My latest story for R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast is called “For Old Times’ Sake” and it is based on this photo story prompt:
For Old Times’ Sake
Jessica is walking a trail by the Giant’s Causeway with Emily, wondering what the hell she’s doing there.
She’s supposed to be on her European holiday, staying in quaint B&Bs, pretending to do cultural stuff, drinking in pubs. Instead she’s here in the pouring rain. Sure, the Causeway’s cool with the rocks or whatever, but it’s still a bullshit place to go sightseeing in a downpour.
Jessica slows her steps and waits for Emily to catch up. Emily is hunched over, coughing, and in her big yellow raincoat she looks like an old woman.
I should be nicer to her, Jessica chides herself. She is dying after all.
Jessica was lounging in a comfortable hotel bed when she got Emily’s text, saying she was in Northern Ireland too and had heard from friends that Jessica was traveling there, what a coincidence, and couldn’t they meet up for old times’ sake?
Jessica wanted to say no but didn’t. At home, she’d heard the news through the small-town grapevine, that Emily was sick again. And what kind of asshole says no to someone who’s dying?
Just… why the hell did they have to come here?
She knows why, of course. It’s because this is where Emily’s mom saved her life, back when Emily was 12 years old and got sick the first time. Emily’s mom was a loopy hippie wannabe with all sorts of new-age symbols and ancient religious knickknacks piled up in her house, Celtic stuff and Buddhist junk, witchcraft trinkets and Old Norse figurines.
When Emily got sick, her mom packed up her smudgesticks and crystals and brought her to the Causeway, saying it was a place of power, though likely she’d only ever seen it on that Led Zeppelin album cover. Emily was terminal by then, but her mom didn’t care.
The weird thing was that Emily did get better. After that trip she wasn’t sick anymore. No more chemo, no more radiation.
Jessica glances over at Emily, at her pale face beneath the raincoat’s yellow hood, her eyes sunk deep into their hollows. Well, whatever the miracle was, it didn’t last more than fifteen years, because here’s Emily again, dying.
“Didn’t think you’d come,” Emily wheezes, winded from the walk. “I mean, we used to be friends, but it’s been a while.”
“Why not, right?” Jessica says. “For old times’ sake.”
It’s true that her and Emily were inseparable for most of their childhood, but they lost touch when Emily got sick. Jessica tried to visit her in hospital in the beginning, but it wasn’t exactly fun to hang out with her anymore. And once Emily got better, Jessica had found new friends, and nothing was the same. Emily never seemed to get many, or any, new friends and Jessica felt bad about that, but they’d grown apart. It happens. Right?
Emily coughs until she can’t walk. “Let’s stop here for a bit,” she wheezes. “Right here is where I sat with mom.”
Jessica wonders how she can be so sure when all the rocks look the same.
In the stillness, there’s nothing but the sound of the distant sea. The rain still falls, and a mist is closing in on them, wrapping them up, away from the world.
Is she going to pray for another miracle? Jessica wonders. Is that why we’re here?
“Mom had her bag of trinkets dumped out on the ground,” Emily goes on. “Crosses and runes and pentagrams and whatever. She chanted and prayed for a miracle.” Emily coughs. “But she didn’t get one. At least not the way she thought.”
Jessica looks up at Emily. The mist and the hood of the raincoat hides her features. “What do you mean? You got better.”
Emily laughs, a quiet, raspy chuckle that sounds all wrong coming from her.
“We sat here a whole day. People stared at us, whispering. It got late, it got rainy and mom went looking for a bathroom. She told me to wait, and I did. And that’s when I saw it.”
Jessica leans forward because there’s something about Emily’s voice, something different, that makes her hang on every word. “What?”
“A crack in the air. Like a rip in our world, through to another place. I remember thinking, isn’t that funny, mom sitting here chanting for so long and then finally she makes something happen, and she isn’t even here to see it.” The cough rips through Emily’s chest and she grabs hold of Jessica’s arm for balance. “I looked into that opening and the strangest eyes looked back at me. There was a landscape behind them, all blurry with stars and fires perhaps, but those eyes… they were sharp and clear. Ancient and hungry, too.”
“Wow,” Jessica says and shivers. She doesn’t know what to say but she’s pretty sure Emily’s lost her mind.
“Mom was so happy afterward. A painless cure, she called it.” Emily coughs again. “Except it wasn’t painless. Well, the curing was, after, but before that, when that…thing…crawled out of the crack in the air and into me, when it slithered out on its scaly legs and forced apart my teeth and clawed its way down my throat, into my chest and took hold…that wasn’t painless. And the things it’s made me do…” In the thickening mist, Emily pulls Jessica closer, her voice harsher now. “We’ve had a good few years. But bodies wear out fast in this world and I need a new one. Hardly thought I’d make it back to the right place in time. And finding someone to come with me…that was even harder.”
Emily pulls off her hood. Jessica can see her face now, and out of the deep-set hollows beneath Emily’s brows, the strangest eyes look out at her. Sharp and clear. Ancient and hungry, too.
“I’m so glad you came, Jessica,” a voice that is no longer Emily’s whispers, as the clawed, scaled thing slithers out between Emily’s teeth, reaching for Jessica’s face. “For old times’ sake.”