I barely rememberwhat caused me to veer from my intended path on that moonless, dim night. Perhaps in my fatigue and belligerence I decided to disregard the instructions of my navigator, a humble piece of plastic and glass, and instead found myself further and further from the interstate, until the device, befuddled by my disobedience, gave up the ghost.
In any case, it wasn’t long before my phone was useless to me. It announced its sudden loss of signal with a melodic chirp, and then sat silent, trying and failing to map my destination any further than I had already reached. I was traveling down long, hilly roads, the kind one reasonably drives along with high-beams on, but the early summer humidity had taken to making annoying clouds of pale mist that hung in the low dips between hilltops, as well as blotting out the sky.
For some hours I went this way, hoping I was crawling towards the interstate that would surely lead me back to succor in some form. Something from within my car gave up the ghost, announcing itself with a loud thud, and suddenly the view in front of me grew hazy.
Wisps of steam exhaled from the edges of my hood as I coasted to a stop in one of the innumerable valleys. I was never the most reliable at having it inspected, and I cursed every passed chance that might have caught whatever flaw now stranded me between two hills that, for all I knew, teetered on the edge of existence.
I sat for some time, hoping either to be discovered by a passing car, or for my phone to scrape some fragment of a signal that I might use to call for help. Neither arrived. So I swallowed my nerves and stepped outside to inspect whether I could do anything.
I was hit immediately with the scent of wet mud, like a stagnant river on a hot day. It was quickly accompanied by the sweet, hot smell wafting from the front of my car. I unlocked the hood and needed to step away as a cloud of potent steam rose to meet my face.
A thick black hose had ruptured, spilling its scalding contents onto my engine, boiling away as it ran over the hot metal. It just as quickly boiled away my hopes of fixing it, as I nearly burned my fingertips on the edge of its steaming rubber. I closed the hood and turned towards the taller of the two hills surrounding me.
I found the combination of late night effort, sweltering heat, and oppressive humidity to be nearly too much for me as I rounded the top of the hill. My faint hope that height would grant my phone some signal vanished. I took to surveying the uneven landscape around me, trying to spy some signs of civilization. Distant lights, the sounds of a highway, or even the faint orange glow on the horizon that usually told of a distant city.
Nothing. It was dark, impenetrable night in all directions.
I stood atop that hill for a long while,watching more and more of my battery drain before I spotted a very distant pair of lights. Had I returned to my car, I would never have seen them. I wish I had taken shelter in it. Closed my eyes and waited for morning. I wish I had been looking the other way. But no, I saw the sure sign of a pair of beams, trundling slowly across uneven ground. I strained my ears and caught the distant, quiet roar of an old engine struggling to pull itself along.
I hurried down the hill, nearly tumbling over myself, waving the light of my phone to try and catch the stranger’s attention. Either they didn’t see me, or they considered me less important than their destination. Either way, I soon saw the reds of their tail lights moving away from me. chasing after them, I stumbled onto the deep, muddy gouges it had left in the soft, wet grass.
Wasting more of my phone’s battery, I used its cheap camera light to follow the tire tracks for what felt like hours. As I rounded hill after hill, I caught sight of distant yellow bouncing off of one of the green inclines. It had the steady dimness of an electric light whose range was reaching far beyond its effectiveness. It was enough of a beacon to try and spare my phone the strain of leading me further, for a while.
I drew closer, sticking to the lows of hills for the sake of my exhausted legs, and soon the light was accompanied by the echoing growl of a gas generator. As I listened, I could barely hear the sound of voices over the mechanical churning.
With the onset of men’s voices, I became acutely aware of how much a stranger I was in this situation, and hoped that I had stumbled onto some strangers having a get together, in good spirits and a charitable mood. It seemed equally likely I could have stumbled onto a gathering of more unsavory sorts. Either way, my options were now to try and find my way back blindly and hope my phone’s battery lasted long enough to reach my car, or to entreat them for help.
I decided that I could either convince them, or bluff them into helping me, and walked closer. I could hear the sound of music beginning, perhaps a stereo, or someone’s car speakers. It was some twangy country tune, but the voice of the man singing distorted as it rebounded off of the numerous hills surrounding me. His melodic lyrics shifted into warbling wails. As I rounded the last hill keeping me from the clearing, the bizarre happening before me immediately made my eyes unfocus, and I struggled to return them to the task at hand
As they reluctantly pulled the scene in front of me into view, I saw a dozen men and half that in pickup trucks, loitering around a few standing work lights, plugged into the droning generator. All of the lights were aimed into a nearby pond, into which cables were strung between heavy poles set onto either side of it. The cables sagged into the dark water with the suggestion of a great weight.
The part of this scene that my eyes fought to focus on was that partway into the water, a great glistening thing was sloughed. Like a massive, bloated grub, fat and snakelike, only it seemed to have no beginning or end. Perhaps one part of it, head or tail, lay beneath the surface of the water. But the other, as best I could tell, stretched upward and outward, into the sky. Had the clouds not been covering the stars, I would surely have been able to make out its true shape. As my eyes were simple and human, however, I could only marvel as the lights glinted off of its body, higher and higher, until it was beyond their reach.
The sight, combined with the overpowering stench of muck and rot that rolled off of it made me lightheaded. As I stared on in horror, the men moved towards the pond. They affixed the cables to hitches on the backs of their vehicles and their drivers pulled forward, their spinning tires spitting mud in great clumps into the waters behind them.
I saw the rising of a filthy, muck-covered thing from its surface.A great orifice puckered and let out a ghastly sucking sound. I could see the malevolent shape of countless teeth arranged in a ring just inside what must have been a mouth. The men who gathered around the waters treated it like a game, hollering and cheering as the eyeless abomination twisted its head around clumsily. One of the men fetched something from his truck, a long, covered parcel that flopped in an unnerving way. He opened it at the edge of the water, and I saw the shape of a man tumble in with a splash.
The creature turned towards it, and I was transfixed as it sucked at the water, dragging the floating corpse towards it with the current of its massive, gulping pulls, before dark tendrils whipped out from behind its teeth and ensnared it. In a flash the body was gone, and the mouth was closed, the long stalk of its grubby flesh behind it undulating in such a way as to suggest swallowing. It was not long before it blindly groped around with its puckering face for another meal.
The men delivered several like meals to it, and I watched in rapt horror as it accepted them all greedily. The sound of its wet suckling, its greedy swallowing, surely these were loud enough to be heard in the next state? Yet nobody came.
One of the men loudly announced his need to relieve himself, his voice suggesting that alcohol was to blame. He staggered in my direction and I hurriedly hid myself as best I could in some foliage. As he loudly evacuated his bladder, another one of his comrades approached.
At this most inopportune moment, my phone decided to remind me that it was without signal. As I held it in my hand, it repeated the same melodic chirp that had originally announced its loss of connection, and its screen briefly flashed. The less drunk of the two men snapped his head in my direction, and upon seeing my light, angrily stomped through the mud towards me. I could hear a weapon being cocked as he demanded I show myself.
With secrecy out of the question, I shoved my phone in my pocket and tried to move away, but my exhausted legs could not hold me steady after so long crouching, and I collapsed into the mud, looking up at the dark silhouette of a man above me. I tried to explain myself, lie that I had seen nothing, but there were no words that could save me. I had seen everything, and he knew it.
I was marched into the clearing by the gun-toting man, while the drunkard yelled, in a sing-song voice “We got a live one! We got a live one!”, merrily running, almost skipping in time with his cruel tune. The other men gathered around us, leaving the massive leech-like thing to its own devices for a moment as they looked me over.
I tried to plead my case to them, that I was only seeking help. I scanned their faces, and saw only derisive, cold smirks as they collectively decided my fate. One of the, a younger man in a red ballcap, spat on the ground and said “Let’s feed him to it!”, a suggestion that was met with revelrous cheering. I tried to turn, to take my chances with the bullet, but I was struck before I could get away, the butt of the man’s gun coming across my temple and dazing me, sending an electric display of streaked colors through my vision.
After what couldn’t have been more than a half-minute or so,the dancing colors receded and I could see the dark waters drawing nearer to me, their disgusting denizen lounging halfway submerged in the water.
One of the men whistled at me and it perked up somewhat, facing its gaping, toothed maw at me. I twisted my head up towards one of the men dragging me. “What is that thing?” I demanded to know, but I was only met with more damned laughter. “Knowing ain’t gonna help you.” he smugly declared.
Brought to the water’s edge, I could see the massive, undulating being stretch itself out in my direction. Its mouth constricted and dilated in horrific rhythm, letting out loud slurping sounds as it lapped at the water. Its stench was no longer covered by the smell of wet mud. Wafting out of its gaping orifice was a horrid combination of wet, rotting vegetation, spoiled meat, and a sickly sweet smell.
I begged and pleaded with my captors, but I was met with a boot in the small of my back, catapulting me forward into the stagnant, brackish water. I fought the urge to sputter and cough and instead managed to surface, trying to swim back to shore, away from my tormentors, and especially away from the awful monster I shared a bath with. As I frantically kicked and slapped at the water, I drew nearer to the shore. Reaching out, I clawed at the mud, only to have my ears filled with that awful sucking sound.
I fought to pull myself up, but the mud offered no purchase, and with screaming terror I watched as the shore moved further away from me, despite my frantic attempts at swimming. Hopelessly lost to panic, I turned back towards the source of the awful sound and saw the mouth, and watched as a tendril whipped out, grabbing my ankle.
Stinging pain shot through the leg and my entire body seized for a moment-and a moment was all it took. I watched as the electric light was rapidly snuffed out, my body being yanked inside the abomination, scraped along its teeth, and dragged into its throat.
I was lost to darkness almost immediately. Even though the tendril had released my ankle, the crushing walls forced me deeper and deeper into it. I gasped for air in the disgusting heat of its body, and found none. I was tossed and turned until I could no longer tell which direction was up. I dare not open my eyes, lest they be gouged out by something, or worse.
Suddenly, I felt a rush of burning air,and my jaw met hard, hot, ground. When I felt no more movement, I snapped my eyes open and looked around. I could see stars above me. Almost immediately I had to cast my vision back to the strange ground I found myself upon. They were searingly bright, like thousands and thousands of suns. I pulled myself to my feet, finding that the ankle I was grabbed by was throbbing with pain. I peered as far as I could around me. The air was clear, and I could see shifting landscape and twisted things at the limits of my vision, choked as it was with blinding light.
I turned around to see from whence I had been expelled and saw a jagged, writhing opening, much the reverse of the maw I had entered through. It moved with a deep, breath-like rhythm, expelling hot air, hotter than the already scorching miasma outside. The ground beneath me was not grass or mud, but hard and leathery, dry and baked by the heat.
I had little more time to take in my surroundings as I suddenly heard the rapid approach of many footfalls. They sounded animal, in nature, and were accompanied by slathering, gasping bays of creatures I had no possible chance of identifying, if they were even earthly to begin with.
I rushed towards one of the distant, twisted shapes I could see, my injured ankle protesting as I pounded it upon whatever passed for ground beneath me. I found a hard, chitinous growth in a shape not unlike a tree. Its edges threatened to cut my hands as I pulled myself up with great difficulty.
It was difficult to see what approached the tree-like growth in the dazzling brightness, but I could hear their wet, ragged breathing as they circled around its base. I shielded my eyes and peered downward at my pursuers. I saw squat, quadrupedal creatures, like furless, eyeless bears, clawing at the base of the black, twisted thing I found myself seated upon. Their wrinkled mouths barked and bayed at me, long tongues flitting out to lash at their potential meal. Horrible as they were, they could not compare to what I had already endured.
Against my better judgement, I held my fingers tightly over my eyes and peered through the cracks at the stars, hoping to identify them. Despite the pain that filled my vision, I was able to find familiar shapes across the sky. Ursa Minor. Orion’s Belt. Venus was a spot of darkness among the sea of refulgent heavenly bodies.
The true weight of these facts slowly dawned on me. If I could see the stars above me, it meant I was still on, or perhaps near earth. I started to pant with the exertion of trying to piece together where I had gone. If the leechlike thing had swallowed me, then why would I be outside? Had its body merely appeared to stretch upwards into the heavens, or had I been wrong, in my initial conclusion? Was the earth, or at least some part of it, swallowed whole by that creature? How could such a thing go unnoticed?
I had known the stars in the past. Even as recently as mere days ago, I had seen them. Yet when they were gone this evening, was it merely the clouds? Or was it the breadth of this creature’s vast internals, blocking these massive, disgustingly blinding lights? How had such a thing gone unnoticed? Was it merely its will that nobody could notice it? Was there a mind, somewhere inside this massive, grublike being? What of astronauts, who had pierced the vault of the heavens and found only darkness. Had they never even left the girth of this monster?
As these facts whirled around me, I was overcome with terror.I no longer cared about the alien beings that snarled and snapped at my feet. I flung myself from my berth and sprinted towards the opening in the ground from which I came. I cried, I begged, burning my lungs and tearing my vocal chords with the volume at which I pleaded for it, or my captors, or anyone to let me back in, please, god let me back in! I clambered onto the jagged orifice that I had exited from, trying to pull and pry it open, to crawl and climb back in, even as it threatened to scrape and crush me to death. The beasts that pursued me reached me and I felt the bite of teeth, the tearing of claws upon the back of my sodden clothes. They tugged and pulled at me, but the pain of their attempts to devour me were nothing compared to the sheer terror of an existence outside of this monstrous being.
By some chance, miracle or damnation, I managed to force the fissure wide enough to hurl myself inside of its unwelcoming darkness. Its muscles spasmed and fought against me, but I dug my nails into the walls of it, grasping at anything that could hold me from falling out into the incandescent world I had just escaped. My ears were full of the sound of blood pumping. Was it mine, or did perhaps this creature possess arteries as well? I had no time to contemplate its nature.
I fought, clawing my way deeper back into its depths, until it constricted completely around me, folding my chest close to my knees. I stubbornly refused to allow myself to be moved out, and dug my fingers into its walls. Hot liquid spurted around my fingertips. Blood? Mucous? It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going anywhere. All at once, it began to spasm violently, as if to shake me loose. Water, perhaps inhaled from its other end, began to pour along its gullet, slamming into me with great force, but I gasped and held my breath as much as I held the rest of me.
I know not how long I clung to the internals of this creature, but eventually it relented, its walls relaxing, the water dropping as it evened out, my face breaking into the foul air, which I gulped down greedily.
Taking no time to bask in my small victory, I forced myself to climb forward. It no longer constricted me, but its flabby flesh still feebly held me back. For what felt like hours, I pushed, until I found the foul, muddy smelling water of the pond. Praying that it was the end, and that the men who had cast me to my cruel fate had gone, I took a deep, hopefully final breath of that awful gas that passed for air inside of my prison, and then pulled myself through the water.
My poor, strained lungs burned as I pulled myself deeper, through the claustrophobic flesh, until I found the scraping teeth, cutting my fingers as I grasped them. I had to force open with arms and legs the maw of the beast, before throwing myself out of it, and desperately swimming upwards. I emerged into dark night, gasping and spluttering water from my lips as I relished the night air. Hot and humid as it was, it was as refreshing as ice water in a drought to my inflamed lungs.
When I was in enough control of my senses to look around, I could see nothing of the men who cast me into it. I could see no lights at all. No cars, no generator, no starlight above. I tiredly swam to the edge and pulled myself onto the ground with what was left off my adrenaline-fueled strength, laying on my pack and staring upwards into the stars.
My phone was lost, no doubt dropped in my fevered escape from that place. I had no way to chart how long I lay on the edge of that pond. I heard no sound from the monster that had consumed me, I saw no undulating movement anymore.
The air around me slowly grew uncomfortably still and stagnant. The stars were out, dimly, above me. I watched them until I saw the gentle pinkish orange of dawn rising. I could see the sun cresting over one of the nearby hills.
It seemed dimmer.