When one day a man finds himself in a strange misty place that seems oddly familiar and, yet, entirely mysterious, he discovers his feet taking him toward a certain cave.
– No age verification. Minor name-calling. Mild medical yuckies. Somewhat sad and a bit wistful.
The mists swirled about and the sound of angry gulls screamed overhead as Jackson, a sensible if somewhat dull man in his late forties, paced down the cobblestone road. It was lined on either side with the skeletal husks of trees in their last gown of bronzed autumn leaves, shivering in the pre-winter breeze that blew through that place.
It was very pretty in a forbidding, ghostly kind of way and while Jackson got the absolute creeps as he paced down the lane he couldn’t help but feel as if he knew the place. As if he’d been there before.
He could tell it used to be more beautiful but nothing that he could see particularly gave him reason to tell it. Nothing overtly hinted at ancient majesty – indeed, the place looked not only dilapidated and uncared-for but it was so very shabby that he found it difficult to believe that it had ever not been shabby – but something deep in his heart told him that once this place had been breathtaking.
Jackson didn’t listen to his heart much. It said a lot but it wasn’t a sensible place for thought to come from.
“There’s two kinds of people in the world,” he’d say to Dora, his wife. “Head people and heart people. Head people think with their heads and heart people barely think at all.”
He was a head person. It wasn’t that he was incapable of emotion, far from it; Dora had seen him wordless with grief at his dad’s funeral, rage at the stupidity of banks and of people who were so bad at managing money that they lived on credit cards. She’d seen him break down in tears of joy at the birth of his first daughter, even if the actual birthing procedure did make him go a bit green. But even at the height of his emotion Jackson took pride in his ability to ‘keep his head.’ Not once had he ever struck her, or their three children, had never even seemed like he might. Not even, his wife had once considered ruefully, when they were alone in the bedroom and Dora would have rather liked him to.
When Dora confessed on their fifteenth wedding anniversary that she’d been sleeping with his brother Ben for the previous seven months she knew, without a doubt, that Jackson would consider all angles before making a decision of what to do – and she was right. He did. He weighed his love for her (which was considerable), his anger (which was abundant) and his need to look after his kids (which remained his highest priority.
He still kicked her out, of course, and successfully sued for sixty-five percent custody, but he thought deeply about it first.
Jackson and Dora were still, technically, married. They’d never filed for divorce and neither of them seemed likely to start the procedure. Their parting was far from amicable but it was at least, Jackson thought with no small amount of pride, constructive. Dora might be a lying, cheating, backstabbing little bitch but she was a lot like him. A head person. That’s what had attracted them to each other in the first place. He was a call centre worker and she had a ‘thing’ for black people but the element they each found the most compelling was the others’ intellect.
She’d been through a string of boyfriends since, each more wild and young than the last. He, however, had found dating difficult to do. The uncertainty of it was displeasing to him. Even the process of listing a profile on various adult dating websites had been difficult. What does a sensible, down-to-earth man with three kids and skirting around the edge of forty years of age (the break-up had been almost a decade ago) list as his best qualities? It’s not as if the exercise did anything to help, anyway. Of course there were the times Dora would turn up on his doorstep streaked with tears, horny and drunk. When she was very drunk he’d just put her to bed and sleep on the couch. When she was merely tipsy and in full possession of her senses, though… Well. She was still a very attractive woman and he’d not put up much resistance to her intoxicated charms (such as they were).
And so he’d remained single – more or less – for six years or so. Then he’d met Louise.
Her oldest daughter was named Louise – that made things initially weird – but they compromised with ‘Lou’ for her and ‘Louise’ for his new girlfriend. Lou quite liked Louise. Anne, his second oldest, followed Lou’s lead. Violet was too young to see her Dad’s new lady-friend as anything but a threat to her Mum’s place in their lives. Still, after the initial battles – and some of them were epic enough for their own fifteen-volume sagas written, probably, in Norse (because it seemed to Jackson that all the best epics were very old and Scandinavian or Finnish or some such) – Lou and Anne helped get a hold on Violet’s temper and the household settled mostly down.
Dora hated Louise and the feeling was mutual. She’d been making quiet but significant noises about adjustments to their custody agreements for the last two months though the threat had never come to actuality and the point, now, was moot. Lou was twenty-two and Anne nineteen so they could go wherever they wanted. Violet, at fifteen, was still her Dad’s responsibility but the social worker he and Dora had seen made it very clear that the courts took the opinions of fifteen-year-olds into account. Dora could contest that, certainly, but did she really want to drag their child through the legal mud only to have her turn around and leave as soon as she was legally able to?
Dora, to her credit, did not so Violet had stayed put. The presence of Louise wasn’t enough to push Violet out to go and live with her mother and whichever dead-beat she was dating for the week.
Jackson thought about his more-or-less-wife as he walked. It wasn’t that she was a bad person per se, he figured. He’d helped as he could after their breakup – though the Lord knew he had no real need to – but she’d simply grown more wild and more erratic. His best friend, Paul, figured she was going through some kind of mid-life crisis.
“She’s an adult,” Paul had pointed out, “she’s got a right to live however she wants.”
“Even if she’s dating morons who seem just as happy to hit her as to help with the bills?” he’d countered gloomily.
“Damn right,” Paul had nodded. “Harsh truth is that it’s her right to do that. Just be there if she asks for help if you can and direct her to a professional if you can’t.” He’d shrugged. “You know Dora better than anyone. Try to push her to get help and she’ll just push back twice as hard. The decision needs to be hers.”
Jackson gloomily had to concede that Paul had a point. It wasn’t always the case – she’d been far more likely, once, to think sensibly about a problem than to push back for the sake of pushing – but those days were gone.
It occurred to him idly that he didn’t particularly know where he was or, for that matter, how he’d gotten there. It was a nice enough road if one ignored the towering fingers of increasingly leafless trees, jabbing up at the sky as if accusing it of something. It was a pleasant walk if you carefully chose not to notice the desiccated corpses of squirrels and small birds – sparrows, he guessed – that lay half-hidden under the leaf litter. Even the chill wind wasn’t overly upsetting… as long as you disregarded the smell of musty rot that reached the nose every now and th-
Jackson shook his head. There was no denying it: the place was horrid. He felt like it was watching him, as if baleful but unseen eyes peered out from behind every corner. Perhaps sharp little claws – dead little claws – waited to shred his clothes and cut into his flesh. His shoes were leather and brightly polished – not work boots, by any stretch of the imagination but he fancied they could give any small and hostile assailant – even a dead one – pause for thought if he kicked out hard enough. His pants were neat microfibre dress pants, though. They didn’t keep the chill out, let alone psychotic undead rodents. His shirt was white, long-sleeved, boring and tied with a blue neck-tie; his jacket was the sort of thing you’d find in an office, not a cold lane filled with horrors that just waited to leap out.
He wondered why he was expecting attack. Zombies didn’t exist, the very idea was laughable.
Jackson didn’t laugh.
While he was a quiet and somewhat unassuming fellow Jackson was a big man. He’d love to be able to say he had the kind of physique that would make action stars green with envy he really, really didn’t. Instead he had a substantial gut and the soft, pudgy kind of outline that people who’ve worked long and hard in sedentary office jobs tended to get. His six foot three frame wore it better than a shorter man might but there was no mistaking that he could do with fewer potato chips and more long walks. He bore a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose that, ten years ago, he hadn’t needed. He wasn’t sure if age-related myopia was to blame, the computer screens he stared at for eight hours or more every day, or both. Either way he needed them now and he peered out through them at the strange road he found himself on.
Had Paul dropped him here? He didn’t know. He couldn’t find his watch or his phone so he didn’t know what time it was; the leaden sky gave little hint as he looked up into it but he guessed it was probably late afternoon. It never occurred to him to wonder what day it was. He didn’t feel like he was in a hurry, though, and that settled his nerves a bit.
A tall hedge dominated the right side of the road, far too dense and high to see past, and a narrow strip of earth led to a high cliff face on the left. The occasional scream of gulls overhead and the sparse tough clumps of reeds grass poking through the sandy soil along the base of the cliff, though, combined with the salty tang of the air, let him know he was near the sea. He grumbled slightly and looked self-consciously down at his legs; he hated getting sand on the legs of his pants. It invariably got everywhere else with an almost malevolent will.
Rounding a corner he realised he’d walked into an intersection. The sensible part of his brain silently chided the civil architect that put an intersection so close to a turn – dangerous roads and not a ‘Concealed Entrance’ sign to be found – but the rest of his mind was busy marvelling at the road that met the one he was walking along. He stopped and stared while the mist curled around his legs like an affectionate cat.
If the cobblestone road he’d been walking down was winter this new lane was spring.
Just as the gaunt claw-like trees lined the previous road like a row of gigantic zombies clawing their way up through the hard-packed, half-frozen earth, this new lane bore trees on either side – but a riot of red cherry blossoms. He was no horticulturist but he thought they were probably ornamental cherry trees; either way the contrast from the previous walkway was incredible. Deciding without real thought to change his direction he stepped onto the lane and felt the wind blow down from the… South? North? He had no idea. Wherever it was coming from it was warm, slightly damp, still bearing the salty tang of the sea.
The cherry-lined road was, he found to his surprise, no less oppressive than its cobbled fellow – but it was a different kind of oppression. Where the cobbled road had been stark and dead this place was like a sickly beating heart. The smell of stagnant water was here and there, while the cherry blossom petals that drifted down silently seemed to cling, slightly sticky, to his face as he walked. That sensation of being watched hadn’t eased off either – and now it felt somehow angry.
Jackson told himself he was imagining it. Clearly he was. He must be. Certainly the place was hauntingly familiar, like a place visited in a dream and then forgotten for years, but he hadn’t seen a hint of any life along the streets. There weren’t even houses beyond the cherry trees, just light woodland and the cloying mist that seemed to suck at everything it touched and foiled his vision in those woods. He fancied it was slightly yellowish and it seemed to follow him slowly, a hostile barely-substantial treacle the colour of watered-down piss.
He was about a hundred metres along the lane when the rain began.
It wasn’t a light misty rain. It was a heavy, dull, fat rain that came in gobs and splattered to the ground like it had a grudge to express. It didn’t tamp down the mist, either; if anything the floating miasma got more dense and the air got warmer, muggy and almost suffocating. As it fell into the trees it ran in rivulets down over diminutive leaves and tender crimson blossoms to puddle in wide, shallow pools over the lane. It was red where it had run off the trees, as if picking up the colour of the blossoms, vivid and sticky. It reminded him, very distinctly and quite alarmingly, of blood.
It was clear where it hit his skin directly but even so there was something wrong about it. The smell of the sea was far stronger now and as the rain ran down his serious brown face and across his broad lips he tasted it and realised why.
The rain itself was salty, like sea water… or tears.
He wasn’t sure how it was possible but his senses were certain of what they were experiencing and every time he attempted to reason through how it could be that a thick salty bombardment of tears – or perhaps sea water – was pelting the lane he found he couldn’t concentrate for more than a few seconds on it.
Without warning his foot caught on something lying amid the sticky piles of blossom-blood petals and found himself pitching over forward. Red petals covered his face and seemed loath to come off; rather than just brushing them Jackson found he had to actually pluck the sticky things from his skin. A wild, terrifying thought came to him and he wondered if this was some kind of attack mechanism, some kind of carnivorous tree that coated animals with adhesive petals and leaves, smothering and killing their prey and letting the corpses rot at their boles as prime fertiliser.
Finally he got to his feet again, having pulled most of the petals from him. He knew the idea of a killer tree was a bit silly but right now the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched. He took a step to go and then thought to turn and look at what he’d tripped over.
He saw the skull of the smaller one first.
It was a pair of people – maybe men, maybe women, he was no medical professional – lying face-up on the ground. They were mostly covered in petals but Jackson could make out the mouldering remains of dresses, or perhaps robes, wrapping their bodies. From what he could tell they used to be grand, fine things, those robes – yes, he was sure they were robes – and the people who had worn them had been very important. One of the skulls bore a crown and the other a circlet, both in gold, tarnished but otherwise undamaged by the horrible rain.
Jackson didn’t even contemplate taking the headgear. Then again he didn’t contemplate giving the two dead people a proper burial either. He just backed off and turned, hurrying away from the corpses as fast as he could without risking a slip-up in the rain-slicked petals.
Out of his peripheral vision he spotted movement as he hurried along the lane looking for some kind of shelter that wasn’t going to drip blossom-blood on him but every time he turned toward it he saw nothing but mist. Stopping and concentrating he thought he glimpsed transparent figures of children – or very short people – watching him from the mist. But he only ever saw them in the corners of his eyes and after experiencing a chill that had nothing to do with salty water running down his neck he hurried on doing his best to ignore the phantom figures.
He fancied the gulls weren’t just calling but were shrieking a word in the raucous, grating tones of seagulls everywhere.
“Die! Die! Die!”
Jackson put his head down and carried on. He passed a street sign but the corrosive salt in the rain had long ago rusted it into illegibility.
He wasn’t sure when the rain eased off. It was probably about the same time that he turned off the lane and along a cliff-side road. Down the cliff he could see, nestled into a bay, a little seaside town. And in that little seaside town he could see smoke.
Plumes of the stuff drifted and gusted up into the sky, the grave columns spoilt here and there by the cliff-side wind. He was a long way up but he could see that there were very few houses left standing. The place had been gutted. Bodies littered the narrow alleys of the village and he somehow knew without going down to look that not a living thing was left amongst the ruined shells of buildings, just as he knew that the smoke plumes would smell sickly-sweet if he got too close or the wind blew it into his face. The smell of flesh crisping and falling off the bone to blacken and burn in the fires.
Tears stung his eyes and he followed the path around the top of the cliff, avoiding the narrow walkway down to the stricken town. Out on the sea he spotted a ship sailing for the horizon; it flew a black flag bearing a skull.
Jackson peered painfully through his tears and the thick glass of his spectacles. He thought he could faintly see some of the crew on the deck of what was, he assumed, the pirate ship. They didn’t look entirely human.
He hurried along the broad flat path cut along the rock of the cliff. Past the remains of the settlement he saw a large boat, splintered and wrecked on the rocks at shore. It didn’t look like a victim of the raiders’ attack; it looked like that ship had destroyed itself on the rocks years ago. The sail, which Jackson was sure once billowed magnificently and was a fine white, lay blackened with rot on the shattered deck.
About halfway up the cliff face, a little further along than the ship, Jackson saw the mouth of a cave. A narrow, treacherous rock ledge bordered the entrance and the path forked to lead down the cliff-face to it; he could see at a glance that the ledge had once been much wider and more sturdy but the bulk of it had fallen down to crash at the foot of the cliff, pounded by the same waves that slowly worked to tear apart that ancient boat. Unstoppable. Implacable. Powerful.
Without truly realising what he was doing Jackson took the fork and started down toward the ledge. Even though he didn’t know it every single footstep that he took in this strange land had been taking him toward that cave.
The path down the cliff was dangerous and more than once Jackson was almost plucked from the rock wall by the wind which ripped along its surface. Only by stopping and clinging to the barest of finger-holds did he manage to remain on the path and whole. He had no illusions of faring any differently than the boat should he be swept off and brought crashing down to the choppy, angry sea below. By the time he was down at the cliff’s ledge he didn’t seem to have come any closer to the cliff’s base at all. It still seemed as far away. When he hesitantly looked up, though, he could see the cliff face stretch up just as far as it did down. He couldn’t see the top of the cliff any more. He could only hope the path held and led him back up when he wanted to leave.
There was no noise in the cave. A couple of very ancient piles of fish bones lay neatly to one side of the cave mouth. Some of them were positively huge, the sort that would come from sharks if they had proper skeletons rather than cartilage. None of them seemed human but Jackson still swallowed hard before he took a step toward the cave.
What was he doing? There could be anything in that terrible place. A thrill of fear ran up his spine and down again, undecided if it wanted to settle into his head or his feet, and he swallowed again. Whatever he was doing, he decided, it wasn’t smart – and yet he couldn’t turn away from that cave. He felt pulled toward it, as if he were being gently but irresistibly dragged in there, and while he felt scared he didn’t feel like he was in danger.
Jackson’s head rebelled. It was the one it charge! The brain ruled the roost! The heart could just sit down and stay calm – but his heart was ignoring his head. It wasn’t inner turmoil so much as petulant inner whining.
He stepped into the cave and was instantly swallowed up by the darkness beyond.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness in the cave he could see a great deal better than he’d expected. Faint shapes resolved into rocks, shining and damp with sea spray, reflecting what little light managed to penetrate the subterranean gloom. His feet sounded painfully loud on the rock floor as he stepped forward, one hand outstretched, brushing now and then against the rough walls of the tunnel he found himself walking along. He wondered if he’d hear breathing or bats, or if further down the tunnel he’d find a terrible blackness that he wouldn’t be able to find his way out of.
But still he kept walking.
The further he walked the more he could see. Before long he could view his surroundings as clearly as if the rock itself were emitting a soft glow – which, f course, it wasn’t. There wasn’t the barest scrap of moss on the walls, certainly nothing luminescent. The darkness just seemed to let him by.
Far above the vaulted roof of the cave arced. The tunnel led slightly down and then slightly up; at the point where it dipped down he found a small hollow carved from the stone, filled to the brim with what looked to be fresh water. He bent down and sniffed a handful, gagging and making a face as he found its scent brackish and foul. Whatever the water’s source it was no longer safe to drink – but it didn’t smell salty either. The rest of the tunnel did, though.
Jackson cleaned his hand on the inside of his jacket as best he could and moved on.
When he reached the wide chamber he found himself realising that he recognised it but, as with the other sights of this odd land, he couldn’t recall quite where. He had a terrible feeling, then, but he couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t identify it. The space was dominated by a huge, irregular, spiky mass – some strange kind of cave formation he initially thought – and as he stepped forward he heard something crunch underneath his feet.
He stopped, knelt down, felt the floor. He scooped up a handful of something that felt a little like leaves and a bit, he supposed, like over-sized bug parts.
Jackson plucked one from his palm and held it up. There was no light here but he could still see, and while holding the thing up should not have made it any easier to see it most definitely did.
It was something curved, flattish, pointed at one end and rough at the other. He could make out that it was more or less a tear-drop or pointed oval shape and he could faintly see through it. The thing was off-white, partly transparent and bore a opalescent sheen; he wondered if the rough stuff he felt at one end was perhaps… connective tissue of some description? He thought it probably was. It was maybe five inches long and three at its widest point; Jackson suddenly wondered if he were holding the discarded fingernail of some giant.
Then, in a flash, Jackson had a sudden insight – it used to be green. And while it was fragile in his hands, though it felt as if he could crush it with the barest pressure, he suddenly knew that once it was incredibly tough.
Now he could see very clearly indeed. He fancied – though of course it had to be pure fancy, right? – that he could see better now than he normally could in broad daylight.
Something massive uncoiled close by and the irregular shape slowly raised its long serpentine neck, its powerful jaws, its spiny head. Thick skin seemed shrunken and tight while muscles hung slack and near-useless from the thing’s enormous frame. Its head alone was larger by one half than Jackson’s whole body. Its head didn’t lift very far, as if the decrepit beast’s muscles were too weak to manage the gigantic skull. Enormous eyes opened with a speed that seemed to make glaciers look zippy and behind thick, milky cataracts the man saw large orbs of a dull emerald green. Once, he knew, those eyes shined proudly. Now they struggled just to focus on him.
Horror and bile forced their way up Jackson’s throat and he gagged, almost vomited. It smelled like a dead thing. He wasn’t afraid, he discovered, that it might eat him; it looked exhausted just from lifting its head. The rest of it hadn’t moved.
A couple of stray scales fell from the dragon’s face, drifting and spinning like sycamore seeds, to join the countless others at Jackson’s feet on the cave floor. The dragon seemed naked and vulnerable; only patches of faded scales clung to its hide here and there, while the rest of it looked raw. Thick bloody scabs and angry red welts covered the dragon’s formerly green hide.
He knew this animal. Jackson was shaken to the core but he knew that to be unspeakably, inescapably true. The dragon before him was known to him. He fought to make sense of it, to capture some mostly-forgotten memory, and a name finally resurfaced. Now, as then, he couldn’t pronounce it. That name wasn’t something that human lips, human vocal chords, a human tongue could form. But another name rose from the murky depths of childhood memory right behind it. A nickname. A silly name. A friend’s name.
“Puff?” he said, he voice a bare whisper.
The voice didn’t bother using his ears to get to his head. That would have been too pedestrian and, besides, the dragon in front of him seemed as if it could barely open its lips. The tone was so deep that it made his bowels feel uncomfortable and yet, at the same time, it was raspy and rough. Worse than that, though, was how flat it was. It was dull, lifeless, hopeless.
Jackson Paper – once known by his neighbours as Little Jackie – opened his mouth and closed it again several times. Horror and something else, that feeling that he couldn’t place, welled up in his heart. He stepped forward but stopped again, his feet crushing more of the once-noble monster’s fallen, time-bleached scales. For a long time the two looked at one another, man and dragon, before Jackson spoke again.
‘You… did.’ It wasn’t accusation, not precisely. Puff’s voice sounded as if it was past accusation, past hatred and misery, even past loneliness. There wasn’t even sorrow in that tone and that, perhaps, was even worse than the sudden realisation of how his once-proud friend had come to such a terrible state.
Jackson had happened. He’d done this. When he’d gone away, convinced himself the enchanted land of Honalee was nothing more than the fantasy of a little boy, that his friend was just imaginary.
‘A dragon,’ Puff intoned solemnly as he lay his head back down on his forepaws, ‘lives forever. But not so… girls and boys.’ A single deep, long breath as the mighty thing exhaled. ‘I… should have… expected it sooner. I… watched you rot… from the inside out. Watched your dreams… die… in your final days of visiting.’ He breathed a little more harshly and let out a huge, hacking cough. Something wet and bloody splattered against the far wall.
Once that voice boomed like a wildfire in a raging wind, Jackson knew, but no longer.
‘Should have… expected it… sooner,’ Puff repeated, his enormous eyes closing. ‘And then… you… went. And now you are… gone.’
“But I’m not!” Jackson said suddenly, powerfully. He knew he was crying, he could feel tears run down his face. “I came back, see? I’m here, Puff! I’m right -”
Puff lifted his chin just enough and his tail whipped out faster than Jackson could follow. The massive limb swung in a deadly arc, passed right through him as if he were no more substantial than the mists along – he knew the name now – Cherry Lane, and smacked into the wall behind the man so hard that the rock rumbled threateningly and dust drifted down from the ceiling high, high above.
‘You are… dreaming, Jackson Paper,’ Puff stated in the same hollow voice. ‘You are not… here. You… will forget this… upon waking. I am… dying. I cannot… die, so I remain dying… forever.’ He adjusted his bulk slightly as the hoard of little objects he squatted on shifted.
It would have been better, Jackson thought, if Puff had shouted and been angry. But there was just that flat resignation. His eyes blurred with fresh tears and he looked down guiltily.
All dragons have hoards. Every little boy and girl knows that. That’s Dragon 101 stuff. Introduction to Dragons, Dragons for Dummies. If a dragon doesn’t have a hoard then it’s just an overgrown lizard (wings optional). But nobody had a hoard quite like Puff’s.
Tightly-wound balls of string, toy cars, carved wooden animals and one of his teddy bears, so ancient that its button eyes had fallen off and its fur was bald, as bald as the dragon perched upon the pile. Here and there he could see little disks and blobs of scarlet red stuff. It shined in the dark and Jackson knew it without examining it. Sealing wax. There was a lot more in the hoard, too. Other fancy stuff.
‘Perhaps one day,’ the dragon stated flatly, ‘I will… forget you… as you have forgotten me.’ The shifting had torn open some of Puff’s scabs and fresh blood oozed thick and dark down his skin.
“Puff,” Jackson said weakly, tearfully, as the dragon rolled to face away from him.
‘Go away, Jackson… Paper,’ the dragon intoned. ‘Just the sight of you… breaks what is left of my heart.’
Jackson couldn’t tell you why he woke up sobbing. He certainly couldn’t tell Louise. She held him as he wept like a small child, grief and loss stabbing him like a knife, though he couldn’t tell for what he grieved or what, precisely he had lost. He couldn’t remember the dream. All he had were the impressions of mist and huge, sickly eyes of dull green.
He didn’t sleep for the rest of the night but when morning came he got up, showered and dressed. He ate his breakfast, read the morning paper without taking a single bit of it in…
…And then he went to work.
© Scott Thornby, 2013