Warning: This story, centered around the prompt “Mindless,” is a little darker and spookier than yesterday’s piece. If these kinds of tales aren’t your jam, maybe steer clear.
I hope this letter finds you well. Nick told me how worried you’ve been about me, and I would’ve reached out sooner, would’ve texted or called, but I’m not allowed to have a phone, at least not for the foreseeable future. But the people who run this place said I can send as many letters as I want.
I hope you’ll forgive my handwriting. It must look like I’ve broken my hand, and I’ve only just now learned how to write again. It’s just the meds they have me on, though. Anti-psychotics. I don’t think I’m psychotic, but they say the pills will help, and I’m willing to listen to them if it means I can see the kids again. I asked Nick about that the last time he was here, and he said he’d have to check with my doctor. I haven’t heard anything yet, and it’s like a piece of me has been stolen.
How are your kids? Has Brett started hockey yet? Is Julia working on any new routines for gymnastics? Has Tommy started walking yet? Please tell them their Auntie Sylvia sends her love.
I suppose I best stop with the throat clearing and get to why they have me stashed away.
Have you ever lost time before? You know that weird feeling you get sometimes when you’re driving, where you’ll get in the car, and then end up at your destination, but don’t really remember any part of the drive, like you just went on auto-pilot? You lose time to mindlessness.
This is the simplest way I can think of to describe what happened.
Almost two weeks ago, I was doing the dishes after putting the kids to bed when I heard these deep bellowing horns. I don’t know what kind of horns they were, but they sounded pretty close to the kind the Alps men played in those Ricola commercials. You remember those? The noise was constant. Every ten seconds another blast. I could feel it in my chest, in the bottom of my stomach. It was so loud, as though each bellow had the potential to shake the house from its foundation. I half expected the kids to tear out of their bedrooms, screaming their heads off, or for Nick to explode from the couch, throwing his newspaper to the ground, and insist we all take shelter in the basement. But the kids’ door remained shut, and Nick sat there on the couch turning the pages of the Metro section and keeping an eye on the football game’s score.
“Nick?” I asked. “Do you hear that?” I felt as though I had to shout to be heard over these horns.
“Hear what, Syl?”
I didn’t know if he was messing with me. Could he really not hear them?
He cocked his head like a damn dog, and shrugged. “Car alarm, maybe.”
I wanted to tell him he was wrong, that this was no car alarm, but before I got the chance, something inside me responded to the blasts, and I remember the phrase “follow” began to whirl around my head like tornado debris, spinning faster and faster until I couldn’t do anything else but listen.
“You’re probably right,” I told Nick. “I need to run to the store for lunch meat. I’ll be right back.”
Then I grabbed the car keys, and Nick went back to his paper. I remember getting in the car and starting it, but I don’t remember the drive. I lost that time.
When I tuned back in, I was parked in a lot on the edge of the local wildlife refuge. My headlights illuminated a trail just on the other side of the barrier. I didn’t want to get out of my car. I wanted to turn around and go home, back to Nick and the kids and the dishes, but I couldn’t. Even through the closed door, I heard the horn bellows, and I knew that I needed to follow.
When I got out of the car, a gust of wind about cut me in half with its chill. I foolishly neglected to bring a coat.
I hiked the rough trail for twenty minutes, the horn blasts growing louder with every step. After twenty minutes, it felt like my ears would burst, and I had to cover them with my hands to find some kind of relief. The path jogged to the right, and an oak grove loomed ahead, and without pause I entered the black woods.
Once in the grove, the roar of the horn bellows diminished and there was another sound underneath: a steady clinking of metal.
Then there was the light of a campfire up ahead, and as I got closer I saw that it had been built at the foot of colossal oak. From the forest floor it looked as though it stretched hundreds of feet toward the stars. Absurd. This tree hadn’t been visible from outside the grove. How did it work?
Soon, I discovered the source of the metal clinking originated from the tree. A man, really just a shadow in the glow of the fire emerged from behind the trunk. He was pushing a lever in front of him, and with every shove, there was another clink. This made me think of amusement park roller coasters, the click of the cars as they climbed toward the apex of the first drop.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He didn’t answer until he’d pushed the lever another three clicks and then set some kind of brake on the mechanism. As he moved toward me, I could see that he was soaked in sweat and his chest was heaving.
“Ivan,” he said. “You must be the replacement.”
“What do you mean?”
He pointed at the lever in the tree.
“You see what I was just doing back there? You’re going to need to do the same thing every Monday until winter sets in.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Verna can’t do this anymore. She’s too old to be messing around in the woods at night. Liable to bust an ankle, or a hip.”
He held up a hand. “Not important. What’s important is you were chosen to walk the tree, so that’s what you have to do.”
“Why do I have–?”
His anger surprised me. “Because if you don’t, then the gate opens and the Old Ones living below will emerge. And that shit would be bad for everyone.”
I wanted to argue, had protests waiting on the tip of my tongue. But when he mentioned keeping the gate closed and the Old Ones, the same part of me that had responded to the horns’ bellows, understood what Ivan was talking about and what would happen if I failed to walk the tree.
He nodded like he was privy to my epiphany.
“Be back tomorrow night,” he said. “The time doesn’t really matter much. All depends on how quickly you work. So long as you get 500 clicks on the tree before dawn, you should be alright.” He wiped an arm across his forehead, then said, “If you don’t mind, I better get back to it. I still have 300 to go.” He didn’t wait for a response, just grabbed the lever, released the brake, and began walking.
So I left him there in the dark grove, and drove home. Nick was still on the couch, no longer reading the paper or watching the game. He was passed out.
In the morning I told him about what happened, and he laughed it off as a dream, told me I was being ridiculous. But when I tried to leave for the tree that night, he didn’t think it was funny anymore. He tried to stop me by blocking the door, and when I attempted to shove past him, he restrained me. I fought and thrashed, but couldn’t get free. He managed to hold me long enough to make a call to the police who contacted the local hospital. I’ve been here ever since.
No one here’s on my side, not even my doctor or Nick. No real help or concern, only empty phrases like, “I believe that you believe this was real.” Isn’t that some horseshit? Why don’t they just tell me they think I’m crazy and move on? It’d be hard to hear that, I imagine, but at least it’d be honest. It’d be real.
Marcy, I know how this sounds, but I need you. It would be a long drive, but I hope that you can visit. If you can make it out, maybe you can walk the tree in my place. Or, if they decide I’m can’t have visitors yet, please write back. We can figure some kind of plan. If you do, I pray that in your letter you tell me that you believe me, (even if you don’t).
Pray for me, Marcy, and pray that the gate stays closed.