's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Obsidian Mountains Eternal

Submitted by Miranda

   The boy hero of the Obsidian Mountains Eternal is leaned against the scratched and grimy bus window, watching the buildings go by. He’s on the second day of the long weekend, and hasn’t showered in what’s probably too long, and the pastel houses and tourist traps of the beach town have long since started to look as endless as the sea itself. He is coming up on the fifteenth anniversary of his triumph over the Antlered King, although he has no idea whether they still celebrate him back in the Mountains. Sometimes he likes to think they do. Sometimes he prays they don’t – praying isn’t a label he would put on it, but it’s undeniably the same thing.

   The bus reaches Aaron’s stop, and he pushes his way to the door. With his jean jacket and beard, he’s barely recognizable as the scruffy kid who had once driven a sword into the Antlered King’s heart, blue blood spurting onto his sneakers, freeing the peaceful residents of the Mountains to claim their rightful territory. There had been a big parade for him, for this strange boy from another world, and the reinstated Queen had smiled and set a heavy crystal crown on his head. She seemed to be made of crystals herself, just bent into the shape of a person, and she explained that while Aaron was a hero to all those in the kingdom, the gateway would only stay open for the young and pure of heart, and if he did not go home soon he would age into a permanent citizen of the chilly mountain realm. The adult Aaron remembers vividly what he thought at this moment, and it was: I’d miss my dog.

   Sadie lived for four and a half years after that, through Aaron’s sixth-grade field trip to the Big Bear mountains which he spent in a haze of recognition – was that real? Is this real? - and through his middle school graduation, which his father argued could hardly be considered a graduation. When they handed him the gold plastic trophy, Aaron had a thought that rattled his fourteen-year-old mind with its defeatism: nothing is going to feel like a real accomplishment anymore.

   He finds himself repeatedly correct about this as he enters high school. When he’s praised for his perfect attendance or for finally passing Algebra 2, he feels the crystal crown once more on his head. I killed the Antlered King. What am I doing here? The morning he buries Sadie the ground is so cold he can barely drive the shovel into the dirt, but eventually her yellow fur disappears from sight. Aaron sits by the grave for a long time, thinking about the retriever mix sticking her wet nose in his face after he fell facedown out of the portal and scraped his knees, and the Queen’s smile with a thousand teeth, and whether he had done the right thing.

   In college, Aaron prepares for a costume party, dressed as a rock star from an old movie, fixing his wig in the mirror. “You remind me of the babe,” calls Matt across the room with a lazy grin. Aaron fancies himself something of a rock star too these days – impossibly far from home, preoccupied with beautiful women and beautiful men, and dressing to draw attention, and ideas of space and the future. In the dorm in Washington, cluttered with his useless possessions and his boyfriend’s practical ones, Aaron makes himself into a new creature.

   “What babe?” Aaron calls back, striking a pose for Matt’s amusement. He’s shaved his face and covered the dark circles under his eyes with pale costume makeup. If Matt has heard him talking about the Obsidian Mountains – sorry, Obsidian Mountains Eternal - in his sleep, he hasn’t said anything, which Aaron appreciates. Moving two states north of his childhood home hasn’t stopped his perpetual fixation on the adventure of that summer - if anything, trying to pick a major has thrown into sharp relief that he peaked at age eleven. He researches alternate dimension theory, and wonders whether the icy fantasy kingdom was his brain’s way of comprehending an eldritch interdimensional war he had no frame of reference for. Studies the historical use of child soldiers, and wonders if purity of heart is an actual quality or if the kingdom had just needed someone too young to ask questions.

   “We actually do need to get going for the party,” says Matt, heaving himself off the couch and running a hand across his boyfriend’s shoulders. “You need a jacket.” “I really don’t.”

   “You do, Starman. It’s goddamn freezing out there. You can take it off when we get to the party. And when we get home …” Matt raises his eyebrows suggestively and leans into Aaron’s side. Sweet, sturdy Matt, who as far as Aaron knows had a completely normal childhood, who buys duplicates of any outfit he likes for when they start to wear out, who has already decided he wants to be an engineering major. Matt, who doesn’t know what it feels like to kill, and deserves someone who doesn’t either. Aaron reluctantly puts a jacket over his costume, and the two young men exit the dorm, fingers twined together as they head into the dark, impenetrable maze of buildings.

   He and Matt separate, amiably, the year after that. Aaron decides to major in communications, and they agree that they’re heading in different directions. Aaron hopes he’s heading in any direction at all.

   He can, at least, head home for summer breaks. He has to admit the sun-soaked hills of inland California are a welcome break from the perpetual chill of Washington, even if hovering around his childhood home again feels like trying to put on a sweater he’s outgrown. His parents notice his new attitude of melancholy, which he blames on the stress of school. “I’m okay, really,” he says, fidgeting with the buttons on his shirt. “I hope you’re doing something with your life, Aaron,” his father says, peering critically over his reading glasses. “These are your prime years.”

   He spends a lot of time recuperating in the sun-soaked garden, half-heartedly throwing a tennis ball for Penny Lane, the poodle his parents had bought to fill their newly empty nest. “You’ve been replaced, Aaron,” his mother had jokingly said, scratching the overgrown puppy’s ears. Aaron’s eyes constantly flick back to the spot where the portal had opened a decade ago. The fence is overgrown with leafy vines by now, something his mother and father bicker over, and there’s no sign of anything unusual there.

   His trip to the Obsidian Kingdom – if it hadn’t been some kind of lifelong mental break, or bizarrely vivid journey of the imagination – had taken place over what was only a few minutes outside of the portal, not long enough for anyone to notice. He tries to imagine telling his father about what happened. When I was eleven I went to a magical fantasy world. I climbed a mountain and killed an evil king, and I still believe it was real. What was anyone supposed to do about that at this point?

   God, he’d just been a kid. No amount of magical artifacts changed that. Like trying to stick a fork in the toaster or being leered at from a van, the climb hadn’t scared him much in childhood but mounted in terror in his memory. What had the Queen been thinking? “You’re our only hope,” she’d said through her mouth of crystals, and Aaron had puffed out his chest, thinking of boy kings and wizards, excited for the chance to prove himself. As an adult, he had an ever-growing list of questions he would have asked the Queen: What happened to all your armies? What happened that a human kid who doesn’t know one end of a sword from the other has any kind of shot at this? What could you possibly tell my parents if I don’t come back?

   The vines on the fence remain green and tangled, devoid of any breach. Penny Lane anticipates the tennis ball’s flight, panting and smiling. Aaron fakes a throw and she follows the expected trajectory with her head, and after a moment, turns back to him in earnest puzzlement. After a moment, he relents and throws the ball for real. The poor girl deserves closure.

   Approaching graduation, he takes History of Children’s Literature to fulfill his upper-division writing requirement. The class is on the third floor, and in the winter the height and icy winds call up memories of climbing the mountains to the Antlered King’s throne room. Caroline, the young woman who sits next to him, has lots to say on the subject. Not about Aaron’s situation specifically, of course, but about the hordes of fictional children recruited to save magical lands other than their own. “Kids need a sense of security,” she says in one class discussion. “Like … to trust someone is looking out for them. They might be able to go away to Wonderland or Oz, but they need to know that they can wake up from the dream. Imagining they’re the Chosen One is the hook of the story, but, um, returning home is what ties it to reality. Brings it full circle. If that makes sense?”

   Caroline has a small frame and dark eyes, and five younger siblings. She wants to be a teacher, or maybe a writer, and is amused when Aaron confesses he isn’t sure why he majored in communications. Caroline thinks a college major should be about passion, about moving toward some future peak of accomplishment in your field. “You must like something, right?”

   After they talk for two months, he admits: “I like you.” They date up through the end of the year, spending days getting ice cream on campus or cuddled in bed together while rain pounds the dorm windows. Caroline rants in her hurried, uncertain way about the endings of stories that disappoint her. She’s working on a novel for young readers and wants to avoid all the mistakes she possibly can. “I just think it’s so important what we teach the next generation,” she says, propped against a pillow and running her hands through her hair, “even through fiction. Especially through fiction. I was twelve when I read the last Narnia book, and I was, like, furious. You know what happens at the end?”

   “I don’t.” Aaron had vague memories of only the first two books. He’d stopped reading them around age eleven, around the time –

   “The kids die,” Caroline says, dark eyes wide with a decade of disbelief. “They get in a train crash, and their souls go to Narnia forever. Except Susan. She’s too obsessed with like, lipstick and parties to get into Heaven, so she doesn’t get the reward of dying young.” Outside, the rain hitting the dorm roof grows louder, almost a staggered chant. “What the hell kind of screwed up message is that?”

   “Growing up is a punishment?” Aaron tries, which makes her laugh.

   “Could be. I don’t think it’s all bad,” she says, rolling over and burying her face in his chest. The rain refuses to stop.

   Time goes on, and around graduation, he and Caroline stop seeing each other. “I think we’re going in different directions,” she says, and as tiny and nervous and female as she is, Aaron sees Matt there for a second, his mouth forming the same words. The boy hero of the Obsidian Mountains Eternal accepts a diploma and an entry-level desk job back in California, and starts chasing promotions. The work is mindless and hopeless for a year or two, but eventually it’s mindless and hopeless for a little more money. He buys himself an apartment, with a few things from his childhood home but mostly new purchases, soft rugs and prints in bright colors. He makes friends with people from work, temporarily. Dates a few people, temporarily. Gets a new car and thinks about getting a dog, but his landlord says no. Calls and visits his parents, when he remembers to. With a stable job and apartment, an acceptable future, Aaron finds himself lying awake at night, hopelessly adrift.

   Years pass, and twenty-five-year-old Aaron gets off the bus, bearded and thoughtful, freed from the office for the long weekend, toting an old backpack and pulling a coat over his jean jacket. He doesn’t usually go places alone, or go many places at all. Evening has not yet fallen over the seaside town, and the sun is still shining low in the sky. Down on the beach, tourists and their children splash into the opaque water, unafraid of the depths below. Aaron ducks into a souvenir shop to wait for nightfall. The inside is paneled with wood and filled with rotating racks of postcards, tacky shark tooth necklaces, mood rings which worked based on body heat, not emotions, and as a result were always the color of the sea. He doesn’t mind the aesthetic of the rings, though, and rolls one in between his already-decorated fingers, contemplating whether spending money on trinkets would ruin his voyage.

   “We just got these aquamarine crystals in,” chirps the middle-aged store attendant, pouncing on her chance to upsell. She waves a chunk of sharp turquoise stone in Aaron’s face. “Traditionally, they bring energies of protection, tranquility, and eternal youth. Perfect for your mom. Or your girlfriend?”

   In the end, all Aaron buys is a pack of beef jerky. Night is falling over the ocean by now, and the tourists are all heading to the yellow beacons of overpriced fish restaurants in the dim blue harbor. He makes his way down the streets, which are stuck all through with tiny shells, the seaside establishments’ neon signs faintly flickering on in the dark. Nail salons, a fortune teller, a cheap art shop with a window full of mediocre paintings of mountains.

   He makes his way down the treacherous wooden stairs – after all these years, he’s still afraid of heights - to a deserted section of the beach. Pelicans fly overhead to their nests like huge ghosts, and the shore contains less sand than tiny smooth rocks, shining faintly as the moon pulls the water over them. The sunset has given way to a deep indigo sky, and Aaron catches himself thinking about the color of the Antlered King’s blood on his shoes fifteen years ago. He’d taken a long time to die, not like in the movies, and his surprisingly high-pitched screams had echoed off the walls of the massive cave. It wasn’t murder because they threw a parade after, and it wasn’t wrong because the Queen had told him the Antlered King was a cruel tyrant. At age eleven, he had no reason not to believe the first person he met.

   He sets his backpack down on the rocks and looks out at the water. Listens to it slosh back and forth a few times, filling the cold air with the smell of salt and dead fish. There’s no one else around, and he finds his voice.

   “What the hell was that?” Aaron shouts at no one in particular. His voice echoes over the dark surface of the water. “You picked a goddamn kid to fight a war, a kid who wouldn’t ask what was going on, right? I didn’t know who had the rights to those mountains, I still don’t. I killed the King and I don’t know if he deserved to die. And then! And then!” He picks up a rock and heaves it into the ocean with a splash. “You dropped me back in the garden. No way to get back, no way to know if any of it was real. How is anybody supposed to – to live after that?” He’s fully aware of how dumb and childish he sounds, and finds himself unable to stop. “I had to pick – I had to pick between never seeing my family again and living the rest of my life trying to pretend like working in fucking communications would ever mean anything after that.” He feels like he should be crying at this point. Instead, his throat is just raw from the salty night air. “Every goddamn night I remember climbing up that mountain. You know that?” He takes a few hard breaths, then reaches down and pulls something out of his backpack. A pair of children’s sneakers, once white but now grayed with use and stained with dull bluish blood, tied together by the worn laces.

   The old stains are quite extensive, and Aaron cradles the sneakers to his chest briefly. He cuts a lonely figure on the dark beach – a grown man shivering and hugging a filthy pair of tiny shoes. Everyone else in the universe is some distance away, eating fried fish with their families or watching television in their beachside homes, or aboard a fishing boat far out at sea. A whole world of people who have never heard of the Obsidian Mountains, who can only see the things Aaron carries now.

   Was any of it real?, he thinks. Is any of this real?

   Eleven-year-old Aaron plunges his sword into the Antlered King’s underbelly. Twenty-five-year-old Aaron flings the sneakers as far as he can out into the water. Indigo blue splashes, disturbed, and Aaron sits down, a faint ringing in his brain.

   He remains there on the smooth rocks for he doesn’t know how long, empty-handed, staring at the ocean. He snaps out of it when he feels something nosing at his side. It’s a medium-sized dog, a scruffy stray mutt by the look of it, scavenging for picnic leftovers. Aaron digs the squashed bag of beef jerky out of his backpack.

   “You hungry, boy?”

   The dog gratefully snaps up the treat and presses itself into Aaron’s side, in search of warmth. It may be a stray, but it wags its tail the same way Sadie did. He dimly registers that he should be worrying about fleas or rabies or something, but it’s been a long night, and instead he arranges his jacket to cover the shivering animal. They sit together by the sea for some time, watching the stars come out.