Whirlpool: Short Fiction

It’s the second day of my writing challenge!

For my second story, I went with this prompt: a state park employee needs to work a night shift at an isolated visitor center. This location takes nearly an hour to reach by car, yet as a curious weather phenomenon occurs, an after hours visitor shows up…and they didn’t drive there.

Dedicated to J. L. Foux

Whirlpool

The forest felt more immense when the trees were shrouded in night. It was a beautiful feeling, it was an awful feeling, surrounded by the endless ocean of branches and leaves shivering in the wind that whipped down from the mountains.

Joel leaned out of the window of the Augustine Cannon Visitor Center, a clove cigarette dangling from his lips. The visitor center was tiny. The visitor’s half contained only a single plastic bench, a pamphlet stand, and a unisex bathroom, while the employee’s side – on the other side of the counter – had a mini fridge, outdated PC, a phone, an office chair, a radio, and a couple filing cabinets.

Underneath the counter were several boxes filled with more pamphlets, a first aid kit, and a sleeping bag in case the weather got rough and the employee needed to stay the night.

Joel pulled out his cigarette to yawn, his jaw popping a bit with the motion.

“Looks like it’ll be a beautiful clear night out there, folks!” the generic radio host crooned. “Here at QRZ, I can look up and see every little star there is! This next song’s for you, North Star.”

One of the latest one hit wonders began to play, comforting in its formulaic composition.

Joel looked east. Faintly, over the tops of the trees, he could see the blinking red light that sat on the antenna on top of the radio station. It was the closest building, about two hours from the visitor center, at the very edge of Thothicket National Park.
Finishing his cigarette, Joel ground it against the sole of his shoe and dropped the butt into the near empty can of soda on the windowsill. A wolf howled somewhere in the forest and another answered, their cries echoing above the branches.

Joel sunk into the office chair, settling in for another long night shift, with his poly-sci textbook open on the counter. The park director insisted the visitor center be open all night since King’s Pool was such a popular tourist destination at night due to its phosphorescent algae. It was a boring gig, Joel had been working it four months now and only ever had two visitors – a couple who had taken the wrong turn from the highway – but at least the job paid well.

The song ended and for a moment, there was only an eerie static over the airwaves.

“Uh, folks. Looks like I may have been wrong about the weather…”

Joel looked up from his textbook at the tone in the host’s voice. The hesitancy.

“The weather reports are showing clear skies, but I’ve been getting calls about a strange storm front just over Thothicket National Park. I’ve gone out on the roof here and seen it myself, folks.”

Joel started when his phone vibrated against the counter, rattling loudly. He picked it up. Unknown number.

“It seems isolated above the park and, boy, is it a strange sight!” the radio host said.

Joel answered his phone but recoiled away from it when ear-piercing static came from the speaker. The call dropped, leaving him in welcome quiet, which was then broken with a rumble of thunder overhead.

“…never seen the Northern Lights myself, never thought they came this far south, but that must be what we’re seeing, right?” The announcer cleared his throat.

Joel stared at his phone. His skin was covered in goosebumps and his hair had risen but he didn’t know why. Sure, the call had been unnerving, but it was just interference from the storm.

Another grumble of thunder sent a shiver through the visitor center. A gust of wind swept in the open window behind Joel, flipping the pages of his textbook, and making the pamphlets on display shiver. Now the idea of an open window at his back made Joel uncomfortable so he stood, making his back to the back of the center.

Reaching for the window, Joel paused as he looked out over the trees. The sky was boiling, clouds raging against one another, low over the trees. Thunder again, but no flash of lightning followed.

But there was light. The clouds glowed faintly, in oily shades of turquoise, lavender, and pearl. In fact, it looked like the skyward twin of King’s Pool with its illuminating algae.

The radio crackled with static, causing Joel to jump. He slammed the window shut, blocking the wind.

“…looks like I have a visitor at the station…”

Joel paced around the counter and to the front door, looking through the glass out onto the dirt parking lot. His beat-up sedan was its only occupant. The storm’s eerie glow danced over the car’s battered hood

“…wait…stop! Stop!”

The radio screamed with static. Joel looked over his shoulder as the static was finally interrupted by a piercing wail – an all too human scream – before lapsing into white noise.

“What the fuck?” Joel took a step towards the counter, then stopped. Instead, he pulled out his phone, called Diana, his girlfriend.

It rang once, then there was a low purr from the cloud mass above, and his phone howled in discordant notes. His reaction was animistic, visceral, and Joel dropped his phone, shattering the screen.

“Dammit.” He knelt and picked it up again, turning it over in his hands. “Thanks a lot, phone case. Worthless piece of crap.”

His hands were shaking. Usually, Joel enjoyed the sense of isolation he got from being in the park at night, when the trees drowned in a sea of shadows, but now he felt scared. He felt way too alone.

And above him, the thunder continued to rumble. But now the long lights on the ceiling were flickering and the cloud glow sparked against the glass of the windows and the front door. It felt like the very center of the storm was above the visitor center, its empty belly growling.

“Okay.” Joel wanted to hear his own voice. “Really doubt there’ll be any visitors tonight.”

He retrieved his bag, his textbook, and dug his keys out of his jeans pocket. But when he turned to the front door, Joel stopped. The trees around the parking lot were frosted with the colours of the storm and right next to the driver’s side of his car was a little girl.
She was dressed in an oversized t-shirt that went down to her knees and was covered in red stains. Other than that, she wore nothing, not even shoes.

The highway was over an hour’s drive from the visitor center and here was a little girl, in his parking lot, at 9 p.m..

Joel pushed open the front door and stuck his head out.

“Uh, are you okay?” He realized how ridiculous the words were as soon as they were out.

The little girl was pale, her waist length hair even paler. She took a step towards him.

“Are your parents…” Of course her parents weren’t around. If they were around, they would be watching their kid, instead of letting her wander around in the middle of the night, under-dressed.

Joel looked up. The clouds spun and spun and spun. He felt lost in them, felt their hypnotic pull. It was striking as it resembled the whirlpool in King’s Pool, except it was spinning in the opposite direction.

A nausea rolled over him and Joel shook his head. He tore his eyes from the sky and found the girl right in front of him.

“Shit!” He jerked away from the door, letting it close in the girl’s face.

This close, he could see the t-shirt she was wearing bore the hot pink logo for the QRZ Radio Station. This close, he could see her eyes were pupil-less and as pale as the rest of her. Joel stumbled back against the counter, sliding around it, and reaching blindly for the phone.

The little girl opened the door. Overhead the storm’s grumble grew to a roar as she stepped into the visitor’s center.

“Listen. I don’t want any trouble, okay?” Joel’s hand found the phone but when he picked it up, the receiver screeched, and he dropped it again. “Please, I just work here, okay? I’m just a college student!”

Her footsteps were silent, she approached the counter, and stared up at him with clouded but seeing eyes. The clouds in her eyes swirled just as the sky did, but without any colour. Joel froze, his very skin seemingly to shrink tight, as if to protect his whole being from this thing that masqueraded as a little girl.

She reached up a hand, each finger tipped with a white fingernail as sharp as an icicle.

“Please. Please don’t hurt me.” Tears ran down Joel’s cheeks, warming his frozen skin.

The girl pointed at the large park map, her nail tapping the icon for King’s Pool. Joel stared down at the map, his mind blank.
Another rumble overhead, one so strong the whole building shook. The girl tapped the map again.

“You want to go to King’s Pool?” Joel’s voice trembled. The girl tilted her head in the slightest of nods and stepped back from the counter.

Joel swallowed, his throat so dry it clicked, and he stepped around the counter again.

“You’re lost?” he asked.

She stepped towards him and held out her hand. From this close, he could smell the copper of the blood that covered the little girl’s shirt. He wondered what had happened to the radio host. He wondered if the man was alright. He wondered if the radio host hadn’t been able to understand what she’d wanted.

Joel took her hand. He wasn’t shocked at how cold her skin was, how damp. Under the smell of copper, he could smell minerals, water, sulfur. The smell of King’s Pool.

King’s Pool was a forty minute hike from the visitor’s center. Joel really, really hoped the girl wasn’t the impatient type.

x PLM

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