My friend Laura (@ on twitter) and I have been threatening to do a pass along story for a long time and we’ve finally done it. Some editing, rearranging, and smoothing has been done since the original, but the story has remained the same. Anyone who is familiar with her work knows that a Richard/ Laura collaboration is sure to be one hell of a crazy ride, and Cotton Candy Clouds does not fail to deliver.
For those of you that don’t know her work, I encourage you to head on over to her blog and check it out ( ecoslastword.blogspot.com/). There’s a lot of great fiction over there.
Cottony Candy Clouds, is about 4000 words long and can be read below, found posted today on her blog as well, or downloaded as a pdf by clicking here (if anyone is interested in an epub or mobi instead, let me know and I can add links to those).
Cotton Candy Clouds
by Laura Xicota Vila and Richard D Mellinger Jr
As he tore his arm free from the webs of sticky sugar, Tim reflected on the old saying that made up the moral foundation of so many cartoons: “Be careful what you wish for.”
In his 10 year old mind, Tim hadn’t seen the downside of the clouds becoming cotton candy; they had already looked so much like it. In fact, he had thought they were until he was six, he had expected rain to be sweet and was extremely disappointed when he found out they weren’t. So, when the circus magician told him he would give him a wish, Tim knew what to ask for.The clouds had descended almost immediately and Tim had rushed toward the closest one. All the kids had.
Pure, expectant, blissful excitement had driven Tim to run toward the fluffy, spun sweets. As the clouds got closer, it had become clear to Tim that they were bigger than he had ever imagined! Then the first cotton candy cloud had made contact with the ground. The thunderous roar of the collision shook the hard-packed earthen road and sent a shower of debris into the air. In that moment joy and elation had dribbled out of his body, down his leg, and left only paralyzing terror and a wet spot on his jeans.
He had stood still as he saw a pink wall of cotton candy approaching him. All the fluffiness couldn’t hide the fact that it would engulf Tim in less time than it takes to say “cotton candy”. His body had reacted at the right moment and he had sprinted away from the expanding cloud. He had run as fast as he could, casting occasional glances behind him to the cruel candy cloud. Other than that he had been running blindly. He hadn’t seen the smaller cloud just in front of him because he had been watching in horror as Doug, the kid from down the street who used to walk with Tim to the bus every day, was overcome by the wall, his cries of anguish barely audible over the rumble. Then Tim’s foot had struck the front edge of the volkswagon sized puff of wispy sugar, sending him sprawling face first into it.
As soon as he had been inside, before he had realized what had happened, his smaller cloud had been struck by the first and was thrown and shaken savagely. It felt like the time Tim had been trying to body surf and a wave had crashed directly on top of him, tumbling, spinning, and twirling his helpless body in a violent mass of chaos and confusion. Just as he had in the wave, Tim didn’t even try to scream or breath. It was as if he were just a helpless observer, watching events unfold. Then, his head had struck the ground and all had gone black.
Tim had woken up to find Doug next to him. A cave had been created around them, helping them escape from being crushed to death by the candy cloud. Tim had shook Doug awake to make sure he wasn’t injured. Distant thunder resonated through the candy walls as more clouds grouped together, liquid caramel dripped from the ceiling of the cave leaving both boys sticky. Tim had sat on the floor, wondering what to do, trying to find a way out. Doug had stood up and paced through the small space they had.
“Doug, please, stop,” Tim had told his friend. Doug’s pacing was making him nervous.
Doug had sat down reluctantly, “Maybe we could eat our way out,” he had said, eager to get out of that sugar maze as soon as possible.
The two boys had given it a valiant attempt, but after a few fistfuls, even the fluffy candy proved to be too much and eating had given way to digging, sugar hardening in shells of sticky, compressed sugar around their hands and arms. They had taken turns. Finally, after what felt like hours, Tim had broken through to the surface. Now he found himself looking over the destruction his thoughtless wish had wrought. There was cotton candy as far as he could see in every direction, pockmarked here and there by the tips of trees or shattered buildings.
The distant sounds of car alarms broke the reigning silence. Chills ran down Tim’s spine. What had he done? He shook his grief and guilt away, they needed to do something, there could be survivors trapped under the spun sugar. He picked a random direction in that endless sea of cotton candy and started walking with Doug trailing behind him. Walking on that surface, however, was easier said than done as their feet got stuck with every step. Soon enough, Doug started complaining about being tired, and when he stopped, his small body started sinking in the fluffy candy mass.
“No!” Tim yelled, running back to grab Doug’s hand and pull him forward, “You can’t give up!”
“I’m tired,” Doug whined, starting forward again, despite his complaining, “and my tummy hurts.”
“I know,” Tim said, “but we have to keep moving, or we’ll sink.”
They continued walking in their original direction. It had originally been arbitrary, but now it took on an importance because Tim needed something to focus on – something to hope for. If they could just make it to the broken shape of the church’s bell tower that stuck out of the sugary cobwebs, maybe things would be better. At the very least, they could rest without sinking.
The crawl toward the tower was long and miserable. The sun was blazing hot and started melting the top layer of sugar, making it stickier but also very slippery. The sweet smell was nauseating and the boys were thirsty. Tim had to drag Doug, at times, begging him to advance. The tower was closer with every step, and it became apparent they would need to climb to get to its windows. Sweat trickled down Tim’s spine, he was just a kid, he couldn’t bear so much responsibility. If he had been all by himself he would have probably stopped — he no longer had a survival instinct — but letting his friend die in that ocean of sugar was cruel, and it wouldn’t happen under his watch.
This was his fault, and he couldn’t handle the thought of having another death on his hands. Whenever his mind drifted in the direction of assigning blame, he would focus on getting Doug to the tower. They could figure out what to do after they got there, or if they could even make it to the exposed windows of the belfry. By the time they made it to the church, their movements had been more like swimming in the thick, half melted goo than crawling and neither had any flesh nor clothing below the neck that was visible beneath the thick layer of pink mush that had accumulated there.
The tower was old and made in stone. Tim looked up to the window two meters above him, under normal circumstances he would have climbed that in no time.
“Doug, we need to get up there,” he said as he pointed the windows out to his friend.
“Okay,” Doug replied tiredly.
Tim looked closely at the wall and saw that there were some holes where stones had fallen out. He clung to the first hole he could find with his right hand, while trying the wall with his feet to find another one that would allow him to climb higher.
“Follow me, put your hands and feet exactly where I do,” Tim told Doug before pulling himself up.
As he climbed Tim tried to focus on anything but the height. The eerie wail of muffled car alarms from underneath the cotton candy filled the air all around him, but there were no other sounds; no planes, no birds, no other people, just the slow, unsteady sounds of Doug and himself scaling a tower. The mortar that he clung to was rough and hurt his hands, but Tim was thankful for the solid surface to cling to instead of the sticky sugar. As they made their way toward the window, Tim periodically offered encouragement to Doug, but only by yelling generic remarks without turning his head. He refused to look down. He had learned on the ropes course at camp that summer that he could climb anything, as long as he never looked down.
“Almost there, great job!” he yelled to his friend, looking toward the window, which loomed only a few feet away now.
He finally found the edge of the window, clung to it and pulled himself up. He almost cried when he felt real floor under his feet, his legs shaking. However, there was no time to spare, as Doug was still on his way up. Tim leaned over the window edge and saw that Doug had trailed behind, too tired and terrified to make a swift climb.
“Come on, Doug! You’re almost here!”
The other boy looked up and gave him a faint smile. Suddenly, he lost his footing and found himself clinging to the wall for his life.
“Doug!” Tim shouted, wishing he could do something else for his friend other than watch him dangling from the tower.
Doug’s fingers started slipping from the rocks, making him lose his grip. He was tired and his hands hurt, and it didn’t take long before he fell with his back to the sticky mess the clouds had become.
“NO!” Tim screamed as Doug plummeted downward, an expression of shocked terror on his face.
Tim watched Doug strike the candy, leaving a boy shaped hole in the surface. It had all happened so fast, but now, waiting to see if his friend would resurface, every passing second drifted by over the course of breathless eons.
Finally, after an eternity of torment, he saw Doug struggle to the surface.
“Candy caught me!” Doug yelled, “I’m okay!”
Tim grinned and opened his mouth to yell back down to his friend when suddenly, there was a flash of black and Doug was gone. In his place stood a huge spider, clutching Doug’s severed head between its mandibles. It was only there for a moment, then Tim watched in terror as the creature disappeared back into the hole it had come from.
His hands clenched on the window ledge, his knuckles as white as his face. He hadn’t wished for giant spiders, no one would have, but they were there anyway. What else could be hiding under the mounts of sugar? He wiped the tears from his eyes, fought back the urge to vomit out the window, and looked to the horizon, a fire was blazing somewhere nearby, fueled by the tons of sugar, other than that the world had been leveled and nothing stood out in that sugar flatland. Tim decided to descend the twisting spiral stairs to the church hoping to find some water. As he went down the temperature descended, but it was also darker. The steps were uneven, smoothened by the centuries and the thousands of feet. He had his right hand on the wall and touched something wet and sticky, probably mold. He cleaned his hand on his sugar stained pants and continued his way down.
Every sound made him jump as he worked his way down into the musty darkness. His instincts screamed for him to turn around and go back up to the top of the bell tower, but he knew that he’d have to come down eventually: there was no food up there and he was so thirsty. Where had that spider come from? Obviously the clouds had been his fault, but giant spiders? He reached the bottom of the stairs in pitch darkness and started feeling along the wall for a light switch. When he brought his right hand near his face, though, he caught a whiff of something rancid. It only encouraged his frantic search for a light.
He kept walking along the wall. Every now and then he would find obstacles on the floor, they were soft and heavy, and smelled terrible. They made Tim reconsider his search for the light. His eyes grew accustomed to the dark and he started seeing shadows. There was some very dim light filtering through the blocked windows and large gray bulges became visible. He finally found the switch and a dozen bright lights lit up the room. He closed his eyes, instinctively; the bright lights hurt them, and he kept them closed for a while, too afraid of what he might find.
When he finally opened them he couldn’t stop screaming at the horror he found.Along the base of the wall and suspended from the ceiling there were dozens of human sized bundles. They looked like the little balls of web that Tim had found inside that old tree, with desiccated flies inside. Instead of cobwebs, though, these bundles were made of cotton candy – and of course, these were much bigger. There was no spider in the room with him, but he knew it wouldn’t be long before the creature returned to what was obviously its lair. When he got his screaming under control, Tim glanced around quickly, intending to run back up the stairs. There was only one other entrance to the room, at the far end. It stood open and dark. Right next to it, though, was a sink.
It had been hours since he had had anything to drink, and the only thing he had eaten had been candy fluff. The open door looked ominous, but he needed to drink. He walked down the room toward the sink, avoiding the bundles. He would have sworn that at least one of the bundles had moved when he passed nearby, his first instinct had been to flee, but he needed to drink.When he got closer to the sink he felt cold, humid air entering through the door, it was probably the entrance to a crypt, and he knew that the spider was probably hiding in there, too. He decided to drink as fast as he could and get out of there. He turned on the faucet, expecting fresh water to flow through it, yet what came out wasn’t water, but a thousand tiny spiders.
Tim screamed again and backed away from the sink in horror. Then his foot struck one of the bundles of sugar-wrapped flesh and he tumbled backward, landing on another bundle with a cold, sickening thud. He scrambled to his feet as fast as he could. The one he had landed on had felt cold and stiff, its occupant surely a corpse, but the one he had originally tripped over was moving, wriggling around in its cotton candy shroud and making a muffled grumbling noise. Tim didn’t know what to do. He wanted to get out of there. He wanted to stay away from the spiders that came out of the sink. He wanted to watch the door to the crypt below, because he knew that if anything was down there it would have heard him screaming and would be on its way, but to watch the cocoon wriggling on the ground meant having his back to either the sink or the door. Again he wished that he had never made that stupid wish.
The cocoon moved again and Tim knew that there was a person in there, a person who was still fighting for their life, someone who deserved to be saved. He knelt beside the cocoon and started tearing off the strands of spun sugar, it was much stickier than the one that had come from the clouds and it took him a long time to make a small opening. A long time that he spent casting terrified glances to the open door, ready to flee at any time, even if it would have been useless. The opening had the size of his stretched out hand when a goo covered hand appeared from inside the cocoon.
“Can you hear me?” asked Tim, anxiously. “Can you help me free you, tearing it from the inside?”
A muffled sound that was probably an affirmation came from inside of it. Together, Tim and the unlucky victim of the spider tore the cocoon apart. It became increasingly easy as the opening became bigger, and it was soon big enough for a person to climb through.It had become clear early on that it was a woman, and she was wearing a sweater just like one that Tim’s own mother often wore, he had hoped it would be her, but that hope had shattered when he had revealed the woman’s pale and sickly face. It was Mrs Collins, the woman who had taught Tim’s 2nd grade class. She looked on the verge of vomiting and didn’t speak as she climbed uncomfortably to her feet. Tim had never liked her. He had never seen her do or say anything mean to her students, but he had seen the look on her face when she thought none of them were looking; the thirty-something teacher hated children.
Despite the fact that he had never felt comfortable with her before, he was overjoyed to see another human alive, and, better yet, an adult. She would know what to do.
He hugged her, asking “Are you all right?”
“No,” she croaked, placing her palm on his face, pushing him away from her and looking around, “I was almost eaten by a spider. Don’t touch me.”
Tim was on the verge of crying. He had risked his life to save this woman, and she didn’t even thank him. He stared at her as she paced around the room.
“Mrs. Colins?” he called out “We need to get out of here before the spider comes back.”
“Yes, we should, let’s find the door,” she said grudgingly.
“We need to climb down the tower, the doors are going to be stuck from all the cotton candy,” Tim explained.
“Nonsense, I’m going to find a door.”
She walked toward the open door, while Tim watched in horror. As she entered the dark room, Tim lost sight of her, but heard her soon enough. She screamed in terror and pain. He wondered, should he flee or should he help her? He didn’t like her, but her death would be his fault.
Tim, deciding that bad company was better than no company, followed after her, grumbling the one cuss word he had learned, deciding that if there was ever a right time to start cussing, this was it. Entering the dark room, he saw Mrs Collins in the dim light cast through the door. She cowered from a large, dark, spindly form that dangled from the ceiling, all waving legs. The huge spider was slowly lowering itself down toward her and the woman didn’t move.
“Run!” Tim yelled in desperation, shrinking back through the door.
His plea seemed to snap her out of it a little, and she started to move back toward him, her arms raised over her head, her piercing screams never faltering.
She followed Tim as he ran up the stairs, stumbling over the uneven of the steps. When they arrived to the top of the tower, Tim saw that it was getting darker. On her rush, Mrs Collins hit her head on one of the bells that was just above the start of the flight of stairs. That gave Tim an idea.
“Mrs Collins, help me find the rope of the bell, we are going to block the stairs so the spider can’t catch us,” he explained.
The rope was tied to a ring on the wall, they uncoiled it and the bell fell to the floor, blocking the stairway with a loud clang. Tim was left holding a very large rope that happened to be perfect to climb down the tower. First they needed to decide which way to go.
“Mrs Collins, where do you think we should go?” Tim had been taught to have respect for his elders, and knew that she would probably be more familiar with the area.
She looked through all the windows, trying to recognize any familiar features under the cotton candy.
“I think I know a place where we could be safe,” she finally announced.
She pointed to a spot a good ways off, where there seemed to be a cut in the candy. It was the opposite direction of the fire that was burning and filling the sky with thick, black smoke.
“Is that the river?” Tim asked
“Yes,” she said, her voice flat, Tim could tell that she was trying very hard to remain calm and emotionless. “Sugar dissolves in water and-”
She cut her statement short as a flurry of pointy legs started trying to reach around the bell from the stairway.
“Down the rope. Now, Tim. I’ll be right behind you.”
“They are down there too, under the cotton candy!” Tim said, the vision of the spider holding Doug’s head flashed into his mind and he shook his head to get it out. “And those ones aren’t saving snacks for later.”
“We don’t have time for this, Tim. We can’t stay here.”
“One tore Doug’s head clean off!” Tim cried, tears pouring now from his eyes.
Mrs Collins looked at him for what felt like a long moment, then turned back to the bell that blocked the door, The spider had managed to move it a little. It was only an inch or so, but the spider wouldn’t need much more before it could squeeze through the gap it left with the top of the door-frame.
“Well, we can’t stay here,” she repeated, “Do you have any better ideas?”
Tim looked out the window, down to the fluffy candy that, mere hours ago, he had wanted so badly. He grimaced, realizing that she was probably right. He climbed out of the window, holding the rope with both hands. The descent was faster than the climb and in no time he had softly landed on the candy. It had hardened a bit as the temperatures had fallen and it was easier to walk on. Mrs Collins descended faster than Tim had expected and she landed next to him.
“We need to go that way,” Mrs Collins said, “Follow me.”
She led the way, avoiding crevices and sinkholes. Tim wondered how had she learned to navigate through difficult terrain.
“I used to hike when I was younger, I don’t do it anymore, though,” she explained, sensing his unasked question.
They continued walking. Despite the spun sugar cover, it was clear that they were going uphill. Tim was feeling very tired, but he braved on, the river was in front of them, he knew, he only needed to walk a bit more. The hill was steeper at every step, when they arrived to the top they saw the river immediately under them, it was three hundred meters away, at most. Safety was at their fingertips, so close and yet so far.
For the entirety of the long trek to the river, Tim had tried desperately not to think of the fact that there might be spiders scurrying directly beneath them. Instead he listened to the crunch of their footsteps, which sounded like they were walking on deep snow. It was impossible to ignore the spider threat any longer, though, when one climbed out of a hole about 30 meters to their right and started scurrying toward them.
“Run to the river!” Mrs Collins yelled, but it hadn’t been necessary, Tim was already running toward the crevice where he knew the water should be. He sprinted as fast as his legs could carry him, hearing the crunch of Mrs Collins’ feet just behind him.
And suddenly there weren’t any footsteps behind him, he turned around to see an enormous spider take Mrs Collins from the waist with its mandibles.
“Run, Tim! There are more coming!” she shouted before the spider vanished carrying her on its mouth.
He ran faster than he had run in all his life. He ran blindly toward the river, jumping over the obstacles that were in his path. He ran and ran and jumped into the river without hesitation when he finally reached its banks. The water was cold and strangely sweet, but it felt like a blessing after having longed for water throughout the day. Two large spiders arrived to the shore as he emerged back to the surface, it had been a close call. They looked at him as he floated in the river before turning around to return to their lair. Tim was alone again, alone and wet and clueless. What should he do? Where would he be safe from the spiders? The flowing waters softly carried him down toward the ocean, and he drifted with them, maybe he would find a safe place downstream, maybe there would be an island free of spiders where he could rest for a while.