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Inside The Barrier

November 1, 2019

 

Inside a wall of stone,

Is the demon’s home.

It is his domain,

For centuries it’s been claimed.

He shows you what you love,

To lure you in like a drug

Only to take it away,

All for your dismay.

He feeds on your weeping soul,

Until you are no longer whole.

Then he moves onto your flesh,

But it’s too late to thresh.

For his name is Agramon,

And he knows your greatest fears.

He will use you like a pawn,

And lick up all your tears.

 

***

 

Lizzy walked ahead of me, her purple dinosaur stompers crunching over dried leaves and acorns along the trail. I followed only a couple paces behind, stepping on as many bare patches of dirt as possible, trying to keep quiet.

 

“Ya know, I want to see at least some animals today, Liz.” I said. Lizzy giggled and turned back to face me, her pale blonde hair sliding over her shoulder to reveal her familiar smile.

 

“I can’t help it! Sorry I didn’t live in the woods as a kid like you!” She giggled again, falling back in line next to me. She bumped against my shoulder as we navigated the narrow pathway. I did, in fact, not grow up in the woods. My father was an avid hiker and took me along on all kinds of adventures. Night walks through cornfields, listening to coyotes cackle under the moon. Sliding like penguins on our stomachs over the frozen landscape. Eating turkey sandwiches, squatting on rocks by the river, counting how many fish we see in the water. I definitely didn’t live in the woods, but they did feel like a second home.

 

“Keep stomping like that and some monster will come out and grab us.” I shot back playfully, knowing she had a fear of the woods and what hides in its shadows. Her smile faded into a thin line.

 

“That’s not funny, Anna.” I smiled and walked faster so I took the lead. “Don’t leave me!” Lizzy shrieked. A squirrel nearby scurried away at the high-pitched sound of her voice. She sped to catch up with me, grabbing my elbow. I chuckled and stopped to shake her off my arm.

 

The forest fell silent with the absence of our footfall. There were no birds chirping in the treetops. No animals tip-toeing in the grass. No wind stirred the leaves. Nothing. The forest will tell you when something is wrong. My father’s voice echoed in my head. Just listen and it will tell you. The quiet stretched on for what seemed like hours. Lizzy just stared into my eyes, concern growing on her face. She mouths to me asking, What’s wrong? I just held a finger up to my lips and started looking around us. I hadn’t noticed, but clouds had gathered over us, painting the woods in shades of dark blue and black. Shadows loomed all around us, and suddenly Lizzy’s irrational fear planted itself in my mind. Is that a person behind that tree?

 

Lizzy stood next to me, cold and pale as a corpse. “Let’s go back.” I said, grabbing Lizzy by the shoulders and forcing her stiff legs back a few feet. “There is another trail that leads to the-” Sound and color returned all at once. The sky was blue and sunlight filled in all the shadows, warming our icy bodies. Birds chatted up in the trees and a slight breeze tickled the leaves, making them titter above our heads and around our feet. I felt like Dorothy when she woke up in Oz. The ominous, dark forest we were utterly trapped in a moment ago had vanished like a bad dream. Lizzy was shaking her head as if she just woke up too.

 

“What the hell was that?” she asked, glancing around dumbfounded. I glared up at the sky, shielding my eyes with my hands. There were no clouds or planes or hawks that could have darkened the sky so suddenly. I looked around, but everything was back to normal. The air even seemed to be lighter and more breathable.

 

Then I saw it. A line of tiny pebbles. Some grey, some blue, some even a pale pink. But they were all placed neatly in a row, stretching on for miles beyond my sight. The line separated the place where we were standing and where we were seconds before, surrounded by darkness. Lizzy noticed the pebbles shortly after I did and bent down to touch them. She barely grazed the stones before her hand shot back as if she had been stung.

 

“They’re freezing.” she whispered. Her usual cheerful face was somber-stricken. I really wished she would smile again. We grew up together in the same neighborhood. We knew each other’s secrets, our deepest sadness and greatest pleasures. We could tell by a single look what the other was thinking, but right now, the confusion twisted Lizzy’s face so much I almost couldn’t recognize my happy-go-lucky best friend. She has always been the furious one when it came to boys and social situations, but I am the one who enjoys the natural world over the human world. And I am the one who has to figure this out.

 

Lizzy stood up and began to back away, shaking her head. “Anna I don’t like this. I think we should go.” She stared into my eyes, clearly worried, searching for a shared eagerness to run away from this mystery. I opened my mouth to speak, but something caught my attention. A flash of red behind the trees. I walked past Lizzy, leaving her behind me. I had only gone a few feet when someone sprinted out into the open, behind the barrier. He was standing right across from me, I couldn’t reach him, but I knew exactly who it was.

 

“J-Jack?” My voice broke with the wave of sorrow that came crashing down on my body. Jack. My little brother Jack. My sweet Jack who died in a car crash with his best friend last year. Yet here he stood, dressed all in red, smiling his goofy grin that I loved. It was impossible. Blood was pounding in my ears, my heart ached. I fell to my knees, tears streaming down my face. Lizzy rushed down next to me.

 

“Anna what are you talking about? No one is there. Jack isn’t there.” she said quietly, trying to soothe me. She squeezed my shoulders and tried to make me face her, but I didn’t dare take my eyes off Jack, afraid that he would vanish. I forced myself to stop crying before my vision could be blurred out by tears. “Anna what’s wrong? What’s going on?”

 

“It’s Jack, Liz. He’s standing right there. Don’t you see him? He’s back.” I pointed directly in front of me. The pain in my heart was replaced with a sudden jolt joy. My brother is back! He isn’t dead! His brown hair was neatly brushed and styled. His freckles stood out against his light skin. His blue eyes sparkled like the ocean. He looked just as he was when he was seventeen. “He is right there, behind the barrier.”

 

“Anna I don’t see anything. Are you ok?” she asked. I just nodded my head, a smile stretching wide across my face. “Maybe it’s just a trick, but I think we need to go.” Right then Jack ran deeper beyond the barrier, dirt and leaves kicking up behind him.

 

“Jack! Wait!” I took off like a track star, my Tims digging into the soft earth. “Jack, stop!” Leaves smacked my cheeks and branches snagged at my hair, but I pushed through, only a few feet behind Jack.

 

“Anna! Stop!” Lizzy’s voice quickly faded into the staccato of my racing heart. All that mattered was catching Jack. I could almost feel his twiggy frame under my arms as I squeezed him tight in a hug. Jack bobbed just beyond my reach like a worm on a hook. I could feel myself being drawn in closer, closer, closer. I stretched out my hand, my finger tips almost grazing the back of his shirt. On a whim, I leaped through the air, aiming at Jack’s torso, but as soon as my arms touched his back he disappeared into a pile of red smoke.

 

CLUNK! My body crashed into the ground, head smacking against a log. The woods around me faded in and out, covered in a layer of red smoke.

 

***

 

“Anna…” I slowly started to be pulled out of my dazed. “Anna… where are you?” Everything sounded fuzzy and really far away as if someone were calling out to me from the top of a cliff and I was drowning in the chilly sea below. “Anna? Oh my gosh! Anna!” Hands grabbed at my shoulders and I felt my body being lifted into a sitting position, my head, however, lolled around like a doll’s.

 

“Mmmm…” I groaned, reaching for the throbbing part of my head. I cracked open my eyes. Lizzy’s light blue eyes stared right back at me, tears streaked her cheeks.

 

“I thought you were gone! I thought I was lost and that we were both going to die out here and no one would ever find-” I placed my hand over her mouth to muffle her ranting.

 

“We are fine Liz, but please, my head is killing me.” I removed my hand and she smiled shyly.

 

“Right. Sorry.” she whispered and moved closer to look at my head. She poked at the bump I knew was there and I winced. “That seems pretty bad. I think we need to get you to a hospital.” Lizzy put her arms around me and helped me to stand. The trees weren’t spinning around me so I dismissed my injury as a mild concussion. But even a knock to the head couldn’t make me forget what I saw.

 

“Liz, did you see Jack? He’s alive. I was chasing him, but when I caught him I must have missed and hit my head…” Lizzy was looking at me like a parent looks at their child who says they saw a monster in their closet. “Don’t look at me like that! I saw him!” I shook off Lizzy’s arms and started to wander around, dusting off the dirt and leaves that stuck to my jeans. Lizzy hesitantly walked behind me.

 

“Anna, your brother died. I’m sorry, but what you saw is impossible.” I ignored her and strained to see in the shadows. It was even darker than before. The sky was a deep purple, but no crickets or frogs chirped to signify that it was night time. The air felt heavy and cold as if it were winter. Goosebumps rose on my arms where my t-shirt didn’t cover them. What is this place? I turned around to face Lizzy, a block of ice had settled in my stomach, nothing felt right in here.

 

“But I saw him Liz. He was really here…” A tear slid down my cheek and Lizzy rushed to embrace me. I breathed in her perfume, glad to be reminded of familiarity. I squeezed Lizzy tight, but she didn’t return the gesture. Instead, her arms dropped down to her sides and her breathing started to speed up. I could feel her heart beating wildly in her chest. “Liz, what’s wrong?” Lizzy started to tremble, so I pulled back and held her at arm’s length. My breath caught in my throat and my head swirled. It was as if I was watching the scene from up above, not actually in my body. Lizzy’s face was streaked with bloody tears. Her eyes were wide open, but there was no color, only ink-like blackness reflected my own horrified face. Her jaw hung slack like she had dislocated it. I didn’t even realize I was screaming and crying until I felt my own salty tears in my mouth.

 

I let Lizzy go, falling backwards onto the ground. I just kept screaming and screaming and she just stood there, bloody and black-eyed and gone. Everything got colder. The ground around me started to freeze over with frost. My fingers were numb as I dug them into the dirt, trying to get a grip on reality. I heard a sound like someone exhaling heavily behind me and snapped my head around. My heart stopped. He was huge, lizard-like, and red as hellfire. His eyes were black, soulless pits in his leathery face. Horns twisted up towards the moonless night like scaley serpents. He wore a midnight black cloak of heavy velvet, the frost was sticking to the edges of it. His giant, clawed hand reached toward Lizzy, grabbing her shoulders just like I did seconds ago. His dragon-like face opened to reveal endless rows of yellow teeth as big as a grown man’s thumb. His breath made my toes curl in my boots and threatened my stomach to heave.

 

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t feel my body. I couldn’t feel anything but fear rooted so deeply inside me that I didn’t know who I was. All I could do was watch as my best friend was attacked by a monster. Something silvery-white flowed from within Lizzy’s mouth and into the beast’s. After it was gone, her body collapsed to the ground. I could feel that she was no longer here, no longer alive on the inside, though her body remained. Her eyes were still black, and in them I could see my own shock. Blood continued to stream down her face, but I couldn’t look away. This was Lizzy. My dearest friend. The girl I relied on since I was little. This isn’t real. I thought to myself. This can’t be happening. I must still be knocked out. But as soon as the beast dug his teeth into Lizzy’s flesh, I knew. Her blood spattered my face and clothes, but it woke me out of my stuper. I didn’t bother to clean off my face. I just stood up and ran.

 

I could hear the crunching of bones and squelching of blood, but I kept running, never looking back. The bitter cold I felt had returned to a mild chill and the sky seemed merely grey rather than pitch darkness. Still, I ran. I pumped my arms and worked my legs to take me home. To carry me all the way back to my house so I could curl up into my bed and cry myself to sleep. God, I wanted to sleep. Suddenly, Jack was running right beside me, all in red. He was laughing as if nothing was wrong. As if my best friend hadn’t just been killed. I glanced up at his eyes and slid to a halt. They were black and mirror-like, just like Lizzy’s had been. Just like that thing.

 

“Why are you running, Anna?” The sound of my brother’s voice brought up a new wave of sorrow. I fought to keep down my tears, if I even had any more. “Don’t you want to stay here with us?” Jack tilted his head to the side like a puppy, his lips drawn into a pout.

 

“What do you mean us?” I said, trying to make my voice sound stronger than I actually felt. I flexed my hands, adrenaline pumping through my veins. I was ready to take action if I needed to, although my heart and my head were weighted down with loss. Red smoke fizzled next to Jack and in seconds Lizzy appeared. She wore the same red clothes and bore the same black eyes.

 

“Stay with us, Anna.” Lizzy tilted her head in the same way, but she smiled. Lightning shot down my spine. I started to sweat and beetles clawed at the inside of my stomach. My legs locked up and I stopped running. Jack and Lizzy stopped right in front of me.

 

“You aren’t real!” I shouted. I fought the urge to throw up. I wanted to run, but the two people I love the most were blocking my way out. Jack and Lizzy straightened their heads at the same time, both of their faces blank of expression. Suddenly they weren’t standing in front of me anymore. There was only thick, red smoke. I spun in a circle, heart racing, before I took off again. I only took two steps before tripping and falling flat on my face. I quickly turned onto my back and inched away. It was Lizzy. She was covered in blood and bite marks. Her face pleading, but eye soulless and dead.

 

“Help me, Anna…” She tried to grab my ankle, but I pulled away. “Why did you leave me to die?” I shook my head before standing up and sprinting away from her. She isn’t real. This isn’t real. A huge explosion shook the earth and I fell again. Smoke filled my lungs and a new warmth filled the air. I coughed and gagged, pulling myself back up on my hands and knees. In front of me was my brother’s car, filled with flames and surrounded by smoke. A hand reached out of the driver’s side window. It was charred and sticky with melted skin.

 

“Anna, save me.” It was my brother’s voice, but disheveled and croaking. “Why won’t you save me?” This time I couldn’t help it. I threw up. When I was done I laid down in the dirt, quivering and crying. Smoke continued to choke me, but I didn’t care anymore. I covered my ears with my hands and let my body drain itself of motivation. I have failed those who mattered most to me. I sobbed louder, ashes stinging my lungs. I had an urge to open my eyes, almost like a voice inside my head telling me to let go. But I realized the voice wasn’t inside my head, it was right in front of me.

 

“Inside a wall of stone…” the voice sang, sweet and soft, like a lullaby. “Is the demon’s home…” I felt the frost covering my body and the lure to open my eyes became stronger. I dug my fists into my ears to block out the chanting and shakily forced myself to stand. I clamped my eyes shut and started to run away from the voice and the smoke and the flames. Away from the sadness and fear and loss. Away from the beast within the woods. I peeked open after a couple seconds and saw only trees. I ran faster. I could see the thin line of pebbles marking my escape. I can do this. Only a few more feet.

 

“Anna! Don’t leave us here alone!” They were both at my side. Jack to my right and Lizzy to my left. I couldn’t look at their faces, I had to focus on escape. “Why are you leaving us? Don’t you love us?” I breathed harder, pumping more air into my lungs so I could speak.

 

“I always have and I always will. But I can’t stay here with dead things.” Their hands reached out of me, but I jumped across the barrier before they could touch me. I stopped and turned around but they were gone. I felt the warmth of the sunlight wash over me. Blood and dirt clung to my clothes and face. I breathed the clean air deeply, calming myself down. I am safe. It’s over.

 

I turned away from the barrier and went to walk towards the trail, but a deer stood in the way. A smile made a surprise visit on my face. The doe looked up at me, carefully taking me in, deciding whether to trust me or not. I slowly reached out my hand and the doe began to tip-toe closer to me. Ya know, I want to see at least some animals today, Liz. Guilt sank it’s stone deep into my stomach and my hand curled back. The doe almost looked offended, but it didn’t matter. Seconds later a bear came crashing through the forest and took down the deer. It tried to run, but it was too late. I was so shocked I screamed and stumbled back. I was instantly plunged into darkness. A giant hand rested on my shoulder, cold and scaley. Frost covered my limbs, freezing them into place. I felt his breath on my neck.

 

“Anna…” I gulped, knowing what was to come, but helpless to stop it.

 

“For his name is Agramon and he knows your greatest fears. He will use you like a pawn and lick up all your tears…”

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