Tomorrow’s News

Writer’s Digest Creative Writing Prompt: A Newspaper From The Future

You are walking to your car when you pass a boy selling newspapers on the street. He doesn’t look like he’s getting any customers, so you buy a copy, only to discover that it’s dated a week from today. And one particular story makes you realize you need to take action- now.

I always wondered how they stayed in business without selling a single paper. I saw the boy there every week, every Thursday afternoon with the new edition, and yet I never saw a single person stop and buy a copy.

It was the typical Oracle News, Cassandra stuff that everyone insisted was complete bunk. Yet no one could ever quite point to a case of them being wrong. It was as if they were just overlooked, not really considered one way or the other. They were always just… ignored.

Maybe it was that I had just bought new shoes, or maybe it was the fresh rain that made everything smell just a little sweeter. I was in the mood for a distraction and found myself dropping two quarters in the boy’s hat. He thanked me and handed me a paper, our fingers brushing momentarily. As I made to step away, he grabbed my hand, a sudden concern entering his young eyes.

“Don’t do it, Ma’am. Please,” he said, too low for anyone else to catch. “It isn’t meant to be you.”

Such an odd feeling came over me, and I nodded almost against my will, pulling back uneasily. I started to walk away, glancing back over my shoulder once or twice, but he was no longer paying any attention, holding up a paper for the next pedestrian passing by.

I got to the bus stop and looked at the paper. Everything you might expect: next week’s lottery numbers, winning scores from tonight’s big game, ads for personalized fortune tellings and palm readings. What I didn’t expect was to turn the page to the obituaries and see my best friend’s name. It was dated tomorrow.

The entry was brief, giving little detail. It only mentioned she was survived by her fiance and child and services were to be held next Wednesday at the community center. What my eyes kept returning to was where it hinted at the cause of death, ‘following an incident at her home.’

It wasn’t that I believed these things, if someone could really predict the future, what would they be doing selling it in papers on the corner? These were supposed to be for laughs, like horoscopes, something to chuckle over and think back on later, not something to wrench your gut like you’d been punched.

I had to do something. I couldn’t risk it being true and not have done anything. I forgot about the boy’s warning.

[next]

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La Ciudad Muerta: The Origins

So as promised, now that I’ve finished the story, I’ll tell you the story of where it came from.

La Ciudad Muerta is based heavily on a recurring nightmare I had for years as a child.  I don’t remember when the first time was, but the last was when I was around 12 or 13 years old, so for several years prior to that.

The dream always got longer each time I had it, too, only it always ended the same.  It got longer on the front end, more lead-in, but always ended the same.

I changed a few details here and there to make it make sense (as dreams often don’t) and to turn it into more of a story than a nightmare, but for the most part this is very close to how it played out.  The dream was always from the point of view of the narrative character in the story, and that character was always myself (yes, the character was male and I am female, but that’s dreams for you.)

The main differences are I added a fourth character (there were only ever three in my dream) and the character that got entombed alive in the stone was always me.  I also added the temple as a focus , whereas it used to simply be the center of the city.   I added depth to the characters, and names, since it would have gotten confusing without it.  But mostly this a pretty good rendition of it: we’d stumble into a ruined city in the middle of the jungle, the images on the walls would seem to be us, but would also change when we weren’t looking, and in the end I’d be buried alive in stone.

That was the part of the dream that always terrified me most, when the stone would open up – the sound of the stone sliding against stone – and swallow me alive, and then the image on the stone would show me inside.  That was when I would wake up crying and begging god to take the nightmares away and desperate to not fall asleep again.

For years I couldn’t even talk about it, and every once in a while I wonder if I’ll ever have it again, like it’s sort of lurking just there waiting…

Oh, and the last change I made was to have the character returning at the end, sort of a nod to the ‘recurring’ part of the dream…

So there it is.  A childhood nightmare come to life in my stories.  If you ever wanted to know how someone comes up with these kinds of stories, it usually isn’t that we’re just sick in the head… (that’s *my* story and I’m stickin’ to it!)

La Ciudad Muerta, Pt IX

[Part VIII]

James began to pound on the wall where the door had been, insisting it had to still be there. I went the direction the scream had come until I bumped into the wall with his mural on it. Now it only showed a skinless man.

It would of course be expected by this point that I was beginning to lose my mind. Despite being locked now in a room with seemingly no doors or any kind of light, I turned off my flashlight, unwilling to continue to look at the images all around me.

James gave a small cry at the sudden darkness, but then I heard him cry again, this time in surprise as he started saying he could see light. I looked around, my eyes adjusting, but then I could see it too. We both moved toward it, bumping into one another but finding our way to a seam in the wall, a crack open enough to the outside to let light in.

I turned my flashlight back on and we rummaged in our packs, looking for something to wedge into the crack and pry it open. Neither of us had been carrying the crowbar, but I had my machete. It wasn’t much for such a task but better than nothing at all. Wedging the blade into the crack, I pulled as hard as I could, trying to pry away the stone.

When I exhausted myself James took over, and we went back and forth a few times, trading off as the other tired. James started to pry at it again and I turned to get some water from our packs. I was starting to despair of this doing any good when I heard the sound of stone slip against stone.

You’ve got it, I cried, turning back around, but James was nowhere to be seen. The machete was sticking out of the crack in the stone, and then before my eyes, a section of the stone wall began to slide up out of the floor, bringing a new scene into view. James: entombed alive and clawing desperately at the walls. The detail was so fine I could see the fear on his face and the blood of his nails as he broke them against the wall of his stone coffin.

I stumbled backward, turning to see the door had again opened in the wall. I fled from the room. Racing down the stairs as fast as I could without falling, I did not stop for anything, not even the screams that echoed from the temple. Not even the dim promise of saving my friends, the lingering hope that they were yet alive inside, was able to outweigh the fear for my own life I felt in that moment.

Running down the avenue, my only instinct was to be free of this city. I could feel it trying to catch me, trying to pull me back, like the sensation of just slipping out of something’s grasp. I could feel the rope around me tightening. I fell once, almost twisted my ankle, but I got up and ran again. As I neared the gate, and the air seemed thick as water and I had to push through, screaming, fighting to escape. When I cleared the wall at last, I fell to the dirt and cried. I was back in the jungle.

I had left everything behind, I did not even think of my pack, food, supplies, or the GPS to get me back to civilization. All I cared about was that I was alive. I would have rather died in the jungle than let the city take me, and nothing would have tempted me back inside. I can give you no account of what happened to me after that, not until I woke in a hospital in Lima. The doctors said a local tribe found me wandering in the forest, half starved and entirely mad.

La Ciudad Muerta, the Dead City. But it was not the city which was dead, it was those who would tread there who lost their lives, sacrifices to the spirits that inhabited the ancient ruin. It was the thirtieth of October, the Day of the Dead. We had been right, we had been brought to the city for a purpose: to die, and die we did.

Me? I did not escape. You call this alive? The city devoured my soul, my very spirit. Would you want to live with these memories, with what I’ve seen? It would be a mercy to kill me now, to put me out of my misery.

Now I have given you an account of everything I can remember. No need to pretend or apologize, I know you do not believe me, no one has. But go ahead and print it: the last confessions of a madman. Is this my last? Oh yes. I don’t expect to come back this time. You see, I was never meant to get out.

Notice of Delay

Due to some unplanned but now suddenly necessary home renovations (which include, but are not limited to, rewiring the bathroom, changing the tub surround (which in itself includes scraping old glue off the walls from the previous) and painting the exterior west wall, writing will be sporadic at best this weekend.

Unfortunately, that means I’m going to have to leave you hanging on that last story for another day or two.  All apologies. 

It does mean, however, that there will be some pictures to follow.  Of course, these types of thing always go over better when I remember to actually take the “before” pictures… but oh well, a few in progress and some finished will have to suffice.

Hope everyone is having a lovely weekend. 🙂

La Ciudad Muerta, Part VIII

[Part VII]

James grabbed at Rodrigo’s arm, yanking him back.  Patrick is dead, he yelled; he ran off and this is what happened.  I’m not staying to find out who’s next.  Rodrigo tried to turn away, but when James kept his hold, Rod spun back around and put a fist across his jaw.  I just blinked, like I was watching a movie, something I wasn’t really part of.

Rodrigo turned again and went into the temple.  That’s when James grabbed my shoulders, giving me a firm shake, yelling that we had to go.  I finally started to come out of the fog I was in, noticing for the first time my cheeks were wet with tears.

James was pleading with me now, begging me to leave.  He had always been the calm one among us, but this had sent him over the edge, had sent us all over the edge in our own ways.  He started to tug me, trying to get me to follow him back down the steps but I finally pulled back and shook my head.  We have to find Patrick, I told him, though my voice sounded strange to my own ears.  We can’t just leave him, we can’t leave Rod.

Our eyes met, but he couldn’t hold my gaze and turned away, heading down the steps, bent with guilt or sorrow, I know not which.  I turned and stared back into the temple’s opening, trying not to look at the blood as I walked, deliberately putting one foot in front of the other.  I stepped inside and was immediately enveloped.  The black consumed me and I blinked as if the lack of light was a failure of my own eyes before it dawned on me it was simply dark.  I felt around the side of my pack until my hand closed around my flashlight.  I unclipped it and turned it on to see the room before me.

In the center of the floor was a statue, like that of a man but with the skin of his torso peeled away to reveal his ribs and inner organs.  In one outstretched hand was a human heart, the other holding a severed head, and he wore a crown of eyes and bones.  It reminded me of images of Mictlantecuhtli, god of the dead and the underworld, but from a far earlier period of time than had ever been recorded.

All around, the walls were filled with images of death, intricate carvings of scenes of horror.  Each wall held a central mural with three figures: the god on one side, a feminine counterpart on the other, and between them a central figure – one of the four travelers we had seen all over the city.  Surrounding all three were demons and serpents and skeletons, depictions of sacrifice, even images of cannibalism.

As I looked at each mural, I saw the gods were interacting with the travelers – with us – in different ways.  One was the figure that looked like James, he was standing on the steps of the temple, hands raised and covered in blood, each god holding one of his wrists.  The one which resembled me stood inside the temple, a rope around my waist which was held by the gods as if I were being lead.  To the other side was Patrick stretched across the altar, his arms and legs held as his blood spilled out.

I turned back toward the center of the room, and as my light passed across the statue, my eyes grew wide and my breathing stopped; the heart glistened with moisture.  It was not a part of the stone statue as I had thought, but was real, blood still dripping to the floor.  I took a step back, screaming when I felt something grab me from behind.  I turned to swing, to fight, to get away until I realized it was James I struggled against, his face white as a sheet.

It’s just me, he was yelling; It’s just me, snap out of it!  When I finally got hold of my senses I grabbed him and pointed to the statue, the walls, the figures, I dragged him over to the one of Patrick.  I don’t even remember what I said, I just remember yelling.

We’re leaving, he said, grabbing me, and I made no objection this time.  Yet no matter which way we looked, there was no longer a door to exit by.  Instead we saw the fourth mural, the figure of Rodrigo.  He was being held against a wall, a knife slicing away his skin.  Then we both seemed to realize that Rodrigo wasn’t here, even though there was no other visible way out of the room other than the way we’d all come in.  Next, we heard his screams.

[Part IX]

La Ciudad Muerta, Part VII

[Part VI]

As we neared the temple, a mist began to form around us.  We were into the thick of it before we even realized it, but soon we stood at the base of the temple, shrouded, and barely able to see the top above the haze.

Do we go up, or do we go in?  I looked from James to Rodrigo, but neither of them seemed certain, either.  We can’t split up, I said, no one goes alone, so we have to stick together.  They nodded, then James gasped and pointed to a block of stone at the base.  It was the same scene that was everywhere – except no, it was different this time.  There were only three figures, not four, standing at the base of the temple and looking up.  The fourth was lying on a stone at the top.  Red was running out of him.

We understood then: they weren’t depictions of stars or gods or any of the other things we’d pondered; they were blood sacrifices.  Was it a coincidence, this new scene?  Was it because of where it stood that it showed the scene it did, or was it because of where we stood?  James seemed to answer the question when he pointed at the fourth figure and looked at us, demanding to know why it looked like Patrick, how it could look like Patrick, blond was not a color the ancient people here would have known.  How was this possible?  He pointed to the other three figures, naming us each, and it was uncanny how it was too easy to see ourselves in them.

The rational part of my mind began to stammer about how we were looking for patterns and explanations and seeing them but that didn’t mean it was true, but even I couldn’t keep it up for long.  I think we all wished in that moment to wake up and find this a nightmare, that in waking it would at least be over.

Rodrigo finally had to point out the uncomfortably obvious, that if these stones were somehow prophetic – that they were indeed meant to be us – then that meant Patrick was… he looked up, and we all knew he was right.  We began to climb the wide stairs cut into the temple’s face, the horror we were feeling growing with each new step.

We were almost to the top when I noticed it: the red drops on the stones.  As we climbed the last few steps, it became a trickle, then a puddle.  Gaining the top, we found ourselves facing a low sacrificial stone set between two pillars and directly before a doorway into the upper temple structure.  It was stained with fresh spilled blood.  I think that’s when James finally lost it.  He began screaming; screaming about this being impossible, about how this just doesn’t happen and someone was fucking with us.

I stood glued to the spot, my eyes unable to leave the blood-stained stone before us.  I couldn’t bring myself to comprehend what I was looking at.  I certainly couldn’t allow myself to even entertain the possibility of what had happened here, or whose blood that might have been.  I just stood, staring at it, my brain rejecting everything it saw.

Rodrigo was staring also, then he looked at us, looked at the wild madness in James’s eyes, and then walked into the temple.  James screamed after him, where did he think he was going?  Rodrigo’s only reply was to point at the blood and say that isn’t Patrick; that he was going to find Patrick.

[Part VIII]

La Ciudad Muerta, Part VI

[Part V]

I called out again, telling Patrick to stop sulking and come and eat, but there was still no reply, no sign of him at all.  I yelled that this wasn’t funny, if he was just trying to get back at us for earlier.  Finally we let it sink in that this wasn’t his idea of a joke.

I asked if anyone noticed which way he went.  Rodrigo hadn’t, but that was to be expected.  James said he thought he saw him wander off across the avenue to the south half of the city again, but he didn’t watch him go all the way so he couldn’t be sure.  We looked at one another, an unspoken fear passing between us as all our eyes turned toward the temple.

He could have easily made it in twenty minutes.  It was a little less than a full mile, by my estimation, but as rash as Patrick could be at times, even I didn’t think he’d have run off without any gear at all.  That just made me all the more worried when I thought about it, because if he hadn’t run off… I didn’t let myself even finish the thought.  Rodrigo was already pulling his pack out of the tent, stripping some of the unnecessary gear and getting ready to head into the city to find him.  James and I wasted no time in following his example.

Though I felt the most likely goal would be the temple, the last direction James had seen Patrick heading was south, so it was decided we’d start there.  Maybe he had gone back to one of the places he and Rodrigo had been at yesterday.  Rodrigo said there had been one feature in particular that had caught Patrick’s interest, a circular room – or what would have been if the full walls and roof had been intact – with carved pillars around a sink-hole in the floor.

As Rodrigo described the hole, every hair on my body must have stood on end.  It sounded like exactly what I had found.  Rodrigo explained how Patrick had been taken by that room, so focused on it he barely wanted to see anything else after that.  He had found a small stone and dropped it, but neither of them could hear it land.  Patrick insisted the bottom was likely overgrown or mossy and had cushioned the fall, wanting to tie a rope off to the pillars and explore.  It was only the growing darkness that had turned him from the idea, insisting he would go back, go down that hole.

We had just started to head south when we heard a cry coming from the west, unless our ears deceived us.  We knew in that moment that, whatever his fascination may have been the day before, Patrick must have gone to the temple.  James shouted Patrick’s name a few times but we got no answer, though I swore I heard another cry.  The other two didn’t, but we set off at a run.

I tried to focus on what I hoped to be the most rational causes: he may have slipped and become injured, or was lost, but these wouldn’t account for him not returning our calls.  Maybe he hit his head and got knocked unconscious, but then we might not be able to find him at all if he couldn’t guide us.  My heart was trying to burst through my chest, fear pushing me faster than was safe on the slick carpet of moss over stones.  Something inside told me the answer was not going to be so simple.

[Part VII]