Authors: Edward Lorn
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Dark Fantasy, #Thrillers, #Supernatural, #Horror
“I-I don’t know. The last thing I remember, I was chasing Lyle.” Marsha looked befuddled, as if she would cry or laugh, or both.
Justine felt as though she could do the same at that moment.
Trevor bent over and picked up a loose rock.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Trying something.” Trevor reared back and threw the rock at the spot where Lyle and Marsha had disappeared.
The rock hit the ground twenty feet ahead of them and rolled, finally coming to rest another ten feet further up the trail.
Trevor shrugged. “Seems to be all right now.”
Marsha grabbed her son’s hand. “I don’t like this. I really,
don’t like this. Come on, Lyle. We’re getting out of here.”
A total of five steps. That was as far as Lyle and Marsha made it before they vanished into thin air.
Same scene as before. First they were there, then they weren’t. Justine could feel her head spinning, gears working overtime trying to make sense of the insanity. Out of instinct, she turned around.
And found Marsha and Lyle at the outcropping once again.
“This is crazy,” Jaleel said.
Trevor said, “But the rock went through. We all saw it. Right?”
“You guys wait there!” Jaleel called to Lyle and Marsha.
“What are you thinking?” Justine asked, following the tour guide as he began walking toward the beginning of the trail.
“I’m thinking I want to see this for myself. Hang back with him.” Jaleel pointed at Trevor.
The tour guide didn’t even make it five steps. Justine couldn’t be sure, but maybe he’d made it three. The distance to disappearing range seemed to have grown shorter.
“Look,” Trevor said.
Justine turned and saw Jaleel standing at the outcropping with Marsha and Lyle. “That isn’t possible.” Those words had become a mantra of sorts.
Justine spun back and slowly walked forward with her left arm outstretched. When she had gone three steps, her arm disappeared at the elbow.
“That’s nuts!” Lyle yelled from the outcropping.
Justine kept her arm where it was, and looked over her shoulder. She saw Lyle touching a brown-skinned hand that jutted from the rock face. “I can feel that!”
“Come on.” Trevor grabbed her arm, and pulled her into the space.
Her ears popped.
And then she was staring at the backs of the rest of the group.
Justine whispered, “My God.”
“It’s like we’re teleporting, but just going in circles. Weird.” Lyle began walking back toward the disappearing point, but his mother grabbed his forearm and yanked him back.
“No! No, you don’t. You stay right here.” The mother looked frazzled. Justine could see her breaking. “Nobody else goes any-damn-where. You got me? We just stay right here. We call for help. We—”
“Our phones don’t have any signal. We can’t call anyone,” Trevor said.
“Lyle, where’s your phone?” Jaleel asked.
“Mom?” The boy looked at his mother, then glanced down at her white-knuckle grip on his arm. “I need to get my phone.” He pointed with his free hand. “I dropped it right there.”
“And that’s all you do. You understand? You pick it up, and you come right back here. You know what? Never mind. I’ll get the damn thing. I’ll get it, and I’ll call… call somebody… because we… we need… we
Trevor sighed. “Houston, she’s lost it.”
Marsha crumbled. She collapsed back onto the rock face and screamed, just bellowed her soul right out into the world. Sounds of torment, frustration, and terror exploded from her. She let go of Lyle in the process, and the boy snatched his phone up off the ground.
Justine felt terrible for Marsha, but she was at a loss for what she could do. When she approached the woman, Marsha held up a hand.
“Don’t. Just don’t.” Marsha trembled, as if each word caused her a great deal of pain.
“Do you have a phone signal, Lyle?” Jaleel asked.
Lyle frowned. “Lemme see.”
The boy looked down at the screen of his cell phone, and his jaw fell open. “Forty-three new messages?”
“Damn, kid. Are you that popular?” Trevor asked.
“What is it?” Justine slid over beside him to get a better look at the phone. “You have that many voicemails?”
“No.” Lyle slid the bar to unlock the phone. “Somebody sent me some pictures.”
THE SENSE THAT HE WAS falling, spiraling out of control, began to fade along with that feeling of impending collision. Mark’s body slowed, finally coming to a complete stop. The cool air that had been whistling by his ears during his plummet ceased. His body upended, and his feet moved under him until he was upright. Mark saw nothing. He was surrounded by total darkness.
“Hello?” The sound from his mouth seemed to end all too soon, dying just inches from his face. A low thrumming built in his ears. He realized he was hearing his own blood as it moved through his head. The inky black was that quiet.
Mark remembered his camera. The Nikon had a built-in flash. He could use it to see. If there was anything to see. He reached up to his chest. No camera.
He took a step forward, testing the ground under his feet. It felt spongy, with some give, and not as solid as he had thought. Mark felt himself moving forward, an unseen presence at his back, pushing him along. He pushed against it, but his strength was gone.
“Mr. Simmons.” The voice was female, thick, and hoarse.
“Follow my voice.”
The hand at his back forced him to advance. Ahead, through the darkness, a funnel of light spread, growing wider. The sheer brilliance of the spectrum caused Mark to snap his eyes closed. He felt as if he were looking into the sun. When the light began to bleed through his eyelids, he countered by placing a palm over each eye. From around the edges of his hands, his vision showed red. His eyes pulsed with outward pressure, seeming to swell until Mark was certain they would pop from his head, spilling out onto the ground. Cheeks burning, breath hitching, Mark realized he was sweating profusely.
Wherever he was, it was damn hot. He imagined a tractor beam dragging him along on a collision course with the sun.
The glow began to fade, dialing down to a dimmer, more manageable brightness. Mark dropped his hands, and they came away slick with perspiration. Looking around, he found himself in a place from his past.
He was in a morgue.
Mark knew that place all too well. Stone-gray tarp walls rose to a vaulted ceiling. A single pole jutted from the middle of the ground, holding the roof up at its apex. Along both walls were beige body bags laying atop military-issue gurneys. Mark remembered being told, months prior, that those storage bags of the recently departed were rarely ever black anymore, that a pile of black sitting against a wall of sand stood out too much.
Men and women dressed in desert camouflage pushed bodies in and out of the tent. Sullen faces mixed with smiling mugs reminded Mark of the dichotomy of war. How one person dealt with the dead and dying wasn’t always how the rest of the world would react. He heard, incredulously, a jarhead telling a knock-knock joke in one corner of the tent.
“Orange you glad I didn’t see your banana!” The private leaned forward and slapped his knee.
“Whatever,” his buddy said. “You screwed the pooch on that one, Jerry.”
The air was scorching. Mark believed his lungs were at risk of searing closed with every breath. Aromas of burnt flesh and singed hair permeated the entire tent. He’d not been able to take it the first time he had been there, and that hadn’t changed. He tried to cough, but only managed to wheeze.
Gunfire rose in the distance, sounding like popcorn in a microwave. Mark flinched every time the sound came. He knew young men and women were out there, only miles away, fighting for their lives, trying to free a country that had no want, or need, to be saved.
A young man in fatigues burst through the flap at the opposite end of the tent. Mark recognized him. The last time Mark had seen him, the private had not been in one piece.
“Contact!” His eyes were wide, crazed. “We got contact!”
Jerry and his buddy, both far too happy to be running off to their deaths, abandoned the gurney they had been pushing to join the excited private. The three of them disappeared, grunting like gorillas.
“Mr. Simmons.” The woman’s voice returned. Her words were cold in Mark’s ears, as if she were blowing in them from both sides.
Mark was shoved forward to the gurney the two men had been pushing. He didn’t want to go. He pushed back against the hand in the middle of his back, but the presence returned with even greater force. It pushed him along as if he weighed next to nothing. Whatever it was, it was mighty strong. And damn impatient. As he approached the pale brown body bag, Mark looked away, not wanting to see. He knew what was in there and begged not to be shown.
Inch by inch, the zipper began to open. Mark could hear the slow
of the metal as it parted. The presence at his back moved to his head. He was made to look.
The woman’s name was Annabelle Heinemann. She had been nineteen when she died. While she was alive, Mark had thought her a beautiful young woman. He’d taken pictures, interviewing her on what she thought about George W.’s war on terror and her stay in Baghdad. Annabelle had been pleasant and helpful, always answering with a smile. Life poured from her. She’d had that aura of immortality many people her age held. Looking in her eyes, Mark knew she thought she would be the first one to live forever.
Annabelle was ready to serve, to fight at any cost. That cost lay before him in the open body bag.
A sniper’s round, deadly accurate, had removed the entire left side of Annabelle’s pretty face. The .50 caliber munition, more than likely from a Barrett, had not been merciful on her soft features. Most of her brain was exposed, or what was left of it. Her left eye and ear had been blown completely off. Remnants of shoulder-length brown hair, stiff with blood, were splayed behind her head. She looked, oddly enough, like those portraits of the Virgin Mary with head ablaze in dazzling, fiery light. The right side was pocked with smaller holes, no doubt from the bullet shattering inside her skull and finding its way back out into the world. Mark had seen enough shrapnel and bullet wounds to know how those things worked. She looked so peaceful lying there, her one good eye closed. Mark imagined she was just sleeping. He ignored the gore, focused on the good.
“Annabelle, I’m sorry.” He reached forward and put a hand on her right shoulder. He would never get used to seeing the remains of those left behind. Whether or not he believed in a soul was debatable, but there
something, something that left people when they died. That part of a person weighed a great deal. Mark could feel it resting upon his shoulders.
“I know.” Annabelle’s good eye snapped open. The iris was dry, bloodshot.
Mark screamed. His body reeled backward of its own accord. He was dragged out of the tent wall, his body passing through as if he were made of nothing but air. The presence pulled him along, into the fray of battle. Roaring men fired loud rifles. Tanks dispersed their payloads, decimating whatever their shells found. Bodies were torn apart. Life was a roll of the dice.
Mark tried to cry out, but there was nothing left in him. He’d already cried those tears, had already come to the understanding that evil lurked in the hearts of men. And sometimes, those men were the good guys.
He was made to watch a group of civilians being processed into a line against a wall, while enlisted men in American uniforms formed a kill squad. Most of them were smiling.
Images blurred by at the speed of light. Short bursts of horrid acts followed by gleeful celebration drove Mark toward the edge. He could feel himself breaking. He
to break. Wanting to forget it all, Mark closed his eyes and prayed for it to end.
The eyes of the dead beckoned. Mark wanted to help, but they were already gone. Already laid to the pile. Burning.
“They never had a chance.”
“Fucking camel jockeys got exactly what they deserved.”
“Most of those were friendly, Cap.”
“We got ‘em. Don’t worry.”
“May God have mercy on their souls.”
“They don’t believe in the
God. Remember that!”
Mark reeled, dizzy. Unable to keep his eyes shut any longer for fear he would be sick, he opened them.
He was somewhere new.
The hallway was just wide enough for his large frame. He felt cramped, as he had in the Prius. He didn’t even have room to extend his arms at his sides.
Both walls were covered in photographs depicting stories he’d been sent on over the years, fading memories of the reporter he used to be. His mission to Iraq was supposed to have been one of unbiased reporting. Mark had been told by more than one man wearing stripes that he shouldn’t go on with the stuff that looked bad, not if he “wanted to see another Twinkie.” Those innocent men and women should have had their story told. But he’d been weak, deleting pictures at the behest of men with hearts blacker than night.
“Mr. Simmons.” Annabelle’s voice echoed off the small confines of the hallway, sounding far too loud in Mark’s ears.
He turned to find her behind him. Her corpse beamed, and her mostly intact mouth curled up at the corners in a hideous smile. The contrast was stunning, the utter horror of her face, offset by that grin—Heaven and Hell in profile.
“Where… where am I?”
“You are with me, Mr. Simmons.”
Mark realized her mouth didn’t move when she spoke. The young woman was in his head. She’d made herself at home in his thoughts.
“Where would you like to be?”
“Home. In my bed. Asleep and dreaming this entire thing.” His recliner and fridge full of beer would beat a nightmare any day of the week. He wondered absently if his goldfish were still alive.
home.” Annabelle tilted her ghastly head. A pinkish liquid dribbled from the remains of her hollow eye socket down onto her left shoulder. “This place is now your home.”