By Raymond Cara
As Laurie glanced back up at her building for what she hoped would be the last time ever,
rays of breaking dawn light reflected off the panes of glass, almost blinding her even with
the sunglasses she wore.
The beige-tinted lenses were pulled down over her eyes, ready for the long trek ahead.
There would almost certainly be congestion getting out of the city this morning, even this
early on a Saturday. It was one of many things that Laurie found made big city life so
confining — and then there was the stench of exhaust and stale food and garbage; the rising
crime rate; and the unrelenting noise of jackhammers.
The hustle-and-bustle energy of the entire rat race was taxing for her on a good day, and so
she decided a couple of weeks back that she’d spent enough time employed by a soulless
banking institution. It was never an ideal gig but it paid the bills, and it put her graphic
design degree to use until she finally worked up the nerve to quit for good.
It was just about time to get out and live somewhere with trees and fresh air, that much had
become abundantly clear. She had always fantasized about living in a place with horses, a
major selling point for Valeport. Laurie worked hard for years here in the fryer without
much of a social life, and as a result her rainy day fund could buy a small house if she
She didn’t need much, though. A nice quiet life somewhere with one little marketplace and
one friendly doctor’s office would be plenty. A welcoming place, where she could peacefully
sit near a river and get lost in the more fulfilling worlds of fantasy woven by her literary
heroes. Maybe she’d take up gardening. She hadn’t made any particularly close friends here
and starting a new life actually sounded refreshing. It wouldn’t be the first time she had
done it, but still, it wasn’t getting any easier to actually take the leap.
She had never felt totally at home in the city, though not for lack of trying. The only
meaningful relationship that Laurie had made ended when she was ditched for a job
opportunity abroad and a slightly higher salary. Since then, she reasoned that after
becoming truly vulnerable to somebody for the first time and having it end with
disappointment and heartbreak, it just wasn’t worth risking again.
She eventually learned to become quite comfortable with solitude. She had always been
self-sufficient, but now she was also content — or so she told herself. This idea of a
small-town life had brought new-found optimism that she wanted to nurture and lovingly
The entirety of her belongings — two luggage bags and one green backpack — were loaded
into the open hatch of her old jeep. After releasing an anxious sigh, Laurie jumped into the
captain’s seat and hit the high seas, dispelling any lingering whispers of faulty or impulsive
She switched on the radio for something to occupy her mind, finding nothing but the din of
static at first. It wasn’t surprising. The jeep’s underbelly was collecting rust and showing
wear as things began to break down more and more often. It had been driven to death, the
only means of escape from the heart of the concrete jungle into some open air, an activity
that was happening far less frequently of late due to a general sense of apathy. It was just
too much effort. After jumping between stations, she finally got some music to come
through the speakers.
The skyscrapers were soon left in the cracked rear view mirror. She filled up the tank at the
404 way station just outside of town and was northbound for less than ten minutes before
drowsiness began to stymie her driving. It seemed to be a regular occurrence when she was
on the open road, despite all the coffee and loud music. There was something about gliding
between the lines of a freeway that Laurie found entrancing, and that headspace was
undeniably appealing, despite the risks.
She expected the trip would take around five hours, with maybe a couple stops, due north
the entire way. Laurie didn’t like night driving and she’d left early in the morning to make
sure she’d make it in before dark. Driving at night made her feel anxious —something she
wanted to avoid altogether.
After almost four hours of straight motion she was firmly out in the sticks. It was further
than she had ever driven alone before, and her palms started to sweat as a cascade of
potential problems presented themselves all at once. Doubt was seeping into every thought,
covering them like a wet blanket.
The terrain around the jeep was perfectly flat as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance,
rows of identical trees were arranged in an endless grid like soldiers standing at attention,
toothpick thin, tall, and rigid. There was something unsettling about its artificiality; treating
nature in such a way was ugly. It reminded her of the zoo. The sky at least held some
semblance of the real thing, bright, blue, and cloudless in the summer heat.
She needed a bathroom break, and the jeep would need more gas soon, its gluttonous little
tank demanding more. Her phone battery was nearly drained despite being plugged in —
maybe the port in the jeep’s stereo was broken now, too. Luckily, there was an untouched
paper map in the back seat that she kept around for such emergencies. She reached for it
and opened it.
The township she was looking for, Valeport, was nothing but a small dot on the map that
was now spread out over the passenger seat. After a two-minute stop at the side of the
road, she found what looked like a short highway, Queensway 7, that led off of the main
freeway and into Valeport, but she wasn’t confident about it. Reading an actual map was a
skill she had never mastered, and right about now she was wishing she had.
There were myriad lines going in every direction on the map, a headache of roads to make
sense of. And yet, for what seemed like an eternity, there had only been this one road and
those same trees. No signs, no shops, not even other vehicles. Laurie had been heading in
one direction — straight ahead.
Drowsiness struck again, her head dipping down and jerking back up just as fast, the car
swerving with it, tires screeching. The jolt gave her a boost of adrenaline and buried any
sleepiness in its wake. The radio was nothing but loud, obnoxious static coming through the
speakers. She was about to shut it off entirely until a shape on the side of the road ahead
caught her eye. Finally there was something out here.
It was, she saw, a person. It looked like a woman, walking the same direction Laurie was
driving. There was no scenario where this woman didn’t need help; Laurie knew perfectly
well that there weren’t many cars out on the roads today, and even fewer would be likely to
pick up a hitchhiker. More likely some kind of degenerate would stop for her. She quickly
decided that she would have to pull over.
Laurie pulled the jeep over, right past the walking figure, who didn’t turn their head or
seem to notice at all. Laurie stopped, rolled down a window, and called out, but the woman
kept walking. She was wearing a plain black hoodie, dark curly hair peeking out around the
hood, and loose, baggy jeans.
“Hey!” shouted Laurie again, “Wait up. What are you doing walking out here, are you all
The woman finally stopped and looked over, but she did not speak.
“Well… I’ve been lost, sort of lost,” continued Laurie, “for… I don’t know how long now,”
Nothing. “I just moved away from the city and I’m trying to get to the township of Valeport,”
said Laurie. “Do you know this area at all?”
The stranger turned slowly with a controlled grace. Her eyes met with Laurie’s for only a
moment before her lips twisted into a faint smile as she looked back into the ground. Her
face was a little pale but mostly indistinct. Laurie thought she looked not much older than
herself — mid-thirties, maybe forty, tops.
Laurie’s eye was drawn to a beautiful crystal orb worn around the woman’s neck, draping
down over the front of her sweater. It was refracting the afternoon light into an iridescent
display of colour that was at first mesmerizing and then painful, like gazing into the
morning light that bounced off of her old apartment building.
Laurie was still seeing flashing white spots in her vision as the stranger opened the
passenger door and hunched over to get inside, tossing the map into the back as she sat
down. She looked around the jeep curiously, taking particular interest in what was in the
back seat. Laurie started the engine and pulled back onto the road, continuing north, trying
to remember if she’d actually invited the woman into her car — not that she hadn’t planned
to do it anyway.
“Aren’t you hot wearing that thing out here? It’s roasting today,” Laurie said, trying to get
some conversation out of the intriguing woman.
“My phone has no service right now and just died on me anyway… I kind of lost track of
where I am,” continued Laurie. “I mean, I’ve been reduced to a paper map like it’s the
eighteenth century or something.”
She laughed nervously as the woman remained silent, trying to keep the one-sided
conversation alive. “I haven’t seen a gas station or town around here for hours. I was
starting to actually get a bit nervous that I would run out of gas on the highway in the
middle to nowhere.”
“You said you’re trying to get to Valeport? Is that right?” the stranger finally replied.
Laurie nodded her head.
“Take the next exit coming up. If you’re sure that’s where you want to go.”
The woman spoke like she moved: slowly. Her voice was soft and comforting, one that could
make any bad news palatable to the ear.
“She speaks!” Laurie replied with a breath of relief. Both of her hands were firmly on the
wheel as she kept checking her rearview mirror for other drivers, though none were
coming. The road was utterly abandoned and seemed to belong exclusively to Laurie and
her new friend.
“And thank you. Well… I mean, that was the plan, so yeah, I would say so. Why not? I’m
happy to drop you off along the way somewhere. I can’t imagine being stuck walking out
here,” said Laurie.
“I just don’t know what you’re hoping to find in Valeport, hun,” continued the stranger in
her calming, dispassionate voice. “Whatever it is, I doubt that you’ll find it in that place.”
Laurie smiled. “It’s that boring eh? Well I think that’s alright with me. Boring is okay. I’ve
read that there’s a healthy community of horse riders and breeders there, and I’m a
wannabe equestrian. This sounds like the spot to explore that passion. I’ll get a dog, too.
And some cats,” she mused, imagining herself riding a horse of her own, longing for the
unique bond that can be formed with animals.
Her stream of thoughts was disrupted by a burst of more damned radio static and she
promptly reached over to change the station, flipping around until something resembling
music came through her jeep’s old speakers. The CD player was broken and she was usually
stuck station hopping, the silence leaving her too exposed to over-thinking.
She glanced over at the map that had returned to its spot in the passenger seat. A fresh
wave of anxiety washed over her, seeming to smear itself into everything around. The car
was running out of gas and she needed a station, an exit, anything. The road felt like a
vortex that she was drawn into.
Off somewhere in the distance, Laurie could suddenly hear a frequency that defied
immediate categorization. At first she thought it was coming from the radio, but the buzzing
persisted long after the deck was shut off. It was something guttural and deep.
The car began to vibrate with the sound, as if the road had given out beneath the jeep and
she was driving over a jagged bed of rocks. The racket that had started off in the distance
was now radiating out from the ground directly below from some unknown depth.
But Laurie felt only mind concern, not panic.
A colourless dot at the side of the road, off in the distance, materialized into the shape of a
person, just as the sound subsided and the pavement smoothed out again, now as fresh as
the day it had been laid down, the lines as fresh as though they’d been painted yesterday.
As she pulled up beside the person on the pristine road, Laurie saw it was a pale-looking
woman with unkempt clothing. Curly black hair poked out from her raised hoodie. Laurie,
relieved to have finally found somebody, pulled over onto the dirt and called out though the
“Hey! What are you doing walking out here, are you alright?”
“I’ve been lost, well, sort of lost, for. . . I don’t know how long now,” continued Laurie. “I just
moved away from the city and I’m trying to get to Valeport, do you know this area at all?”
The woman sauntered over to the window of the car, watching Laurie closely before she
“May I?” she asked, gesturing to the passenger seat.
Laurie packed the map sitting there away, hoping she’d no longer need it, and reached
across the seat to open the door. Once the stranger had gotten comfortable, they sped back
off together into the endless north, conjuring up a cloud of dust and causing gravel to spurt
out from underneath the tires.
“We’re getting close to where I live, just a small community just off the road. I’ll point you in
the right direction. Sounds like you need it,” the stranger said listlessly, staring ahead at the
open road. Her voice seemed to escape into the breeze and Laurie found herself straining to
make out the words.
“That’s great. I’m really glad I ran into you. I almost thought I’d missed my exit by now or
something. What did you say your name was again?” asked Laurie, feeling more confident
in her chances of still making it to Valeport before dark.
“Actually, I’d prefer to hear about you, Laurie,” said the hooded lady. She hunched slightly
forward now with her arms resting awkwardly around her legs.
“Me? Oh… not much of interest to say.” Laurie felt her cheeks flush. She hated talking about
herself. “Like I said, I’m on my way out of the city and heading into small town life and…
well, that’s about it really. I’m not particularly exciting. We could talk about books if you’d
like? I could go on forever if you get me going on-”
“Ah. I don’t think that is so!” the stranger retorted. “You see, I marked you from a mile off.
You’re an honest person of good intentions. But… you’re misguided. You’re running away
from something with only a broken compass. You’re not heading on the true path. I can take
you there, but you have to reach beyond the shackle, Laurie. Beyond the shackle. I can only
show you the way.”
Something about the conversation struck Laurie as familiar, but she couldn’t place its
significance. The voice had some unplaceable quality that was now making her nervous, the
reference to a broken compass giving her a distant feeling of déjà vu.
What the woman meant by her strange rambling was unclear. Laurie felt dissociated at the
whispered words as she tried to maintain control of the wheel.
The landscape was punishing in its repetition, reaching out in all directions, those
cookie-cutter trees stretching off beyond eyesight. It all looked like a film set, painted with
The display on the jeep was broken, and with her phone battery completely dead, she was
unable to tell the time. The sun did appear to be moving, at least; based on where it was in
the sky, it seemed to be sometime around 6 or 7pm.
She needed something to happen before she snapped, anything at all. A change in direction.
A sign to signify the next town. Seeing some wildlife, even a single bird flying overhead
would bring some small relief — but no change came.
With nothing left to do but dwell, Laurie began to scrutinize her plan. It wasn’t typical of
her to make impulsive decisions like this, so why now? She had a steady, well-paying job,
and a clean apartment on a decently safe street. Now, she couldn’t be sure one way or
another. Would anything ever truly bring that total contentment she sought, or was such a
concept just another fantasy? A romanticized, literary construct, the carrot that perpetually
hangs in front of each one of us never to be enjoyed. No more real than heaven or valhalla.
Laurie reached over for her map and was startled to see a woman there. She wasn’t
alarmed, but she couldn’t remember picking her up. At least there was somebody here,
wherever here was. Being lost is a scary thing when you’re all alone; the presence of
another, any other, was comforting in this dead zone.
“Hey there, do you know when the exit is coming up for Valeport?” Laurie asked. “It feels
like I’ve been looking out for it forever. This is unlike any highway I’ve ever seen before. It’s
“Well, it has everything you could ever need, if you know how to look,” the stranger replied
with a twisted, lame smile. Her tone was matter-of-fact, as if relaying basic knowledge.
“I’m not sure I follow,” Laurie replied, puzzled.
“It’s… hard to describe. How would you describe a rose to a person that’s never smelled a
flower? Or a sunset to a person that’s never seen the sky?” The stranger paused. For a
moment, her voice was flowing with cadence and enthusiasm, before it lowered back to a
quiet, opaque hum. Sounds produced with no life behind them. ”In a word, it’s horizons.”
“I don’t think I’m interested,” Laurie replied. Her palms were starting to feel damp, her
mood irritated. “I think I’ll just drop you off and be on my way.”
Laurie forced a jovial tone, having always been prone to avoiding conflict at all costs. She
still had a lot of road to cover and evening was fast approaching. The sun had already made
its way to the west and was threatening to disappear within the hour.
“You don’t think that it’s at all peculiar how often you wind up out here, on this very road?”
inquired the stranger calmly, breaking the awkward silence.
“I’ve never driven on this road before in my life. Never even been this far north. You must
have me mistaken…”
She trailed off. Something was familiar about the place, she couldn’t deny it. The pieces felt
like they were somewhere in her mind, but without a string to tie it all together, they were
disparate and meaningless.
“That’s not true, Laurie. If you try, you’ll even remember leaving Valeport. I can see it
happening right now, in fact,” said the stranger while leaning ahead, her gaze piercing the
The trees were edging their way closer and closer to the road as the jeep sped along at 150
kilometres an hour, but inside the car it felt like they were crawling. The trembling had
returned beneath the wheels, but Laurie barely noticed this time. It was a controlled
rattling rather than the chaotic bursts of an earthquake. Laurie found herself having to raise
her voice to be heard over the noise.
“I… don’t think so,” Laurie answered, feeling less confident by the second.
The words “leaving Valeport” rattled around in her head, bringing to life dormant, dusty
corners of thought, ones typically pushed aside and dismissed. Had she really once left the
very place she sought? And why was she coming back? Perhaps she’d rather not know all
“You left after what happened to your mother. Terrible thing, that was,” interjected the
stranger with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.
Hearing the stranger mention her mother in such a blunt manner brought on a wave of
memories that were, for a moment, as real and vivid as the cloudless sky, so real she could
feel them. Breaking glass, crunching metal, the screams of her mother. It was the screams
that she remembered most.
The more she thought about it, the more the images became real. Beyond the wreckage of
that childhood accident a road of infinitely flat terrain materialized again, lined by spindly,
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” said the stranger, her maudlin words no longer attempting
to hide the omnipotence they revealed, speaking more like a prophet now rather than the
drifter she appeared to be.
The intrusion was actually welcome. The words themselves formed a musical chord, a G
major perhaps, an uplifting tone that Laurie perceived as ‘joy.’ The message the enticing
words conveyed was as clear now as it would ever be.
The sun was nearing the end of its daily route and the light was dissipating, hues of orange
and hazy pink replacing the vibrant blues. The army of trees had closed in and were now
practically reaching over the road. They appeared massive at this distance, creating a
menacing archway that curled overhead, blocking out most of the sky.
“Right over here. Not much further,” said the stranger with a voice barely audible over the
background din. “My community is just off of a trail up ahead. I’ll point you in the right
As the vehicle came to a stop, Laurie could suddenly feel a force pulling at her from
somewhere within the forest. It was subtle, but it felt as though there was a magnet
somewhere in the trees.
A distant light appeared, pure of colour, radiating a whiteness that penetrated through the
impending darkness with sharp illuminating force. A distinct coldness instantly overtook
her as the sun went down.
As the stranger left the jeep, her features looked pallid and free of nearly all colour. The orb
that she wore on her neck, however, was shining brightly, catching the myriad rays of light
coming out of the forest and creating a little spectacle of its own on her chest. Laurie lost
herself looking into it until the stranger pointed towards the light. She didn’t speak, but her
instructions were abundantly clear.
“This is the place,” Laurie found herself saying, half questioning her words.
“Sure. We’re getting close now.” The stranger’s voice lowered in pitch in stages as they
approached the site. The hooded lady was frozen with her finger pointing eagerly into the
radiance, offering only a nod — she intended to follow while Laurie led the way.
Night had indeed come but the sky was blanketed even further by the brightness of the light
that made all other directions appear utterly empty of space. She was beginning to see her
breath despite being on the verge of sweating. The further she walked into the forest,
following the well-trodden path, the more lethargic she began to feel, as though layers of
her humanity were being peeled away. Doubt was no longer a concept that she could make
sense of, although a seed of it remained buried within.
A thousand large subwoofers peaking in volume were blaring unabated from what seemed
like all directions. Their waves could be felt in the ground and in the chest, but to Laurie it
had all the grace of a masterfully played harp. On either side in the distance she could see
what looked like people gliding slowly through the forest.
They were faint in colour, but Laurie could see parts of them as though they were reflected
off of glass. From the glimpses she could make out, they wore drab, oversized clothing,
much like her passenger, but the distinct facial details were elusive.
They moved incongruously as some headed away into the unseeable distance, others
towards the light or any other direction in between. She tried to call out to them but her
presence remained ignored or unnoticed.
The stranger trailed behind Laurie, a long finger directing her into the glaring light, but she
still couldn’t figure out the source of it. Laurie edged forward, checking over her shoulder
for reassurance. The stranger’s skin looked almost translucent now, her form still human
but starting to break apart into smaller matter. Laurie’s thoughts were reduced to simple
function. She could hear her own voice calling out, “Too bright.”
“You’re unaccustomed to clarity, that’s all Laurie,” the voice prodded, no longer coming from
the mouth of the stranger but broadcast directly into her own head. It still had the same
musical quality as it did before, even more so, but now it sounded like many different voices
all at once. Some were alien, but some of them she could recognize.
“Your mother–” it said, landing on something that resembled her mother’s voice, or at least,
it felt like it did, her actual voice was long since a mystery, “-is with us, yes.” The voices were
a whirlwind of man, woman, and child. The timbre changed as Laurie tried to focus on it.
“Embrace groundlessness, Laurie,” they suggested.
Yes, to bathe in the light and leave the darkness behind….
What was only a glare before was now in plain sight. There was a small log cabin perched
on a rise ahead. The door was closed, but the light that shone from the cracks pierced into
the night sky and created the entire spectacular display. This was the eye of the needle
between the old world and the new. Like a moth to the flame, she was urging her legs to
take the last steps, but they were glued to the rumbling ground beneath her.
As Laurie stood transfixed on the door, frames of images appeared in her mind’s eye. Like a
cigarette burn on an old film reel, the changes were barely legible. Suggestions of cables of
white glowing light that all seemed to congregate within the cabin, passing straight through
the wooden door as if it were empty space.
She looked back for reassurance once again and could see one of the cables coming straight
out of the back of the stranger’s head, who was now standing motionless watching Laurie,
her spearlike finger directing her ever-forward. A slimy purple fluid of some kind was
leaking out from the back of her head, down the cable, and down her chin as she mouthed
The sight of the strange, sap-like liquid broke the incantation long enough for her seed of
doubt to grow into full-on resistance. She felt herself drifting towards the vista inside the
cabin, forcing one foot forward with all her might, the other refusing. With the five senses
beginning to fail, a sixth sense —survival — was taking hold, one belonging more to the
animal within her than to the civilized human.
“You stand on the edge and yet still you resist. Foolish morsel wishes to remain in chains?”
hissed the voices. “Coward!” The softness had gone, replaced with spite.
She could feel a battle within herself and thought then and there that she would be torn in
half. Her disobedient leg slumped forward, and the cabin door slowly creaked its way open
to welcome her. The glowing cords lining the ground flashed into vision again and she could
see that the wanderers of the forest were restrained by the same garments. The hypocrisy
of it all was tangible. The stranger had spoken of freedom, but what held their leash?
The answer to her question came as quickly as she asked it. Voices spoke to her, the words
barely audible, battling to be heard over the roar of noise around her, like standing inside of
a jet engine.
“To resist change is to suffer,” they insisted. The door was halfway open and the rays
emanating from it were almost unbearably bright now, but she couldn’t peel her eyes away,
even if it meant total blindness.
A silhouette of a grotesque-looking hand stretched its fingers out from behind the log door
with serpent-like movement, wrapping around the edge, pushing it open sluggishly. She
counted six or maybe seven slithery, demented fingers with sharpened claws crowning the
tip of each one.
One step forward. Only a few more to go now.
In a desperate attempt to relay the unimaginable dangers that this light truly represented,
the subconscious mind, more fit to dealing with such phenomena than the conscious ever
could, was working overtime.
It was the most basic symbolism that could be employed, and it acted independent of
Laurie’s will. Her mind was full of a thought, a feeling, something indistinctive but existing
in the very marrow of her bones. The predatory claw, the easiest thing she could register on
this level — a threat.
Whatever this was, its true form was hidden behind the veil.
All at once before the plunge, Laurie felt an unmeasurable sense of dread. She screamed so
loud, the sides of her throat burned, all lost to the void. The giant hand reached out to
caress her, but Laurie knew the last step would have to be her own — there was no other
The breezy voices swirled around inside her skull, the sheer nature of them and of the light
becoming apparent. This wasn’t the rich, life-giving warmth of the light of the sun. This was
cold as ice and empty of any love, unforgiving and unrelenting. Like space itself.
Laurie lost control of her feet, they wanted to take the leap into oblivion as if they had a
mind entirely of their own. She closed her eyes and began to scream again until her
windpipe felt like it was going to burst wide open and out from her chest.
She screamed and screamed until she could finally hear herself. When the sound returned,
she opened her eyes. Her screaming stopped and was replaced with the sound of an alarm
She was sweating and panting, her sheets and pillow damp, but she was back in bed. After a
moment of lightheadedness, she reached over to silence the alarm. The stillness of the room
brought welcome relief.
The dawn light was breaking and the glare caught her eye while making its way through the
edge of the curtains that were never quite long enough to cover the length of the window.
The room was nearly empty, and Laurie’s belongings —two luggage bags and one green
backpack — were prepared at the foot of the bed.