Camping: It’s In Tents

“Did you hear that?” He asked softly, staring over the campfire into the dark forest. We were quiet for a moment, listening to wind whistle eerily through the trees.

“Nevermind!” He laughed. “I thought I heard growling. It must have been my imagination- wait, are you leaving?”

I stuffed my sleeping bag into my backpack and grabbed my car keys. “I saw a hotel at the base of the mountain. I am NOT getting eaten  by a sasquatch tonight. Good luck!”

Words

An envelope was sitting on my doorstep today. No return address, just my name printed in block letters, stark and official. I cautiously opened it, and pulled out a sheaf of papers.

The pages were yellowed with age, stiff and crackling. The blue ink was faded and pale.

Puzzled, I began to read. The story was unfamiliar, the language flowery, prose-like, an ode to magic and mystery. The secrets of night and the glory of dawn, all wrapped into a few sheets of scribbled notes. Diagrams and equations filled the margins, complex mathematics beyond my comprehension. Theories of gravity and coincidence, planetary alignment, faerie magic and brain chemistry, the Answers were here. It was all here.

The handwriting was mine.

My hands began to shake, the brittle pages trembled. I had no memory of writing these words, filling the lines with such care.

How could I have written this?

The clumsy cursive was unmistakable, the smears from my left hand were an unequivocal signature. I still had ink blots from a letter I had written this morning, freshly marking my skin like a tattoo. The stains matched, mirror images. Like birthmarks, fingerprints; there was no doubt.

My words. How could these be mine?

I stood there for a long time, trying to make sense of it. With each reading, I felt farther away from the conclusion, farther away from what I was supposed to understand.

And then the pages began to crumble.

Disintegrating before my eyes, the fragile words turned to dust, leaving nothing but glitter and ash in my hands.

The Mermaid

The first time I saw the mermaid she pretended not to see me.

I inched closer, trying to catch her attention without startling her back into the water. She continued to sunbathe in the golden sand, lightly rocking her fin back and forth as she sorted sea glass.

I cleared my throat.

Her eyes flicked my direction for an instant, then went back to the piles of glass shards. She began to hum softly and flipped her hair.

Taking another step closer, I waved.

Again her eyes darted towards me, and a look of irritation flashed over her lovely face. She shoved her treasures into a woven grass bag, and wriggled into the water with ease.

She surfaced briefly, to look at me over her shoulder, brows low with disdain. Then she was gone.

Ignored then rejected, I stood lonely and alone.

It was like high school all over again.

Oy.

“Oy, Starzyk, will you get me some salt and vinegar chips while you are at the store?” Charlotte yelled after Johan as he shuffled purposefully out the door. He ignored her, as usual. She shrugged and dropped onto the couch with her notebook, already scribbling busily.

Bobby D was staring at her with enough intensity that she stopped writing. “Can I help you, minion?” She queried without looking up, in a tone that made it clear that she hadn’t the slightest intention of helping him.

Bobby sighed dramatically. “I asked you to quit calling me minion. I am not your minion. I, and the rest of the fine people here,” Bobby waved his hand to include everyone else in the room. “We are your co-workers, your counterparts. Not minions. Seriously, though. You do realize that you are saying his last name wrong, right? Strozyk. Stroh-zick. Not Star-zick.”

Charlotte had already begun writing again. “Oh, you are my minion. Definitely one of my flying monkeys. And I know how to say his name. Use your Google-fu, my pretty, and prove to me that you are a true research nerd.”

Throwing his hands up in defeat, Bobby got back on his computer. After a moment of typing and clicking, he mumbled. “Oh. Well, I guess that makes sense.” Tamara eyed him curiously, and hopped up to peek over his shoulder at the computer screen. She nodded, patted his shoulder and went back to her desk.

Gone

“You’ll miss me when I am gone.” It wasn’t a question. She knew he would, and that is why she had lingered. “You shouldn’t be alone. You aren’t healthy when you are alone. You need me here!”

She had been pleading with him for days, as he packed up her things. She cried and wailed, following him room to room. He ignored her, until she threw the lamp across the room, shattering it on the wall. He screamed at her to stop, and she slammed the door shut, trapping him in the house.

He howled, “I can’t take it anymore! You have to go! You are not welcome in this house! The person I loved is gone, you are not her! Get out!” He struggled with the doorknob.

“Why are you doing this to me? I thought you loved me! Don’t do this to me, to us!” she sobbed, but she couldn’t resist any longer. The door was open, and he forced her through.

She turned and looked back, hoping for one last glimpse of him, one last chance for him to change his mind.

He stood in the doorway, the light from the house creating a golden halo around him, illuminating the darkness. The bitter smoke of burning sage drifted into the night.

He shut the door, but she could hear him talking to the medium. “Do you think it worked? Is it gone?”

After a few moments the medium said, “It isn’t in the house. Now you can mourn your wife in peace.”

The Visitor

The front door stood slightly ajar, so I gingerly pushed it open with one finger. An ominous pool of dark liquid was illuminated by the full moon. I debated calling out, “Hello?” and following the suspicious trail of footprints that led deeper into my home, but decided to get back in my car, lock the doors, drive to a nearby gas station and call the police.

Red

The fancy hotel room was supposed to be a treat, an exciting break from our usual routine. It was luxurious; cherry-wood paneled walls, leather couches, a decadent bar and a hot tub. This vacation from real life was going to make our happy marriage even happier.

But his smile was crystalline, his eyes shiny-flat and hard as marbles. He was cold and distant, so unlike himself. This was no second honeymoon.

We had never fought so much. The air was heavy with bitterness, dissatisfaction.

Something was wrong. The lavish surroundings seemed to mask something dark and ugly.

Something sinister.

Sickeningly sweet, saccharine poison soaking into everything we held most dear.

It all seemed unreal, distant; a nightmare set to the backdrop of heaven.

The room felt… red. Candy-apple red, crimson lips curved in a wicked smile, a trickle of fresh blood. Syrupy thick, painful, all-encompassing scarlet.

The pulse of light behind closed eyelids.

A migraine.

He had enough, and stormed out.

I expected the red to fade, and it did; the room shadowed, the lights seemed to flicker. Then I could still see it out of the corner of my eye.

Red. The outline of a man in a red, red suit.

Pulsing with malice.

It was whispering, barely audible; promises, threats, pleas, commands. Enticing lies to coerce, entrap, and smother me.

I would not look. I could not look. If I looked at it, this… thing in the shape of a man, if I acknowledged its existence, I wouldn’t be able to resist the honeyed words. How long had it been hissing these lies?

I couldn’t move. Its presence seemed to suck the air out of the room, the air out of my lungs.

I willed myself not to look.

Do not look.

The Lake House

It was Halloween, and my friends and I were staying at the lake house. It was a towering, ancient monstrosity with dark hallways and unreliable lighting that flickered ominously.

“Let’s have a séance!” one of the girls squealed, waving the Ouija board above her head.

Everyone giggled and agreed enthusiastically as they set the board on the table. The lights were turned out, candles were lit, and the group gathered around the table.

“Are you going to play?” They looked expectantly at me as I lingered near the door. I shook my head, and took another step back.

They placed their hands on the planchette, and the air in the room suddenly felt colder.

“This is a terrible idea.” I muttered, as I gathered my things. “No way. I am out.”

Threshold

It was an ordinary day. A typical Tuesday morning. I woke to the alarm, showered, dressed. Off to work. I arrived at my desk right on schedule. I hung my hat and coat, and headed to the break room for my coffee.

Generally, I keep to myself at work. I prefer not to draw attention, so I usually hurry down the hall early, before the rush, eyes on my feet to avoid any conversation. The long hallway is always buzzing with activity, but this morning it was surprisingly quiet, which caused me to look up. And I saw the door.

It was at the end of the hall, tall and skinny, painted pale yellow. I had never seen this door before. I was certain that it had not been there yesterday; I have worked in this office for seven years, and I had never seen this door.

I looked around; still no one. I continued down the hallway, staring intently at the door. It was a strange yellow, almost a sickly yellow. Why did the door seem too thin, too tall? Why hadn’t I noticed it before?

I passed the break room. Usually a small crowd gathered by the water cooler or the coffee maker, but I saw no one. It was quiet. Too quiet.

Starting to sweat, I loosened my tie, cleared my throat, never taking my eyes off the door. I was still walking slowly, but steadily towards it. For some reason, it didn’t appear to be getting any closer. The end of the hall was still a ways off. I tried to walk faster, lengthen my stride, but my shuffling feet wouldn’t cooperate.

Maybe this was a bad idea. The door was unnerving, seeming to pulsate and throb with a strange energy.  I should turn back.

My reluctant feet kept moving. I tried to turn around, to look away, but it was too late. I was reaching for the knob. It was cold to the touch. I felt dizzy as I turned the handle.

The door swung open on silent hinges.

I saw only darkness.

Heart pounding, I tried to look away, to shut the door, turn around, anything, but I was trapped, gazing helplessly into the void.

I don’t know how long I stood there, resisting the urge to step over the threshold, fighting with every ounce of my being to avoid taking that step. Sweat was trickling down my face, my breath was coming in fast, harsh gasps.

A sudden flash of light blinded me, and I shielded my eyes, unsure of what to expect. As my vision cleared, I saw what lay beyond the door.

A mop. A bucket. A rickety shelf stacked with toilet paper, cleaning supplies.

I had discovered the janitor’s closet.

“Sir? Are you okay?” A man pushing a trashcan on wheels stood a few feet away, hand still on the light switch. “Did you need help finding something?”

I took a shaky breath. “Just a cup of coffee.”  I shut the door. The knob seemed to tremble… or was it just my hands shaking?

The Circus

The circus was coming to town. Fliers had been tucked into mailboxes and slid under doors some time in the night, though no one had heard or seen anyone do it.

The carnival last fall had been the highlight of the small town. The flashing lights, tall striped tents and glittering sequins were mesmerizing. Men on stilts, candied apples, exotic animals, the smell of hot, buttered popcorn, magicians, clowns, music! The delighted shouts and laughter of young and old filled the air.

Everyone loved the circus. Anticipation rolled through the town like the clouds of dust that blew in from the dry fields.

The children raced outside at recess, their round faces pressed closely to the chain link fence surrounding the schoolyard. They jostled for the best view of the road, looking for the haze of dust that hailed the arrival of anyone coming to town. They would be here soon.

Within a few minutes, a strange melody could be heard, clinking and metallic. The timing was off, as if the song were playing at half-speed.

“Their stereo is broken!“ someone in the back of the gang shrilled loudly. Laughter broke out in the bunch, followed by more pushing and shoving for space at the fence.

The first truck came into view, the windshield nearly obscured with dirt and grime. The children waved and hollered as it passed, expecting the honk of a horn and a smile at least (last year the driver in the lead truck had tossed hard candies wrapped in colorful cellophane!) but this driver looked straight ahead, mouth set firm in a grim line.

“What’s his deal?” squawked a voice from the back of the group. A chorus of nervous giggles from the children.

The next truck rolled by, creaking in time to the plodding beat of the too-slow music. A faded wooden sign hung from the side, “CIRCUS” painted in peeling block letters. It was crooked.

There were two people; a man with his cap pulled low, and a pale woman. His eyes never left the road, but the dark haired woman stared intently at the children. She smiled without warmth, and blew a kiss. Her teeth were sharply white against her red lips.

“Who does she think she is?” screeched the voice from the rear of the crowd. A few children snickered uneasily, and the crowd shifted a few steps back.

Trucks and trailers rumbled by, dusty grey. More sullen stares and unsettling smiles. The circus last year had trailers with open windows, so they could see the elephants and horses, but every shutter was closed. Some were nailed shut.

The sluggish music clanked and sputtered on.

A girl backed away from the fence, tears in her eyes. “I don’t think this is a normal circus. I don’t like this circus.”

The last pickup rolled slowly by, with a lone passenger in the back. A sad clown.

His thick makeup was crusty and dry, and his wrinkles showed through. The clown pointed past the children, his tired eyes dark and lonely.

The children turned, and the familiar scratchy voice in the back shrieked, “Finally, you see me!”

It was another clown, but his eyes weren’t sad. His eyes looked mean.