This is a bit different from some of the stories I’ve written lately, darker for one thing, but it’s been rattling around inside my head for some time, so I finally let it out.
The first thing Dillon saw when he came into consciousness was his hand, moving spasmodically in the muck by the lakeside, his fingers moving like five fat maggots. He took a shuddering breath, coughed out some water and stood up.
Sleepwalking. It must have been that again. The medicine seemed to have stopped working. He had the feeling he had done this before, walked outside in his sleep and right into the lake. It was lucky he hadn’t drowned.
Dillon staggered back up to the split-log cabin that sat on the bluff overlooking the teacup lake. Tiffany never liked going there, but he loved it, this tiny outpost beyond the grasp of civilization. No Internet, no TV, and just enough electricity to run the lights and his used Dell laptop where he forged his bizarre, surreal stories, one keystroke at a time.
So tired. His head ached and he walked with his head down and eyes half-closed until he reached the door. It was locked. That puzzled him. How had he locked the door when he was sleepwalking? Sure, it had a button lock on the inside that he could have pushed, but he had never known himself to do that before. He fished the keys out of his sodden pocket and stepped into the sparse kitchen. All the appliance were at least 30 years old, the old-fashioned, hard to use kind that drove Tiffany nuts. He liked them though. Or perhaps it was just that they guaranteed she would let him come here alone. Antique appliances were a fair trade for total solitude.
The coffee maker, the one modern concession besides the laptop, was set to turn on by itself in 10 minutes, as it always did. He pushed the button and as it gurgled and hissed, he pulled out his pill bottles from the drawer above it. Three blues, two whites: he popped them into his mouth and ducked to get a mouthful of tepid water from the faucet. He felt the meds kick in almost immediately and by the time the coffee was ready, he was a man reborn. They did not keep his mind from spinning; on the contrary, his mind was turning like a flywheel now, generating the necessary creative juices.
He looked out the window and a shock like electricity went through him. Next to his silver pickup truck sat a blue Jaguar, one that he knew very well. Tiffany was here? Since when? Dillon opened the bedroom door, expecting to see her, but it was empty. It was a tiny cabin, but he searched it again and again for ten minutes.
She must be swimming. Ha, not likely. His wife didn’t go near water without adequate chlorination and a handsome, college-aged lifeguard to watch over her. Hiking? Even less likely. If Tiffany couldn’t walk there in high heels, she did not walk there at all.
Finally, Dillon went outside to see if she was sitting behind the wheel. It was empty and locked. It didn’t make sense. He went inside, poured the coffee and took another white pill with it, just to calm his nerves, along with one of the tiny red ones, just because he felt he deserved it after all this confusion.
He turned on the laptop and it sprang to life with an electronic trill. There were no games on it or other distractions and he had set it up to open the file of his current work in progress automatically. Up came the title page, The Woods of Trillium. He scrolled to the bottom. When he had left off, the main character Turner Belasco had just left the witch’s house and was staggering through the forest, trying to get the cursed dagger out of his hand.
Dillon stared at the screen. There was text he didn’t remember writing. It didn’t fit with the story.
“Where is she, you dumb bastard?” the witch cried, tearing at Turner’s clothes with her claws. “You think I don’t know why you are wandering these woods all the time? You’re not looking for the Fountain of Light, you’re screwing some wench!”
“You are surely mad, woman!” Turner shouted. He shook the cursed dagger to loose it from his hand, but it was stuck fast.
“You must prove your loyalty to me,” the witch said. “Burn down this hovel you have constructed. Burn it to the ground and you will be free of the curse.”
“But the house is the key to finding the Fountain of Light,” Turner said. “I carved the map on the floor myself, with hard labor. I will never give it up.”
“You will or you will suffer!” The crone flew at him and Turner held up his hands to defend himself. But the cursed dagger, which was frozen to his hand, stabbed her in the throat and she dropped to the floor, dead.
Turner cleaned up the witch’s blood and then carried her and her garments out to the Pool of Trillium, that sparkled with diamonds in the moonlight. He saw her body sink into the inky depths and with that, the cursed dagger fell from his hand and disappeared with her from sight. Then Turner went back to his hut, arranged his traveling garments and potions, set the coffee aright and set out to search for the Fountain of Light.
Dillon staggered up so fast, the table almost overturned. He made his way to the medicine drawer and shook out some pills, not bothering to check the colors or even how many he was taking. All he could think of, the thought that pounded in his head like a gong was: They don’t have coffee in The Woods of Trillium. It doesn’t exist there.
It was just a story. It was not real. Turner Belasco wasn’t a real person. He tried to tell himself this, but his mind was spinning out of control. He got down on the kitchen floor to look for blood. The lines on the flooring ran together and seemed to drip away into nothingness, but when he ran his hand over them, it came away dry.
What seemed like hours later, he found himself in the forest, yelling Tiffany’s name.
Dillon went back to the cabin and tried to think. It took two more cups of coffee. It might be only a story, but the Jaguar was real and he could not have driven them both there. If he had really killed her, it was all over for him. He had to at least look for her body, to make sure for himself. He had to find her or die trying.
It was early afternoon by now. He shut down the computer, put coffee in the filter and set the timer, out of habit more than anything. Then he went out and locked the door and walked to the lake. The water sucked greedily at the hems of his pants, pulling him in further. Finally, he ducked his head under and dived, down into that green-black world of weeds and shifting light, where everything looked like something that it was not. He continued to go down, looking here and there until the blackness seeped into his mind and his last thought was extinguished.
* * *
The first thing Dillon felt was a burning in his lungs. He hacked and coughed, spitting weeds, and when he finally opened his eyes, he was lying on the edge of the lake, his clothes and hair muddy and sopping wet. How had he gotten there? He must have been sleepwalking again.