's 2018 Horror Write-off:

A Curious Tiny Machine

Submitted by Shieldman (email)

There are places in the woods where the crickets and birds are silent. Deer and wolves alike refuse to enter them. Something about those circles of upturned earth puts them off. You can hear the blood rushing in your ears when you stand on the rock - you know the one. There's always one in every circle. It's too aesthetically pleasing to have happened naturally, but too rough-hewn to have been placed there by human hands. An ancient god in the shape of a boulder. You'll want to break its silence. Yell. Say something. But you won't want to at the same time. The silence stares back at you, challenging you, disapproval in its eyes. So you won't. Cowed by nothing, you'll sit on the stone for a few minutes more, before life reminds you of things you need to do. You have to start your homework. You need to call your boss. There's a sale at the bakery. It's always something.

When you are gone, and the dust on the trail has settled, it waits. It's very good at waiting. The earth has whispered secrets of time to it, how the mountains watch storms come and go and how deserts slumber between the rains. You are its rain. You are its storm. A fleeting, vibrant spark, a thing of life and vivacity and chaos, gone as quickly as you arrive. The eye of eternity is blind to the flickering candle of your youth and promise. But it learns. It asks questions. Your answers lay just beneath the surface: in your nervous goosebumps, in your clenched jaw, in the way you peer out into the woods even though nothing moved. It does not ask our questions. The lips of oblivion cannot speak in tongues we understand. You'll listen, though. You always do. Alone, leaning against the ancient stone, you hear and obey orders, carried out in ways only the hills will ever see.

Your children will come to the rock. There they will play and love and make mistakes and there they will die. The blood of time is cut from their veins with every tick of the clock's hands, and it is a crimson river that soaks the earth beneath the stone in lost moments and stolen seconds. The halting realization that the sun is setting - how long have I been here? It's five past five already? - is merely the agonal gasp of a mortal mind grabbing at the last strands of existence.

And that, too, is an answer.

The questions float like soap bubbles on the surface of its mind. Some are floating motes of intrigue that make you shiver as they brush your skin. Others loom like oily, rainbow-covered vistas, crushing you down into the soil, asking why, why why why why? You don't know. You can't. To know why would be to accept death. You are a puppet that rails against its strings, the fire in your heart a blazing defiance of the endless march of time. And still it watches. Again and again. You die. Your children die. Their children die. Again and again. Another you. Another of your children. Why? Why do you do this?

There are questions that cannot be answered even by its boundless mind. It asks, and you answer, or you don't. There is no pressure, no failure. You sit on the rock and you die a little more. The pressure is invisible to the eye of eternity - the tiny fears and the miniscule terror and the dust of anxiety. It watches as you sit in its wooded circle, your heart beating, your lungs expanding and collapsing, your genes fraying with each cellular division. What a curious tiny machine you are. As you cannot fathom it, so too, it cannot fathom you. So it watches.

There are places in the woods where the people are silent. The young and the elderly alike refuse to enter them. Something about those circles of upturned earth sets off eons of ancient instincts. You can hear the time bleeding from your veins when you stand on the rock - you know the one. And it knows you.