Warmth. Wet and gritty, pooled beneath my fluttering eyelids. I opened my eyes and the heat flowed out, trickling down my cheeks and soaking my shirt. I grazed the dampness with my fingertips, then held my hand in front of my face. Shimmering crimson stained the tips of my pallid fingers, the same red wetness that saturated the front of my shirt. My vision was cloudy, the combined product of head trauma and blood flowing over my eyes. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, and gave a few ferocious blinks to clean away the mental and physical haze. Time to assess the situation.
The front of the car was akin to a crumpled accordion, wrapped around an oak tree at the bottom of the ravine. I was still buckled into my seat. The driver’s side seat belt was hanging in place, neglected at a time when it had been needed most. My husband was always obstinate when it came to things he didn’t prefer, one of which was to wear a seatbelt when the new laws came into effect. No harm no foul for decades, until this night. A stone’s throw from the car, beyond a gaping chasm in the windshield, the bottoms of his cheap loafers were staring me in the face from the forest bed.
I released my seatbelt, and opened my door. It took a great deal of wriggling and contorting to get out; my knees had become intimately and forcefully acquainted with the dash. Once I had struggled free, I stood wavering on tentative legs, legs I wasn’t sure would hold me up let alone carry me very far. But they did, and I floated along on autopilot to what was left of my husband. He was dead. Very dead. Mangled, ended abruptly with such violence and force that he was no longer recognizable in the pile of inanimate meat that lay before me. This is what I’d hoped for time and time again throughout our marriage, but I hadn’t imagined it would be so terrible. Reality sank in, and panicked sobs erupted from my chest. I needed help. I wasn’t hurt—not badly anyways—but I needed someone. I ran into the woods, in no direction in particular, hoping to eventually intersect a road, a house, a person, anything.
The darkness of the midnight hour was compounded by the heavy overhang of tree branches combating the glow of the moon, making an already treacherous and foreign environment even less navigable. The trail was disjointed, speckled with broken lunar illumination. I followed the most even ground I could find, stopping to gather myself each time I came to a clearing or an opening in the claustrophobic fauna. Every step I took brought me farther along the path that wasn’t a path, and deeper into lost.
My mind needed to slow down, to process what had just happened, and the silence and solitude of the night woods the perfect place for reflection. A car accident. My husband was killed. Those were the plain facts. That should have been troubling enough, but no. What corroded my heart and nerves was the internal dialogue that had transpired within me just prior to our sedan plummeting down that slope. We had fought, as we typically did after a shindig where booze flowed like water, but my mind was fighting a battle cumulative of all the combat we had engaged in during the decade of our marriage. All the hurt, the disrespect, the mundane squabbles. I had decided at that moment, in that car careening towards our doom, that I hated my husband. I had wished, a whisper in my mind, that he would just die. And die he did.
Now here I was, wandering in the middle of nowhere, heading deep into the woods to God knows what end. But it felt right, and I craved something that felt good. As I passed through trees and bushes, the branches and tendrils of leaves and vines groped at me with their coarse fingers, snagging my hair and clothes like hungry predators. Panic set in as I grew overwhelmed by the tactile assault. I closed my eyes, blindly thrashing forwards until the forest wall gave way to a clearing, and I plummeted into the moss.
It was an odd clearing, out of place and unnatural. Set in the center was a stone cabin, warm light flickering in the foggy windows, a plume of smoke coughing gently from the brick chimney. Relief washed over me, and I stumbled up to my feet, anxious for consolation from another soul, but quickly retracted my trajectory towards mental solace. At first blush, the cabin had looked quaint and cozy, a veritable cliche of an innocuous hideaway off the beaten path. Now that I eyeballed it with more scrutiny, I found that this little haven had some eerie quirks, sideways enough for my mind to raise the red flags.
The windows, flickering with what seemed to be the glow from an active fire, were stained a yellowish-red, as if fluid had been splashed on them and left to dry. Amulets and talismans of all sorts hung from the eavestroughs, dangling and clanking against each other in the wind. The pathways were lined by off-white decor which, upon further inspection, appeared to be bones. I was about to retreat and find another destination to conclude my wandering, when a crack rang out behind me, resonating off the surfaces of the forest.
I turned and saw them. They saw me—likely they had seen me all along—but now I finally saw them. I had the gut feeling that I hadn’t been alone during my short travels, but now I had solid confirmation. There, walking towards me, hip to hip, were row upon row of all manner of unearthly creatures the likes of which I couldn’t conjure up even in my most feverish nightmares. Jaws hanging haphazardly, skin torn and battered, limbs missing or otherwise rearranged. They were a sight to behold, so much so that I had to suppress projectile bile from spewing forth from my gob. I turned back to the cabin, and saw more monstrosities ambling towards the doorway. If I didn’t know better, not that I knew what was going on at all, I would have said they were forming a line. They didn’t seem interested in me at all. Regardless, I felt the urge to scream and run, until a cracking voice broke the groans and grinding of the march of the dead.
“A right mess, and a fresh one at that,” the voice said.
I looked to the stoop, and found what I presumed to be the cabin’s owner standing on the porch, leaning on the rail and surveying the mass of macabre before him. His hair was long but tidy, gathered in a wispy, white bun. His eyes were gold and his skin grey, the grooves and divots on his face suggesting he was many miles from youth. He extended a long finger, then curled it up to beckon me.
I went without hesitation. If I strolled by him on the street I would cringe at his aesthetic, but out here he looked like a butterfly amongst cockroaches. I dashed to the cabin, traversing the stairs in a single bound, and stood in front of the door. I grimaced as the monsters continued storming the cabin in slow motion, but the curator seemed cool as a cucumber, so my mood followed suit. I looked at the door, and saw a brass nameplate bolted to the heavy wood, engraved with a simple title:
The man swung the door open and stepped to the side, motioning me through with an open palm. I obliged. Once inside, I looked around and was pleased to find an average little dwelling furnished with floral couches, doilies, and ceramic ornaments one would expect in the abode of any octogenarian. There were pictures of scenery and geese on the walls, and a fresh pot of tea boiling on the wood stove. Perhaps I would find comfort here after all.
“No,” he said sharply. “This is where I live, not where I work. We conduct our business downstairs.”
Before I had time to question him, he spun around on his calloused feet and headed to the back of the kitchen, opening what I imagined was a door to the basement. I was in no state to argue, so I followed. Besides, deeper into the cabin meant further from those creatures outside. Unfortunately, the basement was what basements are; damp, dark, and terrifying. It was a single room lit by sparse candle light, the walls decorated with a hoarder’s share of knick-knacks, trinkets, and personal effects. I imaged the hundreds, possibly thousands of people attached to these items.
“So, love, tell me your story.”
I tried, I really did. I felt the muscles in my diaphragm expand and contract, and air propel out of my mouth, but the only sound I produced was a guttural growl that sounded like a grizzly bear in heat. Startled, my hands flew over my mouth.
“It’s a bit off-putting at first,” he laughed. “To you, that is. Doesn’t bother me one bit, so don’t fret over that. I’m no stranger to your language.”
I cocked my head at him, puzzled.
“The din of the dead, lovey. Once you’re gone, you all speak the same language, and use the same tones. No matter what corner of this spinning rock you’re from, you’re all the same after the end.”
These are the words I spoke in my mind, but it came out as that godawful, sputtering garble. No matter. He understood.
“Yes,” he said, kneeling in front of me and taking my hands in his. “I’m so sorry. No one comes here if they make it out alive. I don’t exist in the real world.”
But, why? How?
“There’s no time to get into logistics, sweetheart. You were lucky enough to make it to me, but time is short. We must do this soon, or you’ll be cast out with the rest of the tardy to wander these woods eternally. If you are late arriving here, I cannot help.”
“This is a transitional place—the lounge of the afterlife if you will—and those who are lucky enough to win this lottery get one final wish before carrying on to their final destination. Or returning to their life. There is no rhyme or reason behind who gets this opportunity. You are selected randomly, so don’t go thinking your high or low levels of morality earned you a spot past my doorstep. It’s a crapshoot, and you came out on top.”
“Yes, you get one wish; one last kick at the cat before it’s all final. But there’s a catch. It’s not just a simple wish such as the open ended requests like the ones fulfilled by my brethren summoned from lamps. No, there are rules to my wishes. Your wish is a word.
“Yes, a word. You will wish to speak one word, at any time, in any place, from any set of lips, and I will make that happen. Only one word. You have but five minutes to consider, then you must tell me your word. I will translate it for you, through the speech of whomever you choose, at whatever time you choose. If you are clever, you might alter the course of your life, or your death. Choose poorly, and you’ve wasted our breath.”
A daunting task, one muddled by having to simultaneously grapple with the knowledge that my life had been thrust into limbo. One word. What could change things? I could get us to take a cab home from the party, then the crash would never occur. But how could I be sure one word would make that happen? I couldn’t. Perhaps a word of warning, before the car loses control? Perhaps something to ensure that I drove.
“Time is ticking,” he said, looking at his watch.
My life spun a manic reel in my mind. One word, to anyone, from anyone. It was so much power, so little time. I wanted to live, but had my life even been worth living? Could I possibly change more than my moment of death, perhaps the course of my life?
Then I knew. Instantly and conclusively.
I breathed my wish to him in my new found voice, my din of the damned.
He raised a bushy eyebrow at me, then shrugged his shoulders.
“Creative, I’ll give you that,” he said. “Cold, but clever. Very well.”
He yanked off my necklace, and mumbled some incantation while worrying it through his fingers. I looked at the paraphernalia cluttered on his walls, and understood what it was. I was one of many who had been granted one wish. A word.
In a flash, I was somewhere else, watching a scene unfold though my spot in the unspecified dimension which I occupied. My mother- and father-in-law, many moons ago, slamming into each other on a busy sidewalk. After gathering up their spilled belongings, they stood and looked deep into each other’s eyes. After a few minutes of benign chit chat, he asked his question.
“Hey, I’m only in town for one day on business. Wanna catch a flick? Or a coffee, maybe?”
She looked at him with lust in her eyes, and parted her full lips.
As the word passed over her tongue, she looked shocked and confused. Her mind hadn’t prompted her to speak that particular word, and her lips hadn’t formed it, but the word had been said. By me. I wished that word upon her voice, and in their ears. A word that would end their love before it ever blossomed into a life and a family. That ‘no’ would not just ensure that my husband didn’t die in that car crash, but that he had never lived in the first place. My troubles ended before they even began.
Jae Mazer is a Canadian who was born in Victoria, British Columbia, and grew up in the prairies and mountains of Northern Alberta. After spending the majority of her life in the Great White North, she migrated south to Texas. Now she enjoys life as a writer, an editor, and a connoisseur and creator of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. A ferocious love of reading led her to believe she could weave a good tale herself, and now she is the author of four published novels that are available on all platforms world wide. She also writes the award winning series Chrysalis and Clan, available on the serialized fiction website, Channillo.com.