I stared at my lack of shadow, somehow more surprised than Annabelle seemed to be. You’d think Minnie’s antics animating it would make it less of a shock. I bent down and waved my hand over the ground, fascinated. I held the same hand up between my eyes and the sun, and it still blocked the light to my eyes.
This proved that all this, all along, existed more than just inside my own head. I fought back tears and threw my arms around Annabelle and laughed.
“Come on, what are you doing? Let’s go!” Annabelle sounded more excited than impatient.
“Okay, okay,” I said, taking a step back to grin at her. Then, I rummaged around in my purse and came up with the bottle of vodka I’d stowed there last night. I uncapped it, took a couple of breaths, then gulped down a big mouthful of the rather tasteless alcohol. Fire traced down my esophagus and ignited my stomach.
“Hey, hey! Slow down there!” Annabelle sounded alarmed.
“Told you,” I gasped, “I can only see fairies if I’m sloshed. Well, at least a little tipsy.”
“So, we came here so you could drink? And what next? Why Holliday Park?”
I held up a finger and took another gulp before capping the bottle. “Whew! Well, the piece of my soul is a little person, I call her Minnie. Yeah, I know, silly, hmm?”
Annabelle gave me a crooked grin and waited for me to go on.
“Anyway, Minnie was kidnapped on the Monon last night. This bitch who calls herself Queenie in the game. She looks like a sweet young thing, but I’m sure there’s a lot more to her than even I’m seeing. Queen Bitch took her away in a cage to a park where there’s a circle of stones on a hill. She used that circle to go to … I don’t know, Fairyland… some other place I’ve never seen before. I saw how she did it, and I recognized that circle of stones, since this is one of my favorite places. It’s in the woods a ways, where a few paths come together.”
“Ohhh… I see. And so you’ll be seeing things that I can’t see?”
“So I’ll be basically blind?”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. “I guess so…”
“Gimmie,” she said, taking the vodka from me. I was worried she was trying to keep me from drinking any more, but she took a swig of the clear alcohol too.
“Uh, that’s not going to help you see anything,” I said.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so, but liquid courage can’t be all bad,” she said, handing the bottle back with a wink.
I laughed, but didn’t feel it. If someone who ran into burning buildings to save people like me was scared, what did I think I was doing?
I put the booze away and took her hand to lead her out of the parking lot and onto the paved walkway that led to the trails. We were passed a few times by joggers and roller-bladers. I told myself that holding her hand was to comfort her, but just now, it meant a lot to me to have her here, believing me and helping me.
At the head of the trail, the woods of Holliday Park loomed darker and denser than I recalled them being. We exchanged glances and she was sticking her tongue out at me and screwing up her face.
I laughed, and the laughter dissolved into a giggling fit that seemed unstoppable. I’d laugh, which made her laugh, and that became the funniest thing in the world. Was it the booze, or was it nerves? I did feel a little dizzy…
Then something stopped me, cold.
I’d caught a glimpse of something I’d never seen in the park before. In the place of the artsy false ruins stood a mighty castle, not at all ruined. Its walls were made of cemented field stones, and it rose at least a couple of storeys above the park.
It even had a moat for God’s sake.
Annabelle stopped her giggling and followed my stare and said, “What? What do you see?”
“Uh,” I said.
“What? What? You tell me, you hear? I’m blind, Skye, help me out,” she pleaded, tugging at my sleeve.
Oh. Oops. I thought of those damned silly panties from the tin that I had on. I let out a groan at the thought.
“Damn it!” she play-smacked me on the shoulder, though maybe a bit harder than I was used to playing.
“Ow! Sorry! It’s a fucking castle, right there where the ruins should be!”
“You’re kidding,” she said, eyes dancing as she tried to read my expression to tell if I was pulling her leg.
“No, seriously. Never saw that before. Never been this tipsy here before, either.”
“Huh. Maybe this is obvious, but I don’t see anything,” she said, looking back over at where I’d been staring.
I shrugged. “I didn’t see it there earlier when I walked around the park, either.” I tore my gaze from the structure and back to the dark of the woods. “Anyway, let’s get going. The portal is in the woods, not the castle.”
The trail started as a switchback down a steep grade, some stone steps set into the hill here and there to help ease our descent. We couldn’t go hand-in-hand without tripping on each other, which made me sad.
The trail became much less steep as it followed the side of a ridge along a ravine. I could see other hikers on the opposite side, making their way up. I glanced back behind us. No one was following us. No things, either. The entrance disappeared from view. Though the sun pierced the canopy of leaves here and there, it seemed gloomier than it ought to be on one of the longest days of the year.
That thought led me to thinking about the Danse Macabre. This year’s theme was Midsummer, since it was being held so close to the Solstice. Though when I thought about it more, it seemed like a bad night for vampires, since it’d be one of the shortest. Maybe vamps celebrated the return of longer nights on Midsummer the way we celebrate the return of longer days in the middle of winter?
Annabelle seemed content to be lost in her own thoughts. I thought it was kind of funny how she led the way, even though I was the one who knew how to get to the circle of stones. She was being sweet, being protective of me. I bet she didn’t even realize she was doing it.
I decided that Annabelle was a ‘keeper’ as friends go. I’ve heard of love at first sight, but best friends at first sight? Well, why not? Friendship is a beautiful form of love. It’s sometimes more enduring than romantic love, I thought, Stuart’s face appearing in my mind’s eye. Stop it!
At the bottom of the ravine, we came to a fork in the road. Annabelle stopped, turned, and looked to me for guidance. I started to go left, but felt a sudden chill from that direction.
Frogs croaked a deep song, first disorganized, then more and more in unison and with greater and greater power. I heard gravel crunch under many heavy feet.
Annabelle started to ask, “What?” but I covered her mouth for a moment to hush her. I dragged her along the trail by the hand in the wrong direction.
We sped along as quiet as we could, still holding onto each other. We crossed a small wooden bridge and climbed up onto a raised area surrounding a stagnant pond. Oily water slopped over a ledge in a narrow opening to babble under the bridge we’d crossed. We slipped past stone and wood park benches up here, for those who just couldn’t get eaten alive by enough mosquitoes elsewhere in the park. I led her down and off the path to one side, away from the pool, and pulled her down to hunker with me in the tall weeds.
I held my finger to my lips and jerked my head to point back the way we’d come. She looked helpless, eyes a little wild.
The rotting smell of the pond was overwhelmed by a putrid odor that washed over us. I wondered if Annabelle could smell it. I wanted to throw up, but held it down like my life depended on it. It just might.
The marching steps came closer, and a troupe of frogmen crossed the bridge. They walked on two legs, though they hunched over and bobbed their improbable wide heads in time with their steps. They looked more like Murlocs from World of Warcraft than they looked like the Swamp Thing.
Also, they wore uniforms of purple with gold sashes. They carried what I thought were tall walking sticks, but as they got closer, I could see the glint of sharp metal points.
They stopped, and several of them started sniffing and snuffling around. How they could smell anything over themselves baffled me.
“Oy! I fink I found somefing!” called the one nearest to us.
“Wot? I don’t smell nuffing,” said another, nearby.
“Thats’ ’cause you’ve had more than a snootful yerself. Her ladyship said we’re on guard for a chickie what smells like a fireplace and mebbe like she’s had somefing strong. That’s wot I smells! Off here, off the trail.”
Crap. Maybe deodorizer fooled my nose, but I guessed my purse still smelled like smoke… Annabelle too… and both of us had been drinking vodka.
The frogmen pushed and shoved to get a better whiff, and panic rose up in me. I got the impression Annabelle felt the same. I squeezed her hand and whispered as quiet as I could in her ear, “On my signal, run back that way,” pointing where we’d come.
She nodded, taking a deep breath. There’s no way she could smell the frogmen or she couldn’t do that without gagging.
I waited as the frogmen left the trail. I reached into my purse and pulled out a small tube.
I waited as they crept closer, snuffling and sniffing. Even Annabelle twitched as one of them snapped a twig underfoot.
I held up the tube, waiting. I waited until I could feel their nauseous breath on my skin.
Then I let them have it. Pepper spray’s pretty nasty on a human’s mucous membranes, but these guys? They seemed to be nothing but mucous membranes.
The frogmen screamed and fell backwards. I yanked on Annabelle’s arm and we took off running.
The underbrush tore at our clothes and skin, the muddy ground under our feet threatened to send us sprawling, but we didn’t look back. I could hear the frogmen’s piteous yowls, but I could also hear one set of feet pounding after us. We leaped over the trickling stream instead of crossing the bridge. Annabelle almost fell, but I was right behind her and my momentum pushed her forward so she didn’t end up going back into the slimy water.
We pelted our way up the path away from the pool, past the trail marker where we’d come down from the main park. Still there were flapping, running steps behind us. The steps sounded very close now. I could hear slurping, croaking, panting.
I shouted, “Keep going, I’ll catch up!” and whirled around, whipping my iron poker through the air behind me without even looking.
I was lucky. He was right on my heels and the poker caught him right across the face. I didn’t feel a strong impact, but where it struck him, it was as though the iron was right from a blacksmith’s fire, his froggy flesh searing and bubbling in a long line.
He hissed and backpedaled. I menaced him with the poker, making another, thinner line of seared skin across his enormous bulbous throat.
He fell to the ground, covering his head with webbed hands, dropping his pike. He groveled and wept, and I relented.
I turned to run after Annabelle. She was still standing there on the path, watching me with eyes almost as bugged out as the froggies.
“Damn it, I told you to keep running!” I said, catching my breath.
“I couldn’t leave you!”
“Yes, you could. You’re blind, remember?”
“Well, how do I know where we’re going?”
“Doesn’t matter!” I cried, “We’re being chased. GO!”
She started to reply, but I’d already started running, gravel from the trail slipping from under my feet as I went. Not to be left behind herself, Annabelle caught up with me.
“What…” she panted, “what was back there, Skye?”
“Frogs,” I replied, more out of breath than she was. “Big ‘uns. Sharp sticks. Pointy.”
She dared a quick look back over her shoulder, shook her head and kept running with me.
The path had a slight incline upwards, and soon we reached another intersection. The stones had numbers etched into them. I motioned for Annabelle to follow me up the steeper one, marked with a number 6 and many arrows indicating a longer path.
Out of necessity, we slowed down about halfway up. Annabelle looked around her, eyes still wild and fearful. I put a hand on her arm and murmured, “I think we lost them, for the moment,” but didn’t feel as sure about that statement as I sounded. Once they recovered from the pepper spray, they’d find us with those bloodhound noses of theirs.
I’d have to worry about that later.
I snuck out my vodka bottle and supplemented the tingliness throughout my body and the buzzing in my head with another swallow.
Annabelle gave me a worried look, but when I offered her the bottle, she didn’t refuse it. She closed her eyes and handed the vodka back to me, calming herself by force of will.
After a minute or three, we stopped shaking and got our breathing slower toward normal. I led her up the steeper hill step by step, walking rather than running now.
Just as in the dream, several paths converged at the top of the hill, each marked with a stone, and inside that ring of stones was a smaller ring of stones, each big enough to sit on as a lumpy natural seat.
And just as in the dream, it seemed like night here, the Sun no longer filtering through the branches, having been replaced by the Moon.
I checked the clock on my cell phone and it disagreed with what I saw around me, its time showing just before noon in the a.m.
“So, what do you see?” I asked Annabelle.
“I see a circle of stones, just like you asked.”
“No, I mean, is there anything strange about this place?”
She considered, looking around, shading her eyes as she looked up. “Not really. It’s pretty damn quiet, I don’t hear birds or other animals here.”
Hmm, I hadn’t noticed that before. “To me, it looks like night.”
“Nope,” she said, “still daytime for me.”
Night and day. It shouldn’t surprise me, but my long habit of keeping my visions to myself kept me from asking questions about what others saw when I knew my second sight had kicked in.
Annabelle shifted from foot to foot, glancing back down the trail we’d come from. “Okay Skye, we’re here. What are you gonna do, cast a summoning spell or something to bring back your soul-bit?”
Well, crap. I hadn’t thought this far ahead. “Well, I don’t know any spells, I’m not Wiccan like my friend Babette.”
“How’d Queenie do it?”
I pointed to the center of the ring of stones, and Annabelle walked over there, folding her hands in front of her, waiting.
“Well, I saw Queenie do this, but didn’t hear what she was saying. Here goes nothing!”
I started to walk around the circle clockwise, as I’d seen the fairy woman do. After several trips around, I felt some kind of static electricity building up on my skin, making my clothing and hair billow out like I was Bill Nye the Science Guy holding onto a Van de Graaf generator.
“Is it working?” Annabelle asked. “‘Cause I’m getting dizzy watching you go round and round…”
I shook my head, not sure if I should speak. I kept getting hazy glimpses of a white tunnel ahead of me, but only if I looked to one side and caught it in my peripheral vision. Walking around the stones took effort, like walking into a strong headwind.
After five minutes of that, I stopped, tired, frustrated and more than a little dizzy from walking in circles while tipsy. Annabelle jerked her head around to look down the path we’d come up. I listened.
I could hear froggy voices shouting off in the distance, coming closer.
Think, Skye, think. Well, if I’d pushed it this far, maybe I needed more of the same. I drank down at least as much vodka as I’d already had. I felt it add to the world’s tilted spinning around me. I wobbled a bit as I put the bottle back.
“Here, hold this,” I said, handing the iron poker to Annabelle. Maybe it was interfering with the magic of the place? She accepted it, facing trail 6, looking ready to lash out with the heavy iron improvised weapon at any moment.
I started again. I stumbled. I felt a little sick. Then I thought of Minnie, trapped in the iron cage, up for sale in the market I’d seen. I pictured the underground world that housed the market. I could see the bobbing colorful lights from my dream if I tried.
“Skye…” came Annabelle’s warning. I could hear it too, frogmen feet flapping up the hill. All noise from the hill came as from a distance, my ears overwhelmed by a roaring as the static electricity became visible, crackling from my fingers and feet. The tunnel came up again, and I approached a more solid entrance, like a luminous cave. It whirled and spun around like something out of a fun house, or maybe Doctor Who.
The resistance had grown as I walked, feeling as though I waded waist-deep in a pool, down toward the deep end. I knew that I would not be able to turn back after the next few steps.
I heard the cries of the frogmen foot soldiers, but couldn’t see them through the walls of white that surrounded the circle, myself, and Annabelle.
No turning back, I decided, and stepped over the threshold.
Annabelle gasped. “I see something, Skye! I really see it!”
I sure hoped she meant the white walls of energy that I’d built as I walked along, and not our pursuers. I didn’t dare speak for fear of losing my concentration.
The tunnel became more defined and straightened out. I didn’t feel like I was walking in a circle anymore, but I still saw Annabelle rotating off to my right as she had before. The resistance was slowing my progress quite a bit now, and I had the sensation of being on fire, but without heat. I fought the dizziness that grew with each step as the liquor spread through me. I became terrified of stumbling. I didn’t know where I’d end up if I fell before I got to the end of the tunnel. Or Annabelle. Would we reappear upon the hill to be skewered by frogs, would we emerge in the caves of the market, or would we be lost in some other space in-between?
I shivered. I knew I didn’t know the answers, that playing with fire paled by comparison with messing with magics I didn’t understand. What if we were lost, even now?
My breath wasn’t coming easy now, the air seemed thin and icy cold, making my lungs ache with each gasp. I focused harder on the image of my Minnie in my head. She’s a part of me, I thought, even if we’re separated. We want to be together, we can’t help it. This path must lead to her. I imagined I could feel the pull of my tiny other self and pushed on in that direction with all my might. The roar of the sparks and wind filled my ears. I had to put a hand up to shade my eyes from the painful glare of the vortex of white light. I began to notice a dark center ahead, a hole that opened wider with each step.
I hoped that was the dark at the end of the tunnel.
I could only just make out Annabelle, who now sat in what had been the circle, arms hugging her knees to her chest, face hidden entirely. For just a moment, my thoughts strayed from Minnie to Annabelle, out of concern.
That’s when I stumbled and fell, knocked backwards by the force of the vortex. I cried out, but landed on my back hard enough to knock the air from my lungs. I became disoriented as shreds of the tunnel of energy flew apart in shreds and tatters. Terror took over and drunken animal panic blotted out any useful thoughts. I struggled for breath and flailed around me with my arms and legs as though drowning.
I kicked something hard that didn’t budge, smashing several toes against a rough surface. I failed to scream, and found a new tunnel as my vision began to close in, a blacker darkness enveloping the nowhere sky and fainter crackling arcs of electricity around me.
One of my hands smacked into something warm and firm. The something grabbed my wrist with a strong grip. In my panicked state, I went wild, trying to tear my arm free. After an eternity, I could draw a ragged breath. I bashed my free fist into the something that held onto me a couple of times.
The something didn’t let go of my wrist as it landed on top of me, and I found my other wrist grabbed and pinned to the ground. I screamed and thrashed and felt sure I was going to vomit.
Then I heard a voice. It was calling a name. My name. Screaming my name. Cursing at me.
A face or two was bobbing around in front of me, it was the source of the screaming. The face or faces came into focus as my panic receded just a little. Annabelle. Annabelle was the something that had me pinned down. Shouldn’t she be somewhere else?
“Skye, you drunk-ass bitch, wake the fuck up! I think the whole damned world is falling apart around us and I can’t do what you do. I need you!”
I finally stopped my fighting and went slack under her. She still kept me pinned down, panting with the effort of our struggles.
“Nghugh,” I grunted, ever full of sparkling conversation. I cleared my throat and took a breath, “I screwed up, I tripped, we’re lost,” I wailed.
She sat up, releasing my wrists, though she still straddled my legs. Her chestnut hair fell from behind one ear to obscure one of her eyes as she looked down at me. “I’m sorry, there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself, hon. You got us here, you can get us further.
Just where ‘here’ might be was as complete a mystery as I’d ever known. I tried to sit up, and she got off my lap so I could look around. There was a sooty black mist or smoke billowing around this place, sparks arcing between one cloud and another much less often now, the brilliant light and tunnel had flown apart blown away.
I saw no sign of the hole or the path of the tunnel that marked what I thought was our way out.
However, I did see movement among the black mist. Blobs of elastic smoky material stretched towards us. These inky pseudopods developed features, shiny black marbles for eyes, and splits in the ends yawned open into mouths, opening wider and wider. We shrank back from the longest of these, but before they reached us, the mouths opened wide enough to turn the creatures inside out, rolling back into the mist surrounding us.
I heard a delayed scream that sounded as fake as a B movie heroine’s, but realized it was me when Annabelle whirled to stare at me. “There are monsters in the mist,” I said.
She nodded. “I know. I can see now that I’m here.
Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure how we could see anything at all. If I had to guess, I’d say in this place, Annabelle and I gave off our own light, and all else was darkness.
The mouths kept stretching toward us, then melting back. We stayed in the center of the stones, which seemed to be a natural border that the mist and the creatures didn’t like to cross. I began to hear a whispering, though at first, not specific words, but gibberish, not like any language I’d seen. If anything, it was too repetitive in rhythm. I caught snatches of the same sort-of phrases that came around like…
Like singing. Toneless, wordless singing. I decided to sing the first thing that came to mind to see what happened.
“Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I wanna go to bed…”
Annabelle shot me a strange look, but she joined in after the point when the words reverse.
“Home me the way to go show, I’m bed and I wanna go to tired…”
The effect was disturbing. Ever seen a snake charmer? Imagine dozens of black blobby snakes snapping and popping and twining their necks, melting together and dissolving.
Yeah okay, I didn’t say it’d be easy to picture.
Annabelle and I stood up to sing louder as we started the silly song over again. It was just the kind of goofy thing Minnie would do. Now that I thought about it, the last time I had woken up with a hangover, still drunk, Minnie’d tortured me by singing choruses of this song and “King Henry the Eighth I am” until I begged her, sobbing that she had to stop. She’d laughed and disappeared.
Minnie danced now in my mind’s eye, and I could feel the direction I had to go. I took a step toward the boiling mass of black mist and mouthing blobs. Annabelle grabbed my arm to stop me, but I shrugged her off and took another step. The mist and the monsters retreated as I advanced, parting to let me out of the circle. Annabelle followed me, and if she could get any closer to me, I thought she’d climb right up my back.
We sang that old drinking song over and over, six or seven times through, when we reached the other side, and a straight path stretched out into the dark ahead of us. I imagined I heard a “snap” as the cloud closed behind us.
Sparks rose around us, and this time, I kept my mind on Minnie, letting Annabelle follow as near as she could. No vortex this time rose around us, and no black hole opened, but the dark began to crowd around, our steps echoing off some roof and walls that arched over us unseen.
The arch over us narrowed to a cave, and we had to bend our heads to keep from scraping the stone above us. Then we had to hunch, bend almost double, and at last we were forced to crawl.
Then the cave opened up into a vast underground area. The underground market stretched before us, merry lights of all colors pushing back the gloom ahead.
Copyright ©2010 by Eric Garrison
All rights reserved.
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