- Prompt: Write a short story, of 650 words or fewer, based on the photo prompt above. You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.
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VOTING CLOSES May 25, 2018.
Ever since we were children, my sister was in love with the idea of angels. She’d tell me all about them, her eyes dancing and her cheeks flushed with passion.
“They don’t really look like that.” she’d whisper when our Sunday School teacher would show us pictures of white-clad figures with gentle smiles.
“Then what do they look like?” She never gave the same answer twice. She’d say that they had hundreds of eyes, or wings made of fire, or something else that would fuel my nightmares.
She was only two years my senior, but always seemed infinitely wiser. Our grandfather called her an ‘old soul’, which was quite accurate. Only, she didn’t seem old in the same way that grandpa did. Even though she was only nine, my sister’s soul felt ancient.
“How do you know all of this?” I demanded of her one day. She turned to me, utterly serene, and replied with an answer I never forgot.
“Because, silly, if they looked like that” she said, gesturing to the cherubs in the painting I’d been studying, “they wouldn’t greet people by saying ‘Do not be afraid.’”
As the years went on, her behaviour only grew stranger. When she was eleven, she started sleepwalking. She’d climb out of her bed, face lax and eyes closed, and make her way to our room’s window. It was always locked, but that never stopped her from trying to open it. On one occasion, I managed to shake her out of her trance-like state, and she whirled around to grip my arms tightly.
“I heard them.” she gasped, face aglow with wonder. “They were calling me, and I heard them.”
She was thirteen when she stopped coming to church with Mother and I. Instead she’d stay home, listening to strange music and filling sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings of the most twisted seraphim imaginable.
At fifteen she began spending long hours conducting research on anything remotely angelic. She’d visit used book stores, returning home with dusty old tomes and books of archaic poetry.
On her seventeenth birthday she spent every bit of money she had to get three sets of fiery wings inked across her back. Afterwards came the wide staring eyes, all over her body. I watched in horror and fascination as my sister slowly transformed herself into something from my most chilling dreams.
The summer she turned nineteen, we went camping together. She’d just graduated high school, and would be leaving for college in the fall. As we hiked together through the trails, I thought of how empty the house would feel without her. She slung a comforting arm around my shoulders.
“It’ll be alright.” she assured me. “I’ll always be looking out for you, even after I’m gone.”
By the time we reached our campsite, the sun had set. I was about to start setting up the tent when my sister suddenly froze. I followed her line of sight to the rocky ledge above us. Standing there were three figures I had not noticed before. They looked nothing like her drawings, nor did they resemble the depictions I’d seen in frescoes and stained-windows. Nevertheless, some part of me knew exactly what they were.
My sister’s face was rapturous, her gaze locked on the entities. Tears poured silently down her cheeks. Her voice was hoarse when she whispered “‘You have come upon thousands and thousands of angels in joyful assembly.’” I did not see thousands of angels, but I had a strong suspicion that she’d always been able to see things I could not. I looked away then. When I turned back several minutes later, both she and the figures had vanished.
The tears I shed that night were happy ones. At last, my sister was where she belonged. I knew she’d spoken true; no matter what, she’d always be looking out for me.
It had only been a week since the kill, but the Wreckers gave us the ‘OK’ anyway. I exchanged nervous glances with the other members of Harvest before gearing up, slotting icy feet into climbing treads and shoving my pick and grip poles into my pack.
Next to me, I overheard frantic whispers from Raho. “Is it really safe? What if it wakes up?” Tekka shook her head, giving the young climber a grin.
“Relax – the Wreckers know what they’re doing. It’s been years since they served us up a live one.” I watched Raho’s eyes flicker over Tekka’s prominent scars. He nodded and returned to his own pack, but I could see doubt in his face. Tekka turned to me, her grin fading. “It is damn late in the season, though. Supplies must be shorter than we thought.”
We all knew about the coal shortage, of course. There was no hiding it when only a smattering of streetlamps was lit by night and families shivered in their homes. Hunting coal golems had initially been a last resort once the mines had run dry, but worried voices had proposed they might not be enough. Perhaps they had been right.
During final checks we were joined by the captain. “Alright, team,” she called out. “Standard procedure, expected payoff should be about 68%. It’s a big one.” She hesitated, her eyes lingering on each Harvester in turn. “Pack boomsticks. Just in case.”
We nodded gravely and lined up to grab some of the thick metal cylinders out of the supply chest. A bead of sweat trickled down my neck as I clipped mine to my belt. I’d never seen these in action, but Tekka had enough stories to make your head churn.
We assembled at the base of the creature, excitedly pointing out small clusters of coal jutting out of the surface. A good sign. The body was sturdy, still fresh after only a week of exposure. We soon reached the top of the belly, digging our sticks into nooks and crevices, and began picking at the usual weak spots to break into the cavity. Eventually, the craggy surface gave way, sending lumps of rock careening into the depths below. I saw Raho shiver as Tekka passed around coils of rope and grappling hooks.
Everything was still as we abseiled down the stomach walls, fanning out to harvest promising seams. I set to work, hacking away at a thick vein, when a scream echoed from close by. Raho was staring, aghast, at something in the lower stomach region. I moved closer and almost felt my heart stop at the sight of the eggs. Their surfaces were smooth and crystalline, almost like glass, allowing us to see the tiny, gleaming golems growing inside. They were shifting slightly, as though disturbed by our presence.
Mingled shouts filled the cavern as more Harvesters arrived. Some pointed their boomsticks at the eggs, better dead than a threat. Others shook their heads, horrified—leave them be, they’ll die soon anyway. Yet others hefted up their picks, arguing for the harvest. I looked over to Tekka. She was staring at the eggs in horror.
Silence fell as the captain stepped forward, surveying the eggs with a hard look. “It is not for us to decide what happens here. Keep gathering coal from the golem. I will discuss this with the council.”
The crowd dispersed, muttering replaced by the sounds of picks on stone, but Tekka stood still, one hand on the crystalline surface of an egg. “I never knew,” she whispered. “In all these years—”
“Does it make a difference?” I asked. We stood there for a moment, watching the babygolems shift and clench their fists.
“No,” Tekka said quietly. “It doesn’t.” She turned, hefting her pick to her shoulder. “Come on. We have a harvest to take care of.”
Liz broke down and wept when the three members of the West Kerry mountain rescue service appeared on the mist shrouded horizon. In a hoarse and cracked voice she spoke between sobs: “Thank you… thank you… David… monster…”
Dan Bishop was the group leader, and he tried to console Liz as the hackles rose on the back of his neck. “It’s OK, we’re here now, you’re safe. Are you Liz? Where is David? The call said you were in trouble, did something happen to David?”
“Dead… monster… fog…”
“You’re going to be fine, there are no monsters, you probably saw shadows in the fog. Where is David?”
“It came out of the fog… it killed him… it killed David.”
Out of earshot, while John and Bill gave Liz some hot soup from a flask, Dan radioed base. “We’ve found the girl, she’s a bit delirious, probably from exposure, but otherwise OK. Something seems to have happened to the boyfriend though, so we’ll have to go back out. ETA at O’Brien’s Gate is two hours from now, a medical and police presence are required. We’ll need all the help we can get, we could be out all night.”
The shortest route off the mountain involved a difficult traverse along a narrow, steep-sided ridge which was dangerous even on a bright, clear day. As night fell, and the mist thickened, conditions became lethal. The group walked in single file at a slow pace, head torches trained on the rocky path, until the fog became so dense that they could see neither the floor nor each other.
Dan shouted for them all to stop. John replied from the front, “OK Dan.” Liz was behind Dan and called out, “OK.”
Bill, who was at the rear, didn’t reply.
“Bill, are you OK?”
“Liz, did you see what happened to Bill?”
“No, he was behind me. It’s the monster, it’s back.”
“Look, Liz, there is no monster, he probably just fell. John, walk towards me and wait here with Liz. I’m going to find out what happened to Bill.”
John emerged from the gloom, and Dan made his way back along the path, edging his way forward one small step at a time, until he stumbled onto the prostrate body of his colleague. He called out into the darkness: “John, come here, something’s happened to Bill,” but there was no reply.
With visibility down to almost zero, Dan got down on his hands and knees to examine Bill. As he did so, he thought he saw a fleeting shadow pass him by. Crawling forward to Bill’s head, Dan became aware of a presence that made every hair on his body stand on end. At the precise moment he noticed the blood that had poured from the gash in Bill’s throat, he felt a cold hand on his mouth and an even colder steel blade cutting into his neck.
Dan froze in terror as Liz whispered into his ear, “See, I told you there was a monster.”
“This is absolute madness!” Steven whispered.
Reta said nothing as she continued driving her shovel into the hardened soil. Streams of sweat ran down her spine, despite the deep chill of the desert night. But she knew Steven was right about the madness. She’d decided long ago that she would find a way out—even if it killed her.
“You work in the mines all damn day, and sneak out to dig all night. I’d like to get some sleep too, you know.”
“Then go back to the compound. I didn’t drag you out here. Either grab a shovel or shove off!”
Reta’s words hit him like a fist. He’d loved her for as long as he could remember: gave her his rations when she had become frail, took the blame—the beating as well—when she had broken their group’s new bucket. Now she was sneaking out at night, and for what? Some story about a reverse world and a portal out?
He wanted to go, but he realized he was as committed to Reta as she was to this damn hole. He exhaled in frustration, picked up a shovel, and slammed it into the earth. Maybe if they made enough progress she would return earlier, and they could both get some sleep.
Reta paused when Steven started to dig. “So you believe me?”
“I believe there’s nothing beyond this post. My father was in one of the original scout parties. We mine the gold. We throw it down the hole, and that keeps the poisonous circles from appearing.”
They said nothing more, knowing neither would be able to convince the other.
Weeks later he’d come to enjoy their nights together. She did leave earlier when he helped and they both got more sleep. Then one night, water bubbled up around their shovels. They both worked frantically to clear the dirt before finally looking down into a deep pool of light. The sound of dogs in the distance had them both scrambling to cover the hole.
They made it to the top of the cliff before lights swept over them. The faces behind the light were completely obscured— their heads enveloped in the glow.
“It is your charge to keep our people safe from the copper circles. This area is strictly off-limits. Section 89 states that the two of you are to be separated for instigating one another to crimes against the people.”
Steven looked at her and knew he had no choice—he grabbed her hand, pulling her over the cliff and into the faint glow below. The three guards stared over the cliff as the two simply vanished beneath the dirt.
“Reta was first to emerge from the water, sputtering and gasping to find a land of lush greens, flowers of every hue, and people staring at them, mouths agape.”
“What the hell?” said a man in uniform. “You don’t actually need to get into the pool to make a wish. Go to the one in the park. They let you throw pennies in that one. There’s even a man there that claims to be getting gold in return.” The guard laughed.
Reta and Steven jumped out of the pond and headed in the direction the guard had pointed. To their horror a man stood at the edge with a handful of pennies. Steven ran forward and slapped them out of his hand.
“Those are mine!” The haggard man said with a slurred voice.
Reta and Steven stared as the man gathered the copper circles without it causing any blisters on his skin. He threw a few in. “Now all I gotta do is wait.” He grinned at them; several teeth were missing. He pulled a vodka bottle out of a filthy coat pocket, turned it up, and finished it with shaking hands.
“The gold will be here soon,” he mumbled to himself.
All that day I heard their tapping invasion.
I had never seen light. But I could feel their metal tools strike the stone. It was a tap tap tap to go with the constant, drip, drip, drip of water into the far side of my chamber.
The air changed. I felt a squeeze of my hand and smelled something sweet and knew it was my Midna.
“They’re close now,” I said.
“I know,” she told me. “I wonder if they have food. Maybe they’ll drop some.”
All our lives we’d eaten eyeless, slithering things and the occasional furry bat, grasping at them by smell and sound.
The elders said we were chased away. Driven here, underground. We had art and culture, they told us, until the fuel and candles were gone and the last light went out in the darkness.
“Maybe they have light,” Midna said. “Let’s get nearer.”
Do not approach them, the elders had said. If there get to be too many, maybe one should have an accident, said another.
I crouched on the stone floor of my chamber. I could feel their boots pounding the rocks. I could smell their sweat. I crawled away to the corner furthest from the entrance and the fresher air.
Midna squeezed my hand and tried to pull me up. She grunted and left the chamber. The elders said they couldn’t be friendly.
And if they were, it would be worse. They’d shine their light down here and we would behold the faces of the overworlders and see our own grotesqueness.
Midna did not come back. I cursed and followed, “Wait,” I hissed. “It’s not safe.”
I heard her padding footfalls somewhere in the dark, skin slapping stone. The main chamber opened up all around me and there was nothing but echoes.
Then I heard voices. Alien voices were in the main chamber, talking and laughing. I could smell their food and sweat and hear their lips smacking.
I didn’t know where Midna was. I started to back away. My foot hit a rock and it tumbled down into the main chamber, bouncing off the walls and clanging and echoing as it went down.
Their voices changed. I didn’t know their language, but I could tell that they were frightened. Lights came on in the darkness and they angled them towards the roof of the main chamber.
I didn’t even know what it was. Everything I had seen until then was black upon darkness. I was just as blind as before.
Instinctively I hugged the ground. Shapes emerged. I could see the silhouettes of the creatures, but the lights were still so bright, I couldn’t make out their faces. On the far side of the chamber I saw what I knew must have been Midna’s leg as she scuttled away.
One of the creatures saw it too. He cried out and the others followed him. The way Midna went, there was nowhere to go. The lights bobbed up and down in the darkness to Midna. I cursed myself and stood and fumbled my way to their camp and coughed.
The lights spun and the creatures gasped. One of the three creatures came to me and bent down to my height and put out a hand.
“Midna!” I cried. “What do I do?”
“I don’t know!” she said and scuttled out towards me. The creatures backed away from her and me, almost falling over themselves except the one kneeling, still holding out his hand.
He thought for a moment. Then took the light off his head and pointed it at himself so we could see his bearded face. He handed it to me and I pointed it at Midna. Her scaled face and yellow eyes shone in the light. “You’re beautiful,” I told her.