Photo by David Sola on Unsplash

Today marks the publication of the third of our top five stories in the 10th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, and our third place finalist, Noah Gibeault’s “Nyctous.” The theme of this year’s contest was “But There’s a Catch,” and Noah’s story utilized a metaphor of a mirror to advance its plot. In fact, this story submerges you in sensory details and dream details. According to our judge Laurin Jefferson, “The descriptions of the dreams and the way Cassio moves through the environment were quite compelling.” We hope you enjoy it!

I picked myself up off the sandy earth, wincing from the pain of my blistered fingers coming in contact with the sandy dunes of the unfamiliar desert I found myself in. My skin was cracked and dry; and where it didn’t crack, it peeled. It peeled raw as the cells of my skin killed themselves one after another, in a futile attempt to avoid becoming cancerous. Worse than the searing pain of my cracked and peeling skin though, was the dry sensation of my mouth and tongue. My tastebuds, or at least what remained of them, were overwhelmed with the taste of blood as my dried-out lips and tongue split and cracked. However, overshadowing the taste was the burning sensation that came with each raspy, pathetic attempt at breathing the dry air, as my lungs were filled more with sand than oxygen. I thought I’d experienced the limits of pain, although, with each step I took, I learned of a deeper and deeper agony. I weakly waded through the sand, eventually coming to nothing more than a slow, shallow excuse for a crawl. I looked up to see what I could only assume to be hawks or vultures circling overhead, although to me they were nothing more than shapes; amorphous black blobs I could barely make out as my sunburned eyes blurred in vision. I was never a religious man, although in my desperation, with what little movement I was left capable of, and with what little breath I had left; I prayed. Through the numbness left in the wake of what was once excruciating pain, and through dry, voiceless breaths, I prayed, although nothing came of it. No sound was left in my being to leave my body, and even if there was, there was no one to hear it. Although as futile as it was, in those moments, I would’ve given anything for the faintest semblance of moisture in those moments. As my blurred vision faded to black, I woke up. 

My eyes shot open as I gasped for air. I sat in darkened silence, interrupted only by the ticking of the analog clock hung on the wall, and the dripping of a faucet in the adjacent room. I lifted the covers and rotated my body so my legs were dangled off the edge of the bed, as my feet planted on the hardwood floor—a numbness shot up my leg as I tried to stand and struggled to balance, as though my legs were still asleep—I clumsily fumbled my way to the door, gripping the edges of any nearby furniture and planting my hands firm on any reachable wall, in an attempt to stay upright as I made my way down the hall and to the left, where I was met with the dripping faucet of my bathroom sink. It’d drip like this about once a week for the past few months, which would typically annoy me, although right now I was just glad to hear the sound of water. I lifted the lever-like handle, affixed to the side of the faucet, and scooped my hands under the running water, shoveling the clear, cold liquid into my mouth. Still delirious, I struggled to remember how to swallow, forcing the water down my throat, and with each gulp I mustered, my thirst grew stronger, and before I was even aware of it, I’d given up on scooping the water into and down my gullet and had cricked my neck sideways, positing my head and mouth beside the stream of water, attempting to use the faucet like a water fountain, as my mind and body demanded more and more water with each sip I took. Eventually, my craving caught up with me, as my thirst transitioned to nausea, and I found myself vomiting a majority of the liquid I had just consumed, leaving a slimy, clear, sloshing puddle of somewhat viscous discharge in and around the bowl of the nearby toilet. As I regained my composure, I felt lighter, and dribbles of water dripped from my agape mouth, onto my shirt, as the thirst and nausea were again replaced by a throbbing headache. As putrid as it all was, it was the only thing to save me from my impulses. As I lifted my head from my curled-over position, I was met with a mirror, and in it a disheveled self, having bloodshot eyes, shadowed by deep, darkened bags; and behind me I saw Solana, standing in the doorway. They met me with a sweet, radiant smile, and welcoming eyes—although I could see it in the way they carried themselves; they were scared—I recoiled, slightly, half-frightened, half-remorseful, wishing they hadn’t witnessed that, and not knowing how much they actually had witnessed. “Cassio?” Solana’s voice was bright, yet shaky. “How long have you been standing there?” My voice was no steadier than theirs. “Long enough.” they spoke with a distinct hesitation, “Are you okay?” I opened my mouth to speak, although I didn’t know what to say; I took a contemplative pause and finally said, “I don’t know, Celeste.” Celeste was Solana’s middle name, and what I often opted to call them. Despite Celeste’s obvious fear and worried look, they took my face in their hand, caressing my cheek with their thumb, “I’ll clean this up. You go back to bed.” I didn’t protest. I just nodded. Above the mantle to our bedframe sat an ovular mirror, accented by a jewelry stand, and a teddy bear on either side of it. It stared at the mirror for a moment, still bewildered by the events of the last hour. It was me. Eventually, I lay down, and despite some struggle and unease, fell back asleep. 

I was met again with a vast, sandy, desert landscape, although this time, It was not hot, or dry, dreadfully excruciating; It was calm. I was hit by the chill of an autumn breeze as a shadowed figure in the distance made itself apparent. It was conspicuous, although not intimidating; I was reluctant, although not quite scared. I walked toward it, wading my feet through the sand until the figure came close enough into view for me to make out its shape. It was a scarecrow. A lonely scarecrow stood among a vast, otherwise empty desert, as though it was waiting for me. “Cassio,” a harsh, whispered voice, came from the scarecrow’s straw lips. It knew my name, although more concerningly than that, It could speak. “Who are you?” I was reluctant to ask, almost as though I knew I wouldn’t receive an answer. “Do not let the Nyctocereus bloom.” And with that, the scarecrow had turned to sand, and was blown away by the same wind that came to chill me. 

Warm sunlight beamed onto my face from the slanted glass roof overhead, It was soothing, although ensnaring, making me not want to move. Eventually, after having lain there for nearly an hour, simply allowing myself to soak up the sun, Celeste came in through the maple and glass door, with an espresso finish, calling me to breakfast. I could smell the distinct scent of cinnamon rum sauce and crepes wafting through the doorway, as I forced myself out of bed. I followed the scent of cinnamon and looked out the kitchen window of our “Cowboy Modern Eco-Home” in the Chihuahuan desert, just north-east of Guanajuato, barely separated from the rest of civilization—we were fairly self-sufficient, although we’d occasionally wander into town on a day we found ourselves needing anything and today, according to my fiance, just so happened to be one of those days—Celeste was as caring and sweet this morning as she would be any other, giving away to no indication as to if she’d even remembered the events of last night. I was anxious and unsure about if she’d view me any differently, or how she felt about the events of last night, if at all; although I chose to stay silent and not ask her anything of it for now. She wore the same infectious smile she always had, filling my heart with an irresistible blend of melancholy and joy, although she was quiet this morning; unusually quiet. She wasn’t quiet in the distanced way people are when they’re uncomfortable, but rather in the way that she simply didn’t have much to say—although it was nonetheless, unnerving in a sense, riddling me with the unshakable sensation that she had something else on her mind; something she couldn’t bring herself to verbalize.
We finished our breakfasts as she grabbed her sun hat off a hook on the wall by our front door and let me know she’d be going out into town for the day. I started toward my shoes when Celeste stopped me, reminding me that I had chores to attend to at home and that she’d better go into town alone today. I reluctantly agreed and sent her off on her way to town. I stayed home, retrieving water from the well, and attending to our garden, while waiting for my fiance’s return. The bright day-lit sky slowly turned to a mellow amber as the day progressed, and eventually grew to contain a faint twinkle in the darkened sky as dusk approached, followed closely by the moon-lit sky of night, with no signs of Celeste’s return. As the clock approached 1 a.m. I attempted to go to sleep, convincing myself that Celeste’s exceptionally quiet demeanor this morning was simply a sign she needed some distance and that she’d used the guise of going into town to stay with a friend, or get a motel and take some time to herself. Despite what I told myself, I found myself unable to fall asleep, anxious in anticipation of Celeste’s return, and concerned for her safety but also scared for my own, perturbed by the recent night’s dreams. I found myself staring at the ceiling, and staring, and staring, and staring until the monotonous ticking of the clock on the wall and the dripping of the same leaky faucet as the nights prior began to drive me mad. Unable to handle another second of a not-so-silent ticking and drip-filled silence, I reached for my phone and dialed Celeste’s phone number. I waited, listening to the rings in anticipation, hoping she might answer, but after a few drawn-out, dread-filled seconds, which seemed to last an eternity, the ringing stopped, and I was directed to voicemail. I called her again, and again, and—I heard a familiar ringtone coming from the kitchen. I forced myself out of bed, sprinting down the hall, only to find Celeste’s phone, alone, on the counter, without its owner accompanying it; she had left her phone at the house. I called all of Celeste’s friends, and the owners of the shops she and I most frequented, inquiring as to whether any of them had even seen Celeste the previous day. Most who picked up were somewhat delirious from the aubadoir accompanied by being awoken by a 5 a.m. call; although despite their delirium, I could tell that none of them were lying or misremembering when they told me they hadn’t even seen Celeste.I began to spiral in a kudoclasmic panic, my hands shaking as I wrestled with myself to press the 3 simple buttons: 911. My voice rattled as I struggled to explain my situation to the operator. I was made to file a missing person’s report, and that they’d open an investigation, although nothing more could be done to help me at the time.
I sat and waited at home, alone, forcing myself to continue with my daily tasks and chores, due to a refusal to let Celeste come home to a neglected house. Three days had passed with no word from Celeste, her friends, or the police. I found myself unable to sleep, and had gone those 4 nights without a moment of rest; although in my restless delirium, I remembered: the dream I had the night before Celeste’s disappearance. I struggled to wrap my head around who the figure in the dream was, and what he had meant, although I could remember it vividly, “Do not let the Nyctocereus bloom,” he said; but what did that mean? What even was Nyctocereus? Through my fogged mind, although secretly knowing it was probably just a dream, I convinced myself that it had to mean something, or at the very least, I needed something to preoccupy me and distract me from the disappearance of my fiance; anything to hold on to some faint sliver of hope that she’d not be gone for good. After struggling to figure out the spelling of Nyctocereus, I’d found something—it was a genus of cactus that only blooms at night, and apparently, there was a large patch of them in the Chihuahuan desert, just north of me, due reach maturity and bloom after a long 50-year wait, in a mere couple of days.

I made no unnecessary delays, and hastily hopped in my car, and headed out for the desert. I didn’t quite know why, I had no reason to believe this to be of any significance, but something was drawing me to it, as though I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I’d at least not tried to go. The patch of Nyctocereus due to bloom, was approximately 16 hours North, just barely East of Villa Ahumada, a small town and the municipality of Ahumada in the state of Chihuahua. Despite its distance, it took me about 20 hours to reach Villa Ahumada, as I frequently stopped at rest stops to top off the caffeine my body was barely running off of. After reaching the Villa the next day, I went around the shops, talking to the locals, asking anyone if they’d seen a woman matching Celeste’s description. I had no reason to believe she was here and wasn’t even fully sure why I was there, but something told me I had to try. I’d spent all day and night searching for something, when I had found myself in an all-night bar, at around 4 in the morning, barely hanging on to consciousness, and ready to give up all hope, when someone from across the bar heard me explaining my situation to the bartender—he had a rugged beard and a dirty face, with his eyes shadowed by soot, and the tips of his fingernails painted brown from dirt residing beneath them, although his teeth where a bright, uncharacteristically gleaming white, and he had a determined glean to his eye. “I saw her,” he spoke, his voice closely resembling that of the scarecrows, “headin’ out of town. Eastward, into the desert. Didn’t look to be much life left in her, but she fits the description you been tryin’ to match.” I sat and stared at him, with a tear forming in my eye, unable to speak. I was in disbelief, and most of me doubted the truth behind his story, and the part of me that did believe it, doubted it was even Celeste this man had seen, but it was all I had to go on. “Partner?” he spoke again. “What’s your name?” my voice trembled. “Kuebiko, Manuel Kuebiko.” I reached to take his hand in my palms and shake it with gratitude “I’m Ca-” he interrupted me, “Cassio, right? You best be on your way if you wanna find that gal you’re lookin’ for.” He was right. Without giving it a second thought I leapt from my chair and headed for the door. As I had one hand on the door I stopped and turned to thank him, but he was gone, without a trace, as if he’d never been there to begin with. I, still a little rattled and confused, decided not to waste any more time questioning it and began toward the desert.

The man, Kuebiko, told me he’d seen Celeste headed eastward, the same direction the Nyctocereus patch was supposed to be, so having no other clues to go on, that’s where I headed. I drove out into the desert toward the Nyctocereus patch for what felt like 20 miles, when I found that the dirt road had ended, and had to abandon my vehicle to continue forward. Although luckily, after struggling to walk another 10 miles or so in the beating desert heat, just as the sky was darkening, and the day was approaching dusk, I saw a humanoid figure in the distance. It looked like my fiance. It looked like Solana Celeste. I ran toward her, through the wading sand, and quickly noticed several shapes looming behind her; it was the patch of Nyctocereus. The patch that was due to bloom that night. I didn’t know why, but I knew that the scarecrow from my dream several nights prior had instructed me not to allow them to bloom, although I had no idea how to stop them, so I at least needed to try to get Celeste away from them. I continued forward, toward Celeste, for what felt like forever; her figure continually getting closer, but still seeming impossibly far out of reach, until I had finally caught up with her. She was slowly wading toward the Nyctocereus, with eyes resembling that of the dead, as though she were a zombie. I ran in front of her, putting my arms out to stop her, making sure I was in view. I’m not sure why, but the moment she saw me, she smiled the same sweet smile I knew and loved, and her eyes regained the beautiful glow they’d always had. She ran into my arms, hugging me in a long, loving embrace, as I held her tight, and closed my eyes, burying my face in her neck. Finding her and seeing her seemed okay; it made me relieved, and as my worries melted away, I began to forget about the Nyctocereus. As dusk approached night, I kneeled in her embrace, with my eyes closed, taking in and savoring the relief.

As I began to release her embrace, I opened my eyes, seeing the darkness of the night, and remembered I had to get her out of there. “Celeste, we have to go.” Before I could bring myself to stand, I smelled flowers. I looked back at the Nyctocereus and saw that they’d already begun to bloom. I, scared, grabbed Celeste’s hand as to lead her toward the car, but was meant with the prick of a cactus. I turned to look at her, and in her place was a cactus, with beautiful white flowers blooming in the place of her hair and at the ends of her limbs and joints. I felt something run down and tickle my neck, and placed my hand upon it to see what it was, only to find my fingertips were bloodied. My neck, face, and arms were bleeding from the shallow cuts of a cacti’s needles. She’d been a cactus from before the embrace had even ended—in fact, I wasn’t sure if what I was embracing had ever been anything but a cactus, starting to think I may have hallucinated it all, like a sick and twisted mirage. Nonetheless, despite my unsureness, part of me knew that regardless of whether that was real or just a mirage, I’d never see Celeste again.

I dragged my weight back to my car, and headed to the only place I could think to head; back home.  Arriving at our house, I walked into the bathroom, finding that the faucet was still leaking, and looked into the mirror. My neck was smeared with dried blood, my beard had grown rugged and disheveled, and my face was stained with tears. I stared into the mirror, into my dead soulless eyes, and despite everything, it was still Cassio Nox. I looked into the mirror, and despite everything, it was still me.

About Noah Gibeault 452 Articles

Noah Gibeault is a senior at Clayton A. Bouton High School.

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