Welcome back to our continuing saga. Voting for Chapter 4’s best answer ended in a tie, so instead of choosing between them, I decided to combine elements from both answers to create the narrative for Chapter 5! Before you begin, if you’d like to see the answers for Chapter 4’s question, “Where did the shadow take Rick?”, you can find them here.
With that said, please enjoy Chapter 5 of our story where we find out where the shadow took Rick.
Rick felt like vomiting several times as he tumbled through the spin of the otherworldly tunnel to nowhere, but his nausea was as numb as his mind. If it weren’t for the beat in his chest, he would have thought he was dreaming. Maybe he was.
Dreams are as real as you make them, his father once said. And life is the only dream worth having.
Of course, those words of wisdom came after his diagnosis, so how much he really believed them was still a mystery. But they somehow comforted Rick now as a bevy of bright colored lights that would frighten even Willy Wonka flashed all around him. He tried to close his eyes, but it was hard to tell if they were already closed or if they were being involuntarily kept open. Either way, the flashes weren’t ever going to stop, not until he reached his destination — assuming he hadn’t already, which was a thought he did not want to have, but found hard to ignore. What if being part of this hellish lightshow was punishment for not being heartfelt in his acquiescence?
His heart was black, and so was he…
That’s when it occurred to him. This wasn’t a punishment; it was a test to see if he could truly accept the shadow’s gift. It already felt as if he’d been trapped here for years. If he couldn’t get over the fact that he missed his family, he’d more than likely be stuck in limbo for eternity. But if he could come to terms with the possibility the shadow was telling the truth — that he was meant for more than simply scoring a touchdown (a maybe a cheerleader or two) — he’d not only find solace in himself, but in his future as well.
The moment he started to believe every word the shadow said, and embraced the idea that he could be some kind of Han Solo hotshot, roaming the galaxy like Indiana Jones and crushing the universe like Rick Deckard, the flashes slowed, revealing subtle images within them. The more excited he got about destroying replicants and hopping worlds (and universes — how cool would that be to get to see some alternate world where Lauren wasn’t his aunt and his mother never died) on a giant saucer, the clearer the images became. They floated through him before fading into new images, each one representing comfort, love, redemption and honor. Whether it was a woman being rescued from the raging waters of a river, the smile on a child’s face when he opened that most coveted of presents on Christmas, or a soldier sacrificing himself for another, Rick felt gratified — and extremely hopeful.
It wasn’t long before the images became those of memory — snapshots of moments that had never been recorded by any device, pictures of him and his obnoxious brother, his healthy father….
His loving mother and the warmth of her body as he lay on her lap, chilled with the flu. She was the rock of love that fueled his growth. Thinking of her would always ultimately bring up thoughts of her premature demise, but here, those thoughts were non-existent. His mother was alive and well, somewhere… and that was enough. Her death is what led to him being the man he was — a better man, someone she would always respect. But her life… oh, her life would have proven to be much more powerful, and it was in this idea that turned his heart to ride the wave back into her waiting arms and give her the hug he’d been so longing to give her.
But as he wrapped his arms around —
Lauren? Don’t knock up my sister!
— a thick smoke poured around him. He coughed violently and sat up.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a flash of his mother’s crystal blue eyes (or was it Lauren’s hazel beauties) and then finally got to see the reality of his surroundings.
He was in some type of super-sized hospital room that was nearly the size of an auditorium. Twelve beds evenly lined the main walls, each with a set of medical equipment (though oddly without any monitors). A large computer spanned the entire wall to the right of the room and on the left was a massive pair of doors with a double set of lion gargoyles flanking them.
Finally, Rick thought. Maybe now I’ll get some damn answers. With every word, the computer sung with activity, as it did with every small movement. Tossing the bed covers away, sliding his legs over the edge, waving hi — they all led to the machine running new lines of code across its monitors. What was really weird about the whole thing was how it was reading his vitals (and his mind!) without even being attached to him. Rick figured the shadow had implanted him with some type of device, but after inspecting what he could of his body, he couldn’t find any possible entry point. (There weren’t any mirrors in the room, so for all he knew, he had a giant mechanical bug attached to his spine; unlikely, but not impossible.) The shadow could have some type of liquid or moisturizer to help the healing process… and then again, how long had Rick actually been there?
It didn’t matter. Rick needed to get out of there; at the very least, find the shadow and get some answers. He slid off the bed, taking one last glance at that irritating computer, and hurried to the doors. As he got close, he swore he saw the gargoyles watching him. He eyed them carefully as he walked past them and noticed that straight on, they were just statues, but in his peripheral vision, they moved (at least in an illusionary way). It kind of freaked him out. But he had to get answers; he had to get through the doors.
They better not be locked.
To his surprise, the doors opened quite easily, almost as if something was helping him from the other side, pushing him back a bit — with a slight roar? — and almost blinding him with the electric white light that blasted through the gateway. He tried to see what was on the other side, but not even squinting could disperse the light source.
Suddenly, he felt something pulling him into the light. No amount of struggle could keep his feet from sliding forward. He decided it was better if he didn’t resist. Once he passed the threshold, the doors slammed shut behind him. At that moment, he was no longer being pulled and the bright orange behind his eyelids had turned to quiet darkness.
And he couldn’t breathe.
He opened his eyes and found himself standing at the bottom of a giant fishbowl full of water. He grabbed his chest, the compression in his lungs forcing him to his knees. All he could do was look frantically for any bastion of safety — an air pocket or a bubble of oxygen one might see in a video game. Nothing. He thought for a moment that the water might end prior to the very top of the globe, but he was stuck to the floor as if his pants had been weighed down. It was his nightmare come true —
That is until he caught sight of something odd. A few yards away, two men (who looked like clones of each other) sparred with wooden staffs that seemed utterly dry and without friction. Just behind them was an old looking woman dangling by her feet from a rope, doing what looked like some type of yoga routine. A second woman — a little on the heavy side but still cute — jogged along the edge of the globe, her hair bouncing side-to-side. At the far end of the globe was a large boulder where a young woman, who from this distance looked oddly like Lauren, sat. She stared in Rick’s direction, occasionally looking away and shaking her head as if disappointed in something — in him.
And she should have been. Unless all of these people were some type of amphibian hybrids with no respect for physics (or it was all a trick due to lack of oxygen to his brain), there was absolutely no water in this room. It was all in his head; it had to be. He had to take a chance and breathe.
* * *
“Wait a second,” Jaden said. “You expect me to believe everyone in the room was human?”
“No,” Rick said, so aggravated he rubbed his eyes and wiped his mouth with extreme force. “You haven’t been paying attention to a damn thing I’ve been saying.”
“What’s to know?”
Rick rolled his eyes and then sat forward to try and make his point stick. “None of these other people were human at all. Each of them were from different worlds — different galaxies — brought to this place to train to become a Galaxy Gifted. I only saw and heard them as human because my mind wouldn’t allow me to see their true forms until I was ready.”
“Fine. Whatever. What does any of this have to do with Sawyer?”
“May I continue?”
Jaden leaned back and tried to relax. This was going to take a while.
* * *
The air was cool and refreshing as he brought it into his lungs. Rick coughed several times but that sensation, too, was a delight. There was still a bowl full of water surrounding him, but there wasn’t any — not really. He couldn’t feel it, he couldn’t taste it; it was a thick, blue air that almost killed him because of his own psyche.
As he brought his breathing under control, Rick heard someone clapping. The woman from the boulder was walking toward him. Strangely, every few steps she would either duck under or step over some invisible something.
“Neat trick, huh?” the jogger said with a wink as she passed by. Rick wanted to reply but didn’t know what to say. So he returned his focus to the woman who reminded him of what his young aunt might look like in ten years.
“Where am I?” he finally choked out.
The woman ended her applause as she stopped several feet in front of Rick. She eyeballed him for a moment. “Welcome to the hellfire club,” she said.
The woman ignored him. “Where are you?”
Rick looked confused.
“The room?” the woman barked, frustrated as hell. “Where are you?”
“A fishbowl?” Rick said, still unsure.
“Of course you are,” the woman said with a roll in her eyes. She started walking back toward the boulder (again avoiding objects that weren’t there). Rick wasn’t sure what to do, but he needed answers, and unless he wanted to get some cardio work done, she was his best hope.
“Wait.” It was rough trying to catch up to her through the thick friction of the water, but he eventually caught up to her, still a little out of breath. Keeping up with her was even more difficult. “Are we not all in a tank full of water?”
“The room is different for everyone, fish.”
“Beats me. My best guess is it taps into the person’s worst fear.”
“Your best guess? Doesn’t anyone know? Where’s the shadow?”
“The shadow could care less about us right now.”
Rick felt a cold dread rush through his veins. “What do you mean? Where is he?”
The woman stopped. “Look, I’m in the same boat as you right now, fish. I don’t have all of the answers. None of us do. All I know for sure is that we have to keep passing these damn tests before we’re finally granted an appearance in front of the bastard.”
The woman resumed her trek through her imaginary playground. Rick followed closely behind. “What’s your name?” he said.
The woman paused briefly before saying, “Sameer.”
“Where are you at right now, Sameer?”
“The jungles of my home.”
“What’s so frightening about that?”
“What’s so frightening about a fishbowl?” Sameer smirked knowingly. “You don’t want to know. Let’s just say, it’s alive and ready to feast at a moment’s notice.”
“Because of wild animals?”
“No,” Sameer said before stopping next to the boulder to look directly into Rick’s eyes. “The jungle.”
Rick was taken aback. Imagining such a thing almost made him laugh, but he held himself in check so as not to offend her. The last thing he needed right now was to get Sameer on his bad side — if he hadn’t already for simply breathing.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
“The shadow snuck into my bedroom the night before I was set to leave for basic training,” Sameer said.
“Did he threaten your family, too?”
“No,” she said with a slight laugh. “He just offered me something better. Little did I know…” She lowered her head and took in a deep breath. Rick stayed silent, unsure of what to say. Seeing his awkwardness, Sameer hit the boulder with the tips of her fingers. “Wake up and say hi to the fish.”
Rick was stunned to find out the boulder wasn’t a boulder at all, but a man that looked like the Hulk on steroids. He rose, standing nearly four feet taller than he was, a cigar dangling from off his upper lip.
“My god,” Rick said.
The beast looked down upon Rick as if he were a bug on a windshield.
“Be nice,” Sameer said to the behemoth. Apparently nice was standing as firm as a mountainside.
“Don’t worry about Johson,” the jogger said as she came to a stop next to Sameer and bent over to catch her breath. “He may not say much, like, ever. But he’s a sweetie-pie.” She held out her hand. “I’m Frensessa.”
Rick shook her hand in appreciation. “Rick,” he said.
“Thank goodness, cause, like, I’d hate to have to call you Roger. Dude was, like, nothing but dead weight in the tank…. Like, literally dead weight.”
“It’s what we like to call this place, you know. What was up with you earlier, anyway? Were you, like, drowning or something?”
“Thought so. At least you passed. A lot of new recruits don’t even get past, like, the fist test.”
“What are these tests?” Rick finally asked, even though the question had been on his mind the entire time.
“As best as we can make out, the first is, like, what the twins dubbed the hall of horror. Most recruits can’t truly accept the mission and end up going, like, completely mad. I remember when I first passed. There was, like, another recruit who ended up killing himself by, like, clawing at his wrists with his fingernails. Not a pretty sight. Like, not at all.”
“I had no problem with it,” Sameer said.
“Yeah, we know,” Frensessa said, a bit annoyed. “Sameer, the great and powerful, scared of nothing but her own shadow.”
“I am not scared of my shadow,” Sameer yelled.
“Right, yeah, sure,” Frensessa muttered. “Then why haven’t you, like, gone through?”
“What are you talking about?” Rick said, hoping to diffuse the tension.
“Perrin,” Frensessa said, pointing to the older woman, “that’s what she likes to call, like, the third test. ‘The Shadow.’” The last two words were said in a playfully ominous tone.
“Why would she call it that?”
“Because you have to, like, return through the portal.” Her smile was bright and warming. Rick couldn’t get enough of it. “So, not only does the light from the other side, like, cast a shadow as you enter, but, like, you’re supposedly returning to somewhere you already were to, like, complete the final test.”
“That will lead us back to the shadow,” Rick completed.
Frensessa slapped him on the arm. “Now you’re starting to catch on, there, Rick. It took Johson, like, a month to finally get it.”
“A month? How long have you been here?”
“Me, I’d say anywhere between, like, six and eight months, maybe. That’s nothing compared to Sameer. She’s been here for, like, forever.”
“Would you shut your damn mouth,” Sameer said irritably.
Frensessa repeated Sameer’s words back to her with a mumbled joy of teasing.
“But wait,” Rick said. “If we step back through the doors, wouldn’t we just be back in the hospital room?”
“Is that what you saw?” Frensessa said. “Damn, I wish I was in a nice hospital room.”
“I don’t want to know. My point is, wouldn’t we just go back to where we were?”
“Nobody knows. When you step through those doors, it’s, like, anybody’s guess where you might end up.”
“No one’s ever returned?”
Sameer lowered her head, seemingly trying to avoid the conversation. Frensessa simply shook her head.
“So, what do you think is behind the door?”
“Well, think about it. The first test was, like, acceptance, taking the mission into your heart. The second test was, like, realizing you weren’t, like, where you think you are.”
“A test of the mind,” Rick said. “So you think the third test is one of courage?”
“You are a quick one, I’ll give you that.”
Rick thought about it for a moment and then said, “I’m ready.” He started back toward the double doors at the other end of the bowl.
Frensessa stopped him. “Wait. Are you sure? You haven’t even, like, done any training yet?”
“Who said we needed training? For all we know, the test is simply finding the courage to walk through it?”
Frensessa looked deathly afraid, as if she wasn’t telling him something. She nodded slightly and let go. Rick waited a moment, examining the looks on both of their faces before flashing a quick, unsure smile. He walked to the doors and could feel everyone’s eyes on him as he took hold of the door handles. With one last, long, leering breath, he pulled the doors open.
What is the test of courage?
Be as creative as you can, as outrageous as you want, and as detailed as possible. The best answer will determine where the story goes next.
Post your answers to Facebook, Twitter (using #WriteANovelWithMe and @phoenixmoirai) or in the comments section below by 5 p.m. PST on Thursday, December 4, 2014. You can give as many different answers as you want. The top 5 will be posted on Friday.
I can’t wait to see where your imaginations soar.