Monday, November 21, 2022

The Dark Discovery


I thought this short story was lost for the longest time. For the last couple of years, I tried to find it but couldn't figure out where I might have saved it. I finally stumbled upon it on an old flash drive a few weeks ago. 

The story was the result of a critique and challenge I received from one of my early short story groups. An individual within the group complained that the magical system in my stories was too simplistic. They felt using magic needed to be more difficult and costly to use. So, they challenged me to come up with such a system. So, when the next week's prompt was "Discovery", I wrote the following story. It is probably the darkest of any story I can remember writing. I hope you enjoy it and I'd love to get feedback!



Dark Discovery
by James J Meadows III

Gladia smiled as she gazed at the beautiful bonsai tree basking in the sunlight flowing through her bedroom window. The lush leaves glittered cheerfully before her eyes, tender emerald friends sending soft thank yous for the refreshing water she had just given them. Beside the bonsai, African violets rested on her window seal, their purple blossoms shining like amethysts plucked from the jewels of Solomon himself.  Next to them lay the pink and yellow hibiscus. Beside it stood her Oxalis.

Everything had its place in her bedroom. It was like a mini-arboretum housing her botanical family. She nurtured them, sang to them, and took delight in the growth of each new stem and the bloom of each new flower. She even gave them names.

They were not her only family, either. On a dresser nearby, her white hamster, Noah, rattled merrily away on its wheel. In a separate cage, her guinea pigs, Fluff and Puff, munched happily on their food while her beagle, Patches, slept at her feet. She loved her family.

Gladia loved her real family too. The problem was, they weren’t around as much. Her mother was a district manager of a chain of stores and spent much of her time traveling around the state. Her father was a lawyer and, though he did his best to feed her and show her attention, his work often left him locked in his room, rifling through important documents and typing long legal discourses, like he was today. It was a hard life for a ten-year-old. Fortunately, she had her other family to keep her company. Her plants and pets were always there for her.
She turned her gaze away from the plants and, with a deep sense of dread, her eyes fell upon her desk and the homework awaiting her. She couldn’t afford to distract herself from it forever or else she would fail her classes. That would certainly get her parent’s attention and not in the way she wanted. On the other hand, if she got straight A’s, her parents would buy her another plant or maybe even another animal to keep her company through the lonely days. She picked up her pencil and looked at the first question on the printout before her.
“Margaret has a chocolate fountain with 1 gallon of chocolate. It takes 2 ounces of chocolate to coat a strawberry. If Margaret coats 16 strawberries, how many ounces of chocolate are left?”
Gladia put her pencil to her lips, thinking back to the previous day’s lesson. If she remembered correctly - which, as one of the top students in her grade, she usually did - a gallon was 128 ounces. If she dipped sixteen strawberries into a gallon of chocolate and each strawberry took away 2 ounces what would she have? A really tasty treat, she thought, smiling in spite of herself. Cherries would be even tastier. She liked cherries much better than strawberries, although she imagined they would be harder to dip in a chocolate fountain.
She had only seen a chocolate fountain once, during one of her father’s business lunches. It didn’t have cherries, so she didn’t know for sure. She would love to find out, though. She stared ahead at the empty space above her desk fantasizing about a chocolate fountain. In her mind, she could smell the fragrance of chocolate wafting in the air above her, could hear the sounds of running chocolate flowing into the pool of brown paradise at the bottom, and almost see the chocolate rolling like a stream from the top of the mighty tower. She reached her hands out with a childish playfulness, preparing to run them beneath the waterfall of molten sweetness and to lick every delightful drop from each solitary finger.
As she held her hands in front of her, she noticed a slight tingling sensation in her palms. Staring ahead, she realized, to her amazement, that she really could see the fountain sitting before her. It was like a strange ghostly mirage growing more solid with each passing second. The tingling in her hands grew faster and a strong wind whipped through the room shaking her plants furiously. She heard the sound of the dog whining and panicked squeals coming from the excited guinea pigs. Scared, she yanked her hands away.
The vision faded, the tingling stopped, and the wind vanished, leaving her plants still again. She gasped for air, her heart beating feverishly in her chest. She looked around the room. Her dog was on his feet, looking at her with startled agitation. The hamster was off the wheel, his nose sniffing the air in the same manner as the guinea pigs, who had abandoned their food. She didn’t know what had just happened. It was like her desire for the fountain made one start to appear. The experience was strange and terrifying, yet exhilarating at the same time. She longed to try again.
She stared above her desk, willing the fountain to reappear. Nothing happened. She thought back to what she was doing the first time it appeared. She recalled carefully imagining every detail of the fountain. She tried this, focusing on the smell of the chocolate, on the sound of its fluids running down the sides, and the images of its savory goodness flowing like a river before her. Still, nothing happened. Then she remembered the sensation in her hands. Maintaining her vision of the fountain and the intensity of her visualization, she extended her arms in front of her with an all-consuming thirst for the fountain to return.
The strange tingling returned to her fingers. Within seconds, the wind arose again within the room, shaking her plants with the fury of a hurricane. The dog whined loudly. The hamsters and guinea pigs scurried around their cages frantically and Gladia let out a laugh of triumph. The fountain reappeared before her, chocolate oozing from its crown-like lava erupting from a volcano. It was a ghostly image at first, growing darker, clearer, and more substantial as the wind picked up and the tingling in her hands turned into a red hot blaze resembling frost-bitten skin plunged into warm water. Lost within the depth of her excitement, Gladia felt no pain.
The vision grew steadier and steadier until she gazed in amazement and delight at the newly formed fountain sending ripples of creamy chocolate cascading down its edges with a splendor befitting Niagara. She remembered her homework. She looked down at the blank worksheet, longing for her homework to be finished, visualizing words and answers taking shake upon the page.
Burning sensations scorched her hands like the fires of Nebuchadnezzar, so intense they turned the skin a violet shade more vibrant than the flowers on her window seal. The wind whipped through the room, almost lifting her into the air and stirring her blond hair into a furious swirling mass. Somewhere in the distance, she heard her dog howling with terror yet she paid it no might. Like a drunk intoxicated by the incredible sensations sweeping her body, she threw her head back and roared with unrestrained laughter.
Words appeared on the pages before her. One letter appeared, followed by another, followed by another. Numbers and lines manifested across the once-blank surface like invisible ink revealed by the heat rising from a smoking stove. Pages flipped, as though they were coins tossed through the air by invisible hands, and the writing scrolled faster and faster until the entire packet was complete.
Gladia lowered her arms. The wind stopped. The tingling sensation in her hands died down to a dull throb and the strange euphoria gave way to clear thought. Everything was still. Her breaths came in sharp gasps and her heart pounded from the intensity of the moment.
A chocolate fountain towered above her in breathless grandeur, more glorious than the Eiffel Tower, spouting its endless sugary essence as an offering to her palate. Beside it rested her completed homework. She examined the front and back of each page. Every question was solved and each equation was drawn out in flawless detail per the teacher’s specifications.
In between these two masterpieces, lay a small plate filled with cherries. Heart pounding, she grabbed one and held it into the chocolate. The rich milky-brown liquid coated the red orb with thick layers of tasty decadence. She stuffed the cherry inside her mouth, savoring the tart flavor blending with the bitter chocolate taste. Her eyes closed in ecstasy and a sound of sweet pleasure escaped her lips. She sighed and opened her eyes, beaming with joy.
“It worked,” she said excitedly. “Patches, look what I did.”
She turned to her dog. Her countenance fell instantly and the excitement waned like the light of a failing moon. The beagle lay on his side, his eyes staring blankly ahead of him, his chest still and devoid of movement.
“Patches?” she said. Her voice cracked as the realization set in. She fell to her knees beside the dog, shaking him anxiously, hoping he was playing some silly game and would spring to his feet. His body was as limp as a rag doll. Patches was dead.
Tears filled her eyes. She shook him harder, crying, “Patches, Patches” over and over as though her desperate pleas could force life back into his body. At last, she buried her head in her hands. She turned toward the window where light flowed into the room.
“Dear God, please don’t let him be dead,” she wailed, gazing into the light. It was then that she saw her plants. Their once vibrant leaves were crinkled and dried like charcoal and their former flowers drooped over the side in withered despair. Her bonsai, her hibiscus, the African violets, they were all dead.
Gladia stood up, backing away from the plants and the dog, backing away from the fountain and the solved homework. Her mouth fell open. Her lips moved in wordless agitation as she pressed herself against the wall, shaking her head, trying to escape the nightmare she found herself trapped inside. She turned toward the cages. The sight was no better. Her hamster lay on its side while empty sockets glared where guinea pig eyes once rested.
She had killed them. She had killed her plants. She had killed her pets. She had killed her adopted family; all for the sake of some chocolate and homework. This couldn’t be possible. They couldn’t be dead. They mustn’t be dead. It had to be some horrible dream.
“Daddy!” she screamed. Turning on her heels, she raced out the door, leaped down the stairs, and charged toward her parent’s room, still shouting for her dad. No voice responded to her cry.