Ring of Fire
I’m surrounded. I’ve been surrounded for I don’t know how long now. Days? Weeks? Years? I can’t remember. All I know is that there is a wall of flame as far as I can see in every direction. I’ve tried to walk through, but the heat seared my clothes. I’ve tried to find the circumference but got exhausted and passed out, only waking up back at the little home I’ve made for myself in what I can only assume is the middle. It feels like futility is hunting to see if there’s a way to escape and, honestly, I’ve stopped trying. I don’t know why I’m here or how I’m here but there’s no way out.
It’s not been fun, but it’s less bad than you may expect. I’m not cooking or baking or boiling or anything like that, unless I get too close to the flame. The temperature is moderated, somehow, so I’m at least sort of comfortable. There’s food and even water, although how that still exists is beyond my understanding. It feels like I’m being taken care of and that makes me both sad and confused.
Eventually, I learned to just roll with things and carved out some semblance of a life here. I don’t think that was a good idea, though. I think it made whoever in charge mad. See, lately I’ve noticed that the fire, which had just been a nice, unmoving wall, is starting to change.
It crackles and hisses as it begins to ascend. Something about that twists my heart. It had been static for so long, too long. Longer than I can remember. Now it’s changing and fear spins off of it like the smoke that curls into the sky. It’s getting taller and angrier and I could swear that a disapproving face is lurking in the yellow and orange and red.
I tried to sleep last night – or whatever counts for night here – and that was a mistake too. When I woke up, the fire had changed more. It was closer now. However far the edges had been apart, they had moved. Condensed. I can see the wall all around me now and it keeps getting higher and hotter. I’m sweating now. Not pouring sweat, but there’s that annoying thin sheen on my forehead.
Wait. No, it’s getting closer for sure. It definitely is hotter than it had been and is so tall I can’t see what passed for the sky anymore. It’s collapsing on me. I’m starting to cook. I can feel myself getting crispy and it hurts and it hurts and it hurts.
It’s closer now and every nerve in my body is screaming at me. I can’t move. I’m curled up in a ball, hoping for some sort of relief, but it’s not coming. It’s too hot. I can’t move. It’s too hot. It’s too –
I wake up. I’m confused. I’m surrounded. I’ve been surrounded for I don’t know how long now. Days? Weeks? Years?
I can’t remember.
They call her Bella. It’s appropriate, you think. ‘Beautiful’ in Italian and, goodness, she certainly is both of those. She’s tall and curvy and has long, black hair with little streaks of purple in it. Every time you see her, even your eyelids start to sweat. You’ve always been reasonably confident. You can usually introduce yourself to people and flirt until the sun comes up the next morning, but this time is different. Something deep inside you aches and twitches and you turn into that anxious little kid again. You remember the awkwardness you felt trying to impress that person you liked and are brought back to being that puddle of nerves electrified by desire.
One day, you finally work up the guts to introduce yourself. She seems surprised but that initial astonishment turns quickly into smoldering heat. Her eyes glimmer and she smiles and your heart does a twist in your chest that you could almost swear should be fatal. She asks you your name and you tell her, even though you aren’t really sure of what it is yourself anymore. She says you’re cute and you can actually feel your blood pumping through your veins. She wants to know if you want to go on a date on Friday and you nearly break the sound barrier with the speed with which you say yes.
You’ve heard the rumors, naturally. She’s dangerous. She’s psycho. Her partners disappear. And on and on. You always chalk them up to jealousy. Everyone who mentions those nasty bits of slander is probably someone who couldn’t get her attention. How sad!
Date night comes and your stomach does flips. You put on your best clothes, do your hair perfectly, and even go purchase a bottle of wine for after dinner. You’re ready. Well, as ready as you can be while going out with a goddess.
The night is perfect. You go out dancing and take over the floor. You get an incredible dinner at her favorite place. You walk, hand-in-hand, back to her apartment and there you stand, nerves on fire, unsure of what happens next. You need not worry, though. She takes your face in her hands, leans in, and kisses you. Her lips are soft and smooth and your knees nearly buckle. You feel your heart begin to race and you assume it’s from excitement.
She takes your hand and leads you inside, your heart still thudding in your chest. She sits you down on her couch and watches you. Excitement turns to worry when your heart won’t slow down. It won’t slow down. Worry slides quickly into fear as you see the world begin to melt around you. Colors change and morph into shadowy creatures lurking in the corner. You look at her and she’s smiling, though now with dark joy. She says she lied to you and you feel your vision start to blur. As the world fades away, you hear her last confession.
Her name isn’t Bella. It’s Donna.
I’m sure that everyone can relate to the falling in love dreams. You know the kind. Where you’re asleep but you find the woman or man that is perfect for you, you fall in love, build a life together, and all of that, only to wake up and realize that you’re alone in your bed with nothing but the throbbing memories of fantasy in your heart? The kind where you walk through an entire day in a sort of haze because your brain doesn’t quite know how to separate what you felt from what is real. The kind where you actually ache over someone that did not exist and never will.
Compared to what I have now, that would be a blessed relief.
See, I used to dream about those moments all the time. Countless women would go through my mind, take a little piece of my heart, and dance off into nothingness with the sound of that damn alarm in the morning. It would hurt and I would be unhappy all day, but that would fade. Until Shannon, that is.
It was just one of those standard dreams with a cute blonde woman. It was when I woke up that the problems started. Throughout the day, she would come back into my mind and tinker with things. Little things at first. For instance, I was trying to text a friend about a date that was coming up, but I felt her change the name of the date to Shannon instead of whatever it actually was. I had to apologize for that one.
Since then, she’s gotten more and more insistent. When I fall asleep, she’s there, waiting, and she perks up when she sees me. I could have been about to dream of something else – anything else – but she takes me by the hand and leads me back into living the life we’ve been building. It’s to the point that even a nightmare would be preferable to the agonizing sameness that I’m experiencing. I don’t want to sleep anymore, simply because it sends me back to the routine.
That’s bad, I know. She’s not real. I need to see someone to get it resolved. All of those things are true and yet, when I close my eyes, she’s there and wanting to go to brunch or adopt a puppy or even ready for a couples’ retreat.
What’s worse, though, is what has been happening lately. I’ve taken to using pills that knock me out without the possibility of dreams and somehow that’s been effective. Waking up is the problem, because when I do, I notice that things around my room are different. My lamp has changed. There are bobby pins scattered across my dresser. Even my sheets are a different color.
What scares me the most is what’s happening at the moment. See, I just woke up. I’m on my side, facing the wall, but I can feel something different now.
It’s someone’s back and it’s pressed against mine.
It starts when you wake up. It doesn’t matter the day or time. It happens randomly. You open your eyes, still misted over with sleep, and realize that you are no longer in your nice warm bed. The blankets are gone and you have no pillows. You are flat on hard, rocky ground that pokes and prods your back. There is a moment of confusion, of course. When you went to sleep, you were safe and sound at home, content in the knowledge that you would wake up in the same place in which you drifted off.
The fog of rest clears when you peer at the sky and feel the icy grip of fear surround your heart. There is no ceiling, white and popcorned with little dots of plaster. No ceiling fan or lights. Hell, there is not even a blue sky above you. Not that being outdoors would have been much of a comfort, but the existence of a baby-blue expanse looming overhead would have provided some sense of grounding in reality. That is not the case, though. Above you is a sky that is undeniably red. You try to think of words to describe it that don’t upset you. Ruby. Crimson. Cherry. None quite fit, however. There is, of course, one word for the color that is perfect.
Now, the liquid that runs in your veins is pulsing and you feel yourself hurtle to your feet as you survey your surroundings. Honestly, you wish you hadn’t. Around you is nothing but rocks – sharp, jagged, and colored rusty-brown-red. In the distance, you see hills spiking into the horizon like angry teeth. There are no birds flying. No animals running around through grass. Not even the sound of wind whistling over natural barriers. There is no sound, save the pounding of your terrified heart and the air pouring in and out of your lungs in great, deep gasps. You recognize nothing around you, but ahead of you sits one undeniable fact, nearly screaming at you from the matted dirt of a path.
You need to walk.
You trudge off, being careful to avoid any rocks or pitfalls, and find yourself relishing the crunchcrunchcrunch of your feet on the path. The sound breaks up the oppressive silence in a way. It’s almost musical to your ears. You walk and walk until it seems there will be no end and then – and only then – do you reach the table.
It is out of place, to say the least. Short, thick, and wooden, it sits with two buttons on it. Below the buttons, there are words. The button on the left is labeled ‘Break’. The button on the right? ‘Someone Else’. You stare, confused, before you take in the rest of the scene. Near each button is a thin sheet of rock with carvings on them. One has all. The other has none. A choice. Your hand hovers over the buttons, wavering on your decision.
Finally, you slam your hand down.
Paint It Black
Mikhael had a problem. He didn’t ‘do’ mirrors. Didn’t own them. Didn’t use them. Ever since he was little, mirrors had held a strange sort of sway over him. They fascinated him with a sort of dark fury. When he was a baby, he would stare into the mirror on his mom’s dresser for hours, just looking at himself. Playing games and talking and laughing with his reflection. It was cute when he was little. It became less so when he got old enough to understand that what he was seeing was just himself, but continued on undaunted.
When his parents finally sat him down and explained that he wouldn’t be allowed to play his mirror games anymore, he cried. It felt, to him, like he was losing a part of himself. Still, he behaved himself and did what he could to move on with his life. The loss lingered, but he knew that it was for the best. After all, it was just a reflection. So, from that point on, he would use the mirror for its intended purpose. He would brush his hair and fix his clothes and ignore the pulsing desire in his heart to start another game. When he saw the disappointment on his reflection’s face, he knew that it was only the same look plastered on his own.
It was when he turned thirteen that he noticed some discrepancies in what he saw in the mirror. He was still clean-shaven, being unable to grow any facial hair, but his reflection wore a wispy blonde mustache. When playing basketball, he fell and cut his forehead, which healed into a visible, scar, though his reflection did not show it. There were enough differences to make him feel uneasy, to the point that he would stop looking into mirrors.
His reflection, though, didn’t like being ignored and made its feelings known. Late at night, he would hear banging on the glass and force himself not to look over to see his angry reflection staring at him. He would cover the mirror with a towel at night and, in the morning, it would be on the ground in shreds. He would turn it around and would find that it had been returned to its usual place when he woke up. He even broke it once, to no avail. It was whole in the morning.
Finally, he did the last thing he could imagine. He took thick, black paint and slathered on coat after coat until the glass was covered with inches of dry color. At last, he felt a kind of peace and was able to move on with his life. Until last night.
He awoke in the middle of the night to a scratching sound. It took a moment to register, but his stomach dropped when he realized what he was hearing. With horror, he looked over at the mirror and saw, right at the corner, a shiny, reflective patch that had been scraped away.
From the inside.
I assume that everyone has different fears than I do. Not just because I’m a unique individual, but because I don’t have the usual phobias that others have. Spiders and snakes are cute. I do handstands on top of cliffs. I work as a professional public speaker. I scuba-dive in the ocean for fun. There’s just one little fear that keeps biting at the back of my brain.
I’m scared of avalanches. Landslides. Anything like that. I know, it sounds silly, but something about them just grips me by the spine and won’t let go. Before you start thinking that I’m claustrophobic, it’s not that either. I go spelunking weekly, I’ll have you know. The prospect of being buried alive isn’t fun but that’s not really what scares me so much.
It’s the inevitability that freezes my bones. It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not like a car crash that goes from zero to in the ICU or a fire that kicks off in a home with greasy rags. It’s not an instant thing. It takes time and there’s no way to escape.
Picture this. You’re hiking or skiing or just generally having a good time out in the world instead of curled up in front of the TV. You’re out in fresh air, exploring the planet we’re blessed with. Then, you hear a rumble. At first, you think it’s an oncoming storm. Great! Storms are wonderful to be out in. The rain pouring down, soaking you to the bone? Delicious. The thunder, or what you thought was thunder, doesn’t stop though. It keeps rumbling and, in fact, starts to get louder. The ground under you starts to shake and you see little fragments of the surroundings – snow, pebbles, whatever – trickling down the slope you’re standing on. The rumble gets louder and louder and you start to run as best you can. You’re hurtling down the hill as fast as your legs can carry you, being careful not to trip.
Your chest is burning with exertion as you run, slamming into trees and bushes as you go. The rumble is louder now. It’s right at the edge of hurting your ears. You hear snapping and crashing as the environment is swallowed and broken by what’s coming. You pause a second to look up and your stomach lurches. A wave of snow or mud is rolling at you and there is nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. All you can do is stand there as you’re swallowed by the world. If you’re lucky, you die right away from the impact. If you’re not, you get to feel yourself slipping away, unable to move.
I’m being careful, though. I live in an area that is completely flat. I avoid skiing or hiking now. Everything I do is designed to keep me safe. There’s just one problem. My company is having a retreat this weekend up in the Rockies. It’s compulsory. I can’t avoid it.
And I can hear the rumble already.
The jokes get old quickly, of course. Hey, Alice, can you take me to Wonderland? Hey, Alice, can you show me your Cheshire Cat? Hey, Alice, are you on your Red Queen? The same tired quips by the same uninspired, witless, boring men and women. All of them are exhausting and there’s no recourse because, hey, they’re joking and you don’t want to be a ‘mad’ Hatter, do you? It’s almost enough to drive one to take drugs to go down that hole for real. It doesn’t happen, though, because why give them fodder?
It’s what happens next that’s so perplexing.
It’s waking up with a rabbit on your chest. Not one in a waistcoat with a pocket watch and monocle and an annoying look on what passes for its face. No, just a normal rabbit with white fur, long ears, and a twitching pink nose. Cautiously, you extend a hand and pet it and it’s soft and warm and the anger that surrounds your heart melts just a little.
You ignore the snark and jabs that come from when they find out you own a rabbit now. You don’t seem to care anymore. Your little buddy mellows you out, calms you down, and makes things seem smaller than they really are. You know something isn’t quite right about it – random rabbits out of nowhere should terrify you – but you simply can’t be bothered.
So, when the coworker that gives you the most grief and in ways that could be considered borderline harassment disappears, you think nothing of it. People disappear all the time. They have accidents or simply leave their jobs. It’s a natural part of life. Besides, he was enough of an ass that his presence missing from your workspace is a breath of fresh air. You can’t see anything wrong with it. When you get home, your rabbit friend is curled up, sleeping on the couch. He looks adorable and you could swear that he looks a little chunky. It’s just his fur, though. You’re sure of it and time goes on as usual.
Soon, though, there’s another disappearance and this time it’s a bit more concerning. This time it’s one of your friends from the office. She made a light-hearted joke about a Jabberwocky that was actually pretty funny and you laughed. She loves her job and has a good family, so her going missing is of real concern.
When you get home, you just want to curl up with your friend and worry, but he’s sleeping again. This time, you can tell that he’s not just fluffy. He looks almost swollen. You want to worry, but it doesn’t look like he’s sick or injured. It just looks like he’s eaten a big meal.
This is your life now. You try to ignore the obvious, but when a joke is made, the person disappears and your little buddy gets bigger and bigger.
It wouldn’t be so bad, you think, if he weren’t growing hands.
Helena never really liked people. In fact, being around them would make her stomach turn with anxiety and stress. It wasn’t that people themselves were a problem. It’s that they provided no guarantees of anything and Helena was nothing if not risk-averse. So, she would stay inside, day after day, avoiding human contact and maintaining her safety in her routine. The same time waking up, the same meals, the same television shows on repeat over and over, the same one drink of gin before bed, the same bedtime. It was neat and calm and predictable.
When the doorbell rang one day, then, she nearly fainted from the disruption. It was not only unexpected but unwelcome. This wasn’t like getting a phone call she had been dreading, like from the bank or anywhere else to whom she owed bills. This wasn’t even the forced contact of the few people she considered friends coming over and sharing a meal or a drink and talking about their lives which she could not relate to in the slightest. This was completely out of the blue and it shook her down to the very marrow of her bones.
With trembling in her muscles, she approached the door and asked who it was. From the other side, a voice – low, smooth, calming – responded that he was someone who knew how to help her finally get away from people. This gave her pause. Not because it was a stranger, but because she had rarely shared her desires with anyone. Not even her friends knew. For him to somehow know that she wanted to be truly isolated, free from social obligations and niceties, was concerning and yet…something in his voice relaxed her and she opened the door.
He was tall and slim and dark in every way one could imagine. He smiled at her when he saw her and brilliant white teeth glinted down at her. He introduced himself as a Mr. Berry and told her that he solved problems that most people were unable to tell anyone else. He explained how he had heard of her concerns through a friend of a friend of a friend that he had helped long ago and that she was not the first to need his gentle hand. He asked if he could come in and she agreed.
Over the next couple hours, she explained, using her voice more than she had in years, her desire to really be alone and he nodded sympathetically. He knew all too well her feelings but had found a way to bring them to life. Relieved, she smiled and he asked if he could have some coffee. When she stood up to get some, he placed a hand on her head and everything went black.
When she awoke, she was confused as she could not see anything or hear anything. Had he done what he promised? How could she be truly alone?
That’s when she reached up and felt the wood of the coffin lid.
I am not here. I have never been here. What you see when you speak to me is a figment of your imagination. Rather, it’s a fiction that I’ve chosen to create for you. You see a friendly man or a quiet man. You see a handsome man or a man with a few noticeable scars. You see an angry man or a calm man. Every time you see me, I will be different and every time you notice, I will be the same as you remember. You’ll be confused for a moment, but only a moment, as your memory shifts and warps and molds the clay of reality to fit what you are seeing.
Do I have a real face? It’s hard to say. It’s been so long that ‘real’ may have slipped away like sands on an endless desert. Was I tall or short or fat or thin or any of those markers people use to define others? It’s unclear, even to me. Truth be told, I don’t myself remember.
Or, perhaps more accurately, I don’t remember myself.
It doesn’t really matter in the end, though. I can be who you want me to be. If you want me to be. All it takes is desire and we’ll be off to the races. I can be your boyfriend or brother or boss or coworker or whoever you need me to be in the moment. I will build a life special-made just for you and put it on display to help you however you want. I will be a spectacular jewel in the crown of your life, if only you ask me.
I come, however, with a dear price.
As with all things, nothing is free. There is always a catch. Always a give-and-take. I am not different. I will give you the world you want on a silver platter for as long as it needs to be yours. In return, though, I will receive something precious from you, and it will always, always be the same thing.
It is curious to me how people will bargain and beg and plead for something different when the bill comes due. I lay the terms out in specific, agonizing detail at the beginning because I believe in playing fair. No grift. No tricks. No hidden clauses designed to trick you out. I do not take. I simply require the fulfillment of our deal. Some people run. It’s a natural impulse and I do understand. It doesn’t matter, though. As fast as you run, I will be faster. As deeply as you hide, I will find you.
I want you to know something. I believe it is important that you know it. There is no malice in my heart. No vendetta against you. It is not personal. It never has been. But we made a deal. I did my part and now you owe me yours.
It’s as simple as this: I have a collection and it needs to grow.
Here is where I''ll post random stories that aren't, as of yet, in a larger book. Call it a free ride into the mouth of madness, yo.