The original settlement - Riverview, was built east of where the main town now sat, now much closer to the river, its Nile of life. The first settlers believed the soil was magic because of the rising and falling tides enriching it. Old superstitions die hard. Even today, some people call it the “earth of dreams”. But after the great earthquake, the river redirected its course, and the original settlement was deprived of its life’s blood. Traffic dried up with the parched land, and it fell away into abandoned obscurity. On empty, windy nights, one can hear the mournful cries, longing for the past, as the howling wind echoes through those abandoned buildings.
The first ancestral lodge of the natives who co-created their hunting and fishing grounds with the settlers as part of a peace pact believed it was the dawning of a new era. The Moose Lodge was so named in honor of their protector spirit. That lodge stood for three centuries, the mounted head of the Great Moose standing sentry above the door frame.
Beyond the lodge lay the pier that had become the exclusive right of the city elite, the old money, the traders and trappers, and those who turned on the natives and ran them out of their own sacred lands. That lodge marked what was colloquially called the Waterfront. It utterly failed as a hunting lodge in anything other than name - the moose, and all the other game all disappeared long ago, along with the natives. Fishing was the commercial lifeblood of Riverview, old and new.
There were a few historic buildings near the Moose Lodge and private pier, which marked the outer limits of what was properly called “town”. There was an old antique shop, a loan shark’s office, a few abandoned lots and crumbling sheds, but not much else. It was kept in the boundary of the town itself only by a long stretch of land used to display and sell outdated farming tractors, which Dares always thought looked like great green behemoths with rotating, toothy maws.
In the Summer months, this farming dealership was cleared away to make room for the annual Crawdad Festival, which every man, woman, child, and crotchety town drunk looked forward to at the end of their long, wearying days. Cheap rides, junk food, hokey trinkets and souvenirs, fishing derbies, and the titular crayfish available, steamed, fried, baked, and what-have-you, unloaded onto town familiars and tourists at venues on every possible street corner.
That magic only happened once a year, when the barren and lonely outskirts of town became vibrant with new life and universal joy. Outside of those three special days a year, the edge of town always made Dares feel so lost and alone.
He remembered walking with his father once through a street fair of exhibitions, a showing of anachronisms of the bygone past. For whatever reason, an old dentist chair was mounted high on display amid a strange parade. Dares had asked his father what the straps were for. His father had explained that they were to secure struggling patients so that their painful dental work could be completed. Dares still cringed at the thought in his restless dreams. He never could figure out if his pops had been serious or not.
No, this place was “dangerous” except for three days a year. He dared not venture past the Moose Lodge. Nothing physical impeded his progress, but he felt trapped in his own mind. The bridge, it was the edge of the world. If he took another step over it, he would officially be as far from home as he ever was. It was strange that he could dream of jungles and great walls and scaling mountains deemed unreachable, but could not pick up the pieces of his shattered courage to see what lay beyond his own final “wall”.
His home, where he felt safe and secure, was in the Raintree complex, at the end of Front Street, near the bank, next to the docks, in front of the forests. Raintree, encircled in its brown brick walls, with the strip of grass out in front where a few lone trees stood sentry. In the backyard, Dares busied himself walking over the dividing wall between his yard and the forest. It made him feel bold and brave, and curious more than anything else. He sought “big things” in between “little things”. Whatever words he could have grasped for to describe his desires and emotions, they flew away.
Dares wandered along that brown brick path, following it relentlessly forward in a hypnotic pursuit, one foot in front of the other. He’d get yelled at eventually, but that thought was far away and insignificant.
As Dares went on, his foot caught on a jagged edge where a piece of brick was ripped off. His stomach lurched and he pinwheeled his arms, but fell between the wall and the fence, banging his head on a cross-section and scraping himself. He landed in a bruised, stinging heap amidst the filth and weeds between the barriers. Wincing and clutching his bruised tailbone, Dares stood on skinned knees and blinked - there lay a path through the forest ahead of him - a gap in the fence. No, it was not a gap, but a loose plank. Ahead, the overgrowth twisted into the frame of the boards, blocking off view of the woodlands and houses beyond. Beneath this canopy lay a new secret entrance, a gateway to another world in his own backyard.
Dares, forgetting his pain, pulled on the plank, swinging it open on its hinge to reveal the way. His eyes lit up in delight at the forested tunnel that seemed to go on forever into the light.
He moved forward. The light filtering through the canopy was like a shimmering mural. The nightmares and false memories banished in this place, he pressed onward seeking something new. After what felt like hours, Dares came to an open clearing. Here, no birds sang, all was quiet and still. In a fairy ring of mushrooms, an old mansion stood, growing out of the tall grass.
It was Victorian style, painted rouge, a triple-decker with ornate railings framing its lookouts, and a turret room at the top. Above the mansion was a circle of empty sky, as if the dwelling itself were the dominant and only tree in the clearing. It was a good twenty yards from Dares, locked behind a fanciful gate. Except, it wasn’t locked. One of the iron doors was open, just a crack, swaying in a light breeze as if in invitation. Dares was enamoured with the view, and put a wary but curious foot forward.
“You’ve found it. One of the great mysteries of Riverview.”
Dares jumped a little and turned. “Jun. Don’t scare me like that.”
“In your own backyard and you never knew about it? You disappoint me.” Jun shook her head. “Anyway, no one’s lived in that house for years, maybe centuries. No one really knows how old it is, but for whatever reason, you won’t find it on any map no matter how hard you look.”
“Nuts if I know. When I was a little girl, mom used to tell me stories about a witch that lives in that house. These are her forests.” said Jun.
“A witch?” said Dares, and peered closely at the mansion. His eyes were drawn to the turret room. Had a white silken curtain been moved? Was it just the wind? He didn’t see a window cracked to admit the breeze. In fact -
“There’s no wind here.” said Dares. How could he have thought that the gate was swaying? He looked at it dead on and saw that it was locked up tight. The forest was still and deathly quiet.
“I know, it’s strange. When I was a little girl, I used to be terrified of the witch. Of course, it’s probably just an old fairytale used to scare kids away from this place. That building’s really old, it could be dangerous inside. Parents prefer scared kids to hurt kids, right?”
Dares glared at Jun.
“Uh, sorry. I didn’t mean to go on about -”
“- Parents. It’s fine. I don’t really remember them anyway.” Dares shrugged.
“Not even a little?” asked Jun, tilting her head.
“No. Or where I lived before coming here. I don’t really remember anything before Riverview, to be honest.” said Dares. Except -
Jun noticed Dares’ expression change.
“I think I had a dream about one of them last night, it could have been my mom. And you were there too, now that I think about it. I called you ‘cousin’. We’ve never met until a little while ago, right?” asked Dares.
Jun tilted her head and thought about it for a while. “No. No, I don’t think so. I would have remembered someone as pigheaded as you.”
“Oh, go to Hell.” Dares rolled his eyes.
Jun stiffened. “Don’t say things like that around here. It’s bad form.”
“Around here?” Dares repeated. He looked at the mansion and put two and two together. “What, is it supposed to be like bad luck or something?”
“It just feels wrong, mentioning Hell in front of a house that’s supposed to belong to a witch, even if its just a story. It feels like we’re being listened in on. You know those old stories where just talking about a demon is supposed to call them to you?” said Jun.
Dares thought to argue, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t feel a little creeped out too. He was still dreaming about those shadows. “Yeah, I catch your drift.”
“This place gives me the creeps even still, I guess. I’m heading back over the wall.” said Jun, and she began her departure.
Dares waited behind to give one last look to that lonely mansion. The curtain was still. “Hey Jun, wait up.” Dares jogged to catch up with her.
“So what were you doing in there anyway?” asked Dares.
“Picking berries. If you know where to look, they’re everywhere in that forest.” Jun indicated the bucket of blackberries standing in the grass. “I usually entered through the neighborhood by the docks. I didn’t know the mansion backed up to your apartment for most of that time.” said Jun. She popped a berry into her mouth.
“Want one?” she offered.
“Maybe later.” said Dares.
“Are you coming by the house today?” asked Jun, grabbing her berry pail.
“Not today. I’m spoken for.” Dares narrowed his eyes.
Why the hell had he spoken so carelessly to Claire? It was almost a given that she was getting a rise out of fucking with him, and for that matter, Ryder. He could already picture how this whole thing was going to end - with her calling him an idiot and making fun of him for ever thinking he had a chance with a girl like her. Of course, trying to explain that he had no interest in dating in the first place wouldn’t change the conclusion she had already reached and -
“Dares?” Jun spoke up.
“Yeah?” Dares started.
“You’re fists are clenched. What are you thinking about?”
“I’m hoping a mocha’s not too expensive.” Dares sighed, then walked off, leaving Jun mystified behind him.
The AC was a godsend on what turned out to be a sweltering summer day. In just two weeks, school would let out for summer vacation, and the weather showed. The coffee shop was cool and dimly-lit, the only sounds the whirring of the AC and the movement of baristas behind the counter. A soft red glow colored the quiet place, and a few cushy brown chairs were scattered around in casual circles where a few lone customers sipped their drinks.
The calm atmosphere did little to quell Dares’ unease as he sat across from Claire, who seemed just as surprised as he was.
“So, you actually came. Good boy.” she smirked.
As it turned out, Claire would cover his drink. She was after all, true to her word. Dares ordered a blended chocolate concoction of some kind. He had never mentioned that he wasn’t much of a coffee person. How would he begin to explain the circumstances behind their meeting here today? That he was seeing things no one else could? That he thought Claire or someone else might have been trying to contact him in his dreams?
Claire looked Dares over, taking notice of his cut jeans. “Fashion statement?” she asked playfully.
Dares forgot about them himself, and mumbled sheepishly. “Nah. I… did this while sleepwalking.” he said, turning to sip meekly at his drink through the awkward pause.
“Uh huh. That’s a lie.” said Claire, never dropping her playful tone.
“Excuse me?” said Dares.
“I told you before. I can always tell when people are telling the truth or not. You weren’t entirely honest with me before, either. So what’s the big secret?” said Claire.
Dares looked out the window where deck chairs sat arranged around umbrellas like chrome flowers.
Even if I wanted to share, where do I start? I’m not even sure how much of this is real.
Claire could see the gears turning in his head. “Let me put together what I know about you. You moved back into Riverview four years after being away to parts unknown. You’re not much of a people person, and claim its because of overexposure at school. You don’t recognize any authority higher than yourself, that much was clear when you walked out of detention. Something about you’s got that Sato kid’s attention. You have some kind of health problem because you passed out at the worst possible time, at which point you happened to run into me. You nearly passed out again, but ended up puking your guts out instead. And I distinctly remember you screaming ‘don’t touch me’ before you did. You said as much to Ryder too, come to think of it. I don’t really know what any of that means, but I know your eyes have something to do with it. You’ve got that intense look in them. And there’s some kind of secret you’re keeping that ties all of these little clues together.”
Dares’ jaw hung open. “Uh, well…”
“So,” Claire interrupted, swirling patterns into her coffee with her straw, “once more - what’s the big secret? You can tell me.” she brushed a strand of silver hair behind her ear, which Dares noticed for the first time was pierced through with a silver stud.
“It's complicated. And once you know, you can't unlearn it. It will follow you the rest of your life.” Dares warned.
“Big deal.” Claire rolled her eyes.
“Yes, Claire, it is a big deal.” said Dares.
Claire noted the emphasis in his voice and the change in his eyes.
“You're serious, huh?” she realized.
“Do you really want to know?” said Dares, sweating.
“Do I want to know what, exactly?” said Claire.
“No. It's a yes or no question. Do you want to know, Claire?” said Dares, a faint hint of pleading and what may have been hope in his eyes.
“...Yes…” said Claire.
“Alright then. Hold out your hand.” said Dares. This was it, the moment of truth when he would find out what the dreams had meant.
Slowly, Claire held out her slender hand, purple nails gleaming.
“Oh, and Claire?” Dares remembered.
“When’s the last time you had a cigarette?”
“I don't know, twenty minutes ago? Why?”
“Occupational hazard. Here goes.” said Dares, and he clasped her hand.
What happened next only took about five seconds in real world time to transpire, but which lasted years for both of them.
As their hands clasped, Claire seized up, her nails digging painfully into Dares’ wrist. Everything Dares had gone through - separation from his cousin, the cold stab to his heart from the hand of his mother, the loss of his home, the visions of the dark creatures - and everything he had taken on from others, like the willow tree, flowed into Claire like a torrent of raging sea through a busted levy.
At the same time, everything Claire had experienced was drawn into Dares. He saw through her eyes, five years ago, as she was pinned under a hulking form with reeking breath. Dares struggled and writhed as she had, desperate and confused and terrified, as that form lowered itself and defiled Claire forever, poisoning her spirit and shattering her childhood into pieces.
Dares felt her, lying cold and alone, clothes torn apart, on a filthy mattress tucked away in the corner of some dingy locked room, alone with her despairing thoughts.
Dares saw Claire latch onto a dark man who promised to take her away from her nightmare, a man who used her trust to turn her into a tool.
Dares felt Claire’s interest in him, saw himself through her eyes, thought, through her mind, that surely a pure and innocent love would free her from the possessive hell she had been lost in.
All of it came to a head in the coffee shop. And all of this, these many years of experience between their lives, was forcibly crammed into their minds in five or so seconds.
Claire was still clutching Dares’ wrist, where pearly beads of blood had begun to well up. Dares could smell a faint hint of urea, and dimly realized Claire had wet herself. Her eyes were wide and drifting in different directions dumbly - watery, gelatinous marbles that did not recognize their surroundings.
“Claire?” asked Dares, clutching his pounding head and already trying to put the new memory of assault to rest.
She was drooling. The experience had rendered her catatonic.
In a moment, Dares felt a growing tide of confusion and concern from the others around them that had begun to take notice.
Numbly, Dares reached for his phone to call an ambulance.