Arthur William Bexton’s eyes stayed closed as a pair of firm, but gentle hands worked their magic over his whole body. From top to bottom, the hands wandered, their fingers stimulating every muscle group, squeezing and then pulling until he felt limber and relaxed.
He breathed deeply, stretching the muscles of his chest and filling his lungs with air. The odor he took in threatened to tense him back up. Somewhere close by, something was burning. The back of his throat tickled, and his eyes began to water, prompting them to flutter open.
All around Bexton, birch trees stood tall, reaching their limbs into the blue sky above. Birds flitted from branch to branch. He knew this place. He would often take walks here to clear his head. It had always had a calming effect on his nerves. But what was he doing here now?
He pulled himself into a sitting position and realized that he had been lying on the ground. “Odd,” he said out loud to himself. How had he come to be lying on the ground in this particular place? Certainly, it was near enough to his home that he could simply walk over anytime he wished. That was normal. But this was not. Something about this whole scene seemed very strange.
A rustling in the underbrush nearby drew his attention. Bexton’s heart leapt into his throat as he scrambled to his feet. As soon as he got there, a figure stepped out of the shadows. Bexton nearly vomited at the sight.
Before him was what appeared to be a creature made of ash and clay. It bore no visible hair or clothing, standing naked, gray, and crumbling before him. Milky eyes peered out at him with two slots for nostrils immediately below them. Thin lips were little more than the border around a gaping black hole of a mouth.
The creature hissed and lurched forward with a stumble. Bexton turned and ran, bounding through the forest. His feet pounded over dirt and rocks, destroying any shred of green that had dared to grow in his path. All the while, the creature kept pace behind him.
“Stop,” a voice cried out behind him in a hoarse, unplaceable rasp. “You must stop!”
Bexton was determined to keep going. He sucked in gulps of air, still steeped in that horrible burning smell. It seemed to be hanging all about him, sitting on his shoulders like a persistent cloud, no matter how fast he ran.
The trees began to thin, revealing a pond in the distance. The sight of the water, choked with lily pads and dead leaves was welcome, somehow, as if Bexton could parlay it into some tool of salvation. Before he could figure out how, however, his foot struck an immovable rock on the forest floor. He pitched forward. His legs came out from under him. His eyes closed tightly and his arms jutted out to keep him from falling face first into the water.
When he opened his eyes at last, he wished he hadn’t. Staring back at him from the water was a face, a reflection. And yet the face was not his own. It was hideous. His skin was dark gray, rough, and apparently crumbling, as if he, too, were made entirely of ash. He brought his hands up to look at them, really seeing them for the first time since waking. They were the same lifeless color. Bexton began to shake. A scream of anguish rattled inside his chest and finally forced its way out and into the air. It echoed through the trees as a far off crow cawed and took flight.
The pursuing footfalls galloped to a stop somewhere behind Bexton. He didn’t bother to look. What horror could the creature hold for him now? Now, he was one of them.
“I tried to tell you,” the creature said. Its voice was bathed in compassion Bexton would have thought it impossible of feeling, based on how it looked.
“What are we?” Bexton asked softly. A quiver started up from his very core and moved outward.
“We are the Abandoned,” the creature said.
“Abandoned?” Bexton leaned into the confusion. It was a better feeling than horror or despair. “What do you mean?”
“We have been abandoned here, you and I,” said the creature.
“In my case,” the creature said, “I requested it. You may well have done the same.”
Bexton was silent. Requested. The word played over in his mind. A memory stirred.
He was taken back to a warm Sunday morning. Spoons and cups clinked together. A sweet, familiar voice chirped in his ear.
“Cremation is a lot cheaper,” Hannah had said. “And besides, you get to be scattered in your favorite places.”
Bexton laughed as he poured himself and his daughter fresh cups of coffee. “I don’t care what you do with me,” he said. “When I’m dead, I’m dead.”
Hannah sighed. “I know, Dad. I just really hope you’ll give this some thought so I’m not scrambling… you know… when the time comes.”
And he had given it thought. Cremation to spare his family any undue cost, and a scattering along his favorite hiking trail. The very same place where he’d regained his consciousness.
But those hands. Those unseen fingers. What were they doing? The only explanation that came to mind chilled and sickened him.
They hadn’t been relaxing him, or caring for him. They weren’t the loving hands of a God accepting him into the afterlife for an eternal rest. No.
They were putting him back together.
“Why?” he asked softly, barely able to contain his horror.
“Why what?” the creature asked.
“Why have we been….”
“I do not know,” the creature said. Bexton was sure he heard a hint of despair in the answer.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
“We wait,” the creature said.
The creature was silent. A light breeze rose up as if filling the vacuum left by sound. There was a scent on it, one that cut through the smell of burning and ash. This scent was sweet, salty, delicious. Bexton could have sworn his stomach rumbled, though he had no idea how that was possible.
He turned and squinted at a pair of shapes moving just beyond the trees. He could hear them now. Two young men in lively conversation. Their backs were loaded down by packs, apparently heavy with supplies.
“I hope we have everything we need,” said one.
“Relax,” said the other.
“I’m a little concerned, to be honest,” said the first. “You never know what could be out here. I’ve heard of people just straight up disappearing in these woods.”
The conversation continued in muffled tones.
“Well?” Bexton prompted the creature once more for an answer to his previous question.
The creature took a moment to answer. Even without looking at it, Bexton could feel its mood change. His own followed suit.
At last the creature spoke.
Written by Jdeschene