Blanket Sea

Arts & Literary Magazine

Category: Fiction

“Snowfall Sarcophagus” by AJ Cunder

I remember lying in the snow, trying to preserve each snowflake that landed gently on my nose, a soft, huge silence stretching through the forest. The cold blanket buried me, soon covering even the tips of my boots, sapping my strength as the towering trees collected white frosting. I should’ve left when I first heard the dragon growl—while I still had the power to return to the back porch where a bright light kept its vigil. But I didn’t want to leave my burrow. It seemed so peaceful among the trees, and I wanted to stay just a little while longer, escape the world for just another moment.

The indeterminate creak of a distant branch echoed hollowly through the woods, and I tried to lift my arms, to break free from the heavy, wet snow. I tried to say something, to call out to the animals fleeing to their warrens—perhaps they heard the dragon coming too—but the words froze in my throat. My vision blurred, and the trees leaned over me, bending toward the ground with jagged black fingers to secure the beast’s next victim as it prowled. Beads of sweat moistened my back, a dampness that clung to my skin like a reptile’s kiss. I blinked away the flakes on my eyelashes as the dragon’s growl grew louder, nearer, stronger. A tremor shot through my bones, tingling my spine as I struggled to break free, to escape the creature that had hunted me since infancy—ever since I was diagnosed with type I diabetes. Ever since the dragon’s blood began to burn through my veins.

Time stretched moments into hours while the chalky clouds disgorged themselves upon the ground. Would my dad come looking for me? Would he realize I wasn’t coming back? Would he think I just got lost in the woods, or would he suspect the dragon, even though he could never feel it coming like I could? My mind drifted beyond the smoky sky, floating away into the distant galaxies vast and strange no matter how hard I tried to focus. The dragon’s shadow loomed over me, its hot breath a poisonous cloud that filled the grove, seeping through my blood with each heartbeat, draining my energy. A ravenous hunger gurgled in my stomach, and I opened my mouth, eating the snow that fell into it, wondering if it would be my final meal.

Jay…

My dad’s voice, I imagined, drifting through the trees like a dream. I listened again, tried to raise my arm, to signal for help. Ignoring the dragon that stalked the woods rustling dead leaves and snapping brittle branches while it preyed upon me.

Jay.

Louder this time, puncturing the silence.

I tried to call out. Tried to summon my savior. Tried to get the attention of the trees so they’d point him in my direction. But whose side were they on, anyway?

Jay, time for dinner!

If only I could scream that I couldn’t move, that the snow trapped me in place—that the dragon lurked nearby with hungry eyes.

“Jay!”

If only he looked down, followed my scattered footsteps.

Here, I tried to say, my voice not even a mouse’s squeak. Here.

My breathing slowed. My pulse thumped in my ears. The reality of death gripped me as the dragon rumbled, my muscles weak as water, the snowfall deepening. I was too young to die. Not here. Not like this. Not in the clutches of the dragon.

“Jay? Come on, dinner’s ready!”

The crunch of snow, my neck cracking as I tried to look. The dragon hissed, refusing to let its meal go quietly.

“Jay! I’m not playing, it’s time to come inside.”

Right above me, his yellow parka bright against the gray.

Just look down. Just look down. I tried to drown out the dragon’s roar.

“Jay?” The snow absorbed his plaintive cries. He turned back, walked for a bit around the trees, passed so close I could’ve reached out and grabbed his pants if the dragon’s poison hadn’t paralyzed me. I shivered beneath the snowy blanket, sweat soaking through my clothes.

“Jay— There you are! Come on, get up. Did you not hear me calling you?” A hint of anger replaced the panic. “Jay?” He bent down and shook me, brushing the snow off my snowsuit. I blinked, letting him know I was still alive. The dragon hadn’t won yet. “Jay, what’s the matter?”

The slightest shake of my head, the last of my energy spent in that desperate motion.

“Are you okay? Do you feel low?” He scooped up my limp body, running back to the house as my head slumped against his shoulder. His hands shook as he sat me down at the kitchen table, the lamp above me like the dragon’s hot fire. The orange juice nearly spilled as he poured it into a glass and held it to my lips. Outside the kitchen window, the dragon bared its fangs as a dribble of juice spilled down my chin, shrieking as its quarry escaped.

My body screamed for more when I finished the glass—I needed more to dilute the dragon’s venom. The beast thrashed as my dad pricked my finger to check my blood sugar, wondering, maybe, if it might yet pierce me with its own sharp talons.

“Twenty-seven! Jay, how did you get so low? Dammit, next time drink some juice before going out! Or eat something.” He ran a hand through his hair. “What if you passed out? What if I couldn’t find you?”

Then the dragon would’ve slaughtered me, and the ice would have frozen my bones until spring, I thought, rolling my head against the chair’s backrest. The dragon flicked its forked tongue, its yellow eyes flashing as it reluctantly retreated to its woodland haunts, and the sky covered my body’s impression, leaving a slight dimple in the snow until the spring sun came and melted the sylvan tomb.

 

(This story first appeared in Breath & Shadow.)

 

AJ Cunder graduated from Seton Hall University with a Master’s in Creative Writing. His award-winning work appears in Permafrost Magazine and is forthcoming in The Lindenwood Review along with publications appearing or forthcoming in Breath & Shadow, Harpur Palate, The Laurel Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. He currently serves as a submissions reader for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, works as a police officer, and volunteers with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as a mentor, advocate, and motivational speaker. Find him on Twitter @aj_cunder or online at www.WrestlingTheDragon.com

“Storytelling” by Jack Croxall

I’m going back in time, you’re coming with me. But we won’t be observing dinosaurs, watching the Spanish Armada burn, or meeting Cleopatra. We’re going back in time to look at a ceiling.

I can see the cogs turning. You’re thinking Sistine Chapel, or maybe Grand Central Station. You’re wrong. We’re going back in time to look at a white ceiling somewhere in rural Nottinghamshire. It’s plastered over now, but six years ago it was twisted, wrinkled, and warped, the combined result of age, swollen beams, and a dodgy paint job.

To an imaginative mind, the wrinkles in the ceiling form little shapes. Combine these shapes and (with a touch of artistic licence) they look like objects, sometimes animals. We’re looking at a section of the ceiling towards the back of the room. The wrinkles here form the image of a gecko. More specifically, a male crested gecko with three legs and a bulbous head embarrassingly out of proportion with its body. And here’s where it gets really weird. Because this is a story and in stories you can do whatever you want, we are going to inhabit the gecko’s body. So, in we go.

Okay. To recap, we’re six years in the past inhabiting the likeness of a three-legged gecko worn into an old ceiling. It’s pretty cramped (get your elbow out of my nether region), but there must be a reason we’re here. And there is. He’s lying in the bed directly beneath us. It’s a sleeping man: early twenties, messy brown hair, pale, and a little bit too skinny. He is, of course, a younger version of me. This may be a story, but it’s a true story. Sort of.

At this particular time Younger Me is just waking up. It’s the middle of the day but he’s not sleeping in, he’s only been asleep for a few minutes. In fact, his anxious mind will not let him sleep for more than ten minutes at a time, maybe a couple of hours during the night.

Younger Me comes around and just so happens to be facing upwards. He’s looking at us. Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the paradoxical nature of time travel, but we need to be very careful about how we act in the past. If we’re not careful we might inadvertently form an Earth-obliterating black hole or, much worse, become our own grandad. What I’m trying to say is that subtlety is key. So, let’s just wiggle one of the gecko’s feet.

Below, Younger Me has seen the gecko move. He’s spent days staring up at the gecko, but it’s never moved before. Surprisingly, Younger Me doesn’t look surprised. This is because he’s passing the foot-wiggle off as a side-effect of sleep deprivation; a minor hallucination. But we’re not going to let him off that easily. We’ll make the gecko speak. We’ll say: The doctor will tell you it’s not short-term. I can remember the gecko saying that. Sort of.

‘The doctor will tell you it’s not short-term.’

Younger Me is paying proper attention now. His bottom lip is quivering and he seems to be trying to ask a question. Come on, Younger Me, spit it out…

‘Did you just … talk?’

Yes, Younger Me. The pretend, three-legged gecko in your ceiling just spoke to you. Now, this might seem slightly cruel, but we’re not going to be replying to Younger Me’s question out loud. I distinctly remember the gecko not saying anything else that day and we don’t want to mess with the past too much (remember: black hole), so we need to flash forward. That’s something else you can do in stories.

It’s about a month later and we’re back inside the gecko. Younger Me is still in the bed beneath us; he’s reaching over to his bedside table for a glass of water and his medication. Swallowing all of his meds is a bit of an ordeal and may take Younger Me a while. Let me fill the time. The doctor spoke as we/the gecko predicted and Younger Me is still virtually bedbound. He can just about make it out of his room to shower and eat, but doing so exhausts him and causes him immense pain. In the time we’ve been gone, Younger Me has spoken frequently to the gecko. He’s the only person who understands what it’s like to be stuck in one place all day, every day. The gecko rarely responds, however.

‘Is it the pain or the boredom that’s the worst part?’ we make the gecko say.

Younger Me has finished taking his pills. He takes a deep breath and replies, ‘It’s the failure. You know that, Mr. Gecko. I’ve told you before.’

Oh, yes, I forgot Younger Me told the gecko that. We need specifics though, so let’s use the gecko to get some. ‘How have you failed?’

Younger Me swallows hard. ‘I had to drop out of university and abandon all of my life plans. My body has failed me and I kind of feel like I’ve failed at life.’

Oh dear. Younger Me is not in a good place. Let’s try and comfort him. ‘But it’s not your fault, you did nothing wrong.’

‘My fault or not,’ Younger Me answers, ‘it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t do any of the things I want to do.’

‘You’ve befriended a talking gecko,’ we answer. ‘That’s a life achievement right there.’

‘No offense, but you don’t really talk that much, Mr. Gecko. And even when you do, you’re just a product of my anxious, sleep-deprived mind anyway.’

I’m not entirely sure what to say to that. Any ideas? None? Okay, let’s flash forward then.

We’re back in the gecko, six months down the line. Younger Me is still beneath us, he’s listening to the radio. He can’t watch TV or read because being in any position other than lying perfectly flat causes his neck muscles to burn and the dreaded nausea to set in.

Oh, look at that. Younger Me has turned off the radio now. He’s twisting his head and stretching his neck muscles. A few seconds to the extreme left, a few seconds to the extreme right. Graded exercise. He’s trying to do a few seconds more each week. It’s what the doctor told him he should do. It’s excruciating though, and the difficulty is all the more strange when you consider that he used to think nothing of cycling non-stop for twenty miles. This looks like a bad time; let’s flash forward again.

It’s a year since we first inhabited the gecko. We’re back inside its body now, Younger Me is still beneath us. He doesn’t look any better, to be honest. In fact, he’s crying. Being virtually bedbound for a year will do that to you, no matter your age or gender, no matter how strong or energetic or happy you used to be.

‘Epstein-Barr,’ Younger Me mutters, as he often does. ‘Epstein-bloody-Barr.’

Uttering those words is a kind of ritual to him. He’s cursing the name of the virus that kick-started this miserable ordeal. The Epstein-Barr virus causes glandular fever and, in a small percentage of cases, glandular fever can lead to CFS.

CFS stands for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but you might know CFS as an illness that can cause much more than just fatigue. If you haven’t heard of it, you have at least just witnessed it. And, for the last year, Younger Me has been living it. He really looks like he needs someone to talk to. In fact, the conversation we’re about to have is the whole reason we travelled back in time. Sort of.

‘Afternoon,’ we make the gecko say.

Younger Me sniffles and focuses on the gecko. ‘Haven’t heard from you in a while, Mr. Gecko.’

‘Sorry,’ we answer. ‘Been doing gecko stuff.’

‘That’s okay, I’ve been busy too.’

‘No you haven’t.’

‘True,’ Younger Me responds, ‘but I thought I’d try and save your blushes.’

We leave a short pause and then say, ‘Did you know that geckos can predict the future?’

‘What?’

‘I’m serious. That’s how I knew what the doctor would tell you when we first spoke.’

Younger Me’s eyes are wide, he doesn’t quite know what to ask first. We pre-empt his question. ‘You’re never going to get your old body back.’

‘Oh …’

‘Sorry,’ we say, ‘but when it comes to bad news, geckos tell it straight.’

We let the notion settle and then we add, ‘But that doesn’t mean you can’t do all of the things you want to do.’

‘How?’ Younger Me asks.

‘You have an active imagination, right?’

‘I’m talking to a make-believe gecko that lives on my bedroom ceiling. I’d say so, yes.’

‘Well, you need to start channelling that imagination.’

Channelling it?’ Younger Me repeats, confused.

‘Yes. You need to start writing, you need to start telling stories. All of the places you want to go, all of the things you want to do, you can write about doing them instead of doing them.’

‘But—’

‘No buts,’ we interrupt. ‘Think of it like your graded exercise. Start with just a few words a day, then a sentence, then more. Build it up. Eventually you’ll be able to go anywhere and do anything you want: swim in tropical seas, climb distant mountains, even travel through space and time. And it will help, I promise.’

‘I’ve never written a story before.’

‘So?’ we say.

‘You really think it would help?’

‘I know so. And if you work hard enough, people might read your stories. You might get to take other people on strange and amazing journeys with you. You might even teach them something.’

‘I know better than to disobey imaginary talking geckos,’ Younger Me says, reaching for his laptop. ‘I’ll give it a go.’

Younger Me rests the laptop on his duvet and opens up a blank document. He titles it and begins to write. It’s not important for us to look at what Younger Me writes, it will probably be terrible and he won’t be able to write much anyway. Like we said though, he needs to start small and build it up. It will help. It will help a lot.

Ah, Younger Me has put his laptop aside and is snuggling down into his pillow now.

‘Maybe you’ll write a story about a talking gecko one day,’ we say. But Younger Me is already fast asleep.

 

 

Trained as a scientist, Jack Croxall concluded a life in the lab wasn’t for him. After discovering a passion for writing he’s now an author/blogger battling chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) in life and in prose. He tweets via @JackCroxall and blogs at www.jackcroxall.co.uk

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