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.”
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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.
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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.”
Just peculiar enough to look like an accident, a white truck hulked beneath a tree in bloom. The pale pollen and petals piled upon its windshield, however, revealed that it had huddled below the heavy branches for a long time. Nighttime crouched like a presence between the tree trunk and the car door.
A rustling sent my heart skittering. No breeze had brushed the branches, yet somehow the darkness moved. I stood before the car, now regretting my curiosity to investigate. My feet felt rooted to the grassy ground. An unusual scent of burning carburetor hung in the still air.
Two things happened at once. A massive gust of wind rose, sending me stumbling toward that darkened gap with the force of a pair of hands. From out below the tree rushed a person, eyes wide, clothes bedraggled, face bloodied. I could pick out no more details before they slammed into me, shoving me against the wind until at last it dropped, no longer pushing me from behind.
The person’s voice quivered as they clung to me. “Don’t go in there,” they said. Then they released me and scrambled off into the night.
A moment of quiet. Then a screech of rending metal tore through the air. The truck quivered. Buckled. Dragging deeper beneath the tree. I stumbled back, but couldn’t turn away. Crunching like chewing sounded as the truck lurched backward, crushing smaller and smaller until none of it was left.
Leaves shivered as the tree seemed to smile, white blooms like blunt teeth. Low, rumbling laughter. Nearly friendly, but not quite.
Nobody believes you when you tell them there’s a ghost in the basement.
And why would they? The one time the surveillance camera caught me, I was only a quick flash of light crossing the view. “There! Right there!” you said, voice cracking with fear as you pointed me out on the footage playback. I know, because I was watching over your shoulder. Maybe it was my icy breath down the back of your neck that had you so convinced. But your co-workers just smiled, shook their heads, hand-waved. Rationalized. Laughed. Like I said, no one believed you.
So now you’re down here in my basement to prove a point.
I can guess why you crept down those creaky steps after business hours. You’d be embarrassed if one of your co-workers caught you down here, what with your obsessive behavior this week. Your boss already had a talk with you about your productivity drop and the IT department had to report you for excessive internet searches relating to “how to find a ghost.” But that research paid off, because now you’ve got a top-of-the-line (free) EMF sensor app on your phone, even though cell phones are crap at detecting electromagnetic frequencies.
The beam from the flashlight in your other hand shivers as you pass it over boxes full of junk from the ’90s. Don’t you know there’s a light switch right beside you? To my surprise, no one else comes downstairs behind you. What, like you don’t even have a friend to back you up? Wow. Irritated, I push over a stack of files. I swear you jump three feet as you swing your light around, illuminating the yellowing papers slithering across the concrete floor. But you don’t scream. That’s the impressive part. You don’t expect anyone to come help you.
You’re going to be so fun. I let a little giggle bubble from my mouth.
“Who’s there?” you whimper. I roll my eyes; you and I both know no one else is down here. Your voice echoes back at you from deep within the vast basement. “We’re closed.”
“Closing time!” I sing out, mimicking in my raspy voice that popular song retailers like to play to get customers out of the store. I don’t quite remember all the words. “Duh duh duhduduh duh but you can’t stay here!”
You whirl around, flashlight beam swinging crazily, until it lands on that creepy mannequin someone left down here ages ago. You freeze to the spot, your eyes growing huge and your mouth making an O shape when you see what I’ve written in red Sharpie on its bare, silicone chest.
“We’re closed,” I whisper into your ear.
You swallow, gaze jumping to the EMF reader app. I’m right beside you, but it’s not detecting anything at all. Like I said, useless. I let the silence grow heavy. Just your flighty breaths, in and out. In, out.
Then, I scream. “WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT…!”
My chanting matches rhythm with the crash of your footsteps as you dash for the stairs. You’re making some kind of weird “aaahaaaahaaahaaa” noise as you go, but still no screaming. Of course you drop the flashlight and your phone. The bulb shatters on impact, plunging us into darkness, but the screen does not.
I let you go. This time.
After you’re gone, I retrieve your cell phone. You’ve got a pattern lock on it, but that doesn’t stop me. I take a selfie, flashing a peace sign and a smile full of sharp teeth. Then I replace your phone back on the floor, knowing you’ll come looking for it tomorrow.
But when you find my picture, all you’ll see will be a quick flash of light in the dark.
Blood on the dirt path ahead of me. So fresh it glistened bright red in the noonday sunlight, still puddling around bits of gravel. Just a moment ago, a hare had hopped down this turn, tall sunflower stalks obscuring it from my line of sight. Now it was gone. Now, the blood.
Sunflowers. Though the sun glared down from just overhead, every bloom lining the ditch to either side faced one direction. Faced me. Staring like brown pupils within unsettling yellow irises, unblinking. Tall stalks rubbed against enormous leaves, making a noise like bristly leather. No other sound broke the silence. My scalp prickled at the tension, at the sense of expectation.
I would not travel down this path. Despite the lack of breeze, a hissing rustle set up from the sunflowers as I turned away. Perhaps they should’ve waited to kill the hare, if they’d wanted to snare bigger prey like me. How could such a dangerous patch of plants be left alone out here?
Off to the side, I spied more red hidden within a clump of tall grass. A sign, though of a different kind than the blood. When I hauled the sign from the thick tangle of plants, I read on it warnings of danger ahead in four different languages. Do not pass. At least someone out there had tried. I side-eyed the sunflowers, noting the way younger stalks grew around a gap in the ground where the sign must have once stood. Suspicious.
Since the warnings couldn’t have saved the life of the poor hare, I silently thanked the unfortunate creature as I used a rock to hammer the sign back into the ground. Far enough away that the sunflowers could not cut it down again anytime soon.