Into the Nightmare (part 3)
The vines were more than underfoot now, they were ankle-deep, soaked, decaying. There was that vegetative death-smell all around. It was way too dark too see – moon swallowed, stars gone – even with the pathetic help of a couple of cell-phone screens. There was nothing except a sense of direction to keep pushing them on.
“It should be around here.”
But it was almost on top of them before they could see it. And what they could see – nothing more than a shape, a looming lump of slightly other-shaded darkness, a rift in a sloping hillside, decorated by shredded trees. They'd been huge; now jagged, now rotting and enviscerated, choked with a tangle of nearly dead vines.
Karen shone her screen forward. She could just see the entrance into a crater grown over with some kind of burnt, dripping crust.
How does an eight year old girl imagine something like this?
“Ready?” Nick whispered.
“Good God. Nick, are you?”
“I don't know what's going to happen, do I?”
“I'm sorry. Okay? I'm sorry.”
“On three, Karen?”
They crawled over to the entrance, itself hanging with dead vines. Nick insisted on going first. He lowered himself into this gaping dark mouth, while Karen could only kneel there, holding her phone out to give him what light she could. Torches, of course. We could have been at the supermarket buying torches, and knives, and bloody pesticide. Instead of eating our lives' last burgers. And her head was swimming. It was desert hot inside her, her skin felt like dead leaves, it felt ready to ignite.
Nick's voice, a whisper: “Clear.”
Tunnels, stretching and twisting, seeming to go on forever and serve no purpose. Karen was sure the vines could sense vibrations, they could feel her feet and Nick's as they made their quiet invasion. So they're probably ready. And her arm was throbbing. When they crawled, and she had to put her hand down on the ground, the pain would blast her; she'd have to grit her teeth to keep from whimpering, to keep Nick from realising just how bad it was.
She could hear them, the gravel-dry slither, the almost sucking sound. She pulled Nick to a halt, and they froze against a wall. There was something moving overhead. She held her breath. She waited for the mass of them to come tumbling down on top of them, cutting and strangling.
Over. Really quick.
And then Nick's whisper: “Clear.”
Then they cornered her, with Nick just a little way ahead. She moved to follow him around a soft bend, only to see a tangled mass of vines come flowing across the corrider, cutting her off. Karen stepped back, slow steps, as little noise in them as she could manage. She felt backwards, coming up against a wall. She kept her back to that, moving sideways, trying to hold on to her sense of direction. Too easy to lose each other in here.
Did she dare to call out?
“Nick...” Not far above a whisper.
There were more to her right, closing in. They were like tangled wool, clots of it, but the strands around the outside came out at her, lashing towards her like whips. It seemed as if, when she stayed still, they were blinded themselves. Vibrations. She'd just-see – and she'd feel – these knife-ends come whipping past her. She'd feel the breeze of them. But they were getting closer, and her backward steps were going to trap her any moment.
He must notice, he'd come back for her.
In the meantime, she shifted her grip on the knife. Here goes.
“Come and get it!” And she braced her back against the wall, kicking hard into the mass on her left. It was a gross and still satisfying sensation, the way they mulched in response to her foot, to feel them crushed and soggy, even as others coiled around, reaching out for her ankle. To her right she was slashing with the knife, screaming, grunting, just giving into her berserking tiredness, cutting down everything and anything in front of her. She felt a soft flick of teeth against her forehead, felt the jabbing of knife-ends into her ankle. At least one of them struck hard, got a good gouge into her foot. She spun and stabbed, feeling something wet splash her face.
And then it was quiet and still.
Gasping. “Where were you?”
He was holding her up. He was running the light from his phone over a slash to her side she initially hadn't felt. He'd seen the state of her arm now, and he'd seen her ankle. He knew what that would end up like. She wasn't going to have much luck running, not now.
“Oh, Karen.” He buried his face in her good shoulder.”
“Where were you?”
“I heard something. Tasha.”
“Are you sure?”
“They know her voice, Nick.”
“She was scared.”
“And they know how that sounds too.”
“I... I can't. I can't...”
“Can you still walk?”
“Let's find out.”
She heard it too. The sound was a bare whimper. And it did, it sounded like a terrified, exhausted little girl. Utterly believable. Her own doubts were wavering. Because it could be couldn't it? She focussed on the sound. Up ahead.
They were forced to a crawl, and her arm, her shoulder, protested every inch of it. Well, her ankle hurt too, being dragged over the ground, being licked at by these dying, twitching vines. It'd pretty soon object with violence to her need to run on it. That thought, for later. She could hear Tasha's voice up ahead. She pushed herself up against the wall, and shone the light out. The ground looked like a medieval banquet hall, all strewn with rushes, thick with them; but no sign of living, moving vines.
“Clear, I think.”
They crawled over to the next corner. Karen braced herself against Nick, peered round with one eye, with just the phone's light. It was quiet again, still, but there was something in the corner, something whimpering and wrapped up around itself. But they're good at mimicry.
Too late. Nick had seen her. He scrambled forward, half crouched, half crawling, over to where the mass huddled. Karen cursed in her head, crawled after, wincing, having to rely on her bad arm because the other one needed to have the knife ready. The pain sent her plunging into dizzyness every time, it hollowed her out.
But up ahead, she saw Tasha unfurl, she saw her pounce into Nick's arms, ready and waiting to be held and comforted. Her face wet, her tiny arms trembling.
“It's all right,” Nick promised her.
“I want to go home.”
“You can,” he promised. “This isn't real. It doesn't have to be real. Do you understand?”
“It won't go away. I tried. I promise I did.”
He looked at her hard, maybe close enough for Tasha to see his eyes. “But it burns. It burns real good.” What mattered was that she believed it.
“Burn it then,” she said, “you have to burn it.”
“I know,” and his voice caught.
Karen thought: I'm really not going to make it am I?
She remembered, Nick, looking at her as he stowed the petrol can: “But for all we know she'll burn right along with it. It comes from her.”
The pit was just up ahead. It really wasn't that hard to find. The sounds that came out of it, like snakeskin sliding over snakeskin; like sandpaper; a soft, weird, feeding sound. And the air felt brittle, it felt rough, gravelly. This was the lair, this was the heart of them.
And the vines were coming out, they were hovering and listening, they were sensing these intruders. But hopefully – please God – it was too late for them. Karen kept herself between Tasha and the vines, she kept her knife ready, if anything struck for Nick she would have to be faster – somehow. She gritted her teeth to keep quiet and still.
Nick poured the petrol. And that sent them into a frenzy. He was forced frantically back, dodging and holding his arms up to fend them off. Karen surged forward, slashing, lurching back, falling; kicking for a couple of seconds to clear a path to get back to her knees. Slashing again.
Nick struck the match.
It glowed for that moment of him watching it, then he tossed it down there into the pit.
The ground was erupting all along that stretch of grass. It erupted with mostly loose dirt, with clover leaves, with the mangled, murdered ends of alien vines. Karen threw her arms over the edge of the crater and pulled herself up to her stomach. She didn't have to be quiet anymore, so she screamed freely, let it be blood-curdling, horrific. It was just about enough to fell her, but she held onto consciousness, managed to hook her knee over the edge and pull forward with her good arm. Then Nick was back for her, grabbing her by the waist, pulling her the rest of the way out.
Tasha lay on the ground. She was moving, but puffs of smoke came out with her breath.
“I don't know,” he said, “I don't know what it's done to her.”
She sank into the ground, into Nick, who seemed to struggle to hold her weight. But there was really nothing she could do about it. She felt as if she was pure lead, right through flesh and bone and marrow, even her hair. She could barely move her fingers of her own volition. Spent. Helpless. So, if this wasn't bloody over....
She made herself focus.
“Hold on. Just hold on.”
“I'm okay.” And she would have laughed her head off at that if she still could.
“We need to get you to a hospital, okay? You and Tasha. Possibly me. There's a highway just down there when it changes. There'll be cars.”
There were. She thought she could hear them, however dimly, however muffled by her won heartbeat. She looked over at the horizon, saw rooftops there, saw a yellow sun beginning to rise.