Short Story – 3,650 Words
An afternoon walk through the park on the outskirts of the city was Emmy’s daily mindfulness exercise. This parkland was not the usual provincial, town-planned green space. There were no manicured lawns and borders of beautiful flowers in meticulous patterns. Nor broken Victorian fountains full with murky stagnant water, bits of bicycle, and empty alcohol-free beer bottles. This was a vast nature reserve comprising acres of moors and forests, which included a network of streams flowing in and out of freshwater lakes; miles of dusty paths leading in every direction, some with signposts; and roaming wild animals, most not wanting to be seen. This was a proper unkempt wilderness. The place to go for inspiration, untroubled.
Emmy, enjoying the fresh air, traipsed along an arid grass track surrounded by blooming spiky gorse bushes. He soon arrived at the ancient, dark forest; a woodland, which stretched over the hills to the mountains beyond, and entered.
A swirling mix of musty, damp aromas and sweet perfumes invited him in. The change in acoustics was quite deafening; no white noise, only crisp bird chattering and sharp snapping twigs underfoot. Warm rays of sunlight shone through gaps in the tranquil canopy, spotlighting silky threads of spiders and flitting insects. Many crooked, haunting shapes from dead tree branches caught his eye. Then he tripped. With an unbalanced gait, he staggered a few steps then fell, disappearing into a wide patch of green fern plants.
He sat, wiped his face and spat out mini fractal fronds, thankful he’d avoided nearby stinging nettles. After freeing himself from his unwitting hiding place, he glanced back to see what caused his embarrassment. A dusty metallic lump of tech stuck out of the ground. Several electric diodes flashed on the sides. Emmy was a little surprised he hadn’t seen the gizmo before tripping over it.
What was this undeniable man-made object doing stuffed between old tree roots in this unspoilt countryside location? Half-buried by a tech-savvy fox for later exhumation, he mused, or dropped by a super-sized thieving magpie. Or, perhaps, left behind by an employee of Project Blue Book while walking their chihuahua?
Emmy ducked in surprise. He spun round, looking for the yeller, and heard them again.
“Yes, I’m talking to you. Stay there.”
A hundred feet from him, Emmy thought he noticed a bulk of a man pushing through bowers towards him. A covering of dark camouflage, flashing between light and shade the reason for his doubt. He sensed danger. Anxious, and not wanting to turn his eyes, he backed away from the approaching oddity, leaving the electronic trip hazard behind.
The figure trampled closer, and Emmy could make out the cause of their darkness. A smattering of grey paint or ash, and reddened patches of skin, possibly burns, as if they’d been smoking a huge cigar, which had exploded. No doubt they were in severe pain.
“Come here,” they said, and although high-pitched, the voice confirmed they were an angry male. “You owe me an explanation.”
This random event required clarity. Emmy had heard no explosion, neither had he seen flames, nor smelt burning, and in a dry woodland setting, such news travels like, well, wild … fire. This guy was unfamiliar, and Emmy would recognise someone he owed the tiniest amount to. And he didn’t.
Covered in burns with flesh virtually hanging off, it was clear this man had a high pain threshold as he strode through the thicket of shrubs with ease. He vaulted decaying fallen logs like a professional hurdler using a springboard. Emmy couldn’t turn away, and careened sideways, careful not to stumble over branches or fall into badger setts.
“Stop damn you. We need to discuss what the hell you’re doing.”
It wasn’t obvious how this guy knew him. A simple case of mistaken identity or had Emmy been setup? He contemplated calling for help, but in this covered, sound-deadened wilderness it was pointless. When the runner hammered the bark from a branchless dead tree, it exploded in half. Pieces of rotten wood, worms, and insects feasting on the wooden carcass rained down in his wake. Then Emmy ran.
He struggled through overgrown brambles and branches spread across his path, not able to sprint. Slowed further by a deep forest carpet of decaying timber and years of discarded brown autumn leaves. Nature didn’t grow in the straight lines for getaways, and his route zigzagged around trees and shrubs.
The curious electric object came to mind. Why was a powered-up, working tech gadget lying in this ancient woodland? Then, distracted by his own panting and puffing, and low-hanging boughs, Emmy tripped again. Quicker to scramble to his knees on this occasion. An alien race’s computer terminal poking from dead flora.
“Stay there, you,” the guy’s voice bellowed.
Emmy glanced further down the freshly flattened track he’d made in the undergrowth and saw an angry red face. The man was close, kicking up debris and uprooting saplings in his wake. Yet, it was a flashing light which caught Emmy’s eye on the device, which pulsed from a button-shaped disc.
What harm could it do?
He reached over and pressed.
A flash, a jolt, and Emmy jumped from the thundering bulk chasing him. He squinted against the sun, finding himself in a wide clearing alongside a sturdy fallen tree trunk, a little dizzy. Several squirrels scampered to find the nearest branch for safety, checking over their shoulders.
“Not again. Can you stop doing the time-hopping thing? It’s so unfair.”
The irate man was distant, helpful but confusing, as Emmy had never experienced an instantaneous portal leap before. A perimeter of woods shaped the area full of grasses, wildflowers, and ferns, giving it a manicured appearance. Mature trees were absent, only their stumps remained. Several long-felled trunks littered the spot, rotting, and hollowed out by animals and birds searching for insects.
“Will you stay there? We need words.”
Relentless in his pursuit, the guy roared off-camera in the surrounding woods.
On hearing the shout, a fallow deer revealed itself from behind a bush within the clearing, chewing fresh greenery. Its ginger-red and white spotted fur shone in the sun. Emmy was aware of his own warmth and itchy sweat from running. The pursuing man cracked and crashed through undergrowth and the animal trotted off, escaping into the darker cover of the tall trees.
Another glint, deep in the green and brown pasture, attracted Emmy’s attention. An identical piece of the fallen spaceship, or whatever these items were. He pushed up from the trunk and leant towards the electrical wizardry. He brushed away long grass and revealed a familiar blinking knob. But before he could reach to press it, a forceful prod jabbed at his back, and a female character cried out.
“Don’t move. Slowly, turn around.”
Involuntarily raising his hands, Emmy twisted to see three young women fronted by one pointing a double-barrelled shotgun at him. They were extremely attractive. Full lips, great locks of flowing dark hair, deep wide eyes, fully formed but ragged tee shirts, slim long legs in tight ripped jeans, and chunky walking boots. Each carried a backpack, several weapons in holsters hanging from their hips at jaunty angles, and a baseball bat caked in a rich crimson deposit. Perfectly dressed for a hike in nature, yet spattered in varying degrees of red paint. No. Blood! He wondered what hunting games they’d been playing in the woods. Another woman stepped forward.
“No more pressing buttons. Seriously, you’ll unleash multiple problems.”
Her face was perfect. Emmy couldn’t avert his gaze. Large watery blue eyes, tiny dimples on her cheeks; one with a slight scar, and the smallest of crookedness in a front tooth. His glare dropped to her Toblerone tunnel at the top of her thighs, through where, to his surprise, he could see a cheeky squirrel watching, hidden in a bush.
“Don’t let him press the button,” a familiar rasping voice said.
Emmy searched for the source and saw him entering the clearing, walking twenty feet to his side, a wisp of smoke smouldering from his clothes. Burnt stumps of blackened skin rose from behind his shoulders.
“We won’t,” the girls chorused.
“Great. I need answers,” he said.
“So do we.”
“Ask away,” Emmy’s voice croaked.
Unaccustomed to staring inside shiny pump-action shotgun barrels, he kept his hands in the air. The strong women gave an amount of protection from the scorched figure striding towards him. Yet, he couldn’t help but think they weren’t strangers.
“Step aside.” The shotgun woman signalled with her weapon. “So we can discuss these episodes further.”
Her cross, flared-nose expression was enough incentive to do as ordered, without the pointed gun. No matter how satisfied he would feel grabbing the shooter from her to defend himself, Emmy stood and stepped further from the women. A hand grabbed his shoulder, spinning him round, then two large, dirty hands throttled his throat and lifted him from the ground. Choking, with his feet dangling in the air, he held on to the man’s seared wrists. The guy’s skin was rough with burnt scabs and half his face similarly scarred. Clothes ripped and blackened, and the growth on his back oddly covered in scorched feathers. The smoky hulk smelt like a barbecue.
“I can’t. Can’t … breathe.”
“I can still hear you gasping.”
“Gunther, put him down,” the girl with the quirky tooth joined in. “We have him now, and he will help us.”
“I’m not letting go, Crystalina, until I get answers.”
And with a dying breath Emmy thought, wow, what a sexy name.
“We want the same, my friend. This man’s life is precious. Only he can explain why we’re here,” said the third girl, walking forward juggling a coil of rope. “I’ll secure his legs so he can’t run from the scene, and then we’ll interrogate him.”
The bulk lowered Emmy to his tiptoes, loosening his grip so he could breathe, but not letting go.
Emmy pondered her name, whilst Silvereen effortlessly bound his ankles and wrists with a single length of orange and blue striped nylon rope. Enchanting, but not as pretty sounding. A similar bondage situation with a hot-looking date would be pleasurable. But, stood with an unfamiliar crowd of characters making demands, his face reddened.
The guy pushed Emmy back towards the log when Silvereen finished, and with enough flexibility in the bindings he shuffled backwards and sat with a bump.
“Excellent. Now,” Crystalina said with an accusatory narrowing of her eyebrows. “What’s your story?”
“Yes. You know. Your conflict, the chain of events which bought your here. What do you want?” she said. “I mean, we’re grateful for providing the stash of weapons, but they’ll be useless against the hoards who followed us into the woods. Once they discover how to cross the river, they’ll outnumber our tiny group. So, what’s around the corner? Where are we heading? What future developments are ahead?”
“Subplots and arcs?” Gun-girl said.
“Trysts and twists?” Silvereen wistfully kicking the grass .
“Premise first.” Gunther, his feathers smoking. “We still have no clue about an underlying theme. Where’s our motivation?”
“Good point,” Crystalina said. “What’s your plot?”
“And who’s the real protagonist here?” Gun-girl stared at Emmy. “Are you?”
“Surely, not one of us?” Silvereen said.
“Can’t be. He’s the attraction drawing all the attention.”
“It’s mutual. The mesmerised way he looks at you girls, with his grey eyes. I expect you, Crystalina, could at least be a love interest. No?”
“I wouldn’t mind, to be fair. He is kinda cute.”
“Hello,” Emmy said, waving, a little moody. “I’m here.”
He hadn’t meant to. It was the disbelief of them implying he was in control. And surprise at Crystalina using the third-person to label him.
“Enough of this bullshit.” Gunther prodded Emmy. “Look at me, Man. You burnt my fucking wings off. Why do that? You transformed my life, raised me up, literally, and then destroyed me, just as I was mastering my flying ability. What was the point?”
“Stop!” Emmy said, staring at the rabble of demanding faces. How had his innocent walk in the park metamorphosed into an alternative reality? He wasn’t a dungeon or games master. “What the hell are you talking about? Weapons, wings, and wandering hoards. I have no influence on your problems.”
“Cute when he’s angry, too.”
“I admit you’re super interesting, and I’d love to know you better,” Emmy said, and turned to Gunther. “All of you. But when I entered these woods for my daily stroll, minding my beeswax, it was me who started seeing strange things.”
“Strange to you!” Gun-girl said.
“Tell us about the strangeness?” Silvereen said.
“A wild, smouldering brute chasing me through a peaceful forest. Three hot zombie-killer-babes sticking a shotgun in my face. All bizarre, but weird sci-fi teleporting portals?” Emmy nodded towards the curious doctored vegetation. “And then this.”
They turned to check.
“What?” they all said at once.
“The clearing. Or rather, its very particular shape. Don’t you see?”
The third girl lowered her weapon and stepped forward, examining the distant trees, then spun about and squinted past our little group.
“This guy has a point. It’s circular, and if I guessed, a complete, unbroken circle.”
The gorgeous Crystalina then checked. When she exaggerated a gawp, Emmy nearly came unstuck. Her backside was a perfect peach. She pointed.
“And look there. A round copse of trees dead in the centre.”
“Don’t say dead,” Gunther whispered as he twisted around to examine the boundary and the island in the middle.
“There is unnatural symmetry here,” Silvereen said. “Why? And who would trouble themselves in creating such a specific shape?”
“I think …” Emmy paused, not just for suspense, but he was unsure himself.
“You can’t leave us hanging, dude. What?” Gunther interrupted. “What are you thinking?”
“No, I’m not sure.”
“Don’t be shy,” the triplets said.
“Last chance, storyteller.” Gunther stepped closer, raising his fist. “Talk.”
“Gunther!” The girls came to Emmy’s rescue.
He lowered his hand.
“Excuse Gunther, mister,” Silvereen said. “But if you’ve the slimmest idea in your head, spill.”
“M.E., I call myself.”
“Lovely, M.E.. How typically anonymous. But what you need to comprehend, M.E., is your crazy notions and fun ideas manifest here. Therefore, it’s better to divulge the details now so we can prepare.”
“I’m not … How? … What are you suggesting?”
“Not us. Invariably your suggestions, which you keenly hug to your chest.” Gun-girl raised her shotgun. “Your type are the damn same, forever drip-feeding the juicy bits.”
“Topazara. Enough with the gun-toting bitch act,” Crystalina said. “Can’t you appreciate this is totally abstract to M. E.?”
Emmy didn’t see Topazara’s name coming.
“You’re being too easy on him because you fancy the man.”
“Don’t give me—”
“I think they look like shapes or letters,” Emmy said, keen to interrupt. He was not confident to hear Crystalina’s thoughts, as they might shatter the illusion. “I’ve come across similar clearings walking through the woods.”
“Could they spell a word?” Silvereen said.
The group fell silent, and the rattling caw from a pair of magpies echoed around the peaceful glade. They hopped from stump to branch, and for a moment Emmy thought their squawks sounded like voices. Zees found a bridge. Rattle, rattle. Zees found a bridge. He looked at Gunther. The man was in such a state, burnt, scabbing skin and stumps from wings. Was he a kind of angel? His bloodshot eyes watered as he glanced in Emmy’s direction, but Gunther didn’t acknowledge any voices. Nobody did.
“Okay, people. Time we disappeared?” Gunther stomped off.
“Wait, where are you going?” Emmy said.
“Up the ridge.”
“We can’t,” Silvereen said. “It’s too dangerous. Somebody will spot us.”
“And you reckon standing around chatting is better?” Gunther ignored her. “Up there, we’ll have an advantage and discover what’s unfolding.”
“If M.E.’s telling the truth,” Topazara said. “He could be unreliable.”
“He could,” Crystalina said. “But I believe him.”
“Does his deep, sexy voice not give you a funny spasm inside?”
Gunther snorted, entering the edge of the darker wood.
The two girls scrunched their eyes, pulling pained expressions, and shook their heads, then followed.
“You can’t help yourself,” Silvereen said. “Come on. Let’s hope he’s worth it.”
Crystalina winked at Emmy.
“We must be careful,” he said. “I … I think the hoard might have crossed the river.”
“Don’t worry, darling,” she said and patted the handle of her long, blood-stained bat hanging from her belt. Then stepped into the shade and coolness of the tree canopy, following her friends.
When Emmy pushed himself from the log, they’d blurred beyond the dark perimeter.
“Wait for me!” Emmy hobbled in servitude.
“Sort yourself out, lover,” a weak voice said, dissolving into the sound-deadening woods.
“But I’m tied up.”
“Not now, honey. Press the blah blah.”
Emmy barely heard her words.
“What?” he shouted.
“… button …” a single discernible word reply.
The computer panel; buried in the undergrowth. Emmy glanced over, and it radiated, even in the bright sunshine of the glade. A red push switch. He shuffled towards it with tiny pigeon steps. The rope burned his ankles. He slumped to the grass on his knees between fern fronds. Pressing the damn thing wasn’t as easy as Crystalina claimed. Nudging it with his head was possible. He turned his torso and flopped onto his side, and noticed high above the tree canopy in the lush blue sky two moons. Grey and singular was familiar, but not a junior accessory.
A shotgun blast rang around the clearing. The zees were here. Emmy’s forehead depressed the button, which hurtled him into a void of light full of whooshing sounds. There was a stab of pain. His mind stretched between where he lay watching the heavenly orbs to arriving on a very hard surface, still observing the moons, but from a different angle. They both appeared real, and he wondered if they were a weather anomaly, but the skies were clear bright blue in all directions.
Emmy could hear pistol cracks in the distance and discovered sitting up with wrists bound to ankles wasn’t easy. He rolled onto his side. Flat bare rock with pebbles scattered on the surface lead away to an edge. Distant tiny fluffy clouds were the only other sight. He was lying on a high, barren mountain plateau. In the baking sun, which blazed down making him perspire just lying there. A cool breeze brushed over him as he reflected a while about recent events. Nothing made any sense. They were a jumble, and backwards to frontwards. Sweat tickled his sides. He breathed. Heat prickled his lungs. He swallowed. Dryness pickled his tongue. Time went.
“He’ll be there. Don’t worry,” a girl’s voice travelled on the air. “We all know you fancy him.”
“I do not!” Crystalina’s melodic inflection, slightly ruffled. And disingenuous, he hoped.
“Liar,” Silvereen or Topazara gushed.
“We saw you,” one said, with a laugh. “You couldn’t resist twerking your butt back there.”
“I did not.”
“Keep your voices down you overrated actresses.” Gunther’s deeper husky tone was quieter, but audible. “We don’t know if any zombies can hear. They found a bridge, they could climb rocks. Let’s get topside and hope M.E. isn’t spouting rubbish and reveals the truth.”
Lying there, fettered in the baking sun, with two moons floating overhead, Emmy thought about nothing but the facts; Crystalina. He’d met an attractive and amazing girl, and they connected. His luck, unbelievably changed. Then a sudden tremor made the ground tremble under him, and not metaphorically. The entire mountain shook. Pebbles jiggled. Emmy rolled over and pulled on his knees, crunched his abs, and twisted. The rock shifted beneath him as he sat upright. Treetops in the distance stretched out for miles. The nearest swayed until the shaking stopped. A low rubble echoed away, and the three girls appeared with Gunther.
“There he is, Crystalina,” Silvereen said.
They stepped onto the wide rocky slab towards him, their bats dripping with blood.
“What was that?” he said, his croaky voice dehydrated.
“Oh! You don’t know?” Gunther joined them with his sarcasm. “Another random occurrence you’ve apparently injected.”
“Some good reason, I’m sure,” Topazara said, her shotgun swung over her shoulder.
“Yes, foreshadowing an earthquake, perhaps.” Crystalina removed her backpack and squatted. “Or the return of a giant mystical beast trapped under the mountain?”
“Yeah, yeah. Can we move along?” Gunther said and pulled Emmy to his feet. “Show us what this is about M.E..”
Silvereen dropped her bat. It clattered and spat red blobs on the hard surface. Then draw a shiny blade from a sheath at her side.
“I’ll help,” she said, approaching with her glistening knife. Emmy backed away. “Relax.”
She sliced the rope around his wrists and as he rubbed them; she cut the tether on his ankles. He flexed his legs. Crystalina gave him a water bottle.
“You look parched,” she said.
“I am, thank you,” Emmy said, and swigged back several large gulps. “So, let’s have a peek.”
He hesitantly shuffled towards the edge of the ridge not knowing what he’d find. The others followed. The moons hung high and the mass of woodland trees stretched further the closer they stepped. Considerably taller, Gunther saw it first.
“He’s only bloody right.”
“I knew he would be,” Crystalina said.
And there they were, formed in the vast, ancient forest, a dozen clearings, shaped in a row of capital letters. And confirmed they’d been standing in the letter ‘O’. Natural growth had roughened the outlines a tiny amount, and they weren’t quite in a straight line, but the spelling was clear. A short sentence which blurred away at the end, as trees thinned into distant grass pasture by a glistening stream where a herd of red deer grazed.
O N C E U P O N A T I M E …