This story was inspired by a wonderful piece of art by a very talented artist. Check out her work:
http://debnise.deviantart.com/ and look for the piece titled Banished.
Opening my eyes, I search across the barren landscape for signs of life. The raucous cawing of crows alert me to a flock of ravens circling overhead. A sense of foreboding envelops me at the sight of so many of these birds of ill omen.
They circle, and one by one, descend, landing on the dead branches of a solitary twisted and gnarled tree nearby. The bark of the tree looks as dry as the oldest man on earth, and it is as deeply gouged with whorls and scarring. For the briefest moment, I imagined that I can see skulls grinning at me within the patterns on the skin of the old tree. I shudder, hoping that my eyes have been playing tricks on me.
“Hello,” I called out. “Is there anyone there?”
As usual, there is no response. This is not the first time that my dreams have lured me into this holocaustic landscape. The place has become sadly haunting in its familiarity.
Why do I find myself drawn to this place? Where am I? Is it real or a product of my macabre imagination?
In the distance, I spot a shadow, moving toward me. I strain to see what or who it is, but it is dressed in a cowled cloak, which obscures its features.
On my previous visits, I had always been alone. Perhaps this time I’ll learn something new. Will I finally find closure from this recurrent nightmare?
I wave, but the figure does not respond. For what seems like an eternity, I wait for them to approach, and yet the figure gets no closer.
Frustrated, I try to move, but my feet refuse to budge. They are as deeply rooted in the earth as the dead tree. Only the ravens appeared to be free, and yet, they are content to perch on the bones of the branches and watch my struggle.
“You don’t belong here…”
The words are a whisper on the breeze, so faint that I hear them repeated before I realise that they are being said. Turning, I find the shadowy speaker standing at the base of the dead tree. The cowled figure has crossed the distance in the blink of an eye.
“Who are you?” I ask.
Raising her hands from within the depths of her robe, she removes the hood of her cloak so I could see her features better. It is a young girl; a girl with the eyes of an old woman.
Pulling the robe back further, she removed it, letting the shadow of a cloak pool around her feet. Shedding her garment reminds me of a snake discarding its skin.
“You don’t belong here,” she insists. “You must leave!”
I see the concern on her face, so I try to reassure her, “It’s alright. This is only a dream. I’ll wake up soon.”
Her face is marred by bitterness. Lifting her hands to her face, she digs her long fingernails into her skin and peels the flesh away, piece by flayed piece.
I watched transfixed as her features fall away, revealing an older version of the child beneath. In the blink of an eye, the girl become a teenager.
The ravens swoop down and squabbled over the discarded flesh, gobbling it up with noisy relish.
“Leave!” she pleads.
I sense that I have seen her before, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember where, or when. Yet the haunting sense of familiarity persists.
“Do I know you?” I ask.
Again, she clawed at her flesh, ripping it from her bones and casting it asunder.
I looked at the naked woman who appears, mouth agape. Too late, I realised who this vision is before me.
“Melissa! Is that you?”
The woman before me has a striking resemblance to my long dead wife.
She looks closer at me, surprise showing clearly on her face. “You! It can’t be!”
Now I am sure. Her face is younger, but her voice is the same as it was all those years ago.
My wife looks at me with a deep anger in her eyes.
“You shouldn’t have come here, you idiot?” she hissed.
“I’ve missed you,” I murmur, ignoring the harshness of her tone. Changing the subject, I ask, “Where are we?”
“This place has many names, Michael … Some call it Purgatory; others call it the Plains of the Lost Souls.”
“It can’t be!” I protest.
Melissa looks me in the eye, “You let me die,” she accused. “You murdered me!”
“No, I didn’t!” I stammer “Don’t you remember? You tried to commit suicide. You slit your wrists…”
“It was a cry for help!” she retorts. “I was depressed. You abandoned me after Cassie’s birth, and things just got too much to handle. I was lost … you let me die. Murderer!”
“You were in a coma. The doctors … they said there was no hope of you every recovering …”
“There is always hope! I just needed more time.”
“I waited! A month went by and still you didn’t wake …”
She looked away, and her tone softened. “It’s hard … when you first come here. It takes time to learn the ropes … to understand how things work. Time passes in the blink of an eye, but I was ready to return … and then … you pulled the bloody plug on me, you bastard! I loved you, and yet you let me die!”
“That’s not fair. I didn’t know!”
“You didn’t care,” she snapped, turning back to challenge me, “Not when I was there … Not when I needed you. You were too busy working to care about your wife, or your new baby!”
“Of course I cared. I’ve missed you.”
“You did! Really? … You had a funny way of showing it.”
Her face softened slightly as she mulled over the revelation. For what seemed like an eternity she had thought herself alone and lost, but now things had changed.
“Are we dead?” I asked, stating the obvious. “This isn’t a dream, is it? There’s no way back.”
A strange look flickered across Melissa’s face. “How is Cassie?” she asked, changing the subject. “I miss her so much. I’d do anything to see her again…”
“She’s all grown up now. You wouldn’t recognise her. She left home a few months ago … went off to college. The house has been like a tomb without her.”
“So you killed yourself too?” she asked. “Because you got lonely.”
I looking away to hide my shame as the realisation hit me. Had I really killed myself? Haunted by the constant recurring nightmare, I’d struggled with my grip on reality recently, but had I really gone that far?
“How?” she demanded.
“How did you do it?” she asked, a sudden urgency in her voice.
“I … I took some pills, probably too many of them.”
“Then there may still be time.”
Moving close, she placed a hand on my chest. “Yes!” she said; a renewed joy creeping into her voice. “I can still feel a faint warmth coming off you.”
“What are you talking about? Time for what?”
“Time to escape, of course.”
“You mean, there’s a way out of here?”
A strange look crossed her face, and she smiled. “Oh, yes. I’ve learned a few things while I’ve been imprisoned in this cursed place. Here, let me show you.”
With sharp talons she tore frantically at my breast, ripping away the flesh. I screamed and fought back, but she was surprisingly strong. Finally, she plunged her hand deep within my chest and ripped a bright light from within me.
A coldness enveloped me, freezing me in place.
BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP … BEEP, BEEP, BEEP
I took a ragged breath and then another, desperately sucking the air in from the plastic mask that covered my face.
“He’s alive!” someone exclaimed.
Opening my eyes, I looked at the emergency services man who was kneeling over me. “It’s alright, Michael,” he assured. “We have you now. Stay with us!”
I tried to rise but couldn’t. They had me strapped down on a gurney.
“Let’s get him into I.C.U., A.S.A.P!” another voice demanded, and with crisp efficiency we set off.
I drifted in and out of consciousness as they drove me to the hospital. Thankfully, I remembered little as they pumped the toxins out of my stomach, but they had no need to worry. I wasn’t going anywhere. I desperately wanted to live. I wanted to see my daughter again. I’d missed her so much.
The doctors came and went, treating me with kid gloves. I was, after all, a suicide risk, despite my assurances that it had all been an accident, and that I was fine now.
They insisted that I take it easy for a while, at least until I get back on my feet again. I was the perfect patient, complying with their every whim. It suited me fine. I needed time to get used to being referred to as Michael, and to this strange masculine body that I’d stolen.
The world had also changed so much during the time I’d been imprisoned.