This photo was sent to me by my photographer and also current world traveling cousin, Cassidy 🙂 She snapped this pic in Brazil, and I love it! Of course, my first thought on seeing it was about the lack of railings on the side of the bridge. Being deathly afraid of heights, I can’t imagine being brave enough to make that crossing…
This story was another one of those where I started it up a couple of times, only to get frustrated and throw my work out the window. I cannot describe to you the ire I experience when that happens, but thankfully I was able to find footing and create the following story.
Here is, ‘The Presence’:
Tunnels. Dark, dark tunnels. Suffocating. No end. No escape.
Mia Davis stood outside of the gaping hole in the side of the mountain, sweat breaking out along her forehead and back, breaths coming hard. Every one of her senses was fixed on that tunnel. Her attention was so focused on it that the earth seemed to fade away.
“You sure about this?” Colleen asked from beside her.
Mia nodded, unable to pull her attention from the entrance.
“I’m sure,” she said.
“I think you’re taking this a little far. It was just a dream, Mia.”
“Not a dream. Dreams. Lots of them. The same one over and over again.”
“Okay, dreams. Even so. There are other ways to confront this. Get help. Counseling, you know? Or a psychiatric evaluation.”
Ignoring her sister, Mia pulled the flashlight from her backpack and flicked it on. She’d only brought the one light. No backups. No extra batteries. She had left it on most of the night, and the beam was already weakening. A warm orange instead of the sharp white of newly energized light.
“Two days,” Mia said.
“This is insane.”
“Two days. You promised. If I’m not out by then, you can send help.”
“What if you’re too far in? What if they can’t find you in time?”
Pulling the bag back up her back, Mia walked for the tunnel’s entrance. That was better than giving a response that wouldn’t be appreciated. Namely that she was fine with not being found. The darkness terrified her, yet she wanted to be wholly swallowed up by it.
“Mia!” Colleen gave one last, desperate plea.
Refusing to turn back, Mia stepped into what had once been a coal mine shaft and took a moment to orient herself to the ambiance. The way her breaths seemed to echo off the rock walls. How the air was an odd mix of fresh and stale. The feeling of the walls being too close. And then, the presence. The presence that haunted her dreams every night.
Inhaling sharply, she fought the fear that built up in her and made her want to turn from the tunnel and walk back out into the light.
No, she told herself. There was no turning around and leaving. Not until she had confronted that presence.
“I know you’re here,” she murmured into the darkness around her. “So am I. So let’s face each other.”
There was no response, but she felt the presence constrict and then expand again. Yes, it had heard her, but it wouldn’t approach her that close to the entrance. She had to go in further.
She walked for about half an hour, the light from the tunnel entrance fading like a lingering sunset until she was alone in the darkness with nothing but a fading flashlight.
Her foot came down in a puddle of water, a gathering of the slow drips that made their way into the cracks and crevices of the mountain and dripped to the caverns below. As if planned with that soggy step, the flashlight sputtered out a last, dying beam, then went out.
Darkness. Complete and utter darkness. Scientists said being in such darkness would cause blindness within two weeks. Insanity in four to six. That didn’t sound so bad. Insanity was preferable to her current sane, yet tormented state.
Breathing deeply and evenly, Mia took the darkness in, letting her other senses gain better traction. Once again, she felt that presence.
“How much further do I have to go before you come and face me?” Mia asked it.
Mia felt rather than heard the response. It climbed up her spine, wrapping itself around her lungs, constricting her breaths.
“Fine. Further,” she answered.
Placing one hand along the rock wall to the right, she trailed her fingertips along it, feeling out her steps. In that slow-moving way, she continued on for another hour before stopping again.
“Now,” she said. “This is far enough. No more games. Come and face me.”
The air around her felt like it was moving. Vibrating. Shimmering even, though her eyes couldn’t actually see anything.
An icy grasp wrapped around her wrist, and she tried to scream. Instead, the sound became caught in her throat. It sat there and blocked any other sounds from leaving her.
“Silence,” a voice said. A deep, gravelly, male voice that turned her body cold. “I’ll lead from here.”
The grasp tightened and then pulled her along. It was strong. Far too strong for her to resist. She could only try to stay upright as the pace intensified. Throughout her trip thus far, she had kept straight, even when finding turnoffs in the wall. In that way, she hoped to make her way back out if need be. The presence, however, took her down every possible turn, making her so lost that she knew there was no hope of finding her way out other than by divine miracle.
As they went along, Mia thought the passages were getting lighter, something that relieved her. At least until things brightened enough for her to see the creature that had a hold on her. Rounding a corner, the light illuminated the floating form that led the way. The presence seemed to almost have the outline of a human, but not a sharp one. The features were blurred and undulating, never maintaining the same shape. Sometimes it seemed to have a greyish appearance, but that moved between shades of white and shades of black.
The presence stopped abruptly and Mia closed her eyes in preparation for an impact with it. When she dared to open her eyes again, she saw that she had moved right through the presence so that she was now standing in front of it, facing into a massive, well-lit cavern.
She spun around to face the blurred features, trying to focus in on its eyes. The two lit orbs that may have been them moved from side to side, never holding a set position. Trying to track them was making her dizzy.
She tried to speak, but the scream that had gagged her remained in place. Pointing at her throat, she silently asked him to release his hold on her voice.
“Very well,” he said, and the intense scream finished its journey up Mia’s throat and pierced through the air, startling her more than her shifty companion. “See,” said the presence, “how loud it was in here. And this is an open area. You can see why I didn’t want to hear that in the confined darkness.”
Mia cleared her throat, trying to ease the tension the scream had caused.
“Why are we here?” she asked, her voice hoarse. “It’s light here.”
“You prefer the darkness?”
“I assumed you would since that is what you fill my dreams with.”
“Me?” One of his blurry appendages raised, and Mia imagined he was pointing at himself. “I only bring to people that which they themselves refuse to acknowledge.”
“What are you saying about me?”
“That you are already filled with darkness. That which I bring to your dreams is your true self.”
“What does that make you, then? An enlightener?”
The presence raised his appendage again and said, “There is a flat-topped rock over there. Sit, and I will show you the fullness of your inner life. More than I could show you in your dreams.”
He hovered before her, waiting for her to obey, his shifting features exchanging places with each other yet again. His color shifted to a light-grey and the features disappeared altogether so that she was facing a blank face.
“Or you can turn and leave this cave, only to be haunted by your dark dreams again,” the presence said when she remained in place for too long.
With a resigned sigh, Mia walked to the rock he had indicated and sat. The presence came up beside her and Mia looked down so she wouldn’t have to meet his featureless gaze. Her eyes landed on her wrist and the red marks there.
“You gripped my wrist hard enough to leave marks,” she said.
“Humans. So weak. Sometimes I forget. Now hold still. This may be disconcerting.”
Before Mia could ask for clarification to that comment, an intense pain shot through her head. At one time, it would have made her cry out both in fear and agony, but she was used to it. Those pains accompanied every single dream.
At first, all she could see in her mind was the familiar darkness. A darkness to match that in the mine when all the lights were out. Something clenched at her gut, twisting and turning, as if someone had stabbed her and was turning the knife back and forth. Soon, subtle shakes overcame her body, the kind that usually accompanied nervous anxiety.
“What is this?” Mia asked quietly. “What is this feeling that always accompanies the darkness?”
“Me,” the presence replied. “The darkness you see is you, but the sensations are me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just wait. Now that I am here, I can take you further than your dreams.”
Suddenly, a new image flowed across her mind. Bright daylight outside of the tunnels of the mine. For the first few seconds, she seemed to be standing on nothing more than air. Once her feet were firmly on something, she looked down, and the knife seemed to twist in her gut a little more.
“Train tracks,” she gasped. “On the bridge. No!”
She tried to open her eyes, but the presence made sure they stayed firmly closed.
“You recognize this scene,” he said close to her ear, sending a shudder through her.
“I don’t want to be here.”
She looked over the side of the bridge to the forest floor below. Rather, the treetops that guarded the tightly held secrets of the forest floor. The branches were so thick and intertwining that it was impossible to see the actual ground.
“Tell me, where is this bridge located?” asked the presence.
Mia tried to open her eyes again, but it felt as if they were glued shut.
“Let me out!” she cried.
“Not until you answer the question.”
“Outside of the mines,” Mia ground out. “On the other side from where I entered.”
With the answer out, her eyes flew open and she jumped from the rock yelling, “We’re done here!”
“Only if you want the dreams to continue. The darkness is deep in you. As deep as the valley you peered into.”
“That’s not why you showed me that bridge.”
“No, but you already know that.”
“Just tell me how I can escape you and your dreams.”
“By facing the bridge. Not in a dream this time.”
Every one of Mia’s limbs trembled, and she bit her lip hard enough to taste blood.
The presence moved close again, bringing his featureless face up to hers. Bile rose to the back of Mia’s throat as his white-grey color turned toward black again, once again giving blurred outlines to his shifting features.
“I don’t know how to get there from here,” she said, grasping at any straw that would keep her from facing that bridge.
“I know where to go.”
Wrapping his icy grip around her wrist again, he led her back out of the lightened cavern and through dark, twisting passages, not stopping until new light was upon them.
“Ah, the bridge,” the presence said as he hovered above the wood and rails. “Follow me.”
He led the way to the center of the bridge and turned his shifting eyes down to the valley. Mia kept her gaze fixed straight out in front of her rather than face what was below.
“That valley looks like it is not often disturbed.”
“It’s a wildlife preserve,” Mia said. “No one is allowed in.”
“That’s why you chose it.”
She remained silent.
“Imagine falling from this great height,” the presence said. “Must be a terrifying way to go.”
“Must be nice to decide you can be judge and executioner at the same time.”
Mia turned to the presence with wide eyes.
“How did you know?” she whispered.
The presence moved close to her. So close that she thought he would go right through her. His icy grip wrapped around her wrist for a third time, and he began to push her back to the bridge’s edge.
“What are you doing?” Mia asked, a tremor in her voice.
“Do you regret it?”
“He deserved it.”
“If that’s the case, why do I keep being summoned to your dreams? Why do I have to linger around you each and every day?”
“Who are you?” Mia asked, fear overwhelming her as her heels dangled off the edge of the bridge.
Pushing his shifting features up to hers, he gave a grim smile and said, “My name is Guilt.” And he pushed her off the bridge.
As she fell, Mia screamed. To her own ears, even as terror pulsed through her, she thought it sounded just like the scream he had given after she had pushed him off. So similar. So painfully similar.
Turning mid-air, she faced the quickly approaching ground, watching as the green and brown of the trees came rushing to meet her. Then, painful darkness.
“Mia. Mia! Wake up!”
Mia felt a grip on her shoulder. At first, she thought it was Guilt again, and she yanked away from him.
“Get away from me!” she yelled.
“Mia! It’s me. Colleen. I brought help!”
Mia tried to blink her eyes open, but blinding light prevented it.
“I can’t see,” she said.
“Oh, sorry! Let me take my headlight off.”
A moment later, the light was dim enough that Mia could see the features of her sister’s face.
“Colleen,” she murmured in relief, gladly accepting Colleen’s embrace. “What happened?”
“You went into the mine yesterday. I know you told me to wait two days, but I just couldn’t. Thank goodness, too! It looks like you slipped only a few hundred yards inside the door and smacked your head on the floor. You should see the mark on your forehead!”
“Looks like you have a concussion,” an EMT said as he flashed a flashlight across her eyes. “We need to get you out of here.”
Of course. None of it had been real. Guilt had been a figment of her concussion confused brain. An image of Guilt’s blurry, shifting features went through her mind, and she shuddered. Where in the world did she come up with that kind of stuff?
“Can you stand?” asked the EMT.
With help, Mia got to her feet and found she was stable enough to walk out as long as she could hold on to Colleen’s arm. The group began to slowly make their way from the tunnel.
Right before they walked out of the mine, Mia turned and looked back in the opposite direction to the other side of the mountain where the railway bridge was. To the view of the valley below. If she took Colleen and the rescuers with her, if she told them what was down in that valley, perhaps her dreams would get better. Perhaps the darkness inside her would begin to fade. Freedom was just outside. All she had to do was lead the way.
Instead, she turned and took the final steps to be outside. Why disturb the valley? Why unearth that which should be kept hidden? Guilt could continue to visit her in her dreams. She had faced him in her concussed state. She could keep facing him in the nights.
Out in the sun, she glanced down at her wrist and felt a tight lump form in her throat. Bright red outlines wrapped around her wrist, like she had been gripped there by a strong, non-human force and then pulled through the tunnels. The knife twisting in her stomach again, she wrapped a hand around the marks to hide them, even as a quiet, nasty voice in the back of her mind told her that the longer she continued meeting with Guilt, the more scarred and marked she would become.