I stood still for a moment, trying to fight the intense desire to move forward. The voice was still trying to whisper in my ear, along with a discordant stream of other voices, but I was so absorbed in the moment that I could barely even make out what any of them said. I tried to push it aside, to silence the call of whatever waited in that field, but it was getting difficult until I noticed a figure move beside me. When I turned to look I saw Bob, his eyes wide and fixed somewhere in the distance, slowly moving to walk past me. I grabbed him and looked back, to see Rick and Charles in a daze but not moving. Was it not calling them? Was it calling Bob? He was still trying to get past me. I knew it wasn’t safe in there, that this was a mistake, that we weren’t ready to face whatever this was. I used both hands now to hold onto Bob, who now couldn’t move but was still trying.
“Guys, we need to go!” I cried out. No one answered. Rick furrowed his brow as if trying to understand, but Charles didn’t react at all. Bob was still trying to press forward.
“It’s too late,” the voice said, “they’re already mine.”
“Such weak things. But I’ll have fun with you, my little fighter.”
“No.” I pushed Bob back, sending him crashing into Rick and Charles, all landing in a heap on the ground. They slowly started trying to get up. I caught my breath and realized I was standing in the clearing, just at the very edge of it. When had I moved backward?
“We’re waiting for you, Jonathan Peter Matteson.” I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists, but found I was smiling despite myself. Did it really think I would fall for that?
“That’s not my name.”
“Don’t play games with me. As if we don’t know who you are.”
“That’s not my true name.” A pause. It didn’t know what to do with that. “Run!” I screamed as I stepped forward.
“They can’t hear you now, Jona-”
“Get back!” As I shouted the last word I felt the atmosphere change around me. The voices fell silent, the call to dive deeper into the Devil’s Church broke, the guys suddenly looked clear and alert and a swath of jaggerbushes behind them fell into heaps of thorns and wood. “We’re going!” I said before breaking into a sprint. The others scrambled to their feet and joined me, jumping over the pile and tearing into the woods.
We didn’t know which way we were going, and we didn’t care. As long as it was away, as long as it was somewhere outside of these woods. But whatever I did wasn’t permanent, and soon the draw back to the clearing was pulling at me again and jaggerbushes were starting to get in our way. The chorus of voices was back. We would try to dodge them, to get around, sometimes just barely skirting by while the thorns ripped at our arms or the edges of our clothes. I ran until my lungs burned, until my throat was dry, until my legs screamed for rest. And when I shoved through a wall of underbrush, I found myself staring at the clearing, directly opposite the two pines with the threatening moon. Charles collapsed behind me, gasping for air. Rick was bent over, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Bob, probably in the best shape of all of us, was leaning against a tree.
“No, it can’t be,” Bob said, looking past me to the clearing. “We were running away from it!”
“Not well enough, it seems,” I answered. I turned back and walked toward the others, recovering mere feet from a new line of thorns. We each took swigs from our drinks, Rick helped Charles up, and we walked toward the jaggerbushes.
“Can you open them up again?” Rick asked.
“I don’t know how I did it the first time.”
“Well, we can try this,” Bob said. We all turned toward him, Rick and Charles fixing their flashlights on a large stone Bob was resting his hand on. It was taller than the bushes, and they weren’t growing on it. No one agreed out loud, but we all made our way over and began scrambling up its rounded side until we could drop down on the other. With a line of jaggerbushes between us and the clearing, we pressed forward.
“You can’t run forever,” one voice taunted above the din of the others.
“Is there someone here?” Charles asked. “I mean, I don’t want to freak anyone else out, but I keep hearing voices, and Matteson is supposed to see spirits, and…” He trailed off, and I sighed.
“I’m hearing voices, too, but I don’t see anyone here. I don’t know how they’re doing it.” Rick and Bob confirmed they were also hearing things, and we huddled together to make a plan. It wasn’t much of a plan; basically we just agreed to keep moving away from the clearing until we found some way to get somewhere else. We pressed on.
It felt like another hour of walking before we found ourselves at the clearing again, in the exact same spot, staring at that moon between the twin pines. The stone was gone, but we found a slight passage between trees to escape. It was maybe fifteen minutes before we were at the clearing again. After that we stopped trying to track the time as we found ourselves at the clearing another six times. We were on our way away from it again when we stumbled on a patch of ground maybe ten feet across with just pine needles and mushrooms on it. We stopped there to take stock. We had all finished our drinks. We were tired, and sore, and bleeding through tears in our clothes from all the encounters with thorns. Everyone sat down, leaning back against one of the trees surrounding our little patch of peace, and the only sound for a few minutes was our heavy breathing and the endless stream of incomprehensible voices.
“Are we going to die here?” Bob asked. I shook my head. “Well how can you know?”
“We can’t believe that,” I told him. “We can’t let ourselves believe that.”
“I’m sick of this shit from you!” Charles yelled, throwing the flashlight at me. It missed and broke against the trunk of the tree above me. I tried to shield myself from the bits of broken plastic and glass, but still managed to have one of the batteries hit me square on the top of my head. He stood, pointing angrily at me. “What the fuck is this all about, huh? You never did tell us! Just suddenly up and decided we needed to go to the one place we all agreed wasn’t worth the effort?”
“Charles, look,” I said, standing. It was hard to see his expression in the dim light, but he seemed to be looking past me.
“What the fuck, man!” Rick exclaimed, jumping up. “We don’t have very many of those flashlights, you know!”
“Fuck you!” Charles yelled, turning on Rick and pushing him away. “Fuck you for dragging me out here, and fuck you,” he said, pointing to Bob, “for going along with this bullshit!”
“Don’t you snap at me, you coward!” Bob yelled as he stood. The ambient voices in the forest changed their tone, bickering and leering and laughing in their terrible cacophony.
“Don’t you touch me!” Rick swung at Charles, who barely dodged. Charles threw himself forward, tackling Rick into a jaggerbush and sending the lone remaining flashlight rolling along the ground. Bob followed, screaming accusations at Charles for having no spine and Rick for convincing both of them to come along. I went to step in, but they were all soon tearing at each other, rolling around in the thorns that bit deeply into them. I grabbed my head as the voices grew louder, demanding my attention, urging me to do something, to take charge, to end this madness by beating them all down.
“Or,” the whisper of that first voice cut through all the noise, “you could give yourself to me, and I’ll free them.” I fell to my knees as the noise grew louder, throbbing in my head, giving me a headache so bad that my vision was beginning to blur.
“None of us,” I muttered, punching the ground. “You get no one tonight.”
“I will have my tithe.” I pounded my fist into the ground again as I tried to push the voices away.
“You get nothing. Not tonight.” I heard one of the guys scream in pain, but distantly, as if through a tunnel.
“Three mortals, or one Anchor.” I pressed my forehead against the ground. My entire body was beginning to feel hot. I felt my hand hit the ground again, and then again.
“Nothing!” I screamed. I sat up and stared ahead, resting my fists against the ground. “You get nothing!” I could feel pressure build around me, as if something was trying to push back, but then the heat felt like it exploded off of me. What remained of the jaggerbushes collapsed. The guys grabbed their heads and screamed. The moon flickered and the trees shifted, ever so slightly, for just a moment. The voices all stopped. The bulb in the flashlight popped and went dark. I gasped for air and fell onto my side, my vision blurry and my ears ringing. I could see the vague shapes of the others, rolling up to sitting positions and then slowly, carefully, climbing to their feet and out of the pile of thorns. One of them limped over to me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Guys?” I heard Charles say as sound from outside began to filter back into my ears. “what’s that?”
The blog of John Matteson.