Chuck’s challenge this week: The four-part story, part 1. That means it’s time to buckle up, because I’ll be taking on stories started by other authors and extending them in my own twisted ways, and they’ll be taking my creations into new and exciting directions of their own.
It was a bunch of fun last time it happened, so I’ve got high hopes this time, too!
So, how do you go about writing the beginning of a story that you won’t be able to write the ending to? Lots of unanswered questions, lots of plants (no, not that kind of plant), lots of hints at what might have come before, but not a lot of concrete. At least, I think that’s a good way to go about it. At any rate, that’s what I’ve tried to do here.
Enjoy, and if you’re here from the challenge and thinking of using this story stem, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
The weather reports had called for cold, but that was the first thing Lem could process, and the only thing, for that matter. Despite the sleeping bag her legs were snarled in, the stocking cap smushing down her short hair, and the two hoodies she had layered up the night before, the cold had seeped into her toes and her fingers in the night, and she could barely feel them.
She sat up, and a crack of thunder sounded in her skull. Too much whiskey the night before; yes, that had been a mistake. And not a drop of water around before bed, either. All the water in their flasks had frozen. Was still frozen, she discovered, turning a heavy flask over. It would have been funny, if her head hadn’t felt like it was tearing into two halves down the middle. She poked Mark to wake him up.
But Mark wasn’t there.
His sleeping bag had been right next to hers when she passed out, but now it was rolled up and neatly secured with paracord in the corner of the tent. Next to it sat Mark’s pack, which was also arranged and collected and ready to depart. But no Mark.
She peeked her head out of the tent — sucking in a sharp icy breath, because god help her, it was even colder outside — and looked around. There, the ring of stones around the pile of ash from last night’s fire. There, the funny little outcropping of trees that Mark had said looked like a bunch of aliens dancing around a maypole. There, the dusty trail leading off into the woods. In the distance, the burbling sounds of the river. But no Mark.
Lem cleared her throat, sending another shockwave through her pounding head, and stumbled out into the grey morning. She tried to call for Mark, but her voice was hoarse and tiny in the predawn mist. It wasn’t unlike him to go for a little explore before she was awake, but something felt off. The sleeping bag, his pack. He hadn’t lit a fire. And he’d had as much to drink as she had, if not more. By rights, he should be the one sprawling on the ground in the tent, unable to shake the fog out of his head. She called out once more, Mark’s name issuing out in a great cloud of vapor. Three crows exploded out of a nearby bush and went flapping off into the sky, cawing at one another and at her pitilessly as the grey swallowed them up.
An hour later, Lem had built a fire and thrown a few sausages in the pan, figuring that when Mark returned she could have a bit of breakfast ready. She’d thawed out a canteen and chugged a good quart of water, and that had helped, too. But the hour had come and gone: she had gathered kindling, listened to the thick sizzle of the gristly meat, and then devoured them herself, all without seeing or hearing any sign of Mark. It was only when she was cleaning up from the meager meal that she started to get uneasy.
Not at the thought of being alone in the wild; she carried a gun and was well-trained in its use. That had been her father’s insistence when she took up hiking, and she dutifully loaded it before every expedition, even though she had never had cause to use it. Nor was she uneasy at Mark’s absence; he liked the solitude of the woods even more than she did, and he would be back soon enough with some clumsy excuse about forgetting to leave a note, and they’d kiss and laugh over it and that would be the end. It was the cold, she realized. The sun was up now, casting long, skeletal shadows through the trees, but it was getting colder. Unseasonable was not the word. The chill was unnatural.
She chuckled at herself as she thought it, and went to pack away her mess kit back in her pack, and that was when she spotted it. It was frozen solid but unmistakable, dark crimson in the dust, glittering with the scattered sunshine; A tiny disk of blood that looked like it might have frozen before it hit the ground.
She bent to examine it, the vapor of her breath seeming to melt its surface just a little, tiny droplets condensing on the angry red ice. Now that she’d spotted this tiny pool, the next one seemed to catch light at the edge of her vision. She rose and walked toward the new spot, and then she saw the next patch of ice… and the next, leading toward that strange snarled copse of trees.
For a fleeting moment, she thought of her gun. Her tent was only thirty feet away, just as far from her now as the weird interwoven trees that had caught Mark’s fancy the night before. It would take only a moment to retrieve it. Then came a sound that made ice of the blood suddenly surging through her veins. The cracking of a twig underfoot, but not under her foot. Under another foot entirely, just beyond the edge of the trees encircling the clearing.