15 Jan Roadkill
“Roadkill”Written by Michael Whitehouse Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 31 minutes
He liked to kill animals. It was a game he’d play during the longer drives. Jones wasn’t a bad guy entirely. He wasn’t particularly rotten, at least not to the core. He’d never kill a dog, for example, that would of course be wrong. Dogs were part of the family, they could be loved and they could love in return, no, dogs were like people – you couldn’t kill them, not even the smaller, louder, more opinionated ones. Cats? Well, cats were something of a middle ground. Jones had no doubt that they could be loved, but he wasn’t convinced that they could return that love. Not like a dog. A good dog would be loyal, but to Jones a good cat was one that just did its business outside. Cats would go where the food was; they’d never love their owners, not really. Martinez, one of Jones’s coworkers, reckoned that if a dog was as big as its master it would still show love, but if a cat was as big as its owner, it would be dinnertime. But they were still a pet, so he wouldn’t aim for them, but he wouldn’t brake for one either – that seemed fair.
Deer? He would avoid, but only because hitting one would wreck his car, and in its current state of disrepair such an impact would all but finish the old girl off. Most people seemed to consider deer to be cute like a cuddly toy, but to Jones they were vermin, along with every other untamed creature roaming around out there. Squirrels, frogs, mice, rats, hedgehogs, they were all fair game. Foxes? In his mind they were like dogs, but after one of them had been bold enough to wander into a house on the other side of the city, and gnawed off a baby’s finger before being chased away by a horrified mother, he decided that they were viable targets. Kids should be protected from those dirty, filthy beasts.
Jones worked for a small Chinese restaurant on the South-side of the city. ‘Satisfaction’ was the name of the place, and, despite sounding like an unconvincing massage parlor, it was well-known for making some of the best Chinese food in the country; so much so in fact that customers would pay extra just to have it delivered from across the city. And so, this was Jones’s lot in life: driving back and forward down streets and lanes and over bridges, both in rush hour when roads were crammed with sluggish traffic and when they were empty at night.
Despite his flaws – and a university degree in politics which sat in proud frustration on his bedroom wall – he enjoyed the simplicity of his work and took at least a small amount of pride in doing it to the best of his ability, ensuring that each evening between the hours of 5 PM and Midnight, customers received their food promptly, before it would get cold. He recognized that there were few things worse than a cold Chinese meal.
A driver, whether delivery or long haul, has to amuse themselves somehow, filling each journey with pastimes designed to rescue the mind from a fate worse than boredom; for Jones it wasn’t the radio or an audio-book which saved him from the jaws of monotony, no, it was his game – a nightly target to reach, to see just how many unsuspecting animals he could nail with the wheels of his car. The game had a simple scoring system: 1 point for a frog, 2 for a rat, 3 for a hedgehog, and 4 for a squirrel – once he even hit a badger which he decided was surely worth at least 5 points.
Of course, during many shifts he scored 0, and then on others maybe a paltry 1 or 2, but on this night he was flying. He had managed to crush one hedgehog, a whole group of frogs in a single go, and a squirrel, although he acknowledged that the squirrel was already dying having been partially squashed by another vehicle, its back legs mushed into the ground. With a subtle shift of the steering wheel Jones finished it off, claiming the points in the process and happy at the thought that his car – his ‘Old Girl’ – had added to her own grim tally for the night.
Despite his glee at the crunching sound and subtle vibrations from claiming a good number of prey in quick succession, there was an annoyance about the situation. He had been just a few minutes from finishing work, his mind turning to the beers nesting cozily in his fridge, when a regular customer put in a big order – at five to midnight! It was to be delivered to a suburb in the north of the city and, even with the roads deserted on a Monday night, it was still at least a 30-minute drive to get there. This meant that he would not be sitting on his worn red lazy-boy chugging a cold beer until at least half-one in the morning. That was more than enough to put him into a foul mood, but despite the animosity burrowing inside, he did take his job seriously and knew that the delivery just had to be made.
After ten or so minutes of driving through the empty city streets, with the only sounds for company the grumbling engine of his rusting car, the Chinese food rustling away in their containers and bag on the passenger seat, and the occasional splash of rubber through oily puddles gathering quickly in the intermittent rain, Jones began to amuse himself once more with the game. Could he add to his tally for the evening? If he did it would surely be a personal best.
The old girl’s glistening tires skipped across the wet road surface as she was guided by her faithful master onto Hope Street. The irony of such a name was not lost on Jones, it might once have been a place for aspiring young families and burgeoning industry, but now it was nothing more than a shell. Rows of multistory buildings blackened with grime flanked either side of the road, their windows boarded up with bruised and battered metal panels obscuring the empty spaces inside. The entire area would have been flattened, but the city simply didn’t have the money to do the job, nor fix the potholes on the surface of the streets which were causing havoc for his car’s already ailing and arthritic suspension. Indeed Jones would have avoided the place altogether if it didn’t shave ten minutes off of his journey.
The only people who frequented such concrete graveyards were the homeless, or drunks and drug-addicts, maybe an occasional group of kids who would manage to bend one of the metal shutters back far enough to slip inside to the darkness and mess around with whatever was left of the buildings’ skeleton inside. It was surprising that he had never heard of anyone being hurt in one of those eyesores, warned as visitors were of the dangers of the rot inside by occasional ‘Condemned’ signs, ironically themselves rusted and cracked as if the treacherous stagnancy of the place were contagious. But for these sporadic guests, the place felt dead.
Jones saw it only for the briefest of moments. It leapt across the abandoned road straight in front of the car. He didn’t have much time to react, but as his mind was already on his points tally, and being a seasoned pro at that sort of thing, with the deftest of touches to the steering wheel, the old girl responded quicker than her rusted body would have suggested possible, making sure both driver and car got the kill.
Bang on target.
It was quite clear that Jones and his weathered metallic accomplice had ended the animal’s life, as a loud squelch spat out into the night air. The car rose up and shuddered on the driver’s side slightly as the front wheel rolled over the body, before the rear wheel finished the job. The sound of bone crunching was louder than expected, and for a moment he was convinced he had heard what sounded like the animal shrieking – a high pitched shrill which cut through the quiet like nails on slate. In fact of all the tiny bodies his nightly drives had severed and broken, none had been accompanied by such violent protestations, no matter how brief.
Looking in the rearview mirror with a curious smile on his face, Jones was slightly disappointed that there was no evidence of the kill left behind on the road. The car must have entirely eviscerated the carcass; that would have explained the loud screeching sound. Still, points were points, and reaching a personal best was enough to make the late delivery worth it: but which points to award himself? He wasn’t entirely sure what he had hit as the animal seemed to leap up out from an open drain at the very last minute. The area was notorious for its rats, but even by those standards that would have been the largest rat he’d ever seen. A cat, maybe? The more he thought about it, the more the size of the animal surprised him. Was it really that large? It certainly made a horrific noise as it was mangled by the hulking mass of his car, suggesting something bigger. After contemplating an appropriate scoring system for ‘unknown’, he settled on six points for something as big as a large cat – maybe larger – and congratulated himself on finally beating his score from the previous year. Perhaps a couple of whiskeys to accompany those beers in the fridge would be a suitable reward for such a grand achievement, it seemed only right to recognize the occasion. Life is full of little victories.
Navigating around the insidious holes in the road, turning into similarly vacant streets poking like veined branches through another web of crumbling and decrepit buildings, it was only after a few minutes that Jones first heard the noise – an intermittent clicking, grinding which grew louder with each corner and uneven dip in the tarmac. He ignored it to begin with, not because he didn’t care about a malfunction of his car, but simply because it was hardly out of the ordinary. Barely a week would go by without something going wrong with the old girl; this had been the source of regular arguments between himself and his girlfriend a few weeks back, she wanted him to take it to the scrap heap or trade it in, so Jones did what was left to him – he traded the nagging pain in for a cute shop assistant on the West side of town. Less mileage, too.
And so for a few subsequent vacant blocks he ignored the noise as best he could, but deep down he knew that sooner or later he’d have to attend to the issue. Killing his speed in the hope that pushing the vehicle a little less forcefully would somehow magically fix the problem; the old girl wearily pushed on. For a few minutes it seemed that being gentler had worked, soothing the rusted beast, but that hope vanished when the car turned onto a long straight avenue which pierced its way between the shells of three or four once-prosperous factory buildings. Now he could feel the noise; something loose moving beneath. A scraping vibration sliding along the undercarriage of the car. Edging forward from the rear, it had dislodged itself from the back axle and was now below the seats behind, but still he tried to ignore it. Whatever it was that hung between the car and the road, he’d check as soon as he’d made the delivery.
Tiredness was setting in and the jubilation of his recent high score was now beginning to wane. He just hoped that the old girl could get him home. He didn’t really care about anything else, and did not relish the thought of breaking down in such an isolated place. In any case, the noise was probably just the remnants of his last kill caught on a loose piece of metal, swinging about and wiping its crushed insides over the undercarriage with each bump of the failing suspension or tired turn of the wheel. The previous year he had hit a hedgehog, which somehow got caught on the underside of the car, its body sheered in half and stretched unnaturally long, scuffing the road like skin on sandpaper. Yet in the back of his mind, he still felt this sound, and worried that the scrapes and intermittent clicks were not the products of an eviscerated rat or cat battering against the ground and undercarriage, but something wrong with his pet instead, his old girl whom he had grown quite attached to.
As the car plodded down the long crumbling street, the noise continued to move further forward, slowly, almost meticulously. Jones strained his ears trying to ascertain its nature. He had always wanted to learn more about the workings of a car, but in the end had never bothered to, even though he used one daily and relied upon the old girl in fact. It could have been many things, but what troubled him most was not the presence of the noise but rather the nature of it. The sound moved, and as it did so a cold shiver washed over him, almost frightened by the thought of the jagged grating reaching the underside of the driver’s seat where he sat. Inch-by-inch, metal scrapes and muffled clanks sounded as the problem swung and juddered with each and every concrete indiscretion. Closer, still closer. Finally, and with no small amount of aggravation, Jones decided to pull over and take a look at what was wrong; better setting his mind at ease than feeling that strange anxiety building inside for the rest of the journey.
The engine coughed a little and the body of the old girl shivered in the cold as she pulled in to the side of the road, straight in front of an old factory with bubbled and peeling white walls, a pair of once proud and looming front gates now broken, resting on the withered grass attached to the crumbling pavement; and its hundreds of windows either smashed or covered by weathered and cracked wooden panels. He sat for a moment in the uncomfortable stillness of the car, a car which should have been moving, should have been going – stationary, its very purpose held moot. The internal workings of the old girl bubbled slightly under the bonnet, not so much a purr as an aged breath filled with the phlegm and fluid of a failing biology. To Jones, this noise was comforting in a way as it seeped through from the engine to the dashboard. Yes, her breathing might have been difficult, but she was still alive dammit, and the sounds she produced were soothing, like a child listening to a grandparent wheeze – yes, still alive.
As he listened to that mothering, familiar noise, he strained his ears slightly, wondering if the problem was perhaps worse than he had originally assumed. For as he sat there in the driver’s seat, a tapping, clicking, scraping sound began to emanate from the undercarriage once more. If he hadn’t known better he would have said that it was more like someone clinking their nails against metal, than of an actual mechanical problem, but that of course was a ridiculous thought. Yet there it continued. Tap, click, scrape. Then silence, the sound of the car’s troubled inhalations once more dominating the abandoned street. Tap, click, scrape. Again, it sounded, rhythmic almost. Tap, click, scrape.
Jones began to doubt himself, and in that doubt a change of mood came. For the briefest of seconds his attention shifted as he glanced to the side and thought of busy workers in blue overalls funneling into that once shining factory; hammering, twisting, manipulating, creating. Condensation began to collect in the car and as the windows steamed up, Jones rolled down his to take a breath of the fresh night air. But it wasn’t fresh, nor clean. A sewer must have been open in the street somewhere, a manhole cover removed, broken, or a drain backed up – the stench of the place reminded him of a rubbish dump he often drove past; the smell of rotting vegetables and decomposing things.
Tap, click, scrape.
With the window down, he could hear the noise more clearly, and could better estimate its placement. Tap, click, scrape. Silence again, nothing. Jones wasn’t a mechanic, knowing little about how cars actually worked, and so jumped to a generic fault he was sure he had heard somewhere before – possibly on television or from someone more knowledgeable in such matters – an oil leak underneath, perhaps that would somehow cause the tapping, clicking, scraping noise; he barely had time to convince himself of that theory before it sounded once more. Tap, scrape. Only twice this time? No clicking? Maybe it’s getting better, he thought, trying to alleviate the sense of dread which was now clambering up his spine.
Then, a new noise. Something different. This time, it wasn’t a tap or a click, no, but it was familiar, causing him to shiver slightly and break into a cold sweat. It was the sound of something cutting through metal, and it was coming from under his seat. The metal split and shrieked as something sliced through it, but there was no buzz of a revolving blade, no mechanical noise at all, there was only the sound of metal giving way to quick, sharp strikes.
No, no, this is crazy. It’s just the old girl again.
With a quick turn of the key in the ignition, the car fell silent with one last gasp of air. With that silence came the sound of the neighborhood, poking its head intrusively through the open car window. A slight wind rattling a corrugated rooftop, buildings creaking under their own weight, and the occasional scamper of rat feet, the only indication that life still saw fit to call such a place ‘home’. But no tap, click, scrape. No sound of metal being clawed and sliced. Letting out a long sigh of relief, he concluded that it must have been something wrong with the car as the noises ceased when he turned off the engine. He wasn’t keen on spending any more time in that place than he had to, so he took a flashlight from his glove compartment and with a deep breath, opened the car door, stepping out onto the soaked and crumbled road.
The flashlight was a little cheap number he had bought from a local supermarket with a black handle and an orange head – no point coughing up money for an expensive one he’d hardly use. Still, as he stared up at the grimy white factory building in front, he was glad to have it. Many of the streetlights were out. A few occasionally flickered, inspiring little confidence in their continual support, so having that meager, flimsy flashlight provided at least a modicum of reassurance. The thought of being stuck in that street if the lights went out was not something which Jones wished to dwell on, but despite his hurry to inspect the damage underneath his car, he could not help but turn his attention to the factory building itself. Old buildings creak, and rats take over any abandoned place, but a crazy thought now entered his head: what if the occasional scampering sounds were not rats at all, but something else? A plague of things running around the festering basement of that once busy place, sliding around in the dark, forgotten.
Jones shuddered momentarily before simultaneously laughing and chastising himself for being so easily frightened. It was an old building, simple as that. Times must have been hard a few decades earlier and businesses moved to better areas or just went bust. A place like that gets all kinds of things running around it. Normal, diseased, annoying vermin. That’s all. On a better night, he and the old girl would have happily claimed them all as points for the scoreboard.
Taking another deep breath, he shone the light from the flashlight at the side of the car. He paused only for a second as the memory of that scraping and slicing of metal sound made him think twice about looking, but never mind that! There was food to deliver, and it would be getting cold. He’d be receiving a few complaints no doubt from his boss, but right now all that mattered was checking the underside of the car and getting her back on the road – at least for long enough to get the delivery done and then home. A mechanic could wait until the morning, well, as long as the problem wasn’t fatal.
Jones crouched down, resting his denim-clad knees on the wet road surface, being careful not to tweak his left knee as it always gave him a bit of a pain when driving after a few hours. Hesitation took hold, but after listening for another moment and hearing nothing but the scampered pattering whispers of the old factory building’s rodent population, he quickly shone the light underneath.
There was nothing hanging down from the car that he could see, but a chill caught him off guard as he glimpsed what appeared to be the impression that something had been there. On the undercarriage, the oiled and muddied surface had been scarred. What looked like scratches where something had clung onto the car could be seen. Several at a time, seemingly climbing from the rear towards the front. He adjusted his flashlight once more.
What the hell is that?
Directly under the driver’s seat, a large incision, as if someone had taken a cutting tool and torn through the metal flooring, scarred the underside about a foot across. The cold, rotten air throbbed through Jones’s lungs as his breath grew anxious. The beam from his flashlight shone through the slit and into the interior of the car, exactly beneath where he had been sitting.
Standing up abruptly, he stepped back away from the old girl, just enough to give him a feeling of safety. But safety from what? Okay, so there was a gash across the floor of his car, but that didn’t mean that something did it. Something alive. No, it made much more sense that he had scuffed the undercarriage off of an unseen obstacle on the road. But wouldn’t he have heard it? Maybe, maybe not. It was late, and he was tired, so his attention could have been elsewhere. Or, it could have started out as a small crack and the strain of the old girl thumping along those pot holes could have been enough to stretch the gouge. Yes, that was more likely. Jones calmed himself slowly, assuming that in his zeal to flatten a few local animals and beat his personal best score, he had just swerved over an uneven bit of road, a speed bump, or a rock. There was simply no way an animal could have done that. Was there? No, surely not.
Looking down at his feet, the realization presented itself that he had taken quite a few steps back in his panic. Enough to take him over the threshold of the factory grounds, next to the gates, resting like two large cadavers forgotten by both family and friends, consumed by the dirt and soil. One day they wouldn’t even be visible, completely devoured by the ground, and yet once they had stood tall, strong and proud, welcoming industry into their embrace. He turned to the factory building with this thought. With enough time it too would be gone, its once shining white walls now cracked, bubbled and moss ridden – they too would be consumed. Claimed by the wind, the earth, the roots and weeds. But what if it had already been claimed, what if something took up residence there to be left alone, and you, you idiot, are standing on its property? Another ridiculous thought, but a creeping feeling once again took hold, like someone watching from the windows, and for the briefest of seconds Jones was convinced that he had seen movement up on the fourth or fifth floor. Something which glanced past the window.
I wonder what they made in there?
It was time to move as Jones felt he had scared himself enough with his idiotic and juvenile contemplations – the product of a bored delivery takeaway driver – but the available choices were not too pleasant to him. Phone someone to come pick me up? That would involve waiting around for a while, and that was something he had no desire to do. Walk out of the place to a main road? He knew the area well and it was probably at least a twenty-minute walk before he would be out of that forgotten neighborhood. Looking down the street at the other old factories and occasional residential buildings, they all spoke of things rummaging around at night. He just wanted to get out of the whole area quickly. Going back to the car and driving out of there seemed the fairest option, but while he had tried to convince himself that there was nothing to those deep metallic scars other than a bump or two, their very nature still suggested to him deep down that something with purpose committed the violent offense.
The indefinite patter of scampering feet sounded from the factory building, and with the thought of a swelling mass of rodent tails and claws exploring the night, Jones stepped forward cautiously towards the car, in hope more than anything else. Then, another noise grabbed his attention. He turned in its direction and saw, for the briefest of moments, a movement; but like the common phantoms which we all see from time to time out of the corner of our vision, the source of the movement was not present long enough to be identified. Overhead, a nearby streetlight had flickered in tandem with the activity and all Jones could think of was green; dark, putrid green. That was the impression of it.
Fear was still present, but so too was curiosity. It was an animal; it must have been an animal. It couldn’t have been anything else. The factory looked on sternly, and Jones shuddered in response. This is ridiculous. I’m getting out of here. A subtle breeze blew through the street, not carrying freshness, life; carrying with it a foul stench of rot. Then, the sound of something wet. Something viscous and animated poured out from the rear of the car, receding quickly into the old girl’s shadow. Yes, he was convinced, there was something moving around back there.
The flashlight’s beam quivered and Jones looked down at his hand doing likewise. As he moved closer to the end of the car the liquid sound continued. The streetlights flickered and rattled again, but he did not register nor so much as contemplate their temper, for he was convinced that he had just seen the slightest flash of pallid greyish-green skin, bobbled and wart-covered, retreat further beneath the car. What was that? A rat? No, there was no suggestion of something warm-blooded. Whatever it was gave off a cold almost impression.
Then, anger began to rise; he still discounted the possibility that an animal could have torn up his car floor so badly, but he knew one thing – whatever it was that he had hit, it wasn’t dead yet. A bang echoed out across the street from the factory building, perhaps a clatter of falling masonry, a broken floorboard, or an old pipe seizing up and giving in to an expanse of fetid water inside. Whatever it was Jones was in no hurry to find out, what he was in a hurry to do was expel that horrid animal from under his car, he’d crush its skull in with his cheap flashlight if he had to. He couldn’t have it scampering around under the older girl. He didn’t believe that it could have torn through metal. No, he didn’t believe that at all. But for some reason he did believe it to be the reason for his impromptu stop in such a lonely, rotten piece of the city. Yes, that little shit would pay. Jones considered that he might even give himself the extra points for dispensing of a horrid piece of roadkill so manually. He probably would be putting it out of its misery in any case.
Slipping quietly this time onto his elbows and silently as possible lying flat on the ground, he didn’t want the thing to know his plan. While he was convinced vermin couldn’t love, he wasn’t so sure that they couldn’t think. Gripping the flashlight now like a club or sword, its beam shone under the car once more. He couldn’t understand it, again, there was no sight of an animal – none. The marks and gouges were still on the undercarriage, but no animal itself. Drawing in closer, Jones slowly pushed his head into the shadows underneath, his arm protruding forward to look behind the tires. Nothing. Almost disappointed, he began to slide his head back out from under the car, only to be stopped. Frozen to the core. He knew now why he hadn’t seen the animal. It wasn’t under the car, and it wasn’t hiding behind a tire. No, it was curled up inside the wheel arch above where Jones’s head now sat. Sitting there in the darkness of the curve above the tire. Motionless, but as Jones saw it, not lifeless.
The flashlight was now by his side, still in his grasp, but he did not move it to take a look. He couldn’t entirely perceive what sort of animal it was. All he could see were two eyes, the impression of a mouth and nose. If he hadn’t known better he would have said that it was almost human; in fact, it was very human, like the disfigured, dark green head of an old woman wedged between the tire and the oiled metal of its shielding arch. But no, it was more than just a head, there was the suggestion of appendages, and it had squeezed the entire contents of its sagging body into that tight space like a coiled snake or rat in a drainpipe.
Yet Jones dared not move. For although it had shoved itself into that confined part of the old girl’s body, it was impossible to know its true size, or its true nature for that matter. It could have been harmless, but those eyes, staring so fixedly, did not feel harmless.
Suddenly it let out a noise. Low and almost Owl-like, a deep sound which resonated within its body, causing a reverberation which was accompanied by a wet noise, as of something liquefied. A pause. A deep automatic inhalation, a gasp of fear which channeled its way into Jones’s lungs. There they stayed for a moment, then slowly, a protrusion; a sharp piece of its body sneaking out of the darkness under that wheel arch, moving softly through the air. It hovered directly over Jones’s face, hypnotically, pointed, dark-brown, tinged with a muddy, earthy smell. It took him a moment to comprehend what he was seeing, so close to his face was the sharp object that it blurred and drew his stare towards the center of his nose like a child attempting to cross their eyes. It looked like a talon, resembling that of a bird of prey, but it was not a talon, nor was it a nail or a horn, it was something new, something unseen and unknown within the animal kingdom – at least to him. All Jones knew, and was now sure of, was that it had sliced its way through the metal of the car’s undercarriage, and that it could gut him like a fish.
Then a soft sound, almost calming. It was a vibration again, but it resembled a deep, gentle coo, or the satisfied purr of a cat, and although Jones’s intellect screamed for escape, his senses and his body slipped into an unanticipated relaxed state at the sound. He remembered sitting under the television as a child on a Sunday afternoon, watching an old B-movie wondering how they did the special FX, with the rain crawling down the window outside, and his Granddad snoozing in his chair. A comforting memory, and that sound somehow elicited it from deep within.
Two pieces of gelatinous flesh widened in the darkness, and from that human mouth stitched to that fluid body came a sound, a horrible, torturous howl, part animal, part human, and part something between. The talon sliced quickly and hooked into Jones’s cheek. He remembered once more as a child catching his forearm with a fish hook, its barbed curves pulling and ripping at the skin. The hook of the creature’s appendage had dug deep. Through flesh and ligament and into the muscle of his face. He struggled for a moment, blinding pain sheering through his body. Once more their eyes met, prey and predator, and then, Jones spoke, sure that somehow it could understand, that he could compromise with that thing under the wheel arch. That a creature with the capacity for thinking resided there, certainly not something which could be loved nor love in return, but perhaps in that facsimile of a human face there was a thought or emotion which resembled compassion; all the while the hook, its cold, barbed structure buried deep within the muscle of the cheek, just above the jaw, its sharpened end grazing slightly against the bone underneath.
‘Please, no’, Jones whimpered.
The face within the darkness howled once more and with a jolt, blood spouted upwards into Jones’s left eye leaving him momentarily blinded. The talon was obscured within the wheel arch again, but not before taking its prey’s left cheek, muscle, ligament, flapping skin and all, with it.
Jones cried in agony, and rolled out from under the car as soon as he was released. Reaching up he felt a deep depression in his face, severed wiry anatomies which he could not name, and the hard abrasive texture of bone. Panic and horror shook him, part of his face was gone, torn from him. The back of the car began to shriek as the sound of metal, ripped and severed, echoed out across the empty street. The old girl shook violently, shuddering, convulsing as if being tortured by a powerful captor. Lying with his back against the ground, dazed, Jones’s awareness focused once more on the familiar – but now terrifying – smell of petrol. It seeped out from under the car from a fatal wound, soaking his denims. The old girl bled out, now useless, her master trapped in the abandoned street with that horrible beast.
The face appeared from under the car, its arms stretching out with limbs in peculiar places, contorted by an unnatural anatomy of doubled joints. As Jones held what was left of his face with his hand and turned to run, the wet and jerking yet quick movements of the creature’s appendages clobbered and clambered over the pavement in pursuit. It was fast, too fast. And its size had easily tripled since sliding out from underneath the car, its awkward limbs attached to that hideous face thrusting forward awkwardly like a spider squeezing forth from its venomous hole. Liquid poured in through the large opening in Jones’s face and as he gasped for air he was met with the sickening metallic taste of his own blood. He dared not look back, but the beast drew closer, the sound of its slithering, contorting legs, only outdone by the anguished, pain-ridden howl which escaped from its mouth.
Jones stumbled, he clawed at the ground and as he steadied himself he realized where he was – at the door of the old, crumbling factory building, that place of scampering feet which once housed the busy human boiler suits and all, fixing, building, manipulating, making. But over the door lay an impenetrable wall of metal paneling. Thrusting his closed fists against the barrier, he pleaded ‘Help!’ through broken teeth and ruined jaw. ‘Please, help me!’ he yelled once more. But there was no answer, and why should there have been? For that place was long a shell which the rodents had claimed for themselves.
Creaking, slithering sounds shook out from the fervent movements of the creature as it closed in. Then that noise, that comforting lullaby, purred from the beast. For the briefest of seconds, Jones was transported to a childhood memory, one where he stood over the dead body of his pet hamster which had died in the night. His father took its lifeless corpse from its cage and laughed as he shook it, mimicking an unusual ventriloquist act giving the little boy’s dead pet a sickening and comical voice.
Tears streamed down his face mixing with blood and saliva which still spewed from his jaw and cheek. The purring, soothing sound continued from behind. Turning to view his predator, it stood there, staring at him. Jones’s breaths were labored and nervous, the cold air rushing through the hole in the side of his face, stinging deeply with each inhalation. Their eyes met once more. The face stared, letting out a painful gasp. With an abrupt burst of powerful strides, the creature tore across the overgrown grounds, leaping incredulously high with each movement, its talons raised. Jones let out a whimper as the mangled mess of legs and arms chased towards him. Shards of light glistened on what seemed to be a body and head, its erratic movements whisking past strands of shadows which made it impossible to truly comprehend its anatomy. It howled and yelled and screamed in what approximated rage.
A forceful breeze smothered everything in an invisible cloud of movement, rattling one of the panels which covered a window at the side of the door. It had been bent back, bent back! Escape, help, run! Jones now no longer accepted his fate, but rather saw something to hold on to, hope and the promise of life, Goddammit. Pulling himself to his feet with the palms of his hands against the blistered once-white walls of the factory building, the spindly viscous legs of his pursuer clambered and wriggled ever closer, but humans too can be nimble – Jones leapt for the ledge which housed the bent panel standing about 6 feet from the ground. He scrambled and struggled and hauled himself up as fast as he could. But the beast was upon him. A blinding pain shot through his body as a talon sliced into the heel of his foot, cutting into meat and nicking a tendon. Retracting with force, it retrieved a bulbous piece of flesh from its prey.
Wounded but freed from its barbed incision, Jones pulled at the flapping metal panel, losing his balance and falling inside in the process, into the darkness. Howls of derision and disgust bellowed from outside as he lay sprawled in agony on the floor. The ground was covered in a thick mixture of dust and powdered concrete. He coughed and spluttered as it invaded his lungs assisted by the cold still air of the place, deep within. Beams of light broke their way through fractures in the building’s shell, enough to allow his eyes to adapt to the darkness.
The sound of the tangled monstrosity outside climbing up onto the ledge sent a shudder of fear and dejection through his body once more. In a panicked fumble, he limped badly, knocking into a desk with a clatter. If he had the time he would have thought that it was strange that such a place should retain its old furniture and belongings, but a light shone brightly from one of the streetlamps outside, as the creature pulled back the panel he had used, like tin foil, poking its bodied head with gaping mouth through the gap, howling at the sight of the human hobbling in agony.
Jones moved as quickly as he could, but in the panic, a thought permeated through the fury and senseless mess of the situation: he could never outrun it. A wet thud slithered through the air as a contorted mangle of legs or arms, grappled to the floor, righting itself and then turning its body upwards in a strange convulsing, gelatinous movement. With a shriek it made for its prey, moving violently over the desk, which once played host to a man or woman filling in a rota or paperwork before heading home to see their family.
Through a door, Jones found himself in another room, then another, each displaying the forgotten remnants of a bygone era – a chair where someone once sat, a cabinet which held files and papers and consignments, orders for the troops, a peg where a boiler stood, or a uniform of some description once hanged. Into another room, then down a short hallway, populated by a thick layer of dust. All the while, the clambering, pacing movements of his recent roadkill chasing nearby.
Closer and closer still it came as Jones threaded through the maze of rooms and hallways, his injured leg dragging painfully, desperate to keep up. Slamming a door shut behind him, he pulled a large metallic table onto its side, the pitter-patter of blood dripping from his face twinkling in the light, bouncing off the metal surface like rain. Heaving it quickly across the hallway, he forced the table against the door. Then another piece of furniture, a collection of chairs, and finally, a rusted cabinet which housed the forgotten musings of the factory’s once deliberate foreman. In the slightest of pauses, he dug deep into his denim pockets and produced a mobile phone. Its screen was shattered, most probably from the fall into the building. There was no hope of fixing it, and with that loss there came the realization that he was truly on his own.
The tangled mess of man-made objects quivered as the scuttling, many-legged creature pushed and howled against the makeshift barricade. With each effort, Jones watched in exhausted, gasping horror as the door inched its way open piece by piece, with each crash of a mangled limb.
There wasn’t much time, soon it would be there. In the dim light, he looked desperately for a mode of escape. Nearby sat a sterile staircase leading up to another floor. He did not want to risk being trapped away from the ground, away from being able to get outside to the street, but there was nowhere else to turn. With an echoing crash, the cabinet fell to the floor as the door now opened wide enough for the creature to place one of its long legs through the gap, but was it a leg? Revulsion boiled in the pit of Jones’s stomach as what looked like a human hand began to claw at the obstructions on the other side, pulling them away to free its path.
Fight or flight. Jones took to the staircase. In any other situation, he would have been reluctant to enter the darkened stairwell, but between the unknown and that creature, only madness would have chosen the pursuer. Globules of sweat and blood congealed on the side of his face as he ascended the stairs. For the first time thoughts of just giving up entered his mind, and it occurred to him that he must have looked like one of those deer on a natural history program, when they literally gave in to the shock and horror of a painful death brought about by a brutal predator.
A crash rang out and a howl of derision sounded once more, the beast had broken through Jones’s hasty construction and was quickly making its way to the staircase. Finally, he reached the top of the stairs where there lay a broken door rotting on the ground. It had at one time sat proudly as the entrance to an office, but now lay torn and mangled on the floor, the brass nameplate which would have carried the handle of someone of importance, now scarred and disfigured, unrecognizable even to those who must have known or a had a covenant with the place.
With little thought, he staggered, gasping for air through the empty doorway. He stood in an office. In its center lay a large, austere desk, accompanied by a torn green leather armchair. At the back of the room lay a second broken doorway which Jones viewed gratefully as another route of escape. Even in his frantic state of mind, he could not help but notice the papers strewn across the floor, on the desk, and pinned to the walls. They spoke of construction, of design, of strange diagrams and of processes and calculations, but they were meaningless to Jones as he struggled across the room dripping sweat and blood and fear on the notes below.
He could hear the creature climbing the stairs, but at last a piece of luck. With all of its unnatural appendages, it ascended slowly, much slower than Jones himself had – the old stairwell had bought him some time. Reaching the exit he found himself standing on a grated platform looking over what must have been the main factory hall, where all of the work would have been done and where no doubt the occupant of the office would have kept an eye on the workers below, observing sternly.
Surprised again at the sheer amount of machinery which had been left there to rust and erode with time, Jones began to descend a set of metal stairs which led back down onto the factory floor. Once on the ground, perhaps he could get away from that place, find a door or window which would allow for his escape? Maybe the beast would not follow? Each step down the staircase was accompanied by shooting, searing pains traveling up his body. It became clear that he had torn a muscle or ligament in his good leg while running, but still he had to push on and get away from his pursuer. Reaching the factory floor the collection of machinery around him now towered above. All manner of drills and tables and unfamiliar tools dripped fluids onto the floor, their once chattering movements and mechanisms now silent – a technological tomb best served as a museum for the wary. Clawed arms, thrusting pistons, glass chambers and a mess of tubes and pipes surrounded him. None of it made sense, neither their internal workings nor their purpose clear. Just what did they make there?
The now too-familiar howl screamed from the platform above. That rippled, green and grey withered female face oozed out foul liquids from its approximation of a mouth, shrieking in anger as it awkwardly, step by step, hand by hand, talon by talon made its way down the stairs. Jones scrambled in fear, staggering between the countless mechanical relics. The wound in his foot made it almost impossible to continue with any success. Tired, whimpering and utterly devoid of hope, he did as best he could to duck below a strange machine with two large armed pincers, hoping to be out of sight as he climbed under its manufactured protection.
It was as if the creature knew he was hiding. The howls of anger and hatred had ceased, replaced only by the sounds of its multiple viscous footsteps echoing throughout the factory hall. Scraping, tapping, clicking. The wait was torturous, and with each breath more blood oozed out from the hole in his face and the wound in his foot, the pain was becoming increasingly unbearable. Occasionally he would glimpse the creature’s double-jointed strides clambering around the factory floor, its wart-infested skin rubbing against the dust-covered ground producing the sound of sandpaper on wood which turned Jones’s stomach.
Then with no warning, the noises ceased. Silence. Minutes passed, and still there was little or no sound in the old factory building. Finally a wisp of vitality returned to his being once more at the thought of the creature having left. Anger at being hunted, frustration and pain at the thought of being hideously scarred for the rest of his life, took him. His heart beat rapidly as he prepared to act. He was going to escape, dammit. And when he did, when he did! He would be back with an entire troop of pest control or animal control workers, or whatever was required. And he’d laugh, yes he’d laugh as they fumigated the place and hunted that disgusting beast down, letting its lungs fill with poisoned air or its stomach burn with arsenic placed in its food. Then a slow horrible, painful death, one which was so clearly deserved.
But first he had to escape, and had to take the opportunity presented by his pursuer’s absence. Uncurling his feet, Jones slowly rose up from underneath the strange pincered machine. Where was it? Where had that piece of vermin gone? But those thoughts diminished: salvation presented itself. On the nearest wall lay a window, a beautiful boarded up forgotten window, obscured from the outside world by a board which fluttered in the night breeze. It cracked its wooden body against the worn building in defiance. Yes, it was free, attached only by a few rusted nails no doubt on the top of the window frame. If he could make it there, Jones would most definitely be able to get outside and hope that the creature had slunk off to its rancid little hole somewhere in the building.
The window was only about 15 feet away, but with a dragging leg behind him, that seemed like an eternal distance. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and if he hadn’t been missing a chunk of his cheek, he would have smiled. Looking around one last time, he decided to make his move. Each hobbled step and dragged foot cut through the silence, convinced that at any moment the beast would leap out at him. But the factory hall remained quiet. The machinery did not stir, nor did their watcher.
With a rush of excitement, Jones finally reached the boarded window. Pushing at the panel it lifted quite easily and in fact gave the impression that it was ready to fall to the ground outside should a strong enough wind have caught it. He sucked the cool night air into his lungs, staring out at the empty street ahead, and for the shortest of moments felt hope to be gone from that place.
Then a noise sounded. That sweet, calming purring that had brought back memories of home, of bad times and of good. Turning cautiously to his side, a shaft of light streamed in from the street outside and illuminated what looked like a vice or pressing machine on the other side of the hall. There the beast cooed and purred softly, with motherly devotion. A mass of slithering and garbled sounds whispered from the darkness, quivering and huddling together; countless infantile versions of the creature from under the wheel arch. It occurred to Jones that all along the beast was perhaps caring for its young, protecting them from the clanking and screeching of his own mechanical beast. Perhaps it could be loved and love in return. And for that moment, he felt no anger towards it; not hatred, not rage, just understanding.
Slipping out quietly between the panel and once-white paint of the factory building, he slowly but surely began to limp towards his car. He knew he’d probably have to struggle to the nearest pocket of civilization to get help, but if there was any way that the old girl could still get him just one street closer to a hospital then he’d be grateful. Perhaps her wounds weren’t quite fatal yet.
A thunderous bang sounded as the creature, that loving, caring, cooing mother or father, burst through the window-paneled shell of the old factory building. Jones had no time to turn let alone react as the beast thrust one of its razor-like talons deep into the back joint of his right leg. With one swift motion, he yelled and crumpled to the ground as the beast hooked his kneecap from inside and ripped it clean out through the back of his leg. Its arms and appendages battered away, piercing up and down its prey’s body like a typewriter, before moving off.
There Jones laid, the life bleeding out from him, watching in anguish as the creature scuttled over to the old girl still parked faithfully out front. As the street lamps flickered above, the dim light of Jones’s life slowly faded to a single point, soon to be extinguished. The last glimpse of the world for him, a mass of armed and legged things tearing apart the old girl piece by piece, taking the metal, frames, seats and wheels into darkened doorways nearby. The sound of clanking and manipulating and twisting rang out into the night, along with a final thought: I wonder what they make in there? A razor-sharp talon hovered above.
Jones’s body was discovered three months later by a group of kids who had decided to explore the area for fun, but also with a healthy hope of finding some scrap they could sell. His body had been consumed twice, once by the rats and then again by the earth, obscured as his remains were by weeds and roots and soil converting him into an empty shell, a forgotten grave not unlike the factory gates resting beside him.
His death remained unexplained due to the hideous condition of his body, but one thing was clear, his head was missing. This caused many arguments between two medical experts. One claimed that the head had been eaten by rats much like the rest of his body, but the other noted a clean strike to a neck bone, almost as if his head had been surgically removed.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableMichael Whitehouse Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Michael WhitehousePublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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