A Test

Author’s Note: While I normally use this space to write rambling,  long-form opinion pieces, lately I’ve been toying with the idea of writing fiction. I don’t think I’m especially good at it, but one can only improve by practicing. This is the first in what I hope will become a series of short stories; an introduction to whet my appetite to continue writing. I welcome any and all constructive criticism as I try to figure out just how, exactly, this is supposed to work.

A warm breeze drifted across the field, each blade of grass bending to its gentle push. The air here smelled of something sweet and undefinable. Above, a sky painted in blue unlike any she’d ever seen spread outward into eternity, melding seamlessly into the tops of distant greenery. She’d read stories, of course, of this enchanted land. All children knew the tales of times when their ancestors walked among nature and drank in its glowing beauty. One would do just as well to believe in these myths as anything else, but she’d long since outgrown them.

An impulse to run swept over her, and she allowed herself to give in. It began slowly, a smooth stride aross the sprawling grass that gradually gave way to a wild sprint. Soon, she was moving so fast that she could no longer feel the tickle on her bare feet or the way that the fresh dirt clung between her toes. With reckless joy, she swept over the land, imagining herself as one with the wind that swirled the air around her. The tug at the back of her mind that told her this could not be real soon faded, and she was lost to this moment of perfect freedom.

Far ahead, large growths reaching up to the sky loomed — trees, she recalled. She knew nothing more than a desire to be among these giants, and every ounce of doubt she’d felt just moments ago melted away under the beaming sun. Oh, the sun! A brilliant and indescribable thing that somehow hung in the world above while touching all that she could see. Everything about this place, each tiny detail and great expanse, was like the clearest picture that had ever been painted.

She rushed forward, becoming almost unaware of herself. Each stretch of a leg, each heavy breath, became a part of her world. She was an effortless existence; a piece of a puzzle now complete. It seemed as though the mere thought of walking among the forest was enough to carry her there, and soon she was lost in the tangle of greens and browns that towered over her head and splintered the light from above like a kaleidoscope. Her run had become a dance, weaving between the wood and carrying her deeper into a dream.

A sharp, screeching sound cut the air and she was suddenly keenly aware that she was not alone. Somewhere above her, a rustling betrayed the presence of a creature painted in soft browns that concealed it against the canopy of branches and leaves. The legends named it “bird”, or perhaps “hawk”. These lines were not always clear, though she knew that they once were important details. A piercing yellow eye regarded her with an alien curiosity for an instant, then another screech as the thing became a part of the sky, soaring up and away from where she stood.

In the midst of these trees, this world was far different from the open field before. Dark shadows played with her vision, and the sweet smell was somehow thicker, as though the air was liquid. She ran her fingers across the surface of the enormous plants, their rough skin a stark contrast to her softer touch. For what seemed like hours, she strolled with no destination, simply content to exist. It was not a familiar feeling, and yet she knew that it was how she was supposed to live.

In an instant, it was gone.

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Author’s Note: This is a contiuation of the story I recently began with “A Test”. If you ended up here first somehow, you should read the first part first! You can find it here.

The forest was colder at night. That was to be expected, of course, but no expectation can prepare someone for the way that a chill in the air never known before will feel against the skin. She took a moment to get her bearings, eyes adjusting to the dim light that made its way through the trees towering above. She hadn’t moved a step from where she’d been; the familiar grooves and knots in the bark were the same as they were before. A slight dew had settled in her absence, drawing a mossy scent that floated beneath the familiar sweetness.

Slowly, almost methodically, she wove a path through the wood. Her thoughts turned briefly to creating a map of sorts, but knew she had nothing with which to draw. Another time, perhaps, after becoming more familiar with the land. She remembered her wild sprint through the field as if recalling a distant memory; in the stillness of the night, it seemed almost profane.

In time, her wandering found the trees thinning, and the world opening up before her. She paused at the edge of the forest, once again overcome with a wonder at what was laid out before her. The grass had taken a blue hue in the faint light of night, and a low stream cut a winding path through it in the distance. Abover her, the sky shimmered with a breathtaking array of lights centered around a pair of brilliant discs not unlike the earlier sun, but muted in their demeanor. A great distance away, barely visible in the night air, the shape of mountains stretched the horizon into the bejewelled canvas above it.

She felt a nagging in the back of her mind, calling her somewhere. She pushed it aside with a resolute nod; she knew where she was meant to be, and it was here among the open air and wild lands splayed out before her. Despite the chill still present in the air, she felt only the warmth that comes from finally being at home. All of her worries felt a lifetime away, and she refused to allow them to draw her from the wonders of this place.

Having taken her moment to drink in the scene, she decided upon following the stream. After all, whatever mysteries might be waiting, the legends had always made clear that water was important. As silly it seemed to make a choice based on a childish fable, she had little else by which to navigate. She made her way to the bank and began to walk alongide the flow, stopping for a moment to run a hand through the rippling water.

As her fingers touched the waves, she felt a sharp and sudden — no, pain wasn’t quite the word. The night sky surged with it, a brilliant array of colors that swirled around her. Her ears were crushed by an unearthly howling, an outright cacophanous roar that drowned out everything else; the sharp feeling spread through every fiber of her being, and just as she thought it was subsiding it erupted anew as the booming din gave way to a voice.


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A Home

Author’s Note: Part 3 of my ongoing experiment in writing fiction; if you missed them, catch up with Part 1: A Test and Part 2: Exploration. As before, I welcome any feedback — positive or negative. I’m trying to learn the ropes here!

The water filtered through her fingers, a cool yet inviting sensation that sent a chill up her arm. She’d just been here, yet now the sunlight filled the sky again. Under its warm light, the landscape here was a stark contrast to the quiet mysteries of night. She remembered something like a painful jolt, and a flurry of activity that seemed to flash by in an instant. Where had the moons gone, and the shimmering blanket of stars?

Rising, she stretched her limbs; they felt like they’d stiffened in the lapse between the last moment and this one. Now exposed to the light of day, she could more easily find a way through this foreign expanse. She still wished for something with which to scratch out a map for future use, but maybe she hadn’t yet scoured enough of this place for it to be needed yet. Another time, she thought. Another opportunity would come.

She ran her eyes across the horizon; the looming mountains in the distance were a deep purple hue, and the forest spread out behind her in its resplendent deep greens and browns. As she made her way up the banks of the small stream, she allowed her mind to wander as well. Somewhere here, she knew, she’d find a place that could be called her own. Not the claustrophobic chambers she’d grown accustomed to, but a real home.

Beneath the rippling water, small fish unlike any she’d known darted back and forth, their silvery skin hidden by the reflecting light that played across the surface. She traced their movements through the gentle waves with a sense of serenity and curious imagination. There was something dreamlike about the way that they flitted among the small rocks lining the bed.

Lost in her observations and wanderings, she nearly overlooked the jutting structures that dotted an area on the other side of the water. As they came into view, she felt the tinge of recollection; it was as if she was not discovering this place, but rediscovering somewhere she’d long since forgotten. She looked for a narrower bend in the stream’s path, and strode across it, the chill current nipping at her toes as she splashed through to the opposing bank.

Her strides lengthened and her pace increased as she drew nearer the crude wood-built curiosities before her. This was more than the wilderness; it was a sign of life, and the memory of a life she was meant to live. Somewhere amid these odd creations was something she knew, somewhere she belonged. She knew now, even more than when the feeling had first swept over her in the woods.

As she stepped onto the worn dirt that marked a pathway towards the collection of — what were they, huts? Houses? — she felt something beneath the growing sense of peace. Despite the welcoming aura of this place, there was something amiss. Some deeply unsettling thing, like a puzzle with a piece out of place or a soldier out of step with his regiment; her legs buckled and became useless beneath her. She collapsed, watching the trampled dirt race towards her as she fell, and her vision darkened as she threw her hands before her to brace for the impact.

They moved too slowly, and the cold, unforgiving steel floor rang out a sharp note as consciousness slipped away.

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Author’s Note: Yes, I’m still putting a request for feedback at the top of all of these. No, I don’t intend on stopping that anytime soon. This is part 4 of (?). You should probably make sure you’ve read the first three, “A Test“, “Exploration“, and “A Home” first, otherwise this might make sense.

The blackness faded into a cacophany of sounds and smells and feelings. It was bright, but with a cold harshness that was entirely unlike the welcoming sun. Lingering memories of the forest, the fields, the stream — all of them blended together in a hazy retrospect. The whine of machinery and medical equipment seemed oppressive, despite their familiar din. Having spent so much of a short life tied to the wires and tubes of the infirmary bred a certain distaste on its own; contrasted against the freedom of sprinting through the grass, it was downright sickening.

There wasn’t anyone else in the room, mercifully. Waking up to the probing and prodding of the medical staff was, perhaps, the worst part of an already dreadful life. The endless battery of tests, the constant adjustments to the stiff metallic gear, the cold, detached sympathy that hid behind the eyes of caretakers — these were as much a part of existence as breathing or eating. Waking up here, alone and with a moment of peace, was a rare and wonderful commodity.

The peace, naturally, could not last. The rattle of an opening door announced the end of it as the broad-shouldered nurse stepped into the room. “Oh, you’re awake! Fantastic,” he said with a grin. “I was beginning to worry. You’ve been here almost my whole shift, you know.”

It wasn’t worth a reply. Just more stock phrases, platitudes meant to help patients feel human. Hold still. Let them draw the blood, measure the heartbeats, shine the harsh light into barely-open eyes. The same routine, every time, no matter how long it had been since they’d performed this ritual examination. The nurse didn’t bother with any other words as he went about his work. He knew.

“Well, Daniel,”  he finally said as he scribbled onto the chart, “everything looks alright.”

“I told you to call me Dani,” came the reply, perhaps a bit sharper than intended.

“Look, Daniel — Dani. Whatever,” a thinly veiled weariness hung on the words. “The point is, you’ll be able to go home soon.”

Dani almost allowed a smile at that. Home. As if anywhere in the depths of this place would ever compare to — wait, where had it been? Dani was suddenly very aware that there was no name for it, no word to ascribe to it. That would have to change, but first, there was a lot of work to do that wasn’t going to get done laying about under the doctor’s microscope.

“If we’re done here, I’d like to go now,” Dani said bitterly.

“I said soon, kid. Waiting on a couple more things. I’m not sure what it is that keeps bringing you here lately, but the doc seems pretty worked up.”

Dani could feel a nearly concerned, caring tone under the man’s usual detached voice. What did he mean, ‘bringing back’? Dani had no recent memory of anything more than the usual, and doctor Simmons surely wouldn’t be in a fuss about the standard concerns. Still, if they were worried, there wasn’t anything to do but wait here in bed, dreaming of finding home waiting upon release.

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Author’s Note: Yup, still looking for feedback. If you’re the “reading things in order” kind of person, then before you read this you should make sure you’ve seen “A Test“, “Exploration“, “A Home” and “Awake“. Anyway, here’s part 5.

She laughed. First, she laughed because she was back on the ground; not the unforgiving metal floors, but soft, foot-worn dirt. She laughed next at the absurdity of it all, of planting herself face-first into the dust. She laughed at the sound of her own laughter, filling the air with a curiously new sound. Had it been that long since she’d laughed? Had she simply forgotten what it was like?

She sat up, brushing dirt from the legs of her pants. She noticed that they were blue, wondering if they’d always been that way. Somehow, all the way back to the fields, and to time before that, she couldn’t remember getting dressed. She strained to recall how she’d ended up here, giggling in the road over her own ineptitudes. She was so lost in trying to retrace her steps that she missed the sound of steps growing to her left.

As the shadow fell over her, she regained her senses and turned too quickly, scrambling to regain her balance as she looked upward. A young man, not more than three years her elder, stood above her. She recoiled as he lunged toward her suddenly, his fingers wrapped around — nothing? She blinked.

“Help you up, miss?” he said. There was a genuine compassion in his voice. A welcoming warmth. She reached up, using his arm to hoist herself to her feet. Letting go, she nervously brushed at the dirt that covered her.

“You alright?”

“I’m- I’m fine. I’m okay.”

He was small in stature, but hearty. She was used to standing taller than those around her, so it was nothing new. He was dressed in simple-looking brown clothing; full-length pants, a thigh-length tunic with sleeves that just covered his elbows, and a wide-brimmed hat of lighter material. Tufts of black hair jutted out around the base of his headwear, and a patchy stubble covered his chin.

“Grant,” he said, looking at her as though with a question.

“Dani,” she replied. Her voice, like her laugh earlier, caught her off guard; she smiled to hear the lilt to it. It seemed in harmony with the scent on the breeze, the warmth of the sun’s light, the comical scene she must have presented when falling over herself moments ago. For a moment, she wondered if she’d been expected to say something esle. A palpable silence came between them, and then was gone as he smiled again.

“If you’re sure you’re alright, then.” He let his words trail off, inviting her to ask him to stay. She nodded.

“I’m sure. Thanks, anyway.”

As he turned to leave, he chuckled lightly to himself. She watched him for a moment, then turned and began walking with the long strides of one traveling with purpose. Of course, she still hadn’t puzzled out where she was headed, but for now she’d settled on looking confident. There was some reason, she felt, that it was important to maintain composure even after the scene she’d made.

She followed the worn footpath as it wove between the huts and hovels making up the small village, allowing her legs to guide her where they would. Outside some of the structures, signs depicting the trade or craft of their inhabitants hung; others were adorned with small flowers of purple and blue, while some seemed starkly plain, as though there was no spark of life inside of them at all.

At last, her feet led her to a simple-looking fenced-in garden splayed out in the front of one of these. She reached absently into her satchel — wait, had she had that before? Removing the key from it seemed so natural a motion that she didn’t stop to consider it further. She stepped lightly to the door and unlocked it, stepping through the smallish frame and into her home.

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