They sat in a realm o’ navy blue etched with black silhouettes, broken only by the wavering orange light spreading ’cross each face & the waxing gibbous moon ’lone in the otherwise flat sky. Matching these colors, chill wrapped round their every back like shells, while their fronts were lightly toasted. The camp fire’s fringes flayed almost in synchronization with the leaves o’ the low shrubs surrounding them gainst the wind.
The others watched Autumn unzip her pack, looking like a mad scientist in the exaggerated light. She tossed a zip-lock bag into each’s lap. Dawn looked down @ hers & could faintly see the shape & color o’ C&Cs & the texture o’ raisins.
¿You didn’t bring marshmallows?, asked Dawn, looking back up @ Autumn.
No. Hadn’t imagined a scene like this when I was packing.
Autumn passed down water bottles.
Dawn smiled @ the others.
We should tell ghost stories.
Autumn’s lids remained thick.
If you want to, I can’t stop you. I don’t know any myself.
O, you do, too. You must’ve robbed some occult monster in your illustrious career, said Dawn.
’Fraid not: mostly just stores.
You’re just s’posed to make stories up, anyway, said Dawn.
I don’t have that kind o’ imagination, said Autumn.
Sure you do, said Dawn, leaning back on her palms.
Here, I’ll start:
I thought it’d be an ordinary afternoon when I set a pan full o’ water on the stove to boil. Outside my window was light gray, but not dreary. The sky was flat white. The bushes were still in the windless air. A normal day.
It became less normal when I heard the pot begin to bubble like a drunken hungry monster. I opened the lid a bit to feel a gust o’ smoke puff into my face like a smoker’s exhale, covering my face with stale dampness. I poured half a bag o’ noodles in, turned the heat down to medium, & twisted the timer up to 10 minutes.
Then I sat back on the counter with my Game Boy in-hand. Said Game Boy showed Charmander’s bleeding skull with the words in blood red, “You should’ve loved me mo’”; But that was normal: a silly rom hack I downloaded for shins & smiles.
Every so oft I’d look up @ the timer, only to see it still show 10. @ 1st I didn’t think anything o’ it — as they say, “A pot needs privacy to perform”; but after a while it still wouldn’t go below 10, its monotonous tut-tut-tut still running. This time I suspected that my timer might be broken, so I checked my phone & decided to stop the pot 5 minutes later.
But when I checked my phone ’gain after receiving the message, “I’m in your living room”, & having my game freeze up, it gave the same time as before — 2:34 PM.
Surely a’least a minute has passed, I thought.
So I tried ’nother game I got from the game store built on an ancient graveyard — it always sells these wicked crazy pirate games where the characters suddenly flip off the player & other stuff. ’Pon beating the 1st level, I checked the phone.
It still said 2:34 PM.
That’s impossible, I thought. It must’ve been a’least a minute by now.
Don’t tell me my phone’s malfunctioning, too.
So I brought out my laptop & pressed the power button, only for it not to turn on. Must be out o’ power, I thought, though I swore I remembered it being fully charged last time I used it. I hope its battery didn’t break. So much stuff’s breaking today, it seems.
But e’en after plugging it in, pressing its power button still did nothing. I kept pressing it, & then holding it down, as well as adjusting the cord on the laptop’s & the wall’s side. Nothing worked.
¡Augh! ¡Don’t tell me this whole thing is broken, too! — ¡& I forgot to backup a bunch o’ my files!, I thought.
Well, it must be done now — beyond done.
But when I opened the pot’s lid, I was startled by an incredible sight: not only did no smoke ’scape; the water lay still, with a few bubbles frozen halfway ’bove the surface. I took out a wooden spoon & poked 1, causing it to burst & the water to ripple out; but when I pulled, the spoon back out, the water stopped in midripple.
A crazy idea popped in my head: I let go o’ the spoon in the middle o’ the kitchen. It remained floating in midair. I could keep grabbing it & moving it ’bout all I wanted; but gravity would do nothing. I experimented with other objects to get the same results.
@ 1st I thought, 1 o’ my pause potions must’ve spilled somehow, causing the whole house to be affected.
But then, ¿why am I not affected?
Curiosity hungrier than e’en my lunchless stomach, I looked out my front window & gaped @ the sight it gave me: a woman in a raincoat & a pair o’ pugs on leashes were standing in the middle o’ the sidewalk ’cross the street in midstep, the woman with a leg out a li’l. They all looked like a single cell from an animation reel. Everything out there appeared to twist in strange slight positions usually only glimpsed ’tween slower positions.
The horror thumping in my heart was incremented by the continuing tut-tut-tut o’ the kitchen timer, each tut a spear in my gut. I rushed o’er to it & twisted its dial back as hard as I could. But it wouldn’t budge. The timer tittered @ me with its tick all the time.
’Twas driving itself so deep into my brain that I rushed out the door, inhaling deeply the crispy cold air. But it took less than a second for me to realize I could still hear the ticking. I practically ran down the street, but the ticking always caught up. No matter how far I ran, the ticking always caught up. E’en all the way in Wasabi Woods I heard the familiar tut-tut-tut like a woodpecker’s beak on an oak.
The ticking whittled me down like oak, 1st by numbing my brain till all I could do was shake forward & backward with my knees clasped, shivering in the cold. Then it whittled down my body: freezing it blue, carving it out by hunger, & sucking its life out by thirst. My mind was already a carrot by the time my body lost its pulse — left as nothing but a stiff, thin mannequin.
¿So how’d you like it?.
Autumn looked up from the flames — the concentrated
Ball o’ fireworks not so popping into distant
Pieces, but mo’ stretching out & in, & glist’ning
Red to blue to its white core, its sharpest core.
Part o’ Autumn’s brain — a sickly part which still
Wouldn’t better e’en in jollier times & likely
Was immune to any cure — was curious how
It might feel to stick her hand inside that sugary
Core & feel the sparking tacks that’d spread throughout her
Bloodstream just like pop rocks —
I’ll take that to mean you were quite enthralled.
Sorry, murmured Autumn, still looking ’way.
No, not @ all, said Dawn.
¿You want to tell the next story, or do you, Edgar?. She turned to Edgar, his dark robe making him blend e’en mo’ into the night than the others, leaving his white face to look out like a waning moon.
I don’t know any stories, muttered Autumn.
Bullshit, Dawn said with a laugh.
Think o’ all o’ your rhyming-&-stealing ventures.
1 day I entered a grocery store, snuck food into my pockets, & then snuck out, Autumn said in monotone.
Thanks, Hemingway. You need mo’ details than that. That’s like if King Lear was just, ‘Prideful king disowns daughters, causing civil war. Everyone dies’.
It’d be mo’ efficient, said Autumn.
Augh. You & your efficiency. Life isn’t all ’bout efficiency.
Well, since you’re the story-telling expert, perhaps you should tell the rest, said Autumn.
Autumn picked up a nearby limb & held it into the fire, twisting it clockwise & counter while gazing @ it, watching its end blacken, causing the steam ’bove the fire to grow. The spotted shadows o’ mosquitoes jumped all round in erratic scattered patterns before the fire; but rather than mar the flames’ otherwise clean brightness, she thought such pestilent imperfection only perfected this picture o’ cozy, homey hell.
C’mon, you can, too, tell good stories, said Dawn.
¿Remember that story ’bout the bank?.
It didn’t e’en make sense & was dull as dust.
I didn’t think so.
You’re a shitty liar.
You’ve heard that trite story a hundred times, said Autumn.
& We’ve no time for such trifles, anyway: we should sleep.
C’mon, said Dawn ’gain.
You can make up a story ’bout that flame you’re so enraptured by.
Suddenly the flame spreads out across the forest
& devours us, lighting up a cold & dim
Desert green’ry. While we fall unto the ground, our
Throats becoming raw from choking coughs beneath the
Smoke’s soft claws, the flames wrap round us like heat’d blankets.
Autumn raised her head & shook it.
Now you’re just trying to on purpose.
Autumn swung her head @ the speed o’ sound only to see Dawn munching on a C&C. Dawn’s movements slowed.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your favorite show, said Dawn.
Autumn shook her head.
’Sa’right. Thought I heard someone else.
Guess you’re used to watching out for others when on your heists, ¿huh?, said Dawn.
A pause passed ’tween them.
Dawn turned to Edgar.
¿You want to tell the next story?.
Edgar shrunk down a li’l, but while giggle nervously.
I doubt it’d be very good….
Ne’er know till you try, said Dawn.
’K, said Edgar.
But all they heard was the snapping gainst the air o’ the fire while Edgar gazed downward. The light from the flame highlighted the depth o’ his eyeholes.
¿Well?, asked Dawn.
Well, the public does routinely vote stage fright as scarier than death, said Autumn.
No fair making postmodernist ghost stories, Dawn said while aiming a smirk @ Edgar.
I’m trying to think….
Dawn ne’er considered that creating stories takes time to think, said Autumn —
probably ’cause she’d already prepared hers.
¿Are you 2 saying you’ve ne’er been scared before?, asked Dawn, turning her head ’tween them.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Autumn hasn’t, said Edgar.
Autumn said nothing, only taking a drink from her water bottle.
I think Autumn’s always scared & none o’ use know the difference, said Dawn.
Her story — if she e’er tells 1 — would just be an average day.
Autumn continued guzzling her water bottle — so much so that it popped & crinkled. Suddenly her throat felt like a barren field full o’ hot dust.
Autumn will drink constantly till you start telling your story, said Dawn.
So hurry, or she’ll fill with so much water that she’ll burst into gross gory guts.
Yes: sweet death by drowning — smothered by the soft
Pillows o’ the sea; how e’en opposite elements
Jointly welcome everyone to be devoured in
Their embracing graveyards.
Dawn turned to Autumn.
See, I didn’t need preparation for that.
Autumn lowered her bottle &, with heavy breaths & water still dribbling down her lip, said,
¿How was that a scary story?.
W — Autumn…, said Dawn.
Now that I think ’bout it, you’re constantly telling psychological horrors.
The problem with Dawn is that she knows not what she wants, said Autumn.
You claim you want ‘spooky’ stories, but when that’s delivered, you complain.
There’s a difference ’tween scary & depressing, Dawn said with a frown.
True: the latter’s only words, the former actions. But you’d only whine harder @ that.
This time Dawn was the 1 gazing into the fire, frowning. Her knees were drawn up into her arms, shivering.
For a scientist, she still hasn’t locked onto the consistent evidence that I’m a rotten person to be round, thought Autumn.
Finally, Dawn looked up & said,
Don’t feel pressured to tell a story if you don’t want to, guys. It’s no big deal.
By a force she could only call insanity, an air o’ levity rose from Autumn’s chest, causing her to smile — not a happy smile, which was rare, if not nonexistent, but 1 filled with the thickest, purplest poison.
During this, Autumn thought, “I’m sorry your asshole partner ruined our fun, too, Edgar”.
However, this smile didn’t last long. It didn’t melt into a frown so much as clench into 1, slowly & severely.
Finally, Autumn said,
I s’pose… I should apologize, ¿shouldn’t I?.
Dawn looked @ her sadly, her face so close to her knees that her mouth was hidden.
The thought flashed through Autumn’s mind, O, fuck you.
¿Apologize for what?, asked Dawn.
Being me. Now the hideous smile was returning. Autumn covered her mouth in a pensive gesture.
Maybe that’s why wise people so oft cover their mouths — hides their insane temperatures.
I wasn’t that bummed out. She turned back to the fire.
No, it’s my fault.
“’Twas my fault for going ’long with you”, thought Autumn.
¿Would it make you feel better if I told ’nother story?, asked Dawn.
No. Nothing would, so stop trying.
Autumn turned to Edgar, her expression cooling ’nough for her to drop the hands from her mouth.
¿Does Edgar still want to try?.
Edgar twitched under the sudden spotlight o’ Autumn & Dawn’s eyes.
Um, I don’t know a good way to tell it, but I do have an idea for a story, said Edgar, his voice tapering off @ the end.
Go ’head, said Dawn.
OK… Um, so there’s a g — there’s someone stuck in a dark room….
¿How’d he get there?, asked Dawn.
Yes, make sure you tell your story exactly as Madame Summers specifies, said Autumn.
O, sorry, said Dawn.
Um, he was always there — No, wait… He wasn’t always there, but how he ended up there, he doesn’t know. He wakes there suddenly & frantically searches for an exit….
Edgar paused, eying ’tween the other 2.
¿Does he e’er ’scape?, asked Dawn.
¡Ha, ha! Autumn slapped her knee in a sudden burst o’ energy that startled Dawn.
I prefer your story to Dawn’s.
It’s mo’ efficient, isn’t it, said Dawn.
Sorry ’twas so short & there wasn’t much to it, but it’s my 1st, mumbled Edgar.
Nonsense, ’twas fine, said Dawn. She turned to Autumn.
¿You interested yet in telling a story? I know you’re secretly itching inside.
Your 2nd story is not only evidenceless, it’s improbably, considering I virtually ne’er perform the activity necessary to gain that attribute — & e’en then only with Edgar, said Autumn.
O, I get it: that was the story, said Dawn.
¿My capturing crabs? Autumn said with heavy-lidded eyes aimed @ Dawn.
I doubt anyone wants to hear that — though I s’pose ’twould be scary.
Could be if they were big ’nough, said Dawn. She raised her arms ’bove her head.
Like if they were bigger than skyscrapers, like in those ol’ B movies.
I doubt crabs that big would fit, said Autumn.
Nonsense. You could use 1 o’ my special-fit packs.
If you wanted them, I s’pose. Most would find that counterintuitive.
¿So you’d leave giant crabs to terrorize the city?, asked Dawn.
¿What am I s’posed to do?, asked Autumn.
I dunno. Get a flamethrower or something, said Dawn.
In fiction you always get cool tools like that.
I think that might burn quite a bit. ¿Don’t they already get that ’nough?.
Serves them right for terrorizing the city.
I was talking ’bout their victims.
Don’t use it on them, duh, said Dawn.
¿But how to avoid hitting them when they’re already in the crabs’ clutches?.
I don’t know…. Dawn clutched her forehead.
There must be some form o’ protection we can give them; we can’t just leave them to their doom.
Protection must come before the threat, said Autumn;
though, I must say as a meta comment that this tale o’ giant STDs ravaging the city does, indeed, sound dire — though not plausible.
See: told you making spooky stories wasn’t hard, said Dawn.
Only if we cast ’way all standards, said Autumn.
¿You sure you don’t want to try 1 li’l story — just ’fore we sleep?, asked Dawn.
I thought we already told 1.
That didn’t count: you have to do 1 that represents you individually, said Dawn.
That’s the last thing anyone wants, Autumn said ’fore taking ’nother drink.
That’s not true — c’mon. Dawn gently jabbed Autumn’s shoulder.
Yes it is, trust me, said Autumn, her dark-lined eyes penetrating the flames.
C’mon: tell us a story ’bout the flames jumping out & attacking everything, said Dawn.
Autumn took a chug o’ her water, rubbed her mouth, & said,
¿You want a scary story? I have 1.
Dawn leaned in closer.
Let’s hear it.
Let’s see…. Autumn released a heavy exhale.
A woman carefully opens her front door to opaque darkness & creeps through the living room. She doesn’t want to wake him….
¿Who’s ‘him’? Is it a monst — O, I should let you finish. Right.
‘¿Where have you been?’ a voice says in almost a murmur.
‘O, uh, I was just getting something out o’ my car…’ she replied in a tepid voice.
‘Liar. You’ve been fiddling round the block, haven’t you, whore’.
Dawn’s smile plummeted to a frown; Autumn’s venomous smile curled back up like a rattle snake.
This fine discussion evolves into shouting, & then a few blows, giving her a gorgeous shiner. However, one needn’t be ’fraid, for she realizes that ’twas the necessary reaction & that, given greater care for the future, she should be perfectly all right….
Er, ¿remember our discussion ’bout the difference ’tween scary & depressing?, Dawn said with the mushy mix o’ a smile & frown.
¿Too cliché? ¿Too forced? I think I have a better 1: a baby turns o’er in bed, flips the pillow o’er its face, & smothers itself into suffocation….
That wouldn’t happen, Dawn said with a laugh.
I can show you the evidence that you’re wrong when — if — we return home, said Autumn.
Jesus, ¿do you research this shit or something?, said Dawn, eyes growing dark lines.
I’m not done: I haven’t told you ’bout the story o’ the teen born with mucous fluid constantly pumping her lungs. With repeated expensive procedures, she may live to young adulthood….
¡Jesus! ¡All right!. Dawn clutched her ears.
Autumn rose to her feet with a wide grin — not maniacally, though: serenely, as one would have after puking up all o’ one’s sickness. She thrust a finger out.
¡O! Or how ’bout this, she said loudly:
a wide-eyed scientist named Dr. Mengele sews 2 li’l girls together, ’nother scientist slices the skin off prisoners’ bones while they still live, a nuke is dropped, vaporizing millions & leaving many mo’ with skin-peeling diseases, a child gallops through a sunny jungle — ¡Boom! — ¡a buried mine from decades ago appears! ¡Lose your fuckin’ leg! If you hobble past GO, ¡don’t collect jack shit!.
¿Are you finished yet?, asked Dawn, still holding her ears, but still hearing.
O, I doubt I could e’er finish. It’s such a long horror story — it’d take billions o’ years to tell the whole thing.
Well, let’s leave it @ an abstract, please.
Autumn frowned as she slowly sat down.
Yes, that’s a good idea.
Some stories need to know when they’ve gone on too long.
With an exhale, she continued,
Well, you’ve gotten my tale. Hope you’ve learned a lesson.
She turned her back to Dawn & walked back to her pack & dug through it.
Well, I must admit ’twas feet-down the creepiest ’mong them all, said Dawn, her voice up-turned in levity.
Face flushing bloodily, Autumn thought, If you’re lucky, you’ll see a macabre story enacted before your eyes next morn.
Yeah. Autumn said this with neither a crescendo o’ a question nor the deepness o’ bitterness, but with a sudden off-beat burst o’ upbeat breath.
You’re not upset, ¿are you?.
Uh huh: forcing me to tell an ugly tale was the dirtiest trick you e’er done me.
Autumn’s mouth squeezed together after these sour words, as if trying to strangle her tongue.
O… Well, you seemed a li’l unhappy.
Though Autumn’s mind had already processed a response, she judged its value to be too temporary to be worth the investment o’ rolling it out her tongue.
She’s bothered when I speak, she’s bothered when I’m silent — ¡fuck! ¿What’s she want?.
¿Mmm hmm?, Autumn said as she pulled out her sleeping bag.
¿You sure there’s nothing wrong?.
I’m quite certain the moral o’ my story was near the opposite.
Well, if you do start feeling… truly uncomfortable, just tell me.
If I did that, you’d ne’er sleep.
She only gave Dawn ’nother,
Mmm hmm…, & then slid into the sleeping bag she’d unrolled — a’least she insinuated she must’ve; she’d been so distracted that ’twas just a smog.
Edgar sliding in next to her was just as foggy. All o’ her attention now was on her thoughts, with her face pointing straight up @ the sky — but without her eyes open. She had no interest in the stars; she had thicker ghosts to fight:
Nothing’s working. Neither psycho juice, nor these insipid
Ventures — no, not anything @ all. There’s simply no
Cure. There’s simply no solution.
She could feel bolts tightening her to a metal frame.
Struggling just reminded her e’en more that she couldn’t ’scape.
Dawn woke the next morn while ’twas still night. But something had changed: something smelled awful, like burnt iron & rotten meat.
But worse was the sound: that soft insect snapping that surrounded her. She sat up, looked round, & saw a 2nd flame next to their regular camp fire; ’cept this new 1 was in a funny shape, sorta like a —
The idea shot her like a gun. She ran o’er to the other sleeping bag & saw Edgar curled ’lone. She ran o’er to the new flame & began choking when she saw parts o’ Autumn’s body hiding ’mong the flames, like the negative o’ someone hiding ’mong grass. While these parts were broken up by flames, they were also broken up e’en mo’ by bone, some runny red & some deep black. They were what grew as the fleshy parts disintegrated — ’specially the dark parts. The mouth was twisted so that 1 side was curled upward & the other shriveled downward.
¡Jesus! ¡No!. Dawn shouted as she reached her arms in, only for the pain to seemingly outright shove her out. She tried ’gain, but the same happened. Now Autumn was quickly transforming into black dust.
¡No!. She continued to lean in, & then be pushed out, in & out, in & out.
Then she heard Autumn’s voice say in swift, cold, warped whispers,
¡Dawn! ¡Dawn! ¡Dawn!.
She shook, startled. Suddenly, she was lying on her back & someone — ¡Autumn! ’Twas Autumn’s red hair & clothes, but she was wearing a gas mas —
’Fore she could finish, Autumn said in a funneled voice,
We need to hurry out o’ here.
Dawn looked round her & saw ’twas neither black nor blue, but gray. Then she noticed flickers o’ orange & turned her head round, only to jerk back when she saw them surrounded by masses o’ flames on virtually every tree, devouring them like an infinity o’ locusts.
Autumn now grabbed Dawn & yanked her up to her feet.
Come on. Autumn’s voice was now deep & thick with petulance.
After that, Dawn ran right ’long with Autumn & Edgar.
¿How’d this happen?. Dawn paused for a second as she just noticed the tightly locked feeling o’er her face was a gas mask.
Simple: we’re idiots & we left the camp fire running all night. Didn’t think it could start a whole forest fire so quickly — but that shows what I know.
They raced through the scorching woods, ducking fire streams thrown by branches & hopping flames sitting on the stick-&-ivy-covered ground. 1 Dawn hadn’t quite cleared, for she felt a burn on her ankle & looked down to see a baby flame spreading o’er her right sock, eating it like a sharp moth. After shouting, Dawn stopped & kicked @ it, only to feel a cold splash o’ water on it. She looked up & saw Autumn holding a water bottle, now waving her hand toward herself rapidly & turning forward ’gain.
Autumn aimed them ’way from the usual opening into the city & ’stead toward a back alley. She led them through said alley for a few meters, & then stopped & watched out the thin gap ’tween 2 buildings.
You don’t think it’ll spread to the city, ¿do you?, whispered Dawn.
I don’t know… Fuck….
¿Shouldn’t we call the fire department?.
They all jumped when they heard a siren quickly crescendo, till ’twas boxing their ears like brick walls. In less than a second a fire truck filled the building gap, & then emptied it. Autumn leaned o’er, but Dawn could see by Autumn’s deepening frown that she was failing to see round the building.
¿What should we do now?, whispered Dawn.
Wait a few minutes after they leave. Here, let me take those masks.
So she packed their masks ’way, & they sat, Edgar curled right up to Autumn. Autumn wanted them to be stealthy, judging by the glare she gave Dawn ’pon crinkling a wrapper she sat on. The direness o’ such a wacky sound caused Dawn to start giggling, which caused Autumn’s eyes to widen in fury, which caused Dawn’s humor to deflate, causing her to look down, shamefaced, & mutter,
After a minute’s silence, Dawn added quietly,
You don’t think… You don’t think we ought to turn ourselves in, ¿do you? I mean, Jesus, that whole forest was on fire.
Without lifting her miserable frown from the garbage-strewn ground, Autumn muttered,
Certainly be better for everyone else.
But, I mean… ’twas just 1 li’l mistake… ¿How could we know?.
I doubt the police would care if they caught us. Now, in case you still don’t want us to be caught, minimize our speaking, please.
So they were silence once mo’. The shock now fizzling out, Dawn was reminded o’ her exhaustion & failed to stifle a yawn.
Sorry, she said as she rubbed a teary eye.
Autumn leaned forward & whispered,
If either o’ you are tired, sleep. I can wake you if we need to flee.
O, I don’t want to force you to stay ’wake.
I don’t want to sleep. Autumn spoke to the trash ’gain.
You won’t… you won’t hurt yourself while we’re sleeping, ¿will you?. Dawn’s pupils dilated as she recalled her nightmare.
Autumn stared @ her with twisted brows & dark eyes & muttered,
Now’s not the time. If you’re so adamant ’bout staying up, do what you want. Then she looked down stonily, as if she slammed the door on this realm & went somewhere el —
Shit, don’t e’en joke ’bout that now.
The o’ercompensation o’ her sweat from her nightmare & the flames, & her feeling defenseless, caused Dawn to shiver & shudder. She expected Autumn to become irate ’gain, but ’stead saw Autumn begin digging through her backpack o’ seemingly infinite space & pull out the sleeve o’ a jacket.
¿You want ’nother coat?, whispered Autumn.
But Autumn pulled out the jacket, rose, set it o’er Dawn’s shoulders, & tightened it round her arms.
Please, rest. You look utterly wrecked, whispered Autumn.
I can assure you: while you 2’s health is on the wire, I won’t put mine.
Dawn wasn’t sure if ’twas just her building exhaustion or Autumn’s soothing words, but Dawn lay down ’mong the wrappers & pop cans, suddenly feeling much warmer, e’en though she was still cold.
This time Dawn dreamt she & Autumn were playing some video game @ home. She couldn’t recall exactly what that game was in the short time after just waking, other than that it seemed to be some cool mix o’ Super Metroid & Super Mario World that couldn’t decide what bittage o’ graphics it wanted.
Unluckily, that dream wouldn’t last long.
She was soon gently shaken out o’ it. Dawn opened her eyes & blinked itchy-eyed @ the brick walls now dimly lit by the sliver o’ a sun poking through the wall gap.
Psst, Dawn. They’re gone. We can go home now.
Dawn rose slowly, as she did on school morns, hesitant to leave her warm dreams for the cold morn. Autumn slipping on her backpack only exacerbated this feeling; but this & that strangely sweet scent o’ morn made her now feel a pang o’ nostalgia for those deceased days.
She followed Autumn & Edgar out o’ the alley &, recalling why they were in there @ all, turned back to the forest only to droop in realization o’ the cause for that sweet smell: before her stood the sight o’ black dust, gray in the smoke, with only a few emaciated skeletons still standing. As if the sun were taunting them all, Dawn could see bright pastels reflect off the edges o’ the smoke.
Remembering her predicament suddenly, Dawn turned urgently to Autumn, only to see her gaping @ Wasabi Woods’s grave, too. Autumn turned to her & mouthed,
¿Can you believe it?. Dawn just looked down, stark-eyed.
Autumn grabbed her by the shoulder.
Come, let’s get out o’ here, she said quickly;
this place gives me the creeps.
Dawn was so enraptured by those burnt images in the ensuing silent walk that she hadn’t questioned Autumn’s aberrant reaction till halfway through.
Sure ’nough, when they’d returned home — their empty, silent, & dim apartment, as if it knew what they’d done — Autumn said,
I must credit you for your good acting.
I wasn’t acting, Dawn said, still frowning.
Without smiling herself, Autumn replied,
The best acts are those based on truth.
But they’d suffer 1 mo’ nightmare.
They found themselves back in Wasabi Woods, still a gray yard o’ black bones & ashes, where hardly a tree stood to bulwark the invading winds that battered & shook them with droning voices. The last traces o’ summer had been devoured in mist, circling each o’ them like locusts waiting to devour them.
¿How’d we end up back here?, Dawn asked as she sat back on her haunches & gazed @ it in stupefaction.
Autumn’s brows contorted.
I don’t know….
Then Autumn jerked a bit to the side. She winced, & her eyes confirmed that there was indeed a gray figure growing from the distance. As it neared, flat gray popped out into shades & highlights & hues till she could faintly discern the branchlike antlers o’ a moose — ’cept helmed by an army gray cap.
We need to crawl ’way as slowly & inconspicuously as possible.
Dawn turned to her.
¿Did you — do you see that?.
Autumn pointed toward the moose. Dawn peered forward, & then leaned back with wider eyes.
You don’t think it’s spotted us, ¿do you?.
¿Want to take a risk?, asked Autumn.
So they began crawling ’way farther, & then slowly rose to their feet & paced backward, keeping all o’ their sights on the moose.
It’s no good: it’s gaining, whispered Autumn. She dropped her pack & dug through it quickly.
I want you 2 to run off in opposite directions. I’ll keep going backward.
¿What are you doing?. Dawn’s voice rose.
Autumn rose ’gain, this time with a hand full o’ trail mix.
I doubt it’ll lure him, anyway — ¡Just go!.
So Dawn & Edgar went westward & eastward, respectively, while Autumn clambered backward, holding her trailmix hand upward & staring straight @ the moose. Glancing to her sides she could see both Edgar & Dawn looking back @ her o’ershoulder — but still running ’way, a’least.
Whether the moose knew or cared ’bout the trail mix, it aimed straight forward toward Autumn. It hadn’t yet reared its head; but its eyes were pinched in fury.
Autumn’s back suddenly thumped gainst something hard; but when she looked ’hind her she saw just the same gray air all round them. Glancing @ Edgar & Dawn she saw them stopped by the same invisible walls.
As if these walls were stereos, she heard a deep voice blare all round her:
Though you may have deluded yourself into that thinking your destruction o’ Wasabi Woods has ’scaped everyone’s notice, I’m ’fraid it hasn’t ours.
While Autumn & Edgar merely goggled into the empty air, Dawn did the same plus asking in a shaky voice,
¿Who said that?.
We’re the spirits o’ Wasabi Woods. I, in particular, am Hickory, defender gainst forest fires.
Dawn’s eyes bugged out e’en mo’.
Yes; & so are the consequences for starting forest fires.
All o’ their frowns fell lower.
O… ’Twas an accident, Sir Hickory…, said Dawn.
¿Would that fact regrow the forest?.
I guess not….
Now the moose reared its head, its front hooves bent back. Autumn sidestepped ’long the solid air, but found it solid all ’long the sides, too.
The voice said,
Since we have to suffer through the consequences o’ your actions, you shall suffer the consequences o’ ours.
As if by an enchantment from the voice’s words, all o’ their hearts began panting while their bones began shivering. The mist swirling round them seemed to reproduce rapidly; the droning grew louder.
The voice said,
Since you wanted to fiddle with the imperfect forest so much, it is yours now — for eternity.
The fog thickened to full opacity, & the cold — just as pure white as their sights now — smothered all other feelings. E’en billions o’ years later, the dull remnants o’ their consciousness wonders when it’ll end.