There’s nothing better than the feeling when you finish a long run and you know you got through something difficult with only your own body and willpower. It cleared my mind, too. I can’t tell you how much I miss it—running to run, instead of running to survive. That, and having a body of my own.
My friend and fellow teacher, Louise, talked me into doing a half-marathon with her. We were about a month out from the race when we had one of those late-summer heat waves that seem to hit New England every other year now. Usually, we went in the morning to ensure we got our workout done. This particular day, though, it was like 90 degrees—way too hot for anything strenuous outside. We didn’t want to move the long run because the next day was always a rest day, so we’d start screwing up our next week’s schedule. We decided the best thing was to wait till dark.
As a proud townie, Louise knew every footpath, backroad, and side-street in the area. She always designed our route. Since it was the first time we’d be out after dark, she made sure to stick to familiar, well-lit areas as much as possible.
It wasn’t a big town, but I think every place has a few areas that get a bit rowdy when the sun goes down. We wanted to avoid a long, flat stretch on the western edge of town called the Chatterscape Road, which runs parallel to a set of disused train tracks. Chatterscape meanders from the old courthouse in town all the way out to what hunters and snowmobilers call the Burnt Lands. Out there it’s all farmland and heavy woods, but the part within town limits is rough—northern Maine, the part the tourists and summer people never see, has real problems with poverty and drugs. In our town, the worst of the worst tended to collect and fester in that particular spot. It was five miles of rusting trailers, tangled yards strewn with holy tarps and sun-bleached cars on cinderblocks and rusty swing-sets bent in ways that looked like a giant sat on them. There was even an old duplex—an alleged whorehouse now—where Louise’s uncle and his friend witnessed a stabbing when they were teenagers.
Locals called this stretch Chattertown, a combination of the name of the street, the fact that it’s an insular community unto itself, and the fact that after the bar district on Main Street quiets down, you can still hear the chatter drifting up the hill into town. I always thought it sounded the way a persistent itch feels. Every weekend there were sirens down there after midnight. It’s the kind of place where trouble tends to find you.
Even Louise, the most straight-laced, soccer mom-type I knew, had crazy stories going all the way back to when she was a kid. When she was 12, one of her friends had even been grabbed and pulled into a graffiti-covered trailer by a shirtless old man. Louise said he only had one eye—not a patch, not a fake eye, just a shriveled purple hole where an eye was supposed to be.
“Melissa was twisting and turning pretty good, as you can imagine. If the hood to her coat hadn’t torn off before he got her up the steps…” Louise just shook her head as if to say she didn’t want to imagine the possibilities.
We had 9 miles to cover that night. Our research revealed that a rough circle around the outskirts of town came to exactly 8.5 miles. Add in the distance from the park where we closed our loop to the short hop back to my house and voila, 9 miles almost on the dot. Louise did a great job keeping us on familiar streets most of the time. The only tricky part was that west side of town.
If we stayed downtown, we’d cut too much off that side of our loop and end up having to repeat part of our route, which we agreed seemed boring. Apart from going through Chattertown, the only option was to run on the old Great Northern tracks for about 3 miles until we could cut back to town on a gravel access road Louise knew about. Option three was running through the woods in the dark, which was basically asking for a poked-out eye or busted ankle, which would be stupid at any time but especially so close to the race we’d been working toward all summer. We weren’t excited about it, but in the end the tracks won out.
We left at dusk. The first part was fun, like an adventure. The wind had come up with the dark, a glorious reprieve after the heat of that day. Some of the gusts were strong enough to rain twigs and leaves and acorns on us. The wind had that nervy, electric quality that presages the arrival of a big storm.
We were talking about everything you can imagine except for the stretch on the railroad tracks, which we knew was coming up. It wasn’t the tracks themselves that made me apprehensive. It was the fact that we were going to have dense woods and Fowler Stream to our left and, through a stand of trees thin enough to see its dingy, irregular lights, Chattertown on the right.
As we turned past the old courthouse and started down the tracks, I remember feeling like we were running down a dock and as soon as the woods closed in on either side of us, it was like plunging into pitch black water. Watching our headlamp beams bounce along the tracks had a queasy, eerie effect, like a car with chameleon-eye headlights. For some reason these images taken together filled me with implacable dread. Louise got real quiet, too.
All around us, the wind brought the leaves to a hiss that would swell and retreat, swell and retreat. Under this, we could hear the tinny namesake din of Chattertown. I quickened my pace. Louise matched me.
Neither of us said a word for a long time. We were going too fast to talk. I was a little ahead of Louise, trying as hard as I could to think about anything but how many shades of black the trees were to our left and what might be going on a few hundred yards to our right, what those voices were shouting and cackling about, what kind of engine was whining at ever-higher decibels (a power tool, I thought, pushing away images of a chainsaw held aloft), or whether that echoing female voice was a squeal of delight or a scream.
I heard a sharp crack, like Louise kicking up a big rock. Then I heard her swear. Like I said, she taught second grade and always scolded me for swearing too much, so right away I knew it was bad. Even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I stopped and turned around.
She was hunched down, breathing hard, fiddling with her phone. She swore again. She held it up. The screen was shattered, irregular rainbow pixels lining the worst of the cracks like enflamed digital flesh. It did not respond to her touch.
I knew exactly what her look meant. I didn’t run with a phone, ever—to me that defeated the whole point. All I had was a water bottle. Also, I had told her more than once that the arm sleeve she put her phone in was meant for an older, smaller model. An exchange of yells bounced to us, two or three harsh male voices, this time seeming to come from behind, on the tracks we’d just covered.
I helped her up and promised I’d go with her to the store to get a new phone that week. It sucked, I agreed, but we needed to keep going. She kept fiddling with it, trying to will it to do something. The hoarse holler of a woman’s voice carried from Chattertown, close enough to make out the words “not,” “fucking” and what sounded like “blow me” or “owe me.”
A frenzied pack of dogs barked over each other. Heavy glass shattered, like a windshield or the pane from a screen door. Louise slipped the remains of her phone back into the arm strap and took off. With effort, I caught up.
We rounded a long, gradual curve in the tracks that led down a gentle decline deeper into the woods. By the time we hit the next straightaway, Chattertown was basically behind us. The voices were white noise nipping at our heels, along with occasional yelps and squalls of what I told myself was laughter beyond the swaying trees. Even though we were getting further away, I was more nervous than ever. I guess it’s easy to say now, maybe I’ve even convinced myself over time, but I seem to remember this heavy feeling that something was coming—that the worst was still ahead.
After a few minutes, Louise slowed down, and called over her shoulder that the path back to town was around the next curve on our left. I think she was trying to reassure herself as much as give me a heads up.
I followed her onto a thin weedy slope beside the tracks and slowed to make sure I could keep my footing. I looked down to give my feet some light and when I looked up I crashed right into her back.
When I got up, my palms were trying to decide between numbness and dull pain and I was at the bottom of a shallow embankment between the trees and the tracks. Louise was crab-crawling backward on the tracks, fixated on something ahead. She didn’t ask if I was all right. In profile, I saw her lips working soundlessly.
I scrambled back up to her, the whole time asking if she was all right. She just pointed ahead. It was so dark. The dark moved. I dragged her to her feet.
The dark became a shape, wide and boxy, and with a sort of twitch the blackness shifted and I could make out a big rectangle ahead. As we squinted, the darkness became a rusty cargo van parked across the tracks. I might have assumed it was abandoned except that the trees to the right were suddenly illuminated by its headlights. I smelled swamp. Its engine still ticked and clicked, as if it had come to rest here after a long and arduous journey.
We stood watching it, not sure what to do. I knew right away it was bad. Not the situation, anyone could see that. I mean I knew the van was bad.
My gut quivered, tensed, as if expecting a blow. I’ll tell the truth, I actually thought I might shit myself right there. The van stood in our path, giving the distinct impression that it was watching us. No matter how far we backed away, I still felt too close.
I asked Louise what she thought we should do. As she answered, the van began to rock. The suspension groaned and gave a grinding whistle as the faded red body swayed. A big gust of wind carried the voices of Chattertown to us through the swirling rustle of leaves. Those dogs sounded closer now, more numerous. I was worried they were a pack of desperate strays. Maybe they were following us. The next gust turned my sweat to flecks of ice. Beside me, Louise’s teeth gave a small chitter.
I grabbed her arm. The van inched forward toward the trees, the beam from the headlights expanding, then contracting as it turned and drifted away from us. It paused, straddling the tracks. I had time to feel a hint of relief before it began backing toward us, its single red taillight flickering in the dark.
I don’t know if it was panic, it was like a blown fuse in my head. I knew I wanted to move but I couldn’t. Now I think that might be part of how it works, how it hunts.
It backed toward us, its smudged rear windows gliding toward our faces, dark enough to block out the rest of the night. The engine didn’t seem to be on—it was like it was driving in neutral. Its tires crunched over the pebbles around the tracks until we could reach out and touch the rear doors.
Even in the poor light I saw it was filthy—flaking paint, blotches of rust, dark grime from bumper to windows, as if it had spent years moldering in a junkyard. Limp brown plants hung like a dead thing’s tentacles from the cracks around the door. The license plate was too dirty to read, even to tell what color it had once been. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed a pattern on the window. There were long streaks running from top to bottom—the tracks of clawing fingers.
A hand slapped the rear window. It hit so hard the van shook, creaking on its worn suspension. I remember wanting to scream, thinking I should, but I couldn’t make a sound.
I knocked over Louise jumping away from it. We were tangled on the ground, staring at this small hand, like a child’s hand, pressed against the window. Its fingers curled a little, stretching, and that was when I noticed they had six fingers. Tapping on the glass. Two patterns of three—ba-da-DUM, ba-da-DUM. It slid down out of sight.
Louise said someone was trapped in there, maybe a kid in danger. Some Chattertown freak had kidnapped him. I knew, somehow, I felt, that there was no child in there, not even a human being. Whatever was in there just wanted us to think it was a child. I no sooner opened my mouth to say this when Louise started ripping on the door handle to get into the van, yelling about how we’re here to help, don’t be afraid.
After some struggle with the door, she got her whole body into it and it came groaning open. Dark liquid came dumping out of this thing, like it was filled with the stuff. The wave bowled Louise tumbling over on the tracks and it just kept coming, more and more, an impossible amount. I realized she was going to drown if I didn’t help her. I also realized the liquid was not brown as I initially thought, but the exact shade of red I didn’t want it to be. It replaced the sticky air with a throat-numbing stench of sweaty metal and burning hair.
I half-stepped, half-fell forward, plunged my arm into the red torrent and felt around for her. I couldn’t tell what I was grabbing but finally I got what felt like a fistful of clothes.
I almost tripped on the tracks hauling her out. I turned her onto her side and I couldn’t tell if the blood oozing out of her mouth and nose was hers or the van’s. I shook her, pounded her back, trying to get it all out. There was so much.
Snarling down the tracks, a gnashing snort followed by a pitiful whimper. The Chattertown pack must be close and now we were covered in some kind of blood. As I looked Louise over, I realized that wasn’t even the worst of it—there were bits, squishy chunks of coagulation, bunches of hair, unidentifiable pink shreds. I browned out a little when I saw the teeth—small teeth including a disproportionate number of canines, caught in Louise’s hair.
She was choking and sputtering and vomiting. I slammed on her back, tried to talk to her, but I realized that I had my back to the van. Over my gore-soaked shoulder was a gaping void in the darkness, jostling gently from side to side above the tracks. It looked like it was laughing.
I tried to get her to her feet but she slipped right through my hands. She was so slick from the viscera, I couldn’t hold her. She shot back to the ground and along the gravel toward the van. Her legs—her legs were ensnared with tiny six-fingered hands, like a ravenous school of sea anemones, crawling up her legs and taking her by her shins, her shorts, her hydration pack. The tiny hands belonged to a throbbing, twisting column of long, thin arms, interlacing in patterns beyond comprehension, slackening and constricting to drag Louise closer, inch by agonizing inch, to the maw of the bouncing van. Sometimes when I try to sleep I can still hear the wet smacking of those arms against each other, like a knot of long grey snakes.
Blood still dribbled from her mouth but she was able to let off a coughing scream, a primordial sound of desperation I can neither describe nor forget. I got her fingers, lost them, then one of her wrists with both my hands, but I slipped and fell over the tracks. She managed to latch her fingers over one of the railroad ties. I knew if I could get to her, get a real grip, she had a chance.
Then, like it was in slow-motion, the tie started to groan, then uproot, then the rotten wood tore in two and she was sucked—I don’t know any other word for it—flailing into the van. The doors slammed behind her, the sound not metallic but cosmic, as if projected from under my feet and above the racing clouds. The van shook with such violence I thought it would flip itself over.
Behind me I could make out the shapes of ears and muzzles and swaying tails, the glint of a broken collar chain in the moonlight. The pack’s approach was muffled by the thumping and screaming and cracking sounds from inside the van, the slopping and slapping of those tiny hands doing whatever they were doing to her. Groping her? Ripping her apart? Digesting her? I remember pushing the thought away, thinking maybe it was better not to know. It was better.
I dove for the van but it rolled away. I got up, sprinted after it, jumped after the back doors. Again it rolled just out of reach. I fell hard on my stomach, lost my wind. I reached again and this time the engine sputtered to life, giving a vast, chugging sound, so loud it felt like it was inside my head. A black cloud that looked like exhaust but tasted like seaweed shot into my face. I was panting from effort so I inhaled a bunch of it. I was hacking there on the tracks on my side, trying to get up, slipping in blood. Everything was spinning. Louise had stopped screaming. Even the dogs had gone silent but then I saw it was because they had rounded the bend. Their lowered snouts weren’t more than a couple hundred yards off.
I willed myself to my feet and stumbled down the tracks after the van. It rumbled maybe 100 feet and then took a sharp turn into the woods. The exhaust plume hung in the night air, the wind pushing it around, a black cloud fading into the black sky. There was a huge popping sound—not a crash, not a bang, but a pop, like a slap on my eardrums that took my balance. Somehow I knew that meant the van was gone.
The dogs were more numerous than I had allowed myself to imagine—almost as numerous as the fingers of those tiny hands. I looked once more to the spot the van had disappeared, then back to the encroaching pack. Behind the dogs were two human shapes.
The next thing I remember I was running and falling through the woods, along the stream, into the stream, across the bridge and into town. I remember wondering if it was possible to run hard enough for your lungs to bleed.
You can imagine what my husband thought when I got home. I should have been coated in blood but somehow it was all gone by the time I got back. Some might have come off in the stream but I had basically gone white-water swimming in whatever came out of the van. I think the van can do that. It hides its work well. I don’t think I made much sense at first. I’m not even sure how much sense I’m making now.
The police wrote it up as a kidnapping, a classic snatch-and-grab. They said it happened to female joggers more often that I’d like to think. They said I must have been struck on the head, or must have hit my head one of the times I fell, and imagined most of what I reported. They said that I could have been dehydrated from running on such a warm night, but they promised to look for the owner of a red van with six fingers on one hand.
They never found any trace of blood on the tracks, no trace of a vehicle or sign of a struggle. They said the way the van left—speeding off into the woods—was impossible. It left no tire tracks, no scrapings of paint, none of the sort of damage to trees or plants they’d expect if someone barreled through a birch stand in an old utility van.
I could tell they were particularly disappointed with my failure to get a license plate number, or even a state, or background color. Whenever I insisted it was too dirty to read they exchanged a little look.
That’s what happened to Louise, what really happened. As fall went on, it got worse, I got worse. By winter I couldn’t go outside the house by myself, even though all I could think of I was finding Louise. My friends never said it directly, but I know they thought I was losing my mind. I started reading all over the internet and buying books about spirits and witchcraft and possessed objects—I devoted myself to becoming an expert on evil. The van, or whatever, was the last thing I ever wanted to see again but at the same time I had to find it. Even if Louise was gone, I had to know what took her—that and a thousand other questions, including why her and not me?
After six months of failing get any closer to an answer, my husband looked around for a transfer and moved us out to Milwaukee. He’s from a little town nearby and always wanted to move closer to his family. Here was his golden opportunity.
I had to admit leaving made sense. Even my therapist agreed a change of scenery might not be a bad idea.
I had myself just about convinced it would be better out here, that maybe if I spent more time with his parents and sisters and their families, that would help distract me. But when we got out here, I couldn’t leave it behind. The first few weeks, even on Torazavan, everything made me jump. I woke up eight, ten times a night for no apparent reason. I didn’t know what else to do so I just decided to try to focus on getting through each day.
By spring, I started adjusting. I made some friends at work. My daughters seemed to like Wisconsin. They got along well with their cousins, whom they’d previously seen only at the odd Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I thought it was all coming together—maybe I could even get past this. Then, about six weeks ago, it found me.
I was walking home from work the first time I saw it. I had just hung up from ordering pizza when headlights blinded me. The engine fired up—that unmistakable deep, bass rumble, more like a growl than any combustion I’ve ever heard—and it rolled past me so slowly I could see the fingerprints on the passenger window. There was no one behind the wheel.
I could see that the insides were the puffy reddish hue of infected flesh. It seemed bigger now—longer, wider. It must have kept well-fed while it hunted me.
Just like the first time, I froze. A big group of college kids approached, filling the sidewalk. They didn’t seem to notice it, or maybe they couldn’t see it. Its brakes whistled and crunched as it approached the stoplight. When the light turned green, a young woman’s face smashed against the back window. Her nose was all smooshed up against the glass, she looked like she was screaming but there was no sound. The longer I stared, the less certain I became that she was human. Her skin was somewhere between gray and blue. Something shifted in the dark behind her. Her mouth was far too wide.
Then she was pulled down, yanked out of view. The van tore away down the street and around a corner. It hurt, but I ran all the way home. By the time I got back, I decided I’d better not tell anybody about it. I couldn’t take any more of the looks, the hushed conversations. I’d come too far to go back to that.
Last weekend, I took my daughter shopping. Not five miles down the road and there it was in the rearview mirror. It followed us on the highway, always staying far back enough that I couldn’t see if anyone was in it or what the plate said. I almost rear-ended two cars before my daughter demanded I pull over and let her drive. As soon as we pulled over, I watched it take the next exit to stop me from getting a good look at it.
I’ll see it in random places, usually far away, in the distance, waiting, watching. Sometimes it’ll be in a far corner of the parking lot at work, idling, taunting me. I thought I’d want to run to it if I ever saw it again, to follow it, but I always freeze. Even if I were close enough for it to open up and grab me, I think I’d still freeze. It’s like a trance, a haze over your brain. That’s another one of its weapons.
One day I was on the way to work when a sun-glint hurt my eye. There it was, its windshield winking like white flame atop a mall parking complex, crawling in the direction I was driving.
The next day, on my lunch break, it was parked in an alley that makes a shortcut to the good coffee place. It was showing me my pattern. It wanted me to know it could take me whenever it chose. It wanted me to see it savoring the hunt.
I didn’t see it for almost a week after that, which scared me even more. Then, two nights ago, when I got to my street, it was the first thing I saw.
Nearby a dad was playing basketball with his kids. Our neighbor was walking his tiny white dog. It wouldn’t take me like this, right out in public, even in weakening daylight. Almost as much as it wanted to eat it wanted to blend in. If it can’t blend in, it can’t enjoy the hunt.
The old lady who lives on the corner came out and began puttering around her front yard with a watering can. Three kids appeared to be racing each other up the street. I think being in a city is one of the only reasons I’ve made it this long.
Bolstered by the presence of these strangers, who would never know how close they had come to something that would shatter everything they thought they knew, I inched a little closer, to the edge of the sidewalk. There was something different about it. I couldn’t put my finger on it from this remove, not with the sun this low. Ours was a decent neighborhood but it dated back before World War II. The city never bothered to install street lamps.
I was standing in the middle of the road before it struck me: the paint, the flecks of rust. The pattern was so obvious to me in that instant it seemed impossible I could have missed it before. It was patched and mottled, like the sun-bleached hide of some great cubist reptile. Its outside was not paint. It had a paint-like sheen in spots, but it had the bony grooves and knobs of brick-colored crocodile hide.
The porch light of a nearby house revealed the thing’s seats, dashboard, steering wheel, were indeed flesh—the texture of a human tongue and slick enough to reflect light. If you watched long enough—these surfaces moved. Subtle squeezes, in and out, all flexing in concert. Like a heartbeat. Like breathing. Like hunger pangs. I couldn’t look away.
That was the first time it found my neighborhood. I half-expected to come out from the kitchen yesterday and find it waiting in the garage. I was walking in a cloud of static electricity all day—everything made me flinch and twitch and gasp. I felt my mind rending at the seams. I began to wonder if I should do something, commit some sort of petty crime, so they could lock me up. A box of concrete and iron bars sounded like a Caribbean beach vacation—I might even be able to sleep.
Then I thought maybe I could tell my therapist and they’d lock me up in a hospital somewhere. I could play along and in six months or nine months or a year I could check myself out. Maybe by then it would lose my trail. Maybe it would give up. This was where my mind went in every quiet moment; I realized I had begun to fear silence itself.
I was at my desk, wringing my hands over another mug of stale black coffee, when a tiny hand fell on my shoulder. I spun so fast I knocked the coffee into my keyboard. Five fingers.
Its owner short, cute, late 20s, pixie cut, glasses—it was just Sam, from the classroom across the hall. Ms. Bates to the kids. A year out of grad school and already she was the most beloved fourth-grade teacher at the school. She was so sweet—she never pried but I could tell she knew I had a secret, something I didn’t talk about even though it was always on my mind. I don’t want to go too far, I mean, I’d only known her a few months, but I had come to think of her as my new Louise—my closest confidant at school.
She posed the polite but obviously rhetorical question of whether I felt alright. I knew better than to lie. I just said wasn’t sleeping well.
“Know what always puts me out? Spending a day outside. Something about being in the sun for hours on end just takes it out of me. You know?” she said, presumably studying my exquisite paleness.
“Yeah. I used to run a lot but there’s this…but I can’t now.” I said, dabbing a wad of paper towels at my upturned keyboard while she wiped down my desk and the arms of my chair.
“Gotcha. Know what’s great for bad joints? The water. A few of us were just in the lounge talking about going swimming this weekend. Winnie and I know this great spot outside the city. Care to join?”
It occurred to me that this would be a break from my pattern. Maybe that’s all I had to do, something different, throw off the trail. Back—way back—in high school, I was a strong enough swimmer to make the varsity team, though I’d never be won any races. I knew I was taking too long to answer. My mind was too addled to scrape together even a lame excuse.
“Awesome! You can ride with Allison and me if you want. She just got a new Escalade, you won’t believe the sound system. Note to self: marry a gastroenterologist. Anyway, we can stop by the beer store on the way up there. Hey, why don’t we take five and I’ll get you another coffee?”
I knew the moment I looked out the window that this was the first truly hot spring day, that first April taste of summer. It got even muggier out here than it did back east, and even in a bathing suit and shorts I was sweating as I sat on the screened-in porch nursing my second sturdy cup of coffee and watching for whether a champagne Escalade or a red-on-red van would pull up first.
To my surprise, Allison drove west of the city. I had just assumed we were going to Lake Michigan.
“No, no. Day like this, all those beaches will be thronged with kids. This is Teachers’ Day Out, no husbands, no boyfriends, no kids.” Allison said, turning down the Lizzo.
Though to my knowledge she had none of the above, Sam released a small “weeooo!” and turned to face me. She had evidently traded in her red Buddy Holly spectacles for contact lenses and a pair of sunglasses that made her look like an adorable little bug.
“You’ll love this place. Only real locals know about it.” She said in conspiratorial tone, the hand not holding a red Solo cup curved around her mouth.
“Is it a river, then? Or lake?” I asked.
I checked the mirrors again and swallowed away the mounting anxiety that I hadn’t seen it yet. It was always a step ahead. But now I had broken the pattern. Surely that would confuse it, if only for the day. When I tuned back in they were squabbling about something up front.
“No, it’s not, Allison. It’s absolutely not a manmade lake because it’s a quarry. My dad and uncle used to work summers there when they were in college. They used to cut limestone for construction and whatnot. That’s why it’s on Old Limestone Road.”
I forced a smile, and offered some generic response. Then I returned to scanning the mirrors and trying to puzzle out why I should be so unsettled by the fact that we were going to a quarry.
I drained the contents of my Solo cup (some sort of orange local IPA that tasted faintly of grapefruit and cough syrup) and handed it up to Sam. The girls chuckled their approval and refilled me.
When we stopped atop a steep green slope, I assumed someone had to get out and go to the bathroom. Sam announced that we were here.
As I toed the edge, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sam’s spot didn’t look like a quarry. I had been picturing some crude-shaped crater in the middle of a barren hillside with great hunks of limestone abandoned since mining operations shut down.
Every quarry I’d seen back east bore a passing resemblance to the surface of the moon. Turns out the only part I had right were the chunks of stone—but instead of the towering pillars I’d imagined, they were just scattered piles of angular gray boulders that reminded me of some collapsed pagan structure. Grass had grown up in thickets, and the steep bowl on whose rim we had parked was encircled with woods.
Far below, the water shimmered in a dark gray oval a little bigger than an Olympic swimming pool at the bottom of the steep, lush bowl we descended, loaded down with towels and portable speakers and, of course, coolers.
On the far side of the pool, the high sun described in shadow the rough-hewn staircase Sam had mentioned. The wind was high on the bowl but the sun only seemed to have gotten hotter as we drove. I had to admit, it was less industrial than I had expected—much more inviting.
The air at the bottom of the bowl was stifling. At water-level, it seemed reasonable that we could be the last three people on earth—apparently we’d beat everyone else there.
Once you acclimated, the water was pretty nice, especially as the swelter built to that point where distant objects—rock piles, for instance—look all swimmy. At one point it occurred to me that I hadn’t even thought about—it—since we arrived. The dread hadn’t vanished completely, but the longer we splashed around and the more we drank, I was able for the first time in a long time to just focus on the moment. The sky was so blue it looked flat.
Sam breached the surface so close she almost head-butted me. In my flailing I dumped my beer over her face. Once the shock wore off, we couldn’t stop laughing. When we finally caught our breath, she leaned in and asked in low tones and stale beer breath if I wanted to see something really cool.
“Kind of spooky,” she added, making her way toward the center of the water, “but super, super cool.”
I had read somewhere that quarries like these sometimes contained large colonies of eels. I recalled that they like to gather in underwater holes and caves, and that their dens are called eel pits. It occurred to me that we could at that very moment be skimming the surface of a giant eel pit. I shoved the thought away, rationalizing that Sam seemed like a girl’s girl. She wouldn’t think coils of slimy snake-fish were “super cool.” I polished off what little of my drink I hadn’t spilled on my new friend’s head, took a deep breath, and ducked under.
A hand on my shoulder. Five fingers. I returned to the surface to find a scuba mask thrust toward me.
“Too murky to see otherwise.” She said.
I polished the screen and slipped it on. Through it, the world seemed distant and fake, like I was viewing it through a TV screen.
“Hey, bitch!” She called to Allison, who was sprawled on a towel fiddling with her phone.
After a few seconds of listening to Sam’s echo, Allison gave a dismissive wave with her free arm. Sam told me where we were going was a million times cooler than Allison’s Insta feed.
“Okay, then, let’s do it. It’s a little hazy at first but once you get past that layer, you’ll realize what I’m talking about. This shit is insane. People swim in here year after year and if they stay on the surface, they never even know about it.”
Before I could say anything she disappeared below the gentle chop. I hauled in the deepest breath I could and followed.
Just past where our feet must have been as we treaded at the surface, I hit the layer of cool, cloudy water. A jolt of panic popped in my chest and ran to my toes and back as I fought away the idea that this was eel slime—that we were passing through the gelatinous curtain insulating their pit. Black, writhing forms knotted into some hundred-headed monster catching our scent, whipping free of their hole, floating with eerie patience after us. All it had to do was keep us down here long enough. All it had to be was wait.
Then I seemed to cut through the cloudy section and for a moment the earth seemed to pause in orbit. My brain could not compute what I was seeing.
I understood why Sam was so against jumping or diving in. Spread below us was a sunken graveyard for heavy equipment. The dull glint I floated over came from the grill of a huge, pale green flatbed truck. It had come to rest diagonally, with its cab caught and cocked skyward against the side of a bulldozer. Beyond it was a front-end loader—I realized the strange form undulating from its bucket was not a flag or some shred of tarp but Sam, walking around the machine’s great dormant arm on her hands. Here were a jumble of old bicycles, there a corroded toolbox resting perfectly on its narrow end, all around a confusion of orange barrels, the ones that mark highway construction, littering the quarry floor like giant neon bowling pins.
I knew I would have to go up soon to grab a breath. There was an entrancing foreignness to it, an otherworldly fascination. Here, not 20 feet down, was a construction site frozen in time. It was as if the quarry had suddenly sunk in the middle of a workday and taken these unfortunate hunks of brightly-painted metal with them, the industrial equivalent of prehistoric megafauna swallowed by a tar pit. Angular shadows loomed in the distance. I wanted to see it all but first we had to go up.
“Isn’t it awesome? It’s kind of sad, ‘cause it’s like, huge pieces of trash inside the earth, but at the same time it’s so trippy. My cousin’s metal band is trying to get one of those underwater cameras and do a music video down there.” Sam said, treading with the effortless grace of someone who’s grown up in the water.
“I know. It shouldn’t be pretty but somehow it is. Kind of reminds me of those ghost towns out west.” I said.
“Ohmygod, I love Adam Lambert. Okay, you want to go see more? It usually takes two or three times to get the lay of the land down there.”
This time, as I cut free of the murk, my eye caught on something to the right. It was notable because it was the one area that wasn’t some bright shade of industrial paint—it was an absence of color or light. As I approached I could make out a roughly square hole of such perfect blackness it made the surrounding water seem to glow light blue in contrast.
I thought it must be an upturned trailer or something, and wished I had a flashlight so we could check out the inside. Maybe there could be something of value (and reasonably waterproof) inside.
Sam was ahead of me. Before I knew what was happening, she was slurped into the hole.
Fine clouds of bubbles and sediment emanated from the ambush, soon followed by echoing sounds of slapping wet flesh and billows of red. I couldn’t tell if the screams and thumping on the inside of its shell were carrying across the water or only inside my skull.
Like the first time, with Louise, I couldn’t move. Its throbbing tentacle of gray arms burst from the doors to snatch hold of a nearby flatbed truck propped against the wall of the quarry. It had dislodged itself from its burrow and was drifting soundlessly closer before I remembered that I could move.
I swam so hard I thought I’d black out from exertion before I ever made the surface. The one time I looked back, I knew I was too slow. As it opened, the angle was just right for me to catch a glimpse inside, and what had been black bloomed lurid red. Sam’s face, eyes wide, mouth enormous, was being sucked into the creature’s internal flesh.
I saw muscles working, and teeth—countless chittering mouths, the longer I stared, the more there were, endless tunnels, labyrinths, cosmos of ravenous mouths. These were controlled by a network of tissues and bulging gums, which gave a sudden, hitching swell, and from the depths of the hole came the pillar of six-fingered hands, winding over and around each other like snakes around a tree-trunk. Once the doors—or beak—closed me in, I don’t know how to describe what happened. I don’t know how we do what we do—integration, that’s the word that keeps coming back to me. There was a split second of agony, followed by a sensation akin to orgasm. Everything was squeezing, then everything was floating. For what felt like the first time, I wasn’t scared anymore.
I guess I’m it now. Or we are it. It’s us. There are so many of us in here. It’s so wet and warm.
There are, however, the waves of weakness, acute enough to hurt. Instinct tells me these can be assuaged, for a while, by the intake of others.
Louise is here. Her husband, too. And Sam, of course—I feel the click of her teeth in my own, I guess because we came in together. Of course, no place could feel like home without my family—thankfully, because I know where to find them, we all do.
My daughters should both be home now. Husband, too. It would be hours before they even started to wonder where I am. They’ll never know we’re coming. Heck—we could wait in the garage.
Ty Green is a lifelong horror and dark fantasy fan. His wife and he both grew up in rural Maine and currently live in Durham, NC, where he is a stay-at-home dad to two children under the age of three.