Brett Abrahamsen vs. Andrew Hughes
The Universe of the Squirrels
He held a copy of his new book, Extinctions of Major Species, open at the first page. It read:
“The eastern grey squirrel has survived for over six trillion years, and counting. Other species weren’t so fortunate. Its close cousin, the eastern chipmunk, went extinct after merely forty billion years. The white throated sparrow went extinct after ten billion years. Worst of all, the monkey known as homo sapiens didn’t even last ten million years, let alone ten billion”.
The squirrel closed the book and pondered the information. It had, indeed, taken billions of years for the eastern grey squirrel to become the dominant species – and, eventually, the only species – on Planet Earth. The eastern grey squirrel was, in fact, the only species that had thus far evaded extinction anywhere in the universe, save for those primitive residents of Sagittarius, the Sagittarian amoebas.
The eastern grey squirrels were smarter by far than any other previously existing species – they could find the answer to absolutely anything, if they wanted to. Six trillion years of evolution had, of course, given them a considerable intellectual advantage over any other previously existing species.
The book continued:
“When ancient civilizations talked of “God”, they were, without realizing it, anticipating something like the arrival of the modern eastern grey squirrel, for the ancient concept of god and the current eastern grey squirrel species are, for all intents and purposes, no different”.
These words filled the squirrel who was reading it with pride – one of the seven deadly sins, incidentally, in ancient times. The squirrel’s pride, however, was understandable. The eastern grey squirrel was the ultimate triumph of evolution. All other species had failed.
The most recent extinction – on planet Earth, that is, for there were countless extinctions elsewhere – had been of the familiar pigeon. The pigeon lasted three trillion years and was, for most of its existence, the most abundant species on earth. But predation by eastern grey squirrels shifted the balance decisively in the favor of the squirrel.
The last pigeon died on 3279376021610 A.D.
The battle between the common pigeon and the eastern grey squirrel was, in a sense, a competition to determine which species – the affable pigeon, the clever squirrel - would be evolution’s success story, the dominant species, the godlike race. Prior to that battle – only a few billion years prior, in fact – it should be noted that there had been numerous species of birds and rodents left on Earth. The rat, the starling, and the american robin were all somewhat abundant, but a mass extinction had occurred and mysteriously killed off everything except the pigeon and the squirrel, who were by all accounts left unharmed.
Now it was only the squirrel that remained. They sang songs and played hopscotch to pass the time. There were no more trees, but they had built artificial trees that served their purpose equally well. These artificial trees covered the earth. They swung from one structure to another with striking agility.
They were also avid archaeologists. They read accounts of various extinct species: the white-tailed deer, the brown-spotted horned weasel, the pied-billed platypus, the European giant toad, the koala, homo sapiens. One particular homo sapiens was of special interest to them: Jesus Christ. One of their favorite songs to sing was “Onward Christian Soldiers”. They viewed The Bible as a sacred text, one that prophesied the arrival of God in the form of the eastern grey squirrel. The squirrels celebrated Christmas every year, placing stars atop the trees they had made.
They had found the corpse of Jesus next to the corpse of a brown-spotted horned weasel in the Sahara Desert. No one knew how it got there.
It was indeed fortunate that homo sapiens went extinct so quickly, for if it hadn’t, it would surely have destroyed all other species, perhaps even the entire universe.
The squirrels also fantasized about what they would do for the next several trillion years. The Chief Squirrel, named Ott, had grand schemes. He planned to send a Squirrel to each corner of the universe, heavily armed, so that invaders from whatever new universes might form would not be able to penetrate the Universe of the Squirrels. He also wanted to go back in time and re-stage history, so that squirrels would be the dominant species from within a few seconds after the Big Bang.
Ott died at the age of 9201303, but his successors planned to continue his mission. Four noble squirrels, each carrying various types of ammunition, were each to be deployed to one of the four corners of the universe, staring at the nothingness beyond and waiting for something to come out of that nothingness so they could attack it.
The four squirrels who were chosen were, in fact, descendants of Ott himself. The journey to the upper left corner of the universe was estimated to take about 6 seconds, the upper right corner about 5, the lower left corner about 5, and the lower right about 4. Each squirrel carried a dozen miniature nuclear bombs.
The spaceships were ready to be deployed. The universe would belong to the squirrels forever.
At around the time the first squirrel was set to be deployed an asteroid was hurtling towards earth. By the time any of the squirrels noticed it was too late. None of the squirrels had been deployed and the Earth was promptly turned into ash and rubble.
Only the Sagittarian amoebas survived. Time would tell if they evolved into the godlike race, the second coming of the doomed grey squirrel.
In the Mouth of the Mountain
The crystals stretched all the way down.
As Samantha stood in the gapping maw of the cave holding her flashlight, she could see two, maybe three school bus lengths deep. There was no breeze here, which she might have found strange, had it not been for the thick forest outside, a beard of foliage hanging beneath the opening. Without a breeze, the air felt hot and sticky.
She did not wish to enter, the very thought of it grated in her mind, like the sound of her Civic scraping a curb. Everything in her tensed at the idea and she wanted to drop the flashlight and flee.
But, she couldn’t.
Because one of her campers was missing.
Two of the other kids, Michael Stone and Jerry Turkins, said that Donny had wandered off in this direction. She’d found his summer camp sweatshirt discarded atop a bush a half mile back. Then, she’d found the shoe prints, the indentations of his Spiderman sneakers, the ones that lit up with every down-stroke. The trail had led here, to the mouth of the mountain.
Of course, this had to happen when Logan and the others had left for Knoxville to pick up supplies. Of course, she had to be the only counselor in camp, the only one stupid enough to let her guard down.
She took a deep breath and felt the thought pass through her again. Turn and flee. It was followed by the instinct to cry, but she pushed it away. Crying now would only waste time and from all the survival books and police procedurals she’d read, there was no time to waste in a situation like this.
Good God, why was she out here at all? Teaching summer camp. It sounded like a sick joke. She should be at home, curled up on her couch, with Ms. Marigold dragging her fluffy plume of a tail across her face, reading the new Gillian Flynn, and waiting for Meet the Teacher day, which would begin the teaching cycle again. And she might have been home if it wasn’t for Logan Phillips. When he came to her room on the last day of school, motorcycle helmet in one hand, leather laptop case slung across his shoulder, and told her she should apply to Mountain Lodge Summer Camp, she should have told him no. She should have shut the door in his face and driven home to her cat and her books. That’s where she should be. But, she wasn’t at home. She was here, standing in a cave, holding a flashlight, looking for a missing child.
Damn you Logan.
She took the first step into the dark.
The flashlight beam drifted across the jagged crystals. They were everywhere, the stalactites and stalagmites, all so translucent that the beam sliced through and refracted at sharp angles on the cavern walls.
As she stepped, she opened her mouth to yell out, to call Donny’s name over and over as she had been when she’d started into the woods, nearly yelling her voice hoarse, but now, as she entered the blackness, she hesitated. Surely, he would see the flashlight. He would see the beam and know that someone had come to find him. Or, maybe he saw the beam and was afraid. Maybe he knew he was in trouble and was now hiding just out of sight. Or even worse, he’d kept descending the crystalline path, down, down, down into the depths. She gulped and felt the warm, stagnant air around her. She imagined it drifting out of the mouth of the cave like an exhalation of smoke.
There was a noise and she froze.
The blood pumped violently in her veins, so loud that she could hear it pulse in her ears as she strained to listen to the silence.
There had been a sound somewhere in the black. She was sure of it. It had been a soft sound. Two quick taps, like the footsteps of a child playing hide and seek in their grandparent’s attic.
She opened her mouth to yell, but stopped, and stood frozen. Her hand quivered and the flashlight beam wavered on the far wall. Her mind jumped to the horror movies she’d seen as a child. Friday the Thirteenth. A killer hunting down campers and counselors. It was ridiculous, she knew that, but what if it wasn’t? What if a killer was in here with her right now?
In that moment, silence trembling in the air, she was certain she was seconds away from feeling the knife slice into her skin, cutting through her as blood splattered upon the crystals. Her flashlight would fall and the lens would shatter and she would die in the warm, moist black.
Then, she had a second thought, even more disturbing than the last. If the knife did come, it might be a relief. It would end the moment.
This moment, this tragic, messed up moment, potentially the worst in her long history of mistakes and mishaps. A missing child she was responsible for? If this ever came out, if she didn’t find him happy, healthy, and alive, her life was ruined. No school would hire her. Her teaching friends would abandon her. She’d never have the chance to adopt a child. She’d end up in prison. Or worse, back at her parents’ house.
The breath shuddered in her throat, catching like a physical thing, and she felt tears building up when she heard the noise again, longer this time, a series of six, slapping footsteps. And as she turned toward the bottom of the glimmering incline, she saw a flash of blue and red lights like tiny police strobes.
Donny’s light up Spiderman sneakers.
The light disappeared around a bend at the back of the cave.
“Donny,” she shouted and began to descend, rapidly now, rushing forward as one does when hope is rekindled and they see a remedy for tragedy right before their eyes. “Donald Gilbert, stop right now. It’s me. It’s Ms. Samantha.”
The flashlight beam leapt and swung across the cavern walls. As she ran, she strained her ears for the sound of his footfalls, but she heard nothing above the sound of her own ragged breathing.
Finally, she reached the turn, a twist in the path that ended in a smooth crystal wall that stretched from floor to ceiling.
There, in the very center, was a small hole about as tall as a kindergartener.
She shone the flashlight upon it and saw that it stretched out of sight.
A tiny tunnel into blackness.
“Donald Gilbert,” she bellowed, mustering her sternest teacher’s voice. The noise traveled down the crystal encased tube and dispensed somewhere just out of sight in an echo that rippled into silence.
Samantha knelt and squinted into the tunnel. Even with the flashlight, she couldn’t see where it led, but she’d heard it. It had to go somewhere larger, more open.
“Dammit,” she muttered and tugged at the greasy red curls that hung down over her sweaty forehead. “When I find you Donny, I’m getting a shower and going home.”
With this resolution spoken aloud and the flashlight clutched in one fist, she crawled forward.
As she moved into the tunnel, the darkness encroached around her. She padded forward across the damp dirt and felt her breath catch in her throat. Oh God, what was she doing here? She should be at home with her books and her cat.
“Damn you Logan,” she muttered.
She was twenty crawling paces in when the sensation of claustrophobia overcame her, strong and overpowering. The walls, they were closing in on her, shrinking to crush her and squeeze her out like she was the last dollop in a tube of toothpaste.
She felt the tears coming again and stopped crawling. Her breath sputtered out in ragged, hyperventilative chunks. She pinched her eyes shut.
“It’s not real,” she said. “It’s not real, it’s not real. It can’t be real.”
That’s right, none of this is real. It’s just a dream. You’ll open your eyes and be curled up on your couch.
She opened her eyes and was still very much in the tunnel. But as a dismayed moan escaped her lips, she glanced down and saw a small footprint in the mud. A boy’s shoe. Then another, and another. She followed the trail with her eyes, until finally, she was looking straight ahead again, and there, not ten more crawling paces, was the exit.
She laughed. The sound came out staggered and fluttery.
She pressed down hard, propelling herself forward. The mud stained her palms and slid beneath her cracked fingernails. The flashlight tapped on the ground with each forward motion and the beam bounced wildly. Until finally, she passed through the opening and emerged into a gargantuan chamber.
Samantha stood, sucked in a few quick breaths, and spun, shinning the light upon the walls. They stretched three or four stories into the air, adorned with pockets of crystal all the way up. In the center of the cavern, there was a basin of stagnant water. When she stepped close and shone the flashlight into it, she saw that the water was clear. Crystal clear.
A chill crept down her spine and she turned, one hand cupped to her cracked lips, and shouted. “Donny! Donald Gilbert!”
There was no response, but as she spun, beginning to feel the disorienting hopelessness sink in once again, she saw them. More footprints on the muddy floor. With the flashlight trained down, she followed them, weaving along the path they made, being careful not to disturb them with her own steps, until they disappeared and she felt a great presence looming before her.
She jerked her head up.
She stood mere inches from the cavern wall.
Her first thought was that he had climbed it, however implausible that seemed for scrawny, reserved little Donny, but then, she saw them. Hanging by their looped laces from a protruding crystal, were Donny’s shoes.
She took a step closer and examined them in the flashlight’s glow. Yes, those were them all right. White sneakers, now stained a sickly grey from the mud, with an off brand, reflective logo of a scarlet M and a thick plastic heel that glowed red and blue when compressed. Across the toe of the shoe, a pixilated Spiderman swung from a web that led up to the exposed tongue. These were Donny’s prized possessions. Why would he take them off?
She saw blurry movement reflected in the scarlet M.
She spun, expecting Donny.
A crystalline statute, humanoid in shape, loomed three paces in front of her. Water dripped from its glistening form.
It hadn’t been there before. There was no way she could have missed it.
She opened her mouth when the statue’s hand shot out, the protrusion lurching between her lips. She felt her eyes bulge as the crystal expanded, filling her throat. She tried to breath, but no oxygen came. The flashlight fell to the mud. She clawed at the crystal arm, but her fingers slipped off. Her vision became spotty blackness swirling around the edges and in the dim glow of the fallen flashlight, she saw the crystalline thing begin to change. The body shrunk. The smooth face rippled and darkened to a blotchy sunburn. Hair sprouted on its head.
Curly, red hair.
She tried to suck in breath through her nostrils, but nothing came. The sunburnt face bubbled and grew a nose and eyes and thin, pink lips.
Her head felt light and blackness overcame her.
When she woke, she was falling, tumbling, rolling through the dark. Her leg struck something hard and she felt a brutal crack and screamed. The noise was drowned out as she made another revolution and her open mouth struck the ground and filled with mud.
For a long moment, she lay motionless, her mind too rattled to think. There was only the pain, and the dark, and the tears. But slowly, she rose on her throbbing leg and blinked. The room was pitch black save for a single beam of light drifting down from someplace high above. She turned toward it and lost her breath.
There was an opening. How far up, she could not tell. But there was light in the opening, coming from a flashlight. Her flashlight. And the person holding it. She whimpered and pinched her eyes shut. This isn’t real. It couldn’t be. But when she opened them again, it was the same. The person standing in the opening, was her. Khaki shorts squeezing fat thighs. A maroon t-shirt with the camp’s logo. Red frizzy hair. Even the black staff lanyard with the ID card hung around the its neck. Her neck.
Samantha patted her chest. She still had her lanyard. She was still dressed. This couldn’t be real.
She felt her vision swirl and her body felt far, far away.
No, this couldn’t be real.
The her on the ledge stared down a moment longer and in the flashlight’s glow, Samantha saw the other her’s face change. A smile curled across the imposter’s lips.
A wave of hot emotion rushed to her head and poured from her mouth.
“What are you,” she shouted.
The imposter did not answer. It only stepped back and the wall began to shift. The opening shrunk as something began to encroach upon the light. Samantha blinked twice. Tiny white crystals were moving in from all around the circumference of the hole, like a mouth creeping shut.
The light began to wane as the encroaching wall covered the imposter’s hands.
“Wait,” Samantha called out. “Don’t go!”
The wall continued to form.
It covered the imposter’s face last.
The last thing Samantha saw before the gap sealed was her own smile.
She sobbed in the dark.
For a long time, there was nothing but the blackness, the pain in her leg, and the swirling confusion in her forehead. She had no coherent thoughts besides that this couldn’t be happening and her voice caught in her throat in panicked inhalations. Her fingers felt curled and fuzzy. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening.
Samantha screamed and clutched her chest. She opened her eyes and saw only black. She blinked twice, and then, she saw something. The red and blue flashes of Donny’s sneakers. And as the flashes approached, she began to see more of him in brief, firework-like glows. First, only his bare ankles and thighs. Then, the cargo shorts. And finally, as he stood before her, the maroon camp t-shirt, the same one that she was wearing.
“Ms. Samantha. Is that you?”
“Yes,” she said, finally controlling her tears. This new surprise had pulled her out of her shock.
“I’m scared,” he said.
Samantha lunged forward on her knees and embraced the boy. She felt him quiver.
“It’s okay. We’re going to be fine,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” he sobbed. “I don’t understand who they are. He looked just like me.”
“It’s okay,” she said, patting his back. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get out of here.”
She held him like this for a long time and when she finally released and rocked back off her knees into a sitting position, she felt something in her back pocket. It was hard and inflexible beneath her buttocks. She nearly laughed. It was her phone. She’d forgotten about it this past month since they never had reception in the mountains.
She pulled it from her pocket and pressed the center button. The flash of light from the home screen was so brilliant in the dark that she pinched her eyes shut and could still see the glow. She heard Donny gasp.
“Sorry,” she said. “I should have warned you.”
“Are you going to call the fire department?”
“Maybe,” she said, easing her eyes open.
As she’d expected, but dearly hoped not to be true, there was no reception. To make matters worse, the battery flashed red. Shit. Of course, she hadn’t charged it. She would have to be quick. She sucked in a deep breath and turned on the flashlight.
The wide, conical beam burst from the front lens and she was dismayed to see that the light did not reach the other side of wherever they were. It merely traveled out into the dark, revealing muddy ground broken up by intermittent patches of crystal.
“Did you call them?” Donny asked and she turned the light to reveal his pale face. He looked like an orphan in a horror movie. There were scratches on his cheek accompanied by dried blood.
“Not yet,” she said. “Stay close to me.”
There had to be an exit.
She began to limp forward, trying to follow a straight path as best as she could. Behind her, Donny’s shoes clomped in the mud.
“This place is scary,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” she said absently.
“I don’t know why they told me to come here.”
“I don’t know either,” she said.
There was something up ahead. A wall of green tinted crystal that sparkled in the light. It stretched up into the sky, further than the light could permeate.
Shit, she thought, and felt the panic in her throat again.
“They said it would be fun up here. They said it was tradition.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s they?” Samantha asked, and directed the flashlight toward the foot of the wall. There was a flash of alabaster and she bit down on her tongue to contain her scream. She raised the phone so the beam rested high upon the wall.
“Michael Stone and Jerry Turkins and Sammy Zibinsky and one of the counselors.”
“Donny, turn around right now.”
“Do it,” she snapped.
There was a shuffling of feet as he did as he was told.
She lowered the light and saw it again.
A skeleton. Bare and picked clean.
“Oh my God,” she said.
She covered her mouth with her free hand.
“What is it Ms. Samantha?” Donny asked.
She said nothing and stepped closer. Next to the skeleton, by its head, was a scrap of maroon fabric. It had faded from the original printing, but had certainly started off the same color that she and Donny currently wore. She took a step closer. The fabric had been torn in jagged rips as if it had been chewed on. She shuddered and noticed a decaying black string peeking out from beneath the shredded shirt.
When she reached out and picked it up, the string snapped, and the plastic card sleeve it had been holding fell face down on the muddy ground.
She picked it up, turned it over, and felt her head go light.
The plastic had worn and the ID card within had faded, but she’d have recognized the olive complexion, curly black hair, and shining smile anywhere. This, was Logan Phillips’s ID card. And there, in the corner, was a date. The letters were so worn she could hardly read them.
Mountain Lodge Summer Camp Class of 2014.
Three years ago.
“Oh my God,” she whimpered.
Her fingers trembled and the ID card fell back into the mud.
There was no holding back the tears.
“Oh my God,” she sobbed.
“What?” Donny asked.
She couldn’t answer.
As the fresh wave of panic overcame her, the flashlight beam flickered as the phone died.