I reclined in my chair, enjoying the hot sun on my face. The waves before me crashed with rhythmic purpose and I felt myself growing sleepy. Seagulls cawed overhead. The air smelled of salt and sun tan lotion. Things were good.
I sat up, rubbing my eyes in the afternoon heat, and dug my toes into the sand. I watched as a father helped his little boy build a sand castle. I smiled. What a good dad. I took my sunglasses off my head and slid them onto my face, standing and stretching. I loved the beach. It was impossible to be worried about anything here.
I had come here for the weekend, my little ocean front cottage standing timidly behind me. I had purchased it a year ago, my recent business ventures allowing me some of life’s finer luxuries. If only I had someone to share it with. Perhaps later in the evening I’d chance a trip to the local bars and see if I could round up some company. Not that a minded the isolation. After all, it was hard to feel lonely when surrounded by such beauty.
I rubbed the back of my neck. My fingers came away coated in sweat. It was time for a dip. I tossed my sunglasses onto my beach chair and slowly walked towards the water’s edge. Frothing residue lapped at my feet, followed by the dying reach of a small wave. I sighed. It felt amazing.
Smiling, I charged the rolling mass of sparkling ocean. As the water splashed around my waist, I took a deep breath and dove under. I came up gasping, wiping my eyes, skin glistening in the sunlight. I waved to a group of girls who were body surfing to my left and dove under again. Let them watch.
The green water peaked and sloshed around me as I swam further out, enjoying the exercise. I felt the sleepiness drain from my body as my muscles heated. I flipped over on my back and continued to stroke out to sea, closing my eyes against the brilliance of the burning sun.
Eventually, I slowed my backstroke and floated on the surface, letting the tide rock me in its arms. My ears filled and emptied with water and I listened to both worlds, the one above and the one below. The ocean had always filled me with a sense of wonderment. We were one, but separate, two sides of the same coin.
After some time, I lifted my head from the water and shook clinging diamonds out of my hair. I blinked against the salt stinging my eyes and realized that I was a lot further out than I thought. The shore was a deceptive stretch of cool brown sand that remained an uncomfortable distance away.
I realized I couldn’t touch the bottom. I dove under, trying to gauge how deep the water was, and when I surfaced I felt my heart begin to race.
I was entirely too far out.
I forced myself to remain calm and started to swim towards shore. There weren’t many people in the water and I didn’t think anyone could even see me out here. I focused on my strokes, keeping my head down and my arms moving. I could feel my muscles begin to burn and I chanced a look towards shore.
It appeared as if I hadn’t moved at all.
Swallowing hard, I dove underwater and began to pull myself through the swirling green. I kicked my legs out and jetted myself towards land as effectively as I could muster. When my lungs began to ache, I reached for the surface and came up sputtering.
Again, it appeared as if I hadn’t swam at all.
And that’s when I felt the pull around my legs.
I was in a riptide, a nasty one.
My body felt drained and the beach looked impossibly far away still. A nest of worms wriggled in my stomach and my breathing became frantic. I tried to fight off the panic, but it was like trying to stop an avalanche. I frantically tried to recall what I was supposed to do in a situation like this. I didn’t want to scream for help for fear of tiring myself out to the point of exhaustion. Weren’t you suppose to swim parallel to the shore or something?
Taking a deep breath, I dove to my left. With each stroke I felt my body get heavier. Soon my arms felt like slabs of stone and my legs like cement anchors.
And then I went under.
Terror worked against me, filling my limbs with fire. I tried to pull myself to the surface, but only managed a mouthful of salty ocean. I gagged and spun underwater, my lungs pounding against my chest, my heartbeat a desperate cry in my ears.
I managed to find the surface again, but it drained what little adrenaline I still had. I sucked down one gasp of air before I went under. My limbs were useless, completely spent. Soon my head began to ache from a lack of oxygen and I snapped my eyes open in horror, searching for the surface. A dark green haze filled my vision, terribly claustrophobic. It pressed in around me as I felt the riptide pull me back into its merciless jaws.
Darkness began to fill my vision. My chest howled for air, but the water held me with wet chains.
I felt myself begin to fade, pulled apart in agony.
My body sank deeper and deeper and my hazy eyes searched hopelessly for a savior.
Just as the black rushed in on me, I noticed something beneath me.
It was a mass of sparking color, like a cloud filled with neon electricity. It stretched out below me like a storm, flashing and winking, like it was the broken remains of some natural phenomenon.
Right as my feet were about to enter the mass, I passed out.
Something cold on my face. Moving darkness. A voice. I focused on the voice, pulling my subconscious towards it with all my willpower. The black began to fade. Light. Color. The world swam in an explosion of blurry motion and then I blinked.
I sat up gasping, eyes popping open. Sweat poured from my face and I scrubbed it from my eyes. Where was I? What had happened? I looked around and saw I was in some kind of hut.
“Hey, take it easy, it’s ok.”
I spun around towards the voice behind me.
My heart clawed up my throat and I stumbled off the cot I had been resting on, horror ripping across my mind.
A naked man sat before me. But he was…mutated. The skin beneath his eyes drooped down his cheeks, exposing angry red muscle that oozed with clear slime. His nose hung from his face, dangling like the trunk of an elephant. He was bald and the top of his head was slit open. I watched in terrified disgust as a second tongue extended from the opening and licked moisture across his scalp. Drool dripped down around his ears in thick trails.
“What the FUCK!? W-what is going on? Where am I!?” I screamed, backing myself into a corner, wood and straw poking at me from the wall.
The man stood up, his nose swaying like a piece of melted taffy, “It’s alright! It’s ok! You’re safe! You made it! You’re here!”
I stared up at him with wide eyes, “What are you? Where am I?”
The man put aside a wet cloth he had been using to wipe my face. He held up his hands and approached me, squatting before me, a smile on his lips.
“I am Luvol. I was the one that found you on the beach. I am so happy you are here. We’ve been praying for this moment for…” His eyes rolled in wonderment, “Oh, we’ve prayed for so long.”
I held up my hands, stopping him, grimacing as the second tongue slurped across his head. The drool leaked down into his face and dripped slowly across his exposed muscle beneath his eyes.
“You need to tell me what’s going on,” I said, trying to collect myself. “The last thing I remember was drowning. I got caught in a riptide. And…and something weird in the water.”
The man, Luvol, smiled, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through right now. But the important thing is that you’re here. You’ve passed through the Red Cloud. You’ve done what none have done before. It’s not much, a mere pinprick in its mass, but you can show us how to do it. You can show us how to get through.”
I was shaking my head slowly, mouth open, “Stop, stop, stop…please, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about this. I was just taking a swim in the ocean and got pulled under by a riptide.” My mind was spinning with confusion. What the hell was this…person…talking about? The Red Cloud? Tearing a hole through it? I wasn’t following and the constant twist of unease in my gut wasn’t helping.
Luvol nodded understandingly, “It’s only natural you’re a little scrambled. I can’t fathom what the Red Cloud did to you as you passed. The suffering you must have endured. It really is a testament to who you are. What you’ve come here to do.”
I licked my lips, head aching as I tried to comprehend what was going on, “Who I am?”
To my horror, Luvol reached out and stroked my face, “Why, you’re an angel come to save us. You’re here to show us the way to heaven. You’ve broken the barrier, passed through the Red Cloud, and now you will lead us back with you!”
I blinked, confusion blasting through my mind like a cannon ball. I tried to sort my thoughts, tried to piece together what had happened to me. Everything felt wrong. Everything felt different. My head ached and I clutched my temples, trying to focus. I had been swimming. Then the riptide. Sinking…sinking down into that darkness…sinking down into that strange cloud of light. Had that been real? Or had that been something I imagined, my dying mind conjuring up some strange hallucination?
Suddenly, Luvol reached out a hand, “Come. The others will want to meet you. You’re going to be their savior, after all.”
I let him pull me to my feet. I couldn’t make sense of any of this. What was happening to me?
Awareness settled in around me as I stood and I realized we were in a windowless hut made of straw and wood. The sand beneath my feet rose to swallow my ankles and I deducted we must still be on the beach. But what beach? And who was this disgusting man before me? Who were the others? What did they expect of me?
“I can see you’re having a hard time remembering,” Luvol said, “Come. Let us go outside. Maybe once you see, it will help rattle your memory.”
Bewildered and uneasy, I let him lead me through the door. Sunlight erupted across my vision and I winced, shading my eyes with my hand. I squinted, letting the world settle.
I froze. Luvol stopped before me and turned, his second tongue rolling across his bald head. He smiled.
“Behold your flock,” He said spreading his arms.
I was standing on a sand dune above a beach filled with people who looked just like Luvol. They were all looking at me with awe in their eyes, a thousand naked bodies all with drooping noses and slits in their heads. Tongues rolled in and out of their skulls, creating a constant squirting sound that echoed across the expanse of sand.
Slowly, they all got down on their knees and bowed their heads in silence.
“What the hell is going on…” I muttered in shock, eyes growing wide, heart thundering in my chest.
And that’s when I saw something in the sky, past the congregation, hanging over the ocean.
It was a long black chain that extended from the heavens. It hung over the water, two or three hundred feet from shore.
At the end of the chain was the motionless, charred body of a man. But he was huge, at least nine or ten feet tall. The chain was wrapped around his neck and his dark crusted head rested on his shoulders in complete stillness. My eyes traced the chain up the length of the sky and it disappeared through the clouds.
“Where am I?” I whispered, my stomach squirming as new fear surged in my gut.
Luvol stepped towards me, “You’re here. With us. Don’t you remember? We’ve prayed for you to come, begged God to send an angel to lead us to him. And now you have. You’ve emerged from the Red Cloud, broken through its dark walls, and come to lead us to heaven.”
“No…” I whispered, “No, that’s not true…I don’t know anything about this place. I’m not an angel…I’m…I’m just a person.”
Luvol pointed at my face, “You’re wrong. Don’t you know how beautiful you look? Your skin…your eyes…your hair…” He placed his hand over his naked chest, “When I found you on the beach, I almost fainted. You’re the most beautiful angel we could have dreamed for. You’re…perfect.”
I swallowed hard, backing up, “Stop talking like that. I’m not an angel! I’m just a normal fucking person!”
Luvol frowned, “Please…don’t speak like that. You’ve just been affected by the Red Cloud. It will fade. You will remember who you are.”
I pointed towards the massive, charred man in the sky, “If I’m an angel…then…then who is that?”
Luvol turned and I could see him visibly tense, “That’s The Hanged Man. He’s what you’ve come to deliver us from.”
I shook my head, “What is he?”
“He watches over the Red Cloud beneath the water. He is our warden. Our oppressor. He is the gatekeeper. If anyone tries to break through, he will stop them.”
Luvol looked at me and his sagging eyes grew dark, “He is the Shadow of God. The darkness that grew behind the light of the Lord. He is evil incarnate.”
I could feel my breath begin to sputter in my throat. This was all too much. I couldn’t digest it, couldn’t wrap my mind around this bizarre ataxia. I just wanted to get out of here, get away from this nightmare and back to my beach house. The strange mass of people kneeling before me, the Red Cloud, The Hanged Man…I could feel madness approaching, all constructs of reason and understanding crumbling before me.
“Please,” I croaked, “please, I just want to go home. I don’t belong here. This isn’t right. Please…”
I suddenly saw a hardness enter Luvol’s eyes, “You need to stop talking like that. You came here to save us. You came here to lead us through the Red Cloud to heaven. You’re going to take us back with you. We’ve waited and prayed for this day for an eternity. You can’t turn your back on us. You’re the only one who’s managed to make it through, to make it past The Hanged Man. You have to show us the way!”
“No,” I cried, suddenly overcome with a wave of dizziness, “No, I’m not the one you’ve been praying for…please…” I put my hand to my head, the heat from the sun splitting my mind in two. I blinked and began to see patches of darkness.
I stumbled backwards, blinking sluggishly, “I’m not your angel…”
I blacked out.
I awoke in a rush of heat. My face felt damp and my mind swirled between worlds. My eyes snapped open and I immediately sat up. Sweat dripped off my nose and my throat was dry and parched. I pulled a hand across my eyes and blinked.
Luvol was sitting beside me, his long nose hanging from his face like an infected skin tag, his second tongue slowly coating his scalp with saliva. As I raised my eyes, I saw there were others in the hut. They stood by the door, watching me, their eyes oozing clear slime that dripped down their drooping cheeks.
“Hot today, isn’t it?” Luvol said from his place by my cot. “Are you feeling ok? You fainted on us.”
I shifted on my bedding and warily eyed my guests by the door. They seemed to be in awe. My stomach turned as I watched drool leak down their skin across their naked bodies. The tongues squirming from their heads looked like bloated worms and I tasted bile on my tongue.
“They want to hear you speak,” Luvol said quietly, placing a hand on my thigh. “They want to know what to do.”
I jerked away from his touch and shook my head, “I told you I’m not an angel. I don’t know what this place is or how I got here. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.” As I spoke, Luvol’s eyes grew hard. He reached out and grasped my thigh again, his grip now firm and commanding.
He spoke with cold authority, “It’s time you fulfilled your duty. We don’t want to hear any more excuses. Show us how to get past The Hanged Man. Show us how to get to heaven.” He stood and motioned for me to do the same, “Come, let’s go outside.”
I rose with him, not sure what else to do. We walked towards the door and the others stepped aside to let us pass, bowing their heads slightly. No matter what I said, it seemed they were stuck on the idea that I was some kind of angel.
We went outside and I stopped dead in my tracks.
The congregation was lying down on the beach, hands at their sides, like rows and rows of forgotten corpses. When they saw me emerge from the hut, they stirred to life, crawling to their knees where they remained, hands on their naked thighs. They were waiting. Behind them, over the water, The Hanged Man remained motionless, his body static at the end of the long chain.
“Come, you must speak to them,” Luvol said at my side, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“No,” I whispered, feeling uneasy, “No, you don’t understand. I can’t help you people.”
Luvol’s grip turned to iron, pushing me forward towards the dunes, “Come. It’s time you showed us the way.”
I stumbled forward, my bare feet burning in the sand. The sun blazed down from a cloudless sky and I saw thousands of eyes follow me as I walked along the dunes, hopeful, desperate eyes. I watched them below me, the beach alive with movement as their tongues slithered across their bald heads, cooling them from the sun’s burning light. I looked past them, towards The Hanged Man, squinting to catch any sign of movement. He remained immobile, his huge, charred body dangling helplessly from the chain. His eyes remained shut and his chest, still. As far as I could tell…he was dead.
Maybe there was something to that? Maybe that was the answer to my problem? These people…how long had it been since they attempted to pass through this…this Red Cloud? How long had it been since this Hanged Man had last stirred?
I continued to be led across the dunes, sweat pouring from my face. I felt like I was suffocating, my throat a dry strip of sandpaper. It was impossibly hot. I could feel my skin cooking beneath the intense light and I ran my tongue along my cracked lips. What did Luvol expect me to say to these people?
As the burning sand danced between my toes, I was struck with a thought.
When am I going to wake up?
I almost laughed, but the sudden humor died in my dehydrated mouth.
I looked behind me at Luvol and the little party following us. They looked excited. They looked hopeful. It made me sick. I had no plan, no idea what was happening to me. I had grown an army of followers who thought I was some kind of savior. I was trapped in a nightmare and I didn’t see any way out. One moment I had been drowning, and the next I was standing before a congregation who expected some kind of sermon from me. They expected me to reveal the path to salvation. What could I say that would make them understand? What could I do to show them I wasn’t an angel?
“This is good,” Luvol said suddenly, squeezing my shoulder.
We were standing at the peak of a large dune, a platform to spread my voice to the waiting subjects below. I felt my stomach shudder as I looked out on the thousands of people on their knees looking up at me. And the ever present Hanged Man, dead and silent over the ocean.
I shot a look over my shoulder at Luvol, swallowing hard, “What do you want me to say?” I gasped.
Luvol spread his hands, “Anything you want. Tell us how you got here. Tell us how to follow you back to heaven. Tell us how to get by The Hanged Man.”
My back was slick with sweat and I wiped a coat of it off my forehead, turning back to the audience below me. My heart was thundering in my chest and my breath blew sour across my tongue. What should I say? How would I get them to understand? Questions rolled across my mind to the point of madness. I fumbled for words to say, but they died on my tongue. I could feel myself growing scared and then frustrated. What the hell did they want from me!?
Fuck it. Fuck this insanity.
I cleared my throat.
“I’m…I’m not your angel!” I yelled, my voice carrying down to them. “I don’t know how I got here, but I can assure you it wasn’t because of your prayers!”
I heard Luvol and the others behind me audibly gasp.
“I don’t know where I am or who you freaks are, but I’m not your savior! I got caught in a riptide and sank into a cloudy light in the ocean. I thought I was dead! Maybe I am dead!”
I heard Luvol growl something behind me, but I ignored him, “I don’t know how to save you! I don’t know how to get to heaven! I’m not the one you’ve been waiting for!” I pointed across the ocean, “And that thing? Your all mighty Hanged Man? He looks dead! And here you are, cowering on the beach, trembling in fear. You want to make something of yourselves? You want to transcend to a better life?! Well stop being such fucking cowards and DO IT!” I was shaking, my fists clenched by my sides, sweat dripping from the tip of my nose. I was angry, a sudden surge brought on by the sand and heat, the continuous insistence that I was some angel sent here to deliver them.
Luvol reached out to grab me, but I shook him off, pointing towards the water, “Stop waiting for a miracle and fucking do it yourself! I’M NOT YOUR GODDAMN ANGEL!”
I was suddenly pulled down by strong hands and I fell to the ground. Sand was kicked into my face as a chorus of angry voices loomed over me. My arms were pinned to the ground and I lashed out, furious and scared, losing myself in the waking nightmare.
A foot plowed into my stomach and my will to fight left me along with most of my breath. I lay gasping, blinking against the sun.
A shadow fell over my face and Luvol stared down at me with fire in his eyes, “What have you done?” He snarled.
“I can’t help you fucking freaks,” I spat, wriggling against my captors. It didn’t do much good.
Luvol shook his head at me and then stared into the eyes of the others. They nodded to him, a silent conversation passing through the air above me.
“Get off of me!” I growled. “Let me go!”
Luvol leaned down and placed his lips to my ear, “If you won’t help us…then we’ll find another use for you.”
I stopped struggling and turned to look into his eyes, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Luvol licked his lips, “If you won’t show us mercy…perhaps The Hanged Man will. Perhaps an offering will change his mind. Perhaps an angel is the price we must pay to cross to the other side.”
“Let go of me!” I roared, chest heaving, “You’re all insane! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Luvol raised a hand to the others, “Get the boat. It’s time we float to eternity, my brothers!”
A cry of joy went up, followed by an even louder exclamation from below us on the beach. I cocked my head in the sand and saw the mass of people standing, smiles on their faces. They pumped their fists into the air and began to chant. My blood went cold as I listened.
“Sacrifice! Sacrifice! Sacrifice!”
Before I could speak, I was roughly hauled to my feet, hands slapping and gripping me. I was pushed down the dune, a hard shove in the middle of my back. I went sprawling, hitting the slope face first. I coughed and spat as millions of burning shards scraped across my cheeks as I tumbled, rolling over myself to slide to a stop on the beach.
Immediately, the mass was on me. A hand tangled in my hair and pulled me to my feet while others grabbed me and began to drag me to the water’s edge. I screamed and fought, panic rising in my throat like a burning volcano. I looked over my shoulder and saw Luvol striding towards me down the dune, a sick smile on his face. I was filled with terror at how quickly they had turned on me.
The more I struggled, the rougher the crowd became. Fists pummeled my body, nails raked across my skin, blood and slime spattering my face. I coughed and wheezed, blinking through it all, my vision filling with a thousand wriggling, moving bodies. Flesh pressed against me and my ears filled with the roar of a growing riot. My feet tripped and stumbled against the onslaught and finally I fell.
I felt a rope slide around my neck.
Pain ignited around my throat, a circle of sudden fire as they began to drag me towards the ocean. Blinking through blood, I trained my eyes ahead of me towards the sky and my heart stopped in my chest.
The Hanged Man’s eyes were wide open.
And he was looking right at me.
Fear coursed through me with the force of a raging hurricane and I began to scream in absolute horror.
The Hanged Man’s eyes were huge and swollen, his iris’s two red orbs in a pool of blinding snow. Color shot from his sockets like search lights, twin red funnels that filled my vision and summoned my darkest nightmares.
I tried to scream, but my cries were severed by a jerk on the rope. The earth beneath me thundered with the stampede of feet and a hurried rush to the water’s edge. I retched and felt my eyes bulge, my mind dimming from lack of oxygen.
Mercifully, the rope was removed and I was dragged to my feet. My world swam as I tried to focus on the bouncing, swirling ocean of people before me. Their long noses swayed on their faces like pendulums and their second tongues coated their scalps excitedly.
I heard a great cry rise to my left and I weakly turned my head.
They were pushing a small craft into the water, a flat construction of wood with a single mast that unfolded to reveal a great sail.
My arms were pulled behind my back and I felt my hands bound. I grit my teeth as rope cut into my wrists and I was yanked towards the boat. I coughed and fought to stay upright, my feet splashing into the ocean.
Luvol was climbing onto the craft along with three others. He reached down and pulled me up, then tossing me aside like a sack of dead meat.
He turned to the mass of people on the beach, raising his voice, “Pray for us! Pray for mercy! Pray for salvation!”
A roar went up at our backs as we were pushed out to sea. Water splashed over the crudely constructed frame and I gagged as sea salt rushed up my nose. I was pulled into a sitting position and shoved against the mast. My bangs dripped into my eyes as I looked out into the sky.
The Hanged Man had raised his head from his shoulders and was watching us approach. The red light that shot from his eyes blinded me and I turned away, spots dancing across my vision.
Horror and fear filled me and my battered, shaken body offered no comfort.
“It didn’t have to be like this,” Luvol said behind me as he dug an oar into the ocean. The other three followed his example, their dripping faces watching me.
“Fuck you,” I spat, “You’ve all lost your minds.”
The water sloshed across the wooden planks as we continued to draw closer and closer to The Hanged Man, his massive body dangling from its heavenly chain like bait on a hook. He was waiting for us, hovering above the surface of the sea, his eyes never leaving us.
As we approached, Luvol raised his hand to the others and they stopped rowing. The craft slowed and I chanced a glance up, feeling a dark stirring in the back of my mind, like something was poking around from inside my head.
The Hanged Man loomed before us, suspended a dozen feet above the calm waters. The craft was consumed in red light. I felt fear and terror boil in my brain as I fought to control a sudden surge of haunting images that flashed before me like morbid photographs.
Luvol got down on his knees, followed by the others.
His voice shook as he spoke, “Please…we come in peace. Spare us a moment and listen to what I have to say.”
The Hanged Man remained a statue of dark fear.
Luvol continued, visibly shaken, “In exchange for passage into heaven, we offer you this angel who has come to us promising salvation.”
I whipped my head to stare at him.
Luvol shot me a look and pressed on, “He has offered to rid us of your presence. But we knew there would be no passage unless you deemed us worthy. So instead of following this angel in a revolution against you, we offer him up to you as a token of good will. As a token of respect. As a right of passage. Please…take him as payment and let us pass through the Red Cloud into heaven.”
He bowed his head and spread his arms, waiting.
“You fucking liar,” I snarled.
“Silence!” Luvol hissed.
The air filled with mounting tension as the seconds ticked by. The sound of the water sloshing around the boat seemed to consume me. I shut my eyes and focused on it, shaking, trembling, feeling the red light wash over my skin.
Suddenly, I heard a collective gasp and I snapped my eyes open.
There, in the water below us, was a massive, voluminous cloud of sparking red light. It extended out into the ocean like a titanic patch of fog, a swirling dance of color that churned beneath the surface.
Luvol stood, eyes wide, “He…he is allowing us passage!”
The others stood staring at one another, mouths open in complete shock.
Immediately they sank back to their knees, heads bowed and began to sputter thanks and praise to The Hanged Man. They prostrated themselves on the boat, gushing with wonderment and promise.
Suddenly, Luvol grabbed me and pulled me to my feet.
“I hope you rot in hell,” I growled as he pulled me over to the mast.
“Quite the contrary,” He said, yanking on me. He motioned for the others to help him and I suddenly felt the familiar coil of rope around my throat. I coughed and struggled, but was silenced with an oar to the stomach. I vomited, the bile spilling out over the deck.
I craned my head to look behind me and saw they had thrown the rope over the mast.
They were going to hang me.
I stared up at The Hanged Man, his huge, terrifying eyes boring into my skull. His charred skin absorbed the sunlight around him as I fought helplessly against the rope tying my hands.
This was it.
This was the end.
Luvol was suddenly behind me.
He whispered softly into my ear, “I will tell God of your cowardice when I see him.”
I hardened, feeling a sudden rage burn within me. I turned my head, my voice hard steel, “No you fucking won’t.”
I slammed the back of my head into his face as hard as I could. I was rewarded with a ear-splitting scream as he bent down and clutched his bleeding mouth.
I stepped backwards and grabbed his dangling nose with my bound hands and ripped it from his face, screaming in defiance.
The tube of flesh tore from his head like strings of melted cheese and blood exploded from the gore it left behind. Luvol sank to his knees, howling as blood poured from the hole in his face. The others on the boat froze, surprised and revolted by what I had just done, the rope going limp on the deck.
I charged the side of the boat and threw myself towards the water.
As I flew threw the air, seconds before I splashed into the ocean, I watched in horror as The Hanging Man dropped from the sky like an anchor releasing.
I hit the water and immediately went under, my vision obscured by the murky depths. I wriggled like a dolphin, trying to free my hands, but it was hopeless. I trained my burning eyes to the Red Cloud beneath me. Frantically, I wriggled towards it, feeling my lungs hammer into my chest.
Suddenly, the water illuminated with red light.
I whipped my head to my left, bubbles exploding from my mouth, and my eyes widened in terror.
The Hanged Man was rocketing towards me through the water, his eyes filling the depths with their haunting crimson color. The chain slithered behind him, a twisting coil like a coal black snake. His hands reached out towards me, his fingers nothing more than slivers of nightmare darkness.
The sight filled me with crippling fear and I used it to jet myself forward, down deeper towards the cloud of fazing red.
My ears suddenly filled with a muffled, haunting ROAR of fury and I felt my mind quiver and splinter. I blinked, fighting off the sensation, reaching to the depths towards my salvation.
I had almost reached the cloud!
I kicked towards it will all the might I could muster, screaming, leaving a trail of howling bubbles behind me.
Suddenly, I was jerked backwards and I felt pain shoot through my leg. I turned around and saw The Hanged Man grasping my leg, pulling his body up mine to stare into my face.
My world swam and shook with the darkest, deadliest hell and I felt all resistance drain from my body as his eyes consumed my soul. My mouth dropped open in a silent scream as red began to fill my head and uproot every fear I had ever had.
I felt madness begin to rip my mind in two.
Suddenly, through the agony, I heard another sound.
I heard splashing, a muted rush of churning water.
The Hanged Man turned to look towards the surface. I followed his gaze, mind fading, darkness approaching…
Luvol and the others had dove into the ocean and were frantically swimming towards the Red Cloud.
The Hanged Man roared and looked back at me, then back at the the four.
Snarling, he released me and my mind shimmered and then refocused, the red leaving my fractured brain in a rush of heat.
Still bound, I watched as The Hanged Man raced to stop the others from entering the Red Cloud.
I watched as he tore them apart.
I watched the water fill with red.
As the last bit of consciousness left me, I watched as the red faded to black and I floated down into the depths.
As I floated down into the Red Cloud.
I don’t really remember what happened after that. I don’t remember the in-between. Not even darkness. There was just…nothing.
The next thing I remember was getting CPR on the beach.
It was the father who had been building a sand castle with his son. The good dad.
I sputtered back to life, screaming and vomiting up gouts of salt water. I lay there on the beach, weeping as an ambulance was called. I was rushed off to the hospital and cared for, questioned, and given some much needed rest.
I’ve never recovered fully from that experience. I’m still not entirely sure what happened or where I went. I don’t know if what I went through was even real. It’s been over a year now since that incident and I’ve come no closer to discovering the answers.
Was the Red Cloud real?
Were those people, those creatures, real?
Or did I experience some fearful hallucination between the reality of the living and the dead?
As time passes, I want to discard the horrors I went through as something my mind conjured to stay alive. I want to believe that the nightmare world I went to was just some horrific dream I used to fight off death.
But I can’t.
No matter how much I want to deny that terrible place beneath the riptide…I just can’t.
Because you see…after I was rushed to the hospital, the father who resuscitated me came to visit.
And he told me something.
He told me that when he found me, my hands were tied.