Welcome to the Story Laboratory! This is where I share drafts from various prompts and writing challenges, fish for feedback, and then head back to the drawing board with everything I learn in the comments.
Put on your goggles and lab coats. It’s going to be messy! Tell me what you really think. Be as mean or as nice as you like, I’ve got thick skin (and an even thicker skull!)
“No-see-ums” by S.C. Jensen
Diana trudged through the trees, a fresh kill slung over her shoulder. If her unexpected guests had luck at the river they’d eat well tonight. Small blessings. But the insects droned an incessant warning in her ears.
Thick evergreen boughs trapped the midday heat against the forest floor. Damp air burped out of the dehydrated muskeg like a blister coated in buzzing black flies. Her feet left pools of dank water in the film of pale green mildew. Diana broke out of the thicket and into the fresh air of the clearing next to the river. The sun skimmed the tops of the trees now; she had about an hour of daylight left. Nina, the hapless wanderer, perched upon the mossy granite stone they’d chosen as a meeting place. She smiled and waved.
Her face fell as Diana approached. “Is that a bunny?”
Diana lay three rabbits on the rock beside Nina who jumped to her feet. “Where’s your friend?”
“Brooding about getting us lost.” Nina shrugged. She popped a handful of wild blueberries into her mouth. “I left him with the fish and went foraging instead.”
“I told you to stay together.”
“He’s just up the creek there.” Nina pointed with her chin. “He’ll be back any minute.”
They watched the sun until it sank halfway into the spruce trees. Diana sifted through Nina’s basket of berries and mushrooms and plucked out any of the forest’s offerings that might kill them before the bugs did. “It’s time to go.”
“But what about Liam?”
“I told you I’d pick you up here.” Diana flung the rabbits over her shoulder and stared up the thin, winding river. “I didn’t say I’d wait.”
“He might not be able to find your cabin on his own.”
Golden rays of sunlight filtered through the trees and kissed the rippling water. The river deepened from clear blue to indigo as Diana watched. “I’m leaving.”
“What’s the hurry?” Nina stumbled along behind her. “It’s a beautiful evening. We could—”
“How,” muttered Diana, “did you two survive long enough to get lost in the first place?”
“Ouch!” Nina slapped at her arm and spilled half her berries onto the forest floor. “Something stung me!”
Diana stopped. Her eyes shot to the sky, still blue, but darkening. She grabbed Nina’s arm and inspected the mark. “Did you see it?”
“No, but I sure felt it.”
“Come on,” Diana said. “I can treat that at the cabin.”
The little wooden building hunkered between the trees like a kicked dog, its shoulders hunched against the impending darkness. Diana ushered Nina inside with the berries and rabbits and set her to boiling water. For the stew, she told the girl. But she’d need it to sterilize the knife as well. Diana slipped outside to complete her twilight ritual.
She kept the shutters closed all summer. Each night she packed a paste of mud and sawdust into the chinks and inspected the boards for signs of infestation. You could survive in the bush if you knew how; the worst of the season only lasted a few weeks. But they were in the thick of it now.
Purpling fingers stretched from the trees across the trail to the river and plunged into the gloom beyond. A high pitched whine rose from the darkened trees. No sign of Liam. Maybe he was still sulking. Maybe he was already dead. Diana closed the door behind her and checked the seal from the inside.
Nina lifted the lid of the pot and peered at her through the steam. “Do you always do that?”
“Only if I want to see daylight.”
“Are there bears?” The girl’s eyes widened. “But Liam—”
“Nothing that big.” Diana dropped her equipment into the rolling water. “Now let’s have a look at that arm.”
Nina extended her forearm warily. A red welt erupted from her soft brown skin. The centre oozed with milky yellow pus. “I have some Sting-Eze in my backpack.”
“It’s not a sting, it’s an egg sac.” Diana levered her knife out of the pot. “I’m going to have to cut it out.”
The girl wrenched her arm out of Diana’s grip. “Are you crazy?”
“When the larvae hatch they will get into your blood and eat your body from the inside out.”
Nina’s dark pupils floated in wide white orbs. She backed up until she pressed against the door.
Diana shook her head once, sharply. “I will kill you myself if you try to open that.”
“Liam is out there.”
The buzzing outside reached a fevered pitch. Even the shutters seemed to vibrate. “Your friend is dead.”
An ululating wail cut through the whining of wings and opened it like a wound. Terror and pain poured in from the dusk and filled the cabin with their lecherous breath. It hung in the air, damp and cloying.
“Liam!” Nina scrabbled for the door handle.
Diana whipped across the room and snapped the girl back like a snare wire. She pinned Nina’s arms behind her back and wrapped the girl in a smothering embrace. “Shh. You can’t help him. He’s gone.”
Sobs convulsed Nina’s body and tears streamed down her face. “I don’t want to die here!”
Diana relaxed her grip on the girl. She held her by the arms and turned her around. “You don’t have to die. Just look at me.”
Nina’s eyes flickered over Diana, taking in the tiny crescents of puckered flesh that dotted her skin. “Will it hurt?”
“Barely a pinch.” Diana led the girl back to the stove. “They inject a numbing agent with the eggs sac so animals won’t bother the site.”
Nina’s lips pressed into a thin grey line, but she held out her arm. It was quite outside now. The bugs were always worst around dusk. Diana cut into the swollen mound and pried a thick white clump out of the centre. The girl didn’t flinch. It would be safe again by sunrise.
Diana flung the egg sac into the fire.
This piece was written for the #BlogBattle Stories flash fiction challenge. March’s theme was “Dusk” at 1000 words or less. This piece is 1002 words. Oops… Check out the other submissions HERE! And, as always, let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!
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