By J. J. Keeling
Janice hadn’t been to the creek in ages. Now that she actually had some time off, she thought it would be a good idea to check out her old stomping grounds. She could remember going up and down that creek forty years ago. It had an interstate running overhead these days, but it was still mostly intact. There were some trees that hadn’t been there before, but for the most part it was the same old woods. She hadn’t had much time to spend with Max until now, but she brought him along so he could run free and they could play a little ball. She still remembered him being nearly skin and bones behind the gas station, searching for any scraps that might have fallen near the dumpster. Now, he was a healthy, happy jugheaded mutt who loved bounding through nature whenever he got the chance.
Janice had taken her partner’s child here when she was just ten, probably more than twenty years ago. She smiled as she remembered how Penny had been so cautious about where she walked, constantly afraid she’d fall over because the ground was uneven, unlike the pavement she was used to. A quirky child, she would count each step to make sure she’d come out to an even number, preferably a multiple of ten. Janice would break the girl's counting by prodding her to look up at the trees and admire the awe of nature, but Penny would just argue that if she looked up, she might step in a hole and tumble. Thankfully, she’d grown up to be a much more balanced woman, no longer obsessed with the thought of falling and able to hold her head up when she walked. Still, Janice had delighted in seeing her old woods through the child’s eyes. Now she was enjoying it in a different way, as an older woman enjoying what little of her old neighborhood was still untouched in the now mostly developed West Meade area of Nashville. She had seen the small town develop into a bustling city, remembering when only one skyscraper seared the skyline, a far cry from the dozen or so that one could hardly see unless they were on a high hill with a decent view. With so many changes, it was good to see that some of her most secret places were still mostly intact.
Reaching a spot where the trees thinned a bit, she called Max’s attention with a tennis ball. Excitedly, he focused on her hand, the ball, his haunches tensed and ready to spring. She hurled the ball into the distance and watched as Max loped after it with a big doggy grin on his face. She made her way down toward where he had run. Max was doing as all dogs do when they catch their ball, obviously rolling it around on the ground, putting it in his mouth, spitting it out and rolling it a little, putting it in his mouth again. Janice walked up to him, surprised that he hadn’t returned with the ball by the time she got up to him. Getting right up on him, she realized that he wasn’t doing that. The ball was sitting about a foot and a half away. Max was picking at some sort of goo, sniffing it, pawing at it, licking it. There was a trail of the weird slime about three feet long in a slight semicircle. It was too thick to be left by a slug, and there was far too much of it. Maybe some kid had been playing with that toy slime you can get out of the quarter machines at the grocery and left it here. Either way, the dog shouldn’t be eating it, but he seemed to really like the smell and taste. "Cut it out, Max. You don’t need to be eating that crap. Dumb dog." She nudged him with her foot. "Stop!" He still seemed intent on the goo. She grabbed his ear, showing her dominance as she took a deep breath, preparing for a low-toned and loud "NO!" That got his attention. She grabbed his collar and started pulling him away. He seemed to understand and started walking away. She picked up the ball and began to head farther into the woods.
A little farther away was the creek of Janice’s childhood. This, she thought, would be the perfect place to play a little more ball with Max. Then, she could let him run around while she read a book. She had finally gotten the latest Stephen King novel at the library after being fourteenth on the waiting list and she couldn't wait to tear into it. When they approached the stream, she called to Max and threw the ball across. He bounced happily through the water, enjoying the splash as much as the game. On his return trip, he trotted until he got back to the water, then he splashed across again. They went back and forth like this a few more times when Max stopped. He started heaving, frantically searching for a good place to yak.
"I told you not to eat that crap. See? You should have listened. Next time, you’ll believe me." Max let out a mess that seemed to come from his toes, convulsing violently in his abdomen. "Are you okay, Max? Hey…" She approached him, but he backed away. "I'm not going to hurt you, Max. I'm trying to help." She tried to make her voice as soothing and gentle as she could. He backed away again and flinched as she flung herself onto him in order to catch him. "I'm not gonna hurt you! Stay still!" She examined him a little more closely to make sure that he wasn’t hurt too badly. She looked in his mouth, at his eyes. She stroked his head and cooed at him some to get him to calm down. After a few moments of worry, she let him go with a little stroking of his head. "I'm just going to let you roam around for a while, okay? When you feel better, we can play some more. But you go run."
The dog understood run. He perked up and skipped off, slowing to a trot and then to a walk as he began to explore the woods. Janice found a tree to lean up against while she read her book. The day was overcast, but that didn’t down the mood any. It was one of those days where the sky looked like a great big white sheet of paper. Sometimes, she half-expected God to write something on it. It’s just not right to have a blank page, after all. She stretched out her long legs and opened her new acquisition with anticipation.
For as long as she could remember, she kept a book around her. Her earliest memories were of holding a book in her hand, pointing out the characters to the nurses as she was wheeled away to have surgery on her heart. They weren’t sure how the operation would even turn out because she was so young, but she would have surely died without it. It didn't matter to her, as long as she had a book with her. While growing up, she would keep a flashlight hidden near her bed so that she could read after lights out. No matter how many times she got caught, it never stopped her from reading into the wee hours of the morning, often being too tired in the morning to get up for school. At least, she was too tired until she had the book back in her hands. Then she would wake up fully, excited about continuing her latest literary adventure. Now here she was with her two biggest loves, a book and a dog, in one of her favorite places.
For a while, time didn’t seem to exist. Janice was completely absorbed in her story, tuning out everything else in the world. This was shattered with a small pat sound and a quarter inch wet spot on her page. That was enough to pull her back to reality. As she closed her book, she saw more was coming down. Time to get the dog and head back, she thought. She stood up and scanned the area for him. "Max!" She walked in the direction she had last seen him go, farther into the woods. "Max! Come on, dog! Let’s go!" She called out to him with a whistle and scanned the brush for any sign of movement. After calling a few more times, she heard a faraway whine, muffled
Janice headed toward where she thought Max's whimper was coming from. As she approached, she could see Max’s tail on the other side of a tree. She got closer and saw it attached to his butt, which seemed to be trying to move backward, pulling against something. Again, she heard him whine. "Come on, Max. Time to go." He only let out a pitiful wheezing wail, frantically pulling against something. She got up to the tree and could now see around the other side, getting a full view of the dog and what he was fighting with. She wasn’t sure what she was looking at. Max had somehow managed to half-bury himself under a blanket of dead leaves. He was fighting with something under them. But the leaves looked more like they were attached to some sort of tarp, like they were a kind of disguise for something else. There was some more of the slimy goo around the edges of it. Maybe there had been a hunter or a camper or something in the woods and Max was fighting with the corpse.
She reached out and grabbed the edge of the tarp to pull it up and see what the dog was struggling so hard with. If it was a body, she needed to make sure he didn’t disturb the scene much so the police could properly investigate. As she began to lift, she saw a root - no, it’s moving? a worm maybe - wiggling around, white and waxy from the roof of the structure it’s not actually attached to it but coming from deeper inside. How is it… It was moving toward her. Bending down, she squinted to get a better look at what was inside. She could see Max, being held in place by more of these worms, which seemed to be burrowing their way into his skin, tugging him forward. The inside of the tarp was coated in the slime, which had a slightly sweet odor. Her eyes adjusted even more and she realized that the slime was coating the front half of Max’s body and that he was missing skin in large patches, muscle revealed and glistening. The slime had covered his muzzle and he was having trouble breathing. All of the worms appeared to be attached to the same structure, like a giant tongue at the back of the - not a tarp, not a camping structure - a flytrap, only bigger. Janice grabbed Max by the hindquarters and tried to pull him out. He let out a hideous, gasping yelp as chunks of his flesh were ripped out by the worm tongues. There were too many of them for her to struggle against. It broke her heart to know that he would suffer. If she could get to his head, she could at least break his neck. That would be humane. If she managed to get him loose somehow, she could at least assess the damage before resorting to that. But how? Where’s my knife? Shit, did I bring it with me?
Janice searched her pockets, quickly finding the knife that she had gotten as a birthday gift from a friend. As she opened it up, she thought that when her friend had given her the present, he probably figured she’d only ever use it on the plastic bundle straps used to secure newspapers, not on flytraps with tentacles to save a dog’s life. She dove in and started cutting the tongues away. They were still white, apparently sucking the blood in rather than letting it flow. As soon as she severed some of them, the blood began to flow from the places that had been torn. She realized that she had no idea how much blood he had actually lost. She cut off as much as she could, pulling him backward as she went. The worms began to hiss and writhe frantically. The main body of the tongue began to jump in its root. She finally managed to shave enough of them to pull Max out from under the... It’s a mouth! she screamed in her head. The ground grew a mouth and tried to eat my dog! You can’t have him, damnit! She pulled him a few feet away from the opening, which now was raised up of its own accord, tentacles flailing, tongue base stretching out, trying to climb out from its cover. It looked more like a large, hideous snake now, able to reach much farther than she had previously thought. It was pursuing them. She looked down at Max to see if he could walk at all. Only small patches of fur were still left from just below the rib cage and up. It was mostly muscle and even that was wretchedly torn. Barely breathing, he let out a pitiful whine. He licked at her hand, pleading for something that he didn’t even understand. Her hands could make it better. He didn’t know how, but she did. "I’m so sorry, Max. I promised to take care of you and keep you safe and I failed. I love you, okay? I love you and I’m sorry." Taking his head into her hands, she summoned all of her strength and twisted pain into mercy.
The tongue began poking at her and Max. It had come about five feet out of the decoy shelter and was still attached. There was no telling how long this thing could reach, but she knew it was past time for her to leave. She got up and ran back the way she had come. She arrived back at the tree she had been leaning against and saw that less than a foot from it there was a break in the leaves and worms examining her book. "Hey, you're the bigger bookworm!" She barked at the writhing mass. "I’ll just pay the library for the loss. Keep it. I’m too old for this shit!" She got a few feet more and saw another mouth just beginning to yawn. She ran past it as quickly as she could, but her ankle wound up smacking the worms as the tongue began raising out of the mouth faster than she would have thought possible, considering how much slower the one that ate Max was. But that one was wounded. This one wasn't.
The rain was coming down much harder now, pouring in sheets. Janice was completely soaked, but she didn’t care. The mushy squish in her shoes only made her think of what would happen if one of those things caught her. She came up on an incline, now made slippery by the rain, and wound up landing in mud just as slimy as the goo that surrounded the mouths. She had tried to brace herself against the fall, but as she did so, her arm plunged hard into the wet dirt, scraping her arm against rocks just under the surface and causing her to bleed on the soft underside of her forearm. A mouth opened up on her right and the tentacle tongues snaked around her arm. "No, I’m too
fucking old for this shit! No! You can’t have me either!" She grabbed the knife with her left hand and began shaving the worms away, taking pieces of her skin with it. She didn’t care how bad it hurt. She just had to get away.
Janice managed to free herself just in time to see another one opening up to her left. She started running again. Only a couple hundred feet or so to the car. I can make it. There’s no room to think anything else. I’m going to make it and I’m never coming back. I just have to get out of here. She summoned every ounce of fight she had left in her and used it to charge her legs into being poles to vault herself out of the woods. The ground itself seemed to shake under her feet, the tongues hissing angrily behind her. They’re all connected she thought. They’re all part of one big thing that’s just under the flatrock and it’s trying to get me off balance. Can’t fall. Can’t fall! There was a shriek that seemed to come from the woods themselves, from the infuriated ground, the mouths, even the trees themselves. On her left, she could see a deer’s empty stare from the ground. The rest of the deer was gone, but the worms were steadily working on the head, which was still sticking out from the blanket of leaves. Less than a hundred feet, come on!
Finally, she could see the dull gold of the Toyota through the trees. Her legs were getting so tired she could barely feel them and she was pretty sure her lungs were about to explode. She dug her keys from her pocket before she got there, wrapping her blood-soaked and muddy fingers around the one that would get her into the car. Let’s see how fast I can get in, like a game. A game I can't lose. She got up to the car and stopped to put the key in the door. The ground was pulsating even under her car. How big is this thing? It didn’t take long for her to decide she didn’t care. Even though the pain wasn't registering, her hands were still shaking hard enough to make inserting the key difficult. Just as she got it in, her hands began to lose strength, making it even harder to turn the key with her grimy fingers. As she finally unlocked and opened the door and the running caught up with her. She turned to the side and heaved, choking out the rice and veggies from a Chinese restaurant she'd been to for lunch. Okay, I think I can get in now. She climbed in and closed the door, starting the car. In the woods, she could see several of the worm tongues reaching out, searching for her. Some of them had to be stretched ten or fifteen feet. And there were dozens, maybe hundreds, just within view. How many had there been farther in?
Janice threw the car into reverse and stomped on the gas. The tires screeched, but she didn’t move. Fuck! She stomped again. The tires screamed in panic. Janice screamed in panic. "FUCK!!!" She threw the car into drive and stomped. The hissing and shaking started under her. In the passenger floorboard, she could see the worms coming up from under the mat. Reverse. Squealing tires digging into the mud. Forward. The car shuddered and there was a shriek from below. Reverse again. Something caught and she was able to bust free. The Toy slid around on the dirt some before managing to get to some semisolid ground. As she drove away, she could see a couple of trees collapsing in the rearview mirror. The road was just a few dozen feet ahead. She floored it, braking just before hitting the pavement and twisting the wheel to the left as she did so. This got her up on the road and facing nearly the right direction. "Screw this place!" She took off so fast she nearly lost control because of all the mud still coating the wheels. The streets of West Meade were a winding spider web, but with her driving skills and familiarity with the area, she was sure she could get out safely.
Janice made her way to Charlotte Pike and screeched around the turn, her pause at the sign barely even resembling a stop. Her efforts did not go unnoticed. As she approached the intersection of Charlotte and Annex, she noticed the lights in her mirror and headed for the BP. She came to a stop, chuckling to herself as she started to feel normal again. There's nothing more normal than being pulled over for traffic violations. That’s about as mundane as you can get. She hit the button to bring the window down as the cop approached her. She was too tired and in too much pain to try to talk her way out of the ticket, or even into a lesser ticket.
"Ma’am. You know why I pulled you over, right?" the cop prodded gently.
"I was speeding, wasn’t I? I’m sorry. I’ll try not to do it again"
"Yes, ma’am," he confirmed. "Pardon my asking, but are you feeling alright? You look like you’ve been in a fight or something. You’re all muddy and your car is just a mess. Is that blood on your arm? Do you need assistance?"
"I’m okay. I lost my dog in the woods. I was running after him."
"Whereabouts? I’m a dog lover myself. I could keep an eye out, maybe give you a holler if I happen to see him or trap him or something."
"By the creek. Under the I-40 overpass. It’s no use. He’s gone. I’ll never see him again. But thanks for offering."
The cop took a step back and examined the car carefully with a stricken look in his eyes. "Yeah, you’re right. You’re not going to see him again. I’ve lost a few dogs over there myself. Nearly lost my son. You’re lucky to be in one piece. I guess now you know to stay out of those woods. We tried posting signs, but they always vanish. Barbed wire fences. Nothing works. It knows. I can’t blame you for speeding. I’d let you off with a warning, but all warnings are too late. You should have been warned before you went over there. Just be glad you’re still with us and whole. I didn’t see you. Drive carefully, okay? Take some deep breaths and try to have a nice day."