards the soldiers.  In the End, there were no monsters, only a cleansing fire that flooded the valley.  There was no fighting Death.

We Never Heard Them Coming

Deep inside the twisting wood, there is a house, in a gully.  And beneath the house, spreading into the earth like the ancient roots of the wood above, there are tunnels that end in caves and rockfalls and inky blackness that leads nowhere.  Papa told us to stay away from the blackness and the rockfalls, but let us play in the caves, where we clambered from ledge to ledge for hours at a time.

Each cave was a different world to us.  There was the King’s Cave, where I ruled my siblings from the stone seat high on the wall, and they plotted to overthrow me.  The Sea Cave, its floor covered in shallow water, was the site of many naval battles.  My favorite was the Scorched Cavern with its burned walls and cracked floors.  It was the battlefield on which we fought the creatures from the blackness.

One day, tired of defending our home, little brother suggested we take the fight to the creatures.  I was unsure at first—father had forbidden it—but he and little sister painted such vivid scenes of glory and adventure that I caved.  We pocketed stones, tucked sticks into our underarms, and began our quest.

The blackness was well named, and it swallowed us whole.  I could feel little sister’s sweaty palm in mine as we marched forward, feeling blindly for the walls with our wooden weapons.

We never saw a light at the end of the tunnel, growing stronger and brighter as we neared it.  One minute we were in the darkness, and the next we weren’t.  We were standing beneath long skies the color of little brother’s eyes.  Beneath our feet sifted ash the color of little sister’s hair.  It was better than the caves; this ashen meadow was truly another world.

We never heard them coming.  Dark beasts the color of night that moved without form or focus.  We could not see them truly, we saw only patches of darkness, as if Papa had spilled ink across the dining room table.  They matched the birthmarks that marred his chest and arms.

They didn’t hurt us.  They consumed us, swallowing us into a dark limbo where everything floated and nothing was known.  Our quest had failed, now I knew it could never had succeeded.  How can you fight darkness itself?

I didn’t weep for our failure, though I could hear from somewhere in the darkness that little brother did.  I didn’t feel like crying, I felt like sleeping.

Outside, three specks of ash fell gently to the ground.  Silence blanketed the meadow.

Corruption

I’m a walking stiff

A zombie moving

With frozen flesh like a corpse after death

Vacant eyes and a soul so bereft

Inside lie all the prizes of theft

Stolen time behind a golden façade

A gilded throne that was hewn from a log

Half submerged in a bog

Decaying flesh now a feast for the frogs

 

With small steps I keep shambling on

Rambling song as I’m trying to move

Feeling like the woman trapped in the Louvre

Desperate to prove that I’ve healed

But past the face is not a beautiful field

It’s a wall that’s reluctant to yield

A shield meant to hide

A rotting man with corruption inside

Dreams of Death

A Flash Fiction Challenge from the blog of Chuck Wendig.  The prompt: “A necromancer believes it is her destiny to poison dreaming.”

 

The idea came to Zytheria in a dream, borne on the rotting lips of an undead phantom.  The realm of dreams, a celestial haven from the horrors of nighttime, could no longer exist as a refuge for the tortured.  Zytheria knew that a necromancer of her abilities would be able to poison dreams, and make people’s sleeping hours as terrible as their waking ones.

“Have you had any dreams lately?”  Zytheria asked Janet over coffee.

Janet looked up from her drink, confused.  She and Zytheria had just come from a yoga class, so they both wore workout clothes.  Zytheria’s blonde friend was dressed in short neon yellow shorts and a bright pink sports bra.  Zytheria herself wore long black yoga pants and a black dry-fit shirt.  They weren’t her dark, billowing necromancer robes, but they would have to do.

“Weird that you would ask,” Janet said.  “I had one just last night.”

“About what?” Zytheria kept herself from leaning forward and rubbing her hands together, but couldn’t hide the excitement in her voice.

“Don’t get too excited, you weirdo.”  Janet sipped at her coffee before explaining her visions.  “It was just a weird dream about skeletons.  They were dancing in tuxedos.  What is this for anyways; one of your divination classes again?  Are you still keeping a dream journal?”

Zytheria nodded, not wanting to admit to her dark designs.  Magic users were frowned upon in Seattle—necromancers most of all.  “My teacher told me that our auras interact with those of our friends, so there is knowledge to be divined from their dreams as well.”

“If you can divine anything from dancing skeletons, be my guest.”

Zytheria set aside her still-full beverage.  “Speaking of guests, are Sarah and Josh still staying with you.”

“Yeah, they are,” Janet said.  “Sorry, I guess that means we can’t go to that midnight barbeque tonight.  Sarah is a pretty militant vegan, and I wouldn’t want them to ruin it.”

“That’s fine,” Zytheria said.  “Be a good host.  I’ll find something to entertain myself.”  In reality, she was glad that Janet had cancelled their plans.  She now had the entire night to perfect her dream-poisoning ritual.  The skeletons in Janet’s dream meant that it had partially worked, but the undead should not have been dancing.

Hours later, while Janet was dining on tofu and asparagus with her friends, Zytheria was weaving a web of spells around her room.  She had arranged candles around her in a dodecahedron, and a black crystal hovered above each stick of wax.  Energy from the crystals darkened the flickering flames, and a low thrumming could be heard as she chanted.  Zytheria didn’t stop chanting until the candles were depleted and the crystals dropped into the quickly-hardening wax.  When she was satisfied that dreams had been poisoned, she lowered herself into her silken sheets and cursed the lights out.

That night, she dreamed, finding herself on a barren plain beneath purple storming skies, surrounded by a horde of skeletons.  Rotting flesh still hung from their bleached white bones, and their frames rattled with movement.  At the sight of them, Zytheria began to cackle.  Her ritual had worked.

“Go forth, my undead army,” she cried.  “Invade all dreams and destroy that which is peaceful.  Replace contentment with strife, and bring hell to sleep.”

At Zytheria’s command, the army began to move, but not into other dreams.  The corpses began to shamble towards her, grasping sharpened ribs in their bony hands.

“What are you doing,” Zytheria screamed as they closed in.  “Go the other way!”  But for once in her life, the undead were not at her command.

When the first skeleton reached her, it grabbed her shoulder and stabbed her with its own rib.  When Zytheria tried to pull away, the corpse pulled her closer, further impaling her.  All around her, she felt more bones pierce her body, but she couldn’t see them, for her vision was obscured by the first skeleton.

Its gaping maw yawned before her, jaw barely hanging on.  Death and decay, normally such pleasant aromas, stank on its graveyard breath.  Out of control, Zytheria was falling from power.  Death was no fun when you couldn’t control it.

Screaming, she shot up in bed, sweating ice.

Duel

Pholius Primus, barefoot in a loose fitting tunic and long trousers, stepped calmly from the airlock of the Queen Comet into the cold vacuum of space. Staring into the inky blackness of the void, he reached with an outstretched hand and called it to him. The darkness began to coalesce around his chiseled body, slowly forming pauldrons, greaves, a cuirass, until Pholius was fully incased in midnight armor.  From the glow of a distant star, Pholius created a shining blade, six feet long and sharp as light.

A short distance away Pholius's opponent had created a set of plate and an axe from the orange light of the sun beyond. Behind him, like the one behind Pholius, was a massive battleship, the Supernova.  Both ships were in rough shape, heavily scarred across their hulls by extensive laser blasts.

"Pholius."  The other knight nodded in greeting as he floated close, using his sorcery to transmit his words mentally. Space remained silent.

"Gallun."  Pholius returned the nod.

"Why have you called this parlay?" Gallun asked.

"You seem to have taken extensive damage."

"And you have not?"  Gallun glanced back and forth between the two ships.  "It seems to me that our vessels are equal in their wounds."

"And if we continue as we are, they will be equal piles of junk."

"So, what do you propose?" Gallun asked warily.

"Should we fight this battle to its end, both of us will die, as even the victor's ship will be too damaged to reach port. Even now that may be beyond our capabilities."

"Get to the point, primus."

"The two of us will fight. The victor will take the other's crew captive and enough parts for a safe journey."

"Why would I do that, when I can continue to pummel you with my cannons?"

"Are you listening?  In the time it will take you, my crew can render you incapable of space travel."  Pholius raised his gaze to the bridge of the Supernova, where Gallun's crew stood watching the discussion.

"Very well," Gallun said. "Let us fight."  He roared, and his armor blazed bright. The light lanced towards Pholius's eyes, but his black helm lowered a thin film across the visor for protection.

Gallun , expecting Pholius to be blinded, shot forward with his axe held high for a vicious blow. But eyes covered, Pholius saw only Gallun's unprotected chest, and he thrust his blade at it. The strike failed to pierce Gallun's blazing armor, but sent him spinning away.

Yelling telepathically, Gallun advanced again, this time holding his axe ahead in a low guard. As soon as he neared, Pholius danced forward with a flurry of strikes, his starlight blade flaring with Gallun's axe as they collided.

From the bridge of the Queen Comet, Pholius's crew watched nervously as the two knights filled the space between ships with their battle. Gallun, in his flaming armor, flew around making wild sweeps with his axe, which trailed fire as it went. As a counterpoint, Pholius was nearly invisible in his black armor, so the crew had to look for his bright blade. He allowed Gallun to soar around him, keeping up a patient defense.

The two titans struggled back and forth until suddenly, almost imperceptibly, a mistake was made. Gallun over exaggerated an overhead swing, and Pholius had time to deliver a thrust to his hand. The axe flew from hand and slowly dissipated into embers. Unarmed and overmatched, Gallun could do nothing as Pholius stabbed him through the chest. His flaming armor flickered and faded, leaving his mortal body impaled on a blade of starlight.

Pholius pushed Gallun's body from his sword and let the blade fade from existence. The silence of space was punctured only by his labored breathing.

Seeing the battle was won, the Queen Comet enabled their thrusters, moving to make its conquest of the Supernova. Pholius took his place in front of it, looking every inch the conqueror in his midnight armor with his battleship at his back.

The Supernova lowered its remaining shielding, ready to accept the victors. Gallun would have telepathically informed them of the duel's stakes. The Queen Comet did away with her shields as well, and began extending a bridge to the other vessel's airlock.

The bridge was only halfway across the intervening space when Pholius noticed something wrong. A nearly invisible sheen covered the Supernova. Her shields were back up!  Gallun must have told his crew to attack whether he won or lost. Pholius tried to mentally shout to the officers in his bridge, but he was too late. The cannons on the Supernova blazed to life, and beams lanced through space into the unprotected side of the Queen Comet.

Pholius felt a burst of hot pain and was sent hurtling backwards. Looking down as he spiraled through space, he saw that a laser had sheared through his armor. Cold was already seeping through the wound.

As the Queen Comet was torn apart above him, Pholius stared into dark space, and drew power  from it. As he held the dark energy, he gazed back and forth between his ship and the hole in his armor. He only had so much power to use.

Should he use it to destroy the Supernova?  Even if he did, his men would die a slow, stranded death–their ships was irreparably damaged.  Turning away from the battle above, Pholius touched a black gauntlet to his broken side, and saved himself.