At the first whiff of putrid fresh air my lungs seize. Like a newborn I cry out, uttering nonsensical words. This forces me to breathe through my nose. A repulsive smell, similar to stale locker-room sweat or rotting potatoes, sears my nostrils. Tainted within is the odor of decaying flesh. I retreat to my safe-haven, burrowing deeper into the oblivion I’ve come to cherish since my pod was launched out of Telos. Here I exist only in memory, floating through the sectors of a life lived without the burdened anticipation of living a life yet to come. This is where I find freedom. Where I find clarity. Where I reap peace. Knowing that I won’t be challenged. That my thoughts can travel the world around and never be altered by exterior forces.
I’m that little girl again, freed from being forced to learn new, only knowing what I know, discovery resigned to self. A naïve being only seeing and knowing good. Negatives have yet to rise. And, so, I play the reels of my short life over-and-over again, viewing them through rose-tinted glasses of nirvana, same as those who see their lives flash before them just before death overtakes.
It is as Kriss’shon had said: “Your life will remain in abeyance until you are freed from the pod.” The question is: Do I want to escape the pod? Do I want to continue with life? I can find no other answers than these: Not at this moment. Not when my first exposure to a returned life is steeped in stench. Not when I have to respond to external stimuli. Not with a brain so conditioned by the passing of time to remain flaccid, relaxed, and emotionally adrift that I can’t force it to function properly.
For how does one reengage after sleeping for decades? Or have I been out longer? Has a century passed? Do I care? Not at the moment.
I feel an abnormal thump on the pod, as though something is banging the hull.
As my pod shot up and out of Shastina, I initially felt airborne. Soon after, my rocket plunged to earth. Like a torpedo, it dove beneath the water with such force, I was squeezed into a small, tight ball, from which I felt I would never return.
I blacked out.
For what seemed a long time I drifted in and out of the dark stupor, always on the brink of returning, riding along the crest of consciousness. Sure, I was aware that I was breathing, that at times I felt hungry, that now and again my legs, indeed my whole body, twitched excessively. And then the pod rose, and I was bobbing. On water. Water at a level so high it had consumed ten-thousand-foot Mount Shastina? For this is where my pod had exited; at the top of Shastina, the same place where my wedding had been held. It was, I’m certain, up through the elevator shaft that our pods were driven by the purge of water from the gullet of the mountain’s caverns. This is where I had sat and held accordance with Jungo, struggling with my decision to return to my former life as a high-school student at Mount Shasta High or drop back below to Telos and become the Lemurian’s singular hope for survival.
The memory entrenched as I wake is of the pod swaying back and forth, swept to and fro by the waves. I open my eyes. Try to see. There’s light. Exposure. But no detail. Just foggy images of maybe…blue sky, birds flying, clouds hanging. And off to the side, sitting in my peripheral, for I cannot turn my head, are barges of…ice? Or is what I see imagined?
I force a whiff. Draw in deep of the air. It’s pure. Earthly. Not cleansed by machinery, nor filtered until there is absence of taste and smell. This is what I’ve grown to anticipate, maybe even before I experienced it. For isn’t this what Kriss’shon had pointedly impressed upon me? That I’d remain in limbo. Physically? Mentally? Emotionally? And when I asked what would keep me from suffocating while I was entombed in the shell? She replied simply, “An air scrubber.”
Her solution to the problem seemed sterile, unrevolutionary. I expected more. Something like a miracle-in-the-making, which would keep me from suffocating in my own spit. All I could ask was, “Like the one NASA uses for their space station?”
“Much more sophisticated,” Kriss’shon said. “We expect earth’s air to be unbreathable after the Apocalypse. Ash from the volcanic mega-eruptions will be so thick no one can survive. It will poison the earth. And smother many of those topside.” Kriss’shon also says something indicating my pure oxygen will be made from relatively clean water through electrolysis. A dire thought, given the earth will be septic.
“Many? Some will survive?” I ask in surprise.
Kriss’shon’s eyes cloud over, as if in remembrance. “In all mega-events, earth freezes. No human, topside, can endure and remain alive. All are lost.”
“That’s what happened when Mu sank?”
Kriss’shon had turned away. It was answer enough. I could only imagine how many loved ones, how many friends, how many Lemurians suffered and were lost. I wondered; hold old was Kriss’shon when all this happened? Was she one of the forerunners to escape to the tunnels of Shasta?
I’d thought of Cherrie still topside, and all the others, including the Belials. None could survive the fallout. Not even the beasties. So then why would I want to return to this world? Sure, I and the other twenty-four encapsulated in the pods are to return decades if not centuries after the Apocalypse. But even so; what will we find? A moonscape? An earth scarified? Animal and plant life gone extinct?
I squeeze my eyes shut, open them, and then repeat in an attempt to wash away the scum that is blocking my vision. It doesn’t clear. I’m left with a pastel palate of colors to decipher. Blues and greens and splotches of white. And now and again, a black ribbon streaks through, which interrupts my focus, the little that I have.
It’s clear the stench is not being swept away, even though a breeze is washing across my face and fresh air is reaching my nostrils, which implies the pod’s hatch has been blown.
Could it be, as Kriss’shon had said, “If the pod senses decay, it will automatically blow the hatch.”
To which I replied: “Decay? You mean like my body rotting?”
“Yes,” she said.
“So I’ll be dead.”
“You don’t have to be dead for your body to start decomposing. We lose skin all the time. Decay naturally as we grow older. But the pure oxygen you’ll be breathing in the pod will not only slow deterioration, it will reverse some of the damage already done.”
“Yes, you’ll be in a state of cryptobiosis. Your metabolic processes will slow to near stop. The damage done will be minimal.”
“But I’ll return, whole? Not frozen, roasted, or radiated?”
“Of course. If you drink this.”
Kriss’shon had handed me a rather large cup containing what appeared to be watery milk.
“What is it?”
“A mixture of fungi and insects.”
Right then I had nearly lost the contents of my stomach. “You want me to drink mold and insect guts?”
“Not exactly. It’s trehalose, a sugar, the kind fungi and insects make. It’ll protect your cells from damage, same as it does the tardigrade.”
Tardigrades, I remembered, were also known affectionately as water bears. I had studied them in school. Micro-creatures, who can withstand extremes of cold, hot, radiation, and even lack of oxygen. NASA had attached them to their rockets, blasted them up into space, and, after returning, not only found the tardigrades still alive, but reproducing. Scientists have frozen them to near absolute zero, fried them in fire, and shot radiation into their tiny bodies, and yet they kept living. They’ve found them high up in the Himalayans and deep within the oceans. Neither vacuum nor extreme pressure would kill them. They’re everywhere and have existed on earth for millions of years. It’s predicted they will be the last life on earth just prior to when the sun dies out in four-billion years.
I drank the magic potion. But I was still concerned. “So then why would the hatch blow?”
“Failure of the scrubber. Decay will accelerate. This is what will be sensed.”
“To what point? Will I lose fingers? Toes? An arm? Leg?”
“There’s no coming back when the body reaches the equilibrium of divergence between life and death. Unless…”
“Unless mankind has medically advanced far beyond where they are today.”
I think of Dr. Tyler Zischke, and of pluripotent cells, ones you can make any kind of tissue from. Didn’t he say that I had them? That I am thee Holy Grail of medicine? That if I had stayed topside, I could have saved Jessie Nurge? Could someone – far off in the future – put this humpty-dumpty back together again? Should I fail to return whole? And become rotted. Decayed. Like the smell I sense now?
The tug on the pod increases. I hear water splashing against the hull. Spray wets my face. I can’t move, but I can feel. This water is cold. And salty. I lick what I can off my lips. The taste is electrifying! Another lost sense returning.
The stimulation to my taste-buds spurs rapid memory recollection, all in the form of food consumed prior. Front and center is the acute taste of chicken-pot-pie. Oh, how I loved to pull a steaming hot pie from the oven and devour the gravy-laden chicken chunks. And those jewels called peas! Soup contained in beads, which, when popped, caked the tongue, saturating the taste-buds with a paint-like coating. And I remember, too, the flavor of coffee, “cowboy mud,” as Dierdra, my mother, called it, where she would let the pot sit a tad too long on the burner, and so there’d be this acute caramelized aftertaste with each sip. Except with my cup of coffee, I would always temper the burnt taste with a dash of sugar, chocolate, and half-and-half.
I feel the pod ground out, as though running up on a sandbar. This is followed by a strong yank. The pod settles in. Water beats against its sides, but the movement forward stops. I peer through my glazed eyes, searching, anticipating, longing for, and fearing what may come.
And then it appears. Out of nowhere. A face. One which remains obscured by the haze in my vision and a hand holding a rag over its mouth and nose. But, indeed, it is a face. Another human being. I hope beyond hope it is Aaron. My beautiful Aaron Delmon. My husband. My lover. The soon-to-be father of the child I carry within me. I hope against all odds. And the odds beat me. For this face cannot be his, for the eyes, dark and angered, are not his. The pupils are but pinpricks, tiny holes centered in a dark noncolor, possibly black irises. But who has black eyes? No, this cannot be Aaron, for my husband’s eyes are blue, filled with life and hope and spirit. These eyes are glazed over, the result indicating this person is more dead than alive.
This face disappears and another takes its place, one which seems to be scarred or painted or both. And this face, too, has a rag-held hand over its mouth and nose. This person leans so far into the pod that its unruly hair touches my cheek. I feel it, like the scrape of stiff grass against one’s shins. Grating to the point of hurt. Although muffled by rag, hand, and partially plugged ears, I hear this person speak.
“Julissa Grant? That you?”
Nani? Cherrie? Dreadlocks? Pandora? Who are you?
I see this figure pull back, stand tall over me, and bark what sound like marching orders. Hands reach in from all directions. I feel myself being pulled and lifted from the pod. And just as sudden, I fall back, as the fabric of my clothing disintegrates in their hands. I hear another order barked. The hands reach in and under me. I feel their fingers needling their way under my weight, clawing for grip. Webbing of some sort is threaded from one side to the other and tied together around me.
I don’t want to leave my cubicle, my safe haven. It’s relatively warm in here. Above, I can feel the sting of cold air siphoning in, sweeping over me, sending me into shivers. Or so I think. Because I can’t see or feel my body trembling. But it’s there, that memory, Aaron and I up on Casaval Ridge, sitting on the Sacred Rock, our lifeforce depleted, the frigid cold making inroads into our bodies, pin-pricking our minds with the dreaded thought of turning blue and freezing to death. And that’s when I kissed him and gave him the lifeforce from my core, and ended it, so that he might live.
All this time I continue to stare up at the person barking the orders. I can tell it is a she, by her voice. When she leaned over me, I sensed familiarity, as if I knew her. Maybe in her mannerism, or the look in her eyes, even though all of what I see is blurred by whatever is layered over my pupils. Cataracts perhaps? From old age? Had life passed me by while I was asleep in the pod?
Am I old? How old? Years? Decades? Centuries!
There’s a chant of numbers and the hands all rise at the same time at the end of the cadence. I’m slung from the pod. I hang in midair, surrounded by my rescuers, who seem to be outfitted in heavy-fabric outfits, men and women alike. And then perhaps I sense it or see it; I’m being carried back out to sea, not to shore. To the last, they are craning their necks away from me. I don’t blame them. I wish I could escape the stench, a smell so atrocious I imagine buzzards would barf at the first whiff.
As I slowly glide down into the salt-water, pain erupts. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Molten-hot daggers pinprick my every pore from below. I stiffen in an effort to rise up, but it does little good. Here is where I find my voice, which is not much more than guttural sounds escaping from within. I screech, holler, grunt, moan, groan, to no avail. The sadistic group, who have removed me from the pod, continue their forward march into the sea. I find myself blacking out. And coming to. Ever clearer. My brain and body being awaken through the sheer will to survive.
My bearers halt. Another order barked. And I am lowered into what – to me! – feels like a bath of fiery-hot oil. The pain is immense. Indescribable. The salt-water sears my nerve endings. I long to pass out, to close down any and all feeling. And I am there. On the precipice of escaping when the face reappears, this time without rag in hand and I see; it is Cherrie! She’s smiling, cooing words of support, stroking my shoulder with her hand. Then her face turns dark. The lines on her forehead deepen. Her eyes weep. She places her hand, splayed full, in the middle of my chest. I try to shake my head. The movement doesn’t happen. So, I plead with my eyes. Please don’t do this! Please! No! I know Cherrie understands. I can see the torment in her eyes. They’re speaking volumes. Saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She turns her head away. Angles her moisture-filled eyes skyward.
But I believe she won’t do it. How can she! Aren’t we the best of friends? Sisters even?
I hear the grind of her teeth, the clench of her jaw. There’s a grunt. She shoves me down into the water. Into what feels like a fiery-hot hell of boiling oil!
There’s a pause, as if all feeling – physical and emotional – comes to a complete halt. Like what one senses in the eye-of-the-storm. For a second, I look up through the water at Cherrie. She’s peering down at me. Her mouth is moving, speaking words I cannot hear. She is now using both hands to hold me under, for, if she hadn’t, I would float to the surface.
And then there's this explosion of intense, overriding, searing pain, as though I’m being scalded by boiling hot water. I lay, unable to even thrash, for my legs and arms do not work. They’re immobile, like the rest of me. They say some of the most sensitive nerves exist in one’s head. I now know this to be true, for it feels like the salt-water is ripping my face off. My eyelids, stiffened by the onslaught, won’t close, and so I stare up at Cherrie, her murky form hanging over me like the Grim Reaper that I envision she is.
For what seems an eternity, we look into each other’s eyes; her dark irises projecting concern, mine projecting hellish hatred for what she is doing to me. The thoughts race through my head. Why is she trying to drown me? Did she find Aaron? Tell him I’m dead? She became his lover? And now when I show up, she has to be rid of me? Why, Cherrie? Why!
Cherrie pulls her hands free. She nods to the others, who lift me up and out of the water. By the mercy of God I’m deeply thankful, for the hurt subsides. But then comes the tearing, the tugging, the pulling, the scraping. Many hands stripping away the tatters of my clothing, which has embedded itself within my rotted skin. Cherrie works my face, picking at bits and pieces of peeling skin.
I’ve been sunburned before. Had several layers of skin dry and peel. Spent days pulling it off, bit by bit. But I’ve never felt anything like this, where with every tug, every pull, every rip, a nerve ending fires off a shot of intense pain. And just when I think the torture is over, Cherrie looks to the others and nods. My eyes scream hateful words at Cherrie, call her every vulgar name in the book, but, because they are trapped within me, they have no effect.
They lower me back into the water, wash salt into my wounds, which cover most of my body. I retch and heave, but nothing comes out. This time I’m blessed and allowed to black out. But only for a second or two, because when I feel the rush of water replaced by the brush of air, I open my eyes and I see; I’m being lifted up and placed in a sling woven of vines and broad leaves. The salt-water has worked its magic, rinsing the mucus from my eyes.
Cherrie stands over me. She places a hand on my shoulder and leans down and in.
“Hey, girl. Welcome back. We’re going to take you home now. You rest easy. We’ll do the work.”
I see Cherrie point the way. She waves a hand and my cradle moves forward. I want to say something, anything, and I do. I’m screaming, but she’s not hearing, or pretending she’s not hearing. I can’t move a muscle, and even though I make a mindful attempt to rise, nothing on my body moves, not a muscle, a finger, a toe. Nothing! It’s as if someone or something is sitting on my chest, holding me down. I’m trapped in this shell of a body. My brain seems to be working, but nothing else. Except for maybe my eyes. I think they’re rolling, moving from side-to-side, but how am I to know?
Nothing about me feels normal. The deadening sensation of unconsciousness fills my body, my arms, my legs, yet I can feel my heart pounding, hard and heavy. My mind, more alive than ever, races to find answers. Inside, I’m banging away at the cavity of my skull, trying to escape. But it’s obvious I’m trapped, with nowhere to go. My heart races. My breathing accelerates. I can’t get air. My mind rejoins my body in subconscious sleep.
He comes, this man so tall and slender, from out of nowhere. One minute he’s not there, the next he’s standing over me, his eyes poking and prodding me. Although my brain remains in a fog and my body deadened, I’m keenly aware that I lie naked, exposed. Only a thin netting, like those used to keep mosquitoes at bay, is draped over my scarified body.
By now I know any effort to protest by screaming is fruitless. Yet I do anyway. I kick and thrash and hurl my arms into the air. I yell so loud and hard I imagine my vocal cords rupturing. All of this action remains in my sub-conscious, of course. My body remains stiff. Unmoving. My words never leave the tip of my tongue.
He mounts me from the side. It seems to take forever for his long leg to advance up and over. And there he sits, on my chest, crushing the very life out of me. My head is angled to the side, apparently where it came to rest when Cherrie and her cohorts laid me down on this bed of rock, so I’m able to see Slenderman’s dog peering up at me. He’s smiling, actually laughing, the way dogs do when they’re ecstatically happy. I look for the tail and only see a stub. It vibrates in unison with the humming coming out of Slenderman’s mouth. And I see six legs. Six legs! What dog has six legs? Am I dreaming?
There are other voices. At the far end of the cave. Words spoken, but their clarity and meaning are lost in the span and broken rock of the cavern. Yet I recognize Cherrie’s voice in the mix. I call out to her. Scream to her at the top of my lungs. And when she doesn’t answer nor race to rescue me, I search for her, to no avail, for all I can see are forms dancing in the light made by a fire. There, too, on the walls are their shadows, larger than life, floating like ghosts.
Slenderman creeps forward, inching his crossed-over legs into my neckline. My breathing turns erratic, for my windpipe is being crushed. He leans over, pulls my head forward, and stares into my eyes. I can see he is searching. For what? Death? Mine? Why? What have I ever done to him? His dark eyes probe me. And I sense what he is thinking.
The child within you is dead. Rotting. Poisoning your core. You must extract it. Save yourself. Purge it from your body. Become what you know you have always been; impure. Sinful child with dark soul. A vessel lost in a vast sea. Without direction. Selfish. Unwilling to help anyone. Unable to stand against the brute force known as conflict. Give it up. Or I will crush you to the ends of the earth.
From those first words – The child within you is dead – I emotionally implode. Am I to abort my child? The one who will be known as HeIs, the New World leader of the Lemurians? Aaron’s child? If so, everything I’ve done – from choosing to go below to Telos, to risking life and limb in the Discovery Tunnel – will have been for nothing. How could this creature, the Slenderman, know my child lays dead within me? Certainly, if HeIs was to be stillborn, I would know it, sense it, curse it, yet I’m physically deadened to those feelings. And maybe, I surmise, that’s why I feel nothing of the sort. Yet my mind is clearly awake and functioning. I would know if the infant, this precious miracle of miracles, inside me was no longer living. What Slenderman is saying is NOT true! And, so, I reach out. Shout my words. Scream to be heard. Of no use. For the words I form in my mind never leave my lips.
I see Cherrie and her cohorts off in the distance. They’re far enough away I can’t hear what’s being said, just the sound of their muddled camaraderie chatter interrupted by echoes off the cavern’s walls. They’re laughing, telling stories, eating some kind of fruit, even occasionally shoving one another in jest, all while prancing around the open-pit fire. Their ghostly shadows loom large against the rock structures. That’s when I take note: I know this place!
I look to the ceiling, where vines are growing. There I see hanging fruit, which resembles a cross between an apple and a pear, and I remember; I had called them papples. The ripe ones, as I recalled, gave you energy; the green ones made you sick.
It seems so long ago that I carried Jungo from the elevator shaft to his home and laid him down…where I now lay? On his bed? Where then is Jungo? Back to dust? The ash I’m lying on? Only if his spirit were alive. He could tell me what to do. How to overcome this man who is sitting on my chest without raising a finger, for, physically, I can’t even bat an eyelash.
Singlemindedness. That’s what Jungo taught me. If I can reach acute focus, then, just maybe, I can wish Slenderman away. I try. But I can’t close my eyes. Slenderman hovers over me. His eyes gouge mine. They won’t let me go. Won’t let me escape. I yield. Give him what he wants. Me, locked in obeisance. The servant paying homage to the master. For this is what I desire him to believe. I core into him, past the gray-cast pale of his irises and into the darkness of his soul. Where I find…nothing. Pure, unadulterated emptiness. No thoughts, no energy vibe. Zero. Naught a. Lifeless. Before the thought can be processed in my mind, I sense it spoken.
“He’s not real.”
And there stands Kriss’shon, at the foot of my bed, telepathically communicating with me. Slenderman disappears. So does his six-legged dog.
“And you…are? Real?”
“Your communicator would not be glowing if I weren’t.”