We continued past the same old trees, uneventfully. Their leaves blew in a predictable motion. The sun was shining, though partly cloudy. Cindy’s hand slipped from mine and she stood still.
“Does it look different,” she asked, pocketing her phone.
“What do you mean?”
“The trees, the sky?
“Maybe a storm’s coming.”
“No, it’s not quite stormy. Everything’s just darker.”
At this point I thought Cindy was messing with me. It might have been overcast but I couldn’t see how anything was darker.
“Cindy, what are you getting at?”
“Never mind, let’s just keep going.”
But we didn’t. Cindy continued to pause every few minutes or so.
“Cindy, come on, is something bothering you?”
“It’s just… darker.”
“Okay, you win. We’ll turn back.”
“No, I want to see.”
“Cindy, I’m not playing this game. Just tell me what you want.”
“I want… to keep walking.”
“And see what’s ahead?”
“Okay, if it’s that important to you.”
We kept walking. To see what was ahead. But nothing was. The path was exactly the same, down to the last flower.
“Over there,” said Cindy pointing. She took off into the trees and I followed. It was reckless and we stood a great chance of getting lost. “What a great way to ruin a walk,” I thought as limbs jabbed my feet through flip flops.
“Cindy, where are you –“ I didn’t finish. A large mansion was directly in front of us. It was classical and rustic with gargoyles on turrets. I was sure it couldn’t exist. If such an immensely rich family had lived around my neighborhood you’d think I’d remember hearing about them?
Apparently my girlfriend was abundantly familiar with the landscape. She opened the gate, strangely unlocked, and proceeded to spin inside the grounds, her limbs extending in a dance-like manner. I peered awestruck, still contemplating the possibility of an elaborate prank.
After five or ten minutes, however, Cindy paused as she had along the path. Her arms extended toward the sky. The air, the ground, the mansion’s stone all became darker.
I understood what Cindy had seen.
A blackish mist or fog began materializing. It covered the grounds inside the gate. Cindy did not move. She didn’t look surprised. In fact, her eyes were closed. I wanted to scream but found myself silent.
Hands wisped into formation. They touched Cindy, if it could be called touching. Did she feel the vapor sifting through her? She had to. Why didn’t she show it?
Arms, shoulders rose, with heads to meet her still closed eyes.
I broke free and ran inside. But I was lost. Every turn I took, as fast as I ran I could never reach Cindy though I saw her. The hands had become full figures with whitish masks that bore no features.
“Cindy! Wake up!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
The words were absorbed. I barely felt them leave my lips. But I was closer. She had to be less than seven feet from me.
My arm stretched an impossible distance. I touched Cindy’s shoulder. But it wasn’t flesh. My hand went straight through and I grasped nothing. Her eyes opened. She gave me one last look. And then… they took her.
A white mask consumed Cindy’s face. She began sinking, like the others, back into the ground. I could yell once more. And I did. But it did little good. Flailing my limbs to stop them was like fighting air. They weren’t human. Neither was Cindy. But I, with my heart racing and tears streaming down my cheeks was still most certainly.
In a moment it was dusk. No signs of mist or anything out of place were apparent except for Cindy’s absence. How would I tell her family? They’d certainly blame me. Maybe they’d be right too. I couldn’t save her as much as I tried.
I wasn’t put in jail but everyone still blamed me for what happened to Cindy. It was understandable as I never gave any consistent explanation. Could I really tell them what I saw? Of course not. I needed to be free, and not locked up in a psychiatric ward. It was the only way I could keep searching for Cindy.
Everyday I went back to the path, quite often followed. Most had it in their head I desired to move a body or destroy evidence.
The mansion never materialized. I did everything in my power to make it, however. I outstretched my arms. I closed my eyes. Yet, it did nothing. That day was something; something I couldn’t recreate.
For four years I carried on like this; going off the woods into the trees every day, before I realized I had to move on. It was painful but I had to accept.
Around the same time I met Judy. She was beautiful, intelligent and understood me in a way I thought only Cindy could. Most of all Judy didn’t blame me for what happened in the woods that day.
We dated for a year and half before I proposed. I had an airplane write the question in the air and she said yes. It was a wonderful chapter in my life. The honeymoon, our first child, his first words and steps…
But, unfortunately it couldn’t last forever. Toby moved away, went off to college. And that Spring Judy was diagnosed with breast cancer. They gave her six months.
“Judy, what will I do?” I asked, not expecting an answer by her bed one day.
“You’ll go and find someone else. And you’ll be happy.”
“There is no one else.”
“Find… Cindy,” she said surprising me.
“Cindy,” she began “I know you lost her but I want you to find her again. Please, do it for me.”
Those were the last words Judy spoke. I sat in the dark, as it was early in the morning then, thinking. What did Judy mean? It was impossible. She knew it as well as I did. But, I wouldn’t let her down as I did Cindy. I wiped the tears from my eyes and kissed Judy one last time.
The air felt the same outside as it had all those years ago. I took it as an omen as I got in my car and drove toward the old path.
There, just into the trees, the mansion stood once more. The gate opened, unlocked and I approached the front door. It opened of its own accord to a large reception hall. It was dank and unclean but I continued on. Something was glowing in the distance.
Many, almost endless doors passed by. I knew none of them were right.
It might have been hours before I reached the end. The door there glowed as I had expected one would.
Inside were the figures that had taken Cindy. None noticed as I entered. They stared at something imperceptible ahead of them. It was my hope it would distract them as I looked for Cindy.
It took only a short while. I knew her size. She was much shorter than the others. I approached slowly, tapping her shoulder.
“Cindy, it’s me, I’ve come back for you.”
A voice spoke. It was most definitely Cindy’s but it didn’t come from Cindy.
“I knew you’d come back.”
“Yes, now, let’s go!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m happy here.”
“How can you be happy!? Look at these monsters! They took you from me, from your family! Do you have any idea how long it’s been!?”
“Patience, there is no need to shout. We are all happy and better for being here.”
The voice continued speaking from around me. What they were worshipping in front became clear. Cindy’s body was just that, a body.
On a pedestal in front a purple form flitted, shining eerie phosphorescence over the assembled crowd. Its face bore no mask. Features were discernible. It was… Cindy. And they worshipped her.
I got onto my knees almost subconsciously. I didn’t notice as a cloak was fitted over me and a mask placed on my face. I was one of them and I was happy.