AT THE HOUR OF THEIR DEATH, THEY DISCOVER LOVE CONQUERS EVERYTHING
THE CABIN IN the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burning in the window made Matt’s head swim. Either it was there, or it wasn’t. At the moment, he really wasn’t quite sure. He’d been seeing strange things here lately because of Clementine’s death. To him, all the world seemed a blur. The confusion was inside him. What was up might be down, and what was down just might be up. So that, this ghostly light in the far distance might not really be there at all. And not being sure just exactly what it was, Matt paused, one foot raised in mid-step. He was walking at the time over dry twigs and pine needles, walking as focused and as carefully as he possibly could, aiming not to make any sound, and became slightly disoriented by the mysterious light. It broke his concentration.
Matt’s mind flashed immediately to Clementine. Whenever something fantastic or unusual occurred, he readily thought of her.
Clementine’s ghost has been with him since the time of her death twelve weeks ago. Matt was convinced of that. Not that he’s seen her with his eyes, but more times than not, she’s come to him in his dreams. And he can name the moments during waking hours when he’s felt her presence for sure, just the same. Perhaps it’s because she was the unfortunate blessing he never fully got to appreciate. She was taken from him much too suddenly.
--and in a way that crumbled both their lives.
But sometimes death doesn’t come with closure. As in her case. Her death only opened for him a world of mishaps and uncertainty. Which way is up? Which way is down? All this has the elements of being an illusion, but still, everything feels so real. And it was hard to sort through the clutter of the mess he’d become to know certain things. Mainly the truth about her death, whether he should be held responsible or not. Some people haven’t ceased to remind him that he was, even though his own heart says he wasn’t. It was an accident. So, this is the reason why he’s out here right now. His guilt being the reason he fled to the woods in the first place. Running from himself, from his pain—and, now with an incredulous turn of events, Matt’s found himself running from other people, too. For several weeks now he’s been on the run for his life. A group of murderous goons are out to kill him, searching for him here in the woods.
—He was just about to enter a new hideaway he’d found for himself, a place to spend the night, when that mysterious glare caught his eyes. In the far black distance, the strange yellow glow pulsating, shimmering—acting like a lighthouse—seemed to beckon him to come.
Matt wondered what it was. He’d never gone that direction before, so he didn’t know about the cabin. Strange, but the light almost seems ghostly in nature. But just suppose perhaps it’s only his imagination? As a kid, his parents always told him he could be a writer, the way he’d conjure up things in his head. And his college professors seemed to agree. He never once wrote a complete “normal” term paper while at university. His papers somehow always turned out to be short stories of some kind. Every time. And they liked them. But out here in the woods, just now, Matt’s wondering whether this light is something his mind invented or something real, signaling to him? He must admit, being on the run has heightened certain sensory faculties. And he’s been seeing quite a few ominous things that really weren’t there. Fear does that to your psyche, he’d read someplace. It can make a person kooky in the head.
So, pausing as he walked, Matt stared deeply into the distance and was certain that what he saw was truly there. A light sure enough! Uhm, too small to be a campfire, right? Besides, since entering this forest, he’s not seen another soul besides those thugs chasing him. And he felt pretty sure the light isn’t something being used by them to search for him. They didn’t need torches. Most likely they’re wielding bright LED flashlights to illuminate the underbrush around them. So, what could it be, that light?
Hunching his shoulders, Matt tossed the thought aside as he crawled into the deep hollowed space at the base of a tree. It was big, just large enough for his entire body to fit into, and great at concealing his whereabouts as he hunkered in tightly to make himself seem smaller. There, he spread handfuls of leaves and moss and pieces of twigs over himself. But he couldn’t get the image of that strange light out of his head. It burned like a bonfire on his brain and wouldn’t go away. Even as his eyes grew heavy with sleep, he lay listening to the teaming sounds of the forest and imagining the tiny light glowing and growing brighter there in an ocean of blackness.
As Matt slept, a horror of great darkness fell on him, and in his sleep, he jumped when the sight of a lean emaciated face shot out at him from the black distance.
“NO, Matthew! NO!” said the spirit’s long icy face. It was Clementine’s ghost. The once beautiful glow of her young pristine features now replaced by dark sunken eyes and thin sunken cheeks and pale, pasty skin. A face he hardly even recognized. “Why, Matthew? Why are you doing this?”
Matt sat up and looked around. There was no one there but him. And yet, he sensed that he wasn’t alone . . . never really truly alone. He felt he was being watched. And it was true. A strange invisible presence was with him, and had been with him all along, hovering in the air.
His mind quickly turned back to the ominous light. He wondered if it was still out there glowing like a lighthouse. Calling him to find it.
And within minutes Matt was on his way, abandoning the sanctuary of that temporary hideout, his curiosity for the strange light peaked, getting the better of him. He had to go find out what that light was.
--Whoooooosh! Uhmmmmmmmmmm!—came the stirring of a soft, gentle wind, whispering secrets in the darkness around him, ruffling not only his hair, and his clothing, but his anticipation as well.
The ground was hard and the undergrowth thick. Cautious not to draw attention to himself, Matt went slowly, creeping low to the ground. He dared not make himself noticed. For the most part, he’d trained himself to think as a forest creature might think—being ever cautious. This was the reason why he’d stayed alive, why he’d managed to outfox his assailants and hide so well for so long. He’d learnt that even the slightest hint of movement could disrupt the balance of sounds in the wild . . . so that, even now as he crept over dry twigs and combed his way through the thick vined foliage that seemed, at times, an almost impenetrable wall for passage, he knew he was relatively safe because the forest would tell him if he was in danger. He’d learned that whenever unusual movements occurred in the forest, the forest itself would tell him so. He’d grown familiar with the teaming sounds out there: the monotonic trills of screech owls, whinnying high up in the trees, the gekkering of playful foxes, the grunts, bleats, and snorts of distant deer, some with their “err, err, err,” a rising and falling noise while grazing from afar. But it was the night cries of tree frogs and crickets that warned Matt best. He’d listen to them on purpose to know when danger was near. They’d signal the approach of strangers by silence. So that, Matt had gotten so good at hearing these sounds that he’d taught himself to blend in with them. His movements went almost completely undetected, creeping slowly and softly so as not to crunch even the driest of twigs beneath his steps.
--and the swoosh of something ghostly and spirited whizzed by, icy cold fingers of air beneath his clothing, against his face, rubbing his skin . . . the mere brush of a breeze, like a kiss, rustling a cloud of hair across his eyes, and in his concentration to reach the light, he little realized, little noticed, its presence . . . .
Wherever the hunters were Matt certainly didn’t want them hearing or seeing him. There were four of them, big guys in dark clothing, sticking only to the shadows, supposedly Clementine’s father and brothers—and they had guns and knives, bows and arrows—and Matt knew they were hellbent on catching and killing him.
True, by sheer luck he’d been able to evade capture by using wit and instincts. Always staying one step ahead of his attackers, hiding anywhere possible, rendering himself so well camouflaged he seemed at times invisible. Sometimes Matt would shiver beneath piles of moss in dark caves, or above ground in the densest of trees, shrouded by curtains of leaves. Then, at other times, you’d find him wrapped in blankets of grass, cowering alone at midnight on cold scratchy rocks, hiding beneath lofty cliffs—the swoosh and whoooosh of that spirit thing still with him, voicing pleads, asking questions—and he even surprised himself seeing he’d lasted this long not being captured.
Of course, living cautiously comes at a price. A person can’t be too careful, and every now and then, you might get spotted and shot at. That’s what happened one day as Matt crossed a small clearing heading to another cluster of woods. Everything was going perfectly fine and then, getting spotted, all hell broke loose. His pursuers quickly gave chase, with bullets and arrows flying, striking the ground and trees around him. Matt narrowly escaped getting blown to pieces too by Molotov cocktails being thrown at him. Running through smoke and fire, the debris of sand and rock scattering at his feet, in the air, up in his face—the price of staying alive. But more! Once, having overslept in a cavern where he’d spent the night, Matt woke up startled to the sight of one of the assassins standing directly over him in the darkness. Clad in thick black leather, the kind that hugs a person’s skin so tightly it looks like second skin, the big creature had broad shoulders, an arched back, and he was awfully smelly, too. On his back rested a crossbow, and he was holding up a blade as long as a person’s arm. But it was by his posture that convinced Matt the smelly creep didn’t see him lying there. With both face and shoulders totally blackened by shadow, the stalker stood eerily stiff, sniffing the air as if searching for Matt’s scent. But what struck Matt the most about the tracker was his hands. A small light from the outside fell across them, illuminating their features. They were huge, both with a powerful grip clutching the handle of the shiny machete, as the attacker turned the blade this way and that. Matt, lying on his back and looking up at the hands, was petrified but stunned. They didn’t look human. More like the claws of a bear. But then, after a moment, the foul-smelling thing snorted and sniffed, then turned and left the cave. Matt waited a long minute before getting up, and when he did, he went directly to the mouth of the cave to look out. He wanted to make sure the coast was clear. It was—but that’s when he realized how freezing cold he’d become—strange, he hadn’t noticed it till now. The tip of his nose felt like an icicle. And unknowingly, he'd been holding his breath the whole time. When finally he exhaled, he could see his breath on the air.
--Outside the cave, a sudden thin burst of wind, swishing through the grass, was a gentle voice whispering into Matt’s right ear.
“I love you,” it seemed to say.
In the woods, just now, every few steps Matt m\takes, he’d pause, look around and listen.
The unknow light was still before him in the black of the forest, so, for a moment, all his attention focused on it. And he wasn’t disappointed. The yellow glow, twinkling and winking, made him wonder why he felt compelled to go find it. He knew this spectacle might be a trap set up by his attackers to lure him in. Such a thing might be ideal as a last resort since he’s outmaneuvered them so many times.
Matt broke through the brush and could see at a distance some sort of structure there. A cabin perhaps?
Yes. Dilapidated and clearly abandoned, but a cabin none the less!
The light was brighter, closer now than ever before. It reminded him of the moon behind clouds on the night he fled his home in Little Rock. He knew he was breaking the law to leave because the authorities wanted him for questioning. They’d named him a person of interest in Clementine’s drowning death.
It hadn’t happened yet, but Matt could imagine his face plastered all across the evening’s news:
“Today in Pulaski County, alleged murderer Matthew Bender, was arraigned on criminal charges for the drowning death of his fiancée, Clementine Philips, earlier this year. The two lovers were said to be skinny dipping in the Arkansas River on May 27th, when—"
Matt shook his head to clear his thoughts, and for a moment, thought he’d glimpsed Clementine’s ghost just to the right of him beneath a tree. Feelings of remorse swelled inside him then, his eyes swelling too with tears. But he kept his gaze fixed on the ghostly light. He felt like crying, found himself hard to explain at times. “She’s dead and there’s no undoing that!” His insides felt like a sheet of paper ripped in two. He pushed on, stepping over fallen branches and onward through an undergrowth so thick with vines he had to snap a few stalks by hand to climb over them. As best he could, he stayed low to the ground and quiet in order not to attract attention. But the inner turmoil of his consciousness begged for attention. His own mind told him he was guilty for Clementine’s death while part of him believed for his innocence. But to be honest, he didn’t really know. Things happened so fast. It’s all a blur now. All Matt knows is that no amount of Hail Marys or pleads to God for forgiveness can undo what has happened, nor bring his baby back to life.
Her family, he was sure, blamed him and wanted him dead.
The memory of Clementine’s father’s angry voice still haunts Matt, the way he grabbed him by the collar and spit in his face. “You’re gonna burn in hell for doing this!” the father told him—and it was those threatening words that led Matt to slip away in the dead of night.
“Well, they can’t accuse a person,” he’d reasoned to himself, “if they can’t find him.”
The “Whoosh!” of a strong wind pushing at his back now nearly knocked Matt to his knees. It pushes him on. The small light seen now just ahead, gleamed in a window of that cabin. Matt could see it, closer now than before like a yellow star, and seemed pretty.
And the closer he got to the cabin, the greater the pull. The more he thought about what he'd done to Clementine.
So often, he’d turn the events of that day over in his mind. It’s a memory he can’t seem to forget. How that, he and Clementine had gone to the river to spend the entire day together. They’d been sweethearts since the first grade, and although they now lived together as a couple—after having gone through high school, college, and had done all that stuff together—now they were even making plans to make things official by tying the knot. Matt loved Clementine and she loved him. They meant everything to each other.
She had gone into nursing, and he had just begun working long crazy hours at the startup he and a few friends were building. Because of this, here lately, he really hasn’t spent much quality time with Clementine. So, when it occurred to them that they’d both would have a free day off together, one without the usual “Can you come in Clementine to cover another shift?” or the “Listen, bro, we’ve got to do something about our inventory. We’ve got to get things moving. Have you a few hours this weekend to help make some cold calls?”--what better way for them to enjoy themselves than by doing some of the things they always talk about doing. One of them was spending an entire day loafing off at the river. A little picnic, a short stroll, who knows, they might even have time for a swim.
In Matt’s dreamlike state, he recalled the things that led up to the fateful moment of Clementine’s death. The recollection was as clear as daylight. He saw it all . . . him and Clementine walking along the riverbank, enjoying a quiet evening alone, her carrying her flip-flops, burying toes in the sand. Every now and then, little splashes of waves broke over her feet . . . and felt good.
“Maybe we should swim now?” she said, smiling.
Matt smiled and said, “Yeah. That'll be great!.”
But in their excitement to pack a lunch, they forgot to bring along their swimwear.
Her eyebrows raised. “Who said we need any?”
Matt’s eyes brightened as he chuckled and agreed. “But let’s find a secluded spot, OK?”
“OK,” she answered.
Wandering down the riverbank, they soon came upon a little island at a spot in the river where the water was shallow, with a slow current. They rolled up their pant legs and waded across to the island to explore it. Within minutes they find the ideal spot overlooking the river from a cliff. And the bright sparkling sunlight on the water was tempting.
Clementine couldn’t wait.
“Let’s swim?” she begged, grabbing Matt’s arm in a way he liked. He answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
Screeching joyfully an ecstatic, “Yaaayyy!” Clementine was already partly undressed when she hopped out of her clothing and ran close to the edge.
Matt was hopping too—removing his shoes—just not quite as fast as Clementine. He knew swimming was one of her passions and it was hands down her best summer’s pastime ever. In high school she had been on the swim team and once had entertained hopes of trying out for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“Hurry up, slowpoke!” she teased, now completely nude. “I’ll see you in the water!” And Matt was glancing up when his eyes glimpsed the blur of Clementine’s departure as she ran for the edge, and with a yelping, “Yahoooo!” jumped off, holding her nose. The bright sun’s glow caught the splash she made when she hit the water and a burst of brilliance sprayed upwards, shooting into every direction.
By the time Matt got undressed and ready to jump in, he went to the cliff’s edge to tell her to watch out for him—but looking down, he didn’t see her anywhere.
“Clem!” he called. “Baby, where are you?”
The surface of the water looked smooth as glass.
Panic gripped Matt then. Had Clementine hit her head on the rocks? Has she gone under and is drowning at the bottom of the river? Matt looked downstream to see if the current had carried her down there.
“C’mon, Clem!” he yelled. “BABY?”
For a moment, Matt thought perhaps she’s pranking him. Playing a joke. Clementine’s known to be a trickster at times. Playing pranks on him is one of her favorite joys . . . and just perhaps this too is a prank. Matt’s mind raced over past memories, remembering the time he came home to find what he thought were maggots in the fridge. To his surprise, they turned out to be Rumen noodles moistened by Clementine and sprinkled throughout to create a perfect illusion. Then, there were the oversized boxer shorts he found under her pillow. Matt was livid, thinking she’d been unfaithful. But the joke was on him when she produced a Walmart bag containing two other pairs, size 46, still in the package, and a crinkled sales receipt from the trash. So, who’s to say this wasn’t just another prank she’s pulling over on him?
There, still in the forest, Matt held his eyes on the mysterious light as he approached a small clearing.
A candle! It’s a small candle…
Back in his thoughts, Matt remembered that, after not seeing Clementine below the cliff, he panicked --and it was the thing he did next that determined their fate. If she’s drowning, he’d reasoned, he needed to get down there fast—
NOW! was his thought.
Matt didn’t even think about what to do next.
He had to act. There was no time to think.
So he leaped off the edge, heading for the water.
In a split-second Matt saw Clementine swimming in the water, coming up happily from exploring the river’s bottom . . .
--and she didn’t even have time to look up before he crashed down upon her.
Everything goes black.
The forest had grown uncommonly quiet, but Matt hadn’t noticed it. His attention was on the candle in the window of the cabin.
Matt crashed through a cluster of weedy undergrowth that caught his legs and wouldn’t budge until he tore himself from it—and he didn’t seem to mind that he was making more noise than usual. The light was just there before him, more than a glow now but a piercing light sending out spiked rays in all directions.
Matt’s first thought was to shield his eyes, but no, he wanted to see it! And that’s when he saw—her.
She was standing behind the candle in its light, smiling at him. Clementine looked pale, kind of transparent and ghostly, the candle’s glow highlighting her face just the way spooky creatures look in movies. Complete with a huge gash oozing blood on the left side of her face, she looked lovely but scary. And he was surprised to notice she was still nude, just the way she was the last time he saw her before she jumped in the river.
--A stir of air, a swirl of wind, and Matt felt embraced by sudden coldness . . . still yet, in the wind, a warmth of some kind, a force moving him forward—
The closer he got to the cabin, the greater he felt the pulling of the candle’s light.
His feet crunched down on twigs; behind him something dark and shadowy darts past.
With all the noise Matt found himself making as he tore through the undergrowth unapologetically, the forest was still deathly silent as he proceeded toward the clearing. Why was he doing this, making all this noise? Surely his killers would hear and descend upon him….and what was the strange force over him, just now, making him do this?
Matt found himself stepping brazenly into the clearing and there he stopped, even as his eyes, for a moment, glimpsed Clementine’s smile...and he was confused. Is this a trap? Is she working with his attackers to kill him?
The candle in the window flickered more, even brighter.
None of this is making any sense, Matt was thinking.
It’s a trick!
But what Matt didn’t know was that the hunters weren’t the ones responsible for the candle in the window, nor was Clementine working with them.
Because, as he stood there in the clearing with his gaze fixed on the candle, out of the woods an arrow struck him in the back and went clean through to his heart. Then the four attackers poured down on Matt. Savagely, hacking away at his body with huge machetes, and stomping him with their heavy boots.
But for all their effort, he wouldn’t die.
Matt didn’t even feel any pain.
And he noticed something curious then about the men—their faces. They weren’t men at all, for they had faces like bulldogs. Their skin was green and sweaty and smelled like livestock.
But while they attacked Matt, suddenly there came an explosion of light—so great, it knocked the four attackers away from Matt and they scattered, fleeing into the woods, whining like injured dogs.
When Matt looked up, there stood Clementine’s ghost, rather spooky looking, dark rings around the eyes, her naked body frail and wet, dripping water.
In life, Clementine had always looked out for Matt. Once, she’d jokingly called herself his “personal bodyguard.” And he’d agreed, reminding her how she’d come to his rescue more times than he could possibly remember. Little things like giving him lunch money in middle school or helping him practice his softball swing when they were seven, or later, fending off fast girls while they were in high school and he’d grown so incredibly handsome. All the girls liked him, but he was too captivated by the attention to notice the glow in Clementine’s eyes for him. Never mind, she’d always be there for him, and was. Like the time when they were five. She’d been the one who punched Bobby Felton in the nose when he’d made fun of her name and knocked matt’s books out of his hands, trying to pick a fight. “Oh, my darlin’ . . . Oh, my darlin’, Clementine!” the bratty boy had teased, and Matt had said, “Let just walk away,” but Clementine sent the bully home crying.
A cloud of something went away and he was looking at her with his own eyes.
“Was that you?” Matt asked the ghost. “The candle and the flash of light just now?”
“I needed a way to get your attention. The light was my way,” Clementine said.
“How am I seeing you?”
“You’re already dead, honey,” she said. “Like me.”
“You died when I did. We both died together—drowned. Don’t you remember?”
“No, I’m not dead that can’t be.”
“Remember, honey,” she said. “Think back. You were not trying to save me, but I was saving you, and you drowned both of us. You were confused and feeling guilty. That’s why I had to keep you safe from those hounds. Because of your guilt, you were condemning yourself to an eternity of hell.”
“Yes. You would never stop running from yourself or those demons, and they would never stop chasing you.”
“You know we were way out in no man’s land when it all happened, right?” he asked. “I crashed down on you. When I came to, I couldn’t find you. By the time I retrieved my phone, I couldn’t even get a signal. I ran up and down the riverbank, searching for you. it was horrible!”
“It never happened.”
“But I remember—”
“But I screamed and yelled, hoping other people might be in the area and come running once they hear me, but no one came.”
“It wasn’t real.”
“But I remember certain things.”
“God knows, I must have dived in half a dozen times searching for you.”
“Sorry sweetheart. It’s all make-believe. All of it. It never happened.”
Matt paused and thought for a moment, and then it as if scales dropped from his eyes and they brightened. He saw everything clearly then, like a movie on a screen. He saw in his mind what took place in the shallow part of the river . . . how that, him, not being so great of a swimmer, when he’d jumped in to save her, had hit his head on the rocks . . . and she tried to save him and that he had pulled her under with him, and had held her struggling there until her lifeless body floated up and away. Dead.
“But I forgive you, baby,” she said. “I know you didn’t mean to do it.”
They both smiled…
There was a flash of light and suddenly it felt as if Matt’s eyes had cleared completely. There stood Clementine whole and beautiful—and still nude. She was wet, covered in water, just the way she was when he last saw her. Then he looked down at himself, at his hands and his body, and he too was naked, and wet, but he wasn’t cold.
Matt smiled at Clementine’s smile. And they both were happy.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Please pardon my use of italic lettering for the majority of this story. The reason being it's to indicate Matt’s in a false reality. Near the end, when block lettering is employed, it's to show that he has crossed over into the real world).
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