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The snapping of the twigs underneath Steven’s boot equaled the smell of the sea to a sailor. It felt like coming home. Of Steven’s numerous favorite things in the world, the wilderness ranked above all others. Nature bought his train ticket out of his normal everyday life. He turned to look around for his companions, but as usual, Steven had drifted further than the rest of his friends in a spell of happiness. The fresh air tasted like a cold drink on a hard day’s work for an aching body. He could actually breathe here unlike the small apartment that usually contained him. His worries washed away, well, at least for a while.
“Steven!” the voice echoed across the Rocky Mountain valley. Three forms rose over the hill like wraiths fleeing from the blazing sun that pursues them night and day.
“Come on!” another voice spread through the surroundings. “There are some bears over here! A mother and her cub!” Steven smirked inwardly to himself, although his friends may be experienced with the city, the mountains acted as new to them as sound to a deaf man’s ears. Steven hardly expressed surprise to see a bear at this time in year. He knew that at least a month passed since the end of their hibernation sealson. The scene around him gave the impression of being in a nice painting. All of it pleased the eyes gently and its contrasting heights and depressions drew attention to the eye. And every color glowed like a full moon.
Every chance for a brief vacation he took. Asking if he wanted to go to the mountains equals asking someone if they wanted to have all the money in the world for a brief period of time. Unfortunately when the money disappeared, normal life seemed all the more depressing. Right now he owned all the money in the world and felt better than a king. His money might be taken away sooner than he thought on this excursion.
“Inspecting the new grass again Steven?” called down Jalson from his perch upon the great gray stone reaching up from underneath the ground to free its self. His words trotted behind Steven back up the hill carrying their sarcasm like a large pack as they tried to find their master. He quickened his pace so that he could catch up with his trio of friends waiting at the top of the small pass. Just as he sped to the top of the hill, two shadows emerged from tall grass below. The bears defined beautiful. A great piece of nature displayed in its own home with a dazzling fur coat, a nice top hat of majesty, and a splendid cane mirroring its self.
Jenna brushed her long maple brown hair out of her face like the wind gently rustling the leaves. Her gray eyes seemed to shine when Steven appeared and her smile of simple joy widened into a grin.
“There they go,” sighed John. “I hope that we will see some more wildlife later on.”
“You do realize that we are on a weeklong backpacking trip, right?” breathed an exasperated Steven.
“Well, yeah… is there a lot of wildlife here?” John asked back.
“Of course there is! It’s fall genius!”
“Okay, gosh, this just isn’t really my thing.”
“Well we should probably get moving. The weather is coming in fast and we need to get to a good spot to camp.”
Nods and grunts of approval signaled Jalson to lead the others down into the shady path winding through the trees. A peaceful half-silence was around them. The silence lacked of any sounds they were used to; the drone people exclaiming that they were given the wrong change or the sounds of selfishness a person gives off when they cut off somebody else in line. The trees cores echoed an ancient world while their new branches and shelters signified change in the air. Towering like great spires on a castle and with trunks like enormous beams holding up the sky. The sunlit path through the forest stopped by a small pond. Steven stared at himself through a portal mirroring his own world. But it tore in places where there showed obvious signs of flaws. His caramel hair rippled into an autumn brown and his slender and tall build waved in the wind of the water.
Night was already falling when they finished putting up their tents. Steven decided to take out the marshmallows and start a fire to feast upon them. The four companions huddled around the warm glowing ember of light and trust their marshmallows into the fire like knights drawing a salute. The fire’s heat felt good on their worn and dust caked faces.
“So this is your first camping and backpacking trip, right?” Steven asked even though he already knew the answer.
“Yeah, and I like it a lot,” replied Jenna. ”The outdoors just feels so free, like you can do whatever you want on your own time. I wouldn’t mind living here.”
“I know, I love the outdoors,” he commented with a sigh. “How about you guys?” Steven questioned at his other friends. For a second he studied Jalson and John. Jalson pondered what to say in his ridiculous thinking face that looked like a fish out of water that had smelled something nasty while choking on a piece of food. It looked ridiculous. John on the other hand looked grim and his face wrapped its self in a shadow of solitude.
“This was quite unusual for his usually chipper friend,” thought Steven. John’s hat bearing the head of a white stallion with flaming orange hair and outlined in blue of the night seemed to be drooping with him.
“The last time I was with my dad was when we went camping in our back yard,” choked out John. “I was around five and…and…he was in the hospital the next day…and I… I just…” John finally yielded to his sorrow and a few silver tears streaked down his face. Steven put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. He himself felt so bad for him that his throat clenched so tight that he couldn’t talk.
“Let’s think of happier times like right now and know that you are with friends,” said Jenna gently to John.
“Okay,” whispered John barely forcing an answer out of his grief stricken face.
The rest of the night flew by surprisingly well as the original cheer returned and all of them had a great time telling funny stories and experiences around the campfire. When the fire burned down Steven tucked the matches away into his pocket and bid his friends a good night. No one slept with a heavy heart that night.
“What the heck is wrong with you? WAKE THE HELL UP!” shouted Steven into Jalson’s ear.
A sign of movement appeared on Jalson’s face as his eyes slowly opened like old creaking doors in a long lost mansion.
“Fine I’m up, what do you want?” replied Jalson groggily.
“To get somewhere today!” Steven exclaimed with no patience to feed Jalson.
Three cups of coffee, two incidents of Jalson tripping over the same root, and one hour of packing up later, the group set off on the path once again with intentions of a carefree day of hiking. But the day wanted to play its own game.
They once again enjoyed the warm sun at their backs and the discussing of several different topics on the trail including if a penguin or a snake would win in a fight. After a bit of hiking they met the first and last person they would see on the trail. He was maybe ten years older than them and had skin like the night its self with teeth that shone like diamonds out of coal. His eyes reflected the color of coffee, but couldn’t seem to capture the warmth of it. It so happened that they both took a lunch break around the same area and ate a pleasant meal together.
The man’s name sounded like Sven Peen, but the group’s uncertainty of what this man might take offense at kept them from asking him if they pronounced his name wrong due to his heavy African accent. Steven thought that a clearly very African man that owned a very Nordic name seemed quite odd, but he dismissed the thought. Lots of people called themselves interesting names. Just last week he received a phone call from a mysterious Ima F. Acht. They all enjoyed that call stupendously. Most of the time the traveler simply sat and ate with no words to interrupt his vow of silence, but every once in a while he would speak and say something that would have been relevant if you rewound the conversation five minutes. When finished of his simple meal of fish and water he immediately got up and left without a word.
“Wow,” whispered Jenna after Sven left. ”You would find more life in a… a circus.” She said the last word slowly as if she were listening to someone else say it and processing it in her head.
“Or in a better simile,” Steven replied quickly cracking a smile like a bridge over water. They all laughed as if Steven just said the funniest joke in the world. Jenna gave him playful elbow and commented that he was quite a jerk. After several hours of continuing their sunlit hiking trail Jenna stumbled on a loose rock and plummeted to the ground where she lay for a moment, encased in pain. Steven gently helped her up and everything seemed to be okay after a thorough inspection of how many fingers he held up. Not much blood seeped out of the gash that lay like a crevice in her skin and judging by the amount of crimson velvet soaking her shirt sleeve it couldn’t be deep in the slightest.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Jenna reassured the group. “Just took a bit of a tumble.”
Jenna waited. Nothing happened. A small flash of confusion swiped across her face like a comet.
“Okay, Jalson,” she sighed. “Are you saving the insult for later? I know you can’t resist this, so get on with it.” But as Jenna looked around, her brother appeared nowhere in her sight.
‘Hel-ompffh,” screamed a startled cry from the woods around them. Before the word completed, something stopped it from saying more. Steven ignored what silenced it and instead focused his attention on what he knew to be his friend. He yelled “Jalson!” and took off running down the rocky slope to the forest below. Apparently Jenna and John had similar intentions because they were neck and neck with him.
Steven ran wildly through the trees like a prancing deer, but their branches whipped him as if he were a servant who dropped a platter by accident on his master. The master felt no pity on the servant at all. He beat him senseless, cut him, and whipped him. He beat the other servants as well. Blindly running with pain the three kept running towards where the muffled screams had originated, but still saw nothing. Suddenly a wide clearing came into view. Wooden huts stood inside looking eerily perfect and tidy. Like a dollhouse. Everything appeared too normal.
The twenty or so people milling about all stopped and turned to look at the intruders to their little haven. For a second Steven thought that the people had become realistic statues with faces of stone. Then a man stepped out of the crowd and its participants dispersed to tend to work at hand. The surprise showed easily on all three of their faces.
“Welcome to Stormy Falls,” Greeted Sven in his deep voice that rung like a bell struck on Christmas Eve. For a second a silence hung in the air waiting to leave. And when it left it left in such a hurry that the dust kicked up by its feet clouded the air around them.
“Have you seen our fiend? You live in the woods? How did you get here ahead of us? Where is Jalson? Is he okay? Who are these people?” they all asked at the same time, bombarding Sven with questions. Steven might have laughed under other situations, but his friend needed to be found. The questions that they were trying to ask came out more like “mpothryeu where wbuylinr is fedohpd?” but even then, Sven’s face showed his usual blankness.
“One question at a time please,” asked Sven in what could be counted as a polite phrase if he simply added expression.
“Okay, have you seen our friend?” Steven asked with a determined metal to his voice.
“The one from earlier?”
“Yes!” all three of the friends practically shouted.
Steven’s bubble of hope popped so abruptly that his face stung from the impact. He thought he fell into a deep pit of despair, but a hand grabbed his shirt and pulled him out.
“We know where he is though. My-”
“WHERE?????” Jenna shouted so loudly I felt the vibrations of her anxiety.
“My men are tracking his path, they will return tomorrow with him. I would advise you to stay here until then.”
“Are you sure that you will find him?” John asked with a noticeably calmer expression.
After that Sven wouldn’t say much to them. He showed them to a room and when they again asked why there was a town in the middle of the forest Sven merely shook his head and ignored them. He told them that they were free to explore, but were not let inside the medical building because he didn’t want them to distract the doctor. Then he left. As he walked down the road Steven an odd thought occurred to Steven. What if by saying Sven walked down the road, he was really just implying personification? The thought unnerved him to think of, but soon washed away while his friends and he explored the small town under the fading maroon sky.
Trees and other vegetation surrounded the town on three sides, on the other stood a large cliff with a crystal clear waterfall cascading from the middle down. All of the buildings looked exactly the same except for medical building which resembled a warehouse made of wood. The rest of the buildings were small square huts made from large logs. Steven couldn’t fathom how hard it would be to make houses like that in a village of only about thirty people. And strangest of all, the town had running water and electricity. Peculiarity seemed very prominent in this town.
Steven loathed it. The situation felt similar to being insulted behind your back. You don’t know what’s happening, but you do know that something chose to happen without telling you. This feeling clung to Steven since he entered Stormy Falls. He really hated the felling of uncertainty.
The rumbling of snoring added a touch of annoyance, but that couldn’t be the source of his restless attempt at sleeping that night. It must be the worry of Jalson Steven thought. Even as the theory came to mind he knew it to be true and if Jalson returned in the morning- if? No, he thought, when- when Jalson returned in the morning he would sleep easily. But Jalson had not returned. This meant no sleep for Steven.
He wandered the deserted town for a while watching the stars. Whenever he looked away from them and at the town he felt a painful jab of fear like a knife in his ribs. Thinking the town looked eerie before was like saying a small cut looked bad right before someone jabbed a knife into it. For a little Steven felt content with just wandering the village, but eventually his curiosity won over and he snuck a peak through one of the hazy windows. Inside a man sat completely motionless staring at the wall. He gave a slight twitch and his neck slowly and smoothly started to pivot towards Steven.
Steven’s feet were a rushing river when he sprinted away from the house. Turing corner and winding through the small houses he ran faster than ever before. The thought of the mindless expression the man gave him deeply frightened Steven. Then came slowing to a jog, then to a walk, and then to a sit. A faint buzzing noise filled his ears and as he looked around he noticed that he sat in front of the medical building. Mild thumps quietly whispered to his ears as well. Mischief not an intention at all, he crept to the door and tried the handle. Gently pushing against it, the door effortlessly slid open. One light bulb showed it all. All of the horror in one spot under the light.
Here are the emotions Steven felt all in that one second: fear, confusion, wonder, fear, disgust, worry, panic, horror, and above all else, fear. Then came the thoughts: Why? What was this? Who would do this? Who are these people? Where is Jalson really? What is going on? Are Jenna and John…
“Oh no,” he whispered.
And with that he sprinted once more into darkness. Three empty beds waited for him in their shared room. They were gone. Why are they doing this? thought Steven. Where would they keep them in this tiny village? Another cold iron hand of fear gripped his heart. They were in the Medical Building he realized. Along with the small child with wires sticking into his head zapping away like bolts of lightning. He looks like he wants to scream, but must hold it in. Tied down and thrashing in the leather straps that held him so tightly to the cold metal table like a mother saying good-bye to her child. Soon they would let Jenna and John ride the Ferris wheel.
Once more Steven sprinted out into the night to search for his friends leaving all of his control over his panic lying in the empty gaping beds. The beds grasped it quick, as soon as he walked in the room, they held on to it and wouldn’t give it back. Winding and twisting its self like a snake, the road seemed longer than the two previous times he had run it. But if the road would not yield, neither would Steven. Carrying on like a ship through a storm, he reached the dark building of lightning that covered its self in shadow and terror. Steven knew these events were improbable to happen to anyone, but he still wondered why he experienced it.
Along the way to the warehouse, the frightful knight picked up a large stone rounded by years of experience dealing with a river. The knight claimed his sword and it gave him just a little bit more comfort to hold it while he ran into the battle. Shivering as to what lay inside, Steven’s finger tips brushed the door lightly and with a slight hint of force they pushed the door slowly open. Inside there lay not a single item on the table. Steven looked around to study the building more closely. Last time the door obscured his vision and thus he only saw the operating table. Now he noticed much more. The ceilings towered above him, high and curve like the sky. On either side of the room cells lined the walls with a sign next to each. Some things thrashed their arms out at him from the inside, of their cells between the wooden bars, but he couldn’t tell what species they actually came from.
Careful of his footing like a thief, Steven slowly drew nearer to the cells. One of the small wooden signs read in white paint: TEST NO. 19 Result: failed Reaction: comatose, rarely functional. Even he knew what hid in the darkness; he peered in, eyes flashing like light on metal. A large man sat in a chair drooling with his head tilted to the side, leaning over the side of the uncomfortable chair. His mouth suddenly snapped shut and his head jerked into a normal position. Again, the neck pivoted slowly like a surveillance camera looking for the intruder. The eyes stopped to rest on the infiltrator; blank and as unseeing as a wall. Then he realized that Sven’s name was not even Sven. Sven Peen sounded a lot like 17 and all along he pronounced the name Sven.
“Sven definitely used to be a test subject here. Probably the whole town consisted of the successful test subjects,” inquired Steven.
He quickly moved to the next cell which contained a similar test subject, but to this one, moving seemed to not be an option. He kept on like this and while most of the subjects chose to be subdued and unmoving, others chose to scream and run around the room and then dart to the door to try and grasp an imaginary rope between the bars. At the very end of the corridor the attempted rescue mission partially started to take a step into success. John and Jenna lay asleep on the rough wooden floor helplessly strewn about as if someone threw aside their old unwanted dolls. Jalson stood in the corner ready to take out whoever came through the door next.
“It’s me!” Steven whispered excitedly.
“Steven?” asked Jalson in an excited whisper.
“Yes! I’m breaking you out.”
“But the bars a made of really hard wood, we will never get through in time,” Jalson responded with the dismay clear in his voice.
“Not if I can help it!” Steven spun in a circle like a discus thrower and lobbed the rock at the sturdy wooden bars. The force of the rock pushed its self through the middle of one of the recently snapped matchsticks holding up the small prison door. Again the rock flew. Again a matchstick broke.
“Just like wash, rinse, dry, repeat,” thought Steven.
In a matter of minutes a hole in the bars that a human could slide through stood open like a boat to freedom. Jalson rushed out and gave Steven a great bear hug that a grizzly would have been jealous of.
“They knocked me out and I woke up here,” breathed Steven’s good friend. “Not that long ago these two showed up. They are fin by the way. But the things that they are doing, they-th-they’re awful,“ commented a frightened Jalson as he tried suppress a shudder.
“Who are ‘they’?”
“The other villagers.”
“Okay, okay, they are doing some medical test on them, right?” Steven said with chill running down his spine like cold wet honey.
“No, not medical tests, brain washing. A man in a charcoal suit and tie came in earlier and he had this little black box. He would say a command or something he wanted the test patient say. Then they would do it. He somehow is controlling them Steven. This is insane!”
“My go-.“ Steven suddenly froze in the middle of his sentence.
“Of course, how could I have been so stupid?” he told himself. “They would know that I was somewhere in the camp if they couldn’t find me at the cottage.”
Footsteps pounded outside the complex like a million drums of dread.
“Get them up! Now!” he cried in a petrified scream.
Jalson slapped Jenna and John to attention with his hand painfully. Startled, they both stood up disgruntled and confused as if Jalson splashed them with a bucket of cold water.
“No questions! We just need to go!” yelled Steven before either Jenna or John could ask a question.
The first of the villagers bust into the wide warehouse and started running quickly and as emotionlessly as possible at Steven.
“GO! GO! GO!” Jalson exclaimed as he tried to herd the group towards the back entrance.
The skeletons soon reached the middle of the room and started gain even more ground on our four young escapees. They reached the door at least thirty feet ahead of the villagers, but needed to close the door in a matter of seconds due to their pursuer’s high velocity. Safety still stood a long way off holding his hand outstretched. The other villagers now stood in a shrinking semi-circle around them. A man in a charcoal black suit smiled a wicked grin of total and utter insanity. He looked like he enjoyed the sight as if it resembled a sports game where his hometown scored more than the other team. Franticly they all searched for an escape of the relentless crowd, but an escape could not be found. Hopelessly Steven pulled the matches out of his pocket and lit one.
“I will burn this to the ground!” Steven called weakly to the man in the suit and gestured towards the building. His eyes widened with fear and in that instant Steven knew what to do. Gently he laid the match on the wood of the medical building. The dry wood burned quickly and the suited demon screeched out an awful scream of rage. The test subjects finally showed expression when they saw the fire. All of them decided to go absolutely crazy and bash everything in sight with their fists and cries of anger.
The four ran through the fray dodging and ducking under the excited patient’s fists. While sprinting towards their cottage to get their supplies, Stormy Falls looked more deserted and sadder than ever before. They quickly reached the cottage and immediately took off with their possessions. No one bothered them while they made their mad dash to the road. They hiked all night and day until they reached the trailhead and drove home as fast as possible with their new licenses. They finally decided that they escaped for good when they lay in their beds, tucked away from all of the fear.
Henry enjoyed the outdoors. It smelled like freedom to him. While on his pleasant hike he met a man with teeth like diamonds and eyes like coffee. Except for the warmth. This man led him to an intriguing little village and then to a long warehouse-like building.
There he met the man with a charcoal suit.
“Welcome to the future of the U.S. military,” he said with a smile that could freeze water. Henry wanted to ask a question, but the man shushed him and spoke three small words that changed Henry forever.
“Let us begin.”