The Earth had had enough. The planet was taking matters into its own hands.
This time, well beyond the events we had grown accustomed to happening on a somewhat-regular basis. The powerful hurricanes, “ordinary” earthquakes, underwater earthquakes leading to tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions.
The ground moved. Some people said it was like a conveyor belt, the belt ending and dropping everything into a pit. Then, miles away from the pit, the land opened and out came the buildings, roads, trees, cars. But all those materials were in pieces. Like a bunch of machines below the Earth’s surface had crushed the materials, chewed them up, and spit out the pieces above ground.
But no machines were doing that crushing and chewing. The Earth had its own devices.
So the people who said it was like a tumbling compost bin were more accurate. The kind of bin where you throw your food waste and yard clippings, then you rotate the bin to stir up all the goodies, aerate them, in the hope they will break down and become lovely, nutricious compost for your garden.
If more people did that in real life, perhaps The Churning would not have happened.
The event occurred randomly around the planet. Scientists said they found no reason why some places were affected while others were not. If the Earth wanted to cause the highest impact, only the big cities would’ve been churned.
And some big cities had been churned. I tried typing the names of those cities for this piece, but I broke down and couldn’t do it. Everything I’ve heard about those cities, the movies I’ve seen where the action took place in those cities. Gone. Gone before I had a chance to visit them. Of course I would not have visited all of them, especially the ones far away from me. But I liked knowing they existed. They were parts of humanity’s tapestry.
That tapestry has been ripped and new patches sewn.
Seeing news coverage was mind-blowing. I didn’t believe my eyes. It has to be a movie, I thought. But no, it was real. I heard the whapping of the helicopter’s blades above the cameraman. I saw the land moving, dropping, a fresh mass reappearing. The Churning.
Then came news coverage of the aftermath. Rubble mixed with dirt. If the Earth wanted renewal, why not keep the human-made stuff underground? Why not replace it with just dirt above-ground? People said it was to remind us of not being more careful. Maybe they’re right.
We were shocked by the horror coming from below us. We’d been scared of aliens attacking us, meteors smashing us. Death from above. But it came in the opposite direction.
And now, as the dust has settled, we have no way of knowing if a second Churning will happen. So people are living as if it will happen at any time, and there’s chaos.
The scene could’ve been in a fairy tale, even though Harriet knew that wasn’t the host’s intention. Asher Griffin aimed instead for a scene in an Edgar Allan Poe story.
That was how Owen had described an over-the-top Asher Griffin party fo Harriet. Growing up with parents who loved to entertain, Asher appeared to have caught the bug. His parties weren’t held at the Griffin mansion, however. Once or twice a year, Asher rented a beautiful venue and threw a party in such themes as Venetian masquerade, Victorian gothic, and Great Gatsby.
Tonight was Harriet’s first time at one of the soirees, and she now believed Owen’s stories about Asher. The two men had met in college and swiftly became great friends. Owen didn’t belong in the wealthy arena of the Griffins, but his quirky sense of humor and his love of discussing literature more than sports meshed well with Asher.
Harriet had been introduced to Owen’s friend over dinner in a seafood restaurant, where she had enjoyed his boyish attractiveness and his enthusiasm to learn about her. She had assumed he would be stuck up and unleash comments like “Oh my goodness, the Côte d’Azur is delish!” She was glad her prediction had been off the mark.
After that night, Harriet had told some of her friends about the experience. They had suggested she should’ve ditched Owen in favor of Asher. The choice was akin to the woman’s version of Betty or Veronica, and a sizable percentage of the men to whom the friends had posed the choice had picked Veronica for the family bank account.
Except that Harriet had been dating Owen for ten months and she was too smitten to cast him aside for a rich man who made a good first impression. A man who might’ve had undiscovered hang-ups. Besides, Harriet didn’t match Asher’s type. According to Owen, Asher tended to date women who also came from wealthy families, and they zipped off to luxurious locales at the drop of a hat.
Here was a locale made more dream-like by the strings of fairy lights swooping from tree to tree in the spacious patio between a house and lake. The large house could’ve belonged to a tycoon during the Gilded Age of the 1920s. If so, this party would’ve likely fit with the parties of old: pretty little lights, glow of lanterns, well-dressed guests, waiters carrying silver trays of hors d’oeuvre and strolling amid the crowd.
Harriet thought the party’s masquerade theme added a bit of mystery. She would not have known the other guests without their masks. This was a societal circle in which she did not fly. Yet it was delish to fly in the circle for a night.
A series of tinking sounds calmed conversations and caused the guests to turn toward Asher standing on an ornate metal chair and tapping his cocktail glass with a spoon.
“Wonderful to see all of you tonight,” Asher said. “Thank you for making the long journey from the city.” (Long was subjective; the journey from city to lake had taken a few hours’ drive.) “I chose this place because the view is quite lovely.”
The host extended a hand to the lake, as if welcoming a special guest. The tiny lights were reflected on the lake’s surface, still and soft in dusk’s light. The trees ringing the lake and the few other houses were also soft in the dwindling sunlight of late summer.
Asher continued, “But that’s not the only reason I chose it. There’s a story about this lake. You see, folks around here say a creature lives in there.”
Murmuring came among the guests, and one gentleman said, “You realize we’re not in Scotland, don’t you?”
Asher laughed. “Come now, Reggie. I haven’t had that much to drink. Not yet, anyway.” As laughter from the guests faded, Asher said, “But Reggie’s right. We’re not in Scotland. Is this creature related to Nessie? I don’t know. But the locals say the creature comes out at night, under the cover of darkness. Easier to hunt that way. They call it Mugrik.”
“Just a myth!” another gentleman said.
The pessimistic statement brightened Asher’s face. “Maybe it is. But what if it’s not? What if we get to see this amazing thing? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
While some in the crowd gave encouraging comments, most guests downplayed the idea, calling it preposterous.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Asher said. “Most likely, it’ll show up after midnight. And if it does show up, we can run into the mansion. We’ll be perfectly safe there. But in the meantime, please take a gondola ride while you can. The rides stop promptly at eleven o’clock.”
As the host stepped down from the chair, the guests returned to conversing in groups clustered around the patio.
Harriet thought Asher’s phrase “perfectly safe” was wrong. No such place existed. The risk of something bad happening always loomed over you. People were struck by lightning. People died in house fires. Granted, the risk was low of those events — but they did happen.
“You seriously think he believes in this thing?” Harriet asked.
Owen chuckled and said, “He really could. He’s mentioned it to me before. The Mugrik. Weird name. But it doesn’t really matter if he believes in it. He wants it to be true. He wants to see it with all these people around, all these witnesses. He wants to throw a party that nobody forgets.”
“I’m not going to forget this,” Harriet said. “It’s beautiful.”
“But the monster adds a nice touch, doesn’t it?”
Harriet had to agree.
The creature also added a conversation starter, one beyond the standards: What do you do for a living? How do you know Asher? Where are you from?
At times, Owen wasn’t by Harriet’s side, as he went to order more drinks or headed inside the house for the restroom. Harriet wasn’t very comfortable in a crowd of strangers, but the cocktails helped ease her mild anxiety. Everyone she talked with was polite, some even cheery. The other guests seemed to know each other (at least somewhat), and they were quick to fill silences during conversations with Harriet.
She and Owen joined the line on the dock. They watched the three gondolas glide along the shoreline. The wait wasn’t long for the dating couple to have a turn in a boat.
When the gondola departed the dock, Harriet said, “Why aren’t the boats going to the middle of the lake?”
“It gets too deep for our poles,” said the gondolier, a woman dressed in black-and-white striped shirt. “We could go farther than this, but we’ve been asked to stay close to the shore.”
Harriet guessed Asher had been behind that instruction, to give guests the idea that the lake’s center was too dangerous. A probable ruse. A lantern hung from the boat’s prow, its light dancing on the water. She imagined a beast’s head breaking the water’s surface, rising high above them, the long neck stretching. A silly idea. Harriet leaned against Owen and gave into the romance of the sliding boat.
Back on land, as the evening progressed, Harriet hoped the monster would appear and she hoped it wouldn’t. Its arrival would’ve been thrilling. She would’ve tried to snap a photo, record a video with her phone. She and Owen would’ve gone into the house, out the front door, to their car in the parking area, and driven off. Surely, they were faster than the older guests. A calculation from horror movies: the slowest of the fleeing mob was killed/eaten first.
But escape wasn’t guaranteed. She and Owen could’ve been in the car, and the monster could’ve breathed fire and roasted them — if the beast had such a power.
Harriet didn’t want the creature to stomp out of the lake simply because it would’ve ruined the luxurious time she was having. She inwardly laughed at herself for imagining the creature.
Guests said good-byes and left in small groups, and eventually half of the original crowd remained. Then a third. Then a fourth. They claimed to be ready to stay until sunrise. Then they would head to their hotels, their bed-and-breakfasts, and get some sleep. They could arrange for another night’s stay if checkout time was too early. Or slip the maid some cash to come later for cleaning the room.
As for the lake house, Asher had rented it until noon. Some of the catering staff left, and the remaining ones replenished the coffee urns and trays of desserts.
Owen switched from drinking wine to coffee before Harriet did. She was relieved. A few of the previous men she had dated would’ve continued swallowing booze — especially free and high quality — for as long as liquor bottles were available. She liked to think her taste in men had matured along with herself. She saw no need to drink tonight until she stumbled about.
Harriet also liked that Owen was game to stay at the party. The atmosphere was pleasant by the two fire pits. Harriet now felt the guests were friends from long ago rather than people she had met tonight. They kidded each other, they talked of other times they had stayed up through the night, like when they were kids and it was a grand adventure to see how the world looked when they would’ve typically been asleep. The magic of those times.
Harriet picked up a lantern and walked with Owen to the dock. To the end. They gazed into the dark water. Gazed across it, and were unable to see the opposite shore. Gazed at the stars seeming to envy the fairy lights still lit.
“If that thing actually exists and comes up,” Owen said, “we’re goners for sure.”
She grabbed his hand and squeezed. “So be it.”
The night had transitioned from a Poe-inspired party to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Harriet found enjoyment in both stages, as did Owen. A good sign for their future.
When I saw the above image in Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie Prompt #360, I felt a strong urge to write a story. That’s probably from my enjoyment of weird fiction. The image strikes me as having an H.P. Lovecraft-kind of vibe.
Here’s my story…
Spreading Darkness by Dave Williams
Everyone has darkness in them. Inside us is the capacity for cruelty and kindness. It’s up to us to choose which we act with, in our hundreds of interactions every day.
These nuggets of wisdom were said to Collin Ebersole on a cloudy Thursday afternoon by his mental health therapist: Lucas Snelling, a man who had managed to keep slim in his mid-forties. No “dad bod” here. Perhaps part of Lucas’s attempt to appeal to clients was a fit body/fit mind approach. Not that either came easily. Both needed habitual attention. You exercised, you meditated. If this guy could do those, you could too.
In the beginning of this particular session at Lucas’s office, Collin Ebersole had told of visions he began having recently. Collin had said, “They come anytime. While I’m at work, while I’m walking to work or from work. When I’m at home. There’s no particular pattern. None that I can tell, at least.”
“And what are these … visions?” Lucas Snelling had asked, his face showing no emotion. Open to whatever came next.
“Lots of things,” Collin had said. “Wolves roaming the halls at the office. Their mouths open, showing fangs, dripping spit. And rats swarming out of sewer drains. Large ones, nasty-looking things. Octopuses — or is it octopi? whatever, either way — they’re reaching out of the doors of office buildings and stores. I see them. I actually see them. But then I blink a bunch of times, and they’re gone. It looks normal where those things had just been.”
Lucas had tilted his head a little to the side. Perhaps a practiced movement to attempt to appear thoughtful. Lucas had asked if Collin had been watching horror movies. Collin had not. How about horror TV shows? Collin had not. Reading horror books? Collin had not. Purposefully thinking of horrific events? Collin had not.
“This is curious,” Lucas had said. “Do you have an idea why your thoughts are dark this week?”
“That’s just it,” Collin had said. “I don’t have dark thoughts. These visions pop up out of nowhere. I’ll be standing at an intersection, thinking about what to make for dinner, and bam, I’ll see monkeys with red eyes, and they’re on the tops of cars, hopping from car to car.”
Then Lucas had dropped those nuggets of wisdom about darkness. As if gleaned from a self-help book chock full of quotations from famous people — Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and the like — and soothing illustrations. Collin said he was aware of the capacity in all of us. We can follow a path trod by Martin Luther King, Jr., or a path trod by a killer.
Lucas unfolded his crossed legs, so both feet were placed on the gray carpet. He asked, “What path do you think you’re on?”
“Neither,” Collin said “I’m not a saint, and I’m not a maniac. I’m somewhere in the middle.”
“As is everyone. Nobody’s completely a saint or a maniac. There are many complexities.”
Collin nodded, appreciating the observation — which, he thought, came to anyone who grew out of the youthful need for every movie and TV show and book to have a “bad guy” and a “good guy.” Reality was much more muddled.
“Something different did happen to me, though,” Collin said.
Collin described the events of the past Saturday. His friend Trish had invited him to a dinner party hosted by another of her friends, a woman named Willa Magness. Collin wasn’t keen on going, as he didn’t know this Willa Magness and felt anxiety in going to social functions at the homes of people he didn’t know. That was one of his jumbled anxieties. Trish knew of Collin’s social anxiety. She tried to put him at ease by saying Willa Magness was very friendly. Ms. Magness was a wonderful host who enjoyed meeting new people and asking their stances on a variety of topics. Not that Ms. Magness would interrogate guests. Simply that she was more the type to ask questions than the type to talk your ear off about the exotic trips she had taken and the meals she had eaten at ultra-expensive restaurants.
A swift debate inside Collin’s brain ended by agreeing to go to the dinner party. The experience would meet the suggestion by Lucas Snelling for Collin to “try stretching himself in small steps.”
On Saturday evening, when the car-service driver parked before the Magness estate, driver had whistled and said, “Man, I’ve got to get a friend like this.”
Indeed, Ms. Magness was very friendly and obviously wealthy. The fenced estate was large, as was the house, and it was tastefully decorated with antiques whose glossy wood shone in light from wall sconces.
Ms. Magness was graceful and welcoming. A widower in her sixties, her age was double the ages of Collin and Trish. The other guests looked to be around the same age as them. Six people attended the dinner party, which Collin was thankful for, since crowded parties made his anxiety worse. His medications had helped dull the anxiety a bit. Also helpful was the deep-breathing exercise Lucas had taught him.
Dinner came in five courses, each announced by one of the two black-jacketed waiters. Words from the descriptions seemed to float above the plates put on the table before every guest. Foie gras, carpaccio of tuna, herb crusted, loin of rabbit, morel stuffed, gingered pears. Collin felt he had strolled into a fantasy lived only by the rich.
All the guests were cordial, as if the food and environment caused them to be on their best manners. Collin sipped the silken wine that gave him a lovely sensation.
After dinner, the party shifted to a short tour of the house’s main level, nice to walk after sitting for a spell, then Ms. Magness led them through opened French doors to the back yard. Two fire pits were aflame. Glasses of scotch were waiting on a table. Chairs were arranged in an oval around the fire pits.
Each guest took a scotch and a seat. Ms. Magness said she enjoyed wrapping up parties while sitting outside if the weather was pleasant. The fresh air was therapeutic, and sitting near fire connected with something ancient within us.
“I’m wondering what all of you think of a view I’ve had for some time,” Ms. Magness said. “I happen to believe in other worlds. Back in the olden days, people thought the separation between us and the fairy world became thinner on certain days of the year. The winter and summer solstice were such days. But I believe that could happen on any day. The separations can be thinner, and openings can pop up. Portals, if you will. Then we could see strange creatures. Or people and animals that shouldn’t be there. What do all of you think of that?”
Trish was the first guest to reply, and she talked of having doubts about other worlds, how she believed them as a kid, then thought they were simply children’s stories when she was in middle school. But odd happenings caused her to change her mind.
Other guests volunteered information of sensations of being watched while they were alone at home. Or feeling a presence of someone. Or seeing movement out of the corner of their eye, then turning around and seeing nothing moving there. Every one of the five guests stated they believed in the possibilities of things existing outside our normal range of perception.
As the guests spoke, Ms Magness listened with clear interest. She took sips of scotch. Frequently, she performed an unusual gesture. Collin found it unusual, something not seen during his ordinary conversations. Ms. Magness held the scotch in her left hand. Her right elbow was on the arm rest, her right forearm sticking up, and her fingers would lower. First the pinky, then ring finger, then each finger in succession. Up and down the fingers went. Collin thought her fingers were mimicking a spider’s walk. Up and down, her fingers moved in a fan-like fashion. During the conversation, in which Collin contributed, his focus kept returning to the hostess’s mesmerizing finger motions.
Collin did not tell Lucas Snelling about the finger motions. Rather, as he told the story of Saturday evening, Collin reenacted the same motions, his right elbow on the armrest of the gray couch, his fingers walking. Lucas Snelling’s eyes shifted from Collin’s eyes to his fingers and back. Observing all.
“And how do you think the dinner party affected you?” Lucas said.
“There are creatures out there,” Collin said. “Things only some of us can see. I was worried about them when I started seeing them. But now I look forward to them.”
“Really? So they don’t bother you in anyway?”
“Why would they?” Collin said. “I’m lucky to see them. I wish more people could see them. It’s special. It’s like I’m in a club that most people don’t know about.”
“And why tell me if it doesn’t bother you?” Lucas said.