Max Kinkade, Senior, Film, Television, and Digital Media, Senior, Fort Worth, TX

Undulating tentacles pound the cave floor, shaking the ceiling and loosening rocks from crevices above. Fernando grabs Sabrina and shields her body from the shower of rubble, knowing that this shall be their last embrace. The kraken spots the couple in their hiding with its singular pallid eye. As pieces of the roof splash in the water below, the monster rears its tentacle backward, preparing to deal its final blow. Its slimy appendage swings upward when suddenly it crashes into a monolithic stalactite above and sends the pillar spiraling down into the beast’s eye. The leviathan thrashes in the water, screeching a deafening howl, then slowly sinks to the bottom of the pool, drowning in its own inky blood. Fernando opens one eye, wondering why he is not dead, and races to the edge of the water to discover his vanquished foe.

“Sabrina, look! That terrible thing is dead.”

“Oh, how can this be, Fernando.”

“The ol’ girl forgot one thing. She forgot to look up,” Fernando says with a coy smile.

“Oh, kiss me you, big fool,” and the two embrace once more and lock lips. Their bodies become one in silhouette as the sun sets over the ocean. The music swells, and, for a moment, the screen fades to black, in pompous, white letters, ‘Directed by Maxwell Kinkade’ flashes onto the screen before rolling up the long list of shameful lackeys misfortunate enough to have created this shlock.

“Turn the TV off, Walter. I can’t believe we sat through that mess.” Two teens, Elsa and Walter, sit together on a couch; the glow of the screen irradiates onto the concaves of their faces in an otherwise dark room.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that I could see the wires on the octopus’s tentacles.”

“It wasn’t an octopus, Walt. It was the Dectopus from the Tenth Planet,” Elsa proclaims in mock oration, adding the wave of a hand for good measure. “You know, I think there is nothing I hate more than when the hero is saved by a random act of god. That stupid Dectopus could have killed himself alone in his cave, the movie didn’t even need Fernando or Sabrina there.”

“Oh, trust me, that movie needed Fernando. That man is a dream.”

Elsa eyes the portly boy sitting beside her with an eyebrow raised, “Yeah, for you, I’d say he is just a dream,” and the two giggle at her snideness. 

Walter turns off the TV and switches on a nearby lamp. “Well… now what do you want to do for the rest of Elsa’s Super Fun Birthday Weekend Trip”.

Elsa turned seventeen last Monday and wanted to spend the weekend at Walter’s family lake house. She had thought that with the full moon on Friday, there was guaranteed to be some paranormal activity and that two teens in a lake house were just begging to be murdered by some deranged serial killer, but the day came, and the night went. Walter had tried the best he could to make Elsa’s birthday special; an alien abduction, a scuffle with Mothman, or at least a Bigfoot sighting would have made the trip worth it, but instead, all Elsa got was a bunch of lavender-scented candles and an Ouija board that Walter was too “shocked” by when the planchette moved (and he wonders why he never gets the lead in school plays).

Now it was Saturday night, and all the two had done all day was scratch their name in some rotted wood, watch old scary movies, and eat the remainder of a cake made for a party of eight. 

“Let’s walk around the lake. Maybe it’s the type of lake that comes with a Swamp Thing or a lagoon creature,” Elsa says.   

“You literally have to be insane. It’s pitch black out there, and we’ll almost certainly be bludgeoned by some psychopath’s meat hammer.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll be the Final Girl. I’ll get to go back to school with a cool scar and a harrowing story.”

Walter furrows his brow, “Bitch, then what am I in this scenario of yours?”

“The first victim … really the only victim if we are taking tally of the party guests. Sacrifices have to be made, Walt. I could probably get a scholarship for surviving a crazed murderer.”

“Oh, my bad. I hadn’t realized that my death was the only thing preventing you from furthering your education. By all means, let us venture off into the night, hopefully, to be seen again.”

“See, that’s the spirit,” and the two put on their coats and boots and lock the door behind them.

The night air swirls dry leaves in cascading pirouettes around the friends. Both walk, hands in pockets, waiting with anticipation for a man to jump out around the corner. The Moon had been full the night before, but tonight the sky is cloudless. Shafts of moonlight pierced through the branches of autumn trees, casting shadows on the path around the lake. The Moon peers down from its place in the heavens like the condemning eye of some celestial being. Elsa had always loved the Moon, and she especially loved all the oddities that it brought out. The lake beside them glistened white, reflecting the light the Moon borrows from the Sun. The water sat still, waiting for someone brave or foolish enough to take that first step out onto its surface. Perhaps, had it been another pair out there by that lake on that night, it might have even been romantic.

“Christ Elsa, can we go back now. I think my hiking boots are giving me a blister.”

“Quit being such a baby. The night is still young. I bet we are right on the verge of discovering something fantastic.”

Man, you really do complain a lot, Walt.

“Elsa, there aren’t any ghosts or goblins or whatever it is that you’re looking for in this forest. There aren’t even bears here, though I’m sure your crazy ass would just love to run into one.”

“Only if he brought along some lions and tigers with him.” A cold gust of wind sweeps between the two, perking up the hairs on the back of Elsa’s neck; she wishes she’d brought a thicker coat. “Fine, we’ll go back, but first …” Elsa turns around to face Walter but is greeted only by leaves falling in his place. Elsa is alone. Her eyes shift back and forth as she freezes and takes in her surroundings.

Very funny…now, where are you hiding?

Elsa yells, “you’re not gonna scare me, Walt.”

Crouching down, Elsa crawls through the trees next to the lake. The Moon watches from directly above now as she sneaks through the pines, hoping to turn the hunted into the hunter. The shadows of branches crosshatch across the forest floor as if to reach out for lost children; Elsa tries her best not to crunch on dry leaves as she stalks through the woods, ever farther from the lake and the light of the Moon.

“Where is that little creep,” Elsa whispers under her breath, trying to hide the panic in her voice from herself. Sure, Elsa had talked a big game back in the cabin, but now the forest grows darker around her, and all the devils of her imagination crawl from out of the folds of her brain and hide in the shadows of every pine; the allure of a psychopathic killer has now faded. Elsa walks upright now, concerned for her missing friend. She goes farther into the forest until there is a clearing. Once again, the Moon shines down on her head, turning the tall grass around her opalescent with its radiance. From across the clearing, Elsa spots something unnatural. The whine of metal creaking murmurs through the night air as a scarlet haze manifests at the edge of the clearing across from Elsa.

What am I looking at? Am I imagining this? It has to be just some weird weather or swamp gas or something. All that scary story crap is making me freak myself out. That’s it! I’m just freaking myself out. That’s all there is to it.

“There’s… there’s no way,” Elsa stutters and stumbles back to the safety of the woods. “He has to have gone back to the cabin; he’s probably just as worried as I am.” Elsa, refusing to give in to panic, walks briskly through the woods from which she came, ignoring the inexplicable haze. By the shore, she spots a single set of familiar footprints.

Oh, thank God. I left footprints in the mud; I could just follow them back to the cabin. Walter really must have had bad blisters; he was walking too gingerly to leave tracks.

Elsa retraces her steps all the way back to the other end of the lake, calling out Walter’s name along the way in case he really is just a dedicated prankster. The steps lead her to a familiar plot of land.

I think that’s the road that we came in on over there, and that’s the tree that got struck by lightning we carved our names into. So, then where is the cabin?

Elsa follows her footprints as they veer off onto a flat hill, where they come to an abrupt end. She collapses to her knees and begins to brush her hands over the ground, hoping to uncover some hidden clue. Her lungs fight her for every breath drawn as she begins to scrape away at the dirt with her fingertips. Elsa’s head whirls around as she screams for her friend, “Walt …Walt, where are you? Walt, please…”

Hot tears sink down her cheeks like drippings from an old candle. They fall into the crevices of her lips and leave a salty taste on the tip of her tongue. Through her delirium, she spots the tree that she and Walter had carved their names into this morning. Knees buckling, her spine shrinks with nausea as she slinks over to the burnt husk of wood jutting from the earth, hoping for something to confirm her reality. Carved into the base of the tree’s stump is Elsa and nothing more.

The Moon stares down on the slumped girl as she hugs the rotted wood. Perhaps in curiosity or perhaps in pity, the Moon begins to sink from the sky. Elsa watches as the Moon falls like a leaf, in cascading pirouettes, from the heavens into the lake, shrinking to the size of the fist along the way. The water glows pale, irradiating onto the concaves of her face in an otherwise black, starless night. The whine of metal creaking murmurs through the air, drowning Elsa’s thoughts. A fog emerges from the surrounding woods and sweeps around the lake water, coiling upward into the infinite, when the stillness of the water is broken. Elsa comes out from behind the rotted tree, crawls to the edge of the shore through the smothering fog, and stares at a scarlet haze as it manifests over the water and stops in the center of that incandescent sea. From the cloud, a vermilion door transmutes itself; two whale oil lanterns creak and sway in the air adjacent, shining a flickering, ochre light onto the silvery lake below.

Breathless, Elsa’s eyes remain transfixed to the mirage before her, waiting for someone or something to step out from behind the door. What feels like an eternity passes as dead foliage drifts weightlessly, loosened by the sudden storm of clouds surrounding the lake. Falling like winter snow, autumn leaves flutter through the air in all directions.

Why are the leaves piling up on the lake?

Elsa’s hand searches through the earth around her and finds a smooth, oval stone. In fear that she might upset whatever being lives behind that door, she tosses her projectile gently at the entrance and watches the rock bounce off and rest atop the water, refusing to sink. A resounding silence passes. She stands, still as the water before her, and, in an act of bravery or foolishness, steps out onto the lake to find that something beneath her feet holds fast. Taking each step with as much hesitancy as the first, Elsa glides over the surface of the lake, sending colliding ripples over the top of the water.

The monolithic door stands isolated at the lake’s center; its weathered surface points up to a cocoon of spiraling clouds spawned from the tree line as the lanterns stream light from above. In the center of its plain surface, a knocker rests; a brass snake swallowing its tail dangles from the door’s face. Elsa reaches for the handle of the knocker and gently raps it against the door. Like the striking of a gong, a resounding thud reverberates through the wood, echoing out into the night and rippling over the surface of the water. The wooden door creaks open, unveiling a rotunda with a blazing hearth at its far side. Elsa steps in through the door frame to find herself surrounded by maroon walls of sequoia wood and stacks of parchments towering to the ceiling. The door closes behind her. A mosaic of stars and planets adorn the dome above; circling orbits form rings around the Sun placed at the center of the structure; the Sun is encircled by a golden serpent that bites its own tail; Its ruby eyes dance with the glow of the fire. Parchments fly from the bottom of great stacks and fly into the hearth across of the room as if stirred by their own volition and weightless in the air.

Jesus Christ, am I dead? I have to be dead. A tree branch or something must have fallen on me, and I didn’t even realize it. Oh god. Walter is probably standing over my corpse right now, watching me twitch lakeside. Jesus Christ, I really must be dead.

Elsa feels around on her person to see if she still has sensation in her body and is confused to find that nothing has changed about her. In her prodding, she discovers a forgotten object in her breast pocket; the pocketknife she had used to carve her and Walter’s names into that log jostles in her coat.

If I’m dead, then maybe I won’t feel pain.

Elsa flicks the blade out and presses its razor against her palm. It glides over her skin to no effect till suddenly streams of crimson spout from the palm of her hand. She squeezes her hand in the crux of her armpit as the sharp burning sensation of a fine cut begins to creep up her wrist.

“Fuck, that was stupid,” Elsa mumbles as she shakes her hand, splattering hot blood all over the floor and parchments surrounding her. “I could have just pricked my finger or pinched myself, damn it. I didn’t have to be so dramatic and slice my hand open. Who am I trying to impress?”

A tattered scrap of parchment flies by Elsa’s head, and with her remaining hand, she snatches it out of the air. Elsa fails to decipher characters from a long-dead language that dot the remnants of this piece, as another equally disheveled slip of parchment floats by on its way to the other end of the room. Elsa releases her scrap and follows it as it meanders back into position on its march to the far end of the rotunda. The hearth glows brightly across the room as Elsa slowly creeps closer. The fire’s heat feels familiar as the warmth begins perking up the hairs on the back of Elsa’s neck. The mounds of papers lining the walls become less dingy as she strays farther from the door. Her captured parchment leads her to the edge of the fire and plummets into the smoldering blaze. The fire eats the parchment in an instant before reforging a new slip of paper that glides out of the flame and lands in a neat stack safely away from the inferno. Elsa’s steps echo through the vacuous hall as she walks over to investigate the newly formed parchment. She grabs a handful from the top and is relieved when she recognizes its English letters.

Elsa mutters, “Sabrina look! That terrible thing is dead. Oh, how can this be, Fernando. The ol’ girl forgot one thing. She forgot to look up, Fernando says with a coy smile?” Elsa’s brow furrows as she reads aloud the familiar lines, “is this the fucking Dectopus?” She reads on.

 In pompous, white letters, ‘Directed by Maxwell Kinkade’ flashes onto the screen before rolling up the long list of shameful lackies misfortunate enough to have created this shlock.“Turn the TV off, Walter. I can’t believe we sat through that mess.” Two teens, Elsa and Walter, sit together on a couch…

What… what is this? Is this some fucking joke?” Elsa’s hands riffle through the pages, smearing her blood on the once pristine white parchment. Elsa screams with rage, “Who’s doing this? Do you think this is funny? Where is Walter?”

She crumples up the blood-soaked papers and tosses them into the fire beside her. The once smoldering flame begins to roar with excitement as Elsa pushes the piles of kindling that have surrounded it for what she imagines has been an eternity into the hearth. The blaze laps up the sides of the walls, blackening the mosaic above. The room begins to shake as pieces of ceiling and rock loosen from crevices above. Elsa is smothered in white smoke till it is all she can see, and then, for a moment, everything fades to black.

“Hey, you’re breathing,” an excited man’s voice exclaims. “Oh, thank god, you’re breathing.” Elsa flips over and wretches up water from her lungs. Her vision begins to return. A blurred face crouches over her. “Oh Jesus Christ, I was so worried you were gonna be dead when I fished you out of there. Jesus Christ, thank god you’re not dead.” He wipes off some of the mud-caked on Elsa’s forehead and lifts her eyelids, checking to see if she is truly alive. “Don’t worry, help is on the way. When I heard you thrashing in the water, I told my friend to call for help. They should be here any minute now. I already wrapped up that nasty cut on your hand with my shirt. Everything is gonna be okay.”

Elsa coughs. Her head is throbbing, but she manages to speak, “Wa… Walter?”

“Walter? Is that your friend? I’m so sorry, but I didn’t see anybody else out there. He probably just went to get help.” The unfamiliar man gives Elsa a half-hearted grin that confirms her suspicion that neither believes this to be the truth. 

Elsa rolls to her knees and unashamedly begins to weep. The stranger crouches beside her places his hand on her back, and their two bodies become one in silhouette as the morning sun rises over the lake.