This is my take on a prompt over at Yeah Write. I have no idea how to do their submission thing (the instructions went over my head) so I am hoping tagging them will get it where it needs to go *grin* The prompt was a fantasy one and ran as follows:
Your best friend has suddenly changed. Mood swings, changes in skin tone, and sleeping habits. What happened? You can work this from a SciFi/Fantasy angle, a biological angle, or a psychological angle.
Image located here
“Hey, Cassie, you’re late.”
Diana frowned down at her house-mate, concerned by the unfocussed eyes encased in bruised purple circles. For someone who seemed to be spending half her waking life in bed, Cassie didn’t look like she’d slept in a fortnight.
“You ok? You look tired.”
Cassie shrugged into her clothes and off Di’s question, fleeing out the door, already half hour late for her shift at the nursing home. Diana wondered what could be causing such a drastic change in her best friend. Usually, Cassie and Di spent their off-time playing video games, clubbing or just slobbing out in front of a chick flick with a bottle of wine and lots of laughter. For the past month Cassie’s smile had become steadily more endangered.
Diana looked around the wreck of Cassie’s normally immaculate room, noting the laundry flung at instead of in the hamper before realising the room had a new occupant. Standing within easy reach on Cassie’s nightstand – covered in crumpled, used tissues – was a brand new coffee machine with an attendant flotilla; four half-filled cups. Diana decided she ought to help, lost to know how, collecting the cups to wash. You could have stood a spoon up in the thick liquid they contained. Why was Cassie drinking so much strong coffee, and possibly crying in her room as she did so?
A couple more days passed, Cassie turned no corner, and Diana resolved to confront her friend. When Cassie got in from work Diana stopped her, reaching to hug her friend, stunned when she recoiled, trying to get by to her room. Diana held on, grasped her wrist and realised Cassie was shivering.
“Enough, Cass. You and I are going to sit down and tell me why my best friend has gone from happy clappy party girl to a shivering, scared insomniac inside a month.”
Brooking no argument, Di led Cass to the sofa. They sat side by side, Diana patiently waiting out the storm of weeping which overcame the other woman as soon as they sat. She handed over tissues, kept an arm around her shuddering frame and held her tongue. When the sobs subsided, the tissues came away dry from reddened eyes and Cass finally looked up, Diana was disturbed by the hopelessness in that gaze.
“What on earth, Cass? Please, you can tell me anything. I’ll be right here, you know that, right?”
Cassie nodded slowly, sniffed a couple of times and then leaned her head onto Diana’s shoulder, her voice husky with weeping, yet eerily hollow.
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“I already know you are!” Diana tried to laugh it off and was rewarded with a faint smile, a ghost of Cassie past.
“Just don’t say I didn’t warn you, Di.”
For the next half hour Diana listened with growing horror whilst Cassie related events at the Burnt Pines nursing home. It had begun with a sense of being followed, watched, whenever Cassie went into the two rooms which overlooked the memorial garden.
“Remember me telling you how they preserved the three pines that burned down in the lightning strike of 64? The garden is built around those burned stumps. They even get used as ash trays but illicit smokers. I’d be in one of those rooms, cleaning, and I’d swing round like someone was behind me, or get that prickled flesh on the back of my neck like someone was standing close by, watching.”
There was never anyone there. She’d even chased out into the hall a few times but, with the two rooms unoccupied, it was like a morgue; an analogy Cass could have done without. This had gone on for a week before a new phenomenon started.
“I’d see things, Di. Just out the corner of my eye, like shapes of people passing by doors or down halls. It was worst in those two rooms. Combined with the sensation of being watched, it got so I had to draw the curtains to work in there. Nothing would convince my brain, or my flight response, that there was no-one at those windows. It was bad enough that I had trouble sleeping, nightmares, you know?”
Diana nodded, asked Cass to take a break, scooting into the kitchen to fetch wine for them both. They gulped it readily, Cass resuming her tale.
“Fortnight ago I did see something. As I said, I’d got into the habit of closing the curtains in those rooms. I woulda asked not to clean them, but I needed that job Di. If I started getting awkward they’d fire me; too many people want and can do my job to risk it. On the Monday I went to the window, reached up to pull the drapes across and just about peed myself. He was right there, Di, standing in the memorial garden by the stumps. I ran, cried sick, came home.”
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know, but I can’t stop seeing him.”
“Does anyone else see him?”
“I never asked, but I reckon they’d have said. He’s pretty remarkable.”
“If he’s not I don’t know why not. He’s burned, Di, from head to foot. His clothes hang off him in these fluttery charred ribbons and his skin…”
Cassie stopped, shuddering, biting back tears. Di held her for a while, at a loss to know what to say. Cass got herself under control and shrugged.
“That’s when I started drinking the coffee. I’d fall asleep, straight into nightmares about him, wake up with the duvet stuffed in my mouth, sweating and shaking. I tried to stay awake with the caffeine, but you know how that goes. I crash, sleep and it starts all over again. After yesterday… Well, I went in and quit today. I’ll get another job, figure out the rent and stuff, Di, I promise.”
“Never mind that. What happened yesterday?”
“I was in the room which directly overlooks the stumps – the other one is kinda off centre to them – steeled myself to draw the drapes and let out a massive sigh of relief when he wasn’t there; first time in two weeks. I kinda wished I’d held onto that breath because when he grabbed my wrist from behind the drape I had nothing left to scream with. I’m never gonna forget that moment, Di. His eyes were gone, his lips, and god, his teeth, they were black, looked loose in those seared gums when he opened his mouth. His hands were crackling, like crunched up paper, I could see bones coming through the scorched flesh, a signet ring with a flashy diamond W on it swinging loose.. He left a… residue, like soot around my wrist when I yanked back, fell flat on my ass.”
They both took deep breaths, gulped wine and Cass shook herself, like a runner getting ready for that final stretch.
“I scooted back, scrabbled to my feet, but before I got out that door I noticed one last thing. He smelled like burnt pine, Di, just like those damn stumps in the garden.”
“Is that it?”
“Almost. Like I said, I went back today to quit. Mr Carnes wasn’t happy but a million wouldn’t keep me on that payroll. On the way out, Dotty stopped me. You remember Dotty, sweet old thing, lived there since it was opened in 65. She asked me to roll her out front, had a cab coming to take her for her ‘Do Day’. Vain about her hair, that one, and with reason. Still thick and a beautiful pure white. Anyway, I sat on the step beside her chair, waiting with her one last time. She looks down, all serious and says;
‘You seen him, huh?’
For a minute I think she means the cab, but no.
‘The burned man, girl, you’ve seen him.”
‘How do you know?’
‘It’s why you’re leaving. I’ve seen you go to hell the last month. Saw it happen once before, but she didn’t leave in time. Finally stabbed a cab driver; she claimed it was his pine-scented car freshener what drove her to it. Ended up the asylum over Farnham way, poor kid; raved night and day about the burning man.’
‘Who is he, Dot?’
Her cab came then and I couldn’t get any more out of her. What she’d said stuck with me and I ducked into the library on the way home. You can find pretty much anything on the net, Di, and I find him, that burnt man. William Carnes, older brother of Jess Carnes who owns the home now. He disappeared on the night of the lightning fire that burned the pines, never turned up. His little brother had William declared dead with unseemly haste, despite no evidence that was the case, took over the property and has run it ever since, making a tidy profit by all accounts. There was a picture of William with the article about his disappearance. Big ring on his finger, with a diamond W on it…”