The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is Shanel Wilson!
You may recognize the name. Shanel is also the sole finalist I awarded from the October Contest, and this time she grabbed the brass ring and is the winner.
December Contest: I’ll be announcing the December contest soon! (Probably next Monday.)
I started the story below. See how Shanel seamlessly picked up the story after the red line and gave us a sweet and satisfying ending!
A Forest of Blue Eyes
by Shanel Wilson and Matthew Cross
Shim picked his way down the narrow, rocky track. This planet was covered with rocks. Rocks and nothing else, it seemed. At least until today, when he found the canyon.
He leaned against the red, crumbly cliff wall and spat hard. He tried to, anyway. He was dehydrated and what came out was a thick, red glob. He dizzily watched it fall to the green treetops far below. His mouth was full of red dust. In the first few days, the red spit used to alarm the settlers. It looked so much like blood. It only fed the rumors that God had cursed them.
Shim pulled off his wide-brimmed hat and wiped his sweating brow. He was hot and tired. He was also hungry and thirsty. Very thirsty! He probably should not have wasted his body’s moisture by spitting, but the red grains just got in the mouth and tumbled around and around. Da said they contained silica. After a few hours of breathing outside, it felt like you were chewing glass. Even the three-ply scarves Ma made couldn’t keep it all out.
But Shim knew water was close. Really just a step away. The ledge was not wide, and if he stepped off the edge–one step and a long trip down–he’d find himself among the lush green trees. And where there were green plants, there was water.
Shim chuckled wryly. “It’s just one step away, Shim,” was the kind of joke Da liked to tell.
The track had been worn smooth by many feet over many years. It had to be the natives. Had to be because he had followed one of them this way. It occurred to Shim for the first time that the natives, the ones nearest camp anyways, lived in this well-hidden canyon.
Shim had been the first of the settlers to see one, at least that he knew of. And he’d tell Ma and Da and Mr. Johnson–Shim refused to call Mr. Johnson “Second Da”–as soon as he could find his way back to camp.
Da had gone to check on the Heddrys again. The Heddrys had the closest landing site to Shim’s own clan. Mrs. Heddry had lost two of her three husbands in the landing. That would be hard on the whole clan as they tried to carve out their own homestead. When Da had brought back the news two weeks ago, Shim had seen the pain in Ma’s eyes. All she said was “We knew the Lord would demand sacrifices. Mrs. Heddry has the faith so the Lord will provide for her.”
We don’t have time to do a search party for ya. So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.
With Da gone, Johnson had his hands full with repairs. Ma had set Shim a chore, and Shim was grateful to leave the chaos of the ship and a clan full of young ones. Ma set him to look for food, water or wood. Anything of use really in this unending waste. “But keep within sight of camp plus five minutes,” Ma had said. “If ya don’t see nuthin’ in five minutes, you turn right around and walk until you can see camp again. Then walk five minutes in another direction. Got it?”
He had nodded.
She placed her hand on the back of his head. “Five minutes, ya hear?” She held his gaze with a stern glare and held five fingers in front of his face. Did she think he was daft? He heard her. But he didn’t dare raise his voice. Not to Ma. Not to the family matriarch.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, holding her gaze.
“We don’t have time to do a search party for ya. So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.”
Shuffling down the narrow canyon path, Shim shivered, even as hot as he was. He had managed to get lost anyway. If he ever got back, Ma would take it out of his hide. He was sixteen, but she’d probably bend him over her knee anyway. In front of the little ones even, to make it a lesson for the whole clan.
He had not meant to get lost. He had remembered Ma’s warning of keeping within five minutes of camp. He had wandered nearly an hour in and out of sight of camp. He had followed the rule real good. But then he had seen something.
No, he had seen someone. A girl.
At first, it had just been a suspicion. A whisper on the back of his neck. Each time he passed out of the sight of camp–which was really just the remnants of the ship after Da made the hard landing–he had the sense of someone else. Someone unseen.
At first, he attributed the spooks he felt to the strange landscape–formations of brittle, crumbly, red rock–and his nerves. But then he had heard the sound of a rock skittering across the hard ground and the hairs on his neck and arms rose. He was being followed. He carefully backed his way towards camp, and once the top of the ship came into sight, the feeling faded away.
Now, he cursed himself for not going back to camp and asking Ma or even Johnson for help. But once he had realized that the someone following him was afraid to go near camp, he lost most of his own fear. He wove a winding path, sometimes walking away from camp, and sometimes back towards it, and started noticing signs of his invisible pursuer. Sounds mostly. A skid of skree here or there.
He trekked out towards the flatter land, where there was almost no cover. Then he suddenly backtracked, came back towards camp at a run and passing on the other side of a large boulder that sat alone. She had been hiding behind it, of course, as there was nowhere else to hide, but he caught her off guard. He saw her shadow and then a foot. He began running a large spiral around the rock, but she crept around it, staying just out of sight. Winded and spitting red spit, he stopped. He shrugged. This was pointless. She had nowhere else to go.
“Hey,” he called. He waved his hand, real friendly like. Not threatening in any way.
That’s when she tore off at a run, towards the higher, rockier ground.
Without thinking, he ran after her.
Her eyes were blue! Bright blue! He had never seen blue eyes before.
She was short. Well, just half a head shorter than he. And thin. She wore all brown from head to foot. And some kind of head covering with two small horns. Her hair flew out behind her. It was black and straight. It looked so strange that he did not recognize it as hair at first. She glanced back at him. Her eyes were blue! Bright blue! He had never seen blue eyes before.
He was so shocked, he stopped. And then she disappeared into the jumble of rock formations. He had followed, of course. Climbed the rising ground, passed over a ridge, and, curse him, left sight of camp behind without a second thought.
He just kept thinking of the thin face with blazing blue eyes. And the straight, black hair. His whole family had red, curling hair. Everyone back home on Davven had hair that curled.
Even so, as stupid as he had been, he could have found his way home. He was sure of it. If it had not been for the sandstorm. It came from the flatlands to the east. At first, it was like a cloudy wall of red. Stupidly, he had stopped and stared at it for a while, thinking mostly of the girl and wondering dumbly why the eastern sky looked like a red fog all the way to the ground. He had even kept hiking over the ridges and away from camp until the sound of the wind reached his ears. It made a wailing sound.
Disappointed, he had turned around and headed back. But the sandstorm swept over the ridges with a fury and was on him before he knew it. He sheltered beneath a boulder at the bottom of a small ravine. The wind cut at his skin like razors. He pulled off his jacket and covered his head. He pushed as far under the cover of the boulder as he could.
The storm raged all night. When he woke the next morning, the world had changed. He stumbled about through a red fog of dust. One part of the sky seemed brighter, and he made his way into the bright morning light. It was nothing but a flat desert. And even when the red dust finally drifted away–fading like a fog back on Davven–he found himself entirely on the flats, with no sign of camp, of rock formations, or even of ridges.
He stumbled through the blinding brightness and heat for a day. When the sun set, he curled up and shivered in his jacket through the night. When he woke, he found a set of footprints in the red sand. A shock ran through him. Whoever left them had stopped and practically stood over him while he slept!
He had jumped to his feet. He stood there, swaying, trying to formulate thoughts. He was afraid to follow the footprints. What if it was a trap? He licked his lips and surveyed the horizon. He spun slowly but it still made him dizzy. Nothing but red sand and rock in all directions.
His stomach rumbled. He licked his cracked lips. He needed water badly. That decided it. He followed the footprints the whole morning until he saw the slit of green cracking apart the red desert ahead. If she had not come for him, if she had not left her footprints in the sand for him to follow, he would have died in the desert. He had no doubt. He had been headed in a completely different direction with no end of the desert in sight.
The footprints had to be hers. They were small and dainty. She was walking through the desert barefoot, no less. The prints also looked odd. As the heat of the day quickly rose with the sun, his head felt hot and stuffy. Thoughts came slowly, but eventually it came to him. She only had four toes. Four toes on each foot!
The sun was far overhead when he found the trail down into the green canyon. It was so lush below, but only hot and dry on the cliffside trail. His forehead burned under his hat, but he had stopped sweating. He knew that was a bad sign. His head and his mouth were hot and dry. The trail was long and gradual and took its time leading to the canyon floor. And his legs were beginning to shake. On the narrow path, he could not afford a misstep, so he went slowly.
By the time he reached the bottom, he could hear the sound of running water. Not like a creek. Like a river. The trail branched with paths going in both directions along the base of the cliff face and a wider one diving straight into the thick undergrowth. He stumbled along it, following the sound of the water as much as the path. The path suddenly widened at a riverside and went over a bridge made from a long log cut lengthwise. He threw himself onto the red, sandy soil of the riverbank and drank and drank until he had to stop to breathe.
He leaned back on his heels, water still dripping from his chin, and he saw her. Or he saw her eyes, anyway. She hid in the greenery on the other side of the riverbank. He stood and he heard rustling in the undergrowth behind him; he heard it even over the sound of the river. He looked over his shoulder and saw pairs of blue eyes peering at him. He looked back across the river and saw more. Blue eyes everywhere!
The blue eyes continued to stare while he sat frozen on the riverbank. Shim’s mind began to race just as his shaking legs grew still. He wished Da was there with him. He would know what to do. But Da was not the one who had gotten himself lost. Shim was and now he was surrounded by peculiar natives. He reasoned that they must be friendly, or they could have killed him in his sleep or while he drank. He drew in a slow breath and slowly raised both his hands in a non-threatening way. He glanced around to all the eyes.
“Hello,” he said loudly over the river’s roar.
He heard more rustling, but none of the eyes moved from their hiding spots in the undergrowth.
“Thank you for helping me find water. You saved me.” He waited but again no response.
The gravity of his detour began to set in as it seemed his observers would keep their distance. Shim slowly bent down for one more drink from the river. He had no idea how long it would take for him to find Ma and the others.
It had been two whole days since he left camp. They must be looking for him, even after Ma’s warning, and he better not make them wait any longer than he could help. Then he stopped mid-sip and stared into the rushing water. Maybe they weren’t looking for him. Maybe Ma decided his disappearance was one of the Lord’s sacrifices like Mrs. Heddry’s husbands.
While he was lost in thought, Shim failed to notice the girl with the blue eyes had left her hiding spot and knelt beside him. He leaned back and saw her. Startled, he nearly fell into the river. Her small hand shot out to steady him. He looked into her blue eyes, feeling her cool hand on his arm. His eyes were mesmerized by hers, but he could feel only four fingers, just like the toes in the footprints he followed. He felt his lips curl into a smile. The first since he had landed here in the red rocks.
The girl slid her hand into his and stood. She motioned with her other hand for him to stand and follow her. He peered at the forest across the river. The other eyes had disappeared. He looked over his shoulder toward the path that led him down into the canyon and then down to the delicate hand in his.
“It’s just one step away,” he said, standing, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.
He looked down into her eyes, grin spreading from ear to ear. A shy smile graced her beautiful face. She took a step forward and led him over the log bridge into the dark green forest.
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Shanel and I wrote together. She’s a great collaboration partner!
If you enjoyed Shanels’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.