By T.J. McIntyre
The view from the top of the cliff revealed miles of unobstructed Alabama countryside. The river below stretched on and on, a glowing yellow snake lit by the waning sun. It slithered between rolling hills and square plots of farmland. Smitty imagined that if he looked hard enough, he might be able to see where the river met the Gulf of Mexico four hundred miles to the south, but it was only a matter of time before this vision dissolved into night.
Darkness approached from the east. There was a gathering cold, but the three campers did not feel it.
“Whatchya doing over there, bro? Get over here and pass that bottle, Smitty.”
“Haven’t you had enough? It’s still early, you know.”
John stood and wobbled. His face turned red. “Just gimme that damn bottle, shithole!”
Smitty smiled over to John. He knew by the slur in his voice, and the sudden rise in temper, that his friend had had more than enough, but who was he to judge? He passed him the bottle of Green Label and smirked as John turned the bottle up. Bubbles cascaded upwards in the amber liquid.
Once he put the bottle down, John’s face turned as green as the label. He retched and leaned over the cliff. There was a wet plop against the rocky floor eighty feet below.
“Eww. Nasty!” Melody shrieked.
Smitty snorted and tumbled with an off-balance gait over to John. Smitty leaned over his friend and placed a hand on John’s shoulder. “S’alright. You’ll be better in no time.”
John ignored him; he had already fallen asleep. He snored softly, his head tilted at an odd angle against a moss-covered rock.
Melody and Smitty held each other. They were wrapped tight in a blue, cigar-shaped sleeping bag in the tent. Their breath erupted from their mouths as puffs of vapour in the cold.
“Fuck! It’s cold! What are we doing out here?”
Smitty smiled at the girl. “We’re camping.”
“But it’s freaking February!”
“What’re you complaining about? I got you your shit, didn’t I? Speaking of….” He pulled out a little plastic bag out of his coat. It contained a few thin joints.
Melody smiled a moment and reached for the bag.
Then she jumped.
Smitty reacted by jumping himself.
“What was that?” Her eyes were wide open. She looked to Smitty.
Smitty let out an uneasy laugh. “Paranoid, already? We ain’t even smoked none of this shit, yet.”
“Shh. I heard something.”
Smitty frowned. He listened. He tried to distinguish the sounds outside the tent. The wind whistled against the cliffs beneath their camp. Branches struck together, stirring the hollow, wooden symphony of the forest.
Smitty listened a moment more. Then he laughed. “Haven’t you ever camped before?”
Melody looked at him like she had been hit. “No.”
“It can be kind of spooky, I guess. It used to spook me as a kid.”
“I ain’t spooked! Well, maybe I am a little. But only because I heard something!”
Smitty shook his head and sighed. He listened a little harder.
There was another sound. There was a scraping and a retching. He could just barely hear it over the sound of the quickening breeze.
“Aww. I hear it. That’s probably just John puking again.”
“It’s kind of cold out there, baby. Maybe you should ask him if he wants to come in here.”
“Damn fool will stink up the place. I don’t wanna smell puke all night.”
She tilted her face away from him.
He leaned towards her for a kiss.
Smitty felt her body harden against his.
“Oh, all right. Sheesh!”
The cold hit Smitty as soon as he stepped outside. A sharp blast of wind howled over the sheer face of the cliff and blew the toboggan off the top of his head. He cursed as his favourite Steelers hat flew down into the depths of the abyss below their camp.
“John!” he yelled over the rushing wind. He could hardly hear his own voice.
The wind blew even harder. Flecks of snow started to fall in all directions.
Smitty walked towards the place where John had passed out earlier in the evening. What he saw stopped his heart cold.
“Smitty! Baby! What’s wrong?” Melody’s eyes were large and glassy in the dim light streaming from the battery-powered lantern. Her face was wet with tears, her scarf stained by moisture. She wondered to herself how long she had been crying. She wondered how long it had been since Smitty had returned to the tent. She wondered how long it might be before he spoke and told her something sensible, something reassuring. She wondered how long it might be before he told her that everything would be okay. Even though he was not answering, she kept asking the same question: “Baby, what’s wrong?”
Smitty sat with his knees drawn up and rocked in place. Every now and then, he turned to face Melody. Sometimes, Smitty smiled and sometimes, he laughed. Melody hated that laugh. It did not sound like her Smitty. It did not sound like him at all.
The wind rushed at them and their shelter vibrated with each sudden gust. The walls flapped. To Melody, it felt like the cold seeped through the very fabric of their tent. She shivered, tucked herself into a ball, and ran her hands up and down her arms in an effort to smooth out chill bumps.
Smitty snored next to her. She pushed herself up against him in a desperate search for warmth. Her bladder hurt; she needed to relieve herself, but did not dare step outside the tent. Not until Smitty spoke. Not until he told her everything was okay. She had looked outside the tent only once and found a dizzying storm of endless white.
She started to fall asleep.
As her thoughts drifted, she grew angry about the snow. It seemed unfair that it was snowing now on a three-day weekend. Why did it never snow when there was school the next day? That way, they would at least get a day off out of it. As her thoughts danced into sleep, she wondered about John. She knew he should be inside the tent. It could not be good for him to be exposed in the cold.
Melody jumped as Smitty sat up next to her. He opened his eyes and pointed at something beyond the door of their tent.
“Our lives are ended and their dream begun. They came and we went. All of us crowd together as the water laps away the shore. We freeze unto death. They will dance on our frozen bones and rejoice.”
“What? What did you say, baby?” Melody shook him, but it was too late. He had grown silent. “What was that?” Her voice rose to a shriek. “Smitty?”
Smitty had already lain back down. He no longer snored.
Melody put her arms around her boyfriend. He no longer moved. She put her head on his chest, listened to the silence there, and cried herself into an exhausted and restless sleep.
She dreamed she was at the beach under sunny skies.
Morning rose. A muted cool glow of white lit the tent.
Melody awoke with her arms still around Smitty. He no longer offered any warmth. His body was cool and stiff to the touch. His skin felt waxy and wrong. Melody disentangled herself from him and shuddered, still feeling the ghost of his unnatural touch. She shivered and worked Smitty’s body out of his heavy coat. He didn’t need it, anymore.
After putting on the coat, she fumbled with the zipper on the door of the tent. Opening it, a wave of powdery snow poured in. A cold wind cut down the small opening that the miniature avalanche created. She had to climb up a foot or two through snow just to reach the surface.
She stood outside and looked around at the changed landscape and shivered.
Water lapped against what had been a cliff the night before but was now the shore of an endless sea. Icebergs floated in the distance.
She heard something from the tent behind her. Smitty was shaking violently.
She ducked back into the tent. “Smitty? Baby? You’re alive!” She knew it could not be true, yet the sight stirred a small flame of hope. This was quickly extinguished.
She heard cracking coming from Smitty’s body. Something moved beneath his skin. A fleshy, jointed appendage sprang up from his abdomen. Then another. Then another. The appendages trailed blood and gore.
She knew she should run, but stood there transfixed. Finally, a small face emerged. It was Smitty’s face but in miniature, as if carved by the hands of an amateur sculpture who worked with marbled meat as a medium.
The thing that looked kind of like Smitty stared at Melody with beady black stones which imitated eyes. They seemed to glow from inside. There was a ticking noise as an inner darkness in those eyes moved back and forth, like the lens of a zooming camera.
The creature that looked kind of like Smitty opened its little, misshapen mouth. There were no teeth. There were no gums. Instead of a tongue, a small blue appendage appeared. It stretched out like an endless worm and pulsed its segmented form towards Melody.
She turned and ran outside into the cold. She knocked back a small avalanche of snow behind her as she left the little hand-dug tunnel behind and hoped it might slow down the creature which had taken over her tent.
She thought about how she had held Smitty’s body throughout the previous night and grew sick. She understood that the thing had been inside of him the whole time. All that had separated her from it was a thin membrane of human skin.
She squinted because of the blinding whiteness of snow all around her and noted the newly formed ocean in front of her. She realized she had no real options.
Then she stuck her hands in her pocket. Keys jingled.
She ran towards the truck. Where it had stood the afternoon before was now just a large mound of snow. She ran over to the mound and swept the snow away from the side to reveal the door. She plunged the key into the lock and strained, praying that the key would not break off in the frozen metal. She sighed relief when she heard the clink of the locking mechanism. She opened the door and fell inside the cab.
The engine protested a few times, but eventually cranked. Melody reached over to the glove box and was pleasantly surprised to find a pair of thick leather gloves. She put these on and stepped back outside to wipe off as much snow from the windows as possible.
Once the windows were mostly clear, she sat back down in the cab and turned the heat and defrost up to their highest setting. She turned on the radio. Smitty’s favourite Led Zeppelin disk blared from the speakers. Startled, she reached reflexively to the volume knob and turned the music down. She hit the button for the radio. She worked the digital display from station to station. All she heard was static.
Melody turned off the truck. It was still warm inside. She knew she had to conserve fuel, so she only left the engine on long enough to keep her warm.
She looked back towards their camp. She watched the shoreline that now lapped against what had once been a clifftop looking out over rolling hills and farms. She thought she might cry, but there were no tears left. Instead, she pounded on the steering wheel with her gloved hands. She released a violent torrent of curses from her mouth and screamed.
Something knocked against the window. She heard it crack. She turned her head and found herself face to face with the thing that kind of looked like Smitty. She heard another crack on the windshield and looked up to see that the thing that kind of looked like Smitty had a friend: a thing that looked kind of like John.
She screamed as the pair of creatures jumped up and down against the glass on fleshy spider legs.
As the thing that looked kind of like John broke through the front windshield, she remembered the hunting rifle on the gun rack behind her. She reached backwards and grabbed Smitty’s dad’s Remington. She cocked the rifle and pointed it forward. The thing that kind of looked like John exploded into a starburst of blue and purple gore. She cocked the gun again and aimed it at the thing that kind of looked kind of like Smitty.
She pulled the trigger.
There was a click.
The gun only held one round.
She moaned as the thing that kind of looked like Smitty broke through the glass and leaped towards her. She swung the gun in front of her and hit the creature away. It fell back against the passenger side door. It leaped back to its feet and, as it bunched its legs beneath it to jump at her again, she pounded it with the butt of the rifle. She pushed down against the creature until she heard the thing that looked kind of like Smitty pop. She smeared it against the passenger seat. Spindly legs twitched in the air. It looked like a squashed bug. A very large bug.
“Got ya!” Melody began to laugh. “You can’t get me! Na-na-na-na-na-na!” She stuck her tongue out at the thing that had once looked like Smitty.
Melody tried to drive down the hill, back down the dirt road that led to the city below their camp. She did not drive far before she realized there was nowhere to go. The mountain had become an island. The ocean stretched on in all directions around her. The tops of trees stuck up above the surface of the water and danced with the surf.
She placed the truck in park. She reached into her coat and found Smitty’s plastic bag. She lit a thin joint with the truck’s lighter, put the radio back on, turned up “Houses of the Holy”, and looked out towards the newly formed shoreline. She watched icebergs float by. It began to snow again. Flakes drifted into the cab. She took in a deep breath of smoke and held it in. She looked out to the new world beyond her shattered window and exhaled.
There was movement on the icebergs. Things crawled. They had many legs and wore the faces of men.
Bio: T.J. McIntyre writes from a busy household in rural Alabama. His poems and short stories have been featured in numerous publications, including recent appearances in Moon Milk Review, M-Brane SF, The Red Penny Papers, and Tales of the Talisman. His debut poetry collection, Isotropes: A Collection of Speculative Haibun, was released in 2010 by Philistine Press. In addition to writing poetry and short fiction, he writes a monthly column for the Apex Books Blog, regularly contributes reviews for Skull Salad Reviews, and works as an editorial assistant for Fantasy Magazine.