A short story
Brittany Griffiths | 21 January 2018
Claire rustled beneath the covers of her washed out down comforter, unable to force herself from bed. It was a dreary day in late October, and the wind pressing the branches against the window frightened her. Embarrassed by the wash of fear that now trickled through her body, she lay quiet and unmoving in the pale grey daylight. The ceiling fan spun in cyclical repetition above her; the blades almost imperceptible.
In the night, she had dreamt of a long, faded road. A thick fog from the nearby lake hovered in suspense over the hood of her car. Something, her intuition unrelenting, told her to stop. "Don't keep going..." but her foot held down firm on the pedal, unresponsive to the will of motion. The car kept moving forward as the road began to narrow. The speedometer tracked mile after mile until finally Claire came to a dead end at a sign that read:
Dalrock Road - Mile 0
It was at this particular point in the dream that she had awoke to her current state, in stasis, still beneath the covers. This reoccurring dream always came discretely in the night, always unexpected, and always with a lingering sense of dread. Come morning, it left her feeling on edge with a heavy weight of trepidation that something bad, though she knew not what, was going to happen.
When Claire finally managed to muscle the courage to crawl out of bed and dress herself for the day, she came to the frantic realization that most of the day had already passed. This discovery was slow to be made and it was only once she had walked into the kitchen and her eye had stolen a glance at the microwave clock that her sense of time returned in a flush of overwhelming panic like someone coming to from a disorienting accident. It was at some point, in the early hours of the morning, that Claire had crashed from exhaustion, falling into a deep sleep. The night had been filled with research-heavy reading and extensive note taking as she scrambled desperately to make headway on her architectural proposal that was due for submission. Two long, exhaustive years of planning, stress, and ass-kissing to clear red tape, and even now... nothing was guaranteed. The bids for the contract were highly competitive. She was battling against big money interests. "Sure, it'd be easy to let go," she thought, "had I not poured my life and energy into seeing this come to fruition." However, she had crossed a very definitive line into the dominion of pure obsession; she had resolved to secure the contract at any expense.
In the kitchen, she meticulously scanned through a pile of papers that lay scattered across the kitchen table while she waited for her coffee to brew. She pulled down and replaced various sticky notes stuck to walls and cabinets in the vicinity, re-reading the words she had written and passing over their failure to delineate much of anything but the randomness of her thought process. To an outside eye, there would appear to be chaos strewn about, but to her, the connections were quite clear - to her the world was singed with connectivity.
The coffee whistled on the stove announcing its finality, waking her from an insistent trance that had taken over her. She poured a cup of coffee and wandered into the office as the steam rose from the surface forming clouds of fluid motion. Claire thumbed through the pages of a leather-bound journal that lay open on the desk, sipping carefully at the coffee that was on the verge of burning her hand. She landed on an entry she had written just one week ago:
Friday, October 19th :
It was through the slow process of mutation that I came to be where I am now... like a songbird in my head, repeating the words over and over again. My voice matches the melody. This began before I ever knew what was happening. I missed the clouds rolling in, the thunder in the distance. It was only after standing stretched and drenched out on the sidewalk that I realized I had changed... that I had been drowning in the rain. To be quite sure, you can't be ready for this kind of change. It emerges upon waking when you're drowsy and alone. When you're not willing to turn over. It sounds an announcement through the window, an abrupt morning call to arms. It follows you into the bathroom, dresses in your clothes, and walks out the front door. An imitation of experience. The duality of motion lends no closure and exposes the reality that I am nothing but a passerby, trapped within this vessel for one transient moment. When my goal is to observe and understand, when I hole up in the dark corner of a room, the world caves in around me, and I am thrust forward, full reverse (a demure reflection of the past), into the milieu of action. It imposes upon me while I watch. There is no separation. I am pure impulse.
Claire closed the journal letting her eyes trace the empty wall on their way to a curtain-less window. She stared out the window for one long moment, empty and apathetic to the passing traffic down below, and then proceeded into the bathroom to brush her teeth. She stood before the mirror as the water ran down the drain to the end of nowhere; her hand moving the brush in small repetitive circles over her back molars. With one extended look into her eyes through the mirror, she asked herself one question, "How far are you willing to go to get what you want?"
This question was always with her, hidden deep in the struggle of her efforts, in decisions she had made, in the losses she had suffered.
Claire thought of Boston and of her childhood home in Winthrop. She pictured Yirrell Beach looking north from Deer Island; the fog rising from the sea clouding her memory. It was in that very moment that she spit into the sink, wiped her mouth clean, and walked into the foyer to grab the car keys. She locked the door and left the house with a single destination in mind.
The house on Dalrock Road sat at the bottom of an old lake reservoir, created long ago to manage periodic flooding and to provide water for surrounding towns. This project she had undertaken, an effort to win the bid to build an open studio on the lakeside property, was the largest she had ever taken on. The intricacies of covering all her bases had begun to consume her whole world. She couldn’t escape. The only consolation lived in known that once the proposal had been submitted, she would be able to rest in peace again.
However, the problem with developing a clean-cut proposal lie in navigating a convoluted stream of complicated legality regarding the deceased owner of the estate. After years spent living in a nearby nursing home, he had recently passed, and with no next of kin or distant relative to bequeath the land to, he had requested the inclusion of a detailed clause within his will for the strict re-appropriation of the property.
The house that sat upon the land had been in his family for generations, and after speaking with a few acquaintances, Claire had deduced that Mr. George Sands, former owner of said property, seemed to have a strong distrust of salesmen. Generally speaking, if not most especially, of real estate brokers, with whom he had an extensive history of unsavory run-ins.
Thus, for Claire’s dream to cease its intangible form of existence in her head and materialize within the realm of reality, proper arrangements had to be made. Calculated risks must be taken; a core of ethics must be foregone.
At least this is what she had convinced herself was the necessary course of action in order to play with the big boys – a phrase her father always used when she began to cry over perceived injustice as a child. "How far are you willing to go to get what you want?" he would ask her, looming above with an air of unquestionable authority. “If you have not exhausted every option, then you have no business complaining about your position in life.”
Claire had spent most of her life exalting a deified image of her father, and it was only in the past few years that certain circumstances had shed light on his undeniably human form.
The revelation had taken a devastating toll on Claire in the way one feels when the truth is shattered into a million pieces all around you leaving you with no foundation upon which to stand and a disturbingly unrecognizable reflection in the mirror.
Though the weather was mild for a late fall afternoon, she wore a hooded jacket with a pair of gloves stuffed into the pockets. She descended the back stairs content with the belief of being prepared. The cement was still stained from the rain that had moved in overnight and musty moisture hung in the air, just enough humidity to curl the ends of her hair.
She stopped at the corner gas station to fill up her car and grab a pack of cigarettes. This was a religious pilgrimage taken every two days. The man behind the counter knew her face, though they had never taken the proper steps to exchange names. She had a bad habit of keeping an arms length distance from everyone she met.
“The blue pack,” he said, “I know, it never changes.”
He pulled the pack from the behind the slot and placed it on the counter in front of her.
Claire smiled and made an attempt to return his genial familiarity,
“Thank you. Have you been busy today?”
He gave a sharp laugh, thrilled to be receiving more feedback than usual from her, and replied,
“It’s been okay. When I came to work this morning, I found a homeless man digging through my trash outside of pump 2, making a real mess of the parking lot. Other than that, uneventful.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Claire responded, straining her effort to participate in the conversation the cashier seemed adamant on having.
Her mind was inexorably distracted with the preceding event, with where she was going next.
“Where to today?” he asked as he ran the pack of cigarettes and a bottle of water beneath the scanner.
She lied to him without quite understanding why.
“Nowhere in particular… I just feel like going for a drive.”
He placed the water bottle and her cigarettes in a plastic sack, tied it off, and handed it to her.
“Why we do anything but wander is beyond me,” he said, “Ambition begets vexation.”
She gave a faint smile, nodding her head, then turned to walk through the automatic doors as the customer behind her stepped up to the counter.
She couldn’t say for certain why she was headed to the house. What would trespassing accomplish? But in the moment her judgment was wasted, logic and good sense evading her. Her thoughts floated in a consortium of letters, arranging themselves into words before her eyes, “I am pure impulse.”
The urge to head toward the end of Dalrock Road swept her off her feet like the wave of a siren song. Claire knew there was no turning back; she had come too far, worked too hard, to leave it all to chance. Though she had been to see the property over a dozen times before, she had always been escorted by a member of the real estate firm charged with the deed of delegating ownership under the order of Mr. Sands’ will. At present, she considered the idea that perhaps while alone, clear of supervision, she might be able to uncover a secret, some hidden loophole, allowing her to gain an edge over her competitors. "Everyone has a secret," she thought and though it was a vague notion to proceed upon, her instinct convinced her otherwise. Tonight - this is where she needed to be.
It was a forty-five minute drive from Claire's house in the city to the turn off the highway down Dalrock Road. Although the road traced the shore for several miles, it was by no means isolated from society. A small suburb was fixed at the mouth of the road and while driving down toward Mr. Sands’ property; one passed a house every few acres. The house at the end of Dalrock Road sat tucked behind a large gathering of trees that surrounded the property to the water's edge producing an aura of privacy that no one dared to penetrate without permission. This was its charm, what put the property on the market, gave it value, and made it a prime piece of real estate. The perceived illusion of solitude.
Claire kept pace at 35mph sure not to exceed the speed limit while winding along through a tunnel of telegraph-wire trees. She had little to no visibility out either side of the car for the sun had begun to sink beneath the horizon. The slow rise of anticipation bubbling in her stomach caused the hair follicles on her arms to stand on end. She carried with her the dark fear of unknowing and the unmistakable feeling that she was being watched.
By this time, the clouds from a nearing cold front had blown in, darkening the sky, and further reducing the light between the trees. Just beyond the sign at the end of the road, she made a left turn onto a little dirt path toward a rickety old wooden fence, engulfed by moss and overgrown brush. She emerged from her car to the pungent smell of wet plant life and burning wood, a smell reminiscent of the Great Smokey Mountains where her father would take her on off years in the fall. When he managed to secure a backcountry permit, he would take her hiking deep into the woods. They would walk for hours, sometimes following the Appalachian Trail, other times making their own route through the trees. Her father always seemed so fearless when she was young; his knowledge of the land and the inner workings of certain systems seemed to comfort her and ease the tension she felt being exposed to the elements. As she grew older, Claire was able to discern that while her father's knowledge was unmatched, his arrogance was the flame that burned his fear, a flame that would eventually consume him completely.
She walked along the perimeter of the fence searching for a breach, a broken plank of wood or someplace to gain her footing and climb over. She remembered, from a previous visit, seeing an opening on the west end of the property. So she doubled back and retraced her steps to find the hole she had been looking for. She felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment standing there alone on the property. From bed to destination, she had seen her plan through to the finish. Watching her idea transform into reality gave her hope for the future.
Claire felt her beliefs revitalized, "...you must take care to be assiduous, grit and determination are necessary factors that will lead to great success."
Looking back now, Claire thought the words her father touted seemed more like the audio of an infomercial than any true advice a father would give to his daughter.
As she walked across the open lawn toward the dilapidated house, Claire felt her nerves begin to tighten into knots, forming pockets of tissue in her stomach. For one brief, revealing moment, Claire resolved to turn around and go back. Then she heard that song again, the melody she could not quit singing, playing in her head. So she continued along the path that she had chosen.
The little old lake house sat overlooking the lake on the far eastern edge of the property. In total, the property spanned twelve acres, the largest piece of land in the area, and hugged the edge of a nature preserve on the southwest side. It was quiet, clean, and natural - things Claire desperately desired to hold on to; things which were slowly disappearing from her life.
As dusk rolled in around her, Claire decided that she would stay the night. She had always felt at home under the cover of darkness. The night presented a welcome comfort when the whole of the masses retreated to their homes. The whole world fell quiet again. She felt privy to the secret silence in the late hours of the turning clock.
On approach, the house was blocked by a few large branches that had fallen in the storm the night before, but she navigated around them in the dark making her way to the wrap around porch which extended half way around the house, fit with rotting plywood after years of exposure. Mr. Sands had not sought to maintain the upkeep of the property. To Claire, it seemed his neglect had been intentional. It was his way of implying implicitly that if the house could not stay in his family then he wanted no one to have it, through any means necessary, even self-destruction.
Witnessing this slow disintegration brought to surface the subtle patterns of depression she had experienced many times before, allowing the world to crumble in around her; the giving up and giving in to the complacency of dull tears. The remembrance of that old familiar feeling of lost hope which had a way of creeping in after months of little let downs. The pain associated with expectation.
Claire entered the house through the back door, knowing that the handle had a faulty lock. Once inside, she lit a slew of candles she found tucked inside a drawer and made preparations for a night of playing sleuth, digging through closets and old notebooks.
The hours passed in peaceful succession before exhaustion came calling in her head. She looked up from the pile of papers lying in disarray across the kitchen table and turned her head casting her gaze out of the window. Backwoods to the border of the water, she watched the moonlight dance like glitter softly sprinkled across the surface. The howling wind was laced with intermittent whistles that echoed across the lake, hanging high in the air like a cry for help with no prospect of rescue.
She pushed her chair back, stood up, and stretched dramatically. Her left leg had fallen asleep after sitting for so long, and she desired fresh air and a long walk to regain the blood flow. Claire pulled her coat from the back of the chair and slipped her arms into the sleeves, digging in the pockets to fish out her gloves. She stepped outside onto the porch, allowing a moment for her eyes to adjust to the night. A quarter moon hung in suspension over the lake casting dim shadows on the grass that shimmered along the length of the dirt path that led down to the water.
She draped her hood over her head, and slipping her fingers into the wool-knitted gloves, began a slow descent toward the lake. She stared out into the openness, inhaling and exhaling with the rhythm of the rippling water; sudden gusts of wind stealing the breath from her body.
As Claire stood along the shore, an uneasy feeling began to stir and build inside of her. The faint smell of sulfur had blown in on a breeze across the lake, and something about its presence disturbed her. It seemed so out of place. Suddenly, the dance of her breathing morphed into the pant of pure panic when out of the corner of her eye she saw the shift of an indiscernible figure. She tried to subdue her fear reminding herself that this was not the first time that she'd thought she'd seen something.
She recalled a time in Winthrop, she had been no more than five years old, when she had buried her head beneath the covers at the sight of a wraith-like figure hovering in the corner of her bedroom. After moments of lying in fear, she had pulled the covers from her face to find that the figure had disappeared, but the memory of that feeling remained. That same feeling had returned to fill her body now, but this time it tasted different. It lingered on her tongue; it was real. It carried with it the sense of immediacy and danger.
She moved with caution along the water's edge, her pupils fully dilated, holding her breath in an attempt to mute the uncontrollable palpitation of her heart.
Everything seemed familiar, as if she had been here before, made these same decisions, and ran this very same course. The fate of her choices culminating in this one moment over and over again like Atlas tumbling down in endless repetition through eternity.
She begged for her rational faculties to take over. She wished to regain a hold, to stimulate the sympathetic branch of her atomic nervous system, to convince herself there was no danger that is was all made up. But it was hopeless; she was struck down by exasperation and the constriction of overexposure.
Claire followed the dirt path, placing one foot in front of the other in slow deliberate movements. She sought the safety of the house and its four walls lit orange by candlelight, but upon pivoting her foot she became caught in a cloud of sulfur fog that surrounded her like a prison.
Held in rapture unable to move, her diaphragm collapsed taking her breath with it. A figure coalesced from the cloud and the face of woman emerged, changing shape with the passing wind. The moon watched indiscriminately from up above; it had seen many things in the long course of its history.
There is a pause in the interim, before the placid sleep of death, when time seems to stand still, frozen like icicles hanging from the lip of a gutter. Her life did not play back along a film reel; there was no time for thoughtful recollection. Instead time merely stalled and slipped slowly into darkness.
The figure in the fog threaded fingers of smoke around Claire's shoulders. Her resistance was in completely ineffective, and she felt herself exorcised from her body, rising up above the scene, observing as it unfolded down below her.
She watched as the delicate fingers pulled her into the water and held her under.
She watched herself splash and grab at the phantom hands that held her down in silence.
She watched her body turn blue beneath the surface, as her screams trailed off and died in the passing ripples of the current.
Brittany Griffiths is a writer from Dallas, Texas. She is the founder and editor of Spontaneous Afflatus, an independent publishing house that specializes in poetry and short story collections. She is also the editor of Wavelength Magazine. Last year she released her debut poetry collection titled, Ebb & Flow.
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