It had been a frustrating day. The gray weather certainly didn't help my mood, the anniversary of Scott's death notwithstanding. I sent off edited documents, but my supervisor would inevitably pop by a few minutes later with a falsely cheerful comment about how things didn't seem up to my usual standard, or how some client called and she needed me to get six hundred other things done by the end of the week. My so-called friends went out to lunch and then got coffee without telling me, and by the end of the day I'd had enough. I left without saying a word and without looking back.
Drizzling rain gently soaked through my unfortunately non-waterproof jacket, my clothes and my skin as I walked down the street. I didn't know where I was going, I just wanted to go. Scott died a year ago today. We hadn't been married that long, but it didn't hurt any less now than it did before. I still loved him. I still missed him. I still couldn't sleep at night without him. I absently spun the platinum band on my ring finger. I couldn't bring myself to take it off yet. The ache inside seemed amplified and closer to the surface as the droplets gathered on my face. It wasn't fair, he shouldn't have been taken from me so soon. I just wanted to stop hurting, just to be numb for a few hours. When I did fall asleep, even in my dreams I ached for Scott, and I woke up crying most mornings. I was soon as thoroughly damp as it was possible to be, given that I was out walking aimlessly in the rain. At least it wasn't terribly cold. The sidewalk detoured slightly from the road through a small park. I followed the pavement through a grove of tall trees, breathing the deep, earthy scent of soil, grass and moss. The trail veered off to the left, and I continued along it mechanically, not really paying any attention. The greyness of the evening had a dulling effect on my senses, even seeming to swallow my footsteps. The grove of trees seemed much larger than I remembered from previous visits, but I wasn't really paying attention to my surroundings beyond where my feet fell. For the first time in far too long the burning ache inside me lessened slightly. The drizzle tapered off to become a thick, heavy mist only slightly less wet than the rain had been. I wiped a sopping clump of hair from my face. The trees above and around me continued to thicken as I walked onward.
The sidewalk gradually became less solid beneath my feet. There were buckles and cracks woven throughout the once-smooth pavement. Decay had crept in and nibbled away at it in places. Further along there were lumps of concrete scattered and broken among errant tree roots. Fallen leaves and detritus carpeted the ground with a slick covering that muffled my footsteps. I was vaguely aware of hearing my own breath drawn in and out, in and out. The now massive trunks around me creaked softly, feebly, as though simply existing was a strain. I kept walking.
My feet soon slipped on the now mucky trail as I left the last remnants of concrete behind. My hair curled damply against my face, dripping occasionally in the heavy mist. The rancid and sickly sweet odor of rot rose from the freshly-trod path beneath my feet, permeating the haze in my head. I remembered camping with Scott one fall, when we came across the partially-eaten carcass of a rabbit. The trees were thinning now, though some reached across my path. A few retained scattered stubborn leaves that clung to dying branches of mildewed gray-brown. The wood provided little resistance to my efforts to break a limb that crossed my trail. The sharp *CRACK* echoed in the silence around me, making me jump. I became aware of a chill in the air. I thought I heard a raven caw in the deeper woods behind me, but it may have been a reverberation of the branch being broken off. I carried the branch with me, just to have something in my lonely palms other than the memory of a warm hand. My shoes sank into the soft surface of the earth, intensifying the putrid smell that wafted up to me. Ambient noises teased the edges of my hearing, but only as long as I kept walking. If I stopped to analyze them they ceased, and the only sound I would hear came from my own breathing. A sudden pang broke through the dull absence of pain that had come over me and I blinked back tears, pressing onward before I was cocooned in the ache for Scott all over again.
The branch grew heavy in my grasp, so I switched it to my right hand. The texture made me shiver; soft and clammy to the touch, but firm inside, like a very long, dead finger. It had blackened my left palm and fingers where I'd been holding the stick. Disgusted, I rubbed the slick filth from my hand onto my jeans. The trail had widened, there were no trees any more, but it was no lighter than it had been when I was in the woods. My palm itched and I rubbed in on my jeans again as I navigated the irregular ground. A slight crackle behind me caught my attention and I whirled around.
I could see nothing but the same landscape of dull, gloomy gray-brown with hints of rotten black-green. The thick mist still hung heavily around me, obscuring all but one or two of the closest trees in the direction I had come. Silence pounded in my ears and my breath plumed out in front of me. I felt the increased iciness of the air. My fingers were cold, stiff, and damp, not unlike the branch I held. I tightened my grip, turned around, and resumed walking. Memories of my Scott crept into the cracks in my attempt to keep my mind blank. The ocean cottage where we'd honeymooned. His sunburned feet. The way he'd made love to me. The way he teased me when I ran away from the tiny fish in the surf. Tears burned and choked me and I walked faster.
Ahead of me the path forked and I kept to the left. The trail rapidly narrowed, gaining a resemblance to a game trail. My breathing seemed strangely amplified in my ears as though the omnipresent mist muffled any other sounds there may have been. I shifted the stick into my left hand once more as it had grown heavy in my right. I rubbed my palm against my damp jeans, trying to satisfy the itch. The cold dampness of the gray-brown-green rotting world kept my mind flat and dull, numb, and kept my automatic brain from derailing to memories. Thoughtless and steady I carried on.
Something to my right interrupted the monotony and caught my eye. I glanced absently in it's direction and continued walking. The image niggled and writhed in my mind as I walked. I realized what the thing had been and my feet stopped moving. Part of a thoroughly decomposed arm in a stagnant puddle. The bone was visible poking out of what had once been a sleeve of some indeterminate color and fabric. The smallness of the limb bothered me and I recalled the names we'd picked for our future children. My breath caught in my throat, and I started walking again, ignoring the prickling feeling at the back of my neck. I could not turn back. There were too many memories behind me.
What may have been an hour or maybe only a few minutes later I noticed that the ground seemed to feel softer, more cushiony, under my feet, though it looked the same. In spite of the pace I'd kept I was not fatigued, aside from the unnaturally heavy pull of the stick I still carried with me. My hands made imprints in the thin of the branch, which, if anything, seemed to be growing thicker as time went on. It certainly wasn't getting smaller, in any case. I muttered out loud to myself that it was crazy, it's just a stick, it isn't growing. My quiet voice surrounded me. The path through this unworldly landscape had gradually faded to nonexistence. I kept walking in what I guessed to be the same direction. The detritus absorbed my footsteps. My breath was unreasonably loud in the icy gray air, punctuated by sounds I dimly detected at the periphery of my hearing. Nothing ever revealed itself within the narrow scope of this muffled world. I gripped my branch and tried not to think about gathering firewood with Scott when we'd gone to the lake to try out our new boat.
My left arm felt heavy and thick, as though filled with sand. I stretched, massaged it with my right hand, but I may as well have done nothing for all the difference I felt. My palm slid around on the stick, as though there were a layer of mildew between my hand and the clammy skin-bark of the limb, and I noticed a tingly burning sensation deep in my palm. I dropped the stick on the ground at my and rubbed my hands together, trying to dispel the uncomfortable burning. The sensation eased but was replaced by an icy numbness. My right hand felt like it had bits of doughy muck dried onto the skin, so I rubbed it on my jeans. Some of the fabric brushed off with the muck, though I didn't realize that until I felt the chill on the skin of my thigh. I tried to warm my hands by putting them in my pockets, but my palm snagged on the edge of the fabric. I looked to see what my hand had caught on and I stumbled to a stop. Something was very wrong. My hand was too...thin, like a notebook that's had half the pages ripped out. My palm-oh God.The flesh was gone. Not entirely, enough remained that a vague pattern obscured most of the bones. Tendons flashed unnaturally, iridescently bright in the dull light. Blood seeped in a slow rivulet down my wrist and into my sleeve. My heart pounded, causing my shirt to vibrate over my slight breasts. Horrified, I felt my throat closing and realized that I felt no pain. I glanced around desperately, hoping to see anything that I could use to bandage my hand, but my eyes only fell on the stick I'd dropped some yards behind me.
The once skeletal limb had something on it. Something odd. I looked closer. My ruined flesh adorned the branch, gray-pink against the gray-green rot. The branch was plump, no longer skeletal but swollen like a bloated river-borne corpse. Scott's body after it had been brought to shore. A shiver ran down my spine. A maggot wriggled, corpulent and white, over the skin that my palm had lost to the corpse-branch. I shuddered and felt the hairs at the back of my neck prickling. More maggots were now swarming out of the broken end of the branch, covering the rotting skin-bark with a revolting mass of white, making it look more like a swollen, handless arm than a branch from a dying tree.
Something in my head snapped. A strangled sound of terror escaped my throat as I kicked the branch away. I was shaking as I started running, in a direction that I hoped would lead me home in spite of the thick atmosphere that hid any identifying features of the bleak landscape. I soon tripped over what I at first took to be a rotting log. I caught myself on my hands and pulled myself up, desperately ignoring the pain in my right hand and the numb grinding sensation in my left. I noticed that the jeans I was wearing now had holes in the knees from my fall, in addition to the holes along the sides where I'd been wiping my hands. Looking back, I realized it didn't look quite right for a log. Limbs, swollen like the strange carnivorous branch I had discarded, twisted around a body. A human body. The blackened corpse had strands of hair clumped around a rotting, fungal skull. The stench I had noticed earlier once again reached my nose, rotting vegetation mixed with the odor of putrefying flesh.
Bile rose into my mouth, spilling from my stunned lips in a yellow-brown sludge and dribbling onto my shirt. I fell to my knees as my stomach spasmed. Heaves overtook me, painfully and frustratingly dry. Tears blurred my vision as I crawled desperately away from the corpse, still retching.
A noise penetrated the sounds of my own gasping and gagging, shocking me into silence. My knees felt wet, warm, and tingly, as my hand had, but I could not move. A strange, wet crunching came from behind me. Very slowly, I turned my head. My breaths were so shallow I could no longer hear them over my pounding heart. There, perhaps ten feet from me, over the rotting thing that had once been a person, something utterly unnameable was crouched. The color was evidently that of the mist, though it seemed also to blend in with the sodden ground. It was visible more as a distortion of the surrounding environment than as an actual physical thing, save the eyes and the teeth. The eyes glowed an unearthly color; the teeth gleamed like tiny, jagged knives in the dull gray light. Hoping that it would prefer the decomposing corpse to the fresh meal I would make, I began to run.
The soles of my shoes felt thinner, as if the ground itself had been eating them away while I traveled, but I could not stop. I ran in the direction I thought the forest should be. I ran through the burning, tingling pain in my feet after my shoes and socks were indeed worn away. I ran as numbness set in, just as it had in my hand. I ran until there was not enough left of my feet to run, and then I crawled, dragging the tingling stumps of my feet behind me. I knew that the thing would find me sooner or later but I desperately hoped to make it home to my own world before then. I tried not to remember if the corpse had still had hands and feet. My hands tingled and burned with every movement I made to drag myself further. My left hand continued to disintegrate. My wedding band grated on bone.
By the time my knees had been eaten away, the ground had become less spongy. I pulled myself on my forearms and pushed with the nubs of my thighs, my torso dragging on the ground in my grotesque army crawl. I could feel the warm, burning, tingly sensation setting in along my stomach. I knew I wouldn't make it, but I could not give in. I caught a glimpse of a tree here and there ahead of me and pulled myself forward with more determination. A sharp tug stopped me and I made the mistake of looking down. I could see my own intestines tangled together, caught on a root. Blood smeared my entrails and the ground beneath me. Groping forward, I had to keep going. My right wrist scraped against a chunk of concrete. My heart leaped in false hope. Nearly there. I felt so weak. I no longer entertained any hope of survival, merely a hope of being found so that my mother would not always wonder if I was still alive somewhere. I lifted my torso to go over the root, then convulsed and heaved suddenly as my stomach was pulled from my ruined abdomen. I looked behind me and saw the bloody trail I'd left, pieces of my body scattered on the carnivorous ground. I shuddered, gagging, and turned back to keep crawling. I tried not to dwell on the absence of pain.
Perhaps ten or fifteen feet ahead of me, the thing waited patiently. The eyes were eerily still orbs in the gray mist. I could not see the teeth, but I didn't need to. I pushed my femurs into the ground, trying desperately to propel myself away from it, but the root was embedded too deeply inside me. As if it had grown into me while I hesitated. I could feel my brain clouding, my sight growing dark as blood loss and shock overcame adrenaline. My last attempt at speech died on my lips as the unnameable began to feed. As I mercifully lost consciousness, I hoped I'd see Scott again.
Numb by Tena Kolakowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.