These days being a hazmat guy is fairly routine work. Despite some of the popular misconceptions, there really isn’t a whole lot to it. I show up to a site, handle business, and let chemistry take care of the rest.
As one might expect, working under a contracting agency means dealing with a wide variety of customers. Around every five weeks, I carry out disposals for a particular organization and standard operating procedure goes right out the window. I know how that probably sounds, but it always ends up being just another day with these people. Today was supposed to be that kind of day.
Despite a rising sun poking through the curtains, additional sleep would have been welcome. I was still in bed when the work phone started buzzing incessantly. Snatching it off the nightstand, I knew the deal before even answering. In about an hour and a half, the aforementioned organization expected me to arrive at their facility, ready to work. That was when the job would get interesting.
Nearly two hours had passed and I was acutely aware that the circumstances surrounding my call-in were no exception.
Upon entering the fifth floor laboratory, an uneasy feeling settled in. The area had been delineated in favor of a robust security effort. It was completely different from the other sections of the building that I had worked in.
Aside from the presence of several armed guards, the place seemed almost deserted. There were no apparent windows to the outside and each hallway was bare, not containing so much as a single exit sign. Unmarked steel doors ensured that anyone without clearance would have quite the challenge gaining entry. Despite this stark contrast with the rest of the building, what really caught my attention pertained to why I had been called in.
Before even stepping foot into the testing room, my nostrils were met with the not-so-subtle hint of something foul. My best guess was that it came from the small pools of pink slime all over the place. Had I not just donned personal protective equipment (PPE) it could have been bad.
Proceeding, I could see that beneath the gelatinous layers of ooze were large, prominent gouges in many of the floor tiles. The damage had extended nearly to a pile of excessively thick chains laid out next to the far wall. Undoubtedly those played some role in whatever had gone on in here. All things considered, the scene was exactly as I had guessed – interesting.
For this job, my PPE level was set to “B” on the scale of “A” through “D”, with “A” offering the most protection. Wearing a respirator, full hooded face mask, and total body bio-suit – outfitted with rubber gloves and boots (that fit right over my shoes), I was ready. It was stifling and uncomfortable, but felt okay knowing that I wasn’t being exposed to any nasty stuff.
The company that I work for requires all employees to follow very specific guidelines set by entities like the EPA and OSHA. Different materials are handled and disposed of in different ways. On other sites, these standards are always applied, as I reference various forms of documentation.
During my almost monthly visits to this place, however, I find myself handling obscure organic substances. The only available procedures are what’s given to me by these privately funded scientists. An unorthodox system, no doubt, but I’m compelled to persist.
I didn’t become involved in this business for money or any other typical motive. Some time ago, my wife of four years was killed in an extraordinarily rare accident. I use the term “accident”, but the truth is that the very earth quite literally stole her from me.
We had started a fruitful online business together after college. Although I certainly contributed my fair share, it was my wife who really possessed the brains to carry our venture to success. After she was gone, I gave up and sold the whole thing at a bargain price.
Losing my life companion caused something to just wither up and crumble inside of me. Truly I was a fool to believe that moving on without her was possible and it took a heavy toll. Unlike my spouse, the damage that accumulated during that time could not be physically quantified.
After months of therapy, I convinced myself to shift gears and give this job a go. Now, I could easily preach some phoney crap like: “Hazardous material disposal was a means for me to do my part in making this world a safer and cleaner place for humanity to live in… Blah blah blah”. But the truth is, some part of me wanted it to go terribly wrong. I lacked the courage for ordinary suicide, and other potentially life-threatening careers just didn’t appeal to me. Over time, however, the whole idea seemed to just fade away and I grew complacent in my routine.
After letting go of the death wish, reality set in that people generally don’t give a damn about the effects waste substances have on us all. Where my will to live had deteriorated, ironically, I became more like everyone else. It was only through the process of suffering that I managed to escape such narrow-sighted indifference.
In any case, throughout my tenure I’ve been impressed with the capabilities of this odd place in terms of self sufficiency and respecting life beyond these walls.
The scientists running this whole operation were especially preoccupied with something big today. I noticed it as I began carrying out the simple instructions: Thoroughly blast the substance with a pressure washer, apply a few layers of a dry absorbent neutralizing compound, vacuum whatever is left into the heavy duty disposal bags.
My normal “escorts” – two or three scientists, who would normally stand behind the glass pane of an observation room, all dignified with their paperwork, discussing whatever (while keeping an eye on me, no doubt) – had been downgraded to one awkward young fellow wearing thick framed yellow glasses. He was putting off strange vibes for some reason, constantly glancing at his watch and fidgeting around nonstop with a clipboard.
Certain things that I’ve noticed during previous visits here were not meant to be witnessed by the cleanup crew. And truthfully I kind of wish that I hadn’t seen most of it. Running the specialized shop-vac, my mind wandered to reflect on some of the grotesque anomalies that I had observed over the past couple of years here.
My musings were abruptly interrupted by a blaring twenty second emergency alarm, along with a bright red strobe-light mounted above the entrance. This was new.
The lone scientist immediately received a phone call, and faced away from the glass to speak. Moments later he radioed me and mumbled something about having a situation to deal with. I was pretty sure to have heard him say that he cleared me to finish the task unescorted. Glancing up, I could see that his pale face carried a conspicuous layer of nervous sweat. His glasses had managed to slip down the bridge of his nose. Without another word, the junior staff member pushed them back into place with one finger and took off in a great hurry, leaving me to wonder what the hell was actually going on.
Upon loading the full bags onto a cart, I took a second to examine the gouges in the clean floor. It looked like some drunken idiot had used a jackhammer on the ceramic tiles at random.
The alarm, which had been silent for several minutes, went off a second time, startling me.
I rolled the heavy cart down the hall towards the nearest incinerator room. Each and every time I worked here, incineration was the go-to method for disposal. It certainly beat physically transporting barrels or tanks to a waste treatment plant. Still, the sheer variety of organic materials that I had burned to nothingness over the years was extraordinary.
It was my first time in this section of the building, but fortunately, “science-boy” had pointed out where to go earlier. I reached the unmarked door and scanned my keyfob.
Before entering, a barely audible yet ominous sound stretched down the hallway. It sounded almost like a person, but something was not quite right. Knowing damn well that I should be none the wiser and carry on with my current task, paranoid curiosity won out over sensibility. I made my way down the brightly lit passage, to try and identify the source of the noise.
Upon reaching a new set of heavy-duty doors in the hallway, my lack of clearance had abruptly ended the investigation. I was still able to peek through the small circular windows on each side of the obstruction. First scanning through the left window, the pristine white hallway looked to be in perfect order.
I wondered if the sound had been a figment of my imagination. After all, the hazmat suit notoriously obstructs hearing.
An edge of the view was cut off to the left, so I shifted over and peered down the hallway through the right window. What I spotted sent a chill down my spine.
A ways back, poking out from a junction to some unknown corridor was a hand resting on the floor. The state of whomever it was attached to was unknown, as they were fully concealed behind that corner.
My eyes had only caught a glimpse of the appendage before it was inexplicably gone. Immediately replacing the hand, a small object sailed across the hallway and bounced off of the far wall before sliding to a stop. It was a pair of yellow framed glasses.
Overcoming shock, I quickly contemplated the next course of action. Given this latest development, the logical part of my brain was screaming to get the hell out of there.
The debate was cut short when the lights flickered off and immediately back on. A brief pause and it happened again, three or four more times in rapid succession. Finally, they seemed to really quit and just stayed out, plunging the hallway into darkness. Seconds later, however, the dim hue of red lights kicked on, indicating some kind of emergency activation.
This was no coincidence. Something worse than I could have imagined was taking place behind the scenes. Whatever the scientists had done here was spiraling out of control. With the resources that they had available at this facility, the possibilities were endless. That’s the problem with the ambitions of science – at a certain point, humanity always ends up trying to march the path of God.
I started back in the direction from which I had come, but didn’t get far before pausing. Maybe it was paranoid curiosity again, but something compelled me to glance back one final time.
There was an odd detail out of place. Those faint red lights were no longer visible through the windows on the doors. They were just… Black.
As my heart rate began to skyrocket, a freakish noise that I couldn’t identify or properly describe pierced the silence. It resembled a long, heavy guttural exhale, accompanied by a series of sharp pops that sounded like a few dozen giant knuckles cracking in rapid succession. I slowly turned away.
There was a thundering crash that echoed throughout the hallway and I was nearly knocked off of my feet. A crumpled metal door slid past me and bounced off of the nearby wall. The sound of debris clattering to the floor was drowned out by more of the hideous sounds.
With no intelligent thought behind my actions, I found myself sprinting away. The movement must have been generated purely out of survival instinct. Each time my feet made contact with the floor, I could feel slight tremors brought about by something massive.
I had no idea how far behind me it was. All I knew was a desperate need to escape that hallway brought me straight through the wrong damn door. I must’ve just missed the one that led to the elevator exit. Regaining some composure, I took in my new environment – this massive stairwell.
Although today’s job was on the fifth out of nine floors, these stairs only went down. I suspected that stumbling in here may have been a blessing in disguise. There were no guarantees that the elevators would be running while in emergency power mode. I felt confident about making my way down to the ground level, exiting the building, getting into my van and getting far away from whatever the fuck I had just eluded, in a matter of minutes.
I was halfway down the first flight of stairs when the nauseating sounds returned from right outside of the nearby door.
There was a brief silence, followed by a light scratching and then a slow and steady creaking. My eyes bulged as I watched the steel door begin to buckle at the center. The immense pressure that this thing was applying meant that there were only seconds left for me to move.
I hauled ass down the stairs, tearing the respirator and protective hood free, sucking down air as I ran. The ear splitting slam of the door being blasted open nearly caused me to lose my footing. Immediately, I froze so that it wouldn’t hear the echoing steps.
The popping and freakish breathing were sounding off in rapid succession, nearly masking the faint scraping of something large partially dragging along the concrete floor. I could also make out the unnerving rhythmic clicking of more than two sets of presumably giant insect-like legs taking steps forward. Pressing my back to the wall, I covered my nose and mouth with one hand to make as little noise as possible.
A pair of long, feathery pink “feelers” slowly lowered down to my line of sight. They pulsed and twitched as if tasting the air. As the tentacle-like appendages slowly passed by I realized that it wasn’t feathers that covered their surface but thousands of tiny barbs that seemed to be secreting a liquid. My nostrils caught a pungent whiff and I realized that it was the same goo that I was cleaning up mere moments earlier.
I involuntarily shuddered just thinking about it. That bit of motion must have given away my position because the feelers gave a reactive twitch in my direction. Fortunately, they couldn’t quite reach me. Above, the unholy beast exhaled a deep, guttural noise.
The feelers seemed to go on the offensive, spreading out in a semi-circle and blocking my escape. I could hear the massive thing above leaning heavily on a railing. One second later and a booming pop followed by a loud clinking noise told me that the metal bars had given out.
The creature’s heavy breathing seemed to become more intense as a wide sheet of foul smelling slime rained through the open area of the stairwell. It was climbing straight down the shaft, stairs be damned. There were only seconds before it was able to reach me.
I was contemplating trying to outmaneuver the feelers and just run for it, when I heard shouting followed by automatic gunfire. The monstrosity bellowed once again, creating an echo that rattled my teeth. There was a mad rush above and more yelling and gunshots as the feelers zipped back up.
I started to run down the stairs again, as fast as my legs would carry me. Momentarily, I took pause to unzip and yank off the rest of the annoying biohazard suit. My street clothes underneath were damp with sweat.
Down and down I hurried. Something bounced off of the nearby railing and landed just a few feet in front of me. It was a severed arm, gushing blood and wearing a black sleeve and tactical glove. The index finger was still twitching. Stepping over the limb, I tried my best to disregard that unfortunate visual.
The chaotic commotion at last came to a stop. I silently prayed for the awful thing’s death. As if on cue, the popping and guttural grunts resonated triumphantly, some distance above.
It was hard to say how many flights I had descended, but with a thought realized that it was way too many. I was underground. There had been too much going on at once, too much frantic chaos and fear to count myself down to the ground level. Who would have guessed that the stairs would just keep going down? Sure, I had passed plenty of doors on my way here, but they were all “enter only”. There had been no opportunity for escape.
The monstrosity could not be heard anymore, so I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and further collect my thoughts.
An opportunity had arrived to risk surveying the stairwell to see how many levels remained. Silently, I crept up to the railing and peered down. There was only a short distance left, with precisely two floors to the bottom. I wished hard for an exit to be there.
Out of my peripheral vision I caught a glimpse of something small zip straight down to the bottom of the stairwell. The dot of pink hit the concrete with a soft, barely audible tap. Heart racing, I turned my eyes upward for just a second. And there it was, a dozen or so yards above, clinging to the concrete like the lord of insect hell.
At first, all I could see was a large dark mass and multiple sets of glowing green eyes. It appeared to consist of bundles upon bundles of black flowing tendrils, almost resembling some kind of a storm cloud. The feelers were tucked back and out of the way. For the briefest of instants, I was able to vaguely see beyond the outer layer, and realized there was something underneath. Something that almost looked like a human merged with something much bigger.
The creature hollered so loudly that I had to cover my ears. Taking off running once again, I felt the feelers whip down and narrowly miss their target.
Reaching the final steps, my chest heaved at the sight of a reinforced metal door. There was a fob reader to the right of it, indicating that this particular passage required access clearance. Not good. There was a high probability that I would be denied, so far from my designated work area.
As I swiped the fob, a sickening slam accompanied by a minor shockwave caused me to smash my head into the wall in a reactive spasm. I watched a drop of my blood hit the floor and run into a fresh crack. The monstrosity had landed right behind me, fracturing the concrete.
I heard a familiar click, indicating the door had unlocked. Moving with incredible urgency, I burst through and slammed it behind me, mostly unscathed. My ears anticipated the beast barreling into the door like a runaway cement truck, but the only sounds I could hear were my ragged breaths and sneakers bouncing off the floor.
I was headed down a straight concrete tunnel that stretched on for quite a distance with no doors, windows, or corners. The fact that all of this existed beneath that building was so bizarre and unexpected. What was it for and where did it go?
My thoughts were again overruled by the sound of an explosion and several skin-crawling pops. The creature was abruptly silenced as I heard a booming metallic slam.
Daring to glance back over my shoulder, it soon made sense. Less than twenty feet behind me, a solid metal wall had appeared. My best guess was that it must have come down from the ceiling as a failsafe mechanism from the previous door being forcefully breached.
Without any time to savor the paltry victory, I felt and heard a faint slam from the other side of the wall. A small plume of dust fell from the ceiling. My knees felt wobbly and weak. I tried to focus on the reality of the situation. Everything down here was reinforced steel, rock, and concrete, yet despite all of it, this fucking thing would not be deterred. My very survival hinged on continued movement.
I jogged the rest of the way down the passage to another door. This one did not require the fob to exit, so I proceeded through and found myself in a massive open area. The far stretching walls and ceiling appeared to be made out of solid rock. Under other circumstances, I would have felt a twinge of regret not taking the time to fully appreciate a cavern of this magnitude.
Proceeding down one of several red catwalks, I arrived at an enormous open area hydraulic freight elevator, used to transport heavy machinery and equipment. Regardless of the unknown that lay ahead, the more space between myself and that monster, the better. So I activated the lift using the simple control panel and descended for several long minutes.
The lighting grew significantly dimmer. As a result, every passing shadow seemed to evoke recurring feelings of desolation as I descended further into the madness.
I should have been celebrating avoiding the fate of those scientists and armed guards so far above. Instead, my thoughts always wandered back to the reality of moving deeper and deeper underground. And the monstrosity’s tireless pursuit.
Eventually the platform had reached its base level and settled into silence with a final mechanical jolt. The first thing that stood out was a wide concrete path from one open side of the elevator that led to a massive sealed rolling bay door. Next to that was an ordinary bolt-locked metal door, to which locating the key would be an impossible task.
At one side of the nearby catwalk was another ramp that led down and around a corner of the perimeter of the plateau. The area was chained off and ended at a railing with a red sign and bold white letters which read – ‘Danger! Do Not Proceed.’ Beneath it was a set of curved rails indicating the top of a ladder.
So this cavern continued down even further, but progressing from here meant descending that rickety thing into the black abyss below.
It felt best to use such a daunting route only as a last resort, so I paused at the ramp to weigh alternate options. The only real question mark sat squarely on the locked door. As unlikely as it may have been for anything to happen, I walked up and hammered with my fist. Nothing. There was no one else down here. I felt foolish doing so but also checked my phone. Naturally, there was absolutely zero reception.
Perhaps if I waited long enough, help would arrive. Deciding to sit tight for the time being, I rested upon the cold metal floor plating.
The minutes dragged on. I shot another thoughtful glance towards the top of that ladder. No way – I concluded.
The silence was broken by a distant crash, and bits of metal, dust, and rock debris rained down nearby. I heard the all too familiar sounds of impending death. The creature had at last broken through.
There cannot be enough emphasis placed on the dread experienced as my foot met that first rung. Begrudgingly, I gripped the sides of the ladder and brought down my other foot. I lowered myself towards the dark unknown and went down… down… down. One slip would have meant falling blindly, until either sudden impact or a heart attack claimed my life. Either scenario seemed better than being caught by the abomination above.
Finally, I reached the bottom. Stepping off from the ladder, I felt dry dirt beneath my shoes. The odds did not favor finding an escape from here. This insignificant location hadn’t even justified the installation of lighting. The black air was stale and dead, reminding me of some kind of ancient tomb.
I was left without awareness or options. Up until today, such extreme degrees of helplessness were a foreign concept. Hearing the beast above, I was reminded that sitting idle meant waiting to die. This is what it was to be cornered in the darkness.
With a few deep breaths, I managed to lower my heart rate. Rather than use the flashlight on my phone, I decided to use the light from the screen. It had been set to auto-adjust, so down here would be very dim and battery efficient.
With the lighting, I could see that this was a far narrower area than before. The cavity was maybe thirty feet in diameter and almost completely empty. Only one thing of note was nearby – an odd dome resting on the ground in the center of the chasm.
I hurried over and shined my light upon the curious object, which reminded me of a giant flipped over salad bowl. It was embedded into the ground to an unknown extent, but peaked at just over the height of my knees. Evenly spaced around the surface were four divots that pressed into the metal several inches. The dome was absolutely covered in etched exotic patterns and strange symbols, but appeared man-made at least. I heard a horrifying bellow, seemingly closer. For a second, panic flooded my senses.
I scanned back over the mysterious metallic piece. That was when I noticed the letters carved crudely across one of the patterns. They read ‘Madhole’.
Perhaps it meant to say ‘manhole’, which implied that was some kind of a cover. There was only one way to find out.
The metal divot was cold to the touch as I gripped and heaved, painstakingly dragging the several hundred pound dome to one side. At last the effort was complete and I felt a slightly warm breeze emanating out of the newly revealed tunnel beneath.
My fingers met my temples to alleviate a headache as I tried to get a grip on the situation. This had progressed in ways that pushed beyond the boundaries of my faculties. I knew what had to be done and hated every bit of it.
Assuming there would even be oxygen if the cave went down too far was illogical. In my youth I had heard horrifying stories from my great grandfather, who was a coal miner for much of his life. Fellow miners would occasionally die of asphyxiation deep within the tunnels, despite bringing along caged canaries to warn of unseen danger.
Yet once again, compared with the looming demon above, drifting off into a permanent sleep seemed reasonable.
The hole was entirely dirt and not much wider than my shoulders. It didn’t go straight down, so at least there was no chance of plummeting to my death upon entry. I heard the monstrosity once more, much closer, and went in head first.
Within complete blackness, I clawed my way down the cramped tunnel, pushing loose dirt behind me. I was progressing at roughly a thirty degree angle, but almost never in a straight line. The passage would twist to one side or the other or briefly incline before continuing the original downward trajectory.
What felt like hours passed and I was still not even close to comfortable with the extreme sensory deprivation of claustrophobic darkness. The only smell – dirt, the only touch – dirt, the only sound in the air – breathing. All of my motions had been reduced to agonizingly constant and singular monotonous repetitions.
I was never one for claustrophobia, but this experience was absolutely horrendous by all standards. Yet despite everything, I kept going, while trying to force my mind out of a mental breakdown and full blown fit of hyperventilation. At certain points the tunnel would open up to the extent that I could actually walk while crouching, other times it became so tight that it was exceedingly difficult to breathe. Those were the most taxing moments, both physically and mentally.
I stopped to rest. It hadn’t taken long to learn that crawling for extended periods of time was utterly exhausting. After a few minutes, I was able to feel my heart rate return to normal. I flattened out a bit on the cool earth and rested my weary head on my arms for just a second.
My ears detected something terrifyingly familiar. An unmistakable popping and exhaling. Gone were hopes that I had escaped the creature. I could visualize the rage it must have felt in forcing its mass down this tunnel.
My limbs felt heavy and were caked with sweaty mud as I began to crawl as quickly as possible.
More sounds, and the shocking realization dawned that it was somehow ahead of me. I nearly seized up. With no way to turn around, I began the agonizingly slow process of crawling backwards at an upward angle. Somewhere in the darkness beyond my face, I heard a soul-crushing guttural exhale, seemingly just a handful of feet away.
At last I had reached my breaking point and screamed out of sheer terror. Sensing movement very close by and with no other option, I used my cell phone light with a violently trembling hand. The first thing I saw was the green glint of it’s eyes once again and then came the worst realization. The feelers were already pressed up to the walls on either side of me.
Thrashing, my head hit the dirt ceiling hard and the phone dropped, casting a short beam of light straight upwards. Before I even realized what was happening, the pink appendages had wrapped tightly around my arms. I was yanked forward, towards the popping monstrosity that had become a living wall in the narrow space.
The slime barbs on those feelers must have contained some kind of ultra powerful sedative, as my extreme dread and panic faded away almost immediately. I felt oddly at peace and maybe even quite comfortable as I approached the maw of death itself. The last thing I remembered was being inches away from those sets of eyes glowing brightly in the darkness. My bones began to snap.
I jerked awake, my forehead coated in muddy sweat. Looking up into nothingness from the pillow formed by my arms, I realized that I had passed out. With a deep exhale, my journey down the hole resumed.
As the minutes dragged, I tried to think about being on the beach with my wife during the summer. This proved to be extraordinarily difficult, as the worst possible thoughts would worm their way back into my mind.
The odds of dying down here seemed incredibly high and ever increasing. I didn’t know how this path came to be and where it led, but by now, I was sure to be miles underground. The situation was almost laughable. Under these conditions, any person’s sanity would become as distant as the surface of the earth.
Before long, the slope leveled off and did not go down further. I was able to again stand and take mini-breaks, stretching my aching limbs. Such rare opportunities needed to be taken advantage of before the path resumed its constricting downward trend.
Contrary to expectation, I started to travel on a consistent incline, sparking the slightest bit of hope deep in the recesses of my thoughts. My limbs burned horribly but I pushed my way forward at an increased pace. The tunnel soon angled upward even sharper, negating any extra effort.
Then at last I saw a speck of light ahead that generated indescribable joy. I pressed towards it, elated to soon achieve freedom from this insane nightmare. In the back of my mind I wondered – where in the world could I possibly be emerging?
With only a handful of yards to the exit, I at last felt a bit of sunlight on my skin. Its warmth restored something in my soul which had all but been lost somewhere below, in those miserable depths. The final fifteen feet or so were almost completely vertical, but I dug my feet and hands into the clay walls and shimmied up.
As I inched along, the quiet was lost to faint sounds of something ominous. Somewhere (or perhaps everywhere) on the surface, a cataclysmic event must have been going on. I could hear the terrified shrieks of what sounded like thousands of people, all in unison. I could hear destruction, as the sounds of explosions and gunfire echoed down the walls of the hole with increasing volume. The sunlight was inexplicably swallowed by dark, stormy clouds. I witnessed hurricane force winds, as leaves, branches and debris zipped past my view of the sky. And yet I was so close to emerging, my hands were trembling with both equal fear and excitement.
Before any part of me was able to escape that subterranean hell, the chaos, which had been violently churning and building up momentum, finally snapped free from whatever metaphorical chains held it in place.
With my face mere inches from breaking above the surface, the ground began to violently tremble. It felt like the whole planet was shaking with seismic activity. As I stared up to the sky, midair trees, people, and vehicles zipped past my view.
An absolutely deafening blast destroyed my eardrums and I could hear nothing but dull ringing. The clumps of earth that my hands and feet were desperately clinging to tore loose and I found myself falling backwards. As I continued to stare up, the unthinkable happened. It shattered like glass above me. The fucking sky. As I watched the fragments start to fall towards an obliterated earth, the hole caved in above me. Then blackness. It was over.
I snapped out of the ominous trance. Of course, none of that had actually happened. Despite being alive, I was stricken with grief. Years of progress were unraveling uncontrollably and it made perfect sense why. Once again, the freedom offered through death had transcended living while suffering. Yet I was still a coward.
My self-pity morphed into explosive rage, and I pounded my fist into the earth. Unsatisfied with how it felt, I screamed in fury. What echoed back, however, was the sound of a trapped animal, hopelessly doomed. Surprise washed away my anger as quickly as it had arrived. I felt a sudden wave of exhaustion, and stars flooded my vision. Collapsing, consciousness dissipated once again.
A noise that froze my blood and made my heart squeeze itself into a pulpy stain in my chest snapped me out of oblivion. It resembled a line of people having their bones yanked from the sockets in rapid succession. I held my breath, straining to listen. Seconds passed and again, the unmistakable cluster of pops echoed into my ears like some sort of hellish timer going off. I wasn’t dreaming, it was time to move.
For what felt like an eternity, I crawled on. The noises eventually vanished. During that time, the tunnel had taken me down greater and greater depths. Again, I wondered about the miracle of oxygen still existing here. As my brain struggled to make sense of it, a funny idea occurred: I might already be dead and on a course straight to hell.
The path opened up once more and I was able to move on foot, albeit slightly crouched. My cellphone had been set to power-conservation mode with a battery at just over thirty percent. I used the dim screen for the bit of light needed to move without running into anything.
Continuing at a decline, I noticed something strange with the faint glow of my phone. The walls started to shine just a bit, so I touched them and felt moisture. Not sure what to make of it, I kept going.
As the presence of liquid increased, my feet started sinking several inches into soft mud. I felt the ceiling start to really drip as the temperature increased, creating a miserable humidity that caused the dirt encrusted clothing to stick to my skin. Watery mud constantly ran into my eyes making it difficult to see.
The sound of my feet sloshing around was briefly drowned out by a loud succession of pops along with a freakishly deep guttural exhale. I tried to run but felt sluggish, as the low ceiling and unstable ground made it impossible to move quicker than an awkward lope. More popping. Envisioning the beast closing in behind me, I pictured it using the slick, muddy earth advantageously to propel forward. Seizing every ounce of remaining willpower, I pushed myself forward as fast as possible.
The pandemonium of the creature started to fade away. I had just noticed that the ground was much firmer than earlier, despite the wet environment. In fact, it wasn’t even dirt at all anymore.
Slowing my pace just a little, I shined light up close to the wall. It was smooth and solid, while maintaining a cylindrical shape around me. There was nothing natural at all about this. What in the fuck was going on?
I heard the monstrosity again and had just started to take off running when my footing was abruptly lost. The tunnel dropped off at a sharp angle, causing the phone to fly backwards out of my hand as I landed painfully on my back, sliding uncontrollably in water.
My speed was steadily increasing. Several times the decline seemed to level off and I thought the ride would end, only for momentum to carry me over small hills and down new dips. If this situation had occurred under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed the ride. But there was a nerve-wracking fear in sliding through absolute darkness, not knowing where I would end up.
My fingertips could no longer reach the walls. It seemed as though the slide had opened up to a massive empty space. I yelled out but heard no echo in the nothingness.
Relief washed over me with a final turn that revealed a faint light up ahead. I would finally be free from this lunacy, but had no idea where it would be dumping me. For all I knew I could emerge and fall hundreds of feet to my death in some ravine below. However, it would almost be worth it just to see the light of day again.
As I zipped down, it became apparent that the end was rushing up quickly. Despite the increasing visibility, I could still only see the smooth floor of the slide and water beneath me. Beyond the exit was only bright light.
At last it arrived and I held my breath while falling through the air. The abrupt change from darkness left me temporarily blinded and disoriented. After falling for what felt like long seconds, I plunged into water.
It was lukewarm and slightly cloudy and despite going down a good twenty feet, I had an inexplicable feeling that the bottom was much deeper. I kicked my way to the surface and had a good look around.
It seemed as though I was in the center of some kind of tremendous pool, the coal black walls forming its perimeter rose up on all sides. Around me was floating vegetation, some of it quite large and vaguely familiar but at the same time very foreign.
Something was especially wrong here. Beyond the edges of the pool was just more blackness. No sky, no clouds, no stars, nothing. And then I finally noticed it. The outline of what looked to be a mountain in the shadows beyond. Near the top of it a sparkling glint of eyes.
A raspy, booming voice said, “There was something else in that one, I could smell it. Give that jar another pour..”
A second voice, equally as loud as the first replied, “I suppose it could use more meat. Let’s see…” I watched, in a mesmerized shock as an absolutely giant wretch of a woman leaned forward out of the darkness with a humongous vase in her hands. She was no doubt as large as a building, with black and silver long scraggly hair and a hideous face with milky white skin covered in fuzzy warts. Her eyes shimmered an unnatural green that seemed to hang briefly in the air as she moved, leaving vanishing trails. The filthy clothing she wore looked straight out of the 1800s.
The giant turned the vase over the water and a river poured out for five, ten, fifteen seconds. As I watched, the monstrosity fell straight down with a huge splash – half the length of the lake away from where I was treading.
I started swimming in the opposite direction, and approached a floating tree just ahead. Climbing onto it, I rested on my hands and knees and peered down into the water.
It was murky but I could see the large slithering mass several feet beneath the surface, moving towards me at a rapid pace. Clearly this thing was better suited for an aquatic environment than solid land. It seemed as though I was in a hopeless situation yet again. The creature was only about ten yards away and then submerged beyond my view. I closed my eyes and hugged the strange tree trunk, preparing to be yanked underwater and killed.
Feeling a massive object pass directly over me, I watched the giant reach her hand right into the water. With utter ease, she plucked the monstrosity out from beneath where I was floating. As she withdrew, the waves sent me flying through the air and once again I found myself submerged in the lake.
I surfaced in time to watch the giant study the monstrosity’s writhing mass in her grip. With a second hand suddenly wrapping around it, she squeezed down and twisted. There was a sickening crunch, a squishy noise, and pink goo dripped down from between her gnarled fingers. She cackled a menacing laugh and tossed the pulverized mess back into the water.
“Those ones are much tastier when you crush them up before boiling, you know.” She snarked in a cruel tone before licking her fingers. My stomach sank as the grave reality of this plight hit me. I was in a massive cauldron. These were giant fucking witches and they were prepping a stew.
I didn’t dare make a noise, although I was positive they were aware of my presence. If I remained quiet, perhaps the behemoths would forget about me. To my relief they lumbered off to somewhere in the darkness beyond, carrying on an oddly hushed conversation.
As the broth grew warmer, I was able to view more of the surrounding area – a fair indication that the fire beneath this massive pot was growing. I needed to escape, and soon.
The tree that I had been floating on earlier (actually some sort of vegetable) was nearby, so pushing an edge of it, I swam for the wall of the pot. In order to draw no attention, I kept my head low and kicked below the surface. After a moment, I reached the solid iron wall with my floating organic platform. The two witches continued speaking somewhere beyond the line of sight, and I prayed that they would be distracted a bit longer.
Shakily standing upon the trunk, I pulled my sleeves over my hands and reached up to the hot edge of the cauldron. Searing pain radiated through my arms and legs. Ignoring it, I hoisted myself up and stood at the edge.
Peering down, I was able to ascertain that a drop from this height meant certain death. I realized that there was a choice to make: Die by being boiled alive or die right now from the fall. Staring into the blackness for a hard moment, I lost my nerve and climbed back down onto the vegetable tree.
The witches started bickering about something. I could hear the argument getting louder. At last the one I had not yet seen lumbered back over to the cauldron, on the opposite end from where I floated.
“Very well! If meat is indeed the problem as you insist, then this will just have to be a flesh stew! I refuse to be only half committed this time!” She grumbled, and reached into the darkness, producing a new vase. Like the other witch earlier, she poured water out of it until eventually something fell into the broth.
Unless my eyes had deceived me, I swore it looked like a person that had dropped. She then pulled the vase away and disappeared for a few seconds before returning with a new one, and a sinister grin spread across her face.
The two giants shared a laugh and began gleefully chanting “Flesh stew! Flesh stew! Flesh stew!” repeatedly and with ever increasing energy. The vase was turned upside down and more clearly this time, a second man fell into the liquid. This time she gave it an extra shake and a hideously strange creature came sliding out as well. The witch pulled the vase away and returned with another, repeating the process. And another. And another. Over and over, all the while chanting those horrific two words.
Together, they did this dozens more times and as their positions around the cauldron would occasionally shift, I was eventually granted a closer look. Watching, I made several dreadful observations.
By some mysterious circumstances, each of the men being poured into the broth resembled ME, only with a wide span of minor variations. Some had different facial hair, clothing, or physical features. Not every one of them was accompanied by a monster, but those that were had all been followed by something different but equally terrible to what had pursued me.
Some of my copies managed to locate the larger floating vegetation to climb on. Some of them simply yelled out at the witches in defiance and confusion. Some banded together, quietly discussing futile plans of action.
The witches would reach in and grab the various monstrosities, squashing them into mush all the same. But they weren’t always fast enough. Several times, I had to avert my gaze as unfortunate doppelgangers ended up gruesomely slaughtered. While the remaining survivors watched in grim silence, I ignored the ensuing madness, attempting to understand exactly what was going on here.
Somehow, the vases seemed to contain portals that connected the outside world with this God-forsaken realm. The only logical thing that I could make of the duplicates was that they came from parallel dimensions. By that point, no idea was too crazy to dismiss.
Thanks to the ever improving visibility, I could see further back. Originally my thought was that we were outside, but it was all wrong. This was some kind of vast cylindrical enclosure, with wooden shelves the size of highways mounted to the walls. They continued up, beyond my line of sight and were crammed with countless vases of all different shapes and sizes.
I felt a sudden lightheaded and dizziness. The broth was starting to become unbearably hot. I could hear several of my copies begin fighting over positions atop various floating ingredients.
At last, I just couldn’t take it any more. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, but jumping seemed more and more plausible as a means to end this hell. Agonizingly, I climbed back onto the searing hot edge of the cauldron, pausing to think of my wife’s memory. Then leaped.
One second before my feet left the iron, I heard the booming voice of one of the witches, “Well would you look at this one!” A hand the size of a bulldozer shot out and snatched my body in midair. It smelled sour and felt oddly cold, as it gently held me. Two fingers reached in and pinched the back of my shirt. I was dangled in front of an inhuman green eye.
I cursed at her, screaming at the top of my lungs. The witch simply cackled at me. “Do you even know where this place is, piglet?” I ignored her and tried flailing free, but her tree trunk sized fingers had far too great a hold on my shirt. “I bet you still believe that we’re the giants and you’re the regular sized man!” She laughed gleefully.
“Fuck you!” I screamed.
“Mash him up and toss him back in, sister!” Ordered the other one.
“No.” replied witch number two. “I want to taste this piglet’s flesh. I want to know it’s flavor so we can add any missing ingredients to the stew!” She lifted me higher in the air, and stretched open her gigantic mouth. I was about to be dropped in like a grape. Staring down, I could see slimey rows of yellow and brown jagged teeth that looked like tombstones in front of a writhing forked tongue.
Slowly, I traveled towards the eager mouth, first over a wrinkled forehead. The witch squeezed her eyes shut, as if to savor my taste.
A desperate idea popped into my head. It was really awful, but if it didn’t work, I was dead either way. There would be only one chance.
When in line with the disproportionately large nose, I tore myself free from the shirt and fell, penciling my body. There was the beginning of some kind of shocked protest from the witch as I plummeted through empty space. Then abrupt darkness. My body was suddenly constricted in an awkward tightness and I knew that somehow it worked. I landed in her nostril.
Immediately I dug my way in deeper and could hear more enraged protests from outside. It was impossible to make out the words but with each furious statement, my skull rattled. I could feel her sucking in air, preparing to try and blow me out. Pressing my feet up to a bone inside of the nose, I braced myself.
Somehow managing to remain anchored in place, horribly disgusting snot blew all over and past me. As I pushed back into her head further, the sound of furious commotion grew fainter.
With a final squeeze, I had at last reached the brain cavity inside of the witch’s head. It was pitch black and extremely slimy but I ran my hands across a bit of the vital organ’s wrinkled surface. It was the size of a small house. I was pressed up between that and the wall of the inside of her skull. A daunting thought crept its way into my mind – despite being in this advantageous position, I did not have a way of exacting any meaningful damage to the hag.
A faint noise resonated from the entrance of her nasal passage. Peering back down the cavern, my eyes barely realized the outline of something that sparked a glimmer of hope. I couldn’t believe it. A long splinter of wood was being probed up her nostril to try and skewer me. From my perspective, the stick was thinner than a baseball bat and had a sharp tip.
Reaching my arm down the tunnel, I snatched the end and gave the splinter a slight pull. As expected, the witch jammed it much further up her nose, anticipating that she had stuck me. With both hands I reached up and grabbed the stick, snapping the end off to one side against the bone near her skull.
The witch withdrew the broken piece of wood. I could hear her roar with fury outside. My entire world shook in a succession of violent tremors and I realized that she must have been stomping her foot. Time to die, bitch.
Gripping the stake as tightly as possible, I raised my hand over my head and prepared to strike in the darkness. “STOP!!” yelled an oddly familiar female voice. Somehow I heard it directly in my mind, causing me to hesitate. “If you do this now, it all ends here and the truth shall be revealed. Are you really prepared for that!?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about…” I replied shakily.
“Oh you know. Just as you know who’s brain this really belongs to.” the voice responded smoothly.
It was a trick. The witch had conjured up some kind of telepathic spell in an attempt to talk me out of what needed to be done. I wasn’t about to fall for it. My hand tightened on the wooden spike once again.
There was a sudden glowing crack that formed before me, and to my shock, a massive eye opened on the surface of the brain, casting a greenish hue. “Doing all of this won’t bring her back, you know! There was no way to get her out of the ground on that day…” I heard in my thoughts.
“ENOUGH!!” I roared and plunged the pointed tip into the eye before me, carving in a downward arc. I continued until my arm felt almost no resistance. With my free hand, I punched into the destroyed mass and tore a sizable chunk loose. In my grip, it felt no different from a big piece of raw meat that I would grill up and serve with a side of chips and a Cola at a summer barbecue. Tossing the slimy flesh to one side, I repeated the process.
In a fit of furious strain, I hacked and tore into that giant brain for several moments, trying to work my way toward it’s core. It wasn’t long before I was covered in goo, blood, and other liquids that smelled horrendous. I could make out anguished cries from outside and knew that completion of my goal was imminent. Focusing on the task at hand, I couldn’t help but feel a certain degree of satisfaction.
Eventually, there was an extremely violent jolt that would have certainly killed me, had I not been enveloped in the pulpy, destroyed brain matter. Realizing that she had fallen dead, I rejoiced.
Waiting patiently, I strained my ears for any new developments and heard nothing. No sounds from the other witch and no vibrations. At last, I decided that it was time to get the hell out of there.
I heaved my body out of the slippery environment, nearly vomiting along the way from the stench. Moving back towards the nasal passage, I slid down the slimey, bloody tunnel towards the exit and freedom. Any second, I expected to see the light once again and an escape from this wretched place. Except the light never came.
I continued crawling down the nose tunnel. Anxiety began to set in as I did not recall moving nearly this distance, but tried to reassure myself that with the fall in, I must have zoomed past much of it. After several more minutes, my hands felt something beneath them that sent me into a dizzying panic. Dirt. I reached up to the walls of the tunnel. Everything around me was dirt.
I sat there trying to make sense of it all. Taking the time to repeatedly retrace everything that had happened up until that point, I always arrived at the same conclusion. There was no longer any way to distinguish fantasy from reality. The hole that I had climbed into at the bottom of that chasm. Prying the cover off of it and disregarding the blatant warning above. I did this to myself.
Begrudgingly I pushed on, wondering what horrible thing I’d have to experience next. Hours must have passed as I crawled. The path remained relatively level and with few noticeable changes. Every inch of my body was incredibly sore and tired all the same. I was starving and severely dehydrated. A thick layer of dirt had crusted around me. I felt like some kind of subterranean monster myself.
At some point, my delirious mind entered a new kind of clarity.
Fate. To see how far I could go before becoming one with the very dirt beneath me. Somewhere within that epiphany, a soothing reassurance had been extracted. And for the first time in what felt like forever, I was okay. My forehead bumped into something in front of me.
I reached up with shaking hands, feeling around to confirm my suspicion. A solid wall of dirt was now before me. A conclusion to this journey. There was not enough space to turn around. Nor did I even care to try. I just let myself relax and laid there, staring off.
My mind could no longer form cohesive thoughts. It only manifested colors. Greens, blues, oranges, pinks, and yellows danced around my vision in the darkness… and then came Red. The Red became an inferno in my brain. It scorched my vision. Why was I down here? Was it for her or was it for me?
After all of what I had been through, real or not, I was supposed to just accept THIS as fate? Now? No.
I rose up, forming my hand into a shaking fist, and punched into the dirt wall before me. To my surprise, it was not as dense as I had anticipated. I plunged both hands into the barrier. Pushing hard with my legs, I drove my head in next. No air and no space at all? No problem.
I forced myself forward, writhing through the dirt. I would make my own way forward. My lungs started to feel like they would burst.
I pushed a few more feet. And then a few more after that. I felt myself black out just as my hand pushed through the last bit of resistance into open air. Gulping a fresh breath, I coughed hard as bits of earth tumbled down my throat. Bright light was shining through the small hole before me.
At last I squirmed free from that cursed tunnel, slowly rising to my feet in a new environment. Nearly falling over out of exhaustion, my legs were close to being useless. Like some kind of freshly birthed creature, I wobbled around, gaining a sense of walking in a world of daylight.
Studying my surroundings, I saw a large grove of trees nearby. From the look of the landscape, paired with the air temperature, my guess was that I was somewhere in the southeast. How was it possible that I was now thousands of miles away from my life before?
The sky was overcast and gray and looked like it could rain at any moment. I noticed a beat up white picket fence nearby. My eyes made their way back down to the upset soil that I had just emerged from.
Realizing that the patch of earth looked to be an old garden or flower bed, I took a long pause. I felt a strange connection to that soil, like there was a deep significance to it that was just barely overlooked. Rather than continue to waste time, my gaze at last shifted elsewhere.
Oddly, there were no birds chirping nor insects buzzing. There was a refreshingly light breeze in the air. I noticed a path worn into the grass leading away from the garden. Following it around some bushes and trees, I saw an old white colonial house at the top of a hill.
It was showing clear signs of degradation and looked to be potentially abandoned. I walked around to the front and marched up the porch. The front door was unlocked.
I made my way inside and called out for anyone. There was no reply. Lurching into the kitchen, I saw that there were no longer any appliances.
Opening a dusty pantry, I spotted several large sealed cans. Prying one open, I sniffed the contents. Beef vegetable stew. As I stared at the liquid, a fleeting thought entered my mind. I shook it away and started to devour the meal.
While eating, I noticed a faded piece of paper taped to a cabinet. In a peculiar handwriting, a note was scribbled. It read:
“Daily Reminder: Dig…
Dig The Righteous Path In
Order To Unearth Your Demons…
Dig When No One Else Would”.
Pondering the note, I slowly wandered down a set of creaking stairs, into the basement. Clutching the railing, it felt like my legs could give up at any moment. There was something down here that just seemed to demand my attention.
A bit of light sliced through the darkness from a tiny window in the top corner of the basement brick wall. At last I realized what I had come to view.
Several massive piles of dirt surrounded a pit, with the top of a ladder peeking up from below. The concrete that had once covered it had been busted open and a dirty sledgehammer lay on the floor nearby. I stared down the hole and chuckled out loud to myself.
At the bottom there was an aluminum garbage can lid with some letters scraped into it that were too small to read from where I stood. A small tunnel that seemed to go off in an odd direction had been carved into the soil with great care. What a sight to behold.
I trudged back upstairs, and again up another set to the second floor. Marching past pictures hanging on the walls of people I didn’t care to see, I entered the master bedroom. There was a cracked and broken mirror above an old dresser. I looked horrendous. But no matter, I knocked off as much of the dried up mud from my skin as possible and eyed the mattress.
Somehow it seemed to be in perfect order. Sheets, blankets, pillows – everything. Something was very strange and familiar about this place, but no matter. I was far too exhausted to care for now. Kicking off my shoes, I crawled into the soft, inviting bed. My consciousness immediately started to slip away and I pulled the covers up to my face to let the blackness swallow me, one more time.
Credit : Michael Benedetto
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