We drove up the snowy, winding road towards the cozy A-frame cabin.
“We’re here!” Jess cheered so loudly my head felt like it was going to split.
It had been several months since I had a decent night’s sleep. My dear friend insisted I come along with her for a “winter retreat.” Did I mention that I hate the cold? She further bribed me with a spa visit.
As I raised my hand to my aching temple, she promptly informed me, “Come on, this will be good for you!”
I poked my head out of her Mini Cooper that was too bright of color to suit my headache.
“I need to stay in here for a minute or two to recuperate from your driving.” I grumble, waving my hand in partial jest.
“Tsk, tsk, must you always have an attitude?” she says shaking her finger.
They say opposites attract, and based on our relationship I’d say that is true. I knew I wouldn’t be the most pleasant of companies, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t have a good time. After all, SHE signed up for this. She didn’t have to drag me along.
The woods surrounding the cabin were dark upon our arrival: too dark for most, but looking at them provided my head some level of comfort. Snow piles decorated the property like some sort of small Christmas town, and I was forced to admit that it was quite the cute little place. The lit candle in the window only added to the scenic ambiance.
Jess tore me out of the vehicle, tugging at and holding my hand enthusiastically while thrusting me into the cabin’s clutches.
“The owners just renovated this place, and now we have it all to ourselves! Can you believe we get to be its first occupants? How lucky are we?!”
“Is it luck if we’re the ones paying for it?” I retort.
She doesn’t respond, so I continue.
“Where are the owners? Did they just light a candle and leave?” I ask.
“Oh, they won’t be here to greet us. I just have to check us in virtually. Thanks for reminding me! I’ll send them a thank you for the candle as well! Maybe they unintentionally got us confused with another booking and gave us a free romance package.” she added with a wink.
I scratched my head and tried to make myself look uncomfortable, which wasn’t hard with my current headache. I knew better than to egg her on with a reply. She wanted to see my face turn red, and I’m fairly certain she had already accomplished that.
“Do we even have signal here?” I asked.
“I asked about that before I booked, thank you very much. We will lose signal in parts of the cabin and the surrounding woods, but we should have a few good quality spots where we can connect. Like this one. We’re now checked in.” she replied.
“Looks like we didn’t get the free romance package,” I remarked flatly as I walked toward the single candle in the windowsill, “I prefer daises to roses anyway.”
“Don’t you think I know that about you by now?” she smirked.
I looked around our temporary abode before checking the time with a dismal sigh, “10p.m. He’ll be showing up anytime now.”
“You okay? I thought I heard you say something.” Jess inquires.
“Yes, I’ll be alright. I just need to sleep off my migraine. Which room is mine?” I ask as I hold my head and feel the pain get worse.
I see a flicker from the corner of my eye, and hope she doesn’t notice. The pain in my skull sharpens and becomes deeper like several ice picks digging in.
“You worry me.” Jess says as she gently strokes my hair. I can see the concern in her eyes as I ask her to leave.
She thinks I have some form of schizophrenia, but knows that not all of the symptoms match. She suspects some sort of trauma I experienced in childhood is causing the issues I have now, like a repressed memory that keeps popping up. In reality, it is something much different.
“Can’t you be late for once?!” I spit angrily at the dark figure.
The shadow figure prances around the room growing stronger with every ounce of fear and pain he gains from me. He says nothing. He never has, though I can see him chuckling at me often. No one else ever sees him. He likes to make others think I’m crazy.
Tonight, however, I see him flit to one of the closets. For some reason he stays there. I begin to get the feeling that he isn’t alone. Maybe he is not the only paranormal entity here, but whatever is here stays silent. My attack passes swifter than usual, and I feel oddly at peace.
I can hear Jess in the living area. I wash the sweat off my face and brow and wait a few minutes to see if the attack is truly over, but shockingly my pain does not return. Instead, I head into the main living space and wrap my arms around Jess's shoulders.
“I thought you were a bleeping ghost! You nearly gave me a heart attack!” she shrieks.
I chuckle before putting on my best confused puppy look, “They have cable here?”
“Give me a minute to recover, will you?!” she yells with her hand on her chest.
I notice a stack of movies near the mantle, “Oh, you brought your DVD collection to the cabin!”
She laughs before smiling, “Guess that answers your question. I brought it so I’d have something to do in case your infirmity acted up tonight. That thankfully took less time than usual though. Maybe this cabin stay will be a good thing for you.”
“I hope you’re right.” I shrug before checking the room briefly.
“Anyway, I brought s’more fixings if you’d like to head out with me. I’m not sure that I can get a fire going in the fire pit, but it’s worth a try, right?” she asks cheerfully.
I nod affirmatively with a soft grin. The campfire sings a song with embers as snaps and crackles fill the air. The only flitting I see outside of our vacation rental is coming from the flames. I wonder for a brief minute if this is what it is like to be normal.
“I didn’t know that you knew how to build a fire. That comes in pretty handy, especially for a city girl like me.” Jess comments looking at the fire then up at the stars.
“My granddad taught me. He used to live in a place like this. He passed down some semi-rural knowledge. I was fortunate in that regard I guess.” I shrug while looking up at the stars.
Jess snuggles into me as I hold out my flannel blanket to share.
“It kind of reminds me of Rice Krispies.” she chuckles.
“What about the night sky even remotely resembles cereal?” I shout before bursting out in laughter.
“Not the sky, you dummy! The fire! The fire sounds like Rice Krispies! Way to ruin the moment!” she corrects, giving me a smack on the arm.
“You’re the one comparing things to “snap, crackle, and pop!” I tease, sticking out my tongue.
She pretends to pout, so I pull out the s’more fixings and sticks.
“Are you seriously going to make them without me?” she asks.
“No, I’m making them for you. Clearly, your sugar is dropping for you to say something like that!” I retort.
I earn another swift smack before I hand her a roasting stick of her own, complete with marshmallow. She snuggles back into me, and we stay around the fire until close to morning. Maybe this cabin stay is what I needed all along.
I sleep surprisingly well, soundly even. When I awake, Jess has already made and eaten breakfast. I’ve sworn off caffeine since the onset of my headaches, but today coffee smells good for some reason.
“You know, I have a theory… I think you’d be less cranky if you got more sleep like that.” she comments as she pours me a cup.
I chuckle, “I know I would be!”
“You think you’re ready for our sensory deprivation therapy session today? I know I’m excited. I've always wanted to try it.”
“Honestly, I’m a little nervous.” I say, scratching my head uncomfortably.
“I’m hoping it’ll help you as much as I think it will. I’m looking forward to it and a future with a healthy you.”
I blush sheepishly at the thought, “I’d like that too.”
We take a brief walk in the woods before driving a short distance to the spa.
“I’ve read rave reviews from this place online. If the sensory deprivation pool isn’t as relaxing for you as it seems, we can check out the rest of the spa.” she comments.
Something about this makes me uneasy. A cloud of anxiety and concern washes over me. Panic and dread accompany it, and I wish I could turn back. I tell myself to stay strong. I won't know if it will help or not without trying it.
“Is something wrong?” Jess asks.
I see the worry and concern in her eyes once more. It takes me a few minutes to catch my breath before saying the words I wish I could take back. “Want me to go first?”
She blinks her eyes in disbelief before smiling.
The receptionist greets us both with a warm smile.
“Couples massage?” she inquires.
“N-no, we have appointments for sensory therapy.” I stammer.
“Maybe later” Jess whispers into the receptionist’s ear.
“As if I wasn’t red enough already.” I retort.
“It’s a good color on you.” she snickers.
“You’ll be right out here when it is over, right?” I ask, my voice shaking.
“Are you sure you’re okay with doing this?” she asks.
“There’s only one way to find out.” I say with a forced smile.
Every fiber of my being is screaming at me telling me not to go. I argue with what I presume to be logic and reasoning to overcome those hesitations.
“The tank is filled with Epsom salts and water: nothing to be afraid of. Gently lie back and you’ll float.” the instructor coaches.
Still nervous, I do as she instructs before she closes the door and leaves the room. Music plays briefly before that too will be taken away. Theoretically, part of my problem is that I’m constantly overstimulated, so the idea is to completely deprive myself of senses. I continue to convince myself as I lay there for a few minutes, and feel my muscles relax slightly. Suddenly, I feel something. My heart beats intensely.
“I see him. I hear him. He’s coming. He’s here! The shadow is coming. He’s coming for me. Somebody help me!” I scream.
I thrash in the tank. I feel like I’m suffocating, the salt burns my skin, and then I breathe once more. I breathe in and out; one, two, before a cloud of darkness surrounds and encompasses my vision.
My mind begins to think, “Your eyes are closed. You aren’t seeing anything. This is a soundproof room. Once they turn off the music, you don’t hear anything. Your senses are shut down. That is the purpose of this therapy.”
Reason settles in, and I breathe a few more breaths.
The shadow is gone, but the dark cloud prevails. Maybe the shadow has left. Maybe this therapy is working. The cloud puffs into shapes and figures. I’m beginning to think this is part of the therapy process. Maybe I’m healing. I focus my mind's energy on the cloud.
“Mortal sensory deprivation can only take away five senses.” a voice booms.
I long to speak with the voice, but the shadow returns with a flicker.
“Who are you? What are you? Why do you never answer me?” I scream with agony.
“I am your inner demon, but I can be a friend if you only get to know me.”
The booming voice I now recognize from the dark cloud returns. “Does making a deal with a demon sound profitable to you?”
The shadow demon disappears with the voice's echo.
Suddenly, I feel as if I’ve been wrapped and cradled in a wet blanket with strong arms.
I start to hear voices speaking outside of the tank. “Please, say something; anything!”
I feel something swift and hard smack my face followed by a shouting and cursing. “You were about to die on me you damned idiot! What were you trying to do, drown? I thought I’d lost you!”
I feel achy. I look up to see the instructor and Jess above me. I feel dizzy, cold, and wet. I look down and see a warm blanket outstretched above me.
“If something makes you nervous or panicked, you have got to let me know! Don’t just go and do something because I said it might be a good idea. People can hallucinate in these pods you know!” Jess yells.
The spa staff offers us a warm room and some hot tea. I realize that I have just nearly escaped death. I don’t tell Jess about the dark cloud, but I marvel at the booming voice that echoed in my ears. Was it a hallucination or do I really have six senses? I decide to search for positive spiritual outlets once Jess and I finish our weekend getaway. If I am spiritually ill, it is no wonder therapies have yet to work. Still, awareness of this fact may possibly have saved my life.
Jess is quieter and more distant than I’ve ever seen her.
“I’m sorry I slapped you; not once, but twice.” she confesses.
“Well, you also hugged me.” I smirk, “Let’s go back to the cabin. This is supposed to be our winter weekend getaway, right? Let's enjoy it our way.”
I reach for her hand and give it a squeeze as she apologizes once more, “I really am sorry.”
“I scared you. I get it. If there is anything I understand in this life, it is being scared. Still, I’m glad you slapped me. It brought me to my senses.” I force a smile.
Jess drives us back to the cabin. I know it is nearing the ten o’ clock hour.
“I may have six senses, but, they do not have to rule me. I have the choice of whether or not to deal with my demon. I’ll face him head on the next time he shows."
I ask Jess to be alone for a short while I start a fire for us. She gathers marshmallows and hot chocolate in the meantime.
My shadow demon returns for one last time. I am able to thrust him into the fire pit. He makes no sound. But for a moment, I thought I saw a pained expression swiftly engulfed by flames in the darkness.
As Jess arrives, we resume more pleasant exchanges and conversations despite her meekness from the incident earlier in the day. We have a brief moment of silence as we look into each other’s eyes and sip our hot chocolate. Although we've been friends for a long time, it is as if we are just now truly getting to know each other. In the background, I smile as I notice the most refreshing of sounds.
"Snap, crackle, pop."