Dead Sky Morning (Experiment in Terror #3) by Karina Halle
My mind reeled awake like the slow wind of undeveloped film. Everything was black. Very black. A shade of coal darker than anything behind closed eyes. But my eyes weren’t closed at all. They were open and squinting against a light mist that burned them like salt.
Where was I?
I couldn’t bring my mind around fast enough to remember anything concrete. But there were thoughtless flashes. The reel in my head spun wildly, more shady images skittering past the spokes. There was a forest. I was running. I was hunted down by hounds. Or humans on four legs. Their grotesque figures flickered in the woods like a waning pilot light.
“My watery grave.” The phrase floated around in my head.
I lay still. I was on my back, on top of something awkward and bony. I told my limbs to move but nothing happened. I concentrated, desperately finding some light my retinas could latch on to, to give some meaning to where I was and what was happening to me.
There were sounds, suddenly, like ear plugs were plucked out of my head. I heard muffled cries, like someone was yelling from far away and the sloshing sounds of water encompassing the space around me. I had the distinct feeling that I was floating as my inner ear rolled and swayed inside my heavy head.
All my senses were coming to me now. I could smell seawater and a putrid, decaying odor, like rotted fruit and mold. I felt dampness at my back and, bit by bit, the sensation that my hands were emerged in ice cold water.
I tried to move my arms again and this time they responded sluggishly. They had been in water all this time even though the rest of me was dry. I moved them out to the sides and they struck barriers with a force I barely felt through my numbed skin. The sound of the impact echoed around me. It told me I was in some sort of box or…or…
Panic swept through me. I moved again, feeling like I was balanced precipitously on top of something very peculiar. Whatever it was, it was smaller than the length of my body and I noticed my legs had dropped off below at an angle. I kicked them up. A spray of ice water fell up on top of my shins and my waterlogged boots thunked against something solid.
I felt all around me, wildly placing my hands and feet on whichever surface they could reach. I was in a box after all. The space above my head was only about half a foot before a damp wooden ceiling cut me off from the rest of the world.
I tried to catch my breath but the fright inside my chest was overpowering it. I was trapped, trapped in a box. A mime’s worst nightmare.
Not only that, but a box that was filling with water. I felt the liquid fingers crawling up my legs and arms and saturating my back.
I started writhing and fighting. I couldn’t keep it together any longer. I was in a box and I was going to drown in here.
I started pounding my hands against the top, hoping to break through. They were tired and without much feeling. I felt a gush of warmth flowing from them. It was my blood. It seeped freely from my tender knuckles and from the wounds at my both my wrists. I didn’t care. I had to get out. If I didn’t, I would die.
The water came in faster now and it wasn’t long before I was slightly buoyant, rising above whatever was below me. In seconds it would come over the tops of my pants. My pants, where my front pocket felt tighter than usual.
I quickly slipped my hand into the pocket on a hunch. There was the lighter in there.
I pulled it out and started to flicker it. My fingers were cold and clumsy and I almost dropped it but after a few awkward attempts, the flame came alive, the spark catching hold. I held it up and away from me. The weak, orange light illuminated the space around me.
I was right. I was in a box.
It wasn’t just a box though. No it wasn’t. I knew what it was.
My watery grave.
I swallowed hard, feeling my world jar wildly with the incoming waves. I was in a coffin, set adrift in the sea.
“Your ship has come in.” A man’s voice echoed inside my head.
Amidst all the commotion, among all the confusion over what had happened – I knew where I was and why I was here. I wished I was alone. But I knew that wasn’t true either. I knew that awkward, protruding, lumpy shape beneath me spared me of that luxury.
My left hand slipped into the water, gingerly feeling the bottom of the casket. Maybe the only way out was through the bottom. I was careful now to avoid what was directly beneath me.
The water was up to my chest now. I was running out of time and fast.
I placed my hand on the bottom and tried to stabilize one part of me while I planned to kick out with my legs, hoping that the splintery walls would give way.
Tiny, slimy fingers made their way around my submerged wrist.
I screamed but it escaped through my lips like a wordless gasp. The fingers tightened like a tiny clamp and held my wrist down, drowning it.
Something shot out from the water beside me and knocked the lighter out of my hands, enveloping the casket in darkness again. My arm was seized by another miniature grasp. It yanked me down into the water.
I tried to move, to yell, to fight, but the water’s chill had seized me like poison. I was being held down; the water was rising and almost to my face.
Something moved beneath my head. It came up close to my submerged ear. Someone whispered into it.
The voice was distorted and muffled underwater. But it was unmistakable.
“Mother!” it cried out, cold child lips brushing my earlobe.
I opened my mouth to scream again but only found water. I took it in instead of air and let the liquid saturate the life out of me.
“Mother” it said again and again until we were floating together and the world closed its eyes.
* * *
“Excuse me?” a strange voice said from behind me.
I took my change from the coffee shop barista, giving her a short smile in the process, and carefully turned around to see who was talking. It sounded more like a hesitant question and not a plea to get by.
A pleasant heavy–set man in a windbreaker, holding a coffee and pastry, was behind me off to the side of the line. He had that look in his squidgy eyes that said he recognized me. But for the life of me, I had no idea who he was.
I gave him an even shorter smile than the one I had imparted seconds earlier. I don’t get picked up all that often but it happened enough that it made me leery anytime some strange man attempted to talk to me.
“Uh huh?” I said, trying to be polite but still seem uninterested.
His cheeks puffed up when he saw my face more clearly. He let out a little guffah that stood out against the coffee shop’s irritating music.
“You’re the ghost lady,” he said, smiling, pointing at me with his pastry bag.
I frowned. Was I the ghost lady?
He took a step closer to me and jabbed the pastry in the air again, pink frosting falling off it and snowing onto the tiles below.
“You’re the one on the internet,” he exclaimed, just a bit too loud for comfort. I looked around awkwardly, feeling strangely embarrassed at what was happening. A girl in line was looking at me, obviously not impressed given her once–over, but no one else was paying attention. Typical hipsters.
I looked back at him and smiled again, despite the burning, tight sensation on my own cheeks.
“Oh. So you’ve seen Experiment in Terror?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” he said, chuckling to himself, the jowls in his throat waving back and forth. “I just stumbled upon it a few weeks ago. I love it. It’s very Blair Witch Project. You know, it’s real. We all know the Blair Witch Project wasn’t real, but you know, this seems real. It is real, right?”
“Yeah, it’s real,” I said slowly, aware that every time I admitted the show was real it made either a believer or a disbeliever out of someone.
“I could tell. I knew that was real fear in your eyes. Sorry, it’s Perry. Perry Palomino, right?”
“That’s me,” I said, feeling more comfortable with the situation. He was just a fan of the show. A fan of my show. A fan of me. My first fan!
“Well, I’ll let you get your coffee,” he said as he aimed the pastry over at the counter, where a barista was placing my latte down haphazardly, foamy milk spilling down the sides of the cup and seeping into the cardboard sleeve. “Keep up the good work!”
And just like that, he spun around and shuffled out of the coffee shop, munching away on his confection as he rounded the corner.
I wiped off the sides of the latte with a napkin and shook my head. Not so much about the sloppy coffee presentation but the fact that someone not only liked what I was doing, but had actually recognized me enough to stop and say hello. It was unnerving and exciting at the same time.
So much had changed over the last few weeks. The trip I took to the town of Red Fox in New Mexico had done a number on me. Having nearly died at the hands of two bitter and deranged ranchers/lovers turned skinwalkers, it really made me rethink my current situation. Mainly, did I want to be involved in hosting a “shitty” internet show about the supernatural when our very subject possessed the ability to not only hurt us, but kill us? I mean, despite my run–ins with Ol’ Roddy at my Uncle Al’s lighthouse, the possibility of death hadn’t really been in the job description.
That’s all I was able to think about on the flight home from Albuquerque. Dex had gone on his merry way back to Seattle and I was alone with only my thoughts and my iPod to accompany me on the way to Portland. Too much had happened on that weekend, aside from the fact that we were exposed to a type of danger that most people would never be in. My beliefs in what was possible in this world, in my reality, were ripped to shreds. My partner, who I still barely knew, had become the closest person to me (in more ways than one). And the show began to resemble nothing more than a vain attempt at notoriety through the most amateur of all mediums. After all, who wasn’t famous on the internet these days?
On top of that, there was the fact that I was living a lie to my parents, pretending I had a job when in fact I had been fired from the advertising agency just before.
But within a matter of days of my return, when the nightmares of zombie coyotes and shape–shifting bears began to fade, everything seemed to right itself. It’s almost as if it was my destiny to keep going, to keep our web show Experiment in Terror alive, and to keep Dex Foray in my life.
Dex sent me over the footage of what we managed to capture in Red Fox, and the results blew me away. So much so that I had to watch it with my younger sister Ada; otherwise I would have probably shit myself. Though not everything was captured on film, the fact is, everything really happened and it wasn’t hard for me to mentally fill in the missing pieces we collected on digital film. Even Ada was scared by the whole ordeal. She had already known the whole story but seeing parts of it come alive must have throttled her.
It was hard to know what the public was going to do with the whole thing so I did the best I could and wrote up everything on the blog that would accompany the footage. I changed some people’s names to protect the innocent (Dex had actually blurred out the face of Will Lancaster, the man who was tormented by the skinwalkers – I think that was a guilty reaction on his part) but I told the story exactly as it happened. I knew that a lot of people (probably 80% of viewers) wouldn’t believe a word of it but it was truth, and to quote Fox Mulder, the truth was out there.
Luckily, whether people accepted the truth or not, Experiment in Terror got its proper (i.e. not a demo) debut on the Shownet website that following Sunday.
It was…amazing. OK, I know what you’re thinking; of course, it was amazing because I was in it. No, not at all. In fact, I was barely in it (which I kind of liked – still not used to this whole “on camera” thing yet). But there was no denying that the show actually looked great. In combination with my blog and with the score Dex somehow whipped up in a week, “Red Fox” actually worked.
We had a show. Even my parents looked a tad more impressed about it (and they are the show’s toughest critics). Dex would send me text messages throughout the week keeping me informed on hits to the website and if people were linking to it. That one episode was becoming a bit of a phenomenon, just as my original footage of my adventures in my uncle’s lighthouse had been. Well, a small phenomenon, but that still surpassed any of the doubts I had earlier about the future of the show and my involvement in it.
The next step to ensure our success continued was for me to make Twitter and Facebook accounts for the show and manage them. I knew enough from my marketing programs at the university that we had to promote as much as possible. And since Dex was busy being a composer, a filmmaker, editor, and trying to arrange future filming opportunities, that all fell into my hands.
It had been a lot of fun, actually, even though all the “tweeting” became a bit of a crutch when I should have been applying for jobs. Then came Dex’s brilliant idea to open the blog to comments. By the way, I say brilliant in the most sarcastic way. Opening the blog comments did increase a sort of communal feel on Shownet, and maybe attracted more attention overall, but unfortunately a lot of the comments were rather negative.
At first it was just people like ALEX64 saying things like, “This show is crap, what bullshit” and that sort of stuff, which is to be expected. I couldn’t say I wouldn’t want to say the same thing. Without a ghost (or whatever) coming up to you and slapping you in your own face, it was a hard thing to fathom and even now I had a hard time coming to terms with what happened. Honestly, it was easier to just pretend it was all a figment of your imagination than to accept that the world, as most people know it, is just an illusion, and predatory, evil, things really do lurk in the shadows. Lately, though, the comments were getting a bit personal.
Two weeks ago, Dex had come to Portland so we could do some filming. We ended up actually filming two different places that weekend – Portland has no shortage of haunted tales. The first place we hit up was The Benson Hotel, which always had a scary reputation. It’s actually a really nice hotel with a spiffy doorman outside and everything, and most people have a very pleasant and lovely stay. Still, there was always someone, at least once a week, complaining to management about seeing a strange lady roaming the hallways and the grand staircase, or weird sounds and noises, or random stuff going missing. A lot of staff workers acknowledged that weird things did happen, but no one seemed very bothered by it, evidenced by a local “Ghost Walk” tour that poked around every weekend. >
So when we showed up at the hotel, they didn’t bat an eye. They said that we could roam freely in the hotel and poke around (without poking around in people’s hotel rooms, of course).
We didn’t really see anything too out of the ordinary. I was still scared out of my wits, as usual. It didn’t seem to matter if I was getting attacked by animals in the fathomless New Mexico desert or if I’d seen a ghostly apparition in the elevator of a crowded hotel; I still got scared. But there was nothing wanting to kill us (a nice change) or anything really sending our minds packing. Just a load of things that “could be,” which always becomes “is” in my own overworked mind. And thanks to Dex’s clever work and bit of luck, we were able to convey the same thing on film. We caught a lot of weird floating orbs of light, and picked up weird heat shapes on the infrared camera.
Same thing happened the next day when we spent the entire night at a haunted pizza joint that used to house a brothel. Apparently the madam had been found at the bottom of the old elevator shaft with her neck broken; the verdict was murder. We often heard people walking around in the upper dining area (when we knew no one was up there) and we managed to get that on film. And the basement, the basement was something else. Hot and cold spots everywhere, more weird orbs and an incredibly creepy feeling at every turn. Even Dex, who is normally quite composed when he’s filming, said he was happy to get out of there.
We had aimed to film something every weekend but as our series was just getting off the ground, and I had to keep up the illusion that I was still working for most of the week, that wasn’t feasible. Luckily, filming both the hotel and the pizza parlor on one weekend allowed us to get two episodes out of it.
I’m getting a bit off track. Anyway, the hotel episode “The Benson” just aired and to as much applause as the “Red Fox” episode did. Unfortunately, that also meant the comments were coming in as well, and this time they were meaner. More personal, as I said. Someone “Anonymous” (aren’t they always?) had started attacking me and the way I looked. Saying I was too fat to be on camera, that I was ugly, that I looked stupid and sounded stupid. You get the idea.
The worst part of it all was that I believed it. This anonymous coward was just reinstating everything I felt about myself already. I had always felt like I was too heavy to be on camera. I always felt ugly and I knew for sure I sounded stupid.
I know I should just shrug it all off. I know that the internet is a terrible place that attracts terrible people who wouldn’t have the balls to say anything if they had to put a face to their name. But it was getting harder each day. Yes, some people said some nice things in defense of me (I wasn’t fat, I had a pretty face, I sounded knowledgeable) but it was only the negative things I believed.
I wanted to tell Dex that perhaps we should switch off the comment section, or run it with a moderator, but I couldn’t figure out how to bring it up without sounding totally insecure. Although I had been in daily texting contact with Dex, and sometimes it wasn’t even work–related, I wasn’t in that place where I could just tell him how I felt.
Back in New Mexico, after spending almost every waking (and sleeping…but just sleeping) moment with him, I had felt so connected to him. I know it makes me sound like some blathering girl, but I honestly felt like he and I were on the same page. We were finally communicating.
But since we got back, I only saw him for that weekend in Portland. Because it was my hometown, I just stayed at home and he got a cheap motel by the airport. I saw him when we did our filmmaking, and there were a few times I thought maybe something was going to happen (what, I don’t know) but then he would go back to his motel and I would go back to my parents’ house. All the intimacy I had felt in Red Fox was gone.
And the contact we had now was just in text messages and emails. I can’t lie and pretend that I didn’t get kind of giddy and stupidly smiley every time a message from him came in, even if it said something as simple as “liked what you wrote” or “I hate the new Muse album.” But that was the extent of our “relationship” at the moment. It was like the kiss never happened.
Yeah. The kiss. It weighed on my mind. It’s what my thoughts turned to whenever they drifted away for a few seconds. It’s the feelings that were stirred up when the wind on the street caught my face just right, or when a certain song came on shuffle. Dex had kissed me, as we were perched up in a swaying pine tree, as we were certain we would meet our deaths below.
It seemed appropriate at the time. I thought I was going to die and I know he did too. But it couldn’t have been just that, could it? Couldn’t it have meant more, couldn’t it have been something he had always wanted to do? I know it was something more to me. I’d been wanting to lay my lips on him ever since we first met.
There was Jennifer though, Dex’s mega–babe girlfriend. The tiny, pathetic voice in my head, the one that so hopelessly wished that maybe they’d be through after our trip, was stifled. They hadn’t broken up. The kiss meant nothing in the end. Dex was back with Jenn and back to his zany self.
Well, sorta. He had been off his medication in New Mexico (accidently) and though he had a few rough patches he was sort of normal, for lack of a better word, by the time we parted ways. Yet when I saw him again he seemed off. Bored, in a way. The playful banter we had shared was subdued and the bright, zealous light that sparked from his eyes had dimmed. He was obviously back on his medication again, or perhaps some new one, but whatever “illness” it was keeping at bay was also keeping the real Dex at bay as well. I didn’t think it was a fair tradeoff. Yes, Dex was manic and often behaved like a wind–up toy but that was who he was. The last night in Red Fox I had told him I hoped he would always feel alive. I think my words fell on deaf ears.
But I was probably overthinking and overanalyzing everything as I always did. I wouldn’t be surprised if I thought he’d changed just because of the circumstances. I mean, they had changed. I think I just had to accept that our relationship was going to change each time we were together. We were partners, we kept in touch and when we were together, we were at the mercy of something else. When we weren’t, he went back to Jennifer and I went back to awaiting his texts like a na?ve schoolgirl.
That dilemma aside, which was really just a need to keep my wandering feelings in check, everything really had fallen in place. Though last week’s trip was canceled due to bad weather, we were supposed to embark on a trip to a haunted old leper colony in British Columbia, Canada, on the weekend. Our next episode, the pizza parlor one, would air when we were gone. And my 23rd birthday was the next week.
Everything had fallen into place, except the whole job thing. I was still looking, every day, for someplace to hire me, still lying daily to my parents about having a career. In fact, my 4 p.m. coffee ritual in the lobby of Portland’s Ace Hotel signaled the end of my job search day. Another empty day of holing up in various internet cafes, writing worthless cover letters that would never be read and applying for jobs that companies wouldn’t give more than a glance to.
I sighed and poured a packet of sugar–free sweetener in my coffee, watching the chemicals dissolve in the hot frothy liquid. It was frustrating, to say the least, having to spend so much effort in trying to get a job. It was almost like a job itself, but of course it didn’t pay.
But as long as my parents didn’t find out about it, I was going to be OK. Although, it was annoying and extremely stressful to keep on lying to them. So much so that I barely had an appetite (actually that boded quite well in one way; I’d lost a few pounds – take that, Anonymous!) and the guilt I had was tearing me up inside at night, clouding my dreams and filling me with shame when I was the most vulnerable. I had no choice but to deal with it though, and keep filling out stupid applications and whore my resume around town.
At least that guy had recognized me and looked pleased with himself for doing so. He was a fan of the show. That little encounter, as panicky as it made me feel, did a lot to raise my spirits.
I wanted to text Dex and tell him what happened. He’d probably get a kick out of it.
I brought out my phone but noticed I already had a text message. Before I got a chance to get excited, I noticed it was from Ada, not Dex.
–DO NOT COME HOME TODAY– it said. All caps, too.
A wave of nausea swept over me. I was simultaneously disturbed and puzzled.
I put the coffee back down on the condiments counter and texted her back.
–What do you mean?–
I sent it and decided to plunk myself at a table that was miraculously empty at this caffeine rush hour. Normally the 4 p.m. coffee break meant I took my latte back to my motorbike, Put–Put, which was parked a few blocks away, and finished it on the walk there. But if my sister was telling me not to come home, I wasn’t in a huge rush.
I sat around for five minutes, fingers nervously picking at the rubber iPhone cover. Ada hadn’t texted back.
What did it mean, don’t come home? I looked back at my calls and texts from the day. There was a text from Dex earlier saying that the weather for the weekend looked like it was cooperating and there was a missed call from my father. I had called him back, though, and no one answered. I didn’t think it was a big deal. He often called to ask me stupid questions (you know, “what’s the name of that actor in that cop show, yadda yadda”), whereas my mother would call to make sure I was “fine.”
Other than that, there were no clues, and Ada wasn’t responding. I looked at the time the message was sent: A half hour ago. I keep my phone on silent but normally check it once an hour to see what had gone through. Though to be honest, I was checking it more and more lately in case someone had responded to one of my tweets, or Facebook postings, or if someone else had said something nasty on the blog.
Ada probably meant to send the text to someone else (it had happened before) or maybe she had a boy over or something. I didn’t know, but what I did know was that I wasn’t going to keep sitting in the coffee shop and pretending to drink my latte, which I had already downed.
I shrugged off the uneasy feeling, tossed the coffee in the trash and stepped out into the street. It was a mild pre–winter Wednesday in early November, less than a week before my birthday. I hated thinking about it. I had been fine with turning 22, but turning 23 took on a whole new meaning for me. It was closer to 25 than anything else and 25 had always been the age I figured I’d have my shit together.
That said, some stranger had just complimented me on my TV show (OK, fine, “internet” show) and that wasn’t exactly something I had planned on achieving before I turned 25. Maybe this was just a sign of good things to come, all the things that I needed to acquire before I turned 25: A boyfriend, a condo in the city all my own and a job that showed people what I was really made of. Or maybe it would just help the last part. Either way, it wasn’t anything to sneeze at.
That thought made me feel more confident as I walked over to the meter where I had parked Put–Put, and piloted him through the cold winds that ruffled my back and propelled me home.