You wake up. Are you dead? You don’t know where you are. Look around. There is a wide dirt road framed by tall, dark pine trees. What is this place? Grassy squares. Old, worn cabins grown into thick vegetation. Walk down the dirt pathway. You see children; young children, maybe 12 or 13 strewn along the road. They are wandering and they are cautious; at unrest.
You walk up to someone. Calm the fear, running around and around and around in your stomach. Speak to him. “Where am I?”, you say, “What is this place?”
His face is a watery blur, like coffee stains stained on old notebooks. He opens his mouth and words spill out; empty phrases, vacuous sounds. The only phrase that matters is his words about the being. He tells you that you are safe if you are obedient.
You look to your right and you see a metal play structure; a playground of iron. Trees frame the sturdy beams fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. You walk towards it and begin to scale the cold bars. “Be careful”, the children whisper.
You are ascending higher and higher, but still deeply engulfed by dark pine trees. You look at the landscape; the tan gravelly paths, the patches of grass alongside mossy wooden cabins and, again, the seemingly endless darkness protecting you and reaching so high that you think it will soon have grown so thick that you are blind to the grey, grey sky.
Peering at the objects around you is strange. When you stare too long or too questioningly, metal beams and trees start to blur and dissolve into streaks of white. Your eyes dart quickly around you because you don’t want to see those flashes. The boy told you to be careful not to stare too long. Now you understand and climb down from the structure.
You wander down the road. Your shoes make a harsh, jagged sound as they grind small rocks into the soft, red-orange dirt. You reach a field. The taller, denser grass here is dying. It scrapes your bare calves as you push through and burls become entwined with the fabric of your cotton shirt. In the center of the field is a single maple tree; solemn branches towering over the knee deep grass, painting scraggly inky shadows. You begin to walk with curious trepidation around the thick base. You only reach half way around before your feet begin to slow. Maybe they know something that you do not. Or maybe the tree is somehow getting longer.
You step back and swivel around, only to see that the field is scattered with children. Eyes boring holes into yours, frozen and silent with icy wonder. You have breached an invisible law and you see the being in the distance. When you look behind you at the warped maple tree, you think that it’s branches are like thin arms with spindly broken fingers snapped at the joints. Look back at the children. There is an outline of a being hovering behind them, blindingly white yet somehow invisible when you look away, it’s boney limbs wrapped in tattered cloth. You shout questions at it. You think the children’s eyes widen, but when you look back, you see that they are, and always have been, still.
You feel the being get closer like an oppressive heat on a summers day. No where to shelter yourself, vulnerable and exposed, and you curl into a ball to hide. The heat only builds in your legs pressed tightly against your chest. It scalds your back and paints you with salty sweat.
It approaches you. You see the blur of a limb rise up, sharp and quick, as if to strike you or perhaps suffocate you. It reaches for you, soft and gentle. It’s fingers feel feathery on your forehead and the inside of your wrist.
You open your eyes – you really open them – and you see the being. It is a boy, a small slim boy with tufts of curly red hair and thinly rimmed glasses.
“I only wanted to protect you”, he says.
It’s not your responsibility, it’s not your fault. You shouldn’t have asked so many questions. What questions did I ask, you wonder. Not of the voice, but of the mind when you stared at the metal play structure and you pushed through the field.
You look at the children, and you see now that they are angry with you. The tree behind you is covered with words. Messy black writing consuming the bark, the knots in the wood, the leaves. You think you hear it whispering to you.
You see your reflection in the glasses of the boy and you cry. You know that you made a mistake.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. Please let me go back.”
The being is weary. You begin to remember what you have forgotten. Glass, black and blue and clotted maroon. “I’m so sorry”, you whisper. “I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t my fault.”
You shut your eyes, squeeze them tightly and drop into the sharp dead grass, clutching your knees into your chest. Hot tears roll down your cheeks. You drift asleep.
When you wake up, you don’t know where you are.
The featured image accompanying this piece, entitled ‘Toward the Light 2′, has been used with the permission of artist, Kareem Ahmed.