Monday, August 21, 2023

Visions and Voices in a Dark Wood


This story was written for a prompt called 'Dream Catchers'. It works as a stand alone story but is also a follow-up to a previous story published on this page called "The Grandmother's Pendant". I haven't decided if I am going to try to turn these into a longer book, although I do like the style of dialogue that the stories are built around.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story and I look forward to any feedback!



Visions and Voices in a Dark Wood
by James J Meadows III

                I cannot begin to guess how long I drifted in the strange white mists before the world finally swam back into focus. When it did, I found myself in a scene very different from the large mowed lawns and wide grassy expanses of my grandmother’s estate. Though I was still standing inside a fairy ring, one identical in every detail to the one I was cajoled into entering as I ran-away from home following my grandmother's funeral, the similarities ended there.

                The beams of morning sunlight had vanished, replaced by an eerie black gloom which settled over the surrounding woods, whose thick black trees formed a canopy so impenetrable all strands of light became swallowed by the hungry leaves coating their twisted limbs. I shuttered involuntarily. Dangling by strings from almost every branch, like some sort of demented Christmas ornaments, hung hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little hoops adorned with feathers, strings and what looked like small beads carved into the shape of skulls.

                The strange ornaments possessed glittering blue sapphires in the center of the loops. These gems provided the only light in the clearing, emitting an odd violet glow which enhanced my already growing unease. There was no movement, no wind, and no noise of any kind to break the stillness.

                Everything about the strange location unnerved me, reminding me forcibly of the various sinister woods my grandmother often wrote about in fantasy stories, stories she started composing after her mysterious disappearance, and equally mysterious reappearance, when she was my age. 

                “Hello!” I called.

    My frightened voice sounded strange in my ears. I stared around, hardly daring to move, making a point not to step outside the fairy ring. The round line of mushrooms glistened in the blue glow like fortress walls, making me feel safe even if I couldn’t tell you why.

                “Hello,” a voice replied.

    It came so suddenly I almost screamed. The voice was strange, possessing an unnaturally high pitch, which was difficult to describe. It cast images into my mind of a small playful little girl while simultaneously giving the sensation of speaking to a wise old man. What was more, it sounded quite close. Yet when I looked around I could see no one.

                “Where are you?” I asked.

                “I am here,” the voice responded. “You are too. Although I must admit I don’t know why. No one ever comes into these woods, except for us when we are doing our ritual of adulthood.”

                “Who are you?” I asked, still glancing around wildly, not seeing anyone.

                “I am me,” the voice responded. “Who are you?”

                “I am Annie."

                “Hmm, I’m not familiar with that term,” the voice said. “What is an Annie?”

                “I’m Annie,” I replied. “Annie is a name - my name.”

                “So you are a name?” the voice replied, sounding almost as confused as me.

                “No,” I replied. I felt slightly exasperated. I was, after all, in a strange, frightening land and this dialogue wasn’t helping me get any information.

                “But you said you are Annie, and Annie is a name,” the voice replied. “Doesn’t that mean you are a name?”

                “Look, can we just talk about something else?” I said.

                “Sure, what do you want to talk about?” the voice answered.

                Looking down, I saw the circle of mushrooms at my feet. While I felt protected inside the circle, I also knew I couldn’t stay here forever. I raised my foot to take a step, then hesitated, glancing around at the dark forest and its eerie, foreboding shadows.

                “Is it safe for me to step out?” I asked.

                “Why wouldn’t it be?” the voice asked. “Do you have difficulty taking steps? Does your race perhaps suffer injuries from walking and this is why you are standing still?”

                “No,” I replied, annoyed. “I am perfectly capable of taking a step without injuring myself!”

                “Then I would suppose it is safe for you to take a step,” the voice replied.

                “That was not my…grrr,” I growled, “Nevermind!”

                Driven by frustration, resigned to the inevitability of acting, and taking some solace in the fact that I could jump back into the circle if I needed to, I stepped out from the ring. I instantly regretted the decision. The sensation of safety vanished; the mushrooms vanished; the ring vanished.

                I found myself standing in the middle of a dark forest, where my breathe rose like smoke in the icy air. Apparently the fairy ring also protected me from the cold, providing a false sense of warmth, which I missed greatly now that I no longer had it. I took another step forward, the bottom of the low-hanging ornaments brushing the top of my hair.

                “I wonder what these are,” I marveled aloud, staring at their unique and masterful, if frightening, designs.

                “They are dream catchers,” the now familiar voice replied. “They are there to catch your dreams. Better be careful, though.”

                I looked around for the source of the voice again, wondering if I might be able to see it now that I was no longer inside the ring. I couldn’t; but my eyes did catch sight of a piece of moonlight streaming through some nearby bushes. They were tall, though thankfully not thick, and I was able to push my way through them rather easily.

                On the other side, I beheld a beautiful lake, its clear waters and smooth glassy surface sparkling in the moonlight. It stood out like a beacon of peace within the otherwise dark forest. Nearby, a series of rocks formed a sort of pier, extending into the middle of the lake. Alongside it, standing up to his waist in the smooth water, his clothes piled neatly on the rocks beside him, was a young man of about my own age.

                My jaw dropped as I stared at him. He had long smooth hair, clear clean skin, a six pack that most men would die for, and the muscles sculpting his body formed just the perfect balance of firm and strong without being bulky. As I stood marveling at him, he turned and looked at me.

                At first, he took a quick step back, as though startled by my appearance, then I saw his face relax.

                “You scared me,” he said. “I was just taking a bath. I’m not used to meeting other people out here, especially young ladies as pretty as yourself.”

                I blushed slightly, my gaze transfixed on his blue eyes, which stared up at me with a fascination and wonder almost as great as the wonder I felt looking at him. I brushed my hair behind my ear with an almost instinctual gesture and took a step forward.

                “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” I said. “It’s just, I’m kind of lost right now and I don’t know where I am.”

                “You didn’t frighten me,” the young man replied. “I’m actually happy for the company. It gets pretty lonely out here sometimes. Why don’t you come and sit down? If you’re lost, maybe I can help you.”

                He gestured toward the stone pier stretching out beside him, where his clothes rested. I started toward it when the now familiar voice from earlier broke the serenity.

                “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” it called quietly.

                It seemed to be coming from behind me.

                “Why not?” I demanded, turning around to face the speaker, only to discover I was staring at open air.

                I gave an irritated huff and turned back around. A scream burst from my lips. The beautiful lake had vanished, replaced by a swirling black quagmire of dead plants and slime. In the middle of it, where the man stood just a moment ago, hovered a creature composed of transparent silky robes wrapped around a luminous turquoise skeleton. Glowing green orbs shone from inside the sockets of the skeletal face while clawed arms, drifting in their bizarre robes stretched toward me.

                Still screaming, I stumbled backward, falling onto my butt before turning and dashing back through the bushes, where I tripped over a tree root. With a nasty thud, I crashed to the earth, sprawling across the ground.

                “Are you alright?” asked the mysterious voice.

                “What was that thing?” I asked in a terrified whisper.

                “That was a dream spirit,” the voice replied. “They use the dreams captured by their dream catchers to lure victims into their grasp, where they can feast upon their life force.”

                “What?” I replied, still trying to catch my breath. “Feast upon their life force? You told me it was safe out here?”

                “No I didn’t,” the voice replied. “I told you it was safe to take a step out. And it was. Taking a step out didn’t hurt you at all.”

                “That isn’t what I meant and you know it!” I fumed.

                “Actually, he doesn’t,” came a soft voice to my right.

                I recognized the voice at once. Turning, I found myself, to my breathless amazement, staring up into the face of the one woman who meant the most to me in the world.

                “Grandma?” I said, staring at her with disbelief. “How? I mean, you’re dead.”

                “Time works differently here in this world than in our world,” she said. “There are many things which will be a mystery to you, like your friend.”

                “What is he?” I asked.

                “He is a pseudodragon.”

                “A dragon?” I asked looking around. “Why can’t I see him?”

                “No, not a dragon, a pseudodragon,” she replied. “They are very similar in appearance but very different in nature. You can’t see him because he is naturally invisible. He has to make an effort to be seen, just as you would have to make an effort to walk on one leg.”

                “What do you mean when you say, ‘he doesn’t know what I meant’?” I asked.

                She gave a small laugh.

                “Psuedodragons are very complex and wondrous creatures,” she replied. “Yet, they are also very simple minded. They understand everything from a very literal perspective. They aren’t like us.”

                I stared at her for a moment, pondering this. As I watched, she gave me a small smile.

                “I always knew you would find this place, just like I did,” she said. “You always had the right spirit and sense of adventure. How I wish your mother was the same way but I could never get her to straighten her life. You, you were the one I knew had the spirit to follow in my footsteps.”

                A smile spread across my face as I stared into her loving eyes.

                “Grandma,” I said. “What am I supposed to do here? I’m confused.”

                “Come with me,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

                She extended a hand to help me up. I reached for it. Just as my fingers came within inches of her own, a burst of bright light shot between us. Streams of crackling lightning split the air, causing me to fall back down, shielding my eyes. My grandmother retreated backward.

                With a bound, I saw a creature leap into the space between us. It was small, only about two feet tall, with a pair of tiny wings, no bigger than a butterfly’s, resting atop its back. The skin was a strange hue of multiple colors, all sparkling, as though the body was composed of tiny gems. In every other way, it looked like a dragon, with a long neck, black eyes, and fierce claws, except all of these features were shrunk into the size of a puppy dog.

                At the same moment, the image of my grandmother disappeared, replaced by another glowing skeleton, floating off the ground in its transparent white robes. I gasped as it let out a horrifying shriek, reaching forward as though attempting to grab me. The dragon opened its mouth, shooting another fierce bolt of electricity at the creature. The monster dodged the attack easily, yet made no effort to continue its assault. Instead, with an angry shriek, it retreated, fading into the darkness.

                The tiny creature turned toward me, seemingly studying me with its deep black eyes.

                “The image you saw?” it asked. “Was that your grandmother?”

                The voice was the same one I spoke with earlier, there was no doubt about that.

                “Yes,” I answered.

                “You are the granddaughter of The Great Light?” it asked.

                “The what?” I replied.

                “Nevermind,” it said. “If the woman you saw in that image was your grandmother, then we must get you out of these woods fast. The creatures here will not take kindly to you. Follow me.”

                It spun around and headed away from me, hurrying through the woods. I climbed onto my feet, chasing after it.

                “Wait,” I called. “How do I know you’re not another dream or illusion from the dream catchers?”

                It turned around, staring at me with a quizzical expression.

                “Have you ever dreamed or longed for a pint-sized dragon to save you from the heart of an evil forest?”

                “,” I replied, taken aback.

                “Then, you are probably safe,” it said, in a matter-of-fact manner. 

                Without another word, it spun around and hurried away. I hurried after it. My other questions could wait. For now, I just wanted out.

Monday, August 7, 2023

My Grandmother's Pendant

Greetings Everyone,

My newest story is based upon a prompt from my Short Story group. I hope  you enjoy it. The name of the story is "My Grandmother's Pendant". I'd love to get some feedback and hear what everyone thinks!

"My Grandmother's Pendant"
by James J Meadows III

Backpack on my back, book in my hand, and small tears clinging tenaciously to the corners of my eyes, I set off down the long tree-lined path without so much as a look back at the house I once considered the closest thing to heaven in this lonely world. The house belonged to my grandmother but I would not see her again. Nor would I ever see the numerous family members, including my own mother, who had traveled from their various towns and states to attend my grandmother’s funeral. No, they were all behind me now. I was running away.

                It was likely, perhaps even more than likely, considering how much my grandmother always said we were alike, that my actions were modeled in some small part after her own. My grandmother had run away when she was a child too. For her, she was fleeing the abuse of an alcoholic father; for me, it was a cocaine addict mother.

                The sun had yet to crack the distant horizon as I walked through the gloomy shades of early morning. The company at the house would probably not wake for at least another couple of hours and no one would check on me for at least an hour or two after that. Being the only teenager in the family, I had gotten my own room. I made sure of it. I knew I was going to run away after the funeral was over. There was no reason for me to stay now that grandmother was gone. She was the only person who ever seemed to really care about me. I only hoped my attempt to run away could be as successful as hers.

                My grandmother ran away when she was fifteen years old, the same age as me. She was missing for almost two days before she turned up at her doorstep dressed in strange clothing, missing all her belongings and wearing a bizarre pendant around her neck. Grandmother never told anyone what happened to her while she was away and never explained where she got the clothes and the necklace. She simply claimed it was a good luck charm.

It must have worked because from that day on, her father, apparently broken-hearted after his daughter left, gave up drinking. He never touched another beer or harmed her again. Shortly thereafter, grandmother also published her first book; one of many fantasy stories, filled with bizarre magic, strange creatures, and parallel worlds, that would transform the teenager into a best-selling author and celebrity. It was one of these books that I held in my hand as I walked away from the house where my grandma had lived and died, still wearing that necklace even on her deathbed.

I wished I had such a good luck charm. In fact, my grandmother, who had always promised to leave a special surprise for me when she died, had bequeathed the necklace to me. Unfortunately, as seemed to be my luck, the necklace had disappeared. No one could find it, though people swore she was wearing it at the moment she passed away. Somehow, someone must have taken it off while her body was being prepared for burial and the necklace had gotten lost.

The end of the lane was approaching as faint sunlight began to crest the distant hills of my grandmother’s plantation. I knew I needed to hurry my pace. The town, and its rickety old bus stop which was my pen-ultimate destination, lay several miles away. I needed to reach it before anyone could catch me. The gate at the end of the lane was open and I was just about to dart through when I heard a voice call out to me.

“I will not say running away is a bad idea,” a woman’s voice rang out from the base of a nearby tree. “However, I will say that the time has come for you to return home.”

I spun around, my head turning in all directions as I sought to find the speaker. I spotted them at the base of the last tree on the right; a tree which had often caught my eye in the past for the strange way it seemed to stand out from all the others. Its exterior was darker than the rest, with numerous knots, cracks, and large roots protruding from the ground; upon which sat a solitary figure in a brown hooded robe. Upon my turning around, the stranger rose to face me.

            The mysterious newcomer, who I presumed to be a woman, based upon the voice, wore her hood so low that none of her features were visible inside the dark shadows formed by the hood and still rising sun. Likewise, the robe, which stretched all the way down to the tiptop of the freshly mowed lawn, obscured all of the woman’s features. I could make out only her lips, which smiled at me with an amused expression both strangely familiar and foreign.

                “Who are you?” I asked.

                The smile grew. “You know who I am,” she replied.

                This answer, both cryptic and troubling, combined with the stranger’s bizarre appearance, made me extremely uncomfortable. I wasn’t in the mood to play games to begin with and, if I had been, I certainly wouldn’t be doing it with some cloaked stranger trespassing on my grandmother’s plantation at five thirty in the morning.

                “No, I really don’t,” I replied, a little irritated. “And, if you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere that I need to go.”

                I started to turn around when the stranger spoke again.

                “Yes, you do,” she replied. “But you are not going where you think you are going.”

                The words caused me to freeze in my tracks. A feeling of apprehension gripped me and I turned around nervously.

                “What do you mean,” I asked, trying to hide the fear in my voice.

                “I mean, you are not going where you are going, but instead you are going where you are going,” she replied.

                “That doesn’t make any sense,” I replied, my fear battling with my curiosity, as the bizarre game continued.

                “It will,” she said. The woman extended a hand from the cloak and help it out toward me. “Take my hand.”

                Fear gripped me. Though the woman didn’t seem any taller than me and didn’t sound any older than me, she had a strong, commanding voice, that didn’t leave much room for questions. Even though she had taken no direct hostile actions toward me, I felt frightened. A part of me wanted to run.

                At the same time, however, there was something strangely familiar about the woman. I couldn’t place exactly what it was, but there was something compelling about her; a strange energy which seemed to pull at me, making me want to comply with her request. Perhaps it was her confidence; maybe it was the gentleness with which she spoke; perhaps it was the strange familiar smile lining her lips, but whatever it was, something about her appealed to me.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked

“I am taking you home,” she responded.

“You’re lying,” I replied.

“Of course I am. I am also telling the truth. Either way, take my hand.”

“Why won’t you tell me where we are going?”

“Because if I told you, you wouldn’t go,” she said. “And you must go.”

“Why wouldn’t I go, if I knew?” I asked.

“Because you wouldn’t believe me. And because it is dangerous. And because you don’t trust me.”

“You’ve already admitted you’re lying to me,” I said, with some exasperation. “Why should I trust you?”

“You shouldn’t,” she replied. “And you won’t. But you’ll come with me anyway.”

“Why won’t you give me a straight answer,” I asked. “Why do you speak in riddles?”

“Because sometimes riddles are the only direct answer,” she said.

“You’re confusing.”

“And yet you understand me,” she replied.

“If I understand you, then why I am so confused?”

“Because you don’t understand yourself,” she said.

“What don’t I understand?”

“You don’t understand why you’re going to go with me,” she answered.

This was true. For although I felt suspicious and distrustful, there was still that strange compulsion tugging at my mind; almost like an overwhelming sense of curiosity, so great it held me spellbound.

“Are you forcing me to go with you?” I asked.

“No. You’re going to choose to go with me.”

“Why would I do that when I know you’re lying to me and I know I can’t trust you?”

“That is what you don’t understand.”

“How do you know that I’m going to go with you?” I asked.

“That is what you’re going to find out.”

“And then what will happen?” I asked, beginning to feel stupid from the mix of bizarre riddles and answers that answered nothing.

“Then you’ll understand,” she replied.

Feeling both completely bewildered, and without fulling understanding why I did so, I extended my hand to take hers. She led me to the other side of the tree. There I saw, to my astonishment, a circle of tiny mushrooms. I was sure they hadn’t been there a couple of days ago and, if they had been, they should have been destroyed by the mowers yesterday. They must have popped up overnight.

“A fairy ring,” I said, gazing in astonishment.

“Step inside, and close your eyes,” she said, gesturing toward the middle of the circle.

“What will happen?”

“You will go to where you going,” she replied.

“Where is that?” I asked.

“To a place you wouldn’t go if you knew you were going. To a place you are glad you did now that you have,” she replied.

I didn’t understand but something told me I wasn’t going to get a better answer than that.

“What if I don’t go,” I asked.

“You will,” she answered.

“Why should I?”

I saw the shoulders of the cloak rise as though the woman were giving a shrug.

“What have you got to lose?” she answered.

The last statement was perhaps the first thing the woman had said which made any sense to me. If I was truthful with myself, which I had tried not to be so far, I was attempting an almost impossible get-away with little money, less food, and hardly any prospects of help. My only hope was that some bizarre miracle might happen like happened to my grandmother. I supposed whatever bizarre twist of fate was happening right now was as good as any other I could expect.

With a sigh of resignation, I stepped into the ring and closed my eyes. As I did so, the woman called out to me.

“One last thing,” she said.

I spun around to face her, only to discover that the woman had taken off her cloak. The face that stared back at me was one I knew only too well. It was my own.

Yet it was also not my own. It appeared more confident; more sure; more proud; more of everything that I wasn’t at this point in my life. She was wearing different clothes than my own but still had the same backpack on her back. What caught my eye above all else, though, was the necklace around her neck. It was grandmother’s lucky charm.

“Remember our grandmother,” she said. “And do her proud.”

As she finished the words, I felt a tingle, like a burst of electricity shoot through my body. I found myself unable to move or speak as every inch of my skin burned and pulsed with strange vibrations. As if responding to these vibrations, weird dancing lights and thick swirling white mist encircled me.

Through the haze, I watched my other self turned around and start back toward the house. The next second, white mist obscured my eyes and everything vanished.