As I passed through a night dark farm, the door of a wood shed near the farmhouse rattled from the inside. A voice from within yelled, “Let me out! Let me OUT!”
I stopped at the door, hand on the cold iron latch, but didn’t open it. “Who’s in there?”
Something heavy slumped against the inner door. “This farm’s guardian. A scarecrow.”
Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “What’s a guardian doing locked up in the wood shed?”
“The farmer gave up on the harvest. Stored me in here.” The voice sounded more angry than plaintive. A thump like a slammed fist made me jump. “I ask you, what’s a scarecrow without crows to scare?”
I shrugged. Unable to argue with that logic, I pulled the door open.
All at once, I was face to face around the edge of the door with a bright orange pumpkin, light from within casting two broad black exes for eyes in stark relief. Body made up of an orange raincoat and red shirt. A trail of holiday lights led away from the back of the scarecrow’s neck into the shed.
The scarecrow’s head tilted as it looked me up and down.
I raised my hands. “Easy…”
“You’re no crow,” the scarecrow observed. A warm scent like decaying pumpkin pulp drifted to me. “More of a wren, I’d say. Now I have work to do. Leave this land.”
The scarecrow thumped and jerked away, headed for the withered cornfield I had cut through earlier. The holiday lights clicked along the ground in its wake, until somewhere inside the shed, the cord popped free from the plug.
The pumpkin in the distance blinked. Blinked. And went out. The scarecrow’s silhouette vanished in the darkness.
A twinkling deep in the desert brought me to a choice. One that appeared as one light from a distance, but separated into three as I drew near. Beneath the star-splashed night sky, a lone figure stood. Cloaked in black. A bird’s face for a mask. Bone, etched with secrets and mystery.
A trio of candles sputtered upon an iron candelabra. The figure held the candles out toward me.
From beneath the mask, a deep voice reverberated with the tones of the desert. “You may choose, Wanderer.”
“What are the choices?” I asked.
“Blow out the candle that burns with your name, your path, or your past.”
All things I wanted. I considered the candles before me, but none of them showed their secrets. Closing my eyes, I hovered my palms over them, feeling for cold spots. Listening with my other senses. Nothing came to me.
The barest whisper. Replace me, replace me, replace me… Coming from inside the mask or… from the mask itself. Along with the scent of decay.
When I glanced back up at the figure’s face, the eye sockets of the mask wept tears of blood down the beak. One or two sizzled where they dripped onto hot wax.
In one huge breath, I blew out all three.
The desert grinned sideways at me.
From the darkness, the figure’s deep voice came. Distraught. Reproving. “That’s cheating.”
A bright flash of orange sparks and blue smoke illuminated the figure for a second. The mask had morphed into the rotting skull of a long-dead bird. The beak clacked once at me and then the figure vanished.
These desert haunts were canny foes. Annoyed at myself for falling for the usual tricks, I scuffed my toe in the sand. “Well, I think I won in the end.”
From my angle, arms wrapped around several tree trunks as if holding on for dear life. Just arms, it seemed. Their bodies
I stood in the middle of a forest wrapped in arms, hyperventilating. Because I could feel a pull, a tug, a call to join. And when I walked around to the other side of the first tree, I found a person… hugging it.
Only. Tree bark overlapped the man’s outline. He had his face pressed so deep into the tree that the bark had conformed to him. Or he to the bark. His hands held on tight, with a white-knuckled desperation.
The other hugged trees had more people pressed against them. As if they had all wandered in from the same direction and just pushed themselves into the side of a tree. Every one of them breathed, but I could not guess at how.
Tugging the shoulder of one woman, I managed to pry her grip from her tree. She pulled away with a sucking pop, her whole front peeling out of an impression the shape of her body.
When she turned to me, she had no face. Just the pattern of wood grain dug into her skin. I stumbled back, but she made no moves to attack or leave. Just stood there. Lost.
I had pulled several others from their trees before I noticed the first few had quietly pressed themselves back into place in their indentations. I watched, helpless, as the rest followed suit, one by one.
I could not save them.
All this time I had avoided looking at one particular tree. This one empty of a hugger. I longed to wrap my arms around its trunk and remain here forever. So instead of rescuing everyone, I saved myself and walked away.
On the outskirts of a forgotten town, I found a person with a white sheet draped over them.
The sheet covered their entire body. They stood in front of a burnt out building on the side of a gravel drive. Just stood there. All day. No one else came or went. And I sat on a stone wall on the other side of the drive, watching. Waiting to see what they would do.
But in the end, as twilight began to creep up from the horizon, I gave in first.
Gravel crunched beneath my shoes, echoing loud off the nearby building. I approached the seeming specter at an angle, going slow, as if to avoid startling a wild creature. The enshrouded person did not move away.
“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing out here? Are you okay?”
As if to face me, the head turned, tracking me. They made no reply.
I crouched down in front of the person. Even this close, they smelled like nothing more than laundry detergent. “I won’t hurt you,” I said. “I’m just going to check.” Hand shaking, I took the rough hem of the sheet and lifted, peering beneath to see the person’s face.
No one was inside.
Within the human-shaped space underneath, reddish evening sunlight filtered through the cloth on the other side of where the head should have been.
I dropped the hem and backed away, breathing hard.
A muffled voice said, “No one sees me without this on. You were watching, so I stayed.”
Then the sheet made all the motions of someone opening it up. Invisible arms pushed the cloth off and it fell into a heap at my feet.
“Where…” I turned all the way around, but I was alone with the pile of cloth, “…did you go?”
The white glow of a small ornate lantern pushed back the darkness surrounding us like a tiny star. My guide crouched on a rock beside a still pool, holding a common stick with the ring of the lantern hooked on the end. Below, the reflection of the light glowed just as bright, a twin star. But neither my guide’s nor my reflection appeared in the water.
Covering the bottom of the pool, thousands of copper coins of all shapes and sizes glinted like dull eyes staring back at us. Waiting on our move.
Before we could cross the river, my guide had insisted we visit this place to gain passage. I eyed the slow, lazy river passing us by, wondering what danger could lurk within such a quiet channel.
“Can I take one?” I asked him.
“You can try.”
I slid my hand beneath the cool water, cooler than I expected. My fingertips brushed against flat coins, sensing their round edges, bumping along embossed words and images. Coins from all over the world. Meaningless currencies, some no longer even in existence.
At random, I selected an old coin, one enduring a slow takeover of blue-green malachite. This one, I figured, would see me across to safety.
The moment I drew the coin from the water, my mouth flooded with the taste of copper. Surprised, I dropped the coin back into the still water with a minute plunk. Working my mouth, I spat out a glob of blood. It, too, hit the water. I watched as the glob sank.
By the time it came to rest among the piles of treasures, my blood had itself changed into a copper coin. Shiny, new, winking at me in the lantern light.
My guide nodded once. “The river accepts you. Now you may cross.”
In the very last car of a subway train, I heard a squeak, as of skin sliding against glass. I glanced around the empty car from my seat somewhere in the middle, where I waited for takeoff. The noise came again, from the back door. Getting up to investigate, I wondered if someone was trying to sneak a ride.
But when I peered through the back door window, I found, somehow, another car attached to the back of mine. I had not noted this car when I boarded. Knew I had chosen the car very farthest back for a little peace.
In spite of my certainty, I could not deny this mysterious extra car. I opened my door and stepped into the service space between doors. A pair of hands were pressed against the other car’s window from inside. Another squeak sounded as the palms flattened further, as if desperately trying to push the door open.
No lights illuminated the inside of the car. I could not see the owner of the hands, which themselves were long and slender.
Above the door’s pull handle was a lock knob twisted shut. She was locked in there. In the dark. Who knew what she needed to escape? I reached for the knob.
A faint whisper in my ear. “Don’t unlock it.”
The lock snicked open beneath my fingers. The hands within pushed and pushed, shoving me aside. I stepped back to let her out, shuffling in the tight space.
But when the door swung wide, there was no one on the other side. Nothing but inky darkness. A cool breath of air brushed my cheek in passing and the semi-open door behind me creaked. Shocked, I pushed the mysterious car’s door shut, wondering what I had just released into the world.
I had the rain to thank for my recent growth. Days and days of cool moisture, seeping through the roof and the walls. Water stains spreading outward the way I spread my fuzzy gray-green tendrils along the ceiling corner I called home.
Not ready to send my spores spiraling throughout the house. My children to seek new homes in bathrooms, in closets, in the attic where raindrops echoed. Not yet. But soon.
I was born in the load of damp laundry left in the washing machine. Left for so long that I and my siblings dried out into dusty spores, ready to explode into the air the second the lid opened. The old man coughed his usual, rattling cough when he shook out his forgotten pants, shook us loose, breathed in my siblings. Restarted the wash when he smelled the must. Forgot his laundry again.
I myself drifted to my corner of the ceiling. One little spore latched onto crumbling plaster, farthest from the windows. Farthest from sunlight. Closest to a single leaky shingle.
After the rain stopped, I grew flaky. Dusty. My spores drifted downward in twos and threes, gentle and graceful. Below, the old man sat at a peeling dining table, coffee mug within reach. A handful of my children landed in his drink. He took a sip. Sighed.
Soon after, the old man died. No one found him for a long time, and when they took him away, his body carried a few of us as passengers. Expatriates to a new country. Colonists.
No longer oppressed with cleaning solutions — not that we were much to begin with — we spread. Grew. Overtook every damp corner and dark crevice. Made the leaky house our own. I remained near the ceiling, bloated, oversized. Satisfied with my place and position.
Until two women entered the house.
One looked a little like the old man, just younger. Scraggly hair. Short. Clean. To the other woman, she pointed out my siblings, my children, their homes. Me.
The second woman wore a white jumpsuit that covered her from head to toe. Blue latex gloves on her hands. An industrial mask dangling around her neck. To the first woman she said, “It’ll be several days before anyone can come in here. I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
The scraggly-haired woman dismissed, jumpsuit woman donned her mask, large filter disc on the front, straps gripping her head. She hefted a heavy, blue plastic jug from the floor. In her other hand, she wielded a long metal rod at the end of a rubber hose attached to the jug. A squeeze of the trigger and harsh chemicals sprayed across my family clustered beneath the ancient dishwasher. Their screams curled my edges.
The monster murdered most of my family living in the kitchen and dining room before she reached me.
As she stretched the rod to reach me, the dark nozzle tip filled up my vision. I shrank back, quivering. This was it, only… I stretched as well, peeling myself from the ceiling and the walls in one swift motion. Leaping downward, I wrapped my fuzzy, misshapen tendrils around the nozzle, squirming past the end just as the spray released.
A muffled noise of surprise sounded behind the mask. The rod swing and shook beneath me as I scrambled down its length, bringing myself within jumping distance of her face. She dropped the rod just as I launched myself.
A scream to match those of my family tore from the woman. I had my feathery tendrils dug into her filter, but this held me at bay. She wrapped both hands around me, rubbery latex scraping at my mass, as I snagged the edge of her mask. Pushing against the soft skin of her cheek, I wriggled behind her defenses. Her fingertips clawed away a chunk of me just as I vanished from sight.
More muffled screaming. Rolling around on the dining room carpet. The woman tore off her mask, gasping for air, but by then I had already crawled into her mouth. Down her throat. She got up onto hands and knees, hacking and coughing, clutching her neck where I writhed around inside. Getting comfortable.
With a long, unraveling rip, the carpet beneath her split open. My family living beneath stretched for the woman above. She slumped over, gasping. Unresistant. Spongy clumps of mold hooked into her jumpsuit, dragging her down. Beneath the carpet. Into the damp wooden floor. Below even that to the rotting foundation.
The disturbed carpet flopped back into place. Beside the inexplicable gash lay the dropped chemical container. No other trace of the woman remained.
Now no one enters the house. Abandoned to the vagaries of nature, it belongs to us and we flourish here. I nestle in the throat of a corpse, pleased with my new location in this deep, damp darkness. Ready to grow.
Old boards creaked beneath my boots as I meandered across a rotting footbridge. In the entrenchment it crossed lay the mere memory of running water in the layer of mud at the bottom. Leaf loam littered the ground beneath wide-spaced trees. I had my gaze upward, regarding the rustling branches above, when a hand grasped my ankle and yanked.
Pain shot through my hip as I slammed into the damp wood. My full length slithered over the edge, beneath the handrail that I couldn’t reach, despite my outstretched hands. Flung forward, the muddy creek bottom rose up to meet me. I landed with a squelch, muck packing into my nose and mouth and eyes as I flew backward.
I vanished beneath the dark overhang.
At my first attempt to sit up, I smacked my head against the spongy underside of the bridge. Feeling around revealed brittle twigs, damp leaves, goopy ground. A bumpy hand holding my ankle.
I sucked in a sharp breath.
At the same time, a voice full of gravel said, “You must pay the price to cross.”
My eyes adjusting to the darkness revealed the outline of a hulking figure. Hair sticking out everywhere. Knobby ears. Stooped posture. Lengthy arms.
My voice shook. “With what?”
A creaking, as of stretching skin. Rancid meat smell wafted over me. “One skill. The ability to forage.”
My jaw clenched. I carried little food with me, surviving on edible plants. So if I gave up this skill now, I could starve.
The grip on my ankle tightened. “That, or I eat you.”
When later I scrambled from beneath the bridge, I found every plant looked the same. While the bridge troll safely chowed down on berries, I would have to pick up a foraging guidebook to relearn all over again.
Question marks surrounded me. Big, pale, spray painted on every trunk as far as I could see. Glowing in the gloom beneath the spreading branches of enormous pines. All facing me, like the disapproving gaze of a fussy uncle.
Just a moment ago, the forest had appeared as any other cluster of trees. Embarrassment overtook me as I realized I had just stepped uninvited into someone’s home. No direction looked like a safe retreat, so I huddled in on myself. A single crow squawked overhead.
Nothing happened. Except, every time I blinked, the question-marked trees jumped closer. Soon, they crowded around me, no space between their trunks, bark creaking against bark. Looming over me. Punctuation marks demanding answers. Yet I had none, for I knew not the question.
“Um,” I said at last. “I sense you don’t want me here. How can I leave?”
The base of every single trunk bowed sideways. Each curved in the same direction. Each question mark now flipped upside down.
By my feet, a carpet of yellowed pine needles rustled. A matted layer of them rose up into the shape of a mouth. Pine cones lined the lips like nubby teeth.
Smug as inexorable, tunneling roots, a voice drawled, “How indeed?”
At that, the forest swallowed me up in one gulp.
Sometime later, it spat me out again. I clawed my way past twisting roots and through a smelly layer of rotten loam. When my fingers broke free, I dug myself out, spitting up pine needles and dead leaves.
Once upright, I pawed muck from my eyes. A quick turn revealed the forest had dumped me at its edge, on the side from which I had entered. As I coughed up the last granules of dirt, I determined to take the long way back around.
A face loomed in the darkness outside our stopped subway train. Outlined in glowing white lines. Xs for eyes. A hand-drawn, rictus grin. A mask. It bobbed along up and down the cars, pressing against the windows, fingertips tapping the glass. Giggling echoed down the tunnel, accompanying a high-pitched voice asking, “Who smiled? Whooo smiiiiled?”
Within, some of us glanced around at each other, wondering who had broken the taboo. At all stations, ancient signs declared, “Do not smile at strangers.” Relics of a time of scams and con artists. Now the tunnels were too dangerous for casual opportunists. Suggestion had become rule.
The voice of the conductor buzzed over the intercom. “Who pulled the emergency brake? What’s going on?”
In front of me, the face had paused, tilted, as if curious. A bare finger rubbed against the glass. Over and over. “Was it youuuu?”
Behind me, a woman stuttered a reply to the conductor. “No one,” she explained. “S-someone smiled at a stranger.”
A curse word sounded through the intercom before the conductor remembered to close the channel. Without the presence of an authority figure, the entire car held its collective breath.
The face watched us like fish in a bowl.
As the engine revved, the train lurched forward. Before me, beside the mask, the white outline of a hand bloomed, fingers outspread. They waved cheerfully at me. As the face receded, the voice sang out, “Byeeeeee.”