Winter Thoughts

It’s almost winter again. The stillness. The quiet. The cold. It is a time for introspection, a chance to review the year. Winter is an end, not merely a waypoint on the path to spring.

Some do not like the cold and the dark that dominate the season, yet it is part of the year, just as death is part of life. Winter serves as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of the world around us. It is a different kind of wonder that permeates the long night, and it should not be quickly dismissed.

Winter reminds us to turn inward, to pay attention to who and what is with us right now. The rest of the year we can spend outside, engaging the external world. For right now, we have time for ourselves and our ghosts.

Life has death. Day has night. Waking has sleep. And the year has winter. It is a holy time, a sacred time. It is the rest at the end of work. It is necessary for recuperating. We rush through it to our own detriment.

The snow blankets us with warmth. The stars and moon give us light. The wind carries secrets. If only we are willing to feel, to see, to hear. Winter is there, waiting for each of us. We may try to run from it, but we cannot run forever. And when we stop, she will be there, her arms wide, ready to welcome us to the quiet beauty she has prepared.

“for I do not know

if the ending will end,

or even if

I want it to”

Hair Sample

There was a light tapping on the door. It was so quiet, David almost didn’t hear it, and when he opened the door, there was no one there. As soon as he closed the door, the tapping returned. This time, something caught his attention in his peripheral vision, and he looked down.

A light brown teddy bear, not even a foot tall, stood on the floor looking up at him. As soon as it was certain David had seen it, it began running down the hallway.

“What the hell?” He was tempted to follow the stuffed animal but decided it was probably a prank from one of the other house members. He closed the door and headed back to his research. Almost immediately, the tapping was back once more.

Sure enough, the teddy bear stood there. This time, it waited for him to step into the hallway before running. It moved surprisingly fast for its size, and he had to jog to keep up. After rounding a corner, it stopped outside another door and looked at him.

This wasn’t Sarah’s room, and he hadn’t met anyone else yet, so David hesitated. The bear, however, appeared to grow impatient and knocked on the door itself. A moment later, a woman opened the door. She looked at the bear first.

“Is this him?”

The bear nodded before walking into the room and vanishing from sight.

“David. Nice to meet you. I’m Rebecca. Please, come in.” She opened the door wider and gestured for him to enter.

A little perplexed, David nodded and stepped inside. The room before him was circular. A round table was pushed against the wall, and a couple of couches faced each other in the center of the area. Two doors led elsewhere, though both were closed. This place had an entirely different layout from his rooms, and it looked as though it wasn’t even in the same building.

“Have a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?”

The question forced his attention back to her. “Uh… I’m sorry. It’s nice to meet you, but I don’t know what this is about.”

She smiled. “Oh. I just wanted to introduce myself and get to know you a little. Thomas suggested everyone do so, and I just hadn’t had a free moment until now. You weren’t busy, were you? I didn’t mean to drag you away from your work, if this is a bad time.”

“No, it’s fine.” He waved away her concern. “I was just taken aback by your… bear.”

“Yeah. It’s my assistant, after a fashion. Not a usual sight, I suppose. I really need to give it a name.”

“Your assistant is a teddy bear?”

“Haha. It’s a spirit. I put it in the bear. Useful, if a little unpredictable. Nothing malicious about it, though. I used the bear thinking it would be less unsettling.”

“Hmmm.” David was unsure it had achieved the desired effect.

“So… how do you know Thomas,” she asked.

“I don’t. Not really. He knew my… instructor. Asked if I would join the house once my training was finished. Seemed like a good opportunity, so here I am. Not really sure what to make of it, or what’s expected of me. But it’s nice having my own lab.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes it is. Honestly, since I’ve been here, no one’s really asked much of anything from me, either. I feel a bit like a freeloader, actually. Jason supplies us all with crystals. Sarah and Julia seem to handle security. And Thomas is rarely around. Every time I ask Sarah if there is something I should be doing, she tells me not to worry about it. That Thomas will let me know if I’m needed for something. Mostly, I just pursue my own investigations.”

“She told me something similar. And I still haven’t even met Jason or Julia.”

“You may not meet Julia for awhile. She keeps to herself. You’ll bump into Jason eventually. My advice? Just relax. This is a rather laid back house.”

“I’m getting that… Ow!!!”

It felt as though he had been poked in the head with something sharp like a needle. He spun around to find the teddy bear on the back of the couch. “What the…?!”

Rebecca jumped to her feet and rushed over to shoo the bear away. “Crap! It’s never done that before. Are you okay?”

Rubbing the back of his head, David tried to downplay it. “Yeah. It just startled me. Are you sure that thing isn’t evil?”

“Yes. Or… at least I was.” She picked up the bear, opened one of the doors, and threw it inside before slamming the door shut again. “I’m really sorry. If I had any inkling it would do that, I never have let it out.”

“It’s okay. Just… Check it, will you? I’m not fond of demonic entities wandering around. Even if they’re only teddy bears.”

Rebecca tried to stifle a chuckle. “It’s not, but I will make sure. I’m sorry we’ve gotten off on a bad foot.”

“We haven’t. But I think I’ll head back now. Maybe you could stop by sometime. Without that thing.”

“Of course. Again, I’m so sorry.”

“Really, don’t worry about it.”

After David had left, Rebecca opened the door to her lab again, and the bear walked out.

“Real subtle,” she said. “Did you get it, at least?”

The bear held out one arm with two strands of hair wrapped around it.

“Good. Perfect.” She unwrapped the strands. “Now, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay inside for awhile.”

The bear seemed to sigh before walking back into the lab.

Mage Devourer

The creature stirred in its cave. It had no idea why it was now awake; indeed, there was no thought at all. It simply found itself raised from slumber. And hungry. The emptiness in its belly was of utmost concern. Not just any food would do; this sort of hunger could only be sated by a very particular prey.

Its long, slender body uncoiled as it began to search for the scent of what it craved. Though it superficially looked like a serpent, small suckers lined its underside. Any remaining resemblance to a snake was shattered as a dozen thin, spindly legs unfolded from its body, lifting it off the ground.

The creature was a mana worm; the mage who named it had not seen its legs. In legends, it was known as a mage devourer, a designation it had earned many times over. They were forces from the realm of magic, nearly mindless, operating on instinct. A single worm could destroy an entire tower of mages by itself. They were entirely unknown by humans who had no connection to magic. These days, most mages did not even know of them.

The worms had been nearly exterminated after countless mages had lost their lives to them. The few that remained had retreated to forgotten depths to sleep undisturbed. Only a handful of written records of the creatures existed, and all of those were forgotten in private collections. A few people had heard legends, but these were little more than fairy tales. Not many people had heard of them, and no one believed that they still existed, if they ever had.

Yet, this one still existed. Someone had known about it, had even known how to wake it. None of this meant anything to the creature. It knew only its hunger and the scent of a mage that had been left behind. It would feed as soon as it could find that mage.

The Hallway

The lock had been surprisingly easy to pick. The apparent affluence in the neighborhood had led him to expect much tighter security, yet he had the door opened in less than 30 seconds. Now he found himself in a long hallway with wooden floors and light colored walls. In fact, as he looked at it, it seemed too long for the house. Having taken a few steps, he looked back over his shoulder, but he could no longer see the front door. He hadn’t turned any corners, and yet the way he had come in was simply gone.

He walked back to where he was sure the door had been. Now there was just a blank wall, a dead end. Probing it, he could find no secret panel that might be concealing the entrance. The only option he could see was to continue on, so he turned back around and began walking again.

The hallway continued to present him with oddities that he couldn’t explain. Sudden turns appeared when it first looked as though the hallway continued straight ahead. Doors disappeared when he got closer to them. Several minutes passed without coming upon anything of note, and he knew that something was very wrong in this house.

Any thoughts of robbery had evaporated; now his only concern was escape, but there was no obvious way to accomplish that. There were no remarkable features in the hallway, no decorations or adornments. And no other path to take.

After going around one corner, he saw a man walking toward him. He looked for a place to hide, but there were no such places. It turns out he needn’t have bothered; the man, who was talking to himself, walked right past him without even looking up.

Deciding that getting out was more important than staying hidden, he called out. “Hey! Excuse me?”

The man stopped and turned around. “Oh. Who are you?”

“I. . . I am lost. I was hoping you could tell me how to get out of here.”

The man smiled absently. “Sure. Just keep following this hall. It will lead you to the front door.” Without waiting for a response, the man turned and walked right through the wall.

He knew he’d been walking away from the front door since he arrived, so he couldn’t possibly be heading towards it. More confusing was that a person just walked through a solid wall. He knocked on the wall, and there was nothing hollow sounding about it. He had no other choice, so he continued walking. A few more steps, and he found himself in front of a door, one that didn’t vanish. Grateful to finally have found the way out of this endless hallway, he opened the door and stepped through.

Into a dimly lit room. Just a few candles on tables provided any light. A woman with blue hair sat in an armchair and looked at him, or at least in his direction.

“Hello.” He voice was pleasant enough.

“Hi. I was . . .”

“If you’ve found your way to this room, you are likely very confused.”

“Yes, I . . .”

“If you need to speak with a living person, one will be along . . . sometime. For now, allow me to explain your predicament.

“You do not belong in this house. If you did, you would never find your way here. Unless you are Jason, in which case,” her voice took on a resigned tone, “you already know the way out.

“You should know that there was some discussion about what should be done to the random trespasser. At least one of us, the person who designed the hallway, wanted a rather lengthy and gruesome punishment. She was overruled, however, and a compromise was reached. Unfortunately for you, part of the compromise is that I can’t tell you what the punishment is. What I can tell you is that you must keep moving. There is a way out, but only if you keep moving. Good luck.”

The woman winked out of existence, and he stood there staring at the chair she had recently occupied. All of a sudden, he was blinded by lights, and it took him a minute to realize it was just the overhead lights coming on. Looking around, he saw the man who had passed him earlier in the hall.

“Are . . . are you really here?”

The man chuckled. “Yes. Sorry I followed you. Sarah’s little speech is fun to listen to, especially when she mentions me. I just wanted to hear it again. I realized you were headed here, so I just tagged along.”

“Sarah? The woman I just saw?”

“Yep. She’s really quite good at this stuff.”

“Okay… she said I had to keep moving?”

The man gestured across the room. “That door over there. Normally, I’d tell you to run, but you seem like a nice sort. Truthfully, a brisk walk or light jog is sufficient. It moves kind of slow.”

“What does?”

As if that was a cue, growling and scratching could be heard on the other side of the door by which he had entered the room.

“That. You should really go now.” The man just stood there with his absent smile still on his mouth.

He quickly made it to the far door and opened it, finding himself once more in the hallway. Walking quickly, he could hear snarling behind him. Terror overcoming him, he ran for awhile, but he couldn’t keep it up and had to return to walking.

The only real indication of the passing of time was the ache in his legs. When the pain became nearly unbearable, the growling grew louder and he pushed through the agony. Eventually, his legs became numb, and he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been walking.

He never caught sight of the beast behind him, but the sounds of its pursuit were always there. Just as he was about to collapse, he stumbled into another door. Opening it, he found himself outside in the sunlight. Hours must have passed while he had been inside. The fresh air and sun gave him a new burst of energy, and he broke into a run to get as far away from the house as possible.

The List

The room looked as though no one lived in it. There were no personal items on the shelves or walls, and nothing was out of place. The books could easily have been placed for decoration. The only sign that someone had been there, besides the absence of dust, was a single piece of paper on the desk.

On the paper was a short list of simple statements:

  • Matthew has moved out.
  • David has just moved in.
  • David has only met Sarah.
  • Julia has not died.
  • Bailey has not come to the house.

The handwriting on the note was clean and simple. There were no flourishes, but each letter was written carefully.

A man appeared in the previously empty room. He was tall and gaunt, his eyes sunken and tired. After walking over to the desk, he picked up the note and read through it carefully. Then he sat down in one of the arm chairs and closed his eyes.

Thomas knew now when he was. The list was sufficient, both because of what it did contain and also because of what it did not. This was his present, if any time deserved the name. The list helped him separate what was true from what might be true later. The future that had not yet happened, and the past that was already set.

The list also reminded him of things that were important and needed attention. He could not spend all of his energies in the possible future; action was required in the here and now to bring that future into being. Or avoid it, in some cases.

A dull ache throbbed through his temples. Projecting ahead created more strain than looking back, probably because of the uncertainty inherent in the future. It didn’t stop him from going forward. It was better to get a sense of what might happen than to be caught unawares. It was the only way to have a chance to avoid the worst.

Thomas forced himself to stand. A shower and a shave would help him feel a bit more human and help ground him in the now. He needed to consider his next moves. Talking with Julia again probably wouldn’t help, but he could try. Jason was another option, but he was unlikely to be of any assistance. Thomas finally decided he was too exhausted to make any decisions at the moment. He definitely needed to get cleaned up and get some rest. There was still time to act. He made sure the list was still on the desk in case he came back to this moment while he was in the shower.

An Exorcism

This was a stupid job. Rebecca tried to focus on the money, which she needed, but it was hard not think about how ridiculous it was. This kid’s doll was almost certainly not possessed, yet the parents insisted she exorcise it. They had seen too many horror movies.

Part of her thought she should feel grateful that supernatural horror was popular, but it led to so many bizarre ideas and even paranoia in the public. She knew she didn’t really have to take these jobs, but having some money of her own made her feel a bit more secure. It was something that was hers, that no one could take from her, as well as giving her a sort of independence. She didn’t have to rely on anyone else if it came to that.

However, it sometimes meant searching through a child’s messy room looking for a doll that had moved on its own, or so the family claimed. None of them wanted to be near it, so they had left her to find it. She spent some time digging through piles, looking under the bed and in the closet, and checking other, less obvious, nooks before finally finding it under the dresser.

There was little doubt that this was the doll in question: porcelain, blue dress, and a creepy, realistic face. If you’re going to watch scary movies with possessed dolls, why would you buy something like this? Rebecca had no idea, but she could see why they might believe the doll was possessed. If demonic dolls exist, this what they looked like.

Her intention was to take the doll, tell the owners the spirit possessing it wouldn’t bother them anymore, and go home. Out of curiosity, though, she cast a simple spell to check for spirits or related activity and discovered, to her surprise, that a spirit did indeed inhabit the doll.

The spirit was rather weak and could manage only to animate the doll in minor ways, moving one arm or blinking the eyes. There was no malevolence in it, and no real danger. Of course, seeing a doll move would probably terrify most normal people. Rebecca felt slightly embarrassed, but only in her mind, since she hadn’t confided her skepticism to anyone else. At least she didn’t have to admit her mistake out loud.

Another spell, this one a bit more complicated, allowed the spirit to communicate.

“Can you hear me?” Rebecca asked tentatively.

“Uh.” The response was quiet.

“Do you have to stay in this doll?”

“Nuh.”

“How about this house? Are you tied to it?”

“Nuh.”

“Are you willing to come with me?”

There was a pause before the doll answered, but it did finally reply. “Uh.”

“Alright. Let’s get out of here. Easier than fighting about it.”

She opened the bag she had brought with her. It mostly held props that clients expected someone like her to use. They were all for show. She picked up the doll.

“Is it okay to put you in this bag? Just until i can get you back to my lab?”

“Uh.”

She carefully placed the doll inside and latched the bag closed. Before leaving the room, she checked the house for other spirits. There was nothing else unusual that she could detect.

Downstairs, she reassured the family that she had secured the doll and the spirit would no longer trouble them. They arranged payment, and she told them, as part of her guarantee, to call her again if anything else weird happened.

On the way back to the house, she decided she had to move the spirit out of the doll. There had to be something less creepy she could use. Maybe Sarah had a teddy bear or something. More importantly, Rebecca wanted to figure out how the spirit got into the doll in the first place. That sort of thing was not common. It might be worth keeping it around for awhile. 

Late Night Snacks

Jason was sitting alone in the kitchen, a carton of vanilla ice cream on the island in front of him. He would have gotten a bowl, but then he would have had to wash it, so he decided to just eat right out of the container. No one else was around to object.

A door appeared in the middle of the room. It opened, and Julia walked through. After she closed it behind her, the door vanished. Julia was a head shorter than he was and looked younger, though Jason knew that might be a deception. Her long hair was tied back in the usual ponytail. He couldn’t make out the color of her hair and wished he could remember what it was.

“Jason? Why are you sitting in the dark?”

“Don’t need light to eat.”

Julia sighed and turned a light on.

Black! Her hair was black!

Grabbing a box of crackers from a cupboard, Julia sat down on a stool on the other side of the island. “You didn’t want a bowl?”

He just shook his head.

“So why are you up so late?”

Jason looked at his wrist, but there was no watch there. “Is it late?”

Julia sighed again before changing the subject. “So someone new has moved into the house?”

“Did they?”

“Jason! You’re the one who told me about him.”

“Oh right. An elementalist, I believe. I haven’t met him yet.”

“Why did Thomas bring in someone new? This place is already too crowded.”

“I don’t know. Thomas doesn’t tell me why he does things.”

“Yes, he does. You just never remember.”

“That’s probably true,” Jason said with a laugh.

“This place is too crowded.”

“You already said. But how would you know? You almost always stay in your room.”

Julia frowned. “You forget that I helped create all this space. I know when it’s occupied.”

“Yeah. Still, you should get out more.”

“No, thank you.”

Cocking her head a bit as though listening to something Jason couldn’t hear, she hopped down from her stool and summoned a door. “I’ll talk to you later, Jason.”

After the door disappeared, Sarah rounded the corner into the kitchen. “Jason? I thought I heard Julia.”

Jason waved his hand at nothing. “She just left.”

“Dammit. Why does she always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Leave. She really doesn’t like me, does she?”

“Don’t take it personally. She doesn’t like anyone.”

“She seems to like you just fine.”

“I’m her brother; she has to like me.”

“But you’re not her brother! You two aren’t related.”

“Really?” Jason appeared genuinely puzzled.

“Really. You both say that, but you aren’t.”

“Huh. Well, maybe I remind her of her brother.”

“Honestly, Jason, I don’t know how you make through the day sometimes.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t think there’s a trick to it.”

“Uh huh.” Sarah slumped down onto the same stool Julia had recently occupied.

Jason looked down at his ice cream, which had become rather soft, and decided he’d had enough. He threw the spoon into the sink and put the carton back in the freezer.

“So have you met David yet?”

“Who’s David?” Jason asked, absently.

“The new kid. He arrived yesterday.”

“Oh. No, I haven’t seen him. Is he nice?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“Don’t worry about Julia. She’ll come around eventually.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t.”

“Seriously, how do you get through the day?”

“With a smile.” Jason pulled a pretzel rod from… somewhere and put it in his mouth like a cigar. “Have a good night, Sarah.”

“You too, Jason.”