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Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ what is it, Jesus Christ this canít be happening, Jesus please donít let me dieÖ

A simple train of thought for an extremely simple situation. Well, not simple, reallyÖit couldnít be farther from that, but it was nothing if not direct. Rich Cole was going to die. Horribly.

Everyone else already had. He hadnít seen itÖhadnít seen all of it, the group scattered pretty fastÖbut he had seen enough to firmly believe in two things; that the others were dead, all of them, and that he was absolutely going to be next. Not that that kept his feet on the ground. Heíd been running for at least the last hour, maybe more, and he was damn well going to be running until it was over. However horribly, painfully, unspeakably that would beÖ

No! Donít think about it! Just fucking run!

He was right. He couldnít afford to think about it. Dwelling on the details in this case might well cause him to just give up on the spot. One thing that he couldnít keep out of his head was a simple, unavoidable fact, and that was that this was just supposed to be a fishing trip. A fucking fishing trip. A little Sunday hooky with the guys. Except there were no Ďguysí, not any more.

Rich stopped dead in his tracks. His body shook for a violent moment, and he threw up onto the forest floor.

Fuck. This really happened. This happened. Itís real. Itís happening right now.

The events of the day set in. He couldnít outrun them any longer. He thought, in great detail and with more clarity than he would ever ask for, about what had happened. It was the worst possible thing he could do, but there was no point. The memories stabbed themselves into his brain, obscuring everything but the knowledge that soon he would be next.

When the rusty, jagged metal spike thrust itself up through the dock, tearing through Paulyís groin and erupting out his mouth with enough force to rip his jaw clean off, all Rich could process was the sound. It was unlike anything heíd ever heard, though he remembered relating it roughly to a car crash. A strange, hollow sound, leaving his friend a strange, hollow thing, an abstraction, an objectÖdetails obscured by the sheer, horrific impossibility of it all. Before he could say anything (he vaguely recalled trying to ask his friend if he was okay), another jagged spike shot up through the dock, then another, and another, until they were all forced onto land. Under the screaming, a barrage of questions flooded so fast and hard into his head that only fragments got through, but there werenít any answers; the dock had become a giant bed of nails, and Pauly was dead. Whatever the fuck had happened, that much had.

A thousand unwanted details lanced his brain, details that were mercifully lost to panic and confusion; details that were here with him now. Alone with him in the woods. A cold companion.

The way Pauly tried to scream as the rusty spear tore up through his throat, and robbed him of his jaw. A sound of surprise as much as pain, shock at his own ended life. The way the blood shot into the air in a rainbow arc, and the way it sounded like the time Rich had dropped an entire pot of fresh-cooked spaghetti when it splashed down onto the pier. The way his organs rolled slowly out of his ruined lower region, how they shined in the sunlight (God, why would you notice that?), the way they steamed. The way, in a hyperventilating twitch, Pauly reached for his jaw, and found it gone, when it should have been there; reached for his insides, found that they were there, when they shouldnít have been. The look of realization in his eyes, just before the shock wore off and the pain kicked inÖhow he tried to scream one last time before he died.

All of this took place in a matter of seconds. But now, in his head, it played in slow motion. Over, and over, and over.

The entrails sliding down the metal. How he tried to ask his friend if he were okay, if he were okay , in a voice like a childís. Are you okay Pauly?, as his friend tried desperately to scream with no mouth, no insides, no life past a few moments of unimaginable agony.

Rich threw up again.

Then he heard the noise, and suddenly he was back at the pier, remembering what it was that was on the other side of that sound the first time he heard it.

Staring at the metal-violated dockside, and the equally violated body upon it (Are you okay, Pauly? Pauly, are you okay?), Rich and his friends screamed. Some were screaming words, random, half-formed and profane, some were screaming Paulyís name, some were screaming The Lordís. Some were just screaming. But a quiet sound cut through it all, and for a moment there was silence among them. The whole world seemed to stop, except for the quiet sound that rose up from behind them, and scuttled through them. The sound crawled through their skin like electric needles, skittered up their spines and burrowed into their collective brains, freezing them solid.

As the sound rose, none could turn to face it.

Was it a cat? A pig?

The sound grew so loud, and so angry, that they could no longer help but turn and face whatever could possibly be making it.

What was making it was not possible.

It was bigger than it should have been, all things considered; it was like someone had taken something small and just enlarged it. No growth cycle, just growth, a thing that would never get any older, or develop any further, just swell and enlarge.

None of this would be immediately apparent were it not for the fact that it was a fetus the size of a smallish dog.

Red and pink and raw, itís rubbery frame slick with a yellowish, translucent fluid, it crouched on all fours and ended itís ear-splitting squeal with a guttural, hissing growl that was no less hateful.

Rich and his friends stood in stunned silence. There was no way to process what they were seeing, let alone react to it. They couldnít run, or scream or speak, or fight. They could only stand and stare dumbly at what couldnít be there.

The body of Pauly bled out in the distance.

Dan made the first move. It hadnít made any sense to Rich at the time, but here, now, it did, at least a little; Dan had kids. Heíd put himself in front of a bullet, in front of a car, in front of a goddamned tank for any of his kids. Heíd pulled a few out of burning buildings in his days as a volunteer fireman, and it was safe to say that the same rule that applied to his own kids applied to kids in general.

After all, what they were looking at was a kid... given what theyíd just witnessed on the dock, he probably thought it was hurt, burnt or crushed or poisoned or mangled somehow in whatever it was that was going on, screaming in unthinking pain, begging for help from anyone or anything.

And Dan went to help.

The others watched, knowing beyond all doubt that what he was doing was the worst idea in the world, but were too numb with shock to do anything but watch. Helpless.

Dan went over to the thing, who was still angrily mewling, and picked it up. Tears streamed down Danís face.

ďWhat happened to you, little baby? What... happened to you?Ē

Flies buzzed around the creatureís head, which was twice the size of a beach ball. The viscous yellow fluid oozed from the folds and creases in itís bulbous flesh, including itís swollen eyelids and mouth. Itís entire body resembled a harshly colored blister. Pained sounds panted from it. Dan shook. What could he possibly do to help this little one?

ďEv-everythingís going to be oka-ď

Without warning, the Ďbabyí vomited a fire-hydrant stream of putrescent liquid into Danís face. Dan screamed like a scalded cat, his face bubbling, and steaming. The skin melted away like heated butter, sliding off of his head in ropey strands. He dropped the baby-thing to the ground and clutched at the place his face used to be, only to find what remained of it dripping into his hands like glycerin. Within seconds there was nothing left but a pulpy red skull, howling in agony. As the lids melted away from his eyes, he clawed wetly at his temples, screaming without end, and kicked at the child on the ground like a drunken redneck scolding his dog. After countless dull, wet Ďthudsí, the baby reared around and vomited onto Danís leg. His shin melted out from under him, and he fell wailing into the dirt.

Finally, Curt could take no more. Whatever the fuck it was, the nightmare going on in front of them had to stop. Fishing gaffe in hand, he ran to his friendís aid.

By the time he got to Dan, there wasnít much of Dan to speak of.

As the liquefied skin cascaded off of his face, it poured onto his neck and chest in a caustic waterfall, melting those in turn, and downward like a champagne fountain, his entire body rolling off itís frame in thick, syrupy mounds. Before his throat melted entirely, Dan stopped screaming long enough to gurgle oh God, over and over. He curled up on the ground and kicked involuntarily until his brain slid out the holes where his ears had been.

Incensed with rage, crushed with sorrow and blind with terror, Curt made an animal sound and raised his gaffe to the thing that killed his friend. The nightmare-baby spewed a blast at his forearm. It withered and poured away, the bones snapping like soaked balsa wood under the weight of the gaffe. Curtís hand fell to the ground, still clutching the weapon. The baby got to itís feet in a crouch, staring at the disembodied hand. Itís bulbous head began to throb, huge red veins making themselves apparent across itís misshapen cranium.

Curtís hand began to twitch.

It shuddered, and began to pop, pop about the ground in fitful little jumps. It was like some perverse version of watching kernels on the stove top. Whenever the gaffe caught a rock or a patch of pebbles it made small clang sounds. Thump, scuffle, clang, thump, scuffle, clang, in a sickening, discordant procession.

Thump popping-jumps continued to build in force and height until finally it jumped and did not fall.

Before Curt could do anything but empty his stomach, his hand tore through the air in an undercut swing, the gaffe catching him squarely beneath the chin. It pulled itself from his throat, taking most of his throat with it, and hovered unsteadily in the air for a moment. As Curt fell to the earth, the hand descended on him, hacking and clawing and pulling at him like a pack of vultures.

As if a magical spell had been lifted from the rest of the men, they realized in unison that nothing could be done. Pauly was dead. Dan was dead. Curt would join them in seconds. And they would all be joining them if they didnít run.

And so they did.

The last thing Rich saw before he headed into the woods was Curtís hand, tearing him open from groin to sternum with the gaffe, as he tried feebly to pull it off, while helplessly batting at it with the other corroded wrist.

And now here Richie was.

How long had he been running? It seemed like forever, but he knew it wasnít nearly long enough.

He was nowhere near the dock, or the thing, or the mutilated bodies of three of his closest friends. He was nowhere near anything. He was all alone in the middle of the woods, the specter of his too-sharp memories draped over him like a frozen blanket. Where am I? Where is... it? What will I do?

Answers he didnít want swirled in his head, white-hot, ice-cold, and heavy as a mountain.

Iím nowhere. Itís everywhere. Iím going to die. Sooner than I want, and worse than I can imagine.

Rich could feel himself blacking out. And for a brief moment, he welcomed it.

. . . . .

When Rich woke up, it was still black.

The darkness was nearly as overpowering as the stench, and the heat.

He was in water. No, not water, but wet - thick, and warm, maybe waist-deep...and chunky, lazy ripples ebbing against his sudden movement like a pool of reeking coffee-grounds. The thrum of flies overhead, as thick as the foul 'water' and deafening in their legion, a virulent signpost announcing the absolute worst.

Choking, he reached out blindly in the stilfing black and found walls on every side, damp and sodden. Small objects, some hard and skittering, some soft and squirming, writhed within walls...and within his hands, as he desperately tried to claw his way out of whatever hell he was in. The came away in muddy clumps, crumbling like any hope of escaping the bottomless, senseless nightmare that had swallowed him.

A wake of panic enveloped him as he realized that his hand were covered in something alive, and again as he thrust them into the water to cleanse himself, to be instantly reminded that it was not water...and that things moved within it, as well. He heaved, adding to his mass.

There was nothing left to do but scream, the final, primal scream he hoped would break something inside him, replace the insanity with nothingness.

Instead, he was given sight.

Slowly at first, and barely then even at all, but sight nevertheless.

Light was coming in from somewhere above, a dim, thin trickle, not enough to illuminate the pit (of that he was thankful), but enough to show him that there was somewhere to go. Anywhere but here.

Out.

There had never, ever, ever been anything more important.

And like the hand of Christ reaching down to pull him up, pull him free, pull him to salvation, he saw it; a low-hanging root, thick and filthy and strong. Dangling in front of the tiny shaft of light.

As he reached up for it, it seemed to lower itself to greet him. And as he touched it, wrapped his hands around it, something else greeted him. Something the dim light did not see fit to show; thorns, countless, sharp as sharks' teeth, thick and strong as nails.

His hands would be ruined. He couldn't have cared less. All that mattered was out.

Flesh seperated. Tendens were plucked and torn like rubber bands. Meat tangled. It was like climbing barbed wire.

At one point, the blood pouring from his hands became so slick he slid down the vine. Bone scraped. Pain like white fire. He held on. He would say goodbye to his hands after he got out.

Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, he reached the source of the light. It shone down in a pale circle, like a halo. The jagged vine had grown through the dull golden rim. His head brushed against it, and it bucked up with a creak.

A lid!

He pushed himslef through in a wave of frenzied ecstacy, only to find himself in another dark chamber, this one smaller than the last. It was like a coffin, barely bigger than he was. But it wasn't wet, thank God, and it wasn't as dark as the last...in fact, he could see where the light was coming from, it was shining from somewhere in front of him, just behind...just behind something. Something was in his way. He reached out in the gloom to touch it. Sticky. He couldn'tm imagine, didn't want to, didn't care, just push past it and get the fuck out...

He barrelled through the huge objects, sticky and soft to the touch, and crashed through a narrow wooden door...

...and found himself back in the woods. He looked around, frantic; the forest was thinner here, he'd be a sitting duck he had to make it to the the thick of the woods, he had to get away, he had to hide, he...he couldn't move.

The trees were right ahead, he tried to run for them, but something was holding him back. A thousand tiny threads, and stinging, he was in some kind of giant web, something was biting him,something was pulling at his eyelid...

Terror-stricken, he reached to pull away whatever it was that biting at his eyelid, God forbid it get to his eye...and pulled away a small, metal object.

A fishhook.

He was covered in fishing line, countless barbed hooks burrowing into his skin.

Each movement burrying them deeper, each struggling flail knotting him further in the twine. With an agonizing squirm, he twisted around to see the source of his entanglement.

They had names, once. But he chose not to remember them.

And careers, and families, and faces, but those were all gone now. He refused to put names to the things that dangled before him.

He had gotten maybe three feet out of an outhouse.

Hanging just inside it's doorway were three bodies, their heads nearly touching the ground. Their skin had been removed in huge, angry patches, some right down to the bone, some leaving behind yellow-ish layers of thin tissue. They hung from the ceiling of the old wooden box, suspended by an endless gnarl of fishing line, glitteing barbs like a starry sky of tiny meathooks.

His mind went white.

He turned to escape, never minding the pain, never minding the hooks, yanking them out of his flesh, pulling dime-and-quarter-sized holes in his muscles and skin, losing an ear, losing some scalp, but going nowhere. He managed only to twist himself back around, and wished that he hadn't.

Walking slowly toward him, was the thing from the dock. Mewling in a low, warbling pitch like a broken pull-string doll, it's swollen slits-for-eyes baleful. It held up it's ams. On it's tiny hands, were fish-scaling gloves, two sizes too big for it, almost lending the impression of oven mitts. Rich would have laughed.

. . . . .

You did very good today, little one. We are so proud. You'll be ready soon.


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