By Warren Benedetto
It was my idea, the camping trip. I had so many great memories of camping over the years: with my family, with the Boy Scouts, with my college buddies. We’d find some remote spot in the woods, then spend a week just doing … nothing. I wanted Liz to experience that, to get her to unplug from everything for once. Her phone. Her email. Her social media accounts. To just stop and live.
Liz didn’t want to go, of course. She wanted to jaunt off to some exotic location, seizing the last chance to travel together before we embarked on our next great adventure: parenthood. A “babymoon,” she called it. She envisioned a romantic getaway to Cabo, or Paris, or Tuscany, or any Instagram-friendly destination that would stoke her followers’ envy. Something that didn’t involve sleeping in a tent and fighting off mosquitoes. Or bears.
“There are no bears!” I insisted over dinner at Manuel’s, our favorite Mexican spot downtown. I took another sip of my margarita. “Probably,” I added, as I scooped up a generous portion of salsa with an oversized tortilla chip and popped it into my mouth.
“One or two bears, tops.”
“Listen, I’m a simple girl,” Liz said. She reached out and took my hands in her own. “I like the simple things in life. Running water. A toilet. Walls.”
“Walls are overrated!”
“We need walls, dear, because that’s where they put doors,” she explained patiently. “And we need doors because that’s how we get room service.”
“I’ll make you a deal. You spend one night camping with me, and if you don’t have the best time of your life, I’ll book a trip to Cabo the second we get home.”
“If we get home,” she corrected.
“One night.” I squeezed her hands. “It’ll be fun. I promise.”
“What do you think?” I said, making a sweeping gesture with my arm. We were in a clearing in the woods, overlooking a shimmering, sapphire-blue lake. Majestic pines soared skyward, forming a cathedral-like canopy overhead. Golden sunlight streamed through the trees. “Beautiful, right?”
Liz unslung her backpack and let it fall to the ground. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“That’s the spirit!” I cheered. “You want to help me with the tent, or…” I trailed off. The look on her face made it clear that, no, she did not want to help me with the tent. “All right. Just me, then.”
As I busied myself unpacking the tent, Liz wandered over to the edge of the campsite and looked out across the water.
“Nice view at least,” she conceded. “Wish I could post a picture. Oh no, wait…” She patted her shorts as if checking her pockets. “I don’t have my phone.” She looked over her shoulder at me with a pointed glare.
I gave her a maniacal laugh, then unrolled the tent and began staking it into the ground with a rubber mallet, talking as I worked.
“You know, I used to come up here with my dad when I was a kid, to this exact spot.” I finished with the stakes on one corner of the tent, then moved over to the other. “I ever tell you about the time my brother and I went skinny-dipping in the lake? Not the smartest idea. It was freeeeeezing. Talk about shrinkage. I didn’t see my nuts for a week.”
I looked up over my shoulder to gauge Liz’s response. She wasn’t there.
“Liz?” I called. “Babe?” I straightened up and looked around the clearing. Her bag was still where she had dropped it, but she was nowhere in sight. I stood and dusted off my knees. “Liz?” I called again, a little louder this time. “The bears get you already?”
I walked over to where she had just been standing. Her boot prints terminated at the edge of a steep drop-off. “What the hell?” I mumbled to myself. I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted. “Liz!” My voice echoed across the lake and back.
For a few seconds, there was no reply. Then, a small voice responded. “Down here!”
I stepped closer to the edge of the drop-off. There was a narrow footpath through the undergrowth that wound its way down the steep cliffside. I started heading along the path towards her voice. “Where’d you go?” I shouted.
“I found something!” she yelled back. “Come check this out!”
“On my way.”
The path snaked dangerously along the rim of the drop-off, its crumbling edge just inches from a nasty fifty-foot tumble to the water below. As I made my way down the steep incline, I skidded a bit in the loose, sandy earth. I planted my arm against the wall of the cliff to brace myself, then drew it away with a disgusted grimace. The rock was coated in a black, tar-like substance. It smeared along my forearm, from my wrist to my elbow.
“Damn it,” I grumbled.
“You okay?” Liz called. Her voice was closer now, just out of sight.
“Yeah, I just put my arm in some, I don’t know, bat shit or something.” I tried to wipe it on my shirt, but it clung to my skin with glue-like stubbornness. The stuff was sticky. Incredibly, insanely sticky.
As I rounded the corner, I found Liz squatting on the ground in a small cave scooped out from the side of the cliff. It was wide and shallow, about the size of a large bedroom, with a narrow passageway in the back that seemed to lead deeper into the bedrock. The floor was lined with heavy green moss, kept moist by a steady drip of water trickling down from the rock overhang above. Vines thick with magenta flowers hung down over the opening like a beaded curtain.
“Oh wow,” I said, marveling at the sight. “I had no idea this was here.”
Liz stood and turned around to face me. A blue plastic water bottle was in her hands. She held it out to me. Her face looked worried.
“Look at this.”
I took the bottle. It was nothing special. Just your ordinary, standard-issue 32-ounce water bottle. Crystal blue. Pretty new-looking. A sip of water left inside.
“What about it?”
“Turn it over.”
I rotated the bottle in my hand. Then I saw what she was talking about.
“Oh, shit,” I said. “You just found this?”
She nodded. “Where do you think it came from?”
I looked around the area where we stood. There were no signs of trouble, no other indication that anyone had been there. But obviously, someone had been. Something must have happened. And whatever it was, it couldn’t have been good. Scratched into the side of the water bottle were two words, just six letters, in all caps:
I peered deeper into the cave. The light dropped off precipitously a few feet past the entrance, shrouding the depths in a heavy veil of shadow. I felt a flutter in my stomach at the idea of treading farther into the darkness without at least a flashlight. There really could be a bear back there. It was unlikely, but it wasn’t impossible.
“We need to call someone,” Liz said.
“How? We left our phones in the car.”
“Well, we need to go get them.”
I suppressed a mild ripple of annoyance. She was really determined to get her phone, wasn’t she? She couldn’t even be away from it for a day without going through withdrawal.
“That’s like a four-hour hike,” I said. “And even if we did, what would we say?” I held up the water bottle. “We don’t even know what this is.”
“It’s literally a cry for help, Kev.”
“Yeah, but from who? And from when? For all we know, it’s been down here for months. Maybe years.”
“You act like it’s perfectly normal to find something like that.”
“It’s not normal, but it’s not, like, an emergency, right? There’s nobody bleeding out or anything.”
“That we know of,” Liz corrected.
I motioned around the cave. “Do you see anyone?”
“Okay, then.” I put my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Everything’s fine. We’ll stop by the ranger station on our way out of the park in the morning. All right?”
Liz shrugged. “I guess.”
“This place is pretty cool though, right?” I asked, trying to change the subject. I reached out and cupped one of the flowers in my hand. “Beautiful. We should come down here and have a picnic tomorrow.”
“What’s on the walls?”
I walked over and examined the side of the cave. It was covered with the same stuff I had stumbled into outside. “No idea. Some kind of tar, maybe? It’s sticky as hell.”
“Ew, you touched it?”
“On the way down, yeah. By accident.” I held up my arm. It was still smeared with the unidentified goo.
I stepped closer to the wall. There was something stuck in the tar. I furrowed my brow and reached for it.
“Can you not?” Liz asked, a hint of impatience in her voice. “Let’s go back up.”
I turned around and nodded. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”
As I followed Liz out of the cave, I looked down at what I had pulled from the tar. It was a tangle of long brown hair. Human hair.
Without a word, I opened my fingers and let it drift away on the wind.
I followed Liz single-file up the path toward the campsite. When she reached the top, she stopped in her tracks.
I nearly collided with her back. “Whoa. You okay?”
“Where’s our stuff?”
I looked past Liz and into the campsite. Sure enough, all of our possessions were gone. Our tent. Our backpacks. Everything.
“Um…” I turned around and looked down the trail, thinking maybe we had accidentally come up a different way and had ended up in the wrong spot. There didn’t seem to be any other path. In fact, I could still see the skid marks in the dirt from where I had slipped on my way down. I stepped around Liz and wandered over to where I had started setting up the tent. Even the tent stakes were missing. The mallet too. “Huh,” I said. I put my hands on my hips. “That’s weird.”
“Weird?” Liz exclaimed. “Kevin, what the hell?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m thinking.”
I walked slowly around the campsite, examining the ground. There were no tracks. No footprints. It was as if everything had just … vanished.
“What’re we gonna do?” Liz asked. Her voice was on the verge of panic.
“I said I’m thinking!” I snapped. Liz recoiled as if slapped. I exhaled, trying to regain my patience. “I’m sorry. I’m just — Give me a minute, okay?”
“I told you we shouldn’t have come.”
Ignoring Liz’s comment, I paced around the campsite. “It must’ve been an animal,” I mumbled to myself. “But why would it take the tent?”
“If it was a bear—”
I shot Liz a look. “Stop.”
“What else is big enough to steal our bags? A squirrel?”
“It wasn’t a bear.”
“I don’t know. A person?”
Liz went pale. She lowered her voice to a near-whisper. “You think someone followed us?”
I silently cursed myself for introducing the possibility. “No. No, of course not.”
“Then why did you say that?”
“I was just—” I shook my head. “It’s not a person.” She didn’t look convinced. “Look.” I walked over to where we had first entered the campsite. “This is us.” I pointed at two pairs of footprints heading into the campsite. “Nobody else came in. And nobody went out. Okay?”
My explanation seemed to calm Liz down a bit. “Okay. So, what was it then?”
I didn’t answer. I continued to circle the perimeter of the campsite. Despite my explanation, I knew that, in fact, a person was the most likely culprit. A bear would have torn into the backpacks, looking for food. That’s all it would have cared about. It probably wouldn’t have carried away the bags altogether. And it certainly wouldn’t have taken the tent. Or the spikes. Or the mallet.
But if it was a person, then who was it? The chances of someone else being out in the same area at the same time were slim to nil. We were in the middle of nowhere, a half-day’s hike from the nearest trailhead. The path we had followed was so overgrown from disuse that we had lost it altogether a few times. Only my memories of landmarks from my family camping trips had gotten us back on track.
“Hey, Kevin?” Liz called. “Let’s just go home, okay? This sucks.”
I looked at the sky. The sun was already dipping low on the horizon. It wasn’t quite sunset yet, but there was probably only an hour of daylight left. Maybe less. Even more troubling, a bank of low, dark storm clouds was rolling in over the hills on the other side of the lake. Rain wasn’t in the forecast — I had checked the weather before we left — but apparently, something had changed.
I shook my head. “We’ll never make it back before dark.”
“We have to.”
“We can’t. It’s too far.”
“So, what’re we gonna do, sleep in the dirt?”
“It’s better than getting lost in the woods, especially at night. Trust me.”
A slow rumble rolled across the water. Lightning flashed in the distance. Liz threw up her hands. “Aaand it’s going to rain. Awesome.”
“Let’s not panic—”
“I’m not panicking,” Liz snapped. “I’m pissed. I knew this would happen.”
“Oh, right,” I said. My tone was barbed. “’Cause it never rains in Cabo.”
“Forget the rain. Where’s our stuff, Kevin? We’ve got no tent. No food.”
“We’ll live. It’s just one night. And I’ve got snacks.” I patted the day pack I had slung across my chest.
“Oh, you’ve got snacks?” Liz repeated, unimpressed. “You owe me, big time.”
“Fine, we’ll go to Cabo, okay? Is that what you want? Let’s go. Right now.”
“Screw Cabo. After this? We’re going to Paris.”
“You know what…?” I seethed. I walked to the edge of the campsite and looked out over the lake. Sheets of rain were already falling at the far end. Another crack of thunder echoed through the hills. A strong gust of wind blew across the water and rattled the trees.
I began walking down the footpath towards the cave. I called to Liz without looking back.
“Wow. Look at that,” I said, my voice full of awe. The approaching storm was dropping a near-perfect wall of rain halfway across the lake, obscuring the landscape behind a great gray veil of mist. Lightning flashed in the clouds, turning them from an ominous gunmetal gray to a brilliant purple-white. “How often do you get to watch a storm roll in like that?”
Liz ignored my enthusiasm. She drew her knees up to her chest and shivered. “I’m freezing.”
I deflated. Clearly, Liz didn’t share my fascination with extreme weather. She wasn’t wrong though; it was getting cold. And it would only get colder once the sun went down. We needed to build a fire if we wanted to stay warm.
I untied my hoodie from around my waist and draped it over Liz’s shoulders. “Here.”
“Thanks.” She pulled her arms into the hoodie, watching as I stood and dusted off the back of my pants. “Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna go find some firewood.”
“You’re leaving me alone?”
“I’ll be right up there.” I pointed up the trail we had just descended. “If you need anything, just yell. I’ll hear you.”
“Great,” Liz quipped. “I’ll be sure to scream extra loud while I’m getting murdered.”
“All right, then come with me if you want.”
Liz pulled the hoodie tighter around her shoulders and stared at her shoes. “No, it’s fine. Just go.”
I waited at the entrance of the cave, tapping my foot. I sighed impatiently. I wasn’t going to take the bait. I knew that, if I left, I would catch hell for abandoning her. Of course, if I stayed, I’d catch hell for letting us freeze to death. Either way, I was screwed.
After a long minute of loaded silence, Liz looked up at me. “Well? Are you going?”
I threw up my hands in exasperation then began trudging up the slope to the campsite. It wasn’t my fault the trip had turned into a disaster. She would never let me live it down though — I’d be paying penance through budget-busting trips to Europe for the next decade.
Actually, that wasn’t true, was it? We wouldn’t be going anywhere for quite a while if Liz got her way. I had seen her Pinterest boards, the way they had gone from aesthetic stagings of succulents and fairy lights to photoshoots of nurseries and crib sets. I noticed how our weekends with friends had morphed from keg stands and body shots to gender reveals and baby showers. Liz had even started turning down glasses of wine with demure deferrals like, “I really shouldn’t.”
It was ridiculous — she wasn’t even pregnant. At least, I didn’t think she was. If she was … well, I wasn’t sure what I would do. I wasn’t ready to be a father, that was for sure. Maybe I was just being selfish, but I wanted to keep her to myself for a while before relinquishing her to a suckling, screaming, needy baby that would drain every ounce of her energy and time. I wasn’t ready to let her go just yet.
As I plodded into the dense forest, something crunched under my foot. It wasn’t a natural-sounding crunch, like a broken branch or a dead leaf. It sounded more like the crunch of a plastic cup, like the kind that my brother and I had used in our summer lemonade stands when we were kids. I looked down to find myself standing on the shattered exoskeleton of some sort of giant insect. No, not just giant — fucking enormous. Judging by the legs poking out of the thing, it had been the size of a large dog.
I stepped backward off of the crushed remains, then squatted down and picked up one of the jointed limbs. The appendage was bigger than the biggest King Crab leg I had ever seen; it was almost as long as my arm. I flexed the leg in my hands. I couldn’t even imagine what kind of insect it might have come from. A giant grasshopper, maybe? I had seen some pretty terrifying pictures on the Internet — nightmare fuel like camel spiders in Iraq, or whatever hellspawn Australia birthed from the bush — but I had never seen anything so hideous in my part of the world. Until now.
Whatever kind of insect it was, it appeared to be growing. The leg was hollow and brittle, just the chitinous remains of a molted exoskeleton. I shuddered to think how much bigger the thing might have gotten since it had shed its shell. I wasn’t afraid of bugs — I had no problem with the occasional house spider, or cricket, or whatever — but I wasn’t keen to meet the H.R. Giger reject that leg had come from. It looked like something from the set of Alien.
As I flung the leg into the woods, I caught a glimpse of a bright yellow object nearby. I moved closer to get a better look. Sticking up from a pile of leaves was the handle of a mallet. My mallet, the one I had been using to pound tent spikes just a few minutes before.
I turned in a slow circle and looked around me. There was no sign of anyone — or anything — else nearby. But the giant pine tree behind me was completely coated in the same strange black substance as in the cave, rippling with solidified waves of hardened resin.
My eyes crawled up the trunk, searching for the source of the effluence. I gasped. I could feel the blood drain from my face.
Slung in a hammock-like web high overhead was our camping gear. The web appeared to be spun from filaments of the same tar-like resin that covered the tree. It formed an intricate lattice that bridged from branch to branch and tree to tree, extending as far into the woods as I could see. At various places in the web, suspended high above the ground, were thick, bulging, cocoon-like structures. A fleshless rib cage was visible in one of them. From another protruded the rotting remains of a wide appendage with thick, yellow-brown claws: a bear paw.
I started backing slowly away from the scene. I didn’t know what had dragged our gear into the trees, or why, but I knew one thing: we weren’t safe there. Anything that could capture and kill a bear of that size would have no problem doing the same to us. I couldn’t tell Liz that though. She would insist that we flee immediately, and there was no way we could do that. Getting lost in the woods at night during a thunderstorm was no less dangerous than whatever was in those trees. No, we would need to spend the night. We’d huddle up in the cave, build a fire, and get a good night’s rest.
Then, as soon as the sun came up, we’d get the fuck out of there.
“That should do it.”
I dumped an armful of logs onto the floor of the cave, then wiped the dust and sweat from my forehead with the front of my shirt.
“Everything all right up there?” Liz asked.
“Yeah, why?” I replied, busying myself with rearranging the wood into a neat stack to avoid having her see my worried expression.
“Took a while, that’s all.” She rubbed her hands over her arms to warm herself. “How long until you get a fire going?”
A crack of thunder split the sky as if officially signaling that the storm had arrived. Rain began to patter on the ground outside. A spray of cold mist blew into the cave.
“Not long,” I replied. “But we should move further in.”
Liz eyed the narrow, dark passage that led to the deeper reaches of the cave. “Um…” She looked at me skeptically. “You think that’s a good idea?”
I gestured with a sweep of my arm. “Ladies first.”
“Oh, hell no. After you.”
I shrugged, then slid sideways into the passage. It was a tight fit. I could feel the heat of my breath reflecting off the rock as I sidestepped through the gap.
The truth was, the fire probably would have been fine in the outer part of the cave, but I wanted to get as far away as possible from whatever had dragged our stuff — and those animals — into the trees. If the thing was big enough to kill a bear, it was probably too big to fit through such a narrow gap in the cave wall. We would be safer in there. I was sure of it.
I was wrong.
I emerged from the gap into an expansive cavern several times larger than the one on the other side. In the fading light, I could just about make out the curve of the cavern’s far wall. It arched high overhead, disappearing into the inky black darkness. Unfortunately, the smell of the tar was worse in there, probably from the lack of air circulation. Still, it was the best we could do under the circumstances. It was either deal with the smell, or deal with whatever the hell was out there in the woods. I preferred the former.
I called back to Liz. “Come on through. It’s fine.”
Liz’s voice filtered in from outside. “No bears?”
A moment later, Liz slipped tentatively into the cavern. She waved her arms in front of her face as if to ward off any stray spiderwebs that might be in her way. Her nose wrinkled. “Ugh. It stinks.”
“I know, I’m sorry. But, hey—” I slapped my palm on the side of the cavern. “You wanted walls? We’ve got walls.”
“Great,” she deadpanned.
After retrieving the firewood, I knelt in the center of the cavern and began piling logs into a pyramid, stuffing the gaps underneath with handfuls of kindling. Then I unzipped my day pack, pulled out my Zippo lighter, sparked a flame, and touched it to the kindling.
“Ooh, look at you. You’re such a man,” Liz teased. “In a cave, making fire…”
She smiled fondly as she watched me adjust the logs to better catch the growing flames. The blaze grew stronger, licking upwards. The shadows in the cave began to retreat from the light. The warmth chased the chill out of the air. The comforting smell of woodsmoke replaced the stink of the tar. I poked the logs with a thick branch, then sat back on my heels. I nodded to myself, satisfied, then glanced at Liz. She was still grinning at me.
“What?” I asked.
“To infinity …”
Liz and I had first met during a screening of Toy Story during freshman year orientation. Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase had become our secret way of saying “I love you.”
“And beyond,” I replied.
“You’re a good guy,” she said, lacing her fingers through mine. “I know you’re trying your best.”
I laughed. “You sound like my Little League coach.”
Liz squeezed my hand. “Stop. That’s not what I mean.”
“I know. I’m sorry. This obviously isn’t going as planned.”
“It’s okay. It’s just one night, right?” She leaned in for a kiss.
I gave her a peck on the lips. “Right.”
She kept her face close to mine. “So, now what?” Before I could respond, she kissed me again, longer this time. Her body moved closer to mine, her breasts pressing against my arm.
I reluctantly returned her affection. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to hook up under the circumstances — I just wanted to make it through the night without running into that thing from the woods. But Liz knew my weak spot: she started nibbling on my neck. She darted her tongue into my ear, sending goosebumps racing down my arms. Her lips brushed against my earlobe.
“I stopped taking my pills,” she whispered.
I drew away from her and looked at her face. “Really?”
“Mmm-hm.” She leaned in to kiss me again.
Suddenly, I dodged backward and swiped at my face. “Ugh, what the hell?”
Liz sat back, shocked. “What?”
I reached up and touched the front of my hair. My hand came away coated with sticky black residue. I frowned, then looked up. Liz did the same. She screamed, backpedaling across the cave floor.
“Jesus,” I gasped as I scrambled to a spot nearby.
Ten feet overhead, a woman’s body was hanging face-down from the ceiling. She was partially enmeshed in the same sort of cocoon I had seen in the woods. Thick black bands of the stuff stretched upwards from the sides, disappearing into the shadows above.
The woman seemed to be dead. Her head hung limp and loose on her neck. Long brown hair dangled over her face, obscuring it from view. Her abdomen was ruptured. A sagging, fleshy black sac swelled from the wound like a horrifying tumor. It glistened in the firelight, its gelatinous-looking surface rippling and rolling with the movement of whatever was contained within. Elastic drops of melting black goo dripped from the sac and hissed into the fire. The smell was unbearable.
“What is that?” Liz whispered. Her voice trembled with fear.
I didn’t answer. My mind was trying to place what I was seeing in some sort of context that I could understand, but I had no frame of reference for something so abominable. If it was just the one woman on the ceiling, it would have been bad enough. But it wasn’t just her. The entire roof of the cave was hung with desiccated corpses in various states of decay, each entombed in a cocoon-like mesh of black resin, each with an eviscerated torso split open, with the remains of a fleshy black sac spilling out. Unlike the sac hanging from the first woman’s body, the others appeared to be empty.
Suddenly, the woman’s chin lifted. Her lips parted, revealing teeth slicked with black slime. She seemed to be trying to speak. Long tendrils of ink-black ooze spilled from her lips. After a moment, her eyes gained focus. She turned her head and looked at me. Her lips formed a single word.
Before we could react, the sac in the woman’s gut split open, dumping a gush of milky, viscous fluid onto the fire below. The flames were extinguished instantly. The darkness was immediate and absolute. Something heavy and wet-sounding fell to the ground, pushing a gust of hot, fetid air against our faces.
I slid closer to Liz. She clutched me tightly, her body quaking. “Don’t move,” I whispered. I felt her head nod against my chest.
After a few seconds, my eyes began to adjust to the darkness. I could vaguely discern the passage out of the cavern, an irregularly shaped vertical gash only slightly less black than the rest of the cave. It was maybe 20 feet away. To reach it, we would have to pass under the cocooned woman, under the sac … and past whatever had just been birthed out of it.
Suddenly, a guttural sound with a clicking undertone vibrated through the cavern. It had a sharp, cold resonance, like a spring being wound inside a metal tube. At the same time, lightning flashed outside, revealing a monstrous silhouette climbing down the wall, backlit against the entrance to the cave. It was an insectile form, with a pair of jointed, serrated limbs flexing in front of it, and a long, segmented body that curved up in the back like the tail of a scorpion. Before I could process the sight, the cave was again plunged into total darkness.
“What the hell…” I said under my breath.
“What? What is it?” Liz asked. Her voice sounded tiny and muffled in my shirt.
I didn’t answer. Whatever the thing was, it was bigger than me. Way bigger. And it was moving. I could hear its limbs clicking on the cold stone wall, the sound of marbles in a cloth bag. The noise echoed around the cave, seeming to approach from all directions at once.
I drew my legs up closer to my body and bent protectively over Liz, trying to make us both as small as possible. Perspiration trickled down my spine and into the waistband of my underwear. A mixture of sweat and tears slicked my face and dripped from my nose onto Liz’s head.
The clicking sound drew closer, its direction more defined. It seemed to be coming from overhead now. Liz’s body tensed. I could feel her heart pounding like a kick drum inside her ribs, thudding in an alternating, irregular rhythm with my own racing pulse. Her breath came in short, whistling gasps. She was hyperventilating.
I closed my eyes and cursed silently to myself. I was so stupid. We should have left when Liz found the water bottle with the ominous message. I knew that then — I just didn’t want to show her that I was scared. I didn’t want to let her be right about the trip, about me. Instead, I kept pressing on, kept pretending like I had it all under control, like she was the one being unreasonable. But, as usual, she was right, and I was wrong. The truth was, I didn’t know what to do. I was helpless. And that terrified me.
Suddenly, Liz was yanked violently from my arms. She disappeared upwards into the darkness, a primal scream of mortal terror escaping from her throat as she was pulled from my grip. She was torn away so quickly, with such speed and such force, that it took a second for me to process what had just happened. One moment she was there; the next she had vanished.
After a short delay, my adrenaline surged. “Liz!” I yelled. I reached blindly for her in the dark, but my hands found nothing but air. “Liz!” I screamed again. There was no response, just a long, deathly silence.
She was gone.
Panicked, I scrambled forward on my hands and knees, forgetting about the fire that had been burning in front of me just a few moments before. My hand plunged into the still-smoldering embers. With an anguished scream, I jerked my arm backward out of the heat. My elbow collided with something hard and smooth behind me. A guttural clicking noise filled my ears.
Then, everything went dark.
I awakened on the ground some time later, half-blinded by the nauseating pain pulsing from a puncture wound in my shoulder. A stinger the size of a butcher knife was embedded deep in my muscle, held in place by rows of vicious barbs. I tried to pull it out, but the pain was excruciating. I looked over at the entrance to the cavern. Judging by the narrow sliver of sunlight streaming in from outside, the sting had knocked me out for hours. It was daytime again.
I struggled to my feet, completely disoriented about where I was or how I had gotten there. It was only when I heard Liz’s terrified whimpering that it all came rushing back to me. I turned to find her lashed to the wall of the cave, wide bands of sticky black resin crisscrossing her limbs. Her skin was grayish white, the color of clouds heavy with rain. Damp hair clung to her forehead and cheeks. Her face was sunken, as if she had lost twenty pounds overnight.
When Liz saw me stand, her eyes went wide. She became panicked, verging on the edge of total breakdown. She begged me to help her, to get her out of there. I tore at her bonds with my bare hands, but the stuff was as taut and strong as steel cables. Freeing her was hopeless.
I stepped back and looked at her, trying to better assess the situation. Her shirt was torn open down the middle. Just below her ribs, a round, fist-sized hole had been punched through her skin. The flesh around the wound was bruised a deep purple. The hole itself appeared to have been sealed with the same sticky black tar that bound her to the wall.
As the realization of what was happening washed over me, Liz spoke.
“It’s inside of me,” she whimpered.
My mouth opened, then closed. She was right. I could see something moving under her skin, its segmented body grotesquely distending her flesh as it rolled and twisted. Liz arched her back against the wall and screamed through gritted teeth, her eyes bulging with fear and pain.
“Cut it out,” she pleaded.
“What?” My brain struggled to comprehend what she was asking. Did she seriously want me to—
“Please!” she gasped. Tears streamed from her red-rimmed eyes and fell to the dirt below. “Cut it out.”
My head swam as I tried to grapple with the enormity of what she was asking me to do. Cut it out? How could I possibly do that? Even if it worked — even if I could excise the organism growing inside of her — she would hemorrhage to death before I was able to get help. But if I did nothing, she would end up like the others, her abdomen eventually rupturing from the hideous lifeform consuming her from within.
The thing moved again. The pointed tip of one of its limbs pressed against Liz’s skin from inside, like a dull knitting needle straining to break through thick fabric. Liz screamed, louder this time. The sound reverberated through the empty expanse of the cave. It electrified me, finally spurring me into action.
“Okay,” I said. “Hang on.”
My day pack was still on the floor of the cave where I had dropped it the night before, when I was making the fire. I tore open the zipper and began to dig through the contents of the bag. Granola bars. Sunscreen. Hand sanitizer. A Zippo lighter. Bug spray.
An irrational burst of laughter escaped from my lips. Bug spray, I thought. Lots of good that did us.
Finally, I found the only thing that mattered.
It was a small pocketknife — the blade was three inches, four inches, tops — good for little more than opening letters and slicing packing tape. It was certainly never intended to do what I needed to do with it now. What I needed was a scalpel. And a hospital. And to be a surgeon, instead of a business analyst at a consulting firm. And for all of this to be some kind of horrible, fever-driven nightmare instead of the unimaginable reality I was facing.
I snapped open the knife, then pressed my thumb against the cutting edge. It was even more dull than I remembered. It didn’t matter. It was my only option. It would have to do.
“Okay, babe,” I said as I hurried back to Liz. “I need you to hold still.”
“I can’t!” she yelled, spittle flying from her lips.
“You have to! I can’t do it if you’re moving around like this. I’ll hurt you.”
Liz looked me in the eyes, begging. “I can feel it chewing,” she said with a terrified whisper. A helpless groan escaped her lips. I swallowed hard but said nothing. Grasping the knife tightly in my trembling hand, I held it against her stomach.
She closed her eyes and nodded. I steadied my hand, then pushed the blade into her skin. She screamed through clenched teeth as I sawed downward, opening a wandering three-inch incision in the middle of her stomach. A mixture of blood and black crude erupted from the wound, splashing over my hands and streaking down Liz’s belly to her thighs. Nauseated, I jerked away from the gush and dropped the knife onto the ground.
My heart froze in my chest. A thin, jointed limb extended from the wound. It was followed by another. And another. And another. They pressed outwards, further tearing the incision.
Liz wailed again. Tears spilled from her eyes.
I watched in numb horror as a head emerged through the gash. It was the size of a baseball, ocher-colored, with dark, bulbous eyes and a terrifying maw full of gnashing mouthparts. Blood and mucous drooled from its serrated jaws as it chewed around the edges of the wound. Peristaltic waves undulated down its swollen, pus-colored body as it squirmed further out of Liz’s stomach, its forelegs groping blindly. It appeared to be some sort of larvae.
Liz’s teeth chattered as waves of shock convulsed her body. She strained to speak through trembling lips.
As the last of the larvae’s six legs squeezed out of Liz’s gut, gravity took over. The creature slipped from her body and onto the ground with a wet squelch. It curled and twisted, legs spreading and flexing, then rolled onto its side as it tried to right itself. I couldn’t believe the size of the thing. It was as thick and long as my leg, from my knee to my ankle. I had no idea how something so huge could have fit inside of my wife’s petite frame.
I looked around for something to use as a weapon. My eyes fell on the yellow handle of my mallet, the one I had retrieved from the woods earlier. I bent and picked it up, then dropped to my knees next to the squirming larvae, raised the mallet high, and slammed it down on the creature’s head, caving it in. The larvae made a mewling, hissing noise as it writhed in apparent agony. I kept pummeling the thing, hammering it over and over until it was nothing but a mass of gelatinous remains.
Finally, I let the mallet tumble from my hands. My face was dripping with a mixture of blood and gore from both Liz and the larvae. My chest and shoulders heaved as I gasped for air.
“I got it,” I muttered. “Okay, babe? I got it. It’s gone.” I looked up at my wife. Her body hung limp against the wall, her chin on her chest. “Liz?” I said. She didn’t respond. I stood and grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her. Her head lolled on her neck. “Liz?” I said again, louder this time. Still no response. I lifted her chin. Her eyes were wide, unseeing.
“Oh, no. Come on. Come on, stay with me!”
I pressed my fingers against her jugular, feeling for a pulse. Nothing. I began thrusting my hands against her heart, trying to pump life back into her body. Blood surged from her wound as I compressed her chest. Her body remained still. Unresponsive.
It was too late. She was dead.
A cry of pure anguish escaped from my lips. I fell forward against her body, pressing my face against hers. I kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her hair, all the time whispering to her, telling her how sorry I was, how I wished I had listened to her, how I should have taken her to Cabo, or Paris, or anywhere she wanted to go, anywhere but this godforsaken place. How I did want a baby — I really did — I was just afraid of sharing her with someone else, someone who needed her more than I did, who would steal her attention away from me. It was stupid, and selfish, and immature, and I was sorry. So, so sorry.
Eventually, her skin grew cold. Her limbs began to stiffen. The blood seeping from her wound slowed, then stopped, congealing into tacky brown puddles on the ground.
As my adrenaline faded, the pain from my own injuries came flooding back. The puncture wound from the stinger impaled in my shoulder throbbed viciously. Waves of heat radiated down from my shoulder to my chest, then to my gut. I was overwhelmed with a rolling, surging nausea, as if my stomach was physically turning over in my body. It felt almost as if something was moving inside of me.
My breathing hitched in my chest.
I stepped away from Liz and turned toward the light from outside the cave. My once-white shirt was crusted with drying blood, both Liz’s and my own, along with a wide pool of sticky black tar in the center. Reluctantly, I curled my fingers under the bottom edge of my shirt and lifted it. A helpless, plaintive wail rose in my throat.
Under my skin was a grotesque, crescent-shaped protrusion as thick and long as my calf muscle. The thing pulsed and flexed, the tips of its pointed legs pressing against the underside of my flesh. I could see the curve of its head. The lines of its body. The rippling motion of its mouthparts.
I could feel it moving. Growing. And chewing.
I could feel it chewing.
With an empty stare, I fell to my knees, then plunged my hand into the viscid puddle of congealing blood and larval entrails, feeling through the gore until I found what I was looking for: the knife.
I wiped the blade on my shirt, then pressed its tip against my abdomen and gripped the handle with both hands. The larvae in my gut convulsed, recoiling away from the knife point as if it sensed what I was about to do.
I looked up at Liz one last time. A crushing wave of sorrow and loss stole my breath and blurred my vision. She was so selfless, and hopeful, and brave. All of the things that I wasn’t. It was my fault she was dead, because I was too much of a fucking coward to face raising a kid. That’s what it all came down to. That’s why all of this had happened: because I was selfish. I didn’t want to lose her, to share her with anyone else. I didn’t want to let her go. Now, I had no choice. She was already gone. We both were.
“To infinity,” I whispered.
Then I closed my eyes. Held my breath. And started cutting.
About the author: Warren Benedetto writes short fiction about horrible people doing horrible things. He is a full member of the SFWA and has published dozens of stories in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine and The Dread Machine; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, The Creepy Podcast, and Scare You To Sleep; and in anthologies from Scare Street, Ghost Orchid Press, Eerie River Publishing, and more. When he’s not writing, he works as Director of Global Product Strategy at PlayStation, where he holds 30+ patents for various types of gaming technology. He is also the developer of StayFocusd, the world’s most popular anti-procrastination app for writers. He built it while procrastinating. For more information, visit www.warrenbenedetto.com and follow @warrenbenedetto on Twitter.
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