Everything hurts. Feels like a tree rolled over me. And my throat is so dry. I’m trying to ignore it.
I think about Alexis telling me she spied a goblin on the roadside. We had a late start to my sister’s, so I took a shortcut through the mountains. Long-ago prospectors had gutted the rocks, making them unstable and angry. I had reservations about taking the route because of an upsurge in landslides, but accidents were still pretty rare. I wasn’t too worried.
Alexis was so excited she couldn’t sleep. She would see her cousins soon, and access to the witching hour was a rare treat. The adrenaline made her nose run. She tried to sell me on her goblin through a wad of toilet paper.
“I swear I saw it, daddy. It was my size, with toad skin and yellow eyes.” I tousled her soft hair and laughed.
“Did it wave at you?” I asked.
“No, daddy, it did not wave at me.”
Sometimes a trace of the teenager she would become found its way into her voice and terrified me. I took my hand away from her head and held it up in surrender. “Okay okay. What do you think it was doing there?”
“I think it was trying to cross the road.”
I stifled the joke. She wouldn’t appreciate it.
Something stirs in the corner, interrupting my memories. It’s back for another round. Please please please God, not me. I close my eyes, but I feel him near, smell the musty tang of his monstrous body. A noise like tearing Velcro sounds nearby.
The woman in the pod is semi-conscious. Her cracked lips part to moan. She was already here when I joined the collection. Her eyes flutter open to see the thing holding her an arm’s length away. Its massive head is cocked to the side. Her final burst of strength is used to scream.
The creature mimics her open-mouthed expression. I hear the pop of joints unlocking as the length of its maw becomes impossible. It cracks the shell open and thrusts her in like a pistachio. Three sets of jagged teeth grind the gurgling woman to a fleshy pulp. I swallow and swallow and swallow until the nausea clears. I focus on Alexis. Alexis with toilet paper fragments around her nose. Alexis furrowing her brow.
“Actually,” she said. “I think it was just watching the road. It looked like you, when you watch football.”
“Are you saying I look like a yellow-eyed goblin when I watch the game?”
“Noooo,” she smiled. “But you make a face like this,” she slumped her shoulders and gaped.
“Thanks, brat,” I said. “I bet it was watching you. Looking out for its next meal.” I turned my hand into a hungry mouth, taking bites out of her arm until she collapsed with laughter.
A deep subterranean rumble interrupted our happy noises. Alexis clutched my arm as I stopped the car.
“What was that?” She whispered.
But everything was still again.
“Must’ve been the mountain settling.”
I put the car back in drive and pushed on. Just a few more miles.
“Do you really think it was watching me?”
“The goblin. Do you think it saw me?”
I knew that tone. “No, sweetie. I don’t think it saw you. We were probably a passing blur. Want me to put your CD in?”
I hated that soundtrack but thought it would comfort her. She didn’t want to hear it. She was concentrating. Her head darted to the window every time we passed a stump or bush.
“Do you believe in magical creatures?” She asked.
“Of course,” I said. “But adults become near-sighted to them. Sometimes we catch a glimpse, but they always keep their distance.”
I recall this as the beast smears blood across its face a few feet away. I try to move, but the pod keeps me pinned against the cave wall. I still can’t remember how I got here. I’ve been trying to piece the memories together. All I remember is Alexis. Alexis unused to the blinding darkness. Alexis trying to sleep but too afraid.
After a while, she slumped in her seat, still watching the road, but slack with fatigue. Soon the lights of a small town would spangle the night. She would sleep then. By the time her eyes reopened her only attackers would be three squealing girls.
“Daddy, look out!”
I’d been watching her, not paying attention to the road. I followed her pointed finger to the windshield. But all I saw was darkness, toad skin, and yellow eyes.
In my mind’s eye, I watch Alexis crawl under the dashboard. Lava erupts from the crown of my head and runs hot down my face.
The driver’s side window is cracked and fogged over. Steam rises from a bilious green mound squatting on the other side. Someone is crushing a tin can in my ear and then I’m levitating off the ground. But Alexis is still in the car, tucked into the shadow.
“Shh shh shh,” the noise hisses out between my teeth. Then I blink and rusted tracks are speeding below like I’m fastened to the undercarriage of a train. Then the pod, the silence, and the choking smell of death.
Alexis is okay, I tell myself. If she just follows the road, she’ll find the town and someone will help her. Maybe they’ll even find me.
Everything hurts, but mostly my throat. I’ve been holding back sobs for such a long time now. Something small peers at me from behind the monster. It’s licking blood off the big guy’s skin; it’s crying out for food.
The little one approaches me, but it’s too short to reach. It can’t even look up. The two goggling eyes are fixed on something just below me. As it comes closer, the rock face makes a sound. A nervous mewing.
The blood races from my head to my feet.
“No,” I cry. Please please please God.
S. Zainab Williams is a fantasy writer currently working on her first novel. When not toiling with novel edits, she blogs about her adventures in writing at szwordsmith.com.