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A Touch of Scarlet
by Jessica McHugh

Category: Fantasy/Horror
Description: A dark tale of ambitions forgotten and, regretfully, remembered. Scout never expected to wake up one day with a power that allowed her to jump into other worlds. She never expected God to tell her that she was special and destined for greatness. But most of all, she never expected to learn that her life as she knew it was fabricated to hide the dark secret of her true identity. Provocative and enthralling, A Touch of Scarlet invites you into a world beyond good and evil where the truth is merely a matter of opinion.
eBook Publisher: Eternal Press/Damnation Books LLC, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009


2 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [123 KB]
Words: 27648
Reading time: 78-110 min.

A Touch Of Scarlet

Part One

It had started like any other day; my rise was reluctant and the completion of my morning rituals slow. Like every morning prior, I questioned my reasons for rolling out of bed when I had no pressing business on the horizon. But I should rather than I have to was always victorious and always forced me to my feet, no matter the groans that accompanied the action.

I had woken alone, as I preferred, and though the activities of the night remained sharp in my memory, the name of my temporary consort had fled. But his scent had not. More cologne than perfume marked my sheets with aroma, and though it constantly reminded me of how much time I wasted in sport, it comforted me as well when so little seemed to do so. But there was nothing, I wagered, that could give me comfort on this day of all days. I dreaded the inevitable annual call from my mother that did nothing but make me dwell longer and deeper on the sad significance of the day. Although it had been seven years since my father's death, she still sobbed as if it had happened yesterday. Not to say that I didn't have my own residual sorrow. At one time, he had been the most important person in my life. Despite my brief Daddy's Girl status, however, I no longer mourned vocally. I did miss him though, especially his corny magic tricks. Pulling a coin out of my ear usually elicited a small grouse from me, but I still couldn't help but smile in complete admiration.

I delayed the inevitable cleansing for an hour or so, favoring the comfort of my bathrobe over the schizophrenic shower--its temperature, like all elements in my life, seemed to have no happy medium. However, when I finally succumbed, I found the temperature unusually constant and though I could tolerate the steady heat, short but sudden spurts of scalding water sent me to the back of the shower in an attempt to avoid the abrupt burn. My toes were singed by the lapping heat, but it was the steam that hindered my routine most of all. It thickened so quickly and drastically that it felt nearly viscous and I found it difficult to breathe. I reached for the shower knobs to halt the water, but misty hands rose from the jets and wrapped around my throat so tightly that I could actually feel hot fingernails digging into my flesh. My legs began to tremble wildly as the steam became decorated with black and red circles that swam and spun and caused my mind to do likewise.

I searched for a place to rest, but the shower walls seemed miles away, tucked deep behind the fog, and I began to see in the mists all of the creatures I had known in my dreams. Several of them were of my own design: terrifying demons born of nightmarish self-consciousness. But there were also those that were rooted in reality. They were the ones who forbad, who judged, who gritted their teeth and did only what was best for them, and they were the most intimidating of all.

Beyond them I saw the fingerprints of my mind and my pristine self, and they were beautiful and harrowing in one. Sections of my soul were golden, but a strange, scarlet fluid dripped down their curves and alien edges, obstructing what little loveliness I had, and dropped into sticky pools where my senses lay.

The heat and steam swarmed over me and wrapped around my body so tightly that every organ seemed to be crushed. I breathed in deeply to loosen the pressure, but the hot air rushed too quickly down my throat and I felt my innards suddenly expand and then burst into soupy bits that dripped down my ribcage. I could actually see my ravaged interior better than I could see my hazy surroundings and for a few moments I actually thought myself dead. Sensation had not fled me, so I first focused on recovering some normalcy of breath and then on escaping the asphyxiating chamber. I wanted to bolt away, but more than that, I wanted to fall. It wasn't just the shower that was suffocating me--it was the room, the apartment, the world. I wanted to fall out and away from it all. It was with that desire that I suddenly felt a cold sensation around my feet. The shower floor began to teem with bubbles and with each churn the water grew icier and icier. As the frigid feeling crawled up my legs and moved into my fingertips it froze the veins in my arms. The darts of ice held still for a moment before suddenly shooting through my appendages and converging in my abdomen with a magnificent crash of frozen blood.

I lost all sight, all sense, and to the world, I was forgotten.

My shower, my house, and everything I'd known had disappeared and I found myself in a small lake with my head resting on the smooth, flat stones of the pond floor. When I turned onto my side, my face found the water and I automatically spat, but upon running my tongue across my lips I found the pond water to be surprisingly sweet and refreshing. I submerged my face and took it in. I threw my head back as I swallowed the water and sighed in satisfaction. I splashed at the pond with my hands and feet, and the water jumped up and fell like cool kisses on my skin. As I breathed in deeply, the wonderfully cool air rushed deliciously through my body, and to some world, I was remembered again.

Upon inspection of my surroundings, I realized that I was closed in on all sides by a dense forest, but it was unlike any forest I'd seen before. There were no thick brown trunks with knots and burrows, no leaves of green and no needles or blooms. The trees consisted of brittle gray trunks that stretched high into the wisps of cloud and they were adorned with bare spiny branches that protruded in all directions. The trunks were so closely set that the branches overlapped and interlocked, and some trees appeared to be conjoined.

I rose slowly from the pond, and as a refreshing breeze caught my hair and danced around me, the air became warm and soaked up all moisture. Even though I'd been nude in the shower, the air that swirled around my body solidified and became garments that clothed me in aquamarine silk. I searched the circle of trees surrounding the pond for an opening but saw no hint of light beyond the gnarled gate of gray. The first few layers were visible, but after them there were only shadows and ominous shapes. As I stepped onto the short grass that grew on the edge of the pond, I realized it was not as green as I had assumed it would be. It was a teal hue with tangerine roots that blended upwards so beautifully that I almost regretted crushing such a unique natural phenomenon. From my left vision it came: the shadowy creature darting between the trees.

It moved so fast that I scarcely thought I saw it and upon review decided that it was merely a figment. From my left it came again--a shadowy creature darting between the trees. I found myself too slow to focus on the object as it zoomed by, but when I stepped back and gazed upon the forest as a whole, I actually saw many figures flying between the monochrome trunks with great speed.

I inched closer to the border, curious but terrified. When I was within a few feet of the outer rim, I felt a very strong urge to jump toward the trees. My body wanted to be in that thicket. I tried to fight the pull, but my arms flew out in front of me, and I gasped as I saw the tiny hairs on my skin stand and bend toward the trees. I battled against the urge, but it was no use. With a delicious sweep, I was sucked into the forest and immediately began zipping along with the rest of the swift travelers. Although we all moved at the same pace, and I could not focus on the faces of those beside me, I could tell that they were human. Or at least creatures resembling humans.

Upon turning to look out of the forest, I came to an abrupt halt, and my head and feet swung as if I was suspended by my midsection. I then beheld extraordinary sights that were stretched out in front of me, and when I looked behind me, they were there too: chains of pictures painted in glorious, watery hues. They were drawn on the viscous air in front of the trees and each one was different. Some were wild and unfamiliar but some seemed sweetly recognizable. The paintings were of random locations--buildings, dunes, forests and so on. One I recognized as Rome, one looked like somewhere in Texas; there was even one that depicted my own house. But there were some I could not place, some that didn't even look like they were of Earth; yet each one was inviting, even the dark and terrifying locales.

I was obviously unnerved by all that had happened so far but, strangely, I was not afraid. As new and shocking as it all was, it felt familiar. Perhaps that was the most unnerving thing of all.

I closed my eyes and although I did not will it, my body sprang forward of its own accord. I never bent my legs and I never pushed off, but I found myself sailing forward nevertheless, into the centermost painting. Before I could process thoughts of flying or landing, I had already completed both tasks and was standing on a sidewalk lined with towering street lamps. The streets were filled with people laughing and chatting while holding hands as they strolled and popped into the dozens of little stores scattered about. It seemed to be a special night in the nameless town. There were musicians and horse drawn carriages and men dressed to the nines giving speeches by lamplight. I roamed down the streets and past the small local stores that sold everything from retro clothes to extravagant kites. There were dozens of quaint antique shops and I saw nearly a hundred porcelain dolls that reflected my wide, glassy-eyed expression as I strode, fascinated, down the sidewalk. I didn't know the specific town or state, but it was definitely America, and though it had the familiarity of my own small hometown, I knew I had never been there before. Although there were many things that caught my attention, on the corner under a weathered street sign, I saw a young man who really struck my fancy sitting upon an overturned barrel. He was wearing an olive sweater and baggy tan pants, and he was playing his guitar and crooning in a voice so sad and divine it nearly made me weep. He bobbed his head as he played and his shaggy, golden hair bounced with the beat, making him look as if he were possessed by the nameless spirit of peaceful melody.

"Lovely night for it," I purred as I sidled up to him.

His fingers stopped and when his emerald eyes connected with mine, I smiled and he reciprocated with sweet sincerity.

"You're from out of town," he said.

"How can you tell?" I asked.

"Because if you weren't, you'd know that it's always a lovely night for music here."

"You have a very nice philosophy."

"And you have a very nice smile," he said as he brushed my bangs aside. "Nice eyes too."

"Oh my, how you do go on," I replied playfully.

"So, do you have a name or do I have to guess?"

"It's Scout," I giggled, more girlishly than expected, and he repeated it with a strong nod as if securing it in his memory.

I spent the night beside him listening to Floyd and Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. When morning came and I woke up in his bed, Adam was gone, but his side was still warm. I smiled as I pinned up my hair and played the night over and over in my head. I slipped back into my silk dress and covered it with a gray zip-up sweatshirt I'd found on the floor, and I sighed in contentment and comfort. But as I looked around Adam's room it suddenly dawned on me that I'd fallen asleep and woken up in Hometown, USA. It had been no dream, no hallucination, and panic struck me upon the realization that I might be trapped there forever.

I swiped a cigarette from his battered pack and a silver Zippo from the bedside table and headed out onto the street. The town didn't look as extravagant without the lamplit evening festivities but it was charming nonetheless. The strong menthol of the cigarette stung my throat and made my head swim. As I walked, tired and confused, I zoned out on the cars driving by and my eyelids fluttered and fell. The whirring of the wheels was constant, but I focused on it until I could hear the mellow hum inside the droning. The pounding of feet upon the pavement was mesmerizing, as was the rustle of the leaves and the many similar faces that appeared to blend into one.

At that moment, something broke my trance. I saw four or five people scattered down the sidewalk, jumping in the air and seemingly falling through the concrete. I couldn't see them clearly, however; they were flickering like loose light bulbs, faded and snowy like the picture on a malfunctioning television.

Nobody else walking down the street seemed to notice the jumpers, but I did and clearly enough to know that they weren't figments. The bits of ground that they jumped through were darker than the rest of the concrete, grass, or whatever surface they happened to be on. They resembled holes, but on the street they looked like simple oil stains.

Once I was aware of the holes, I was scared I might accidentally fall into one, but those who walked along without thought of falling into magic oil stains did not fall, even if they stepped completely into them. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I dared myself to walk over one of the circles.

"Just stroll," I said to myself. "It's no more than that. You're just strolling."

So I strolled. I strolled right over the hole. Nothing happened and I was oddly disappointed. After all, if the holes weren't really holes or portals of some sort, then I was surely trapped forever in Hometown, USA.

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