01 Feb The Northern Lights
Never, ever drive off the road.
That was the first rule I had written down. The road was bumpy and inhospitable. I held the steering wheel with such a feverish grip, that veins prominently bulged on my hands. I was driving on a narrow dirt road, full of potholes and fallen branches, a testament to its lack of usage. The trees on the side towered, encroaching above the road, effectively blocking any starlight from the dark sky above. It was pitch black and without the headlights of my car, I wouldn’t see anything.
I drove slowly, because the meager excuse of a road curved every now and again, often disappearing under a thick pile of leaves, before I caught its trace again in the distance, hoping not to end up in a ditch which I wouldn’t be able to get my car out of.
My headlights illuminated a thick row of trees ahead and I knew that the road had come to an end. I slowed down and then stopped my car entirely, scanning the area from left to right, to make sure there wasn’t a pathway I may have potentially missed. I turned the key in the ignition and the engine sputtered out of life, leaving me in eerie silence. The lights disappeared, leaving me in utter darkness, until I manually turned them back on. In the moment of being in pitch black, a shiver ran down my spine. I grabbed my wallet and pulled out the photo of Alina. She was smiling in it in such a reassuring way, that it could cheer up the gloomiest of souls. She was so energetic back then, so full of life. It was my favorite picture of her. She was blushing in the photo from the cold.
We were on vacation in Iceland, a place she always wanted to visit more than anything else. It was her birthday and I surprised her with tickets. She was so ecstatic when I told her the plan, she spent the next two hours checking online the place I booked. She always appreciated small gestures and gifts, so something like this launched her to the moon.
Two days later, we were on a night cruise off Reykjavik in search of the Northern Lights. It was Alina’s first time seeing the lights, so she was very excited. When she saw the shades of green and white stretched across the night sky in a shape that resembled a colossal beast, blending in with the infinite stars, she had a grin from ear to ear on her face.
“Wow, look at that, David!” She pointed over yonder, her cheeks blushing from the cold, as steady breaths left her mouth and disappeared in the air.
She fumbled for her phone with the gloves and started snapping pictures.
“See, aren’t you glad now that I got you those phone-compatible gloves?” I asked.
“Yeah, they’re so great! I don’t have to take off and put on my glove every time I see something interesting. Which, over here, is like every minute or so.” She took a picture of me.
“Come on, let’s take a picture together.” She said.
I put my arm around her and she pursed her lips photogenically, as she snapped a picture of us, with the Aurora Borealis behind us. I kissed her and she took another picture like that.
“Let me take a picture of you.” I said as I took her phone.
Alina took off her winter hat and stood by the railing at the bow of the ship. She put her hands behind on the railing and slightly cocked her head, smiling at the camera. I snapped a few photos and I distinctly remember thinking how lucky I was to have her. I handed the phone back to her and we faced the green lights again, staring at the sky. The murmurs of the tourists around us filled the air, each group speaking in their own language.
“Do you think we can come back here again someday?” Alina asked, as she stuffed the hat on her head, clumsily pulling it down to cover her ears.
“I thought you hated the cold?” I grinned teasingly.
“Please, Dave. It’s so beauti-“ Her sentence was caught off by a coughing fit.
“You okay, honey?” I asked.
She nodded, clearing her throat. That was the start of our ordeal.
I put the photo in the chest pocket of my jacket. I proceeded to pull out the wrinkled, folded-up piece of paper from my wallet. I unfolded it carefully and read what was written in sloppy handwriting:
When you reach the end of the road, leave your car behind, but leave the lights on. Start your stopwatch and keep walking in a straight line until you see a narrow entrance to a cave. If five minutes have gone by and you haven’t found the entrance, follow your car’s headlights back and try again.
I already knew the text word by word, because I’ve read it so many times. But I had to be sure. I can’t screw this up, everything depended on it. I folded up the paper and put it in the pocket of my jeans. I opened the glovebox and took out the flashlight. After a click to see if it works, I got out of the car, leaving the key in the ignition – no one would be stealing it here, not in this unfriendly forest.
When I opened the door, I expected to be hit with the sounds of animal life, crickets and such. But there was nothing. It was so deafeningly silent, that I felt compelled to clear my throat, just to make sure I hadn’t lost my hearing. Something was terribly wrong here, I could feel it in the heaviness which permeated the air. I scanned the tree-line with my flashlight, just to assure myself nothing was lurking from behind a tree. Once my mind was calm, I turned to the direction my car was facing, set the timer on my watch and started walking.
The shuffling of leaves under my feet filled the air, as I carefully strode forward, cautious not to step into a hidden ditch and twist my ankle. The beams of my car illuminated far ahead, but they gradually dissipated and then completely disappeared, leaving me with my flashlight as the only source of light in the devouring darkness of the woods. I did my best to resist the urge to look around, in fear that I would inadvertently start walking in the wrong direction.
I glanced at the timer. 2:36. I have less than half time left. I hurried, striding through the thick layers of dry leaves and broken branches, my steady breathing joining in on the cacophony of shuffling and snapping. I suddenly remembered the hikes I often had with Alina. She loved the outdoors.
“Wait, I gotta… I gotta take a break.” I said while panting, in the middle of an ascent on a steep hill.
Alina turned around to face me, looking like she was doing nothing more than light jogging.
“Tired already? Come onnn.” She put her hands on her hips and shifted her weight on one leg.
“Guess I… I should have… should have gone jogging with you all those… mornings, huh.” I chuckled breathlessly.
“Twice a week is all you need.” She said.
“Twice a week… that’s twice as much as I planned on doing.” I said.
She approached me and grabbed my hand, playfully gesturing with her head towards the top of the hill.
“Come on, we’re close to a bench now. We can take a break there and…” She leaned in and whispered “…maybe kiss a little?”
Climbing the hill suddenly sounded a lot more attractive and in a matter of minutes, we were on an elevation, with our backpacks off, sitting close to each other on a bench.
“Hey, I just wanted to say I really appreciate you doing these things with me.” She said, as she put her hand on my thigh.
“What are you talking about, babe? I’m enjoying this.”
And it was the truth. Anything even remotely unappealing was a lot more enjoyable with Alina, whether it be watching movies at home, visiting family members (which I hated), hiking or working out.
“Well, you’ll have to train harder if you don’t want me to leave you behind for a bear to eat.” She leaned in closer.
“Hey, if I can survive living with you, I can survive a bear.” I said, to which she gasped, faking shock.
I brushed the hair from her face and kissed her.
“Wait-“ She barely managed to utter mid-kiss and looked away.
She put her hand over her mouth and started coughing. It was a dry, painful-to-listen cough, which made my lungs hurt just hearing it.
“You’ve been having that cough for a while now. We really should schedule an appointment for it, seriously.”
She mildly coughed a few more times, after which she cleared her throat.
“Alright, fine. I’ll do it first thing Monday, I promise.” She smiled reassuringly.
4:13. Not much time left and I really didn’t want to spend five more minutes going back and then going through the same process once more. I trudged through the leaves, the feeling of unease growing inside me, threatening to take control of my body.
4:33. Nothing but the dark and endless trees. Wait, there’s something far ahead. The beam of my flashlight bounced off something at the end, rather than disappearing in the dark ahead. Reinvigorated, I quickened my pace and realized I was staring at a cliff wall. It was huge, its uneven and jagged surface taking up the entire view above and on both sides. As I moved my light a little to the left, I saw a small gap, slightly bigger than me, opening into a darkness that my flashlight couldn’t illuminate. It made my breath quicken, made me feel as if I could go inside and never find my way back out. I slowly approached it, inspecting it from a safe distance. Even from here, my light couldn’t penetrate the darkness at the threshold. I should have been able to see the adjacent wall on the inside, but there was nothing. It was as if my light was suddenly stopped at the entrance by an invisible black wall.
My timer beeped loudly, startling me. I turned it off. I pulled out my paper again and read the next line three times, darting my eyes over the same sentence over and over.
You have to be sure before you step inside, because once you do, there’s no going back.
I already knew that of course, but a nagging feeling wouldn’t let me just rely on my memory. That’s why I had it all written down. I couldn’t allow myself to screw this up, I probably wouldn’t get a second chance. I approached the entrance of the cave, my light practically shining only inches into the black wall. I timidly ran my fingers across the barrier, feeling an unnatural cold. It was freezing. A moment of trepidation overtook me, before I blanked my mind and stepped through the veil, bracing myself for the unknown.
I felt as if I had just gone over the threshold from a warm room into an inhospitably cold one. The temperature was much lower in here, and it wasn’t something of this world. I shone my flashlight around, glancing at the uneven surfaces of the encroaching walls which gave me just enough room to squeeze through by going sideways. I glanced behind, but to my amazement, the black veil was no longer there and I was instead faced with a solid rock wall. It was all part of the challenge and I knew this would happen. I faced the direction in which the passage lead.
Go through the passage, no matter how narrow it gets. Don’t stop to listen to the noises in the distance. Don’t turn around if you hear them behind, either.
I started making my way through the cave, the steady sound of droplets falling onto the ground permeating the air. The beam of my flashlight only illuminated the pathway to a certain point ahead, after which it merged with the darkness, giving me a distinct impression of walking through an endless corridor. Very soon I started hearing something that sounded like loud crashing, somewhere in the distance, like a rock plummeting to the ground. This occurred at various intervals and amplitudes, never in a predictable manner. It wasn’t long until other sounds started to join in on the already present ones.
At first, I couldn’t tell what I was hearing, but the more I listened, the more I started to distinguish something that sounded like footsteps, sounding like someone steadily strolling through the cave. They were coming from somewhere far in front of me, but on some occasions, they would resound behind me. It took everything within me not to look behind, as I did my best to remember the note’s instructions.
Don’t stop to listen to the noises.
Whatever was making the noises seemed to dislike this, because before I knew it, they grew louder, closer and more frantic. What sounded like walking just before, was now frenetic running, like a child deliberately stomping his feet on the rock floor, to make sure he was heard. The footsteps behind me seemed to coincide with my own, right at my heels. And then the coughing started. At first, very distant, echoing throughout the caves, bouncing off the walls. But as I progressed, it gradually got louder, until it sounded as if someone was coughing right in my ear.
I pushed on, breaking into a slow jog, while ignoring the combined sounds, my heart pounding in my chest. The coughing sounded very familiar, too. I knew because I was forced to listen to it every day. My thoughts involuntarily started drifting to the bitter times Alina and I spent together and I knew it was the effect of this place and not my own will.
“Sir, did you hear what I said?” The elderly doctor cocked his head, staring at me with a pitiful curiosity.
I felt nothing. It was one of those moments when you get hit and you don’t feel the pain immediately, but it comes only later. The murmurs of the hospital staff exchanging information and patients talking amongst each other filled the hallway. I dreamily nodded to the doctor and said:
“Yeah. Yeah, I heard you. I um… How long… how long does she have?” I felt like I had something stuck in my throat while trying to utter those words.
The doctor shook his head like a disappointed parent:
“I’m afraid it’s not looking good. A few months at best.”
The pain came and it was so intense that I needed to put my hand on the wall to stop myself from keeling over. I felt sick to my stomach. Was this really happening? A few months? It was not enough time. We had so much to do.
“Thank you, doctor. I’ll let her know.” I said.
“Let me know if there’s anything else you need.” The doctor put his hand on my shoulder sympathetically, before leaving.
I stood there for a solid five minutes, before deciding to go back to Alina, my wobbly legs barely able to hold the weight of my own body. She was sitting on a bench in the waiting room between two old women. She was clasping a cup of coffee from the vending machine between her palms, the steam slowly rising from the cup. Upon seeing my figure in front of her, she looked up at me and smiled, as she brushed her hair from her face.
“Hey.” She said, but I could see the worry on her despite her smile “So, what did the doc say?”
The noises around me were so intense in that tight cave space, that I felt like I was in a crowded area, and they grew louder by the second. I was full-on sprinting as much as the narrow passage allowed me to, the beam of my flashlight bobbing up and down with each step I took. And then just like that, all the noises stopped. The footsteps, the coughing, the shuffling, all gone. The narrow passage opened up into a vast area inside the cave. I shone my flashlight around and saw countless nature-made pillars strewn around the area of all shapes and sizes, crude and uneven, some stretching as high as my flashlight could reach and as thick as trees, others barely half my size.
I lowered my flashlight and looked around, unable to see anything in the pitch black. I slowly rotated to the right, trying to detect the faintest trace of something contrasting the dark and there it was – a tiny, barely visible white dot, a beacon of hope in the surrounding abyss. I steadied my breathing, as I put my hand in the pocket of my jeans and pulled out the note.
Once the passage opens into a big area, look for the source of light. Follow it, while keeping anything around you at a distance with your flashlight. If your flashlight starts to flicker – run!
I sighed and put the note back in my pocket. I pulled out Alina’s picture and looked at it under the light. In this dark and hostile place, her face gave me respite. I felt like I needed to stare at her picture for a little longer, to remind myself why I was here in the first place. I gritted my teeth and gently put the picture back in my pocket and started walking towards the small dot in the distance.
Not even a minute into my walk, I heard the first batter of footsteps. It sounded like someone barefoot sprinting a short distance to my left and when I shone the light there, I saw nothing but the jagged pillars and darkness. I went on and heard another set of footsteps, again to my left. I quickly moved my beam again and this time, for a split second, before it disappeared behind one of the pillars, I saw a figure. I couldn’t tell what exactly I saw because it was such a short time, but it looked humanoid, skinny, with a backbone prominent against its stretched, grey skin.
I hurried up and now heard the footsteps to the right. I turned there and saw a similar, grey figure running behind one of the smaller pillars. It crouched behind it, but since the pillar was too thin, I saw the shoulder and the foot of the creature sticking out cover, emaciated so much that it looked like it was nothing but skin and bone. A much faster batter of footsteps resounded behind me and I shot around, but saw nothing. When I turned back to face the crouching creature at the pillar, it was gone.
The steady sound of my panting filled the air, making me feel like a sitting duck, surrounded by all these unimaginable monstrosities. I glanced at the white dot, which grew bigger in size, but just barely. I probably wasn’t even halfway there. I broke into a light jog, frantically swinging my flashlight around, at the footsteps that now seemed to intermittently emanate from everywhere, their echoes carried through the air, always the same distance away. I saw the skinny, grey figures getting bolder and leaving their covers more courageously, only to retreat behind the pillars when I shone my light at them.
I heard a sprint of bare feet approaching me and I turned around just in time, to illuminate a short, emaciated monster, with tiny, black eyes and a thin slit for a mouth, full of sharp rows of teeth. The creature shrieked loudly, something that resembled car tires and shielded its face, immediately retreating into the dark.
I ran, now in full-blown panic, fixated on the white dot. It was so close now and it was no longer a dot, but something that looked like a crude doorway. Faint, white light emanated from it, beckoning me and I needed no invitation to decide to reach it. The pillars started to thin out and eventually disappeared entirely and I knew that I had to sprint even faster.
Once their cover is gone, the creatures will become desperate. Run towards the light and don’t look back until you are through.
I listened as the dozens, hundreds of tiny footsteps followed closely behind, shrieks resounding so loudly that my ears hurt, their cries sounding like the bloodthirsty desperation of a predator hunting its prey. The flashlight started to flicker, but I ignored it. The white door grew bigger and bigger and before I knew it, I was through it. I felt the floor disappear from under my feet and felt myself falling headfirst into a watery abyss, while the sounds of my pursuers abated.
A loud splash resounded and for an instant I felt cold all over my body, with everything around getting muffled. I felt cold water fill my mouth and the utter realization that I might drown in this place filled me with indescribable panic. I held my breath and swam in the direction that seemed the likeliest to lead to the surface, all the while praying I wasn’t diving deeper. In seconds, another splash occurred and the sounds around me were no longer muffled. I took a deep breath, gasping for air, more in panic than from drowning.
I shone my light around, feeling the cold penetrate my body. I had to get out of there immediately. I saw solid surface close by, so I used my remaining strength to swim there and climb out of the water, slumping onto my back, panting. I was in temporary relief and I knew that I’d be safe for the moment, so I allowed myself to close my eyes for a second.
Alina sat upright in her bed, staring out the window. The morning sun glared through the pane of glass and on her pale face. I sat at the edge of the bed.
“What are you thinking?” I asked her, putting my hand on her thigh.
It felt much too skinny, even through the blanket. She looked at me and smiled. She had heavy bags under her eyes and her cheekbones were prominent on her sunken face. Despite all of that, the smile she gave was still the same as it was when she was healthy. Full of life, radiant with hope and positivity.
“I was just remembering our trip to Iceland.” She said with a hoarse voice.
“Oh, yeah. It was around this time last year.” I said.
“I guess… I guess we won’t be going back there after all.” She forced a chuckle, the sadness audible in her voice.
I choked. I didn’t know what to say. She sighed and said:
“It’s a shame. I really wanted to see the Northern Lights one more time.”
I was suddenly overcome with an overwhelming sadness.
“Don’t say that.” I said “We could still visit Iceland this winter.”
She gave me a smile, which clearly said that she knew I didn’t believe it. She put her hand over mine and said:
“I’m feeling tired. I should get some rest.”
I opened my eyes and sat upright, more distressed now than I was running away from those abominations from before. I pulled out the photograph from my chest pocket. It was wet, but still as pristine as before the fall, because I had encased it in plastic. Seeing her smile put my heart at ease and gave me the strength to go on. It’s a shame I didn’t go to such lengths to protect the note as well, because when I pulled it out of my jeans, it was soaked and ruined, the ink smudged into indecipherable letters. I tossed it away. It’s okay, I had it memorized. I grabbed my flashlight, giving myself a pat on the back for buying a water-proof one, and continued going.
Just hold on, Alina. I thought, but in reality, was encouraging myself instead.
After you swim out, there’s only one path you can follow. Go forward until you see a bridge. Something will be on the other side of it. It can’t see you, but it can hear you, so it’s important to get past it quietly. Don’t run, even if you are a good far from it. You need to put as much distance between yourself and it as you can before the next step.
The glistening walls surrounding the cave chamber gradually closed in on me, until I was once again in a somewhat narrow passage. And then, they suddenly widened again and I was faced with an open area, which seemingly had no ceiling. I tentatively took a few steps forward and saw an old rope bridge, wobbly in appearance, with worn-out ropes and rotted planks. I pointed the flashlight down below, but was met with nothing but endless dark. I had to cross the bridge, there was no other way around it.
I grabbed onto both sides of the rope, indecisively taking one step onto the old board, testing to see if it would collapse under my weight. I put the other foot in front of the first one and continued doing so, slowly and steadily. The bridge creaked with uncertainty, making me stop at every sound it would make. I expected the rope to snap or the board to break any moment and myself to plunge into my inevitable demise. I wondered how long I’d be falling before I hit the floor and if I’d have time to wallow in my own helplessness before death took me.
Although the bridge seemed endless, I reached the other side much sooner than I expected. It felt great stepping on the hard surface of the cave rock, feeling stability once again. My relish was short-lived though, when the sound of wheezing filled the air in front of me. I raised my flashlight and darted the light around, but was only faced once more with the dark. It was hard to pinpoint where the wheezes were coming from, since they echoed throughout the cave. I stood frozen, as they gradually got louder. The wheezing was interrupted by a sudden coughing fit, before it continued.
My thoughts inadvertently kept rushing back to my final moments with Alina. I wish I could say that we enjoyed those last minutes that we had, but that wasn’t the case. The chemo had made her increasingly agitated and being around her was insufferable.
“Can you please not chew so loudly?” Alina asked from her bed impatiently, slightly raising her tone.
I stopped chewing my scrambled eggs and slowly put my fork down to look at her. She had lost all her hair and even her eyebrows had fallen out. Her face was white as a sheet of paper, thin and sunken, her cheekbones and eye sockets clearly visible against her face. Her body was frail and thin, as she weighed no more than half of what she used to. It was so difficult watching her become like this. A woman so lively, fit, full of energy, to become the exact opposite of what she was prior to getting sick and unable to do all the things she used to enjoy.
She stared at me with a stern expression on her face, the plate of her food untouched on the nightstand next to her.
“I’m sorry, honey.” I responded in a docile way.
This wasn’t her first outburst and it probably wouldn’t be her last, either. I had gotten somewhat used to it by now, but her words still hurt me sometimes. I tried to tolerate it as much as I could, but I spent less and less time with her in the room. I simply couldn’t bear to watch her like that. Over the course of the next few days, she became increasingly weaker, unable to eat, and later even speak. I knew that her time was almost up, so in those last moments I stayed by her side and held her hand the entire time, while she was in a limbo, falling in and out of consciousness, only able to wheeze while awake, neither truly alive nor dead.
I spoke to her, but she was unresponsive. I don’t even remember what our last conversation was. She couldn’t even return the squeeze of my hand and eventually one day, she just didn’t wake up. I spent hours in the room with her body, holding her cold hand and staring at her, feeling numb. I was like a zombie. And then the flood-gates opened and I was hit with waves and waves of emotions which I could not contain. It was the worst I’d ever felt in my life and I begged god to give her back, to swap our places, to give me just one more minute with her. But of course, that never happened.
The wheezing was so close now, that I expected something to jump out in front of me. It didn’t happen quite so, but I did see a figure emerge from the dark. I had to put my hand over my mouth to stop myself from audibly gasping when I saw what kind of monster staggered up in front of me. My flashlight illuminated a hunched-over woman. Except she wasn’t really human, from the looks of it. It had long and damp black hair falling over its face, almost halfway down to its chest. It was skinny, so skinny that I wondered how it was even able to stand. Its body was wrapped in a torn, brownish rag and as it made a step closer to me, I realized it was an old hospital gown.
Its painful wheezes permeated the air, loud with each step taken. I was frozen in place, unable to move an inch from fear. The creature stopped, its chest heaving as it breathed and then it turned its head towards me. It was then that I realized it had no eyes. Where the eyes should have been, I saw skin stretched across the sunken sockets. It didn’t seem to react to my flashlight, which fiercely danced on the creatures face up and down from my trembling hands.
I closed my eyes and held my breath, tears now flowing down my face. I had to be quiet. The creature turned left and continued walking slowly, each step it took looking like it had trouble moving its limbs, dragging its bloodied feet across the dirt and rock with a shuffling sound. As soon as it was some distance away, I daringly started tip-toeing forward, holding my breath along the way.
I kept my light trained on the creature, while its now steady wheezing filled the air. In the panic that I felt, I accidentally kicked a pebble on the ground, which rolled away with an ominously loud sound. I stopped dead in my track.
The creature gasped loudly with a simultaneous shriek, epileptically jerking its head in the direction of the sound. It started running, much faster than I thought it could with its frail body, all the while with shallower and much louder wheezing. It stopped exactly where the pebble had rolled over. It swiveled its head left and right with curiosity, clenching its fingers in a way that could only indicate that it was ready to attack with its long nails. The creature probingly sniffed the air multiple times, before it let out a groan of disappointment and staggered back to its previous position.
I slowly exhaled, almost out of breath. I proceeded to walk forward, while the steady wheezing started resonating in the air once more. I got a surge of hope when I saw something that looked like a doorway, not too far ahead. I wanted to run, but I had to follow the rules. The creature was too fast. Slowly the breathing behind me faded and I silently thanked god for that. When I got closer to the doorway, I saw crimson light gleaming from inside, illuminating the interior with a sickly color. I stopped at the threshold and then slowly turned around. I pointed my flashlight back and saw the creature in the distance, facing away from me. I turned back to the doorway.
Once you step through the doorway at the end, the creature will have noticed you. You will know this, because it will scream. Run. Run as fast as you can and don’t stop until you are through the next door.
So that’s what I did. As soon as I took one step across the threshold, I started running for dear life. An inhuman shriek resounded behind me in the distance, followed by a rapid batter of footsteps and violent wheezing. The lights I saw before now glowed brighter, on both sides of the room, illuminating a pathway in the middle. I ran across, feeling the temperature rising. The scream was right at my heels and I was just about prepared to feel its hand wrap around my ankle and pull me back, but I refused to stop.
The room changed as I ran through, the crimson light suddenly illuminated tubes, hospital gowns and IV bags hanging from the ceiling. I heard EKG machines beeping and murmurs of people who I knew were doctors, resonating throughout the chamber. And then I saw people in the distance, hundreds and hundreds of people, emaciated, sick, in patient’s gowns staggering like zombies forward, some dragging IV racks with them, others in wheelchairs, all going in one direction and disappearing far ahead in an amalgamation of what looked like giant, rotted black lungs.
Sounds of respiration filled the air, as the lungs inhaled and enlarged in size and then exhaled, leaving giant droplets of blood on the ground in front. As I got closer I realized those weren’t lungs at all, they were people, all merged together into a pile that resembled lungs, new ones joining by the second and latching onto the other tormented souls. I knew that these were souls who tried to go through the same test as I and failed. I knew this is what awaited me, if I got caught.
I couldn’t take it, I wanted to be out of there, but there was nothing in sight, just an endless pathway going forward. I had started to lose hope and then I saw it – a passage in front, and a giant iron door opening up inside, white, bright light emanating from it.
The shrieks of the monster were still behind me, and I had started to think it was toying with me. I jumped through the light and was completely enveloped in it. As fast is blinded me, it disappeared, and the door slammed behind with a loud bang. There was a loud slam on it, which made me recoil in fear. Scratching, wheezing, screaming and banging ensued for a few long seconds, before it slowly faded away into distance and eventually disappeared entirely. I loudly sighed in relief, amazed that I managed to survive this far. I did it.
Once you are through the door, talk to the Overseer and make your wish.
I turned around. I was in a dark room, but this one was different. The floors and walls seemed straight and smooth, man-made, not crude like the rest of the cave. From the middle of the ceiling, blue light was cast down, illuminating a figure, sitting on a rock. I couldn’t see clearly who or what the figure was, but what I did see is that it was cloaked in a black robe, looking down, not revealing any discernible features.
I tentatively approached the figure, my heart thudding in my chest. It phlegmatically raised its head, as if just now becoming aware of my presence. I couldn’t see its face, as it was shrouded in darkness, but when it leaned back, I saw a pair of boney, grey hands with thick veins protruding out, like an old man. It spoke in a slow, raspy whisper:
“So. You’ve made it. You wish to bring back the dead?”
“Yes. I completed all of your tasks. Now I wish to bring my lover back. She was young. There was so much in store for her, but she was taken from me too soon. I want to live with her the life we never had.” I said with such clarity and confidence, that I amazed myself.
I rehearsed that line in my head so many times before, imagining this moment, but I never thought it would actually ever happen. The Overseer shook its head, which was like a punch to the gut. It continued:
“You misunderstand. It does not work that way.” It spoke slowly, sending shivers down my spine with each word.
“Wait, no. The rules said we get to bring our loved ones back. I completed your challenge, fair and square.” I said, scared because I saw back in the previous room what kind of hell this creature was capable of, but my desire to bring Alina back was stronger.
The Overseer sat motionless for a moment, before saying:
“I will give you three choices. You may choose one. For the first choice, you can bring back your loved one. But know that she will not be the same. I can bring her back, but I cannot cure her ailments. So whatever ate at her in life before, will continue to do so when she returns from the grave, causing her to live a life of endless agony. In the end, she will become a walking corpse, the time you spend with her will be a nightmare and she will beg you to kill her before the end. And you will do it with relish. Is that worth it, to have her back?”
My heart dropped to my stomach, but I listened.
“The second option is to turn back time. You can go back to happier times, when she was healthy. But know that you cannot change anything, as it was already written by the fates. She will die again, and you will have to relive the same, bitter end once more.”
“What’s the third option?” I asked impatiently, my entire body shivering.
The Overseer paused once more, before saying:
“You may see your lover once more for a short time. I can connect the two of you and you may say goodbye to her.”
It didn’t respond. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I had come all this way for nothing. I couldn’t bring her back. And yet I would go through this hell ten times over, if it would mean seeing her face, even if it were just for a moment. The first choice was not ideal, since it would only prolong torment to the both of us. But the second option? What if the Overseer was wrong and it is possible to change the course of events? No, the Overseer was telling the truth, somehow I knew it in my heart.
“I choose the final option.” I said with utter determination.
The Overseer leaned forward, and I couldn’t tell if it was staring at me. A moment later, it swiped the air with its hand and a blue, sparkly mist appeared in front of him, spreading and slowly enveloping the entire room, until it was all I could see. It felt like floating in the sky, with countless stars wherever I turned.
“David?” I heard a voice behind me.
A soft, gentle voice. A voice which was music to my ears. I turned around gasped audibly. In front of me stood Alina, no longer the skinny, sickly person that I last saw her as, but as beautiful as the day I took the picture of her on that cruise ship, with blushing cheeks, perfect hair, enchanting smile. She was wearing a white gown, which seemed to radiate with light. No, it was more like Alina herself radiated with inexplicable divinity.
I rushed to her and hugged her tighter than I ever did before in my life. I felt the warmth of her body, as she hugged me back. I felt the weight of all my burdens drop. It felt like home. I gave her a long kiss, unable to pull myself away from her lips, the lips which I yearned for night after night. When I finally did pull away, I realized that I was crying.
“Alina, my love. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t save you.”
She gently wiped my tears away, holding my face with her hands:
“Shhh, no David. There’s nothing to be sorry about. We both knew what would happen in the end. Even though our time together was short, you made me so happy. And I am so happy to look at you again. It feels like so long…”
“It’s so hard without you. I miss you every day.”
She nodded in understanding, stroking my hair:
“I know. I know you blame yourself, but none of what happened was your fault. It was fate. We will be together again one day, I promise.”
“I can’t go on without you. You’re all I got. We were going to do so many things together. I had so many plans for us. My life is meaningless without you.” New tears formed in my eyes and she wiped those away, too.
I wished that I could freeze that moment and be with her like that forever. I didn’t care if I had to live in that damned cave and survive off mushrooms, all I wanted was to be with her, no matter the price. She said:
“My time was over. But yours is not. You still have so much ahead of you. You have to live your own life. And when that life is over, I will be waiting for you. But until then, you have to promise me that you will continue to live.”
She gave me a concerned look and I knew we didn’t have much time left, so I nodded and said:
“Okay, my love. I promise.”
“And David?” She asked.
“Jogging. Twice a week.”
We both smiled. It was bittersweet. I felt happy and sad at the same time. She kissed me and as I held her, I felt her slipping away. She was moving, no, floating backwards and slowly ascending into the sky.
“I have to go, my love. They’re calling to me.” She said.
“No, no please don’t go. Stay with me.” I tried reaching out to her, but she seemed oblivious to my presence, glancing around at something I couldn’t see with a smile on her face.
The sky started changing colors and suddenly it was covered in various shades of green, like waves painted on a canvas. They covered a big portion of the sky and Alina looked at it in fascination and joy, the same kind of joy of appreciating small things, which she had back when she was alive. She looked down at me and said:
“David, look! It’s the Northern Lights.” We smiled at each other, before she turned to the sky and said in a soft tone “I always wanted to see them once more. They’re so beautiful.”
The sky around me started darkening and I stared at Alina’s pure form in a trance and sense of finality.
“I love you, Alina.” I muttered to myself, as her radiance slowly blended with the darkness and I was back in the dark room from before.
The Overseer was nowhere in sight. I fell to my knees and wept for what felt like hours, the pain in my heart more intense than on the day she died. I wanted to die there and then and join her in the afterlife. But I couldn’t. I made a promise to her.
When I regained my composure, I looked around. There was faint light was coming from behind me. I followed it and found myself back in the forest, at the cave entrance. It was morning and the birds were chirping, light breeze whipped my face. I looked back, but instead of the entrance I was met with a solid wall. I made my way back to my car and pulled out Alina’s photograph
“You’ll always be with me.” I said as I put the photo against my chest.