Screams deafened the desperate need for air from Jim’s lungs, drowning out the rest of the world. He tossed and tumbled through blackness as he tried, in vain, to block out the screeches. Terrified faces stared at him, their pleading, hopeless eyes the only thing he saw. They burned themselves into his mind’s eye.
Jim opened his mouth to lend his own voice to the incessant yells, but nothing came out. Water flooded him, seeking to fill the void with cool, calm dark. He fought back and coughed the liquid up. Despite his best efforts, the water continued unabated.
Kicking downward, Jim stopped his tumbling and floated for a moment. Escape was the only thing on his mind. He needed out, needed to fight. The surface called to him, and he ascended.
The cries amplified in intensity, and the begging, horrified eyes seared Jim to his core. He faltered, overwhelmed, and the agonizing noise receded. While they didn’t go away, the shouts no longer increased. He grit his teeth, prepared for the worst and surged upward.
Jim wished to cover his ears, but it would do him no good—the shrieks and wails stuck in his head. His muscles cried in pain as they consumed the last scrap of air in his body. Something tugged at his being, attempting to drag him back down. He did the only thing he ever could: run.
Everything went silent as Jim breached the water. Pale moonlight glittered across the agitated ripples. He looked around, dazed and confused, sucking in air in gasps. Trees grew around him, bent and splintered. Land was only a few feet away, but his strength failed him.
The tide passed Jim downriver. He breathed much easier now, yet he remained still. Shivers overtook him as a chill wind blew. Besides the glint off the river, nothing reflected any light. Shadows bobbed in the dark, preying on his wild imagination.
Jim shook his head and decided to swim. His limbs struggled to move, but they listened in laborious fashion. The water parted for him as he kicked and paddled his way to shore. Only the sounds of shallow breaths and trickling water echoed.
Sand and wood clung to Jim as he hauled himself to the riverbank. His body throbbed, and his head swam, but at least he managed to get out. An exhausted breath escaped him, and he collapsed on his back. He stared up into the inky black sky.
The tension welled up within Jim drained away. The sound of the running stream beside him became memorable, comforting, like something he had always known. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath and relished the tranquility.
Jim opened his eyes. A shadow moved to his right. He tried to ignore it, to write it off as his eyes playing tricks on him, yet a thought clawed at the back of his mind: Why was he here?
Nothing else caught his attention, but Jim’s curiosity spurred him on. Slowly, he forced himself back up to his feet. The effort taxed him, making for a difficult rise. He swayed as he stood. Once his body supported his weight again, he walked forward.
Trees dissolved into black tendrils as Jim picked his way through the alien terrain. His brain screamed at him, but he moved without so much as a worry. He focused on an unseen point dead ahead and nothing else. No distraction would see him off his path, not now.
A pinpoint of light radiated in the dark. Jim hesitated. The abnormality caused him anxiety when he should have been relieved. His breath came to a halt, and his legs threatened to fail him. He turned into a shaky mess.
Jim froze as the faint beam expanded, illuminating more of the world and banished the twisted gloom. He dreaded he would be devoured, bathed in brilliance, but the glow stopped five feet from him. Objects began to materialize. Something told him to reach out, to grasp the unknown, and he followed.
The light retreated. He recoiled as it blinked out of existence, leaving him once again in an empty world.
Jim’s heart hammered in his ear, and panic coursed through his body. Apprehension ruled him, but, now that the spark was gone, he feared he would never see anything again. Shadows whirled in its place until the area reverted to its normal, oppressive state of being. He was trapped.
Distant voices called out. No one should be out here—in his own little world of black. Jim opened his mouth to scream at them. Shadowy outlines rose before him, swirling in a frantic, huddled mass. A shiver ran down his spine.
Jim stood there, transfixed, as the silhouettes danced and coalesced. They took on human shapes, yet none of them were distinct. Whispers carried across the rift and mingled with the thoughts racing around in his head. Although they were quiet, they swarmed him until nothing else reached him.
Fragmented words drifted in and out of clarity. Water. Away. No. Help. Jim’s stomach tied in knots. A desire to rush to their aid and to run away dragged him in opposite directions. Nothing bound him to these faceless people; he owed them nothing.
One of the apparitions halted its dance and flitted about, searching. Something strong pulled Jim, and he took an impulsive stride forward. The person leaned toward him. He didn’t want to flee as he thought he would; he drew closer.
Brown eyes materialized out of the gloom, and they stared right at Jim. His heart skipped a beat as a familiar face greeted him. More features began to solidify, taking on the shape of a woman who stood level with him. He couldn’t believe his eyes; she couldn’t be there.
“Cass,” Jim said in disbelief. Each shade snapped its head in his direction, watching.
“Hey, Jimmy,” Cassy beamed. She rocked back on the heel of her right foot and cocked her head at him. “You look like hell.”
“You’re…” Jim’s mouth was dry, and words wouldn’t come.
Cassy frowned. “I’m what?”
“Forget it.” Shaking his head, Jim suppressed the terrifying thought. “Why…how are you here?”
“Didn’t you listen to a thing mom ever said? Family will always be there for you, no matter—” Laughter bubbled out from Cassy. Jim stared at her. “Sorry. You know I could never stomach that touchy-feely crap.”
A smile teased the corner of Jim’s mouth. “I still don’t understand. You shouldn’t be here.”
“And why not?” Cassy asked, indignant. “Do you not want to be bailed out by your big sister again?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Jim said as he stared Cassy in the eye.
“I…” Cassy lowered her head and looked to her left. Her shoulders slumped, and she shrunk away. “You’re right. I should go.”
Jim reached out his hand, trying, and failing, to grab her arm. “Wait. You know I—”
“Yes,” Cassy said as her face melted away. “You don’t have to say it, and don’t you dare make me say it.”
“I don’t want you to think that I,” Jim swallowed hard, “abandoned you.”
“I don’t think that, Jimmy.” Cassy’s expressive eyes shone with disgust. “I know you did.”
Phantoms rushed to Cassy, and she vanished. Jim fell backward, eyes wide. A memory played in his head, but he locked it out. Oblivion swirled where his sister had stood, wisps drifting away.
Jim reached in to pull Cassy out, but dread paralyzed him. He cursed, calling himself a coward. Death would swallow him if he tried. She was gone.
More shadows poured together as bits liquefied. Jim took a step back, afraid he would be enveloped. The urge to run bloomed inside him, yet he resisted with all he had. A sliver of hope endured in spite of how his own voice chastised him. He would save her this time.
Jim hurried forward, heedless of the danger. His breath came quick and ragged. Thinking only of saving Cassy, he plunged his arm into the spinning black. The current ripped him in, and he fell back to avoid being sucked in. No matter what, nothing would change.
The whirling shades gushed out, and Jim only had a few precious seconds to react. He pivoted and ran, certain he could find safety. Deformed and undulating images flew past him as he ran. His surroundings didn’t warrant a second thought.
Against his better judgement, Jim glanced back over his shoulder. The bulk flowed toward him, washing away what little structure the eerie forest held. His heart pumped quicker. He was doomed to be yet another thing lost if he didn’t move faster.
Jim ran, pushing himself to his limits. Escape—he had no other choice. Cassy’s heartbroken eyes flashed in his mind, and he stumbled. Something towed at the back of his leg, hindering him. He dared not peek behind again. The churning form was so close it bore down upon him.
The disparaging image of Cassy clung to Jim. His throat tightened, and he wheezed. Guilt weighed heavy in his gut, building until he couldn’t go on. He staggered, his forward momentum gone. The end found him.
Jim spun to welcome his fate. Eager to embrace nothingness, he let go of everything. Memories emptied out of him, but, try as he might, one would not leave: Cassy. Her likeness hung, ghostly and cold. He ached to be rid of her.
“Jimmy.” His eyes shot open. Instead of the devouring black he expected, longed for, Cassy stood before him again.
“No, no, no,” Jim muttered, reeling back. “Leave me alone.”
Movement flickered out of the corner of Jim’s eye. “You can’t escape. Stop running.”
Tears streamed down his face. “Please, Cass. I never—”
“Look at me,” Cassy said, her voice innocent and domineering.
Jim obeyed and raised his head. To his shock, Cassy stepped forward, only two feet from him. Terror ran through him, but his body rejected his instincts and stayed put. Her gentle eyes captivated him. He only saw her.
“It’s okay.” Cassy closed the gap between them and smiled. “Let go.”
Peace washed over Jim as he stared into Cassy’s eyes. She placed her hands on him and pushed him back. Murky water filtered over him, but he didn’t object. He trusted her. As he sank, shadows churned, and his eyes wandered.
“Focus on me,” Cassy cooed. She sounded far-off, but the smile never left her face. “Forget everything else.”
Jim’s erratic pulse slowed. The forms surrounding him bled from his vision until only Cassy persisted. Darkness swathed him, yet a ring of light illuminated her face. All thought fled his mind, granting him bliss. He wordlessly thanked her for her guidance. She would never lead him astray.