With eyes shut tight, Keynis patted a full circle around where he lay. Determined to find his blanket without having to open his eyes, or without having to use the light from his phone, he grew increasingly frantic as his hands botched their blind quest.
He was a self-dubbed expert at sleeping, and at falling back asleep. Not even a vanishing blanket could deter him! The trick was to keep your eyes shut, otherwise the chances of falling back to sleep were next to nothing.
Worry began to bloom little bumps across his body as his hands explored the unfamiliar terrain of what he was beginning to suspect wasn’t his bed.
“Nicolaté?” His voice a quiet whisper.
He called out once more, a little louder, but not so much that it would reach to little Lynn’s room. He knew her keen senses could pick up a fish sneeze.
Ever since he and Nicolaté met, she had greeted every day as if there would be no other. She charged through life with more determination than anyone he had ever known, leaving her weary and exhausted every night. He knew his whisper had no chance of waking her, so he scooted close and placed his arm around her.
She was cold and motionless, solid and unmoving.
A jolt of panic resonated from his core, overtaking him in an instant. His lungs refused to expel the gasp that had been startled into them. His heart hammered against an inflated prison, desperately calling out for the warmth of its companion. Numbness overtook him.
Open your eyes. Open your eyes…Open them, you coward!
Reality pushed itself into his mind as the painful glow of clenched eyelids was replaced by a moonlit forest.
Fear faded to relief, relief to confusion.
Nerves in his lower back twitched as he shifted his weight. Sitting up was difficult but was a pain that had become the norm. As he rocked his torso, twisting and arching the rigidness from his lower back, he glared down at the petrified log that had held an embrace meant for his wife. Tears still stung his eyes as he struggled to push away the feeling of losing Nicolaté.
Must be a dream…a nightmare.
Using his own knees to push himself up, he let out a throaty groan as his body cracked and popped the entire way up.
Or not. Where did I get myself this time?
More was wrong than cuddling a tree and missing his blanket. He could hear his breathing, and nothing else. No wind. No bugs. No sounds of any sort.
He scanned the surrounding area. Nothing was familiar.
Skeletal fingers, jagged and dark, fanned up from the charred trunks of every surrounding tree. Membranes of desiccated vines formed a skin across an entangling network of roots; a snare to keep the dammed from ever touching heaven. Theirs was a life of longing, filled with friends of the darkest sorts.
Keynis could feel the darkness, pushing in on him from every side.
“The sun will rise again,” he whispered. “I fear no darkness. I am a child of the light. The Lord is my strength! I am the city on a—”
A rat scurried across his bare foot.
The surrounding terrain was flat, which, he thought, made running a lot easier. He bobbed and weaved around every obstacle as he dashed further into the unknown. It wasn’t until his big toe punted a rock that he finally staggered to a stop.
Despite it being the middle of the night, the moon put off more than enough light for him to see his rabbit-eared toenail. He couldn’t tell if it were bleeding but could only assume it was.
The rush of adrenaline did nothing to subdue the pain. He hobbled to a small boulder and sat down. Reaching into both pockets, he pulled out only lint and a sticky gum wrapper. “Not much I can do tonight, except get more lost,” he mumbled as he tried, and failed, to rip off a strip of fabric from his jogging pants. His toe was going to have to suffer.
Maybe I should just stay put, Nicolaté will notice I’m gone and call for help. I couldn’t have wandered too far.
A woman’s scream sliced through the silence.
Keynis’ protective instincts kicked in. He was always one to fight and never take flight, no other option could find refuge in his mind. Charging recklessly toward the scream he shouted, “Hello? Who’s out there?”
“Keynis?” She yelled from someplace close.
Thinking he recognized the voice he yelled out in sudden panic, “Nicolaté?”
“Keynis? Where are you? I’m really starting to freak out.”
Realizing that the terrified woman was the love of his life he ran even faster, bobbing and weaving around the thick vegetation.
She was all alone.
All reasoning and intelligent thought processes were on a not so well-timed vacation. During all his military training, not once did any of his instructors tell him it was a promising idea to run blindly through a heavily wooded area in the middle of the night. That kind of common sense had to have been taking a bathroom break.
Keynis’ disregard for safety soon became obvious. He found the ground, which should have been under his feet, was about twenty feet lower than he expected it. “Whoa! Uh-oh!” Keynis yelled as he fell into the shallow excavation.
“Keynis Alexander Louis Sanez!” Nicolaté shouted, sounding quite angry.
“What?" He asked, not wanting to open his eyes. He was quite sure he was back home, and that all that previous freaking out was just a dream.
“Get off of me!”
“My bad,” Keynis said in an insincere voice, rolling off Nicolaté. “I thought you were our bed, and that I was back home.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I can see how you would mistake little ol’ me for our giant queen-sized mattress. Where are we?” She asked.
“Well, glad you asked my dear! You see, I believe I’ve had enough time to deduce the answer to your question. As you know, I have quite a bit of experience in this sort of thing. Now, based on my past experiences and understanding of geography, astronomy, and plant life,” Keynis said in his most serious and professional tone. “I would say we are in a scary painting. Perhaps one of a forest outside Transylvania, one full of vampires, werewolves and giant rats!”
“Ha, ha, ha. Shut up…Seriously?” Nicolaté said with a giggle.
Keynis loved it when she laughed. The bane of his existence was when a frown made its way to her lips. Before his well deduced theory, overwhelming fear and confusion were crushing his poor Nicolaté. Now, because of his quick wit, the mood was lightened a bit.
Time to figure out what was going on.
“Sorry,” he said. “Do you remember anything about last night?”
“No. I’ve been racking my brain ever since I woke up. You know how bad my memory is. Trying to remember anything is a struggle…but this. It almost feels like last night never happened.”
Keynis looked around, scanning the dark walls. He only heard half of what she said, not that he needed to listen, he was sure he already knew the answer to his question. “Hmm. Well, yeah. Something had to have happened. No way both of us walked out here in our sleep. As many times as we have been camping, have you ever seen a sky that looked like that,” he said, pointing up into the darkness.
Nicolaté shook her head.
“Me neither,” Keynis said as he ran his hand along the slick walls. “We need to get out of this hole. If a deer or something falls in here with us, we’re screwed.”
There was a large tree root, possibly a rope, hanging down. It was notched every twelve inches all the way to the top, like it was lowered into the hole to help people get out. “Can you climb this?” Nicolaté asked with a smile on her face, poking Keynis’ plump belly.
“This,” he said, shaking his belly up and down, “is all your fault.”
Nicolaté grabbed the root and climbed out with ease. No surprise. Her favorite hobby was break dancing, and her only obsessive-compulsive behavior was her daily exercise routine.
Keynis, on the other hand, spent all his free time playing video games and watching movies. His struggle up the twenty-foot vine began with an instant sweat. Halfway up, he figured he knew why nothing looked familiar. There was no way they were still on Earth. “The gravity in this place must be much higher than what I am used to,” Keynis struggled to say.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” Nicolaté said.
The root was slick as snot and difficult to grip, but Keynis finally managed to pull himself to the top. His arms shook as he peeked over the brim. He felt himself begin to slide back, then grabbed Nicolaté to catch himself. As soon as his weight tugged her little legs, she fell backwards. Grabbing hold of a small tree to her left, she angrily cried out, “Seriously, Keynis!? I could’ve gotten hurt.” She dusted the ash from her pants as they both stood.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to fall into that big hole again. Would you rather fall on your butt, or me fall in a huge hole and die?” Keynis asked, glancing over Nicolaté’s shoulder. Off into the dark woods he noticed a faint blue glow.
“What do you see?” She asked, taking his hand in hers.
“I’m not sure. More of that blue fungus stuff I’d imagine. Worth investigating though,” Keynis said as he started off.
“Wait up,” Nicolaté yelled in frustration.
A few minutes into their walk, Keynis heard a loud squeaking sound. “Rats!” He yelled.
“Rats? What?” Nicolaté asked.
“No, rats, I said, literally. They are huge, and they look angry,” Keynis shouted, pointing to a small pack of large rodents.
“Oh, my goodness! They are huge!” Nicolaté said with a loud scream, jumping up on his back.
Each rat was about the size of a small dog. They might as well have been a pack of pugs, only with knife toothed giant rat faces. Perhaps cute little faces of the cuddly pugs might have been a bit more frightening. Despite the threat of the approaching creatures, Keynis couldn’t help but to snicker at the image of a swarm of rat-pug hybrids playing in his head.
He noticed it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, and his eyes were burning. There was also a steady stream of pepper spray now shooting over his shoulder. From her perch, Nicolaté proceeded with an onslaught of pepper spray on the now stunned rats.
Keynis did what any man in his current situation would do. He flailed his arms around screaming, knocking Nicolaté from his back, and falling to his knees with both hands rubbing his eyes. “Dang it Nicolaté, it got all over my face! Arg.”
“Quit your complaining and stomp on them! Put those big feet to good use!”
“You got it babe!” He yelled. Eyes still watering, Keynis kicked and stomped on anything that moved. He could hardly see, but every time his foot found its mark, he knew it. It felt like he was crushing giant grapefruits.
Kicking and stomping in a rampage, he ripped off a low-hanging branch from a dead tree and started clubbing the limp rats. “Die! Get some!” Keynis yelled in a fearsome battle cry.
“Keynis? Calm down. I think we won,” Nicolaté said.
He pretended like he didn’t hear her and continued his rampage. At first, he felt like he could go on all night, but only a dozen seconds in, he was already out of breath.
“Honey?” She said, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Owned! Did you see me, Nicolaté? I was like ‘POW!’ then I was like ‘BAM!’, and then one tried to get away and I was like ‘GET OVER HERE!’ and almost broke my stick on its fat head,” Keynis said triumphantly.
Keynis began to pick up the dead rats to tie them to his stick by their tails.
“What are you doing?” Nicolaté asked, a mortified look on her face.
“We don’t know how long we’ll be out here. Could be hours, days, weeks? We need to do all that we can to stay alive. I hope you like spicy food,” he snickered as he held up the pepper spray drenched rodents.
“You can’t be serious. Can’t we get rabies from eating rats?”
“I don’t know, but I would rather chance rabies than die of starvation,” he said, patting his belly.
“I think you’ll be okay. You have a lot of reserve,” Nicolaté said, laughing as she pinched his belly fat.
“Shut up,” Keynis said with a smile. “Just because I can probably live a few years without eating, doesn’t mean that I want to…”
Nicolaté rolled her eyes, “You’re not that fat, Honey.”