rating: +28+x

She jogged partially because she enjoyed the outdoors, and partially because her husband had almost died. It had been so sudden, and started so simply, just feeling a bit “out of sorts” he'd said, looking a bit pale as he sat on the couch. Early to bed, with some mumbled promises about seeing the doctor if it didn't get better, then suddenly he was grabbing her, pulling on her to wake her up. His eyes wide in the dark, face flush, words muttered with a tremble of fear. “Honey, I'm sorry, I know it's late…but I think there's something wrong”. A blur then, seeing him try to walk, then sag against a wall, gripping his chest. Howling to wake the eldest child, breathlessly instructing her as they hurried out the door. The doctors, talks of close calls, and recovery. Part of that was picking up promises, long left to rot, to start living better. So now they walked, worked out a bit, and she jogged.

She'd hated it initially. Approaching it like some great undertaking, she'd sucked all the fun out of it before she'd even started. Amusingly, it was her husband who managed to bring her around. Start walking, he said. Look at stuff, poke rocks, take time. Then, jog a bit, and stop when you feel like it. Get some air, and get out to yourself, it helps. She'd rolled her eyes but, like so many things in their marriage, he'd frustratingly ended up being right. Not that she'd be telling him that any time soon. It'd been a few years, and she was jogging, even running more than she walked these days. Still, she liked to take her time. Explore the edges of town, watch the scenery, and get lost in a world of footsteps, breath, and wind. Just a hour, or even half-hour, when she could spare it, made a difference. “I may be shot to hell, but we can at least keep you healthy” he'd said, grinning at his own gallows humor.

Smiling to herself, she turned down one of the long, hilly roads that snaked back to the house. The road wasn't all that great, and the trees tended to bunch a little too close for scenic views, but she'd not gone this way often, and the Fall evening air seemed to invite a little more challenge. The hills weren't so bad, but they could be deceptive…the woman remembered the first time she'd tried this road, and had nearly had to call her husband to come collect her in the car. She'd managed, barely, more on merits of pure stubbornness, and since then she'd done much better. She set her jaw, starting up the first small rise, shoes clopping along the blacktop. Maybe she'd try to run a bit this time. Really show this road who's boss. She smiled at herself and the stupidity at carrying a grudge for a bit of asphalt, but picked up her pace all the same.

A few hills later and she was starting to curse her own stubbornness. She'd already been tired when she'd come to the road, and now she was starting to flag even more. Stopping to breathe, hands on her knees at the top of the current hill, she looked on, seeing the black ribbon rise and fall like a mocking snake. Breathing deep and swearing softly, she started down the hill slowly, deciding to walk along the flatter portion ahead when she got there. That had been the hardest part, not competing with herself. It was an asset, sometimes, but her bull-headed approach to a challenge could outstrip her abilities. Learning to take it easy with herself, if only sometimes, was still a work in progress. So while she walked, she walked briskly, trying to breathe and keep her heart rate up, hands on her hips as she strode along.

She looked up along the trees, a dusky sky spilling along the gap between them over her head. The air smelled cold and sharp, the moldy smell of old leaves already drifting, even if the trees were still nearly half green. Head thrown back, she watched birds flutter overhead, absently envying them their easy progress. She thought of work, and home. Of her children, and her husband, and herself. Like a waking dream, the isolated exertion seemed to help process the business and thoughts of the day. Maybe she should tell her husband that he had been right…he'd like that, though he'd be sure to tease her about it. She chuckled to herself, running her hand over her pulled-back hair.

It was as she turned to the side she realized she was next to the tunnel.

It was a wide, brick-mouthed thing. Really it was the underside of an overgrown bridge more than a real tunnel, but that was what everyone called it. Not the bridge, but the tunnel. The rail lines along the bridge itself had long fallen out of use, but still it stood, mossy and nearly buried in plant life and rocks. It was only about twenty or so feet long, but the road turned right as it came out the other side, and with the trees growing in so close, outside of a few hours around midday, it was pitch dark with just a vague glow ahead. It echoed terribly, and was a fine roost for spiders and other crawly things. She blinked, staring into that deep, somehow damp-looking blackness, and felt a small shiver tickle up her spine that had little to do with the chill air.

She stood, turning to look at the next hill, and the tunnel in turn. Yes, it was unpleasant, but the little road through it would shave several minutes, and several uphill climbs, off her route. She could feel the ache in her legs and lower back already, and with it already getting dark…she waffled still, taking a few hesitant steps forward before stopping. She looked at the tunnel again, unconsciously narrowing her eyes. She wasn't a child. Far from it, if she was honest, but well past the point of justified fear of a little darkness. Vague defiance wafting through her mind, she turned her feet and started a slow jog, soon passing into the confines of the dim, echoing tunnel.

The temperature seemed to drop ten degrees instantly, the cold sealing to her damp skin like frozen plastic wrap. The darkness was so deep it made splotches of color swim like oil slicks at the edge of her vision, and her feet echoed off the walls in oddly sharp, snapping trails of sound. Though the roof was likely ten feet over her head, she still ducked down a bit, wary of webs or their inhabitants. She fought to keep her pace steady, refusing to give even an inch to the totally unwarranted, yet still frustratingly present fear skittering around her thoughts like a small dog demanding attention. The air was so still, feeling oddly thick with the deep darkness, as if the lack of light had somehow taken on weight and heft. The light ahead looked much too small, as if the tunnel were somehow much longer than the dozen or so feet she knew it to be. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, pushing down her racing thought as the echos trailed off, finally free of the blackness.

When she opened them, the shock rocked hard enough to swell into vertigo, her feet stumbling and numb under her as she nearly fell.

Gone was the green, high-sided turn beyond the tunnel. Gone was the road, the trees, the sky. Gone was the world, truly. A roiling, black mass of cloud smothered the air above her, churning from horizon to horizon, looking more like the oily plumes from smokestacks than any normal weather. And there were many of those, spindly towers belching ashy tongues into the sky, the stacks trailing down into haphazard masses of pipes and rusted metal, glowing at random with bits of fire or sickly, yellow light. There were dozens of these…factories? Dotted around her on a broken, cracked plain of dirt and rock, the masses smoked and clanked, the din of their existences rising together in a muttering, groaning hum. The air smelled acrid and foul, of ash and oil, chemicals and rust, and it forced a cough from her as she stumbled forward along the narrow, crumbling strip of road that spooled out before her.

She looked back, eyes wide, absently flicking away a flake of ash as it brushed her face, leaving a oily black smear on her cheek. The tunnel was gone, just the endless road, the plain and the factories repeated endlessly to either side, forward and back. The ragged strip of the road seemed to split the world in two, left and right, the length of it stretching forward and behind until it was lost in smoke and darkness. She stumbled a few steps, trying to process as she walked, wondering if she'd somehow had a stroke or hit her head. Her brain felt numb and clumsy, like a leg that had fallen asleep, and she shook her head, hard, hoping something would clear. The view remained the same, blasted and dim, however now she was aware of a different sound, nearly drowned out by the noise of sky and machine.

Voices. Human voices, or near enough. They were screaming.

Stumbling, blinking against the air that seems hot, gritty and acrid, she could see figures now in the haze of smoke and grimy fog. In staggered groups and columns, they swayed and wavered near the clanking, grinding buildings. Some small blots of them were farther away, but unlike those near the factories, they seemed to move with a much more driven purpose. Those near the factories shifted and trembled, crying and screaming in stuttered cadence as they huddled, the sound rising to her ears between throbs and squeals of metal. She tried to focus, the vague idea to shout for help swimming up in her sludgy thoughts, but the barely restrained, hysterical fear smothered it. The people looked…wrong, somehow, though she could barely see them. They moved like seaweed in the dim air, waving up, then collapsing down. Many appeared to be naked as well, aside from dark streaks and smears that dappled them.

She was peering out, trying to wrench some sort of sense from this madness, hoping to logic her way out of a nightmare as she had before as a child. A sudden, new, and much closer sound wrenched her thoughts loose, and her head around. It was a roaring, squealing sound, not that of the metal works around her. Organic, and large. A sudden memory of a visit to a country cousin, and hearing a massive, disgruntled pig bellow his indignation from a pen twirled through her head, vanishing like spun sugar in a furnace when she saw the source. Her eyes widened, despite the sting, even as she ripped them away, turning to run, a mad, animal fear screaming an idiot song of blind escape through her soul.

The thing was some massive, bleeding hulk of bone and muscle. Even at a distance, she knew it would tower over her small frame. Skin hung from the raw meat and slick bone like an afterthought, like old cloth carelessly wrapped around a too-large statue. It was almost ape-like in form, massive arms trailing near the ground even as it stood, oddly thin, bent legs almost lost below the layers of throbbing flesh. The humped-up back tapered to a narrow, long skull, knobs of bone jutting up along the hump like a segmented crest of a dinosaur. The head was somehow the most horrible. It was like a cattle skull, minus the horns, pointed and long, with a heavy jaw and masses of jagged teeth jutting and random angles, strips and throbbing tubes of flesh hanging with no visible pattern. The eyes were huge, bulging like a frog's from the sides of the head, tiny black points fixed on her from the mass of yellow-green tissue around them. They throbbed, looking like some infected boils threatening to burst at any moment. The smell of the thing was old blood, rotten hay and a decayed outhouse. Bits of metal, perhaps ornament, perhaps knitting it together, jutted and flexed at random points.

Its mouth had been opened to almost a 180 degree angle, one gnarled finger jutting from a massive squeezed fist at her. She did not want to find if it was a screech of alarm or rage.

Panic, blind and searing, blotting out the simple pain and complaints of her already sore limbs. She all but vaulted away, torn between trying to keep the monster in view, and the fear of what would happen if she tripped. Her legs pumped, tearing down the road, sped by fear and the sound of the loping, oddly uneven thud of the monster taking up chase. She ran down the road, pumping legs and arms, eyes wide even against the sting of the polluted air. It burned in her already stinging lungs, but fear pushed her on, her back aching as she imagined jagged talons shredding in to it at any moment, or brutal fingers clenching around her limbs or neck. She ran, with no plan beyond the drive to put distance between her and the thing.

She spared a glance back, and was shocked to see the monster much farther back than she expected. It was massive and powerful looking, yes, but the disjointed and piecemeal body seemed poorly suited to running. Still, it kept pace, and seemed to gain a little more with each rolling, half-hopping stride. The woman tried to smother it as her panic talking, and pushed forward, even as she felt the slow drip of exhaustion start to return, like cold lead leaking through the wall of adrenaline. She had no sense of time now, and could have been running for minutes or hours, the monotonous terrain and dead straight road seeming more like a backdrop being rolled by her as she ran a treadmill. Her chest burned now, up into her throat, mouth dry and eyes watering. Her legs felt like electric cables had been placed in the muscles, sending shocks to collect in a swelling balloon of pain in her lower back.

The thing behind her, closer now, started to shriek. Not the blasting scream it had made before, or the grunting, wheezing sounds that had dogged her since she bolted. This was more focused, with a rise and fall, more like…not speech, but the chattering yip of a fox or coyote. She looked back, feeling her back and neck ache with the shift, and saw the thing was yelling to the sides of the road. It turns left, chattered, then right, and would even point or gesture at her as it did so. The women watched for a few moments, nearly toppling on a cracked section before facing forward again. What was it doing? Her head was fogged with pain and the dregs of panic, and she questioned again why, how, what the hell was going on?

It was when she heard other, answering calls coming from the structures and the waste, and saw other, bizarre forms move and shamble in to view that she understood. It was calling for help.

She pushed, but staggered, her joints feeling like bags of rocks grinding against pulped nerves. Each great, whooping breath burned down her throat, like swallowing a scouring pad. Still she ran, the flickering views of other things, some much more agile, kicking up dust as they moved to join the pursuit. She would have screamed for help, but her voice was gone, sacrificed to make more room for air. Her family bobbed to the surface of her muddied thoughts. How would they go on? Would they panic? Would they just forget her, like some cosmic deletion? The sound of other, different footsteps scattered her mournful thoughts, sounding like a pack of dogs with the voices of insects as they approached.

She stumbled, her poor, throbbing legs just masses of numbness and pain, a wheeze leaking from her mouth as she tried to scream. She turned, some self-destructive impulse driving her to see the face of her death as it approached. It was a bestiary of hell. A dozen forms and figures, as if someone who had never seen either animals or humans and been asked to make them, and given random bits of dead things and old metal to do with with. Jaws yawned, ribs flexed and twitched, flesh crawled like lice through spiny hair. They clustered close, within a few arm's lengths at most, but seemed to be dragging out these last moments. She whistled out a crackling, ragged scream, tasting blood as she did, and the mass of blank, nightmarish faces chattered and shook with obvious glee.

She tried to do several things at once. Turning to run away, or making a break for the plains, or just stopping to accept the coming nightmare. However, between her dead limbs and fogged brain, she did none of them. She tripped. In truth, she tripped herself, kicking her own foot out from under her as she moved backward, the world wheeling as she went back. She remembered, long ago, her husband teasing her about just this, that he thought it was cute. She hope that, maybe, the fall would kill her, or knock her out so she wouldn't feel what was coming. On the edge of her vision, she saw a mass of claws, hooks, and snarling maws lunge for her.

Her head slammed into the hard ground, hazing her thoughts and wrenching a cough from her bleeding throat. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to chase the haze down, to will herself to pass out, to escape into oblivion. Moments passed, and she tensed for the attack with the shivering fear of a cornered rabbit. Her heart slammed in her chest, back a rod of pain…and nothing. No claws, no teeth. No…anything. She became aware of a sudden chill on her skin as well, a soft wind cooling the sweat that soaked her. Cautiously, she opened her eyes. Stars. Trees. A night's sky framed by ragged trees. She tilted up, moaning at the ache that seemed to clench every bone and muscle in her body. She was outside the tunnel, the black throat of it yawning just a few feet from her. She skittered back, until she pressed up against the brick wall of the turn, shivering and wheezing as she stared.

Her eyes were nearly as wide and black as the tunnel, each seeming to regard the other.

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