A collection of short stories, mostly written for 'Screams!'
| Weird Geography
"So what exactly am I looking for," Jeff asked his companion.
"You'll know soon enough," Terry glanced over his shoulder then carried on leading the way through the forest.
Jeff thought about pushing a bit more for an answer but decided he'd wait. Something had got Terry wound up, and as he was usually a pretty level-headed guy, it had to be something big.
They trudged along the narrow path in single file. It seemed to be getting unusually quiet in the forest. There were no insects were buzzing and there was no sound of birds coming from within the branches of the trees. As they walked further along the trail the air seemed different.
A taste? A smell? Jeff stood still for a second and breathed the air in. It seemed dry, although there were no traces of smoke that his nose could detect.
"I wouldn't breathe too deeply if I was you," Terry suggested. "Who knows what could be floating around in the atmosphere. Look." He stopped walking and stepped slightly to the side, letting Jeff stand beside him.
"What the hell?" Jeff asked as he took in the devastation.
Everything looked like it had been drained of all trace of life. The trees were dead wood, the leaves where they had fallen were shriveled and shrunken. Even the grass had succumbed, leaving no more than the odd patch of straw-like stubble.
"How long has it been like this?"
Terry paused for a second, knowing how hard it would be for his supervisor to believe him. "That's the thing. I was out here a week ago and everything was fine. You wouldn't have known this area from any other. Now..."
"So what are we looking at?" Jeff spoke aloud, but he was as much thinking to himself as asking Terry for answers. "Fire?"
Terry shook his head. "That was the first thing that came to mind, but there's no ash anywhere. The trees aren't burnt, for they are so dry the whole lot would have gone up in smoke. It's not any type of fire that I've ever come across, at least."
Jeff bent down and picked up a handful of soil. It was completely devoid of moisture, making it into a dusty granular substance. "Chemicals of some sort then?"
Again Terry shook his head. "I ran some tests on some samples yesterday and not one of them detected any kind of acid or toxin. But this isn't the worst of it. There's more."
Watching where he put each foot, Terry led the way across the desolate landscape. Around the edges of the devastated land there were still living trees. They might have been devoid of bird-life but they were still green. The land that they were walking across grew drier still, splitting apart to leave darkened gaps.
"Take a look in front of us now."
Once again Jeff drew level with Terry. He looked around with an increasing expression of disbelief. From underneath the soil something spread. It reminded him of some type of coral, but that couldn't be it. "What is it? Do you know?"
Terry shook his head. "At first I thought it was bone, uncovered by the changes in the soil, but it is way harder than that. It's impossible to break off even a shard of it, at least with any of the usual tools."
Jeff stooped forwards to get a closer look. The white substance was peppered with holes. He drew back suddenly as he had the impression that one of them contracted, then relaxed again. Like a lung that was breathing, he thought, but then decided that was nothing more than crazy thinking. He was letting his imagination get the better of him for whatever the stuff was, it wasn't alive... was it?
"It's spread since yesterday," Terry said, pointing to the trunk of a tree that had been a healthy brown not so long ago but was now as bleached out as the substance. The bone-like growth had begun to climb up the tree, like some kind of creeper and as the two men watched, the tree began to tip sideways. Both stepped back, just before it fell, branches so devoid of life they crumbled as they struck the ground.
They stepped around towards the exposed base of the tree. There were no roots left attached to it, no sign that there ever had been any. It was as though the tree had just stood, balanced upon the surface of the land until gravity had made it fall.
As the tree had toppled over, it had exposed a hole. Jeff and Terry warily approached the empty space. It seemed to suck up any daylight, making it impossible to see so much as an inch inside of it. Reluctantly, they drew closer.
Jeff was never sure exactly what happened next, but the ground beneath their feet seemed to heave and roll, making both men lose their footing. He tumbled away from the hole, but Terry fell towards it, one of his arms disappearing into the blackness.
Terry gave an agonized scream and withdrew his arm. The white substance had already coiled around his entire arm, and was rapidly making it's way up towards his shoulder, his neck. Jeff stepped forward, gripped his companion's other arm and tried to drag him away from the hole and whatever it was that was streaming from it.
Terry gave a gurgle and Jeff felt the arm empty beneath his grip. He was holding on to nothing more than dried out withered skin that loosely covered bone. Horrified, he let go of the thing that had once been an arm, and barely able to stay upright, Jeff began to run. The ground tossed and turned beneath each foot as whatever it was beneath the ground's surface sped forward in pursuit.
Heading towards the green of the as yet untouched forest, he ran, gasping, knowing that whatever was chasing him would not stop until it found something alive to feast on and suck dry.