Inhale, Exhale

by MM Schreier

The sound of laughter wakes me. Hunger stirs. Not a growling of the belly, but a yearning to feel, to touch, to taste. It’s not yet night—the setting sun paints the sky bloody. I am still bound to the Veil, formless, unable to touch the world, but growing stronger.

A breeze teases the cornstalks, tousling the drying silk. It brings with it the scent of floral shampoo, stale coffee, and a hint of fear. Not real horror that makes you sweat and tremble, but the kind that makes your heart race in excitement. Jump scares, where you flinch at sudden noises, then collapse in frenzied giggles when you realize it’s only a cat, or your friend leaping out from behind a tree, shouting boo!

Hesitant footsteps patter down the row. I slip from shadow to shadow, drawing closer. She is alone. Dark hair swept into a ponytail bobs back and forth as she walks. Her wide eyes dart around, but she laughs as she calls out to her friends. Voices echo from around the maze, some whooping, some cracking in feigned terror.

I gather the twilight around me, and the air chills. She shivers, pulling her sweatshirt sleeves down over her hands. Her breath puffs white. I mimic her—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I no longer breathe, but I remember how.

As the sun sinks out of sight, I shift, becoming more connected to the mortal plane. I still cannot feel, not like I long to, but have some semblance of control. Darkness grown solid. Deliberately, I rustle the corn behind her. She whirls. I sense her pulse flutter, hot and rapid at the base of her neck. Though I cannot feel it, I imagine this spike of fear is the real thing.

She pulls out her phone and shines the light into the wall of stalks. I become one with the shadows. She looks through me as if I am not real.

I don’t feel real. Not yet.

“Guys?” Her voice wavers, as she looks up and down the deserted path. “Where is everyone?”

I snatch the sound out of the air. She’ll hear no response. This game is just for her and me.

Silent, I sidle up behind her. Her skin smells like lavender soap. Scents torment me. Why can I still smell when I have no body? I sniff her hair. She cannot feel my nonexistent breath on the warm shell of her ear, but still, the baby-fine hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.

I lean close and whisper a simple command, “Run.”

She obeys.

The chase is part of the fun. I follow as she darts down the path. With a flick of my wrist, I direct the shadows to bend the cornstalks inward, closing the way behind her. She glances over her shoulder and chokes on a yelp. Eyes off the path, she stumbles on a root and falls to her hands and knees. Light flickers and dies.

“Shit!” She fumbles in the dirt, but one of my tendrils of darkness snakes forward, devouring her phone like a python swallowing a mouse.

Overhead, the Harvest moon rises, a bright orange eye in a starless sky. Once again, I compel the shadows to bend the cornstalks. They curve into a tunnel blocking out the light. The girl lumbers to her feet and limps onward. Broad leaves brush her face. She swats them away, shuddering as if walking through cobwebs.

Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It comes faster now.

Ahead, the path ends in an intersection. She stumbles to a halt. I can almost hear her thoughts, left or right? Both choices look the same. She screams for her friends again. I can hear a shout in the distance and I grab it. Twist it, soften it, redirect it.

“Over here!”

She turns right, towards the harvested voice.

A few more steps. If I had breath, I’d hold it.

She shivers when she steps over my unmarked grave. Or maybe it’s when I slip inside her. For a moment the dual perspectives disorient me. Two hard-packed paths in the dirt. Two Harvest moons. A thousand drying stalks of corn, in a blurry sea of yellow-green.

Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.

I can feel our lungs expand. The crisp fall air is bracing. I shrug out of the sweatshirt and the chill pebbles our skin with goosebumps. Exhilarating. Her thoughts scrabble at our brain, but I push them to the back. I’m in control now. At least until the sun comes up.

I strip off our shoes and socks, wriggle our toes in the cool soil. Reaching up, I trail our fingers through the cornsilk. So soft. I giggle. My voice sounds odd coming from her lips. I skip forward a few steps, figuring out her limbs. Mine had been longer.

Turning around, I make our way towards the maze’s exit. She should have turned left. There are keys in our pocket. I hope this time it’s a convertible. A grin stretches our lips. I can’t wait to feel the wind in our hair. The night is short, and there’s so much I want to do.

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