black water

When her feet stop at the edge of the bridge, Mara realizes she’s having the dream again.

This is an old dream, one that comes year after year. Always in October, almost always the same cold night. And because she knows the dream, she remembers what happens next.

She watches the road beyond the bridge. Its lone streetlight flickers, as it always does, right before the shadows start dripping down the asphalt.

It’s always the road first. She sees watch them coming for her, the wrongness of those shadows crowding in the light. And then…

A tinkle of glass as the light bursts, leaving her with only the moon. Soft blue light, hazy and surreal, smudging the mist roiling from the river below into smoke. She can’t see where the shadows are coursing, but she knows they’re spilling down the road toward her like a flood.

A cloud passes over the moon, obscuring the light.

She clenches her fists in the dark. They can’t cross the bridge—can’t cross water. Even in dreams, she’s protected this bridge, as well as the space behind her.

A susurrous rises, scrawling the air. “Mara,” they whisper, their voices snapping branches, broken glass. “Bad dream, bad dream, bad dream. Mara.”

She steps back three paces, far enough to keep out of their reach. Oily darkness mixes with the hazy mist from the creek, struggling. They undulate and shudder, black against black, slippery and viscous. The outlines of their bodies are not entirely human, and that reminds her to step back another three paces. Back to the circle within the square, careful not to break the line of salt.

“Mara. Mara. Mara.” The shadows claw and fight, struggling to cross the center of the bridge. Water runs below them, but…

One breaks free.

One screams, discordant, furious as it bleeds and tears. It doesn’t stop. The figure bursts across, slamming against the first line of salt like a wave.

Now she remembers the line isn’t enough. The ward crumples in her hand.

“Bad dream!” the shadows on the bridge screech. “Bad dream! Bad dream! Bad dream! Bad dream!”

The shadow shreds itself on the first line of salt. It strips the oily black from its skin, revealing its true face.

She hates this.

She remembers this.

She always flinches.

“Mara.”

It’s a voice that shouldn’t exist.

“Mara.”

It’s a voice that was drowned in the waking world twenty years ago.

Scoured by the salt, it has eyes now. Those deep brown irises are the same. The smile is the same. But its skin is wrong, its body hideous, and the way, the way it moves shouldn’t be possible.

“Bad dream.”

One swollen foot destroys the salt line. The shadows howl, their fury reignited. They are a dam bursting, spilling, coming to crawl over the thing staring at her. They fall on it like a cloak of insects. Shuddering and climbing and rustling over its skin as it walks to the second line of her circle.

They can’t cross this one. It’s a fevered thought. They crossed the bridge. They broke the rules. But here, she is safe. She is safe. This is just a—

Bad dream. Bad dream.”

They can’t—

The thing shoots forward, its mouth a snarling rictus, claws splayed wide as it reaches for her face.

The charm drops from her hand.

The circle breaks.

It doesn’t stop, it’s relentless, it doesn’t care, it will never stop, it—

She opens her eyes. Someone is frantically shaking her shoulder.

She can’t see.

The words burst out of her in a shout. “Light! Turn on the light!”

The switch clicks. Pale yellow light fills the room, buttery and reassuring, but this is the part where she wishes for darkness.

The light reveals its true face. The irises are the same. The smile is the same. And the hands reaching for her are as she remembers.

“It’s okay.”

His hand is warm. He smooths her hair away from her face, wild grey waves she did not have when he was alive. He straightens the collar of her nightgown with the other hand, dimples creasing the right corner of his mouth.

“It was just a bad dream.”

“No.” Her voice shakes. “You aren’t here. You’re gone.”

“It was just a bad dream.”

She closes her eyes, swallows. Remembers. Remembers the phone call. The night she lost him unfurls in memory, ugly and awful—

The car, speeding past the streetlight.

The car, fishtailing before the bridge. Swerving left, breaking through the barrier, hanging in the air—

Plunging down into black water.

“It’s okay, Mama.”

The way black water dripped off his body as they pulled him out.

Those swollen hands and feet, distended, the awful color…

His hand is cold now, but still, still it wipes the tears rolling down her cheek.

“It was just a bad dream.”

She looks at her son one last time, and he smiles.

 

When she wakes up, she no longer cares about the light.

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crossroads

As he passed the sign declaring HELL IS REAL, tumblr_mq6gg0hmnj1sq35zxo1_500-1Tyler laughed.

“Ain’t nobody who lives like us doesn’t know that,” he said, glancing at his silent companion. “And sure as shit, you and I know it’s true.”

The thing in the passenger seat slid its one gleaming eye toward him, a slight dip of its head acknowledging that yes, of course they both knew that.

Tyler had met his demon years before, standing in his path at an old familiar crossroads. And since that night, it had stayed beside him, because kin always knows kin.

Kin always stays with kin, especially in a family like theirs.

There had been no deal between them. No binding oaths. Just recognition of the truth, and a promise to never, ever look away.

Hell was real. Threaded through the corn fields, collected in sleepy diners, all the tired kinfolk spoke the truth with their very existence. Those bits of black matter, connecting everything, seeing everything, never looking away.

There was no way they could.

Hell was on the TV. Hell was on the radio. In every petty war and grim announcement on the eleven o’clock news, you could see it. You could know it. And Tyler kept driving, because it helped him feel like there was an escape somewhere. Some place he’d finally know rest. Where his demon would meld into him and finally take him away from this place.

Because hell wasn’t under the ground. It wasn’t a place separate from reality. Hell was the world he continued to trudge through, no matter what.

HELL IS REAL.

“Sure is,” he muttered under his breath. “It sure is.”

Another hundred miles to go.

He knew he’d wonder longer than that whether one of his hopeless kin put up that sign.

woodland creatures

The hall of antlers was a place Henry only saw in his dreams.

The Hall of Antlers

 

It was staggering to think of how many bodies it had taken to fill that expanse. How much blood, how many lives. In the dream, the question was soft, merely wonder, because awe was the only way to traverse such a place.

And in the dream, the antlers screamed as they broke. No avoiding them–it was impossible to take a step in any other direction. The only way through the dream was forward, but in those splintering howls and shrieks, all Henry could hear were warnings.

Halt
Stop
Go back

But there was no other way.

When he reached the end, the same figure always peeled itself out of the dark. A great horned god, Herne or Woden, so massive in stature that it could only be the night itself.

KNOW ME, it always said. REMEMBER I WILL COME FOR YOU.

The dream always ended with those words. But being a person of solid skepticism, he never put any stock into dreams. He went about his life and his business unharmed by any antlered god, unscathed by even the darkest night.

It was daylight when it finally came to claim him.

He should have known before the deer on the path opened its mouth and screamed.

Nicolas Le Boulanger, "Un Dernier Regard"

in search of someone else

I.

she was the smallest spark.
a fading star,
a wisp of smoke,
a gasp,
a plume of breath
on an icy winter night.

she always liked it austere.
honest:
no ornamentation, no comfort
bare bones and brittle
waiting for a spring
that might never come.

in her deep dark forest
and its endless black trees
the only thing holding her there
jaws and teeth warm against a frozen neck.


desert girl, winter girl
frozen girl, bloodless girl.
on dark nights
her eyes are always darker,
endless as the void inside her heart.

II.

he was
burning, trailing flame like
icarus melting in the sun.
a daedelus in his blood, far, far below,
screaming for someone
to save him, to
catch him in their infinite arms.


he never could find anywhere comfortable–
restless and uncertain,
no longer able to tolerate the pain
that wide, white void
a searing light
that would finally burn him to nothing,
would finally take him home.

in that endless, hungry sky
in its brutal nothingness
only falling, never catching,

his hands slipping forever,
safety always missed.

III.

that night, sunlight crashed into a deep, dark forest.
trailing fire,
melting ice,
searing anything too close to ash.
and the falling boy,
the burning boy,
stumbling with the wings melting agony down his back–

he trailed wax and blood through that dark, dark labyrinth,
trailing a cloud of sparks
in a place that had forgotten light.
its shadows shied away, its monsters fled,
too terrified to show their faces,
too curious to let the light go out.

so they whispered and he wandered,
counting all the stars in the dark.
North Star, blue and beautiful,
antithesis of all the colors he bled.

and when he found the dark girl,
the winter girl,
that strange, subtle creature with endless night in her eyes
he swept the shadows from her bloodless face
and revealed the smallest, most vulnerable moon:
translucent skin, pale blue to his flush pink,
blue eyes the color of twilight reflecting light back at her.

and
he was softened,

she was illuminated.

IV.

The deep, dark forest is burning down,
Brutal summer skies snuffed and seared by threads of dark.
She runs now, runs faster
leaping out of the labyrinth ,
free and graceful as a doe.

and he follows, fleeing at the same pace,
fighting to get free.
all those pinprick stars burning
as the sky bleeds its thousand colors
wind singing, howling as those clashing voids come to claim them both.

Even this collision couldn’t tear them apart.
One explosion, blowing back again,
a cell dividing, a star exploding,
Tessellating, fracturing,
defining all the cracks in the universe.

we will find each other again,”
the call of every star in the void.

the story you hadn’t written yet

I didn’t see you until I saw you,
carved out of the end of summer,
late September sunshine along the curve of your jaw.
Sky blue, clear like the way you
saw through everything,
All the way to its core.
And I started admiring fields of pale grass and the corner of your mouth–
that line that forms when you really smile,
the exact way you started to
when you began to see me, too.

Did you feel the way I did?
All lit up like a Christmas tree,
a forest filled with ten thousand fireflies.
Dappled morning sunlight reflecting off a creek,
the path of golden coins the full moon makes over the ocean,
Each trail of light a ladder to heaven.

And I saw you.
And in the dark—
did you see me there? my natural state
Those scraps of shadow and soft violet evenings.
Did my colors smudge yours? Did they call you
to crawl into the dark even as I climbed up to you,
finding you somewhere in the middle,
startled, but not frightened
surprised, but maybe expected
like we found each other at exactly the right time.

Seven months.

About to be eight, if we’re really keeping count, but at this point, what’s the difference? Why haven’t I posted in half a year’s time?

Let’s throw out some guesses.

  • working on new projects
  • crappy mental health
  • crappy health in general
  • OCD

That last one. What the hell is that? is something I asked roughly two months ago. What are you talking about? There’s a long list of abbreviations in my medical file, but OCD is not one of them.

Sure, I have problems getting out of the house sometimes. But I’m not a neat freak by any means. I don’t get twitchy if something is out of place. I do have a thing about getting stuff on my hands, but that’s from working in healthcare. It’s not like obsess over it or anything.

Unless it’s bleach. Or engine oil. Or gasoline. Or chemicals.

Or someone’s sick. Or if it’s a bathroom. (Yikes.) Flu season? You best believe my hands will be freshly washed before I eat in a public place.

If I eat in a public place, because that’s difficult sometimes. The noise level bothers me at times, and then I feel a little on edge because it seems like people are staring at me, and I get weirded out when people see me eat. I can only eat half my plate, because if I eat more than that, I could get nauseous or get stomach cramps and end up having a panic attack.

And–oh yeah, if I have a panic attack in public, I start having trouble leaving the house. All that trouble with driving starts. I get to where it’s difficult to go to and from the mailbox. You know that lady on Shameless? Sheila? Yeah, I get her. I totally understand her deal.

Mine’s not that bad–really, it’s not that bad–it can’t possibly be that bad…

That’s what I kept telling myself most of this year. It’s not that bad. Bad was the time I was trapped in my bedroom at thirteen with the bureau shoved up against the door.

Bad wasn’t only being able to go outside very early in the morning or very late at night. In my mind, I could still get out–albeit with someone else, not alone. That was still something. I’d been in worse places.

But denial isn’t that great of a place to be, either.

Turns out that my definition of “bad” is pretty far off base. It’s easy to keep digging yourself into a hole when you believe it really isn’t that deep. You can jump out any time you like. You’re fine, really. And when you start getting pinned in a corner with meds not working and your view of the future getting really narrow, well, maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.

Or maybe you just can’t be fixed.

Here’s what I didn’t think OCD was: I didn’t think it had anything to do with the endless, ever-spewing thought tape running constantly in my mind. That was just background noise, you know? Just negative cognitions, a logical outcome of the things I’ve lived through. But there was a problem with that.

There wasn’t just the negative thought tape, running independently despite my attempts to shut it down. There was also the constant chess game of trying to out-logic myself.

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MR. ROBOT is awesome, by the way.

If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over in my trials with my own mental health, it’s that to all appearances, I’ve got my crap together. I’m smart, I’m competent, I know how to advocate for myself. I stay on top of my treatment and I do my best to understand its rules so I can beat the illness at its own game.

Well, it’s a bit of a problem if you’re following the rules for the wrong game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of this. So when friends and family threw together the cash to get me to see the therapist who pulled me out of the nosedive I initially fell face-first into at 19 and got me to graduating college with a 3.0, I kind of had to go. My own strategies weren’t working. The thought tape was getting louder than ever. Meds were failing. Everything we tried not only didn’t help, it made things worse.

So I sucked it up and I went to go see Bailey, because if there’s one person I know I can trust with their hands in my skull, it’s her. I filled her in on the last eight years, explained the situation, and almost immediately, she said “Here’s the thing–this isn’t trauma you’re struggling with right now, this is OCD.”

Say what?

What?

I was thinking, Whoa, wait a minute. I don’t have rituals. I don’t have compulsions. Obsessions? What are you…

Oh.

And over the past two months, it’s fallen into place fairly neatly. Not only have I not kept this thing we will call The OCD at bay, I’ve fed it. I made it bigger. And yeah, trauma has fed it over the past eight years, with good reason, but the presenting issue, the thing that is in my way, yes.

Yes. The thought tape. The obsessing. The attempts to out-logic the monster.

You can’t out-think a thing that has already overrun your thoughts.

I thought I was facing my fears, but…I wasn’t approaching them the right way. I thought, if I can just get through it, even if it’s awful, then I’m still okay. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. That simply reinforces thoughts like I just can’t eat in public or I knew I’d be miserable on that trip anyway. Sitting there, eyes closed, sweating, trying to wait out the anxiety or keep it pushed back far enough that it wasn’t obvious how scared I was–that wasn’t the right approach at all. Shutting my eyes, bracing, flinching…those things might have gotten me through the moment, but they never got me to see what was really happening. They hid it. And all those avoidance strategies just made it worse.

So, it’s been about two months since I’ve started working on rerouting my thoughts, and I’ve learned a few things. Huge things. Things that are now clicking and making sense.

Instead of tolerating the distress of a fear, I walk straight into it.

I see it, I recognize it, and I face it intentionally.

And then I do it again, and again, and again. Willfully approaching situations that make me nervous isn’t easy, but it’s getting easier. It comes more naturally. The instant The OCD whispers You can’t do this, I respond by doing it. Whatever it is.

Two months in, I can drive again. I’ve gone from seeing friends maybe once a month to at least once a week. I’ve even made new friends. I’ve made awesome progress getting back to doing things I hadn’t done in months. Life is improving so quickly now that it’s hard to think I was so hopeless two months ago. I thought there wasn’t any direction left to go in.

Now, I’ve realized I can go in any direction I want. I just have to take the first step. One of the biggest ones is actually talking about it:

Guess who said “hi” to the neighbors for the first time in months–and didn’t have a meltdown!! 

Okay guys…next up is going to the mailbox…without checking first…to get the mail. I CAN DO THIS. BELIEVE IN ME.

I RAN ERRANDS BY MYSELF. The bank. The grocery store. The DMV. I did it alone. And I didn’t freak out!!!

SAID HI TO MY NEIGHBOR. AGAIN. AND GOT THE MAIL WITHOUT CHECKING.

Had dinner in a loud restaurant which was kinda crappy at first, but eventually I acclimated and it came down WHILE I WAS THERE. WHAT?! I recovered enough that later I even swung by to meet Pru at the close of her shift and she and I hung out for a bit

Guess who had a giant panic attack and started sobbing in the grocery store but pushed through it and didn’t run and stared at people like YEAH I’M CRYING THIS PLACE SUCKS AND I HAVE STOMACH CRAMPS BUT I AM GONNA POWER THROUGH IT AND IF I VOMIT WHATEVER, DON’T CARE, I DO NOT CARE….and eventually I even calmed down and got through the store. The world didn’t end!

Biggest surprise? People are actually supportive of that stuff. No judgment. No laughter. No people making fun of a thing that has crippled me for months. Hmm. Another thing The OCD was wrong about.

Plus? A lot of people have messaged me that they’re glad I’m talking about it because they suffer from it, too.

Maggie Stiefvater has written some brilliant stuff on OCD, and there are plenty of other people in writing who struggle with mental illness. While stigma promotes the idea that we shouldn’t talk about it…it’s evident that we should. People feel less alone. They connect with each other. Help each other. Offer encouragement. Y’know, the things we all need to get by.

Anyway, that’s been my life for the past few months. I think I’m slowly getting back to writing. The thing tickling my brain now involves a haunted house set in a patch of woods where time gets weird and the kudzu is a little strange. It’s equal shades Lost Souls, Stranger Things, and Donnie Darko. So far, it’s very fun. We’ll see where it goes.

Take care of yourselves, guys.

 

And it’s done.

I’ve polished IN THE HEART OF THE HOLLOW FOREST, and it’s ready for readers. This thing that took its first form in 2011 (maybe even earlier!) is complete. I can FINALLY get this thing out there. Awesome.

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Awesome work by Alex Ruiz

So what’s next? Contemporary, fantasy, science fiction…? My two loves are horror and fantasy, but they usually stay close to the real world. The idea I’ve been bouncing around lately…very much doesn’t. There are mecha, irradiated megafauna (we’re talking Pleistocene-sized megafauna), people who survived in massive underground bunkers, and posthumans forced to survive up top. My brain is pulling apart tons of memories from an awesome class on nuclear politics I took as an undergrad, and everything I love about deep time. Also, MECHS. MECHS MECHS MECHS.

(You guys have no idea how much I love mecha, but eventually you will.)

I’m still worldbuilding and characters are slowly taking shape. I think there’s a red sky from a not-quite-recovered atmosphere, and while plant life has made a comeback, it in no way resembles the plant life of the world as it was before. The setting is grim, but the characters…I think the characters may actually be a little more light-hearted this time around. The protagonist might even be cheerful!

But I don’t know yet. We’ll see. I’ll post back here when I have more to tell. I’m hoping for a tiny synopsis soon.

Happy Fat Tuesday to those of you celebrating!