Prompt: A young adventurer discovers a cave they’ve never seen before, but it’s not empty; there’s a bed and a working kitchen. Who lives there and why?
Every single inch of her great-aunt’s backyard had been explored by the time July wound down, all except the one gully protected by the belligerent thorn bush that had somehow sewn its thorns, like caltrops, for a hundred feet around it.
Nora borrowed her great-aunt’s orange waders, that went past her knees, in order to traverse the spines. On her afternoon expedition she carried everything an adventurer could conceivably need. The estate sprawled, so she made sure to fill her backpack with bug spray, sun screen, a butterfly net, binoculars, compass, and her field guide. She was quite proud of it as she’d written it herself. She didn’t want to overestimate, but there were likely the first sketches of at least twelve species new to science.
The dark lip of the gully, just visible beyond the range of the thorns, spoke to her. She guessed there were at least five more new species down there, maybe having a celebration over not being found and cataloged yet. She had a very official cataloging system by the by; she carried an actual catalog. Easy Shopping from your Easy Chair. Her great-aunt called it her bible, but said it was even better because she got a different bible every month.
Almost everything in the house her great-aunt inherited, a house Nora may inherit if her she never figured out how to ‘net a man long enough for rings or contracts’, had been purchased from the catalog. She forgot to remove nearly eighty percent of the price tags. The issue Nora had rolled up in her pack was three months old, so it was fair game as far as scientific supplies went. Whenever she discovered a new species she found the right letters in the catalog, cut them out, and made an official entry in the field guide.
The boots did their job admirably. She could practically hear the thorn bush grumbling under its breath. She looked back at it, which was a mistake. The rubber boots slipped on a wet stone, and she fell into the gully. It was deeper than she thought; Nora was quite lucky to hit a pile of leaves instead of direct stone.
She brushed herself off and stood. It was dim. Some sort of cave! That was better than ten new species. Fossils. It had to have fossils. She brought out her magnifying glass with the yellow plastic handle and searched every stone crevice. She did eventually make a find, but it wasn’t what even the mildest parts of her imagination suspected: a simple plaque on the stone. Three words: Imagination Echo Chamber
Nora sat down to catalog her findings. It wasn’t an animal, but she still thought it should go in the field guide. She tore a page from the catalog that displayed a model kitchen, each of its components, its price, and its price on sale. Time turned out to be quite short. She was called for dinner before she could even cut out the first letter. Nora set the page down, surely the wind wouldn’t pick it up that deep, and climbed the uneven stones out of the cave. Tomorrow.
Dinner was baked cod. Dreams were good, if dull. Breakfast was cereal, extra sugar request denied. Lunch was a turkey sandwich with extra mayonnaise, just the way Nora liked her dark meat. Then, it was time to venture forth once more, into the unknown. This time she avoided tripping and descended into the cave carefully.
The waders landed on tile. Not a picture of tile. Tile. The girl gasped and whirled around. A kitchen? Gone were the smooth stone walls and their hundred slug trails. It was all even tile now, light blue in color. There was a sink, an oven, a table, and a woman standing there, facing the stove top.
“Uhh, this is my cave lady,” Nora said. “I discovered it. You’re squatting. I have to ask you to vacation!” She pointed at the crack above them.
“You mean ‘vacate’?” the woman asked. She turned as well. She looked very familiar, as if she’d been on TV, but it was the kind of TV that was on super late, that tried to hypnotize you into staying awake but not going anywhere. She was pretty, but her smile was thin as paper, like the… Nora looked around. The catalog page was gone. “It’s all here,” the woman said, reading the girl’s expression. “The food processor for $235.55, the toaster for $42.99, the panini press for $35.21…”
“This all came out of the catalog?” Nora asked. “How is it real? Who are you?”
“Silly girl, didn’t you read the sign?” She pointed a sparkling fingernail at the plaque on the wall, still visible: Imagination Echo Chamber. “Any idea you leave here gets exaggerated, until it’s real. As far as I go… well if there’s a kitchen, somebody has to own it.” Her smile widened. “Sit down in this beautiful oak $129.55 chair! I made pancakes! It’s a shame you didn’t leave me an advert for a waffle iron.”
The woman circled around Nora and pushed on her back, driving her into the chair. It was comfortable. A moment later there was a stack of fluffy pancakes right in front of her; its scent shot up her nose, as if a fire was lit under her brain. She could see a little price stamped into the batter, but that wouldn’t affect the taste. Nora grabbed a silver fork, $11.89, and dug in. There was whipped cream, fresh fruit, and two different colorful syrups mingling. She forgot all about last night’s oily cod.
“You can come here every day,” the woman said as the girl ate. “You can bring me all sorts of new toys, and they’ll be light as paper. I can have a blender with a hundred settings, a dehydrator that can handle a watermelon, a…”
“Welf, I’ll…” Nora chewed and swallowed. It was so warm in her stomach, like a fluffy animal curled up by the fire. “This is the best free food I’ve ever had! I’ll never get my field guide done at this rate.” She went for another bite, but the woman’s hands tightened on her shoulders and forced her to drop the fork.
“Free? Don’t be silly little girl. You saw the prices. None of this is free. What am I working for if it’s free? I don’t even eat. Field guide hmm? You’re a scientist? They don’t get paid very well… We’ll have to arrange something else. One easy payment of your soul should do. You’re not using it right? We can just fill that space with pancakes!” She giggled, and it went on for far too long. The moment her grip loosened Nora crawled on top of the table and jumped off the other side. She pulled out her butterfly net and brandished it like a rapier.
“Not a chance lady! I’m not bringing anything else down here!” The woman’s smile stayed, but her eyes contorted into wrinkled rage. She rushed forward in her high heels, tile cracking under each strike.
“You must pay!” she shrieked, but Nora was halfway up the stone ladder already. The owner of the kitchen grabbed one wader and yanked. Nora abandoned the boot. Thorns in the foot was a suitable price to pay; her soul was not.
The shrieking faded as she ran. Nora had all sorts of plans to defeat the woman. She could drop pictures of vicious animals in there and wait for them to come life, or perhaps something from an old war book. By the time she arrived at the house, those ideas had been discarded for a more practical one. There was a hose, a very long one.
Nora dragged it out and turned it on. She listened to the woman shriek until it became a burble. She waited the entire evening, arms held perfectly still to keep the water flowing into the cave. When she was done she looked down and saw a skin of water with a single floating catalog page.
The woman was gone, but suddenly Nora felt like her field guide efforts meant little, like she wouldn’t be taken seriously. She flipped to the pages where she’d drawn several new species of fish. She ripped them out, balled them around stones, and dropped them into the echo chamber. Tomorrow she would have her proof. Her field guide would be a bestseller.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by HopeOfDecember during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!