Warren Gates Warren Gates
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I like the visual of the sapphire sky and the sun!(Not my favorite lighting)

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L.c. Varnum L.c. Varnum
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A Circle of Friends

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She had a friend.

Mike has always been there for Luke, to bail him out when things get bad.

      “You’ve reached Eden Valley Real Estate, this is Mike Dalton.”
       Mike’s stomach tightened at the sound of the voice on the other end of the phone, followed by his jaw clenching.  He sat back in his chair and began scribbling on the yellow memo pad with his pen.
       “Luke, Christ, you’re calling me at work,” Mike said, standing and crossing his office to close the door.
       “I know, man, I know. I…yeah, I know,” Luke said.  
       There was silence for a moment and Mike walked back to his desk.  He sat down and turned in his chair, looking out the window of the first floor office and onto Main Street.  The summer sun had just passed its peak in the sky and the shadows of the buildings on the streets western side were beginning to crawl across the sidewalk.
       “Luke, are you high?” Mike asked, his voice rising at the end in a mix of contempt and disbelief.  It wasn’t that he didn’t expect Luke to be high, but rather that it added to the insult that his friend would call him at work under such influence.
       “No, man, no.  Look, I really need your help, I’m jammed up. Real bad,” Luke said.
       “What is it this time?” Mike said with a sigh.
       “I’m up in Thornlot. I’m at a cabin up here and I really need you to come get me.  Mike, I’m in a bad, bad place,” Luke said.  His voice had begun to tremble and for the first time in his habitual calling, he sounded sincerely scared.
       Again the silence hung between them.  Mike could hear Luke’s shallow breathing and once more the thought crossed his mind that his high school friend was strung out.
       “Fucking-a, Luke.  Where’s this cabin?” Mike said, leaning forward and grabbing a pen from his desk.  
       “One-sixty…ah…one-sixty Valley Road, Thornlot,” Luke said.
       Matt wrote the address down on a memo pad and tore the page off, stuffing it into his shirt pocket.  
       “I’ll be there in an hour or so. You alone?” Mike asked and rose to his feet.
       “Yeah, man, just me,” Luke replied.
       “Alright, I’ll be there as soon as I can. This is the last time, man,” Mike said.
       “I’m sorry, Mike.”
       “Yeah, whatever,” Mike said and hung up the phone.
       He stepped out of his office and into the reception area of Eden Valley Real Estate.  Lyddie was seated at the front desk, scribbling out the crossword puzzle of the Bangor Daily News.  She was in her late fifties; a heavyset woman with shorter, curly dark hair and a grandmotherly demeanor.  She looked up at him over the rims of her glasses and smiled sweetly.
       “Stepping out for lunch?” she asked.
       Mike tongued the top left molar, a habit of his when he was stressed. “Actually, Lyddie, I’m clocking out for the rest of the day.  If anyone needs me, I’ll have my cell with me.”
       “Everything ok, Mike?” Lyddie asked.
       Mike sighed and headed towards the front door. “Yeah, Lyddie, it’ll all be fine.  Just have to go take care of something. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
       Lyddie said goodbye, but Mike’s mind had already moved on.  He stepped out the front door and into the warm summer air.  The sky was clear and sapphire blue, its only occupant the sun.  There was a soft breeze and had it not been for the cloud that Luke’s call had put over his mood, he would have taken a deep breath and enjoyed the weather.  Instead he could only feel frustration churning inside of him.  Walking around the building to the small parking lot that Eden Valley Real Estate shared with Hardcover—the locally owned bookstore—his vision narrowed while his mind flooded with angry thoughts.  It wasn’t until he turned around in the driver’s seat to back his car out that he felt the tightness in his neck from his jaw clenching.  Before pulling out into traffic he forced himself to take a deep breath, shake his head, and mutter a few choice curses.
       The drive took him north out of town, along route 9.  With the town of Dennon behind him, he entered a stretch of low, flat farmland—flat as far as Maine was concerned.  The fields butted up against tree lines, while the open space leant to a stiffer breeze that transformed the grass and leaves into rippling and waving stretches of green.   Eventually the fields grew smaller until trees hugged either side of the road and the only break was the occasional village square.
       Mike’s frustration had not abated, though.  The situation he found himself in felt like the single skip on a record, forgotten until it occurred then instantly remembered.  It hadn’t always been this way, in fact, Mike could trace it all to the death of Luke’s father, Jerry, their senior year in high school.  Everything had changed then.  Jerry had always been close to Luke, much more so than he was with Luke’s brother or sister.  He doted on the boy and while most would spoil beneath the abundance of attention, Luke seemed to sincerely thrive.  Throughout school his grades were good and he pushed himself in sports, all the while sharing a bond with his ‘old man’ that were usually only painted in family television.  
       Then the cancer hit and it hit hard.  Starting in Jerry’s prostate, it spread rapidly and within a few months he went from a tall man with broad shoulders and arms thick with muscle to a gaunt figure with waxen skin and no hair.  Luke’s warm demeanor changed as rapidly as his father’s health and the day of Jerry’s funeral, he had his first encounter with marijuana.  While Mike was not a proponent that marijuana was a ‘gateway drug’, it was the first step in a rapidly descent for his friend.  Mushrooms were soon to follow, then a trip to Portland lead to cocaine.  
       In high school Mike and Luke had been almost inseparable.  In the months following Jerry’s passing, Luke pulled away more and more.  Despite dozens of late night talks and conclusions from Luke that he had to get his life straight, the space between them grew and grew.  The warmth and familiarity waned until their conversations, few and far between, felt hollow and awkward.  Mike had carried on to college while Luke seemed to spend more time off the grid than on it.  Every so often Mike’s phone would ring, as it had today, and Luke would ask for help.  Sometimes it was money, sometimes it was a ride, but either way there was always a favor needed.  There must have been something there, though, something that still made Mike feel loyal and recognize his friend.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, for even Luke’s appearance was so deviated from the healthy, active boy he had known in school. Chillingly it reminded Mike of Jerry: the hollowed cheeks, vacant eyes, and weak smile. 1 comment

As he neared Thornlot, he took out his phone and turned on the GPS, punching in the address he had written down.  Fortunately he could still get signal and the phone drew out his course. He was still ten miles away and the road had begun to wind more and carried him up into the foothills of Paddahook Mountain.  It was unlikely his phone would keep its signal, but the way to the cabin seemed pretty straightforward.  
       Thornlot was a small town in western Maine that had been built around a timber industry.  Originally it had been one of the many towns to use the Kennebec River for log runs, though those times were a distant memory for most.  While the logging business was still good, several investors had also seen to building cabins along Paddahook Mountain and renting them out as scenic getaways for out-of-staters.  Mike’s GPS carried him through downtown Thornlot where he broke off from Route 9 onto Houghton Road and headed up into the mountains.  Downtown Thornlot was little more than an intersection of a dozen stores or so, much like Dennon.  The town had a darker feel to it though, perhaps a side effect to being in Paddahook Mountain’s shadow.  No, it was more than that, he realized.  Nothing seemed as bright, even given the clear day with the sun still perched overhead.  The paint of the buildings seemed dulled and aged and the people in the streets looked robbed of any happiness. It was as though the town had a perpetual gloom to it.
       Houghton Road took him out of town and began a gradual climb upward, taking him around the mountain side.   The woods on either side were occasionally broken by dirt roads with gouged ruts from log-laden trucks pulling in the mud season.  The pavement of Houghton ended and with a small dip, Mike’s car passed onto dirt.  A glance to his phone revealed that, as anticipated, the signal had been lost.  He began to watch for road signs, something pointing him to Valley Road.
       About three miles out of town he saw the turn off, marked by a large wooden sign on the right with red lettering against a pale blue background that read ‘Valley View Cabins’.  The small green sign on the opposite side of the turn off read ‘Valley Road’ in white letters.  He turned and began a steeper ascent.  As his car climbed, he glanced in his rearview mirror and found the road to be aptly named; behind him was an impressive view of Kennebec Valley.  He could see where an out-of-state’r would find such a place relaxing.
       A few hundred yards later he began to see yellow numbers painted vertically on brown posts, marking driveways for the cabins.  They alternated from right to left as the road continued to wind upward and around the mountain: One-hundred, one-oh-five, one-ten, one-fifteen, and so on.  He felt anxiety as he passed one-fifty, realizing his old friend was just ahead.  It had been at least a month and a half since he had heard from Luke.  A lot could happen in that time and Mike found himself wondering what he would look like now.  Would he even recognize him?
       He slowed down as he came upon the post that read ‘one-sixty’ which coincidently also was the end of the road.  He turned onto the driveway which rose sharply and wound up between two jutting boulders.  Ahead he could see the cabin: it was a single story, log structure with a steeply pitched roof, a stone chimney, and a front porch. It was plain, with nothing else to distinguish it and Mike assumed it was a modular model, probably identical to the other eleven cabins on the road.  He parked his car to the right and puzzled over the fact that there were no other vehicles in the driveway.  Most likely, he surmised, Luke had been dropped off, though how he could afford to rent a cabin was beyond Mike’s reasoning.  When he stepped out he was washed over with the rich smell of cedar, pine, and the general pungent aroma of the forest.  A couple of wispy clouds had drifted in from the north and hung like stretched cotton balls in the sky.
       “Luke?” Mike shouted, slowly walking towards the front steps of the cabin.  
There was no reply except for the faint echo he heard behind him when his voice played off the valley.  He scanned the cabin, his gait still slow, waiting to see some movement in the windows.  Even as he reached the top step and his shoes clunked on the boards of the porch, the cabin remained still.  He looked over his shoulder, expecting to see someone coming up the driveway, but saw only the narrow path winding between the boulders.  For a moment he stood there motionless and strained his ears to hear something, anything that indicated life.  Unsatisfied, he moved to one of the windows and peered in, cupping his hands around his face to block out the glare.  It was dark inside, the only light coming from the sunlight that streamed through the windows.  The cabin was fairly open, he could make out a living room and kitchen, separated only by an island counter.  There was a couch off to the right up against the wall with a coffee table in front of it, upon which he could make out a plastic sandwich baggy, an ashtray, a lighter, and something else he couldn’t quite make out in the shadows.  What he did not see was any sign of Luke or anyone else for that matter.
       “Luke? Hey, it’s Mike,” he shouted into the window, looking from left to right. Nothing.
       Finally he walked up to the front door and tested the handle, not at all surprised that it was unlocked, as Luke had long ago thrown caution to the wind.  He stepped inside and left the door open to allow a bit more light in.  Motes of dust drifted through the streams of sunlight and the entire cabin had a dank smell to it, like a wet forest floor, which mingled with the familiar aroma of pot.  He walked over to the table and saw the last item he had not been able to identify: a cell phone.  He picked it up, glancing to the plastic baggy in which he saw small, green granules, and flipped it open.  A blank screen stared back at him, despite him thumbing the power button.  He tossed the phone back onto the coffee table and the clatter of the plastic case on the wood sounded loud in the dead silence of the cabin.

Turning he saw a fireplace in the opposite wall that had little more than collected dust in it.  For a moment he just stood there, at a bit of a loss as what to do.
“Luke?” he said loudly enough that anyone in the cabin would hear him.
       There was a door off from the kitchen that lead into a bedroom, just large enough for a full sized bed and a connected bathroom.  The bedding was disheveled and the comforter had been thrown off, resting in a heap at the foot of the bed.  On the floor he found a dark blue, baby-doll tee; a stained wife-beater;  two pair of thong sandals; and a bra.  
       “What the hell, Luke?” Mike said aloud.
       With a sigh of resignation and a shake of his head, he turned his back on the bedroom and headed outside.  He descended the front steps and began to walk around to the rear of the cabin.  The branches of the nearby trees had been pruned back, but the trees themselves allowed to grow close to the cabin.  There was a seven or eight foot swath between the building and the tree line, rough uneven terrain that lead to a smallish backyard.  There wasn’t much to it, just some sun-shade grass planted to give it something other than a dirt floor.  A depression in the ground at the edge of the lawn caught his eye and as he drew closer he noticed the depression continued up into the trees, probably part a network of paths between the cabins that ran along the mountainside. Not a bad addition and certainly a lot cheaper than putting in a huge lawn.
       He cupped his hands to either side of his mouth and shouted, “LUKE!”
       The echo came back once more and was the only reply. Heaving another sigh, Mike entered the woods, his eyes glued to the path in front of him. It was faint at times and more than once he stopped and glanced around, trying to figure out if he was still on the path or not.  Then it would snap into view, and he wondered how he had ever lost track of it.
       The forest was vibrant and beautiful with the light of the slowly descending sun cutting down through the canopy overhead.  It lit up the leaves and turned them a brilliant green.  There were pockets where the light streamed through like pillars, but for the most part it looked like splotches of gold on the forest floor.  
       Mike froze and his eyes darted about.  The voice who had called out to him was faint and for a moment he questioned whether he had even heard it.  He strained his ears until he could only hear his own heartbeat which had increased in rate.  There was nothing else, neither birds nor insects.  Just a slight rustling of the leaves as a breeze passed over and the thick thumping of his heart.
       “Luke?!” Mike called out, hurrying along the trail.  The voice sounded close, just up ahead somewhere.  The trailed wound higher up the mountain and the trees began to grow thinner and smaller, their roots twisting across the trail like natures trip wires.  Outcroppings of rock were covered in bright green moss and played host to short clusters of blueberry bushes.
       Stepping around a bend in the path, Mike paused and was taken aback by what he saw. There was a large bed of moss, no smaller than twenty feet in diameter, partially shaded by an outcrop of rock and a small wall of trees overhead.  Scattered along the edges of the bed were toadstools with immense, broad heads. They formed a circle of sorts around the moss, marking its boarders.
Leaning against the stone beneath the outcrop was a man, thin and withered like a drying corn husk.  His cheeks were hollow and dark circles hung beneath sunken eyes.  He was shirtless and shoeless, wearing only a pair of tan cargo shorts.  His pale flesh seemed almost waxy and drawn tight over an emaciated body, his ribs and sternum clearly visible.  Mike thought back to how Jerry had looked in the hospital all those years ago.  It was as though he was staring into the past.  
       “Luke? Jesus, Luke!” Mike said, stepping onto the bed of moss.
       Yellowish eyes turned on Mike and a sickly smile crossed Luke’s lips. “I knew you’d come, man. You always do.”
       Mike crouched down near his old friend and looked at him with horror. “Luke, you look terrible! What the hell have you been into?”
       Luke raised a skeletal hand to his face and laughed. It was a dry, raspy sound that made Mike shiver.
       “Just shit, man. Just shit, y’know,” Luke said. “But now you’re here, man, and it’s ok.  Help me up.”
       Mike gingerly picked up Luke’s arm and wrapped it around his shoulders, then slowly hoisted him to his feet.  A rank smell of body odor and filth wafted up his nose and he clenched his teeth together, fighting back the urge to gag.
       “You’re always there for me, man. You always dig me outta my screw ups,” Luke said.  He had lost some of his teeth and those that remained were yellowed and brown and Mike could smell the rot when he spoke.
       “I told you, this is the last time.  You’re getting your shit straight.  I’m not gonna keep dropping everything to come get you when you screw up,” Mike snapped as he began to lead Luke across the moss.
       “Yeah, sure,” Luke said.
       “Where’s the girl?” Mike asked. “I saw her clothes down at the cabin.”
       “She took off,” Luke replied.
       “Without her clothes?” Mike asked, his doubt obvious.
       As they neared the edge of the moss bed, Luke suddenly lurched forward, throwing an elbow back into Mike’s face. It hit him squarely on the nose and he stumbled back with a cry. His eyes watered and as he wiped them clear he saw Luke standing with one foot on the forest floor, the other still on the moss bed.
       “What the fuck?!” Mike shouted.
       “Sorry, Mike.  You were the only one I knew who would come,” Luke said, a sadness lurking in his sunken eyes.
       Once Luke stepped back into the forest, the world around Mike changed.  The blue sky overhead grew cloudy, but not with the threat of a storm, but rather with yellowish, wispy clouds that seemed to reach down to the earth.  The trees of the forest transformed into twisted, black skeletons, their branches like arthritic fingers frozen in place.  No longer were the toadstools smooth and topped with soft brown caps on brilliant white stalks, but grew thin, tall and black.  When he looked down, gone was the soft bed of bright green moss and in its place was a tangle of black grass.
       He could barely see beyond the trees immediately around the circle, the beyond looking like a blur of grays and blacks. When he looked to Luke, all he could see was a shadow of black smoke in the vague shape of a man.
       “Luke?! Luke, what the hell is going on?!” he cried out, stumbling towards the shadow.  He stopped at the edge of the circle and froze. He couldn’t move any further.
       “I’m sorry,” said the shadow, the voice grossly distorted into a deep, wavering sound.
       “What the hell is this?” Mike shouted. The shadow backed away and disappeared into the blur beyond.
       Mike spun around, frantically looking all around. Again he tried to step out of the circle but found when he reached the edge his feet would carry him no further.  He walked the perimeter and was met with the same scenario, no matter where he went.  
       None of it made sense and Mike felt his chest tightening with fear and confusion.  He put his hands on his head and grabbed his hair, jerking it as though the pain would wake him up from whatever nightmare it was that  had taken him.
       He froze as his eyes fell upon a figure stepping out from behind one of the mushrooms. It was a girl, lithe and small.  She was naked and her skin was dusky like the forest beyond the circle.  Her eyes were large and radiant green, like the moss had been while the hair that fell to her chin and framed her narrow face was jet black.  She approached him slowly, moving with delicate but deliberate steps.

“Who are you? What’s going on? What is this?” Mike asked, briefly looking at the small breasts which she made no effort to cover.
       Her lips spread into a smile and she giggled, stopping a few feet away and looking him over.  He stared back and she began to walk around him, her eyes never leaving his body.  Mike stood still, craning his neck to follow her and when he turned his head the other way to see her over his opposite shoulder, he caught sight of another girl approaching.  She was similar in build with the same dark skin and moved in an identical fashion, watching him with large, green eyes.  Her hair was dark, but brown rather than black.
       “Who are you?” Mike asked again.
       “He was no good to us,” the black haired girl said.
       “No good, no good,” the other said.
       “What do you mean?” Mike said, turning to face the black haired girl.
       “He was filthy,” she said and her lip curled back in a clear show of disgust.  Mike’s eyes widened as he saw two rows of needle-like teeth set in bright red gums.
       “Filthy,” the second girl echoed.
       The black haired girl finally walked up to him and reached out, her slender hand resting on his chest.  A warmth spread through him, as though he had just drank something hot and smooth, like hot chocolate, and his eyes grew heavy.  When he tried to speak he felt as though each word weighed a hundred pounds and he had not the strength to say it.
       “He called for you to take his place,” she said, slowly caressing Mike’s chest.
       “Take his place,” the other whispered, walking up behind Mike and running her hands up his back and onto his shoulders.  
       “You will stay with us. Forever,” the girl said.
       Mike stared back and watched as the bright green eyes grew darker and darker until they were black.  Her lips curled back again, revealing the needle-like teeth and she leaned in, pressing her mouth against his chest.  He felt the other girl doing the same against his back.
       Pain suddenly broke through the sleepiness that had begun to seduce him and as he threw his head back in a scream, he saw a half dozen other slender, naked, black-eyed girls crawling towards him from the ring of mushrooms, needle-like teeth set in bright red gums.

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