Authors: M. Lauryl Lewis
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror
“No, Jane, no, it’s Zoe. You’re ok, honey.”
The little redhead was having trouble breathing, and at last she turned her green eyes to me.
They were clear and bright, aside from being red from fear and tears.
Her voice was tiny, broken.
“I’m here Jane.
I’m here.” I tried to soothe her.
She wrapped her arms around me and sobbed into my neck.
“I want to go home. I want my mommy,” she moaned.
“I know, baby, I know.”
I held onto her as hard as she was holding me.
“Zoe, stay there,” I heard Gus call down.
I assumed the gunshot had drawn the men. Abbey was at his side.
“Jane, did it touch you?” I whispered.
“No,” she said quietly. “It got my foot when I fell down here but it was just my shoe.”
I broke our embrace and looked her over gently. “You ok? No bites, no scratches?”
No scratches. But…”
“What’s wrong honey?”
Fresh tears filled her eyes. “It has my shoe.”
I looked down to the rocks below us.
There was her tiny tennis shoe, beside the clump of liquefied remains and bones. A breeze hit, carrying the sickly sweet smell of the departed risen dead to us.
“Ok honey, we’ll take care of your shoe.
Gus is going to get us back up, ok?”
A drop of clear snot was threatening to fall from her nose and I used my shirt to wipe it away.
Gus was already to us, and I felt his hand on my shoulder.
“You girls ok?” he whispered right against my neck.
“She seems fine, Gus.
It got her shoe but that’s all, and she really wants her shoe.”
“We’ll get it back, Jane, don’t worry,” he said.
I hadn’t seen Gus interact with her much, and realized he was good with her. I had forgotten he had been a father.
“Jane, how’d you get down here?” he asked.
“I fell,” she pouted.
“Are you hurt?”
She shook her head back and forth. “I don’t think so.”
From now on, no wandering away, ok?” he said.
“Ok, let’s get you back up first,” he smiled.
“You guys need some help down there?” I heard Boggs call down.
“Yes,” answered Gus. “Be ready up top to help pull Jane up?”
“I’m scared,” said the little girl.
“It’s too steep.”
“Jane, I want you to climb on my back, ok?
And when I start climbing, close your eyes and think of something happy. Just hold on like a piggy back ride?”
She looked scared, but nodded in understanding.
Gus knelt down and she climbed onto his back. Watching him scale the rocks, with a child in tow, was pretty amazing.
“Not bad for an old man,” I heard Emilie joke as he reached the top.
Susan was there to take Jane from him. She enveloped the girl in a hug, and Nathan joined them. Seeing them like that made my heart smile. Abbey was nearby and took her turn hugging Jane last.
I began to wonder if anyone was going to help me back up.
I looked below at Jane’s shoe, and then realized the rocks below led to a small trail of sorts that would take me back up to the others. I decided to go ahead and take care of myself. As I began to scale the larger rocks, Boggs called down.
We’ll come get you!”
I looked back.
“I’m almost there. I’m fine.” Just a few seconds later, I was already at sea level, looking down at the blob of rotten, waterlogged flesh and bones. It stunk, more so than most of these creatures. I picked up Jane’s tennis shoe, which was fortunately free of any slime or ooze. I looked to my left where I had seen the trail, and realized I’d have to climb back up a few feet to reach it. I shoved the shoe into the waistband of my pants to free my hands, and took my time heading back up to the rest of the group. I searched out with my mind, and came up empty. Still, I paid close attention to sounds and smells around me. Suddenly deep in brush and trees I couldn’t see the others anymore.
“Zoe?” I heard Boggs calling for me.
I considered not calling back, but knew that’d be childish, not to mention dangerous.
I’m fine,” I called back. I had to hold branches back here and there, and walked in the direction from which I had heard Boggs’ voice. I was starting to question my decision to come this way, when finally the thick brush gave way to a small clearing with the ruins of a stone building. I looked up to the tree tops overhead. It had a dizzying effect, so I looked back to the ruins. It looked like two of the walls might be salvageable. It might be a start for a shelter. I realized I couldn’t hear Boggs anymore and wondered if I had walked in the wrong direction. I looked around. Nothing seemed familiar.
I searched with my mind for danger, now too aware that I was alone and weaponless.
My only warning was a twig snapping behind me. I turned, and was face to face with a creature so horrifying it made my blood run cold and my mind go numb. I was unable to move, unable to run, unable to speak or yell. I was unable to look away. It was black as night, by the smell of it burnt. Bones showed through, a similar shade of charred. Its face was mostly skull and ligaments, eyelids long gone. The blackened skin was cracked all over, appearing as scales edged in bright red. It reminded me of images I had seen of fresh lava flows that were crusting over as they cooled. Thick brown ooze fell from its various openings. In all of its horror, its eyes were clear and bright, and deep within them I saw the most frightening thing of all. Intelligence.
It made no noise, but kept its unblinking, skinless gaze on me.
I heard one phrase, so to speak, inside my mind. “One of us.”
It turned suddenly, and disappeared into the trees.
I fell to my knees, my energy spent. I stayed like that, watching where it had faded away, and was left almost void of feeling. It should have attacked me. It should have devoured me. Instead, it identified me as one of them. I suddenly placed my hand on my swelling belly, and wondered if it had meant me or my baby. I felt sick suddenly, and had been unaware of the footsteps approaching until Boggs was behind me. He dropped to the ground behind me and enveloped me in his arms.