By Cheryl McCreary
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Crouched down and hidden beneath layers of metal and concrete, I hear them approach. The slow rumble of a writhing mass of worms eats away at the rock and steal of the bunker. My heart beats a steady rhythm in time to their nibbling. Even if I survive, I fear the man I was will not.
The heat of summer settled into the hills of Appalachia, the campus empty save for true academia. A scattering of nibbled leaves, a handful of black worms, an isolated insect manifestation grew into bare branches and stray worms among every bit of greenery. Spraying was futile, and experts provided no help. But, having just received a shipment of newly-unearthed artifacts about Heptet from a dig in Egypt, I paid little heed to anything outside my office, busy discovering more about the role the snake goddess may have played in Osiris’ resurrection.
It was two weeks later that I noticed the emptiness, even more so than the laziness of a college town in off-session. The worms had eaten through the leaves of tree, shrub and grass, and proceeded to eat away at the leftover wood, the cobbled walkways, perhaps the very ground. The buildings had been wiped clean of vines and moss. There was talk of evacuating, of calling in the National Guard.
I should have left then, with the last trickling fleers. But there were things to collect, those newly arrived artifacts, countless volumes on Egyptian mythology which could never be recollected or replaced. Boxes in hand and my old Honda standing ready, I began the difficult task of packing.
I thought I could actually hear them, the mass of worms, nibbling, nibbling. I shrugged it off, nothing but my imagination brought on by silence surrounding what usually bustled with energy. However, it rushed me along.
By the third trip to load my car, I feared it wasn’t just my imagination getting the best of me. The ground was a crawling black mass that crunched beneath my shoes, sending a chill up my spine. In the late evening light, the buildings seemed to shiver dimly, their aged red brick covered with worms, slowly being etched away.
A ghostly image glimmered in the distance, up the hill on the central green of campus. A figure stood tall, thin, knives in each hand. I squinted to make out the features better. Long, thick black hair fell down slender shoulders, but the head was that of a snake’s with a thin black beard on the long chin.
I shook my head, closed my eyes. When I looked again, the figure, one remarkably similar to Heptet, had disappeared. Only my imagination, and too much time with my research, only that, I told myself. Yet, something gnawed away at the back of my mind, as if I should know what was happening.
Forgetting the rest of my precious items, I entered the safety of the car and cranked the engine, only to find it dead. I tried again, pumped the gas petal, felt like cursing its previously reliable service. Finally, heart pounding, I popped the hood and got out to check, knowing my lack of technical knowledge would provide me with no insight, but feeling I must do something.
A fetid odor hung in the humid air. The almost twilight landscape seemed alive, the black mass of worms reaching in a sliver closer to me. The sight that I encountered under the hood astounded me. There, where the mechanical machinery of a car should be, nothing but a huge clump of shimmering worms existed. It lunged at me and I backed away, heart stopped.
Nothing but terror filled me as I turned and ran, crushing worms beneath me, swerving to dive away from outreaching masses on empty tree branches and building walls. The image of Heptet flashed in my mind. I stumbled along, the ground of worms trying to trip me. I tried not to think of what would happen were they to do so, were I to find myself face down in the writhing mass.
I couldn’t outrun them. I hadn’t the energy, and no knowledge of how far they must reach. My mind struck upon the idea of the fallout shelter, a lingering item of the distant Cold War. The newly-conceived plan kept my feet pumping, up hills and more hills to a distant stop I’d only visited once before. I wondered how I’d recognize it, only to surprisingly find it uncovered. I glanced further up the hill. Heptet stood, knives in hand and a curved smile on her snake head. I frowned and heaved open the heavy door. The worms suddenly circled tightly. They wiggled up my pants leg and began trickling into the shelter. Shocked, I jumped down and inside, slammed the iron door and wrenched it closed, watching worms flatten as darkness fell.
Choking back a scream, and wondering who would hear it, I shook the worms out of my pants. I felt as if I could hear them, nibbling and crawling about the floor. I proceeded to stomp around, hoping to squish them all, carrying on until I was satisfied.
That panic done, a new one began. I’d just closed myself in a fallout shelter. Darkness surrounded me. I groped the walls – cold, rough concrete – for a light switch until my sweaty fingers slipped on the metal of one. I tugged it down, waited. One bulb, dangling from the ceiling, flickered on. Its thin, worn filament glowed a faint orange in the darkness.
My eyes grew used to the dim light. I gazed around the small bunker. Four concrete walls surrounded me, rough and crumbling with age. Dirt, grey and fine, filled the corners.
Banging sounded on the door above. I stepped away from it, further into the darkness. I could hear them, the worms, eating away at the metal. Screeching sounded beside me, the worms eating through dirt and stone. Then I spotted the phone, hidden in the shadows, and darted to it.
The phone was mounted into the concrete wall. Once bright red, the colour had faded to a dirty rust. I picked up the receiver, and the twisted cord thumped against the concrete wall. I listened for a dial tone; only silence echoed. The phone contained no numbers, only one button and a light, now dead, on the top. I pushed the only button, listened again.
Crackling filled the line. “Hello,” my voice sounded far away as it echoed off the concrete walls. “I need help,” I continued. Only crackling responded. “I’m in the fallout shelter, on the hill above campus. The worms are everywhere. I’m trapped inside. Can you hear me?”
The last words faded into the crackling, and the crackling grew to a full silence over the phone. I frowned and hung up the receiver. How long would the worms last? Had anyone heard me? How long before someone stopped the worms or killed them? How would I know when it was safe to come out? Until then, I was trapped, I realized, as I glanced around the small bunker.
Pounding sounded on the door above; the walls creaked and groaned. The light flickered, and snapped out. Darkness filled the bunker. I felt the cold concrete behind me and crouched down with my back to it.
The image of Heptet seemed locked in my head now, she who resurrected Osiris from the dead and brought about his rebirth. The image morphed into a writhing snake and then a mass of black worms. A shiver ran up my spine. I hugged my knees and closed my eyes tight, wishing the image gone.
I’m not sure how long I waited, terrified in the dark. Hours, days, I lost track of time. I must have dozed off more than once. I could hear them above me, nibbling, nibbling. Slowly, they were making their way to me. I’d only postponed my doom.
Somewhere in that odd sense of nothing around me, time flowed by until I could make no sense of anything. This was only an infestation of worms, I told myself, nothing more. My mind and research on Heptet was playing tricks on me.
Nibbling, nibbling at the concrete. The groan of metal giving. A sprinkling of ceiling falls next to me, and I hurry to huddle in a corner. I can hear them plopping to the floor, slithering nearer. Moonlight filters brighter and brighter as more of the shelter falls about me, as they flow into what has been my safety.
My heart pounds harder and harder. Images of Heptet drift through my head. I can feel the worms on me now, crawling, nibbling away at flesh. I scream, distantly hearing it echo back from the crumbling walls, the surrounding hills. I’m frozen stiff, unable to brush them off. They eat away at me, tiny bite by tiny bite.
I feel myself dissolving away, becoming a part of them and her, part of the writhing mass as the trees and walkways and buildings did before. They sing a song of resurrection, of rebirth of this land and of me. But I know, deep inside, I will become nothing but a part of them. I try to struggle, more mentally than physically. This will not be my fate.
I drift farther and farther away, until the last bit of me is gone. For a fleeting moment, I am trapped inside something dark and ancient. Then a feeling of comfort and belonging sweeps over me. This was always to be my fate; why else would my work have surrounded and searched down Heptet? I have not given in, or been brainwashed into submission, I have found my place in the universe, with her.
I am home, not to the hills of Appalachia, my cluttered office or cozy cottage, but to where I came from, something I should have known so long ago. I am them, and she has always been calling me. I had forgotten, but am finally found again. Were I to still have a face, I would smile.
Bio: Cheryl McCreary is a scientist by training and science educator by day. She’s lived in assorted locales, including the hilly college town of Athens, Ohio. She currently resides in South Carolina with her husband, a loyal Lab and an adventurous cat. Her work has appeared in Ruins Extraterrestrial Anthology, Fictitious Force and Space Westerns, as well as other places.