She startled awake from a terrific clap of thunder. She raised her head, but physical darkness and a haze over her mind obscured the returns of her senses. And the rain. It was pouring. She could feel it pounding on her back, onto her soaked-through dress. And the grass. She was in long grass, the front of her was soaked through by the sponge-soaked earth. The impressions her hands made as she lifted her head became pools of water. The ground was utterly saturated.
Another peal of thunder, this time concomitant with a flash of lightening so bright it lit the entire landscape. Behind her, perhaps twenty meters, was the darkened brooding of a forest. Before her, the grass rolled into what looked like the shore of… a river? The ocean? It was too dark to tell. And neither should be there, so which it was, river or lake or ocean, was a tossup. To the left of the beach was a blackness, a void rising into the darkened sky. The lightening had not illuminated what was there long enough for her to get a good look at it.
She managed to her hands and knees. There was something familiar about where she was, but it was terrifying, and this grogginess in her mind would not let her remember what it was. She looked behind into the darkness. She could sense the trees there, looming, but the renewed darkness after the lightning kept away any details. Then another flash, this one further away. The roll of thunder took a few seconds to arrive. But with the flash she saw the tree line again, and the shape of another person lying face-down in the long grass, only a few meters from her. Dread washed over her, like the rain poured over her eyes from the deluge. This person was bad news. Even her bones knew it.
A memory of running through woods in the dark, using her hands to catch branches before they hit her face, barefoot, ignoring the cuts and cutting of her feet, the sound of heavy footsteps crashing through the woods behind her, closing the distance.
Why couldn’t she remember?
Now something else caught her attention, emerging from the trees. No, not emerging, something so bright would have been visible from far away, flashing behind the branches and tree trunks. No, this thing, in the shape of a person, had simply winked into existence just within the trees.
Her mind, still in a fog and unable to think, gathered the information her senses provided. It was shaped like a person, but there any similarity ended. It was filled with light, but distorted. The best way her mind could describe it was like the snow that played on a TV set not tuned to a broadcast channel, so instead it displayed the- random noise it received from the airwaves.
Part of that noise is the cosmic microwave background radiation of the early universe, a voice (her’s?), stated in the cadence and style of a university professor giving a lecture.
And how this snow-filled thing moved, how to describe that? It did not walk, but instead seemed to blink and flash: now to the left a metre, now forward half that. Now back a blink, then forward even further, making erratic but constant progress towards the figure on the ground behind her.
The thing made enough light for her to see by as it made its staccato way to the prone figure, who was beginning to stir.
It was a man, and for some reason he frightened her more than the impossibility that was reaching out to him.
Even so, when the man shook his head she felt an autonomic kinship with him, beneath her revulsion. Whatever was fogging her mind appeared to be affecting him as well. But any kinship switched to shock and horror as the TV snow-thing reached the man, and with one final blink-movement, it’s arm seemed to extend unnaturally long—unnatural in a human context, at least—and grasped his leg. Despite the downpour, the man’s leg erupted into flame on either side of the thing’s… hand? His reaction was instant, and extreme; he screamed as loud as any voice she had ever heard, while trying to turn over and reach the monster now clutching him. But the snow-thing ignored his struggles. It turned toward the tree line and began blinking its way back into the forest.
The man, his leg still burning, his cracking voice still screaming, was jerked along with the thing. She did not know if it was real, or a figment of her imagination, but she thought she could hear the bones in his leg snapping as the thing blink-moved into the trees. These screams increased to a level she didn’t imagine possible as he was dragged beyond the tree line.
As the light from the Snowman faded behind more and more foliage of the forest, she became aware of another source of light punctuating the darkness. It was another snow-thing, this one jerking its way towards her.
Despite the fog still gripping her mind, and ignoring the cold as it sapped her strength, she staggered to her feet and prepared to run away. But where to go? Not the forest. A third snowman had emerged from the trees and now staccatoed its way in her direction. So she moved towards the water. The light from the snow things gave enough to see by, and the heavy lightening continued to light the dark expanse of water, perhaps fifty meters away.
Perhaps she could swim to safety. Adrenaline pumped through her bloodstream, but even so she could not run. At best she managed a kind of jog. No matter how she urged her muscles to move, they refused to obey with enthusiasm. It was like a nightmare; no matter how hard you tried you could not get away from the monster.
The closest snowman would reach her before she could reach the water. Still, she was out of options. She stopped looking back and pushed herself with all her might. The light increased as the thing closed with her, but she refused to look. Then she was there, suddenly, standing at the water’s edge. The light from the thing, and the darkness punctuated by the near constant lightening, allowed her to see the black surface of the water, touching the shore, which had given way to rock from the grass.
At the edge, yes, but she could go no further. An impossible terror rose in her throat, like a supernatural bile, and she froze where she stood. Her body was choosing to burn and break, rather than take one step closer to that black water. Because the water was not merely deep. It was darkness, a darkness hiding unspeakable secrets. She realized, as she realized there was a term for this fear of deep water, but one which she could not recall, that she did not know her name, or where she lived, or how she’d arrived here, who that man had been in the long grass with her, or why he terrified her, or had, before he was dragged, on fire and screaming, into the trees.
Lightening flashed again, followed by an immediate peal of thunder that shook the ground, vibrating her internal organs. The TV snow-thing would be on her in seconds, but staring into the deep of this… river, lake, the vision-blasting brilliance of lightening exposed a distant shore, but gave up no secrets of what might be hidden beneath the rain-broken surface.
Just the deep, just the dark, waiting for her, even beckoning, as a nightmare might beckon within a child’s unsettled sleep.
So she stood, frozen as her fate must be only centimetres away, about to set her on fire, to drag her beyond the trees, where a fate most terrible would rip the screams from her throat—yet still she stood, staring into this abyss as it caressed the shore, lapping at her feet like a dog might lick the chain link of the fence keeping it back from freedom. She imagined she could feel the splash of cold as she jumped headlong into the water, feel an awareness beneath, looking up at her in arousal at her kicking legs, slowly unfurling whatever limbs or appendages it brandished up towards her tiny shape, eager, seeking out what little warmth remained in her body. Seeing the far shore come closer with the lightning, the vertigo of the bottomless expanse pulling at her like the crush of a neutron star’s gravity, just before, just before that first caress, then the seizing, then bubbles and muffled screams in her ears with that last breath of air that would never be replaced.
A bright flash of lightning from behind brought her back to her fate. But then, seconds after this flash, came the low rumble of thunder in the distance. How long had she stood here, her bare feet only inches from the black, nightmare water stroking the shore? Surely long enough to meet her following horror. She turned, shivering uncontrollably as her body lost its capacity to keep her awash in adrenaline. Even a frightened mouse must give up at some point. The TV snow-man was there, but a few metres away, blinking left and right, back and forward, but never closer. Was this thing afraid of the deep, like her? She took a cautionary step back from the water’s edge. Monsters in the dark might reach out beyond their inky cloak to grasp a wayward leg.
’Tis not alone my inky cloak,
I have within that which passeth show
These but the trappings and the suits of woe!
“Not now, Hamlet,” she said to the rain. The TV snow-man still did not come closer, but she didn’t think it feared the dark water as she did. It seemed, rather, somehow tied to the grass, to the forest.
There was a word for this. She turned back to the blackness spread out into the distance, then again to the snow-thing. And as she did, a flash of lightening illuminated that strange blackness to her left. It was a hill, rising up sharply like one side of a canyon. It extended up between the grass and the shore, and, after only a few metres, the blackened now of a cave appeared. But this darkness, unlike the water to her right, did not fill her with dread. No. After the relentless pounding of the near-freezing rain, the fear of a lightning strike, and the horror of the deep, it seemed to welcome her.
But would the snow-man allow her to reach it?
Turning on feet scraped bloody by the jagged rocks of the shore, she managed a few limping steps towards the cave. The snow-man remained on the grass, continuing to blink from one location to the next, seemingly unable to venture off the grass and onto the rocky shore, and its slight rise toward the cave.
Even with the nightmare water to her right, and the snapping, buzzing horror of the snow-thing moving in parallel to her on the left, her reserves of adrenaline were failing. The human body could only maintain a state of terror for so long, and her limit had been reached. And as the internal stimulation waned, fatigue and the cold began to wash over her. She began to shiver as she walked, her teeth to chattering uncontrollably.
Still, the entrance to the cave welcomed her. Perhaps due to its walls felt like protection from the horrors on other side of them; perhaps because it kept the rain from its relentless pounding on her body. The mouth of the cave was about three metres tall, and half that wide. And where she expected absolute darkness, she could see a faint flickering of light further in. Not light from an electrical source, but still encouraging. The floor of the cave was still rock, but here, beyond the ceaseless, pounding rain, it transitioned counter-intuitively from sharp and jagged, to smooth and gentle.
She kept moving inside, towards that flickering light. Once she entered the cave it opened up, the walls spreading left and right by several meters, while the ceiling vaulted perhaps ten metres above.
The only reason she could anything at all was from that light flickering within. It was clear, as she made her way inside, that this was the flicker of a fire. But only its reflection. A few more metres in and things became clear: the cave narrowed and branched both left and right in a suspiciously deliberately-looking T-junction. From the left was that tantalizing flicker of a fire; to the right, which sloped down at an angle, was absolute blackness, blackness that must run into, or beneath, the water of the river beyond. And the thought of that double-blackness, unending, inhabited by nightmares and bad thoughts, froze her in place momentarily.
But the crackle of a wood-burning fire brought her back, like a rescue party’s shouts from the swallowing wilderness.
The left fork of the cave narrowed to about a metre wide and double that in height, before opening up again into a sight she could never have imagined; as lightening flashed through an opening in the far side of this section of the cave, a healthy fire roared in a slight depression, a convenient natural fire pit that seemed something other than natural.
Around this fire lay several items; a flashlight, a pile of white towels bearing a monogram, some folded clothes, a bottle of water, and even a single mattress covered by blankets and festooned with a pillow.
She knelt before the fire, holding her numb, shivering hands near the flames. Water dripped from her, falling audibly to the cave floor. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, she reached back to release the zipper on her dress. But it was already down, which made a flash of fear jolt down her spine. Why would it be down? Had she done this?
Trying to ignore the fear, she worked her way out of her dress as quickly as she could, dropping the dripping, soaked ruin onto the ground. Her body, now with an appetite for the warmth of the fire, autonomically grabbed a towel and, after ringing out as much water from her hair—blonde hair, she noted, and also noted she should know this—wrapped her hair in a towel. She grabbed another and used it to pad her body dry. Pad dry, don’t wipe. A skin-care tip she knew, but not her name, or what colour her own hair was.
Now dry and soaking up the warmth of the fire, her body’s reserves of fear finally failed and she collapsed. Her underwear was still soaked, making warming up difficult. So, with furtive glances around the firelight, she removed them and put on the clothing beside the pile of towels. Sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a hoodie. Then she sat as motionless as the shivering allowed, and tried to soak up the heat.
As the shivering began to quiet, she felt other needs higher up on the hierarchy begin to manifest. For one, a powerful thirst, which she sated with a bottle of water conveniently left beside the fire.
The cap snapped satisfyingly as she twisted it, guarantee of a proper seal, and she drank greedily. She wrapped her arms around her knees and stared into the fire as fatigue continued to replace the adrenaline-fuelled far. Then she regarded the water bottle in her hand. It was a square bottle, not unlike one she’d seen before, sporting an image of a cherry blossom before a flowing waterfall, with a mountain she recognized in the background. “Fuji Water” was the name on the label. And beneath, “High in the mountain on a summit 4000 kilometres into the sky, frozen rain falls, purified through melting and traversing the slopes of this ancient volcanic rock, on its journey to becoming Earth’s Finest Water.” Her brows furrowed. That did not seem right. Was it “Fuji “water? She put the empty water bottle on the ground, trying to put down the uncanny feeling she got from the label with it.
Then she examined the remaining folded towels still sitting in a pile. That monogram on them now came into focus. “Best Eastern Hotels & Resorts.” But she knew this one was wrong. It should be “Best Western.”
She held back a guffaw, worried that getting the giggles now would end badly, by never ending. Still, the thought encouraging her to laugh out loud remained stubbornly in her brain: Is this a low-budget psycho-drama? Don’t I warrant brand names?
“Best Eastern Fuji water,” she said out loud. In the darkness and unceasing grey noise of the pounding rain, her voice felt raw and tiny, and devoid of familiarity. Now a scream needed to be choked off. Laugh or scream, and scream or laugh. What a delightful field of options!
*featured image credit: DALL·E 2