Written by Christopher Richard Wood
Seventy-five down an eight lane interstate, traffic begins to suddenly stop, pushing the vehicle’s driver further and further left until, finally, they’re in the left-most lane.
“Shit!” The driver leaves the road, flinging rocks and dust behind them as they narrowly avoid another vehicle, one facing the wrong direction this time. “Fucking dumb-ass.”
The driver begins to drift back toward the road before having to, once again, leave the lane, this time for a line of wrecked vehicles facing the wrong way.
“What the hell happened?”
The driver’s passenger, a young woman with starkly raven hair, looks to him, her voice low and shaking. “There’s a rest stop ahead. Would you mind if we stop there? I don’t feel so well.”
The driver looks and sees her pallid color, the hard lines on his face softening at the sight. “Of course, my dearest.” He pulls into an empty rest stop, the autumn breeze threatening to cut skin as it pushes leaves along the pavement, their hollow scraping the only sound heard.
“It’s unsettling, isn’t it?” The passenger stands still.
“There’s no sound. No roar of vehicles on the road, nothing.”
The driver stands still and considers it. She’s right, it’s too quiet for a rest stop sitting on the edge of an interstate. The two hurry inside as though a ghost nipped at their heels.
Hinges creak and an attendant, Gayle written on her name-tag, looks up.
“Y’all made it safe through that there mess, I see.”
The newcomers pass a quiet look among themselves before the woman heads toward the restroom.
“Yes ma’am. What happened out there? Why’s there no emergency services?”
“I don’ rightly know by no pers’nal accoun’, though I ken tell ya wha’ I been tol’. Y’ see, coupla people been through since. Had a tale t’ tell ofva whole thing.‘pparently, it started wit’ some madman ou’ there goin’ on ‘bout sumnin slitherin’ ’bout inside-a ‘im. Ran righ’ in-fronter th’ firs’ car an’ popp’d, ‘e did. Then, when th’ mist cleared, there was these eels, a whole pile o’ ‘em, slimed in the gore, writhin’ ‘bout. Th’ firs’ driver, they got out, terror in their eyes as they looked down at th’ mess. Nex’ thing ya knows, ‘nother car come up, slam inter th’ firs’ driver’s car, throws it inter th’ other, slams into th’ firs’ driver and tosses ‘em like a doll inter th’ ditch.”
“One after ‘nother, cars star’ slammin’ inta ‘nother til some drivers started turnin’ ‘roun’, ‘course, ya saw how tha’ turnt out. Well, them eels, they started crawlin’ ‘bout, crawlin’ inter th’ bodies an’ animatin’ ‘em, makin’ ’em alive again. ’bout all I know ‘bout that. Heard it from th’ las’ people done come through, they was covered in blood, warshed up an’ ran out.”
“So you haven’t seen anyone else since? No emergency services, no one? What about the bodies?”
The passenger comes out of the bathroom, her face pale, hands shaking. “Garrett, we should go.”
“You alrigh’, dear? You don’ look so good, maybe y’all oughta sit an’ rest awhile. Been driving long?”
Garrett takes a step towards his passenger, his eyes locked on Gayle. “We’ve been driving a few hours but it’s not a big deal, we’re nearly to our destination. Ashley’s right, we should keep going, can’t arrive too late, her parents will be worried. Especially with it being Thanksgiving.”
“S’pose yer righ’ there, don’ wanna upset th’ folks.” Gayle smiles, though her eyes don’t quite match the motion, a dead look noticeable about them. Ashley and Garrett now stand side by side, on edge.
“Y’all come back now, don’ be strangers roun’ ’ere.”
Ashley forces a weak smile. “O-of course. We’ve got to come back this way to go home.” She nudges Garrett and they turn, heading toward the door.
“Are you alright? She’s right, you know. You don’t look well.”
“Not here, not until we get back to the car.”
Opening the door lets in a rush of air, the smell of smoke lingering. Still and silent, the parking lot is as empty as it was before, the creeping darkness left by the setting sun making the world feel more lonesome than before. Garrett helps Ashley into the passenger seat, her body obviously still weak from whatever ailed her. He buckles her in, closes the door and looks again toward the setting sun breaking the horizon. A small movement by the treeline grabs his attention and he notices someone, their back hunched, legs twisted, staring at him. He checks Ashley’s door to make sure it’s locked. It is.
Looking back, the person’s no longer there. Garrett shakes his head. “That woman’s story must have gotten to me.” He gets into the car and starts it. “What happened back there, Ashley?”
Ashley’s eyes flit first to Garrett, then her feet. “Bodies. There were bodies of people in there, their skin sagging from bones, no wounds, no muscles, no fat. Like they’d starved from the inside out. and their legs, the bottom of their bodies... they weren’t there anymore.” She faces the window as the car re-enters the interstate. “Garrett, we need to call the police. Why were there no ambulances, firetrucks or police?”
Shaking and frantic, she pulls her phone from the bottom of her purse and dials 9-1-1. It rings twice. “Yes, I’d like to report a serious accident on interstate 42 and a possible murder at the rest stop on mile marker 622... Yes, I’ll hold... No, we left. It didn’t feel safe to stay.” Ashley waits a little longer, her face visibly relaxing, color returning to her face. “Yes, this is my number...it’s a cell phone...yes, I’ll answer if you call back.”
Ashley puts the phone back in her purse and smiles to Garrett. “It’s all going to be okay, now.”
“I certainly hope so. That was far too unsettling for me, especially seeing you the way you were.”
The interstate rolls under their wheels, a dark air roiling by, mile marker after mile marker until they reach their exit, 655.
Tall grass grows from dark, damp soil, trees grasping upwards to a dead sky with bare arms. A pervasive silence grips the air, no birds, no breeze.
“It’s going to get cold, soon. Well, colder than it already is. Do you think your father will need help with the fireplace?”
“Oh, no, Ma and Pa had central heating and cooling installed two months ago. They don’t need to use the fireplace, now.”
“That’s a relief, your father’s whole simple living spiel is one of the few things I never do look forward to.”
Ashley giggles. “Oh, stop it. You know just as well as I do that he’s just going to find something else to fuss over.”
“I suppose you might be right about that.” Garrett smiles warmly. “To be honest, I sort of admire him for his stubborn attitude.”
The car turns onto a small road, poorly managed as proven by cracks and potholes that mar its surface. Here and there, grass pocks the road, nature’s attempt to reclaim what was stolen once before.
“Here we are.” The car ambles its way onto a gravel drive that leads through tall trees toward an old, colonial style house, its warm appearance an all too welcome sign.
Gravel crunches beneath booted feet as Garrett opens Ashley’s door. “How are you feeling? Can you walk?”
Ashley huffs fondly as she gets out and to her feet.
“I’m fine, Garrett. There’s no need to pander me so much. Her smile shines ever so slightly in the dim moonlight. “Although, I do appreciate the attention. Let’s get in and rest.”
“Ashley, Garrett, you’ve finally made it! About time, too, nasty bit of weather we’re ’bout to have.” Catherine, Ashley’s mother, greets them just before the two reach the large front door, a warm gust of air drawing the couple forward, away from the reaching darkness and chill. “Let me get those coats, don’t forget to take your shoes off and Ashley, I’ll need a bit of help in the kitch', if you don’t mind.” The three rustle about, Catherine taking coats, shoes and boots coming off to sit neatly beside the front door. “Now, Garrett, Greg said to send you his way when you’d arrived, he’s in his study with our newest neighbor, Carl.”
“Thank you, Cathy.” Garrett hugs her affectionately. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, especially considering your hospitality.”
Greg’s study is immaculately clean, cream colored rug and mahogany wood shelves lined end to end with books, their topics varying widely. Beside the fireplace, which is lit, Greg sits in his usual chair, pipe in hand and talking vivaciously with a man that Garrett can only assume to be Carl. While Greg’s red-faced, husky and bearded appearance would lead someone to believe him to be no more than an appalachian mountains wild-man, Carl’s white hair, skinny and clean-shaven appearance would give the air of a scholar. Yet, here the two sat, whiskey glasses refracting fire light as they discussed the latest episode of some television show.
“I’m tellin’ ya, Carl, he ain’t comin’ back from that. I seen it ‘fore, a man don’t get back up after bein’ stomped down by no cattle!”
“And I’m telling you, Greg, that it’s a television show an’ they ain’t lettin’ no cowboy get kilt by ’is own heifer!”
“Guess we’ll just havta find out next week, now, won’t we Carl?”
Greg’s eyes finally settle on Garrett and a wide grin breaks over his rough, burly face. “Garrett! It’s ‘bout time ya showed yer face, we jus’ ‘bout finished th’ b’ttle withou’ ya!”
Garrett smiles and sits down, joining the other two. “Now, I’m sure wit’ how hard yer workin’ there in them offices, you don’ ’ave much time fer shows. ‘specially since yer datin’ Ash, so we’re gon’ ‘ave to change th’ subject a bit ’n I reckon I oughta ask: How’s things on out there?”
“Well, Greg, you know, living in the city has its perks but with the economy going the way it is, it’s a little tougher each day and leaves me just a bit envious of the self-sufficient man such as yourself.”
Greg spits a blob of darkened saliva over the arm of his chair and into his spittoon. “Hogwarsh, sucks through an’ through, we both know it. Hell, fin’ly gave inter Cathy’s pesterin’ ‘bout central this year. Back ain’t what it was, so there goes the on’ self-reliant bull, too. Gotta take care of yerself and yer own.”
Garrett chuckles. “Alright, you got me. Life sucks right now, especially when it comes to work. Now, with this whole ‘work form home’ craze, we’re expected to put in twice as many hours for soem idiotic reason. They told us it would make life easier but it’s just made it messier.”
“Now, I don’t mean to overstep, so stop me if you need to but, what is it that you do, exactly, Garrett?” Carl leans forward, genuinely interested in Garrett’s answer.
“It isn’t exactly anything special, Carl, mind-numbing work, if I’m honest. I just help provide moderation services for a small social media company.”
“So, you jus’ get stuck saying yes or no to thousands of pictures and posts every day?”
“Exactly. Now, imagine having to do that from your home every day for ten hours straight. I’m sure you can see the problem there.”
“I cain’t say I envy you in the least. Unfortunately, I need to visit the porcelain throne, age is catching up to my bladder. I’ll see you fellas in a jiffy.”
“Alright, Carl, yew go on an’ clear a bit o’ space fer supper, Cathy’s really gone out o’ ‘er way fer this thanksgivin’. We’ll finish th’ bottle for ya.”
Carl chuckles. “I’d expect nothin’ less from you, Greg. Garrett, it’s been a pleasure.” As carl closes the door behind himself, Greg adjusts into a more serious pose, concern hardly concealed on his face now. “How’s ya really doin’? Wha’ I’m hearin’, gettin’ damn near impossible t’ get by in th’ city.”
“It is getting a bit harder, you’re right about that, though I suspect it’s true for everybody, not just us city folk.”
“Ou’ ‘ere ain’t so bad but we’ve been havin’ some strange deaths ’round these parts. They cain’t ‘splain it, they says but I’ve a funny feelin’ they know ‘xactly wha’ it is.”
“Really? I haven’t heard anything about strange deaths in the country side.”
“Well, o’ course ya ain’t. It ain’t ’xactly like us simple folk matter, nor do they wanna ‘ave a whole city panickin’ ’bout-”
“Alright, boys, enough chit-chat, it’s time to eat.”
The two get up and head to the dining table.
“Hopefully ya’ll like what I’ve got cooked up fer thanksgivin’.”
“Honey bunches, ain’t nobody with a clear ’ead ever complained ‘bout nothin you’ve cooked. I jus’ hope yer help knew what they was doin’.” Greg winks to Ashley.
“You’ll see how much I’ve learned soon enough, old man. Now hush up and make yourself a plate.” Ashley gives Garrett a sly smile and wink.
Greg chuckles and beings to heap food onto his plate: Turkey, Duck, Mashed Potatoes, Green Beans and Yams, a slice of pie and a bite more.
After a while of quietly eating, Cathy looks to Greg. “Hon, did Carl go home?”
“Nah, he ‘ad to use th’ restroom."
“Well, it’s been a while, don’t you think we should check on him?”
“Yeah, ‘spose yer righ’.” Greg gets up and heads to the restroom. After a few minutes, he comes back, his face devoid of color. He’s quiet. “Need ya t’ call th’ police.” Greg slumps down into his seat, his head hanging low.
“Greg, honey, what happened?” Cathy rests a hand on her husband’s, noting quietly that he’s shaking badly.
” ’e’s dead, Cathy. Botto half ‘sploded like th’ other ones we’ve been hearin’ ’bout.”
“Oh... I see.” She gets up and calls for the police.
“They say someone should be here shortly.”
“Alrigh’, well, I gotta sit down in my study, have a bit o’ a smoke t’ calm my nerves. I’m sorry Cathy, after seein’ that, I jus’ don’ ’ave no appetite no more.”
“No, no, hon, I understand. Just hearin’ about it’s taken mine.”
Greg leaves the room and Ashley looks to Cathy. “Mom, did he say this is an jongoing thing? Why haven’t the two of you moved? Why haven’t you mentioned it to us before? It’s obviously not safe out here anymore.”
“Well, Ash, you know your father, too mule-headed for his own good. Besides, we’re been here for half our lives and nothing’s happened before tonight.”
“I didn’t get to tell you what happened on our way in, did I?”
Cathy shakes her head. “No, I don’t think ya did, Ash.”
Ashley recants their trip, Garrett filling in his side of things along the way, specifically what Gayle had said at the rest stop.
As the two finish telling Cathy their story, the police arrive, announcing themselves with three loud knocks at the door. “We got a report about someone recently deceased.”
Cathy nods somberly as she opens the door, the reality finally settling in that her quiet, peaceful life is being upturned on thanksgiving evening. “Yes, officers, he’s upstairs in the restroom. We haven’t touched a thing since finding him there. My husband, Greg is the one who found him. His name was Carl, lives in the next house over, he was over for Thanksgiving supper.”
The officers look to one another and the rest of the evening turns to night, a blur for everyone filled to the brim with questions, investigators and coroner workers coming and going until, finally, all four lay wide awake in their beds.
“Mom said Carl had just moved into the neighborhood a few weeks ago. He didn’t have family and lived alone. I can’t imagine how they must feel.”
“I can’t either. Especially considering how well he and Greg seemed to get along. Greg doesn’t hardly get along with anyone.”
“Could you... Could you hold me closer, Garrett? Today is a day that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake. Carl’s body looked just like the ones I saw at the rest stop.” Ashley shivers, remembering the cold, lifeless pile she’d seen. “I hope someone showed up to help there.”
Upstairs, Greg and Cathy lay, wide-eyed in silence, the low glow of an alarm clock feeling ominous in the aftermath of their tragic loss.
Eventually, everyone falls into a restless, fitful dream. They sleep as the creeping things in needs of hosts find orifices, adjust their shapes and intrude carefully.
It’s not actually fair to call the invaders ‘things’. Calling them such implies a lack of sentience, something that’s very much present, even in these unevolved workers. Gayle was the first to be assimilated, no more than a puppet and a genetic observation but one of the first, nonetheless. The blood eels were lower class peons, meant to assist in assimilation, though they’d proven to be problematic, tending to gorge themselves on the host’s bodily fluids, draining as much as possible before causing an unpleasantly explosive end.
Morning sunlight streams into the room with Ashley and Garrett, trickling through drifting dust motes to gently warm, soft exposed skin. Ashley runs her hand up Garrett’s chest to his cheek. For a moment, they’ve both forgotten the horrors of the previous night.
“It’s time to get up, sweetheart. I’m sure mom already has breakfast ready at the table by now.”
Garrett groans and opens his eyes. “Do we have to? Last night was all kinds of messed up. I sort of want to hide in bed for half the day.”
“We do, sweetheart.” Ashley runs her fingers through Garrett’s hair. She gets up and gets dressed, turning around with a smile in the doorway. “I’m going to use the bathroom. I’ll see you at the table.”
Garrett gets up and gets dressed. He walks downstairs to an empty dining room. “Cathy? Greg?”
Ashley comes around the corner and stands in the doorway to the dining room. “They didn’t survive the assimilation. We’re young, though Garrett, our bodies can handle the change. Come, join me. This life is so much better.”
Crimson colored eels crawl along the floor from Ashley’s skirt. Five of them. Garrett stands staring, petrified with horror until everything suddenly goes black.
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