Contest #74 shortlist ⭐️

15 comments

Contemporary Fiction Speculative

The landscape has been frozen for at least two hundred thirty-seven days, an immaculate display of snow-covered evergreens and rivers stuck at a standstill. The smoke from his chimney hovers over the quaint little cabin, never to rise any higher (though he long hoped that it would, someday.) The only change he was granted was of the sun and moon, cycling through the sky at a regular pace. He assumed as much, at least: there was no way of telling on this remote property, a swath of land he was not permitted to leave. 

He told himself it was comforting, almost, to have nothing altered. Almost. He could always count on his hunting knife hitting its mark without resistance or even an attempt to flee, though lingering on that thought left a sour taste behind as he contemplated the morality of his act. Each morning his bedsheets returned to a folded state the moment his back was turned, and tidying up after supper took no effort at all. Often, his comfort came from pretending there was some unseen housekeeper or butler frantically following him to ensure his cabin (or, in such a fantasy, a manor) was kept in excellent condition so as to impress his distinguished guests. 

The comfort he gained from an invisible, imaginary being turned to dread in the hours after the sun set, laying in bed and praying he did not hear a sound, yet wishing for something, anything, to break the silence. 

It had not taken him long to realize something was amiss, initially. Surely, he thought, he had just forgotten when he returned the dishes to the cupboard, and the lack of cloud movement or wind was simply a trick of the senses. It was not until he discovered a bluejay, suspended in midair, on the outskirts of the woods that he began to wonder. The revelation was unsettling, to say the least, but he took it in stride. He had never been the type to socialize, and for a few months, he reveled in the lack of disturbance from humanity, left alone in his calm, quiet wilderness.

Reality had to set in eventually. The global pause had begun in midwinter, on a frigid January morning. A snowstorm had fallen the night before, and his cabin was half-buried in it. No matter how thorough he was when removing the pile, it was sure to return the moment he looked away. His feet left no footprints, no sign that he had walked across his worn porch at all. This alone could have been enough to drive him insane, but the silence at night was turning him mad. 

He had one genuine comfort. In a desperate attempt to alter something permanently, in a last-ditch hope, he took his hunting knife and cut a single tally mark above the frame of his bed. Countless days had since gone by before he attempted, but the passage of time meant very little to him. He quickly turned his head to look away after making the mark, and to his surprise, it remained when he checked a moment later. Another sideways glance and back, and it stayed. The next morning, hardly daring to open his eyes and check, the tally remained, and he added another. 

For at least two hundred and thirty-seven days, he had made a mark on his wall before going out to do chores, and every day the tally mark would be waiting for him when he returned in the evening from his hunting and afternoon walk. His daily foraging required little effort-- he simply had to wander the woods aimlessly until he stumbled across a creature, frozen in place, and make quick work of it. His internal debate on the morality of the practice had since been put to rest, as each day he stumbled across the same creature, in the same spot as the day before, regardless of if he had made a meal of the defenseless animal. He would wander until the sun set, content to know that he would be pushed in the right direction by the world around him trying to set him back in place, and could not get lost.

Today was different. 

He had just found his way back to his cabin as the sun sank just below the treeline, dead pheasant in hand. He had to relight the fire he’d set that morning (if he took his eyes off something, it reverted back to its original state), and while he did so he stole a swift glance at the tallies. The marks gave him peace of mind. While he might not be able to alter the rest of his world, the tally marks remained. To his surprise, they had vanished. Attention to the now-dying fire abandoned, he dropped the rabbit and rushed to his bed. He ran a finger across the wood that had held grooves to confirm. The seemingly permanent marks were no more, and the fire faded out of life behind him, casting the cabin in dark shadow. 

The next morning, the tallies were still gone. Still, in disbelief, he left a mark before going off for his chores, and to his dismay, it had vanished by the time he returned. Something else was different. He no longer had to rely on the intense pulling sensation he experienced when he wandered too far, and instead followed his own footsteps back to his cabin. He etched another mark before climbing into bed, and the fire stayed lit all through the night. 

The tally was gone by morning, and the moon hovered in the sky a few hours too long, parallel to the sun. The two celestial bodies faced off, neither one daring to sink or rise before the other. It wasn’t until he was distracted by a robin perched on a different branch than he was accustomed to that the moon fell out of sight, and the sun rose to midday. He pulled a lifeless fish from the stream through a thawed patch, and the sun fell far too quickly. 

This was hell, this slow transition. The consistency of what remained and what changed shifted between the days, sometimes between the hours. He experienced summer one morning for the first time in-- frankly, he’d lost track-- perhaps a year, or even two. By afternoon, winter had retaken the landscape, though he managed to clean the snowdrift over his cabin. He awoke to birds singing often, and the stream froze and thawed so often he stopped paying attention. Even still, the tallies he carved each morning and night smoothed over after he glanced away. 

The most jarring change was the occasional sign of humanity, other than himself. A lone passenger plane flew overhead one afternoon, and he nearly tripped into the stream at the shock. After the countless nights spent laying in ear-ringing silence, debating if he still lingered in the world of the living, such a disruption yanked him back to a sound mind. He considered embarking to the nearest town a few miles away but decided that the sight of half-frozen civilian life was too much for his fragile state to take. Since the tallies had first disappeared, he found a new wrinkle and grey hair most mornings, with time catching up to him at a rapid pace. 

Perhaps he’d gone mad, he wondered to himself one afternoon when he found everything where it had been for the longest time, stuck in midwinter. The changes were coming more drastically, now, shifting from season to season regularly. Had it not been for a satellite crossing the horizon that night, he might have thought he imagined the changes altogether. As the world around him began to return to what once was normal so long ago, he began to wonder if he’d been stuck for days on end at all. 

He needed to know. One spring morning, with the trees budding and the stream burbling as he passed, he walked to the nearby town. Perhaps he’d come across a hare at a standstill, or see the smoke from a chimney frozen in the distance before he had to get too close. He saw none of that, and he must have been imagining it all, because a young boy reading on the porch of his house on the outskirts immediately ran inside as he approached, and the boy’s father emerged whooping and hollering. 

“We thought you must’ve died out there!” the man exclaimed, and it took him a moment to recognize him as his sister’s eldest. “The snow blocked us from coming to dig you out, and after about a week we figured you must’ve frozen to death by then. Glad to see it’s not the case.” He nodded curtly, and without a word began his walk home. His nephew did not follow, a gesture he was grateful for. 

The wall beside his bed was riddled with tally marks, layered over each other. The fire crackled warmly through the night, and when he awoke the next morning to a cool spring day, he carved another mark next to all the rest, and did the same each morning and night, fearing even a single glance where they vanished once again, or an animal that remained still for a second too long, dreading the day winter came once more.

December 30, 2020 03:28

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

15 comments

Loved the entire story Alexandra! Good job getting shortlisted! =)

Reply

18:20 Jan 08, 2021

Thank you!

Reply

My pleasure Alexandra!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
K. Antonio
19:43 Jan 02, 2021

I loved the speculation of the piece. You did a great job drawing in my curiosity. The pacing and the tone of the story was nice and really fit the mood you built. I thought the ending was great and the story overall seemed very lyrical, like a slow poetic chant. It made me happy seeing someone else take the speculative route! Great job!

Reply

00:25 Jan 03, 2021

Aaa thank you!

Reply

K. Antonio
18:01 Jan 08, 2021

I JUST KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO GET SHORTLISTED! Congrats!!

Reply

18:20 Jan 08, 2021

haha thank you again!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Diana Quill
08:04 Jan 09, 2021

Wonderful story! The pace was great and the voice was refreshingly original. Overall, very interesting and clever, and congratulations on getting shortlisted!

Reply

20:57 Jan 09, 2021

Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
N S
23:20 Jan 08, 2021

Great story! I love the idea and it's well-written.

Reply

04:56 Jan 09, 2021

Thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Luna G
18:23 Jan 02, 2021

Oooh! I loved this! Did it all happen or did he go mad? I don’t want to know! Because I love that feeling of wondering. This was a fun story to read and it was really well written too!

Reply

00:15 Jan 03, 2021

Thank you!!!

Reply

Luna G
21:10 Jan 09, 2021

Congrats at getting Shortlisted! It’s well deserved, I was happy seeing that just now <3

Reply

21:11 Jan 09, 2021

Aaa thank you so much!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply