SMOKE AND ECHOES
by JESSICA BOWERS
he town of Perry was forgettable. It was a place both small and largely undisturbed by worldly concerns, its residents contentedly living in a narrow realm of school, church and local business. It was a pinprick of civilization that fell somewhere north of the boggy wetlands that defined the southern tip of Florida. Visitors were rare, and all were unimpressed by what they dismissed as a mere pit-stop in East Jesus Nowhere. It was plain and unexciting with nothing remarkable to arrest the eye, but anomalies tend to hide in places where no one thinks to look twice, and Perry was no exception to this rule. Now, after years of forgetting, people remembered Perry not for its utopian ignorance, but because it simply fell off the map without as much as a whisper goodbye. At least it seemed that way to Perry’s distant neighbors, who for several weeks failed to notice that it was even gone.
The day of Perry’s inexplicable demise had so far been routinely mundane for Holly Sawyer, who was taking an evening walk through the changeless streets. She could not point out a single building or road sign that’d been altered in her lifetime. Everything was the same as it’d always been, cemented into place with the rust of bygone decades. The buildings were mostly brick and mortar, their faded crimson faces contrasted by churches clad in bleached stone. It was a commune fixed in red and white, structurally archaic and unlikely to ever change. Holly hated it.
Holly Sawyer was new to adulthood, with nothing to show for her misspent youth but a colorful juvenile record and a full coat of tattoos. Her tattoo artist had been a twenty-something high school dropout named Dexter Hood, whose parlor had been a concrete garage that reeked of old water leaks and rotten wood. Despite the poor circumstances, he was a rare talent—too talented for a place like Perry—and ditched town in search of a real shot at the craft. He was one of the few that dared to leave, and would have successfully charmed Holly to join him, had she not been due in court for vandalizing the “historic” Westview Bridge with a can of paint. By the time she’d scrubbed the bridge clean, Dexter was gone, and so was her chance at escaping Perry. This probably meant she’d spend the rest of her life as a cashier or shelf stocker in one of the local stores, but her flirtations with the county justice system had conditioned her to believe that such an existence wouldn’t be too terrible to abide. Her bohemian days were over, and now she was ready for what she was unquestionably certain would be a quiet and prosaic life.
She was surprised to find that the sidewalks were not rolling up behind her feet, since everything in town closed up after sunset. The only thing that stayed open late was the Exxon station at the city limits, and Holly was walking there to get a pack of cigarettes. It was the last human edifice for almost fifty miles, and beyond it was a vein of asphalt that thinned in the distance until it got swallowed up inside a dark howl of trees. Holly had never seen what opened up on the other side of that silent mouth. The road eventually led to the humid marsh of the Everglades, a place much bigger and prettier than Perry, but as far as Holly was concerned, the world ended right there at those trees. Despite that Holly detested the town she lived in, she feared the unknown tenfold. This psychology—or at least the latter half—was shared by most of her neighbors. For Holly, it was better to stay where she knew things couldn’t get any worse.
The sun was nearing the bottom of its westbound arc by the time Holly reached the pearly white polish of the Brotherhood Church. It was the only non-denominational church in Perry. She’d been raised Baptist as a child, but frankly, she didn’t know the difference between one denomination and the next. All the religious prattling she’d stomached throughout her life sounded the same, no matter whose mouth it spilled from. Cars were parked beside the ivory castle in a sleeping metal maze. It seemed late for a weekday service, but Holly considered this oddity only in passing thought. She never felt as alienated as when she set foot inside the Lord’s house, so she offered the church a sidelong glance and threw the tail of her cigarette in its direction as she went by.
The sign outside the church read, DELIVER US HOME TONIGHT. The necks of sunflowers drooped spinelessly beneath the crooked arrangement of letters, wilted by the summer’s dry heat. Their swaying was a slow mourn for everyone that passed by.
Holly was already exhausted by the same relentless heat that was killing the sunflowers. Perry usually experienced a rainy summer, as was commonplace in this part of the country, but this season had so far proven to be unusually dry. Most residents called it a drought, and a few others—the older, more senile ones—called it a portent. All Holly knew was that it was hellishly hot, so hot that even the rampant mosquitoes had taken hiatus. The Exxon was just a quarter of a mile away. Holly had been minding little more than the heat and her lazy footwork when she stopped to light her last cigarette, a delicate task that required her undivided attention. She cupped the flame of her match and inhaled the burning blue haze, emptying her lungs with a relieved exhale that was choked by abrupt terror.
The sky was very wrong, the pure antithesis of all it’d ever been. It had suddenly gone red, a severe inflamed miasma like the cornea of an infected eye. The cigarette dropped, heavy as a corpse as it fell away from the gaping hole of Holly’s mouth. Despite what she’d lived to understand about the world, Holly believed that the sky was alive and that it was bleeding. There began a low, all-pervading drone, a siren call from the zenith that melted the cement under Holly’s feet and threw her nerves out of tune. Her teeth chattered like a bagful of marbles and stomach acid fizzed in her throat. The acrimonious whine saturated everything; even the air seemed to sink below the ground, drowned by the singing omen. The world beneath the crimson sky went entirely comatose, a vacuum of unadulterated stillness and stalled hearts. The sunflowers stopped swaying and bowed their fragile heads in prayer. For one dreadfully infinite moment, everything alive knew what it was like to be dead. It passed with the slow agony of a blunt needle penetrating skin.
Chaos emerged on the other side.
A discord of screaming erupted on the heels of a deafening thunderclap, and Holly dimly realized the voices were coming from inside the Brotherhood Church. Then the sky crumpled like thin paper right above the town of Perry, Florida, and something fell through—something not of the Earth but looming just behind the cosmic curtain all the same.
The entrance was utterly prophetic.
Holly turned her head, the tendons in her neck creaking like rusty hinges as the atmosphere was split by a burst of light as blinding as a supernova. Somewhere in the distance, two cars collided in a hot crush of metal, the drivers spellbound by the newborn sun. The light was the color of sick fire, nearly vaporizing the membranes of Holly’s eyes as it bloomed in the sky like a rotten rose. The earth shook so violently beneath her that she thought the tattoos were unraveling in her flesh. It was no doubt the end of the world, and Holly Sawyer was not about to stick around to see what happened next.
She tore away at breakneck speed, her feet pounding below her like two numb clubs as she tried to flee the phantasm invading the sky. She disappeared into the howling maw of trees she’d feared for so long, her fear now overwhelmed by the animal reflex to fly fast and far from danger. Still blinded by the light, she stumbled off the road and into the overgrowth, swathed by the indelicate fingers of the forest as her lungs filled with a pungent mix of peat and decay. She choked on the pure steam of her breath in the sweltering dark, propelling herself forward like a drunk bear, demolishing anything that stood in the way of escape. The adrenaline in her blood was palpably electric, her sweat acrid as battery acid as it coated her body in a slimy film. She didn’t think she would ever stop running. To look back was to see that diseased, mystic light creeping up behind her, ready to envelop her in apocalyptic doom. To look back was to die in Perry. For the first time, Holly couldn’t imagine anything worse.
Holly was kinetic essence. She didn’t feel anything but the distance spreading out behind her in a slow, aching stretch, never far enough. It was excruciating, yet strangely euphoric. The light still molested her eyes with its morbid glare, reminding her that this was not a dream. This was life stripped back to its primal roles of predator and prey, and Holly knew her role very well.
So she ran until the spool ran out of thread.
She tripped over what was perhaps the world’s largest root, her face crash-landing on what was perhaps the world’s toughest tree trunk. Holly didn’t feel anything but the thick gum of sleep sinking through the new cracks in her head. A stream twisted between the trees like a muddy serpent, dangerously thin from the lack of rain. The water lapped up her blood with ravenous thirst, a predator most ancient and cold.
The Brotherhood Church hosted a silent service. The clergyman stood slumped against the podium, his gray head bent forward in permanent prayer. An open Bible rested beneath his cheek, its pages stained red by a snaketrail of blood. A hypodermic needle sat in the cleric’s upturned hand, a divine offering of sacrifice.
It had been primed with holy water and cyanide.
His followers filled the pews in faithful, unbroken rows, their jaws unhinged as if to let their souls escape. More needles littered the maroon carpet beneath their feet. A single fly danced over hundreds of eyes glazed over with euthanasia, all of them fixed on the pulpit in a unified, roseate gaze. Their heads were empty, their bodies stoned by venomous blood. In the dusty air there lingered a pallid glow, an ethereal feather too light for the ground to hold, too heavy to deliver home.
Something pounded on the barred doors from outside, rattling the angels in their painted windows. The sound was incessant and taunting, but no one was left to scream against it. The hammering stopped and a shadow ambled jaggedly past the stained windows, a kaleidoscopic distortion of otherworldly flesh. The dead were of no prolonged use.
It needed them alive.
Holly dreamed of razor blades grinding inside her head, and awoke to find her reality not so far off. Her eyes peeled open with a slow rip. Her vision was immediately shot by arrowheads of daylight reflecting off the water. She winced and turned away, disoriented by pain and crippling amnesia. She checked herself for broken parts, finding that she could not move the barest inch without a protesting ache. She looked like a child of the forest, her hair a matted nest of twigs and coagulated blood, her skin streaked with mud. Her memory failed to provide her with much more than her name and age. The water was the only witness to what’d happened, and it merely went on whispering its cryptic tongue to the timeworn trees.
Holly rolled off the roots with an anguished grunt. Her thoughts flowed like thick tar and she struggled to separate one from the next. She inexplicably thought of Dexter Hood kissing her in his musty garage parlor, a recollection that was more like a wounded dream. It made her realize that her lips and mouth were paper dry, so she cupped her hands in the water and drank from them until her stomach swelled. She reeled back, dizzy and gasping. She felt like she’d just had a taste of everything that’d ever died in the woods. She cupped more water, using it to wash her filthy skin and the clean the blood from her hair.
Her senses shyly returned. The last thing she remembered was walking to the Exxon to get a pack of cigarettes. Had she gotten them? She frisked her pockets and found a smashed carton and a book of matches. The carton was empty, so she tossed it aside. Feeling powerless and lost, she idly struck a match, watching the tiny fire creep towards her skin. When the smell of sulfur finally wandered to her nose, it triggered a flashback so intense that Holly relived the entire nightmare in a single second. The last thing she’d done was light a cigarette. Then came the trembling, the screaming, and the sick fire in the sky.
The end of the world.
She looked up. The sky was a crisp summer blue, a calm refutation of the hysterical imagery racing through her head. The bizarre memory replayed behind her eyes like a lucid reel of film, all of it physically impossible, yet so undeniably true. Holly did not need to know the missing details to arrive at the conclusion. It had not been the end of the world, but she was certain it’d been the end of Perry. Holly had hibernated right through it as though it’d been a gentle lapse of seasons. She’d always wanted Perry to change, and she was undoubtedly sure she’d gotten her wish in the worst way. A lump of panic sank into her throat, heavy as an anchor. How long had she been sleeping? If there had been any survivors, had they already left her behind? She thought of screaming for help, but she didn’t think she had the sound inside her. She tried anyway, producing weak vocal that emulated a flute clogged with gravel.
Sitting amongst the silent trees was more terrifying than running from the supernatural aura in the sky. Holly just wanted to hear a bird, or anything to assure her that she wasn’t the only creature left alive. There was nothing but the listless breath of the wind. She felt physically and mentally skinned. Her fear exposed itself like a swollen thumb, a hot and radiating ache as keen as an ocean wave, and the thought of moving against it made her feel seasick. Dread tugged her heart a mile down.
She was alone.
Holly’s exterior was a bigger lie than any tale she could ever tell. She wasn’t tough, and she’d proven it to herself with the way she’d tried to outrun the sky. She should have stayed behind; she should have let someone braver and stronger whisk her away to safety. She even dared to think she should have died. Anything was better than this, a solitude so complete she could hear her thoughts echoing into vast nothing.
Was there anything left?
All her life she’d been afraid to leave Perry, and now she was afraid to go back. Holly wasn’t equipped to handle the petty tragedy of her own existence, let alone whatever aftermath remained of her hometown. The sense of duty never suited her very well, but now it was forced upon her like a heavy set of armor. In her humble opinion, destiny could not have elected a poorer champion for the job.
Agony harpooned down her body as she tried to stand. Her legs felt more like rusty poles, but miraculously, they both still worked. Holly was ashamed of her own resolve as she thumbed her way back through the trees. She moved toward what she was gut positive would be an abandoned city, its crumbling bricks baking in the summer heat. She hoped she would find someone alive.
For the second time in her life, Holly Sawyer made a bad wish.
It was nearly two hours later when Holly emerged from the yawning jaws of the forest, sapped of energy and slick with a new layer of sweat. She’d been thoroughly lost in the labyrinth of trees, but somehow her inner compass had guided her back to the road. She no longer had the canopy of the woods to shield her from the vicious sun, and the asphalt burned beneath her like a skillet. If she didn’t stop somewhere soon, she thought she’d pass out in the road and fry. She held her hand over her eyes like a visor, straining them to see ahead. Heat waves distorted everything in an undulating mirage, but Holly could still make out the white steeple of the Brotherhood Church, wiggling in the air like a bloodless worm. Other than that, nothing in town moved. No cars, no people walking, nothing. It was as still as a picture. She couldn’t tell if anything had been destroyed despite all her predispositions, but her guts remained constricted with ominous dread. The air hung heavy around her, charged with static and ozone, a lingering signature of the orange surge that had cracked the sky. She could smell the energy it’d left behind, as though it were some sort of radioactive virus. Holly imagined the skin melting from her bones in a neat liquid suit the second she walked into town. With all recent events considered, she thought it’d be an interesting if not horrific way to die.
She peered ahead a little harder.
To her left, a faded blue truck sat in alone at the Exxon station. Her heart leapt with a spasm of wild hope and she hurried toward the parking lot as quickly as her stiff legs would allow.
Upon approaching, she noticed the driver’s side door was hanging partway open. Getting closer, she saw a ring of keys glittering beside one of the gas pumps. She knelt down to pick them up, but her hand sprang back in kneejerk terror as her eyes detected red. The keys were glued together in a sticky crust of blood. Holly tentatively raised her eyes forward to the gas pump where the truck was parked. The gas nozzle was unhooked, coiled loosely on the ground like a dead snake. The license plate told her the owner was from Alabama, a foreigner just making a quick pit-stop on the way through Perry to somewhere better. The cement between the truck and the keys was stained with crimson claw marks, as though the owner had been dragged away. This inclined Holly to believe that the pit-stop had been forcefully extended. The blood trail ended at the keys, leaving the stranger’s fate inconclusive. As Holly stared at the desperation inscribed on the pavement, she did not foresee a happy ending.
Holly’s breath hitched on the growing knot in her throat as she shuffled forward on cinder block feet. She was sweating rivers now. There was more blood, smeared on the truck’s door like strawberry jam. On the ground beside the open door there was a man’s canvas sneaker, ragged as though something had taken a bite out of it. Holly picked it up and turned it over in unsteady hands. Something odd was lodged in the rubber sole, something yellow and translucent. It was long and jagged at the end, like it’d been broken off. She pulled it out and realized it was a fingernail.
No, it was a talon.
The shoe landed on the pavement with a faraway thud. The object in Holly’s hand looked both alien and prehistoric, like something an archaeologist would unearth in an Egyptian catacomb. She wanted to drop it, but her body was seized by her inability to believe that what she was holding was humanoid in any way. Holly tried to register what it meant in relation to what she already knew, but failed, her heart stuttering its beat. She was too overheated to think. Colors swam around her in a psychedelic whirl, vivid and disorienting. Her brain drowned in a numb pool and her skull throbbed like a living alarm clock, blaring her body’s dire need for water. The talon fell on the cement with a muted clatter, entirely forgotten.
Holly pushed through the front door of the station. The bell above the doorframe gave a sour toll, announcing her arrival to the empty front counter. It was just as hot inside as it was outside, and all the fluorescent lights were out, casting the store in a miserable gloom. Holly went to the glass refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water, draining its contents with animalistic thirst. It was lukewarm, but it was wet, and that was what really mattered. She remembered the swampy taste of the creek water and almost vomited as she drank. The empty plastic container bounced on the floor and rolled away as Holly pulled out another, swallowed half, and sank gasping to the floor. Her spinning head began to cool and the languid strings of her muscles tightened back over her bones. She wasn’t sure how close she’d been to death, but she’d felt the icy stroke of its fingers on her spine nonetheless.
Holly leaned her back against the glass, her chin shiny with a beard of water as she recovered. When her breathing quieted, she realized how unnervingly silent it was inside the building. The still and soundless air pushed against her ears with unrelenting pressure, reminding her that she was alone in an empty world, like a single ant trapped inside a vacuum-sealed jar. She recalled the grisly scene outside on the pavement, and didn’t think she could bring herself to go back out there. Her body felt like a nerveless sandbag, unable to receive the exhausted electrical signals from her brain. So she just sat there in the shadowy hotbox of the Perry Exxon. The grief was bottomless and paralytic.
On the shelf in front of her were spray bottles of bleach cleaner, and the lady on the label smiled at Holly in an eerie, cloned row of three. Holly childishly wished that the lady would morph out of the label and sit beside her, and for the first time throughout the strange ordeal, she found herself on the verge of tears. She squeezed the water bottle in helpless frustration, desperate to hear anything but the blood thrumming tonelessly in her skull. Something hissed in response to the crackling plastic. The hiss sounded like it’d come from a pair of lungs clogged with thick slime, and the tears evaporated instantly from Holly’s eyes.
She suddenly pleaded that she would be alone after all.
A cellophane bag was knocked from a shelf somewhere out of sight, bursting open with a loud pop of air as a foot came down on it. Holly watched powerlessly through the gap of the shelf in front of her as Cheetos skated across the floor in a dry spray, their orange coating a brighter, truer neon than she ever remembered. Everything was thrust into hyperfocus, and as the bare foot stepped forward once more, crushing the Cheetos with a sandpapery crunch, Holly could think of only one word to describe it: mummyrot. The hissing drew nearer, snaking and tangling in Holly’s head like an oily tentacle. It was a sound that belonged at the bottom of Nietzsche’s abyss. Holly noticed a dragging limp in the thing’s gait, but it was coming for her anyway. She was too petrified to even breathe.
A blemished hand fastened over the top of the shelf. It looked both alien and prehistoric. The dendritic fingers were crusted over with black, jellied blood, and deep in the recess of her terrified mind, like an ancient lightbulb flickering to life in a dark attic, Holly realized that a fingernail—no, a talon—was missing from one of the scythe-like digits. All that remained in its place was an angry twist of jaundiced flesh.
Holly moved in just enough time to alter her ill fate, darting madly across the tile floor as the creature hurtled itself over the shelf and crashed against the refrigerator, cracking the glass in a starburst. Cleaning products fell in an avalanche as the shelf tipped over and hit Holly in her leg. She struggled out from underneath it as the thing came toward her in a drunken shamble, revealing its hideousness in full.
It was perhaps human height, but walked hunched over, like a dweller too tall for its cave. The sound of the hissing came from a dark mask strapped to its face, the breathing apparatus hanging down like an elephant’s trunk, moist and dripping with the waste of the creature’s exhale. The eyes were hidden somewhere underneath the mask, but Holly couldn’t tell where, or how many there were, for that matter. The hands were disproportionately large compared to the arms that dangled in front, like limp sinews of muscle. Its skin was nearly transparent, lending view to a network of organs that thumped beneath the surface like frantic machines. The heart was buried in a mossy green knot of veins at the center of its chest, a shadowy lump that contracted with an audible squelch. Overall, Holly thought it looked like an overgrown fetus ripped from the womb of some netherworld mother. It had no bellybutton, an observation that seemed silly and simultaneously terrifying. In the folded tubes of its entrails, Holly saw the gray, bulging mass of its last meal. She assumed the awful stuff had once been a human being, most likely the owner of the mangled shoe outside.
Holly could tell it’d been injured somehow by the way it hobbled toward her, but it still moved with an anguished agility, backing her into the corner before she had the time to fully digest what her eyes were seeing. Her mind tripped over all of its thoughts, and there was nothing she could do but turn her head in mortified repulsion as the thing—the monster—clumsily lowered itself and began to inspect what it had found. The long nose of the mask swayed grotesquely in front of Holly’s face, its artificial nostrils leaking a viscous yellow rheum that smelled like liquid decay. The monster moved its hands across her face with surgical delicacy, a scaly caress that left glowing red stripes on her skin. The talons swathed her in a gentle biting kiss, and for a moment she thought the monster meant not to eat her, but to keep her as the treasure of its misunderstood love. Holly fringed on insanity as she suffered the sordid texture of its touch. She imagined herself holding out the missing talon in an offering of peace, a last-ditch effort that may have saved her if she’d only kept the damned thing in her hand.
The monster started to lift its mask, unveiling a black, cavernous mouth that seemed deep enough to swallow the world whole. With a fresh surge of horror Holly realized the monster had no eyes at all; it’d followed her by sound. Its breathing now resembled a gust of wind trapped in a rusty metal pipe. As it drew nearer yet, Holly could see nothing but that inky orifice bearing down on her like the barrel of a gun, a fathomless pupil looming with the promise of imminent death. This is it, her mind babbled hysterically, fuck this is it this is it, and as Holly pushed her back hard against the wall with dim hope that it would give way, her fingers fumbled over the nozzle of a spray bottle. She drew it up, turned the sprayer on and fired with the deftness of a trained gunslinger, assaulting the membranous hole with a potent mist of liquid bleach. The monster sucked in the chemical haze and howled with dismay, swooning backwards on its knotted feet. Holly scrambled to stand and ran out of there as quickly as her feet would find the tile floor, bruising her hip on a display of assorted candy as the distraught monster clawed its face in a ferocious attempt to fight what it’d inadvertently swallowed. As Holly bolted through the front door, the monster made supersonic screech like a mythological harpy, furious with the escape of its catch. It replaced the mask over the burning cavity of its maw and staggered uselessly in her direction, shrieking a distressed summon to its brethren as it went.
Holly sprinted across the sizzling blacktop toward town, a stampede of one, looking like the world’s fastest maid service with the bottle of bleach still clutched firmly in her hand. She was aware of nothing but the hoarse whistle of her breath and the rhythmic swish of the bleach as she endured the all too familiar task of running for her life. She knew the monster was still after her, could hear its splintered cries floating up behind her, a sound that felt like jagged glass. She had to hide before she ran out of steam.
The Brotherhood Church towered beside her in all its ivory glory, looking more holy and inviting than ever before. A Bible passage—learned sometime in the bright blur of childhood and then forgotten in the dismal fog of adolescence—announced itself at the forefront of Holly’s chaotic mind like a wandering ghost finally home. It was, and rightly so:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
The verse was crooned by the same raucous, God-fearing voice that’d preached to Holly so many years ago, before she’d been old enough to decide that church was no place for her to be. Now, much older and perhaps not the slightest hint wiser, Holly declared that church was the only place she wanted to be.
Holly rushed up the stone steps. The sign, DELIVER US HOME TONIGHT, remained unchanged. The sunflowers beneath it were curled and ashen with death, murdered by the sun’s dry glare. Holly pulled on the double doors with what felt like her final spurt of energy, growling breathlessly as the doors yielded not the tiniest inch. Another screech speared the otherwise peaceful afternoon air, a dagger growing sharper with each successive stab. Holly eroded the rubber on her shoes as she wrestled the doors in a panicked mix of push and pull, cursing their inanimate stubbornness to remain closed. On the other side, the iron bar sealing the doors quivered inertly in its place.
“Let me in, goddammit!” Holly demanded in possibly the most sacrilegious cry ever uttered by human tongue.
Divine or not, there was no reply.
Amidst all her frustration, Holly still recognized the irony of being locked out of church now that she so desperately wanted to be inside. She got a new idea and ran to the maze of cars, feverishly yanking on several doors. All locked, no keys left in sight. She looked like a frantic bee as she tried to think of where to go. Holly hurried to the back of the church, stopping at a plain little window that lighted what she assumed to be the preacher’s study. She didn’t know what the room was really called, if it was supposed to have some sort of dignified name. She smashed her bare elbow against the unfortified window until the glass caved in. When she drew back, her elbow was shredded, her arm masked in a spiderweb of blood. Her lips peeled back in a crazed snarl. She was strangely exhilarated by the sharpshooting pain. One way or another, she was going to church today.
Holly dropped the bleach through the window, then crawled through the small opening and landed headfirst in the stuffy office. She sat on the floor and clutched the hot stitch in her chest, taking oxygen in gallons. The monster wasn’t shrieking after her anymore. For a fleeting moment she felt a slim semblance of relief. The monster was blind and injured, and the front doors were barred tight as Heaven’s pearly gates, or at least as tight as Holly thought they’d be if she ever wandered near them in her journey through the afterlife. As long as she was quiet, she didn’t think the monster would be able to find her. It wasn’t the best strategy, but it sure as hell beat the death sentence she had managed to avoid by a hair’s width.
As for what she planned to do next, Holly had not a fortune teller’s clue. The world had gone to shit and so had her persistence to live. Her body wanted to call it quits in the Exxon, and now her mind just wanted to let it. Where else was she supposed to go? Home seemed like a distant dream, and Holly couldn’t imagine running back there in the bare and open air, a dumb target to whatever other miscreations had succeeded to fall from that inverted chasm in the sky, like wicked party favors raining out of Hell’s piñata. Still, Holly couldn’t help but think of her mother greeting her with a fragile smile as she walked in the door. It was always a fragile smile and nothing more, her mother turning away on the sofa to drown in the soft blue light of the television and a glass of wine, not the first glass of the day and never the last. Her mother was a quiet but diehard alcoholic, and up until this point, Holly had forgotten she even had a mother. She wondered if she had one anymore, or if she ever really had one to begin with, but she quickly decided it was better not to think about it right now.
Holly had to play this horrorshow out. She’d hunker down until she thought of what to do next.
Her fatigue somewhat diminished, she took the bleach back in her hand and lifted herself from the musty floor rug. The room was modest and small, as though it’d been a supply closet at some point in the building’s ancient history. It contained little more than a wooden desk and a shelf full of leather books with gilded spines. It smelled like the ripe age of old pages, as if the preacher had all but inhaled the Bible into his lungs. There was another odor underneath, something faint and cadaverous, like the monster’s meaty aroma had clung permanently to Holly’s nostrils. She tried to breathe past it.
On the desk was a family portrait of three. The man was stern and gray, his wife equally so. Their boy commanded all the life in the picture, grinning toothily through a mop of fiery hair. Holly recognized their faces but could not pull their identities from the shallow pool of names in her head. She doubted she ever knew the names at all.
An iron cross hung above the doorway. It was gunmetal gray, with rosebuds engraved in each of its four extremities. Holly reached above the doorframe and unhooked it from the nail in the wall. It felt strong and somehow warm in her hand, like a shield that simply protected without judging the character of its holder. Holly couldn’t explain why she wanted it, other than just needing something sturdy to hold. Armed with bleach and the cross, she opened the door and shut it behind her, walking down a narrow, L-shaped passageway to another door. It opened on the sanctuary.
Air rushed into the hallway like a bomb blast, and the tiny rotten smell that Holly had sensed in the study hit her like a noxious tidal wave. She stood in a side aisle next to the empty choir, as stiff as the congregation that haphazardly stared back at her with unseeing eyes. The smell wafting off of them was palpable enough to fill a dinner plate and eat. The only thing that prevented Holly from throwing up was the lump of astonishment lodged in her throat like a severely misplaced boulder. She’d never seen a dead body in her life, let alone several dozen of them sitting in well-ordered rows like crows on the power lines. They were all dressed in their very best, men and women and children, all of them neighbors, all of them people whose lives had overlapped with Holly’s in some minute and imperceptible way as they shared the quiet Shangri-La that was Perry.
When she looked a little more to her left and saw the preacher (pastor? minister? priest?) collapsed over the podium, needle still in hand, Holly realized he’d been the conductor of a mass suicide, a morbid leap of faith that’d left no less than seventy people dead in God’s living room. A metal basin stood on a table in front of the center aisle, still swimming with the murky hemlock that’d been used to lull the worshipers to a permanent sleep. Holly knew all about the likes of Jim Jones and David Koresh, and this deplorable bit of knowledge caused her to wonder how many people in this enormous and very, very empty room had actually been willing to take that fatal and irreversible plunge of the hypodermic needle. It almost didn’t matter if anyone had been unwilling, because this time, the prophet had given a true forecast.
Rapture had dawned from a jagged hole in the sky.
And after all she’d seen today, Holly dared to think it was better for them this way.
Most of the people were slumped over in the pews, bloated up with post-mortem gases as if sleeping off a big holy feast. The light filtering in from the stained glass windows covered them like a spectral blanket. One in particular was not sleeping, but staring right at Holly, and Holly instantly recognized him as the beaming redhead from the portrait. The preacher’s son. His grin had been replaced by a dark and yawning zero, as if the last thing to touch his living lips had been a scream. His mother sat next to him, her neck hanging limply over the back of the pew like a jacket tossed over a chair. Still cradled in her arms was a bundle of pale pink blankets from which an elfin leg dangled, looking as cold and stony as the skin of a porcelain doll. The image burned into the eye of Holly’s mind like a white-hot brand. That infant’s leg would forever hang over the dark gutter of her memory, like an amputated nightmare.
Holly remembered the sign outside, the sign that said DELIVER US HOME TONIGHT. She hoped with every human sentiment that someone between Heaven and Earth had picked up the outgoing mail from Perry, Florida.
Holly felt fainter than a ghost’s perfume. Then she heard a sound and all the blood jolted to her limbs like scarlet electricity. It was a loud but echoless thump, like a sack of flour dropped on carpeted floor. The rug under the window…something’s coming in. The sound of the thump was chased by none other than that serrated shriek, sharp enough to pierce the deaf ears of the dead. It rang on and on in her head like a tuning fork stuck on a sour note. There was another thump, then two more, each one heavier than the last. Holly felt the vibrations humming in her gut. A collective screech perforated the hallway door like a tumbleweed of knives, and the hum became an internal scream.
The monster has friends.
Panic enveloped Holly in a white chokehold, as though she’d taken a sudden plummet through thin ice.
Holly made a severe mistake, one she recognized too late. The monster was blind, but even if she was perfectly quiet, Holly never considered the possibility that it would still be able to smell her, and if it could, the fresh blood she’d left by the window was like a flare in a pitch-black cave. The rest of it was still drying on her arm in crimson ribbons. She remembered how the red paint had trailed down her arm in the same way as she tagged the Westview Bridge, how her heart flooded with subzero dread at the sight of the flashing blue lights coming through the tunnel, how she thought her life was over right there. The dread resurfaced like a corpse that hasn’t been properly weighted down. Caught red-handed again, she thought miserably, only this time, instead of a can of acrylic paint, she was holding a cross. She’d gone from juvenile delinquent to pseudo-sacred warrior, and in those moments of dumb hesitation, standing before an even dumber audience, Holly Sawyer never loathed herself more.
Holly’s first instinct was to burst through the double doors, but by the time she broke her catatonia, it was too late to try. A prickly shadow lurched past the faceted front windows and began thrashing on the doors, a cacophony that boomed through the vast room like staccato thunder. A bloodthirsty chorus of inhuman voices grew louder in the hallway, and the door that separated the barrage from Holly may as well have been made of flower petals for all it would do to protect her. The monsters were hunters of the living flesh, a natural role bestowed to them after an eon of slow evolution in the filthy bowels of the cosmos. This Holly understood in some simplified form, but to her it didn’t matter where the monsters came from or how they’d managed to splice a path between their world and hers. All she knew—and she never claimed to know very much—was that she had about seven seconds to act before they ripped her asunder.
They track by smell. Get rid of the blood. Six seconds. Holly ran down the center aisle and frenziedly wiped all the blood she could on the floral dress of an elderly woman sagging off the left-hand edge of the second row. The woman’s dark, leaky eyes reminded Holly of a confused sheep about to be slaughtered.
“Sorry…fuck I’m so sorry…” Holly muttered through choked tears as the woman fell helplessly sideways against her brusque touch. She placed the bloody cross in the woman’s lap, the only penance she had left to offer.
Three seconds. Holly dashed to the back row on the opposite side. She pushed the dead knees away and stumbled over needles still beaded with blood, shoving herself into the middle of the pew between two bald men that were identical twin brothers. The one on the right had been her bus driver in elementary school, but Holly didn’t remember that. She all but buried her upper half beneath the suit jacket of the left twin, a fifth grade science teacher. Her nose pressed against the hard cage of his ribs. He smelled like stale pipe tobacco and maggot meat. Holly somehow held her bile, still gripping the plastic nozzle of the bleach like the trigger of a gun as she willed the rest of her body to play dead. The lady on the label smiled up at her in the dark, reeking confines of the man’s jacket. Holly thought of her as a very close friend.
The hallway door more or less exploded and time was up. Three of the monsters infiltrated the consecrated chamber, followed closely by their wounded brother. It was still lamenting the liquid fire Holly sprayed in its mouth, vigorously swinging the flaccid muzzle of its mask as it wailed. Holly screwed her eyes vacuum tight, stomach churning as her lungs filtered oxygen from the diabolical stench under the jacket. She breathed as imperceptibly as possible while the monsters began to stalk the room, her muscles jerking reflexively with each clamorous blow against the front doors. The monsters communicated through a language of primitive hissing, like that of feral cats found hiding in the eaves. Holly felt them crawling over the pews like colossal spiders, felt them turning over the bodies, searching for the one that was alive. Not here, one hissed in perhaps the farthest tongue from human English. Nope, not here either, hissed another.
One of the monsters found the old woman and tore the bloody patch of fabric from her dress with its scissor hands. It snuffled the cloth with its dangling proboscis like a police hound. As it thoroughly consumed the scent of Holly Sawyer, learning the unique tang of her blood, one of its partners scuttled right over the source, unable to detect her in the overwhelming fog of human breakdown. Leave just leave just fucking leave. It was the closest Holly had ever been to praying. I’m already dead just go just fucking go so I can have a nice big mouthful of that poison Kool-Aid like I should have had five minutes ago. She had ceased to believe that she would be getting out of this alive, so she at least wanted to die on her own terms.
Holly no longer sensed the monsters slinking around the room, the new silence only broken by the unrelenting salvos of violent knocking. She counted a slow minute in her head, then lifted the jacket from her face, cautiously as though she were peeling away a layer of her own skin. She caught a critical glimpse of all four monsters looming over her, holding back their hissing breath so they could give her a lovely surprise. The bloody cloth fell over her eyes like a ghastly snowflake, a cheap and fatally unsuccessful trick. Holly felt stuffed full of cotton, utterly numb to whatever gruesome butchering would soon become of her.
All four monsters removed their executioner’s masks, uncovering a semicircle of eyeless, gourd-shaped heads, their tumorous faces punctured by those infinite mouths, like black holes embodied. Their mouths seemed to fuse together by some reverse mitosis, and they moved towards Holly’s face in a way that was like the prelude to history’s most terrifying kiss. If there had been any brief chance of escape, Holly wasted it, minimized to but an iota of human mortality peering into the lip of an immeasurable emptiness. She imagined it was how the stars at the edge of the universe must feel. The arm that held the bleach felt far away and dead, as though it’d never been part of her at all. Her entire body felt voided, an earthly vessel that longer belonged to her because she was about to depart it forever. The tip of her nose began to disappear into that purely opaque hole, and then the monsters sucked all the petrified breath from her lungs, a humid amalgam of carbon dioxide and water, the mutual exhale of all the living mammals that walked the Earth. It was this combination of organic pheromones that let the monsters know that Holly was truly alive, that she was the final addition to the flesh-made greenhouse they called their new home.
The monsters needed to breathe just like anything else with a cardiovascular system, but instead of oxygen, their alien biology demanded methane. Earthly methane had a tricky way of sneaking up into the stratosphere before you could get a lasting breath, and this posed a fundamental problem for the monsters, since their elephant masks could only do so much to pull a gasp of life out of the strange air. As nature would have it, dead bodies were an excellent source of CH4, but eventually their gases expired and they became worthless slabs of detritus. The inside of the church could have been respiratory paradise for the monsters, if only for a temporary period. It was no serious loss, for the monsters had methods of preserving the precious vapors indefinitely, but it only worked if they caught the specimen alive. They’d managed to capture plenty, and Holly was just one more.
Chitinous claws sank into her gut, intestinal fluids leaking out like hot and rotten soup. The bleach fell out of her hand. The lady on the label still smiled at her from a perfect world of sparkling sinks and bath tiles, and Holly would’ve given anything to live in that world instead. The monsters carried her out of the church like an exquisite trophy, and the fifth one at the doors joined in on the hellish parade. Holly’s mind fell into a trance, serene as though she were being taken to a warm bed to sleep away the sunny afternoon. She had become blissfully insane in less than a minute.
What she saw of Perry passed in a drowsy blur. It was a ghost town of unhinged doors and broken windows. Stray shoes were everywhere, as though people thought they could get away faster if they weren’t wearing them. The smell of rotten eggs loomed in the air like a yellow curtain and the sidewalks were splattered with blood, red wine for vultures. An SUV and a sports car were wrecked under the main stoplights, their front ends fused in a violent kiss. The drivers had fled but Holly suspected they hadn’t gotten very far. Various wares from the local stores littered the streets like the entire town had been flash-robbed. Perhaps the oddest of all these things was a headless mannequin of a woman’s torso, standing naked in the town square like a limbless sentry. Its unimaginative breasts were tattooed by matching hand prints, which would have been somewhat comical if the handprints hadn’t been left in human blood. Holly fainted as they passed it.
Holly awoke minutes later, her nightmare worse if not unchanged. She and her captors were moving through the dark underbelly of the Westview Bridge, where the smell of rotten eggs was more like an airborne disease. They emerged on a lifeless field of dead weeds and tired dirt, a marsh desiccated by the rainless summer. The view of the field was totally concealed in a cloying yellow haze, a vile concoction of sulfur dioxide and all the long hydrocarbon chains emitted by corpses as a trillion bacteria fed on their dead tissues from the inside out. Hidden somewhere beneath was the invisible and odorless methane, gaseous gold for the hellions that carried Holly to her doom. It was as though they’d entered a polluted smokestack, and Holly could hear the monsters sighing with kindred relief as they took in the smog, her eyes streaming with nauseous and horrified tears. She felt her lungs turning to leather, certain that if the monsters did not kill her swiftly, the dire lack of oxygen would steal the pleasure from them. Then they reached the epicenter of the toxic miasma, and Holly wished she’d died somewhere along the way.
The people of Perry sat on the ground in a zombified constellation, all of them looking cataclysmically stoned. They were alive but also not, their eyes rolled back to the veiny whites, tongues lolling uselessly as the yellow fumes billowed from their abysmal mouths like they were human chimneys. In one of the mouths, Holly saw a gleaming mush of little green pearls that she assumed to be eggs, and in another mouth she saw the mature eggs hatching in a grotesque display of squirming bodies. The townspeople were virtually unrecognizable. Fleshy vines grew out of their skulls like parasitic limbs, entwining with each other high overhead to form a single lobotomized organism. A legion of the monsters crawled on the biotic trellis like furless apes on a playground, their faces free of the elephant masks their comrades wore while on the hunt. The sound of their hissing was lost in the mindless moaning of a thousand people infected with alien nuclei. Despite the fog, Holly’s fate was now agonizingly clear, but she would never reconcile with it in the bare minute she had left to live.
The monsters sat her down with the rest of her neighbors, filling the final gap in the horrid design. Holly felt those insectile claws penetrate the base of her back, rewiring the bundle of nerves that nested there. Her spine liquefied and she started to become something else. Her consciousness faded like a dying wick in a room much too big for it to light, and as it evanesced into a ghostly wisp, Holly fumbled the book of matches from her front pocket and struck the last one on the tip of her fingernail like witchcraft. The yellow fumes ignited like a magic trick, one that left nothing behind but a spiral of smoke and echoes. Throughout it all, Holly Sawyer never craved a single cigarette.
Jessica Bowers is a college freshman living in Claxton, Georgia, majoring in biology and minoring in creative writing. Her inspirations are Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, and of course, Stephen King. Writing has become a big part of her and she wishes to keep it alive in her adult life. Jessica’s stories, The Uglylights and The Stray appear respectively in the June and October 2013 issues of HelloHorror. Her poem In Vivo, appears in the April 2014 issue of HelloHorror.
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