Aaron Stokes opened his eyes. He didn’t know where he was, nor how he had gotten here, but he knew two things; First, he was lying down, he was on his back looking up into the sky, the smell of wet grass surrounded him, and as he drew his hands through the ground around him his fingers dragged lazily through damp topsoil, only occasionally disturbing sparse sprigs of limp, dewy grass as the top layer of dirt raked away easily under his touch. He imagined he was lying on a sports field, most of the greenery having succumbed to the frequent stomping of stud-laden boots. The second thing Aaron could surmise regarding his whereabouts was that it was daytime; the blinding sun hovered directly over him, a white-hot ball of unrelenting ocular torture drying up his eyes and stinging his retinas. As he pulled his gaze away from the sun his vision re-focussed and the sunspots faded from his view like an old cinema reel burning in reverse; all around he could see blue sky overhead, there wasn’t a single cloud to besmirch what could have been a postcard of the perfect summer sky. It had clearly rained here recently; the dirt around him was damp and tacky as if drying from a fresh downpour, what’s more was that it had been warmed by the sun overhead, and it felt like partly baked cake mix between his fingers. The soil under his body, he could feel, was far cooler. His clothes were soggy and clinging to his body; his light blue shirt almost see-through and showing through it the contrast between his normal skin colour and that of his nipples. In accordance with being caught in the rain, Aaron’s light brown hair matted across his forehead like a bandana made of oily autumn leaves. As he lifted his head to fully investigate his state of dress, he felt the weight of saturated hair at the back of his head as it pulled muddily out from a puddle around his occiput. He saw that he was fully clothed, black chinos and matching canvas shoes both equally damp and dirty. This was the sort of attire he’d put on for work, lecturing in medical ethics at Ohio State University, but he couldn’t remember being at work; the last thing he remembered was packing a bag with his wife, Melody, and daughter, Jemima, for a family trip to England. Aaron had been in medical school at Oxford when he met Melody, a post-doctoral philosophy student from Ohio. Their romance had been so intense and all-consuming that he had abandoned his studies to accompany her when she had returned home to the United States the following year. They were soon married and had Jemima, who was now five years old. With Melody working from home Aaron was able to complete his studies and although he chose academia over working in a hospital, his salary combined with Melody’s freelance editing work was easily enough for them to afford the large barn conversion that served as their home, and of which they were so proud. They had done most of the conversion themselves, installing a mezzanine at one end of the vast rectangular plot which was flanked on each side by wrought iron spiral staircases. At the other end of the building, Melody had a large office sectioned off from the rest of the ground floor by sprawling MDF panels, and this had been further sectioned to provide a bedroom for Jemima when she was born. Other than those three rooms the barn was completely open-plan, and Aaron and Melody regularly showed off their abode by inviting friends over for dinner; their family enjoyed a busy social life, and they believed an abundance of social cues would help Jemima’s development. They also regularly travelled to England to visit Aaron’s parents and sister in Sussex.
Aaron remembered loading suitcases into his British racing green 1976 Volvo 66 DL, a car he’d inherited from his father when he’d first passed his driving test and had owned ever since, insisting it be shipped to him when he’d moved to America. He’d stopped to admire the condition of his vehicle, as he often did; no signs of rust or peeling of the paintwork, the car was on the rare side so Aaron was proud that he’d been able to keep it running well and in good aesthetic order, despite the scarcity of good quality parts. Beyond this, his memory failed him. He didn’t know how far he and his girls had travelled, or even if they’d set off at all, but it appeared he’d been lying in this field for some time, at least time enough to endure a rain shower and for the subsequent sunny spell to begin drying him. Why had no one come to investigate a man lying unconscious in a field? He was dressed smartly, clean shaven – he couldn’t remember doing that either – and so was obviously not a miscreant that might have posed a threat to any potential aid-bringers passing by while he’d been unconscious. He sat up slowly, pushing himself up from the musty terrain first with his elbows and then his hands. His back ached and the joints in his limbs seemed stiff as they folded and unfolded to support his weight. They were probably just stagnant from the cold shower he’d been doused in but this also made him reconsider the length of time he’d been lay out here.
Aaron turned his head left and right, easing out the stiffness in his neck and taking in his surroundings; he wasn’t on a playing field as he had first thought, but was now sat up in the middle of a large parkland, which must have been several acres in size because Aaron could neither see the boundary, nor hear any signs of nearby civilisation. In fact there was an eerie silence surrounding him, he listened for a bird singing, a leaf rustling as it sauntered by on a breeze, but he heard nothing. A cool wind was blowing and, straining to crane his neck and shoulders around 180 degrees, Aaron could make out there was a woodland about 800 metres behind him, but despite the proximity of the trees and the soft gust there was no audible evidence of any foliage. He put the tip of his an index finger into his right ear, shifting his weight onto his left arm, wincing as the limb protested with a jolt of pain in his elbow, and wiggled it violently as if scratching an itch on his eardrum. Satisfied that his ear canal was clear of any obstruction he listened again, cocking his head toward the forest, for some reason feeling reluctant to turn and face it fully. His face adopted the squinted expression of a confused geriatric as he strained to make out any minute sound, but heard none. He studied the treeline for movement; despite the glowing sunshine illuminating the rest of his surroundings, bereft of life as they were, the wood was a portrait of gloom. Aside from the green/auburn leaves meagrely dusting the outcropped canopy like the pathetic last squirts from a faltering can of silly string dwindling on a heap of dead twigs, the entire façade was a tapestry of blacks and greys. Aaron could barely discern one tree trunk from another in the darkness, but he was sure he could make out a shape, a shadowy figure the size of a bear standing on its haunches but with no real recognisable form. It would have been impossible to see but for its hazy edges; it seemed to fuzz at the edges, almost like an optical buzzing, like it was charged somehow. The shape reminded Aaron of the holograms in the 70s space exploration shows he enjoyed so much, and although it had no definite form, it appeared to be focussed acutely on him, expectant and somehow demanding. Aaron felt dread rise through him, goosebumps now littering his limbs as the hairs at the nape of his neck stood to attention, stimulated by the electrical apparition hiding in the woods.
This is crazy, Aaron thought, don’t get freaked out by a forest because it’s dark, ALL forests are dark. Just figure out where you are and how to get back to Mel and Jemima.
He blinked hard enough to force a tear, as if he didn’t quite believe there was nothing to be afraid of, shook his head fiercely once from side to side, and opened his eyes. Nothing. The wood remained where it was rooted, still unnervingly dark but the blurry figure was no longer present.
It hadn’t been there to start with, dick.
Aaron stifled a grin more through relief than in triumph over this hallucination. He turned back to face away from the forest, resuming a more natural sitting position and realising that his back and neck had been unnaturally twisted when a sharp burning sensation emanated from his spine and dissipated through the muscles of his back like a hundred burning spiders scattering for their webs, causing him to wince once more. He felt something in his back writhe ever so slightly, like someone running a finger from the tip of his shoulder blade to his armpit, and deduced this was a muscle spasm in response to the prolonged contortion recently imbued on his torso. He refocused on his surroundings; judging by the mud-to-grass ratio of the field he was sat in, the grounds-person here obviously either wasn’t terribly good at their job or didn’t care too much about it. Tufts of greenery, each no larger than a breakfast bowl, dotted an impressive expanse of brown-grey dirt. Despite the park-like feel of this area, there was no playground for children, no sports pitches or even the rusted white posts that often give them away in terrain such as this where the painted touchlines of the pitch would have been long worn away. There weren’t even any people in view, no one walking their dog or taking a stroll through the sunshine that was still drying the topsoil around him, now turning it into more of a dusty coating than a tacky peat.
The soft breeze continued to swirl, cooling the exposed skin of Aaron’s face and hands and stirring his rapidly drying locks. It felt nice to Aaron, a counterpart to the warm rays that were now starting to prickle his skin. He laboriously climbed to his feet, body still stiff from its prolonged immobilisation, as he did so he remembered something he’d learned at med school; Gower’s sign, an indication that someone might have a muscle disease when they had to push themselves off their own legs in order to stand up. His best friend Marshall Winkmann, who he’d met at university in America after resuming his medical studies there, used to call it the zombie sign. Not the worst faux pas Marshall had ever uttered by any means, he had a knack for saying inappropriate things to a point where Aaron started to believe he did it on purpose to challenge the system, continuously prodding to see what he could get away with. Memories of Marshall, now ironically a well-respected orthopaedic surgeon in Florida, brought a smile to Aaron’s lips as he stood to his full height, and the thought of what Marshall might remark about the constant stream of elderly broken hips brought to his clinic brought an abrupt chuckle through his voice box. He stifled this vocalisation starkly on the realisation that his most recent memory had put him together with his wife and child but that he was now completely alone. It was as if something was trying to distract him whenever he tried to focus on his family, or how he had come to be in this parkland, implanting thoughts and drawing on memories to disrupt his chain of thought.
But why? And how? I’m just frazzled, God knows what’s happened but there must be an explanation for this that I can’t remember. I just need to find a phone, then I can call Mel and make sure she’s OK, maybe even find out where the fuck I am! God my back’s itchy, what the hell was in that grass????
Stood erect Aaron could see further, and at last he could just make out the perimeter of the field; there was a building about half a mile ahead of him, shimmering in the reflective mirage coming from the sunlight hitting the ground. The appearance of the building was blurred, and it was difficult to make out any detail – even its colour was distorted by the haze – but Aaron could see that there was only a single storey, and it had a large coloured sign just off to its right. The sign looked like a giant lollipop sticking out of the ground and, even through the shimmering air around it, was undoubtedly red. Wiry crimson tentacles bustled around one another forming a glowing insignia suspended on a thick pole, the emblem itself wasn’t clear at this distance but, from its radiant appearance, it was obviously a neon sign and most likely represented a motel, or possibly a biker bar. Aaron hoped it was the former, although even this possibility stirred something in him akin to waiting in line for a rollercoaster; that mixture of fear and excitement, a foreboding anticipation of thrills to come. He didn’t know why a motel would provoke such feelings, and tried to put this down to the uncertainty of his situation. He was obviously lost and alone, and a brief pat at his trouser pockets would also tell him that he was without his personal belongings; no keys, no mobile phone, no wallet, not even a packet of gum. This really didn’t add up, he never left the house without checking he had these four items. It was a ritual that stemmed from a fateful night out with Marshall; in medical school they had roomed together and one night gone out drinking, Aaron entrusting his friend with the keys to their apartment. After a night of bar-crawling and heavy drinking it became apparent that Marshall had wanted ‘an adventure’ and so had stashed the keys somewhere nearby, somewhere he was by then far too drunk to recall, in the hope of thrusting said adventure upon them. After chatting up a couple of girls and agreeing to stay at their place Aaron had felt less angry, even a little impressed, with Marshall’s antics. That is until it transpired that these two ladies had been prostitutes, this revelation only coming to light after both men had fucked their respective companions and been confronted by two angry whores and a very angry, knife-wielding pimp. Having spent all their money on booze, and with no means to get more from their apartment, it had taken a long time and a lot of pleading to escape several stab wounds. Aaron had never been back to that part of town again, and now always ensured he have his keys, money and phone with him at all times. He later added the gum to this list because, well, he liked chewing gum.
The absence of his sacred items unnerved him. He hadn’t been mugged, at least there was no physical evidence to testify to that. Had somebody drugged him, then stolen his belongings? That was an uneasy thought, and Aaron attributed the sinister disposition of the building ahead of him to his own anxiety, but where was the hint of excitement and anticipation coming from? And why was he so nauseous all of a sudden? He felt like his innards were squirming, coming to life since he had stood up, as if awakened by the proximity of the building across the field and as if each coil of his intestines was now vying for a position closer to it.
I must have been drugged, that’s the only way to explain why all my stuff’s gone and why I feel so sick, and why I woke up in the middle of a goddamn field!
Aaron drew himself up tall, inhaled and exhaled deeply, puffing out his cheeks as if he were about to start out on a colossal expedition into no man’s land. He took one last glance back toward the creepy woodland, squinted into the gloom but saw nothing, turned back to face the building, and set off in its direction. As the gentle breeze blew at Aaron’s back propelling him toward the building, the creases and folds of his now-dry shirt were allayed in lieu of the contours of his back; the tips of his scapulae moving to and fro with the swing of his arms, like useless, stunted wings. His spine created a furrow from the collar of his shirt down to his buttocks, each of these with its own dimple just above it. As each of his arms swung forward with his gait they revealed behind them the gill-like outline of the grooves between his ribs, symmetrical and uniform except for a patch on the right hand side, at the bottom of his ribcage there appeared to be an extra rib, this one ever so slightly thicker than those above it. More like the swollen, linear wound that might arise after the lash of a whip across one’s flesh. The tip of this protuberance closest to Aaron’s spine moved slightly, curling upwards before disappearing into Aaron’s back, the rest of the swelling following it like a strand of spaghetti sucked into a mouth.
Aaron continued to walk unwaveringly toward his destination, a determined, stony look on his face, his stride steady and deliberate. He didn’t feel a thing.