A forest at dusk is the first thing you see upon waking… but that’s not right. You don’t remember falling asleep in the first place, certainly not among these strange evergreens. Home was somewhere else, in the deciduous country of dawn at the end of a gravel road. That much, you remember, but as for everything else….
The trees that tower over you thump with an unhappy heartbeat. They urge you to follow the road you are standing on, like a stranger leading a child astray with candy in his palm. Looking over your shoulder, wincing at the tight sensation around your neck, you see only empty road leading back the way you don’t remember coming. The trees, as they press in around you, whisper that there is nothing worthwhile that way. Not anymore. Doubt seeps into your mind, but forward seems the only logical way to go, especially if you want to find out what’s going on.
Or who you even are, for that matter. Why can’t you remember anything except scraps of color and memory? Why can’t you remember your parents’ faces, what school you attend, what city you live in? The reality of your situation begins sinking in, and fear crawls into your stomach as you try to dredge up your name, but that’s gone, too. Without it, you feel like just another can on a shelf stripped of its labels. You are alone but not alone because of the watchful evergreens.
No amount of pinching or blinking or wrenching of your mind changes your dimly werelit surroundings. There is no rush of relief from sitting up in bed, sweaty and shivering but safe. There are no birds singing outside your window to signal morning. Yet, dreamlike, you continue down this road in hopes of finding answers.
Rubbing at your throat, you wonder at the increasing tightness. Again, you consider turning back, but if you had once known your way home, you’d lost it now.
As you follow the road’s leftward arc, the trees on the right thin out enough for you catch flickers of a lake dyed in pale blue. No leaves, fish, or insects disturb its surface. Instead, light rolls across it like a slick of slithering oil. You stand a moment and stare, but the trees shove against your back and turn you away.
At the road’s termination, a complex of buildings nestles among the trees. Only two are visible through their cloaks of vegetation, but the shadows of others are scattered all around you. The largest visible building resembles an 18th century mansion with a papery brown façade and shallow, lightless portico covered in desiccated vines. On the porch, a terra cotta pot lies in pieces, dirty innards spilling over to create mulchy deltas. The other nearby building, more modern with large windows, sits on the lakeshore. Paint is flaking off its siding and lichens are rotting the walkway. Squinting, you can see squat bookshelves inside the main room, as well as some low, round tables and chairs. No lights are on and nothing moves inside.
The trees herd you all the way to the front doors of the mansion, two slabs of varnished mahogany carved with lilies. Although no one seems to be around, the door is partway open, allowing you a stray peek inside. A faint stench wafts out, something like an animal carcass liquefying nearby, but you need to know what has happened.
Inside is a bedraggled foyer with a flight of stairs covered in a reddish runner. The smell intensifies, clogging your sinuses. A small voice in your mind urges you to leave, but your feet are turning sluggish. Looking down, you see that the runner by the doors bears the dusty marks of numerous feet passing by, and spots of fresh mud from a shoe that isn’t yours. These fresh tracks stagger out to the side and into darkness, trailing small, moist spots of dark crimson, nearly black on the runner save for the shimmering hump of fluid.
Something is horribly wrong here, but now you are frozen in place as the temperature in the foyer suddenly plummets. Somewhere deeper inside, an echoing human voice cries out.
Your throat strangles its own cry when a massive shadow materializes in front of you, nearly engulfs you. Its breath condenses into a million screaming ghosts that brush past you, through you, leaving behind the residue of terrible lives and terrible ends. You search for a face, some sign of sentience, but you are further frightened when you find none. Your mind screams for release from your anchorage, but still you stand there petrified. Again, as if this were only a nightmare, you shake your mind, blur out the shadow, push against the invisible membrane between sleep and awake. But you find nothing to shake free of or push through.
In a scratchy voice, the shadow whispers only one word: “Choose.”
“Wha-what?” You croak.
“Choose a room,” the shadow repeats. “You have two days. Like everyone else.” The shadow’s substance fades, causing the hairs on your nape to prickle.
“Why, what do I need a room for? Where am I?” Speaking is painful, every word clawing and scraping its way out of your throat. “What is all this?”
In response, the shadow darkens, as if midnight is condensing into the beginning of the universe. It says simply, “To haunt.” Then it scatters back into nothingness, leaving you shivering in place. Your mind jumbles–the shadow’s words at first confuse you and seem useless. It answered nothing. But soon enough….
Oh. You latch onto and replay the one clue you were given. Your shivering turns violent when you realize what it means.
No, no it can’t be, you think to yourself. You still have friends, parents, relatives, a life that includes soft covers and a bedroom view of the lake, half-finished homework, sandwiches on a sunny Sunday afternoon. A good life somewhere out there–you must. Your memories are there, percolating through the morass, coming back in bits and pieces. “To haunt”? Only ghosts haunt anything, derelict houses with rooms saturated in so much pain. They are bound there forever, in rooms where unspeakable things happened. And ghosts, you remember, are dead. Murder, disease, accident, suicide.
Tears well under your eyes. There is a mirror in the foyer and, now that your feet are free again, you shuffle over to see your reflection. The hand absently rubbing your neck falls away, and there it is: the angry, abrasive line encircling your throat. Whimpering, you collapse, stumble back upright, and run, run back for the double doors in slow-motion as if you are wading through molasses. Outside, you stumble over the porch and fall…
…From the chair into the tightening noose of your father’s silk tie. The lake-filled windows of your bedroom flash by, spilling evening sunlight across the wooden floor. Images blast through the white, fiery pain as you struggle for ground and pull at the inexorable tie–the black one with blue polka dots, your father’s favorite. The one he didn’t wear to your first music recital. The crossbeam it loops around groans, blaring through the merciless pain. Your justifications clamor on the head of a pin, a single second in time–the laughter that slapped you, the classmates that left you alone to dig for bugs on the playground, the nightmares of your own murderer (who in the end was you, always you). Then there are your failures in writing, your only lonely talent and refuge; rejection after impersonal rejection destroying your self-worth and will to continue. Finally, the deep, blue well that opened up inside of you, that took everything away and still hungered for more, for every scrap of anything positive. Life itself hadn’t been worth living anymore.
Had you left a note before the end? Had it been worth leaving one?
You sink into unconsciousness… reawaken in the dirt of the forest road, still crying. So it was all over, then. Except that it wasn’t. You could still feel everything you had tried to escape. Your stomach churns, holding you motionless on the road to prevent throwing up… what? Your last meal? At this point, it’s ludicrous that anything should matter.
But what would happen if you missed the shadow’s deadline, now that you really had passed on? Maybe nothing. Maybe the shadow’s decree is part of a trap to ensnare your soul. Or maybe it eats homeless souls and counts on your refusal. There is only one way to find out, but how should you choose?
After some thought, finally spent of tears, you rise to your feet. The more you think about the shadow’s words and the potential consequences of ignoring them, the more resigned and fearful you feel. You see no discernible reason why it would lie. It didn’t have to, not here. Neither did it have to spell out consequences–those were apparent from its breath.
And now that you remember your own death, there’s no use denying it. You had entered an afterlife described in no religion, and now you apparently needed a room to haunt for eternity.
Stunned, empty, you reenter the mansion. The first room, besides the foyer, is a square study, windowless, walls lined with empty bookshelves. Another is a bedroom in disrepair, the bed caving in under rot and mildew. Cold air seeps through a crack in the foggy window. Yet another room is a grungy prison kitchen, and another is barren of all furniture. Still others seem to have been ripped from different time periods and bunched incongruously together in this sprawling complex. All of the rooms give off the stench of death. You begin wondering if this is heaven or hell, or some patchy mixture of the two.
The more rooms you see, the deeper your despair sweeps over you. None of these rooms feels suitable, and many times you find yourself shying away from them as if something might reach out and grab you, or kill you all over again. All of these rooms housed horrors beyond imagining.
You sense that time has almost slipped away. The end is near, but you still haven’t found a room. Back outside in the luminous, indigo forest, you make your way down to the shore of the lake, its smooth waters catching the remains of the never-setting, never-rising sun. The blue well surfaces and opens up before you as the crisp, silhouetted landscape of water and silent mountains. Suddenly, you’re so very tired, fatigue weaving deeply through your cold flesh. You might never stand up again. Dipping your fingers into the liquid crystal lapping at your feet, you feel the lake’s invisible blood warming your flesh, which always felt so cold. Slowly, slowly the lake’s water enfolds your fingers, your arm, and the rest of your body.
But wait, the lake murmurs, there is still something left. Over there. Barely able to stand, you withdraw your hand and stumble your way over to the lakeshore building. A wooden door, inset with beveled glass, leads into a lightless, messy playroom. Large windows line the wall facing the lake, while the shelves, overflowing with ratty children’s books, fill the space beneath them. Chairs and knee-high tables litter the floor. At the far end, another door, cast in darkness, leads to another unknown and irrelevant part of the building. As you move into the middle of the room, your legs quiver and give out. You slump into a cushioned chair facing the windows and soft blue of the water. You are too weak for escape, now. You must wait for the last hour that will call the shadow.
When that hour finally arrives, the shadow appears. It asks only one question: “Here?”
For a moment, you hesitate. Then, you respond, “Yes.” But even though it’s the only answer you can give, the one you felt certain of when you came here, it sounds wrong. Too late, comprehension of your situation is budding. The lake beyond the windows is stirring something inside of you, other memories that are surfacing at last: weekend lunches, comments from flattering teachers, the simple pleasure of bright sun warming cold skin, the house that sheltered you from wind and rain as your one true friend, the parents you left behind and all of the terrible things you said to them, the creation of new worlds and new creatures even if you are the only one who cares about them. What you hoped you wouldn’t feel, you feel now.
If only you had one more chance!
But your hold on this reality is loosening, the decision now made. Your last thought begs of you, in a last ditch effort, to find a way not to give up. Wake up! it shouts. Wake up, please wake up! I want to live, I promise I’ll make it all better. Don’t let it end here!
The knot in the silken tie slips free.
BIO: I was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. I received my BA in English and MS in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, both degrees great excuses to read and write. In my spare time, I am a chaotic gardener and defunct fisherman. Currently, I live in Philadelphia.