— Madness
I often went months without dreams disturbing my sleep. Weed had a way of silencing nightly mirages. Last night; however, a leak had sprung, waves of dreams plagued my unconscious soul. I awoke in a pool of sweat only recalling sparse details and shadowy figures. Most prominent was the affected sensations. The scenario unfolded behind a pair of murky eyeholes. Mud or rain dripped into a hollow vessel. Five minutes or five years could have passed. It made no difference. My bones no longer scratched to move. It was my mind, who wailed and cried and raved against this cage. I was nothing, but I saw everything. I attempted to strike my confines only to find I had no fingers to curl, nor an arm to swing. No life other than a pair of bickering squirrels were there to witness my torment. All my fury had wrought droplets of amber-tears.
The seasons passed into obscurity until I could do nothing but rest, and wait for the crumbs of sunlight others, taller and stronger, allowed me to take.
I was tickled by the vibrations of a pair of boots. A conversation passed as a melody in the wind. I had not heard these sounds for so long, I mused in a slumbery haze, until the revving of a chainsaw brought me back to reality.
Greyed-boxes of sunlight were crisscrossed within a muntin’s shadow; they landed across my still fingers. My heart beat softly throughout our shared hollowed frame. Euphoria had drained from my sleeping figure save for a persistent, golden haze clouding my vision. I rubbed the color away until dulled light returned alongside clarity.
For a moment I had forgotten about Stella’s appearance. I forced my fingers to grab ahold of the Euphoria canteen beside my bed. It was nearly empty, but I had enough to rouse the rest of my body from sleep. The warmth once again rushed through my veins; ecstasy touched the tips of my finger and a yellow tinge coated the corners of my vision.
Vitality spurred within my bones as well as my mind. Euphoria pushed venomous thoughts just out of reach. There the darkness spoiled; a billowing dust swirl of every hurtful string of words my mind would have conjured if she were not tethered and spiked. Her edges nullified from the sip of something otherworldly.
The day shone in brilliance. The sun’s golden light created a filter over my room as I danced to my bathroom to perform morning rituals. Even cleaning my teeth felt amazing.
Curiously, I walked to my window. I didn’t know what I expected. I guess that she might still be there. The lake laid spread before me. A few boaters were already out. Some were trying to catch the water at its smoothest. Wakeboarders and fishermen were typically out at first light. I had been awoken from various arguments between the two groups. The summer months at clearwater were full of tourists and vacationers; however, other than the lake and a few campsites there was not much attraction from out-of-staters.
My dad’s garden was in bloom. The flowers had opened their soft shells for all the world to gaze at their visage. I had always been impartial to hydrangeas. They looked like alien balls. The vines had turned a brighter hue of green. Life surged back into their green veins.
I looked at my phone. An old reminder remained asking me to take care of myself.
I almost stepped out until I realized what I was wearing. I took off the dress and placed it gingerly back in the carrier it came in. I hung it in my closet securely behind my old clothes. I threw on jeans and a t-shirt. I brought my binoculars for good measure.
I rubbed my temples and finally decided to worry about it later. I took the flask of Euphoria and stuffed it in the bottom. Looking around my room, I spotted an old camping knife and a flashlight. I took both of these things and my water bottle; then, shoved them in my school backpack.
I walked down the stairs to the smell of omelets cooking in a cast-iron pan.
“Good morning.” I said.
“Good morning, love. How long have you been up?” My mom asked sprinkling pepper flakes over her breakfast.
“A few hours.” I admitted, “I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep.”
“Yea you must have been exhausted. The bars do that.” She laughed.
“We barely went out- nothing crazy.”
“Whatever you say. Do you want breakfast?”
“No, I’m just going for a hike. I haven’t been around the mining trails in a while.”
My mom gave me a shrewd look, “You never went there as a kid, why now?”
“We were camping there, and the area is pretty.”
“It makes me nervous. That is all.”
“Why? Sam told me the owners haven’t been there in years.” I said.
“It’s still illegal.” My mom said.
“Clearwater has one cop.” I said, “And he sucks. I’ve seen drunks outrun him—I’ve outran him.” I laughed.
“Well, what about the witches?” My mom asked.
“What witches?” I rolled my eyes.
“An old legend that was spread around my high school.” My mom explained, “One of my classmates went missing and their friend told everyone a witch took her.” She explained.
“Well I’ll let you know if I find any witches.” I smiled.
“Just be careful around the trails. I doubt anyone has swept them since I was a kid- don’t break your ankle, and don’t go inside the mines.”
“I’m twenty-two, Mom. I can wander into any mines I want.” I joked.
“Well then you’re paying for your own cast.” She shot back.
“Okay, no mines.” I laughed.
“Good.” She said, “And take some snacks.”
My stomach agreed and I shoved some granola bars into the backpack. I snagged a banana on the way out and put my shoes back on.
My car was ill-suited for the mountainous terrain. The roads in Clearwater were fine and the drive toward Savage was relatively short; however, every bump or divot in the road sent tremors through my transmission. It was conditioned for the flat roads of a University Town, not the wilderness, or even the charade of wilderness that Clearwater threw on for tourists. It was a small town. A single bridge only a few miles down the road crossed over the lake to the mine trails. The following miles push through forested track all leading to a series of blocked off camp grounds.
I parked my car next to the large, wire fence that stretched around the land. A notice, prohibiting trespassing, was erected at the entrance.
I wiped the dust away from the notice. It was signed in 2008; there were no other signs of life besides the tire tracks from my friends’ cars.
I left my sedan parked by the closed off road and ducked beneath the yellow road obstructions. The path was compressed dirt, but relatively easy. I was alone, save for the distant revving of motorboats.
A lane of cedar trees was planted on either side of me as I enjoyed the tranquility of summer’s sweet breath. They puffed out in spiky, green jackets. I could not help but wonder if they preferred winter’s cold, or did they enjoy their present company amongst the summer foliage? The trees lined the path down a mile or so before campsites begun to appear on my sides. They were tucked in the forest, and most were overgrown and essentially a part of the forest once more. Roots struck out at odd ends and loose rocks crumbled underfoot.
Eventually, I passed the site my friends and I had stayed at previously. I knew Stella brought me around the Hogsneck and toward the Mountain. I just had to follow my previous steps in spite of the blurred memories I was working with.
The rivers that had roared earlier in the summer were gone. In their place laid a wide indention through muddied earth. The stones lay smoothed across the barren track. Most were adorned with coats of brown moss. My boots clunked atop the makeshift road before me. The trails were not groomed and did little to guide an average hiker. I could follow the river bed toward the base of the mountain and curve towards the grove from there.
My fingers twitched anxiously. There was something obscure about Savage I had never noticed as a child. I followed the dried river bank, and yet as I closed the distance I felt the discomfort of alien eyes upon my back.
The sound of scratches played within my head. The door blocked those creatures- Stella’s friends. Did Euphoria did this to them? Fear touched my mind, as I contemplated Stella’s motives. I was high. I was high a lot of the time, and what if I were just imagining this, – or Stella in some twisted, drug-induced Stockholm-Syndrome.
I brushed the fear aside. This was an upper, and I had never felt more awake. I didn’t think Stella was a guardian angel—she seems too sincere. She brought me a friend to drugs with and drugs, which was no ordinary drug, but the drug that I had not known I was searching for.
I took a deep breath of the mountain air. The sweet scent of the lake collided with the mountain flowers growing beside the trails, and still it was just an illusion.
The sadness was still there. She was still there, only nullified. I knew Stella was genuine because there was more to the mountain. She knew who I was, and she knew I was trans; I had to ask about the dress, and if she knew the fortune teller.
I followed the trail down to the Hogsneck. It was much easier walking down the old trails. The forest was alive. Birds flew through the openings in the canopy as squirrels ran betwixt the trees.
I typically didn’t mind lonesome adventures. I had spent so much time alone the past three years; Even before the pandemic. People made me uncomfortable. I was ashamed to admit, even now, including the company of my friends and my family. My companion had always been myself, and she was a bitter friend. Sometimes I doubted she thought of me as a friend. Still, her bitterness was at least genuine. I felt uneasy; eyes pierced the back of my head as if I were the prey of mountain lion. I have never heard of a mountain lion attack around these hills, but anxiety was my default setting. I turned around and saw nothing but the trail leading back up the hillside. A few squirrels were arguing over a nut, and some robins sat on the lower tree branches. It must be the birds, I figured and continued the trek.
I circled around the bog as best as I could without sinking my boots into the mud. I thought of calling out for Stella, but recalled her words of stealth. I approached the side of the mountain remembering the shape of the peak against the sky.
I paced the edge of the tree line. Hidden as I was, the crunch of leaves beneath my boots crackled through the forest. I abandoned stealth; it was silly anyways.
I followed the mountains incline just at the base. I skirted the edges of boulders and rubble. The veins wove tightly around one another. Cracks split in obscure spots as hot air whistled through the cracks pushed in the ground. Pockets opened with the breath of the earth, so too did the scratching sounds.
The suckling noises that echoed within the chamber. Croaks and clawing noises begotten within the darkness of the mountain. What would I not do to get high? I thought.
Stella was nowhere to be seen. I was still unsure what she was. I had humored the possibility of her being a ghost or of some variety of the supernatural. Everything had felt adrift from the way I had known the world to have worked. I contemplated the madness that awaited me within the dark fog of the catacombs.
I looked beneath the slits of the burrow. The purple light gleamed from the veins that stretched through the cavern’s floors; it was all unnatural. Even Euphoria was unlike anything else I had experienced, but I had known nothing that glowed in the dark around this part of the world. Mountains did not have veins; mountains did not contain monsters, yet I had thought mountains never concealed hidden, drug-filled groves. There was ever more to learn of the world and of myself.
I decided it did not matter what Stella was- she was cool, and smoked with me. If I couldn’t trust someone like that then there truly wasn’t a point in living.
The truth was I enjoyed Euphoria. I enjoyed it enough to wiggle my body through a dirty ravine in order to harvest mountain sap. I refused to feel any more shame for the choices I made for the betterment of my life.
I took another look at my surroundings in hopes of seeing Stella tramping out of the tree line. Thievery was better with two. It was possible she did not mean any day, but specificity would have been greatly appreciated.
I had drunk myself low already, not even two days from when she gave me the first. I guessed it was better if she did not know I came back so soon for seconds. It was greedy, but I could not abide sobriety much longer. I do not want to feel the touch of a razor’s edge. I would rather drown in whatever blood this land had to offer.
I released a gulp of air I had not noticed I was holding onto. I fell upon my knees and grabbed the cracked edges of the vines with my hands. As the mountain released another cycle of air I forced the opening to hold long enough to throw my legs throw and allow gravity to handle the rest.
I fell a few feet or so, but a thick layer of moss cushioned the fall. A splat echoed in the chamber amongst the other noises. Adrenaline began to flow through my once-thought dead limbs. Sunlight streamed through the opened cracks.
Sobriety made navigation far easier than on the first night I had stumbled through the grove. The soil was dark and the garden more beautiful in the streaks of daylight that penetrated the earth. The canopy of the stone trees created a false walking path above. It appeared as if only the closest observers would stumble in upon the side of the mountain. The purple hue of the flowers was cast upon the ground. Long stalks of grass and herbs grew throughout the cavern. I tried to be mindful, but it was impossible to not crush the overgrown foliage. A pond sat at the far end of the grove, which trickled into the mine systems.
I cautiously approached the patch of flowers sprouting around the same petrified tree Stella brought me too earlier this week. I unscrewed my flask and held it below one of the thick, glistening vines that wrapped around the crumbling, stone tree. It pumped systemically along with the beat of a distant heart. The purple sap shot through the semi-translucent skin of the plant to the outlying patches of the same purple flowers that grew around the base of the tree.
I had never seen these flowers. I inspected their petals, which were lavender. The sepal was white. It smelled nice. Nothing looked too unusual except for the glowing blue bulbs that stuck out from the center.
I dropped my backpack and took out the hunting knife. Standing back up I held the knife’s blade against the vine’s skin. The surface was incredibly dense, but with several stubborn yanks, I managed to shimmy the wound open wide enough for the Euphoria to drip out in unpredictable squirts. I kept the knife’s blade positioned so the wound would not close. The sap poured over my hand as I tried to find the optimal position, but I was not as skilled as Stella.
I capped the canteen and slid the knife from the gash of the tree. The name shone out to me once more, Jake. I rubbed the petrified tree with my hand as if it would do something. The word stuck out to me; the letters clung to my mind. It was meaningless, yet Stella had looked at it as if there were nothing more sinister.
The world was cruel; it was cruel, and people were worse. I clutched the hunting knife and began scratching away the lettering, which amounted to nothing. The letters stood defiantly. Nothing would wash them off.
I threw the canteen and the knife back into my backpack and returned through the flowerbeds and runny creeks that gurgled beneath my feet. I walked to the opening in the distance, where light flooded through.
As I neared one of the openings I began to smell a putrid odor emitting from the base of the mountain. I continued to venture towards the light as I cautiously maintained my distance from the barricaded mineshaft.
The smell worsened. The ground turned to marsh. My boots struggled to find stability through the muck. Black ooze poured from open gashes struck through the mud. Sinister mushrooms grew around the earth’s wounds revealing themselves in the pulsing, purple light of the veins; however, these two appeared rotten. They hung flaccidly with some sections bulging with a buildup in whatever black gunk spilled from the opening deeper into the ground.
One particular tree looked abhorrent. The scent of roadkill wafted from the open sores. I kept my distance keeping my nose pinched.
As I neared the exit I saw an old wooden door barred shut. A large wooden beam jutted between the mountain and the clearing. The scratches came from within. The noises sent shivers down my spine.
I turned to the wall of rock and vines. The flowers, appearing to have recently bloomed, sprouted across them; dozens of little blue bulbs stuck out at odd ends.
As I held my hand out to touch one of the petals, a ferocious rumble awoke, deep within mountain. The scratches from within the cavern roared into a frenzy. Mayhem descended upon the cavern. The vines shimmered and the ground shook. The large oak door banged with a heavy force behind. Then all at once, shrieks echoed from the chamber. A cataclysmic thunder of wails and anguished cries. I dropped my phone and clutched my hands over my ears. It did little to silence the noise. It was as if it came from within my own head.
I had no choice; I fell to the ground, and shrieked back. I screamed until my voice was raw. Tears dripped from my eyes as I tore my throat bloody with my cries. The vines felt as if they were about to rupture from the pace of the heartbeats. My world shook as I prayed for a stray rock to find my skull.
After an agonizing minute, the chamber calmed; the scratching fell still then started again in lazy, intermittent attempts. I had to take a second holding my arms straight out onto the ground to steady my shaking frame. A flower gazed back at me. Its blue bulb touched my nose.
“Are they not beautiful?” A melodic voice drifted through the wind. I could not exactly place where the voice came from. I looked up into the surrounding foliage, but saw neither man nor squirrel. The forest was quiet, “Though I prefer trees; they are older. Their stories are better.” A mud-dried hand reached out and plucked the flower from the earth.
I jumped back scrawling for a nearby tree, hastily turning my head to see a giantess. From this distance, I could have only guessed, but she looked above six-feet. Her blonde hair glimmered in the streams of sunlight that fell around us. She wore a light green dress that fluttered in the wind; it looked like dragonfly wings overlapping one another. The woman lifted the flower to her nose and gently sniffed the pollen. “I love summer. Though there is a beauty in Autumn I anxiously await.”
“I like Autumn more too.” I said awkwardly approaching the stranger.
She smiled at my anxiety-ridden actions. Her green eyes reminded me of Claire’s, only without any hint of blue.
“Are you, Alice?” I asked.
“Names are funny.” She said, “A sound someone made marked upon us for life. Take it away or change it for an inconsequential action.” She paused, looking at the mine entrance. “At least, that’s what most people think. What do you think?” She asked.
“I’m not naming my body.” I said, “My name is a part of my soul; it is a label for the experience I had.”
“An experience you have yet to take.” She said, “Shouldn’t we try to move above names- above labels? Why care what others label your soul.”
“The same reason, you and Stella did.” I said, “I think I understand the riddles. I get it, Alice. I’m trans; I know.”
“Written at birth; etched at death.” Alice said, ignoring my outburst, “If you knew; you wouldn’t have come back.”
“This was the first thing that made sense.”
“Stella says things she shouldn’t.” Alice said, “The soil has been tampered; I fear the bloom has failed.”
“The bloom?” I asked.
“The reason I dragged Stella back.” She said sadly, “That doesn’t matter much anymore.”
Alice plucked a light brown glove from her hand and extended it forward. Her nail polish matched the same opaque green as her dress. “Yes, I am Alice. And you have still not figured yours out, right?”
“Don’t mislead me, sister.” She whispered, “If we are to say anything it should be the truth. If you do not wish to speak the truth; then, say nothing at all. You will find no objection here.” She lightly paced along the soil. Her feet barely broke the soft ground “Can I charge you with this, nameless one?” she asked.
“Sure.” I said scratching the back of my head. Alice approached me lightly dancing through the reeds
“It takes time.” Alice said, “Don’t get discouraged too early; the path is treacherous, and worse to those of us deceived into thinking we are safe. The best we can do is keep moving. We all find our sound.” Alice said optimistically, “Although, prepare to lose that too. Such is a farce.” She said with a giggle. “Sorry, I don’t speak to many people.”
“Neither do I.” I said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Ouch. I thought you would have known better.” She said.
A smile touched my face, “Sorry,” I said, feeling my cheeks turn pink.
“What burdens your wings, Little Bird.” She teased.
“What does any of this have to do with me?” I asked.
“Nothing.” Alice laughed, “You can leave if you want; I am not keeping you ensnared in my mountain.”
“Your mountain?” I asked, “You bought it?”
“What?” She said confusingly, “No one can buy a mountain.”
“Someone did.” I said.
“They can keep it; the soil is corrupted.” Alice responded, “No, my nameless friend, come and go. Take what you need, but be careful.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Stella forgets that knives come from both sides of the aisle.” Alice said, “Don’t trust someone because they are like us. My mountain has drawn more eyes than I had anticipated.”
“What is in there, Alice?” I asked pointed to the barrier.
“I don’t know.” She spoke fearfully, “Stella and I returned with Spring, and we found them…”
“Who?” I asked feeling the skin of my face tighten.
“Monsters.” The word dripped with dread, “Real monsters. Not whatever self-perceptions you have thrown at yourself.”
“How do you know about that?” I asked.
“I would have thought you’d figure it out by now.” She smiled.
“Stella and I went through a similar path you are going through. It won’t be the same, but we’ll help if you need it.”
“Can you help me feel normal?” I asked.
“I don’t think that’s what you want.” She reasoned.
“I want to feel okay.” I said.
“That takes time.”
“Everyone says that.”
“Sometimes, something that everyone says, is actually true.” Alice said, “What’s the harm in proving them wrong one last time?”
I nodded my head slowly, but another question came to my mind. “So, if the bloom failed, why are you still here?” I asked, “Stella doesn’t seem too excited to be home.”
Alice paced the edge of the grove, “I can’t leave until the mountain is sealed or I find whoever has been tampering with my plant.”
“Why care?” I asked, “Just leave it.”
Alice pointed to our side, where the sour smell was emanating from, “Euphoria was meant to protect us, from the discomfort our bodies gave; whatever this is will only hurt us. I know it.” Alice sighed and looked away glumly before returning her attention to me, “Look, it’s not your fight. Take what you can, and figure out whatever it is you need to figure out.”
“I can help.” I said, “If this is what fixes me, I want to do it.”
“Maybe when you learn that you don’t need to be fixed.” Alice laughed, “Stella is watching the trains; she won’t return for some time. You are more than welcome to stay for a while if you’d like.”
“It’s fine.” I said, “I just need this.” I shook the flask of Euphoria.
“You need it for now.” Alice said, “At the end of the day, we provide our own happiness.”
Alice stretched her arms out for an embrace, “We’ll be around for a while. Visit us if you want.”
We separated as Alice gently placed the glove back on her hand. She smelled of Euphoria, of flowers and of the trees.
I scrambled up the rock wall with a fresh supply of Euphoria. The forest was a challenge to navigate, but after an hour or so I managed to rediscover the path to my car.
As I wiggled my body through a gap in the fencing, I noticed recent tire tracks along the dirt road.
“Shit.” I said, running to my car to see the inevitable ticket. Only, nothing was there. My car was left undisturbed, and other than the tracks, there was nothing else noting human interference. Counting it as luck, I hopped in my car and drove home.
The night once again swept the day aside. On the hillside a speck of white moved along the path. I grabbed my binoculars and focused the image until I could clearly see Stella. The woman walked gingerly through the flowers. The moon’s light shone brightly on the lake. Its reflection in the ripples riding out in splendid waves. The woman was touching the flowers and playing with the fabric on her dress. Then she stopped and looked over towards me. I felt her eyes. I held the canteen up as she waved. I returned the greeting; then, prepared myself for the night. Drugged sleep eventually dragged me away.
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