Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Cynthia smacked, howled and screamed against Todd Barrett’s motel room window that night. Times like these, he was glad he hadn’t fully committed to “tramping,” and bought himself a fifth-wheel. Sleeping in a camper on a night like this would have been impossible. Instead, he had a soft bed below him, a strong roof above, and a simply superb on-demand adult video channel buzzing before him.
Three months prior, Todd had completed his apprenticeship. Now, he was a full-blown honest-to-no-one lineman. FP&L was shuffling him everywhere in the great state of Florida to keep the electricity flowing. Sometimes it was faulty wiring, but most times, the times Todd liked best, he was hiking up power poles and repairing the damage from Mother Nature’s worst.
Whenever bad weather was on the rise, Todd went out to location prior to the worst of it so he could get to restoring power early the next morning. If Cynthia truly evolved into the horrible raving bitch of a hurricane she was predicted to be, he would have his work cut out for him. He looked forward to the morning. Powerless cities were quieter, the smell of freshly snapped trees was often in the air, and despite the destruction, the birds usually went right on singing.
With a bright surge of light in his motel room, the electricity was gone from the entire building. Todd Barrett’s all-time favorite lesbian porn flick vanished from the screen. He should sleep anyway, he thought, but before he could close his eyes, they were flooded with a blue light that could have competed with the sun. The blue turned to orange, and through his second story window, Todd could see a deluge of sparks raining down in the motel parking lot.
As he stepped to the window, another burst of sparks ejected from the transformer above the lot. If not for the rain, the un-trimmed hedges below would have been set ablaze. In the brief light he saw—did he?—it could have been someone down there, in the in the center of the parking lot. Todd wasn’t sure, until a third spray of particulate fire illuminated the property. It was a man in a white T-shirt and basketball shorts. He was curled up in the fetal position. It was as if he had mistaken the muddy rain puddle for his bed, coiled up and fallen asleep right there. He wasn’t moving but—was he screaming? It was tough to tell over the storm and through the window.
Now came the most ancient of debates, to help or turn away. Todd groaned a mellow “oh, shit,” when he realized he had already made the decision. He was supposed to be a good man. He had told himself he would be making all the right changes ever since mouth had gotten him into trouble. Todd had a knack for talking, usually about others, and often about things they considered personal. Since his black eye from last week, he would drink less beer, help more, hurt less, shut his mouth, and hopefully find a good honest woman some time soon.
Todd Barrett threw on his raincoat and left the room in a hurry. In all likelihood, the sudden electrical flash had temporarily blinded this poor bastard that probably ran out to his car to retrieve his forgotten toothbrush or something. Todd had seen what an overload could do to someone up close, and they were still plenty dangerous from afar.
The motel clerk was gone from her desk, though he saw her flashlight moving in the back office. “Hey, someone’s hurt out there,” he hollered, but heard no reply. Todd pressed the emergency release on the automatic sliding doors, and stepped out into the rain.
Cynthia was indeed an ill-tempered, wild lunatic of a storm. Her winds tried to possess Todd’s very movement. He was soaked instantly; his jeans probably wouldn’t dry for three days. He slowly approached the motionless pile of a man, who was now face down in the flooding parking lot. As Todd drew nearer, some part of him questioned what form of temporary blindness would cause a man to scream into mud like this one seemed to be.
He suddenly realized the error in his assumption that this wet screaming mess had been a tenant of the motel. Maybe he was a roving crack addict or escapee from some kind of institution. Todd lost all interest in placing a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder, but planned to do so anyway—he was here, wasn’t he?
“You’re ok,” were the first, most natural and least accurate words to Todd’s lips, but they were lost to the wind. He repeated them, this time yelling, “You’re ok!” and finally his hand touched the man’s sopping, cold, cotton shirt. The screaming man rolled over and his yelling was quickly reduced to a gurgle through the witch’s brew of mud, rain, saliva, and blood in his mouth. Todd saw the dirty red fluid streaking from all corners of the man’s face, digging miniscule gullies into the mud and gravel stuck there.
Two bloodshot eyes, tucked within that filthy mask, searched wide and eventually locked with Todd’s. The gurgling stopped, and the man aggressively inhaled, no doubt taking in some rainwater, then painfully coughed and wheezed. That was when, from behind Todd, the transformer on the offending power pole breathed fire again, and Todd turned to look at it. What he saw there was no mere utility structure.
Something was clinging to the top of the pole. Mother nature’s light show had stirred up by now, and the thing—whatever it was—was occasionally silhouetted by jagged strikes of lightning in the sky. The first thought into Todd’s mind, of all things, was that this thing was something from The Muppet Show. Its four limbs were of such lanky length that they looked as though only a puppeteer’s wire could move them.
Another flash of lighting brought more unwanted detail. Tufts of hair covered the monster’s impossibly skinny form. It seemed to lack elbows and knees, instead utilizing a slow arcing bend of its slender limbs. There was more, it was doing something up there. Todd watched in disbelief as the nightmare’s almost perfectly spherical head parted into a gaping mouth with canine teeth, and sank them into the transformer. Another blast of sparks was set loose. It looked to be feeding on the power grid.
In perhaps a more delayed reaction than Todd had ever experienced, he began stuttering and repeating the only word his mind seemed to have on hand, “No, no, no, NO!”
The creature halted its feast. It had heard him. Now, the thing’s eyes opened, and their intense glow told Todd that they had previously been closed.
In two moments, Todd would make the absolute greatest mistake of his life. As those infernal, luminous eyes swept their surroundings like headlights, and the rain fell like ocean waves, Todd could have run away; but he didn’t. Crippled by his own fear, he could only stare. The evil eyes found Todd, and he looked back into them. That was when everything changed.
His arms were raised above his head. He heard a plastic, grating sound and felt sharp pain at the back of his head. Todd did not suddenly become aware of the situation, but rather felt it slowly envelope him. He was being dragged down the street. The plastic grating had been the rubbing of asphalt on his rain coat. The pain behind his head was that same rugged surface scratching into his scalp.
It was a bright, moonlit night. Cynthia was long gone from wherever he was now. He raised his head to see the horrible, lanky creature pulling him along by the ankle in slow, lumbering movements. It was much taller than it had initially appeared when beheld at a distance. The thing was maybe nine feet tall, those skinny, jointless legs made up most of the height. Its head hung low, and its free arm slowly swayed to and fro with each step.
Todd actually spent a moment debating whether or not he should play dead. Next he considered that he was likely as good as dead if he didn’t do something. He started with shouting, then kicking. He twisted and rolled and palmed his hands into the surface of the street. His nails dug into the asphalt and were sanded down, along with his now bloodied fingertips. He recoiled his captured leg, hoping to gain ground and attack the monster head on. It was out of reach. He summoned his will power and reached for the disgusting hand that was grasping his ankle. He felt a static shock as he touched its dark, matted fur, and pried with all his might, but could not break the grip. The thing, despite Todd’s violent rebellion, trudged on.
Todd tucked his shirt and raincoat into his pants and tightened his belt, trying to keep his outer layers from wrinkling upward and exposing his bare back to the passing ground. He slowly regained his wits and took in his surroundings. The neighborhood was quiet, it seemed there was no one here to help him. The cars looked older; in fact, he didn’t see a single one that looked newer than nineteen seventy. Over the course of a dreadful two minutes Todd recognized, double checked, and reconfirmed that he was in fact being dragged through the neighborhood in which he had grown up.
He was pulled around a bend, turning onto old Wilkie Avenue. At the end of this street would be a cul-de-sac, at the center of that would be his childhood home. Todd leaned and contorted, trying to see past his captor and catch a glimpse of their destination. He could see that the creature’s open, radiant eyes were lighting the way.
All along the street, his former neighbors stepped out onto their various yards and porches. Each person’s flesh had changed, head to toe, into that same muddy, bleeding mixture he had beheld in the parking lot. They went about their daily lives despite the grotesque transformation. Mr. Davis pressed his thumb over the end of a hose and sprayed grass clippings off of his sidewalk. Karly Mason, dressed in her now darkly soiled pink tutu, performed pirouettes and plies for the world to admire. Todd tried not to look.
His miserable guided tour continued, up the curb, across the driveway, onto the porch and through the door. As the creature lumbered up the flight of stairs towards the second floor, Todd grabbed hold of the banister and squeezed with everything he had. The creature pulled so hard, Tom thought his leg might rip from its socket, but before it could, the wooden post cracked and snapped in two.
Up the green-carpeted stairs, and down the second floor hallway he went. He knew whose bedroom was at the end, and as he was pulled into it, he observed muddied, bleeding versions of both his parents. They were pressed up against the wall, wildly trying to conceive his younger brother, all to the beat with The O’Jay’s “Love Train,” which seemed to be blaring from the very walls. It had once been a younger Todd’s favorite song. He screamed, flipped and kicked but couldn’t seem to close his eyes.
Todd’s horrible, gangling tour guide stepped out the second story window, dragging a now crying Todd with it. He was pulled out, to his surprise, not onto the roof, but the dirty surface of his old school yard. There he watched the imaginary battles of his youth turn real, as each of his mud-caked, bleeding, friends were slaughtered by one another.
By what could have been called the second day of being dragged—though time did not exist in this place—Todd had already seen most every location he once cherished. He was dragged through the ’64 Chevy Station Wagon in which he had received his first blowjob. He made a hot lap around his high school while listening to “Love Train” and watching a disgusting rendition of his old football team gnaw out each other’s muddy throats.
Todd’s raincoat had mostly withered to Swiss cheese at this point, and his cotton undershirt didn’t provide much protection from the ground’s coarse sandpaper effect. He resorted to sitting up, entrusting his rugged jeans to hold up at least twice as long as the jacket. He and his silent captor had just about completely caught up on his life by now, and Todd assumed an end of some kind was close at hand.
On the third day of the dragging, Tom was pulled out of the dark motel room that he wished he had never left. He was brought through the lobby, out into the rain, and past the screaming man he had hoped to help. Beyond that, everything turned bright. The rain stopped, and Todd finally felt the sun on his face. To either side of him, he saw vast, endless lines of wavy dunes. It was a desert that existed somewhere outside of his own memory.
On the fifth day, his entire upper layer of clothing had completely worn away. Grating, hot sand grinded into his wounds and formed a layer of bloody paste around him. If he had tried to scream, his dry throat would have yielded no sound. The sun had burned his face and chest to the point of blistering. The sand had rubbed his back down to mere muscle. It also seemed that hunger existed in this place, though it could not kill. Todd’s mind failed him, as he began thrashing wildly, no longer hoping to escape, but letting out his rage and trying to distract from the pain.
Day ten approached, and the dunes rolled on. Todd’s rag of a body was pulled past the rusting hulk of an old Lockheed airliner, the decaying hull of a cargo ship, and a few other scraps of metal that his weak eyes couldn’t identify. Above in the tauntingly blue sky, Todd observed a ringed planet, hosting a family of several moons. “Love Train,” rolled on, echoing unstoppably from deep within his mind. He turned over, opting to let the ceaseless sun destroy his back, which had been stripped of its nerve endings. He braced for the grating pain of sand on his wretchedly burned chest.
By the fifteenth day, Todd’s muscles had been stripped past the point of use. The lost layers left him more closely resembling his captor than any human. Thirty pounds of flesh had been shredded away from his miserable body. Knowing he should have been long dead by now, he wondered what he had done to deserve what he feared would be an eternity of senseless agony.
On day twenty, Todd suspected that by tomorrow, he would lose his mind entirely, and that might be good. He was well on his way to ending up just like—
His feeble mind stopped, reversed course, and retraced its steps. He would end up just like the man in the parking lot—Insane. In a merciful flash, Todd understood it all so clearly. This creature wasn’t something told of around a campfire. He had never heard a single word spoken about such a monster—Why? This had all started the moment he locked eyes with this terrible creature. He had seen it, and it knew he had. Todd had never heard of the monster because no one who saw it could ever speak of it—or anything—again. It was a secret. Now, for witnessing that secret, Todd was being driven insane.
He struggled to form the words with his brittle lips, but couldn’t. There was no way for his vocal cords to produce a sound. He tried anyway. If mouthing the four words was all he could do, he would do so for the rest of his tour.
I won’t tell anyone, he said, though it was really more a thought than spoken word, and a remarkable thing happened. The creature stopped. Todd felt his own foot drop into the sand. The creature, gangly, yet somehow graceful, crawled right over top of him. Through its disgusting dark tufts of fur, Todd could see what might have been eyes; they looked deeper into him than any human eyes ever could.
The creature grunted, stood, and from Todd’s perspective, its towering form was never so apparent. It turned, and lumbered away, off into the endless dunes. The creature could not whistle as it walked, so the wind did so for it.
Todd was alone now, lying there in that blasted desert, somewhere outside the realm of rationality where pain met time. A sudden breeze kicked sand into his eyes. His decaying fingers curled and gripped the sand to find that it was now wet, and not sand but mud. Water, sweet cooling water, fell onto his wounds and flowed in all around him.
He was no longer in the dune, but laying in the motel parking lot, next to a man who, little did he know, had been dragged for three thousand and eighty days, all in an instant; all for looking where he shouldn’t.
Above Todd, in a weightless perch on the power lines, was the creature. It blinked once at him, spread its limbs, and caught a gale of Cynthia’s wind. With one flash of lightning, Todd saw the silhouette of that hellish puppet disappear into the thunderclouds. He wondered if he was the only one to have laid eyes on the being and survived with half his mind, or if there were others that shared his secret. He would never know. For the rest of his dark, broken life, Todd would never speak of the monster that almost cost him his sanity with a single glance; and the world’s most ancient secret went on unheard of, riding the winds of violent storms until wind itself was no more.
Credit: Timothy Attewell