(Read Part One)
She remained silent for a moment, jerking her head around to face the door. It stood alone, no house or support structure, just a wooden door jutting upright out of the sandy wastes. The door seemed incredibly confident in its existence, as if it had always been there, as if it was meant to be there. A lonely statue erected in the name of nothing but spite to logic.
“Holy shit,” she stood in utter astonishment, “I… I must have hit my head in the house. Oh god, I’m unconscious in the middle of the woods!” This seemed to make the most sense to her, although everything felt so real that there was already a well-embedded seed of doubt.
Despite actively convincing herself that this was all a dream, that none of this existed in any tangible, physical sense, she called out. Her voice echoing a fragile “Hello?” across the curves and bulges of the unfurling wastelands. The sky had a greenish tint to it, the clouds appearing more as a nuclear haze than the fluffy greys and whites she was used to. It was all deeply unsettling, dreamlike in its worrisome reality.
Laika turned back around to try the door, yanking and jiggling the loose handle as best she could. Nothing. The damned thing that had dumped her out in the middle of this extreme nothingness remained quite stubbornly closed. That fucking figures. Her shoulders slouched, defeated by the sheer absurdity of it all. “Is it so hard to have a nice coma dream?” She asked the open air around her, glancing at the off-putting sickly colours up above her head.
With no other options at her disposal she huffed, shifting to trudge through the sand to see if she could find something. If this was a coma dream she might as well explore it before she either woke up or died out in the real world. The worn leather of her shoes sank into the unstable ground as she precariously shuffled further from the door. She knew that the tiny grains would be inundated in her socks and the the crannies of her footwear before long, but it wasn’t like she had a choice. The last thing on her mind was to wander barefoot in a place like this.
The air was surprisingly cool, an odd reprieve from the pulsating humidity back in the woods. Might as well enjoy something I guess. She mused, almost smirking to herself as she surveyed the wide expanse before her.
Laika wandered for what felt like an eternity, or two at this rate, who knew how the time difference between dream and reality worked, before noticing something new. Off in the distance, past a small clump of desert scrubland that likely hadn’t seen a drop of water in ages, was a depression in the sand. As she approached the image of this strange formation grew clearer. It was a massive circle, seemingly perfect in its rotundity and curvature, that sank below the rest of the desert landscape. From the floor of this odd pit to the edge of the sand above looked to be about the height from Laika’s feet to her boyish chest.
From her vantage point Laika could see a dark brown rectangle at the centre of the depression, with a small pop of blue flapping at the top. Is somebody else actually out here?! She hopped down over the edge, bending her knees slightly as she hit the ground below. It felt different here, as if something solid stretched into the abyss below and the sand simply acted as a light carpeting.
Undaunted she moved on, the object revealing itself to be an old wooden stall standing lonely amongst the eternal browns and decaying greens of this unearthly place. Above the stall’s counter a blue cloth banner rippled in the the soft, inconsistent breezes that would randomly quell the stagnation. The lettering across the banner was an uncomfortably bright red, a red that stung the eyes the longer you looked at it. As far as Laika could tell it was gibberish, a madman’s spasm of angular jolts and curving strokes that seemed to go nowhere. It was certainly no language she had ever seen.
Behind the wooden counter, a jagged looking thing that would probably give you the worst splinter of your life then laugh gleefully at the nuisance, stood a ridged old man. He looked unreal, like a wax figure, in his trancelike immobility. The man’s face was gaunt, sunken in at the cheeks and ever so slightly off tone from a healthy person’s colour palette. Grizzly five o’clock shadow peppered the unnatural flesh, adding texture to what otherwise looked like a poorly made mask wrapped tight over bone.
Laika sauntered up to the counter, eyes shifting across the barren shelves of the stall. “If you try to cheat me,” the zombie of a man began, “I’ve got that.” He jerked a thumb mechanically backwards, pointing out an old double barrel shotgun, hanging lonely on a wall rack. It looked almost comical to Laika, so prominent in old films and cartoons that it almost didn’t seem real.
“Uh… well…” she looked back to the solitary shopkeeper, “What are you even selling?” And who the hell are you selling it to? She thought to herself.
“Husks.” He retorted plainly, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Laika paused, for a moment, a look of concern knit across her face, “Husks?”
“Yep. How many coins ya got?” He asked, still unsettlingly expressionless.
“Coins?” Her head pulled back slightly, confused by the question. In her head she imagined gold coins from fantasy games or pirate movies, but somehow knew that that wasn’t quite right.
He sighed, the most human action he had taken thus far, and looked blankly at her jacket pocket. “Coins. Money. Change. You look old enough to not be asking stupid questions, girl.”
Laika rifled through her pockets, not sure why she was listening to a creepy old guy in the middle of a nuclear holocaust desert. I’m a real god forsaken genius. She mentally sighed and continued her search, fumbling with her lighter, cigarettes, and assorted pocket lint until she produced two dimes and a nickel. She looked hard into the palm of her hand, scrutinising the money and deciding whether or not playing along would be a good idea, before holding out her meagre offerings.
“That’s good for one of these,” both hands raised up from behind the wooden countertop, each one holding a small ragged photograph pinched between his index finger and thumb, small enough to slide snugly into a wallet. The picture in his left hand was of a desiccated rabbit, the small creature’s body browned and seemingly crumpling in on itself. Hollowed eyes a deeper black than anything Laika had ever seen stared glumly from the two-dimensional image. In his right hand the stall keeper held the picture of a human corpse, stood upright, and in much the same condition as the rabbit. One photograph made her feel queasy and sad, like a child first being introduced to the concept of death, while the other frightened her to her very core.
“Are these… supposed to mean something?” She asked, gesturing to the strange photos, husks captured before disintegrating into the sand of the desert around them.
“If they mean something to you then they mean something to you. None of my business.” The man gruffly retorted, brows lowering with what looked like disgust. “You gonna pick one?”
Laika shifted in place, her stomach turning sour as her eyes drifted from one unpleasant picture to the other. She didn’t really know why she was getting so worked up over this, as far as she knew it was an arbitrary decision with no consequence and she was still stuck in some drug-addled dreamland anyway. She placed the coins down in front of the otherworldly shopkeep and went to lift her hand, noticing that it quivered ever so slightly. Just pick one dammit. Her inner monologue goaded impatiently. Laika’s right hand lifted and pointed at the rabbit. As creepy as it was it seemed a great deal better than carrying around a picture of a human corpse in her pocket.
“I see.” the man spoke sadly. His breath splashed against Laika’s face and brought back the sticky weight of the air back in the woods. She shuddered and watched as he slowly placed the rabbit on the counter and slid the coins towards himself. His skin dragged against the edges and shards of the counter until the change fell off the edge, clattering to the floorboards below. The man reacted to none of this, simply lowering his now empty hand.
The right hand stayed in place, arm crooked as he held the picture. The picture then crumbled in on itself, seeming to burn from the inside out with no flame to provoke such a result. It shattered into particles of ash, coating his decrepit hand in greys and blacks.
“I, uh… I have to get going…” Laika quickly said, snatching up the picture and shoving it into her pocket. The queasiness had only grown as she watched the photograph ignite of its own accord and she wanted nothing more than to be far far away from this strange pit.
“So does everybody else.” He said, more like an old man berating someone for trying to cut in line than the lone occupant of a vast nothingness. The shopkeep was entirely unfazed by both the picture’s destruction and the girl’s anxious escape. “The next door is in the rocks,” his expression remained unchanged though the volume of his voice had grown enough to reach Laika as she stumbled towards the edge of the sunken platform.
End Part II