In the Dark

Radioactive Beach Hypothesis Illustration, Elly Call

 

 

Todd shouted as he felt the bike slam back down to the earth, pumping his legs to keep up his momentum.

“I can’t believe no one goes here!” he shouted over his shoulder.

“That’s what Ryan said!” Tucker shouted back, before letting out a hoot as his bike jumped off a small ramp they had set up. He grunted as he landed, wobbling a bit before moving on. “He said no one goes up this high in the hills! Too dangerous!”

“Oh yeah? What’d you say to that?”

Tucker grinned. “I said we weren’t a couple of fucking pussies!”

Todd laughed. He didn’t care about danger. He was seventeen, had loving parents, an after-school job, a hot as fuck girlfriend, and he’d already been accepted into Sequoia University. He was set, what did he care if a simple patch of rocky hills was deemed “dangerous” by some old fucks? He loved the feeling of his adrenaline pumping into his veins. He knew Tucker felt the same. They’d been best friends since the second grade after all. Danger and risks were nothing new to them.

“You think we’re still going to do stuff like this after I move?” Todd shouted back.

“Hell yes!” Tucker replied. “I’ll come visit all the time, dude. If O’Malley ever gives me time off from the auto shop I mean. We can go biking up on Mount Sequoia.”

Todd laughed. “I’ll look forward to it.”

With a grin, Todd turned and lowered his body, tightening his grip as he pumped faster, racing ahead of Tucker with a laugh. He raced up the makeshift trail, grinning as he could feel the pleasant ache in his legs’ muscles. He pushed forward, legs moving slower as he urged his bike up the steep hill. He reached the peak, and from the top he could see all of Roseport and Hartman’s Woods that surrounded it. He stopped for a moment, taking in the sight of home, and breathed in the air. He looked down the hill at the other makeshift ramp he and Tucker had constructed earlier. He paused for the briefest moment, hearing Tucker huff and puff behind him as he forced his bike up the hill, before pushing the bike forward, letting gravity do the rest.

The wind blew by Todd’s face. He had to squint his eyes as he raced down the steep hill. The bike’s front wheel was wobbling as it rolled over the rocky ground, but Todd held the handles forward, never letting his grip falter. He was aimed right for the ramp. He could just feel that this jump was going to be amazing.

The bike jerked, and Todd realized something was wrong. He could feel vibrations in the ground through the metal and rubber of the back. His brow furrowed as he let his eyes glance downwards just in time to see the front wheel of the bike sink into the ground, coming to a quick and sudden stop. Todd yelped as the bike flipped forward, throwing him over the handlebars that he had such a tight grip on. His back slammed into the ground, knocking the wind out of him as he grunted in pain. The bike stayed up straight, the front wheel sunk nearly all the way into the ground.

Todd gasped for breath and tried to clear his head, rubbing his eyes. The ground felt strange, soft, almost warm. He looked down, confused at the earth beneath him.

A shout drew his attention up, just in time to see Tucker and his bike leap off the hill and fly through the air, slamming down into the ground.

“Tucker!” he croaked, still partially winded. “Tucker, wait!”

His words flew meaningless into the air as Tucker raced down the hill at break-neck speed. He looked quizzically at Todd on the ground just as his bike rammed into the same patch of dirt that Todd laid on. The ground seemed to rumble as Tucker’s bike smashed into it, and within a moment, Todd felt himself falling down, into the darkness that lurked below.

 

Todd let out a groan as he regained conscious. He opened his eyes, but there was nothing to see. It was dark, so dark that he couldn’t even see inches in front of him. He could make out basic shapes, but nothing more. No light leaked down. Todd had no idea how long or in what direction he had fallen, but the entrance to the pit was vanished. There was nothing but the darkness, and the sound of wind and dripping water.

“Tucker?” he called out, but no reply came.

Todd pushed himself over onto his hands and knees. He shivered as he felt his hands touch the floor of the cavern. It was moist and sticky yet solid, almost like warm mud. He suppressed noises of discomfort as he shuffled over the ground, feeling whatever the ground was coated in slowly covering his limbs as he surged forward.

“Tucker!”

Todd let his hands reach around in front of him, searching for something, anything familiar besides the strange ground on which he crawled. His nerves screamed at him, aching for him to just sit and rest, but he continued on.

“Tucker!”

His hand touched something other than the sludge on the ground. Metal. One of their bikes. Todd stopped, feeling around, feeling out for the rest of the bike, and hopefully, his friend.

“For fuck’s sake, Tucker! Answer me! Fuck!”

His hands continued to search. Sludge. Warm sludge and nothing else.

“You piece of shit, Tucker! Fucking answer me!”

Todd’s hand touched some thing else again. He squeezed it. It was thicker and softer than a bike. Not being able to see with his eyes, he rubbed down the length of the cylindrical object and felt hair. He reached down further and smiled as he felt a tightly laced sneaker.

“Tucker?” he whispered, but there was still no reply. “You must be out still.”

He reached up, feeling up past his legs, over the torso and finally towards his face. He felt his fingers crawl up and over Tucker’s face, feeling the contours of his features, of his nose and eyes and mouth. His friend’s forehead was wet, though that could’ve just been whatever was all over the ground.

“Tucker. Come on, man,” Todd said, slapping his friend’s face lightly. “Come on!”

He smacked Tucker’s face harder now, again and again.

“Tucker! Come on! Wake the fuck up!”

The sound of flesh smacking flesh echoed through the cavern. Sobbing soon replaced it and Todd realized that the sound was coming from his own mouth.

“Oh fuck. Jesus fuck,” he cried to himself. “Shit.”

He laid down, feeling the sludge coat his face as he laid beside Tucker. God he hurt. He ached all over. He wanted rest. He wanted to sleep.

God, he wanted to be out of this place.

 

Todd had only nightmares as he slept. He dreamed of times long past, of things living beneath the earth, of slime and sludge and corpses. When he awoke, he had no idea how long he had been asleep beside his best friend’s body. Time seemed to have no meaning in the darkness.

Without anything to do, he had begun wandering around the cavern, counting his steps away from where Tucker lay so that he could always return. He wanted to map where he was, to have some vague understanding of the cavern that was becoming the only thing in his life. Walking was difficult however, thanks not only to his wounded body, but also because of the slippery substance that seemed to coat everything down here. More times than he could count, Todd had been walking with his arms outstretched, hoping to feel a wall or an entrance or anything, only to take a step, loose his footing and fall face first into the sludge. He would sputter and gag, trying to force whatever he swallowed back out of his body before standing up and continuing on.

He cried often whenever he tried to sleep. He thought about his parents and how worried they must be. He thought about Shelly, and was wondering if she cried for him, now that he was gone. He thought about Tucker, who had wanted to build his own car, to visit all fifty states, who wanted to eventually settle down and get married. He would cry and hold himself until he fell asleep, only to awaken what felt like mere moments later, sputtering and spitting. He couldn’t get the taste of the slime out of his mouth anymore. It felt like it was crawling into his throat whenever he slept.

 

It felt like days had passed, though Todd had no way of knowing for sure. But one thing let him know that time was passing. His hunger. His stomach had been growling at him for what felt like forever now. His body ached now as he walked around the cavern, trying to find its edge, limbs feeling like they were too long, his body feeling heavier. His bones cracked as he moved. He could barely keep his eyes open anymore, not that there was any difference in what he could see with them closed, and the hunger was always there. Gnawing away at him inside.

The granola bars and water bottles they had packed went all too quickly. He gobbled them up, and only after he was done did the thought of rationing and saving the food come him. In desperation, he had taken to eating the slime from the very ground. It tasted foul, like rotten lunchmeat, and was too warm for Todd’s liking, but it was better than nothing. But the full feeling it offered him never lasted long. He’d eat a mouthful and be satisfied, but all too soon would the hunger return.

Todd thought of home, of his mother’s cooking. Her pork roast was to die for. Add some fried potatoes, some asparagus in butter sauce, with homemade carrot cake for dessert, and you would have a meal. If his mouth wasn’t so dry, it would water at these thoughts, but they just made it worse. If only there was something, anything to eat down here besides dirt and slime.

 

Todd had taken to licking Tucker before he went to sleep. He knew it was wrong and horrendous, but the taste of sweat and flesh underneath the layer of dirt and sludge that now covered his friend’s body was intoxicating to his senses. It let him get a dreamless sleep, something he was all too thankful for. It sated the hunger for a moment, but it had a much sweeter taste than what the slime offered.

He held Tucker’s hand when he was falling asleep now. It helped him to know that there was something else in the dark. To remind him of what had come before. He sometimes felt like he was going mad. Hearing things, imagining shapes moving in the shadows. His name was Todd. He repeated that to himself every night as he squeezed his eyes shut. There was no difference in what he could see from when they were open or closed, but feeling the pressure of his eyelids smashed together helped to remind him of what he was, even if the shadows hid it.

His name was Todd.

 

He’d eaten Tucker. It felt like weeks had gone by while he was stuck down here in the dark. He was almost getting used to it. The darkness offered a form of comfort. After all, he couldn’t really see what he’d been putting in his mouth, which he thanked god for.

He couldn’t remember when his licking had turned to nibbling, which had then turned to biting and chewing. He couldn’t remember his teeth tearing off bits of skin and muscle, feeling lukewarm fluids drip down his chin as he ripped chunks of flesh off the bone, savoring the rich taste of meat for the first time in what felt like months.

He cried after the first time; when he’d bitten a finger clean off in a hungry desperation. He’d chewed and swallowed it before he’d even realized what he was doing, just so overcome by the desperate gnawing from within his stomach. He could taste the slime still on Tucker’s skin, but underneath it all was the sweet taste of meat. He hated himself, hated that he was being driven mad by the empty darkness. He wasn’t an animal. He was a man. His name was Todd.

He dreamed of home again that night, of coming home to his mother and father waiting for him, a big family dinner steaming and ready to be eaten. He’d woken up into darkness again and ate Tucker’s hand in its entirety, gnawing on it down to the bone. He didn’t speak, but made mewling noises as he snapped Tucker’s radius and scrapped at its marrow with his teeth.

He went to bed content that night.

 

Who was he?

Time had gone away. It had lost its meaning against the flickering shadows that now made up the world. Maybe that’s all he was. A shadow on the wall of the cave. A shadow that had fallen asleep and dreamed he was a real boy and now had been smacked in the face with cold hard reality. Maybe he was going mad. He didn’t know anymore. Time and space had become meaningless. He walked in circles, retracing his steps over and over. Escape was pointless he had decided.

Todd? What was that? Such a strange, foreign word, though it kept bouncing off the walls of his skull.

  1. Todd. Todd.

The other thing’s was long gone now. He couldn’t remember what to call it anymore, the food-thing. He’d gnawed on the bones as he fell into restless sleep full of screaming dreams. He should’ve been wiser, saved some parts of the food-thing for the hunger was without end now, sated only briefly by eating copious amounts of sludge. He wished he’d saved some of the brain. That had been his favorite part.

What was the word for the food-thing? It was on the tip of his tongue.

What did that word mean?

 

He shoveled slime into his mouth as he crouched on the floor by the hard-thing. It was all that was left to sate his desire. He giggled to himself, sludge slipping from his lips and falling onto his chin. He crawled on all fours, forwards or backwards it didn’t really matter, scuttling about his domain. He’d decided he was a king, and the shadows were his kingdom.

“Hey!”

He stopped, ears twitching as something happened. A new sound. Not a dripping, munching, gurgling, giggling one, but a real sound. His head turned, ears and eyes searching for the source.

“I think we’ve got something over here!”

The sound again. It sounded so close, and familiar. These were… were… words? Words. Language. He wanted to cry or laugh or scream. It felt like forever since he’d heard something other than the sounds of the cave.

A rumbling sound shook the cave, the slippery stone seeming to vibrate as dirt and pebbles fell from the ceiling. He looked up as the ceiling began to fall. He scrambled forward, spindly limbs pushing him onwards.

The ceiling cracked and a searing otherness crept into his domain. He hissed and reached up clawing fingers to cover his eyes. Pain. Searing pain shot through his body as his eyes were confronted by the otherness. Non-darkness.

Light!

It was light!

He remembered. The outside. The world beyond the cavern. Home, where he was loved and remembered.

He fought past the pain, squinting his eyes and dug his fingers into the wall, pulling himself up and up.

He remembered. There was so much beyond the cave. There was home. Roseport. With mom and dad and Shannon and all the fucking bullshit he’d taken for granted before.

“I think I see movement! Can anyone hear me? Todd? Tucker?”

Todd!

His name was Todd!

He was graduating in the spring, he was going to college, he was going to have a real life. His lips, sloppy from spittle and slime, pulled back into a wide grin. He reached a hand up and out of the cave, pulling his body out of the cavern.

“Jesus fucking Christ!”

“What the hell is that thing!?”

He was Todd. Todd with the pale, pale skin and distorted limbs, arms and legs stretched out to horrid lengths. Todd the thin and hairless, with broken teeth and bleeding wounds and claws instead of nails. He was Todd covered in slime with his skin stretched taut over bulging ribs and a bloated stomach.

He could see the crowd now. See their faces staring at him. There was mom and dad right near the front.

He reached a hand out towards, bones creaking and cracking as they adjusted to new angles.

He was home.

 

 

 

About the Author

James Hiltz · Southern New Hampshire University

James Hiltz is a recent graduate from Southern New Hampshire University with a degree in creative writing and philosophy. An obsessive fan of both film and literature of all sorts, he now seeks to find more homes for his short stories. “In the Dark” first appeared in The Manatee.

About the Artist

Elly Call · Virginia Commonwealth University

Elly Call is a Richmond-based illustrator and writer.  Her work has appeared in Emanata, Poictesme, Amendment, and the webcomic Aubergine In Hell. Her image first appeared in Poictesme.

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