She startled awake from a terrific clap of thunder, from a dream of being dragged into an abyss, a bottomless deep, devoid of light, where a merciless presence dragged her down with tentacled indifference. She screamed with the last air her lungs would ever know…
The rain still pounded; the lightening still flashed, followed by that relentless booming rattle of thunder. But she was not lying in the rain this time; instead, she was lying comfortably on a single mattress, covered with a high thread count cotton sheet, and beneath a warm duvet.
The fire had gone out, but she could see around the edges of the cave was stacked a vast amount of firewood, including a basket of kindling, beside which sat a can of fire-starting fluid. And beside that, a box of strike-anywhere matches. The surreality felt even less real now. Through the small opening in the cave she could see the grass field she’d woken in, and even the looming treeline perhaps a hundred metres distant. But how? She squinted up at the sky through the opening; it was still pouring rain, but now she could see the dark, almost black, roiling rain clouds above.
It was morning, or at least daytime. Somewhere above those clouds the sun must be shining, providing light even through the gloom. Still, it was cold. She started shivering as she made a fire in the fire pit, being conservative with the kindling and fire-starter. Although, when she looked up from her fire making, a second can of fire-starting fluid had appeared out of nowhere to replace its missing kin.
“None of this is real,” she said out loud, shuddering as she recalled the screams of that man set on fire and dragged into the woods. She struck and tossed a light-anywhere match into the fire pit, jumping in surprise at the whomp caused by the evaporating flammable fluid.
She needed to pee. When a bathroom failed to materialize, she found a corner of the cave, dropped her sweatpants, and let the stream fly. As she went to pull her pants back up, chagrined at the lack of toilet paper, her hand brushed something in a plastic package. It was wet wipes, and beside them, a roll of toilet paper.
“My brain’s been fried by the heat,” she said, then, in her best Aliens Hudson voice, “yeah, but it’s a dry heat!” She laughed at her own joke, but it took a lonely echo around the cave, feeling hollow and broken. For a moment she stared off into the murk of the cave, her mind slipping gears, a rawness gathering in her throat.
Then she came back to herself and did her usual routine: one dry wipe, followed by a wet one, topped with a final, dry flourish. She tossed the wipe remains into the fire.
Having eased her bladder, that hierarchy of needs shifted, now to her stomach. She was famished.
And, unsurprised, she spotted a can of luncheon meat, that kind with a key you use to remove the top, sitting beside a box of salted crackers. Two of her guilty pleasures, she recalled, from a memory that seemed to have misplaced her name and the colour of her hair. But not lines from movies, apparently.
The key part was new. Or, rather, old. She was used to modern cans with a pull-top tab. This kind of key version was a throwback to her childhood. How she could know this, of course, she had no idea.
She also knew it was called “Spam”, not “Slam”, but if she spent time working out how she could know this, her brain supplied her with its organic version of a 404 Not Found error. Sure, HTML response page codes she knew. Just don’t anyone ask for her name.
I’m in a dream, a nightmare. None of this can be real. Something is wrong with me. I’ve been in an accident, or something. I’m lying in a hospital bed, in a coma. Someone I can’t remember is standing beside me, watching…
The image of her lying down while another person stood over her sent a blast of icy terror down her spine. Just one more thing to toss in the box of mysteries that was her existence.
She tried to clear her mind as she ate. Nothing made any sense. She didn’t know her name, the colour of her own hair, nor could she remember a single moment before waking in the rain last night. The only familiar feeling anything had given her was that wave of fear and revulsion she’d felt toward the man lying nearby in the long grass when she’d first woken. Her only memory was an indistinct and emotional one, an almost visceral disgust at another human being. Disgust and terror.
She popped a final Slam-covered cracker in her mouth, wincing at the way the saltine seemed to scratch her throat on the way down, then brushed her hands on her pants. Brand name, of course, from The Gop.
Trying to push all these thoughts aside, she decided to get her bearings and do some investigating. The tall-grass field and brooding forest were not on the agenda, for obvious reasons. Nor the water, for a less obvious yet equally powerful reason: blood-sapping dread.
That left the remainder of the cave, then. She stood and looked away from the rain pouring just outside the cave opening. The firelight exposed this side of the T-junction, that left turn she’d made when she came through the original entrance parallel to the water. But the firelight did not illuminate the second path, the one pointing in the direction of the water. She would need to walk into that passage to learn what was beyond its yawning darkness. And she would need a light.
By now immune to surprise, she spotted an electric lantern, just to her left, which had not been there before.
“A girl could get used to this,” she said to no one, half expecting someone conjured from the ether to respond. Then she thought of all the things that had simply appeared when she’d thought of them, and shuddered.
I’m not yet high enough on the bat-shit scale to start thinking people into existence, she thought, no longer wanting to hear the lonely sound of her own voice. She fetched the lantern and made her way to the T-junction.
To her right the opening she’d come through originally framed the large cave beyond: an oval shape that flooded the junction with daylight, punctuated by flashes of lightning from the storm still raging in the sky.
Directly ahead was the unexplored passage. It was very dark, so no chance it led to the outside. Also, it angled down sharply and must eventually pass into or beneath the water. She held out her lantern to try and illuminate more, but the incline prevented her from seeing beyond a few metres.
What lay beyond that blackness? What if the cave simply travelled into the water? At some point would she step into it, at a point where the cave floor bottomed out and the still, black water swallowed her into its off-key carnival house of under-water horrors?
The floor’s downward slope increased as she moved into the darkness. The feeble light from her lantern could not penetrate far. Eventually, the slope became so steep she had to sit and butt-slide her way, with a growing fear she wouldn’t be able to climb back up. But then, suddenly, her cut and bruised feet—she could do with some shoes, even flip-flops—slapped onto a flat, horizontal, and smooth floor. The downward slope ended abruptly, and when she brought the lantern down to examine this floor, she was astonished to find it was no longer rock, but a slab of concrete.
Although she could see very little, she had a sense of distance in front of her, as if the cave continued on for some distance. She steadied herself with her left hand, the one holding the lantern, and its now-fading light revealed an enormous switch set into the cave wall. The wall was like the floor, smooth concrete instead of rock. The switch resembled something from a 1950s science fiction movie set. Two arms angled down from slots in the wall, which were connected by a round tube. She tried to move the switch up, but it did not budge. She had to put the lantern down, grab the lever with both hands, and use the strength of her legs to push it up. As the switch reached its upper position there was an audible click, followed closely by an electrical hum. The cave suddenly erupted with light, and she stumbled backward, ending up half sitting, half falling, onto the angled rock she’d just climbed down.
This was no longer a cave. Instead, she stood at the beginning of some kind of underground storage room. It was maybe ten metres across, and at least twice as high. She could not tell how deep it went; it stretched on until her eyes could no longer pick out any detail. The florescent lights along the ceiling repeated on and on, until they became an indistinct smear of light. On the right side of this… room, were stacks of industrial metal shelving, arranged in three stories, each one about three metres high. On each shelf were shrink-wrapped boxes atop those wooden pallets that allowed forklifts to move them around.
She walked up to the first pallet. The boxes were marked with numbers and what looked like QR codes. The first pallet also sported pictures of what it contained: flip-flops. She felt a few more threads of her sanity unravel in her mind. Her last thought was how she needed something for her feet, even flip flops. And here they were.
“Still, what I really need are some good hiking boots and warm, heavy socks.” The pallet of flip-flops stayed mum, so she began trying to remove the shrink wrap to get at them.
“I need a box-cutter.” she added, as she struggled with the plastic. She moved a foot for better purchase, only to kick something on the floor. It rattled away to her left. She looked down. A box cutter. Because of course it was!
She retrieved the tool, slid the blade out, and turned back to the pullet of flip-flops. Only, the pallet no longer carried a box of sandals. Instead it was now a pallet of boots, with a box of heavy socks beside it. She tried not to think as she cut away the plastic film and retrieved some socks and a pair of boots. She had no idea what size her feet were, but, of course, the boots fit her perfectly.
Once again, this time with her feet snug and warm in a pair of boots, she stood and stared down the corridor, which seemed to go on forever. Then she turned around, only to find the cave she had crawled here from was gone. Instead of a sloped floor, a slab of concrete stood, perfectly vertical, connecting the floor, walls, and ceiling. She put her hands, palms flat, against the wall, then rested her for head on its concrete surface. Madness wasn’t here yet, but it was most definitely kicking its spurs, driving its horse more quickly in her direction.
In order to avoid thinking, then, she walked. The shelving continued, shrink-wrapped pallets filling all three levels of shelving. She found, should she think of something, the next pallet would come to contain that thing. Diapers, Christmas ornaments, Tickle Me Almo—not quite right, but she could’t recall what it should be. On and on. When she grew hungry, a pallet of bananas, complete with a dead tarantula from back where the were picked. Then beef jerky, and trail mix, and Greater Ade, a coloured sports drink in single-serve bottles. On and on. She considered getting some kind of backpack, as she walked past a pallet of backpacks, but why bother, when everything she wished for would simply appear when requested? Which included the need for a toilet, at which point she found portable camping toilets, toilet paper, and wet wipes all packed together.
There was no place to put the toilet when she was done, so she just pushed it up against the wall. As she did, she noticed a crack running up from the floor to just above her head. Had she seen cracks before? She thought back to first finding this endless room. Not only did she not recall any cracks or other flaws, the walls, floor, and ceiling had all seemed brand new. But now the concrete looked somehow older. And the steel shelving, while not rusted, was less shiny, tarnished.
And her throat felt raw, very scratchy, but not from a lack of moisture: no amount of sports drink could sooth it away. It reminded her of when she was getting sick, only, of course, other than a vague feeling of familiarity, she could not remember ever being sick.
She continued walking, ignoring the palates of cold medicine and herbal tea. How could I even make tea, she thought to herself, then rolled her eyes as she walked past a box of electric kettles, bottled water, and an electrical plug set into the steel shelving.
What happens if I think of an Airbus three-eighty? she thought, then, after a moment of terror, added out loud, “An Airbus model kit, of course.” After which she walked past a pallet of the same.
What felt like hours of walking ensued, with her throat growing ever-more sore. At one point she paused and leaned against a box of pillows. She had no way of telling the time, so she—what should she call what she doing, conjuring?—thought about a wind-up watch and took one out of the next box she passed. She had no idea what time it was, but made her best estimate by setting the watch to midnight, then gave it a few good winds. The second hand began to tick tock its way around the face.
We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.
“How now, Falstaff,” she chided, “time to exit, stage sleep.”
The next few shelves gave up their goods: a roll-up mattress, loose sheets, a comforter. A pallet of pillows. She lay down, her throat more sore than ever. It had become so bad she wondered if she could get to sleep.
She awoke to a terrific, booming silence. A nothing, a void of sound so palpable she could feel it in her ears.
She was also soaking wet, despite the floor and walls and ceiling all being dry. As she towelled off and changed into dry clothes via some conveniently-placed boxes on the shelving, she examined her surroundings. The concrete of the floor was now scuffed and faded where she’d been walking, as if thousands of feet had made their way along it. Distinct tracks from what looked like an endless procession of rubber wheels travelled away from her, into the seemingly endless corridor in the distance. And there as also moisture, now. The walls, the ceiling, the floors, all of it looked damp, with the odd drop falling from the light fixtures, which were no longer florescent tubes, but rather pot lights suspended from the ceiling. The products, too, were changing.
The cardboard boxes had been replaced with wood; there was no plastic to be seen. The boxes were labelled, but there was no colour, nor any pictures of the products they contained. Her throat was a raging fire, now so sore it was hard to breath. Every inhalation, especially, was a struggle, a labour. She drank some water, but eschewed any food—not with her throat in such discomfort.
The… hallway? warehouse? whatever it was, seemed to be getting older. This was the only way she could conceptualize it, as if she was walking back through time as much as she was moving through space.
She came out of a reverie, a daydream. She crawled out of a cloying and claustrophobic jungle onto a beach, where she could take in huge gulps of the air’s salty flavour. Seagulls soared and swooped over glittering, diamond-encrusted waves…
The hallway was dark, now. Above the shelving were no longer electric lights, but gas lamps. The items were on wooden shelves, and in place of pallets sat on simple piles of wood. Most of the boxes were gone as well; instead there were sacks, and glass and ceramic jars. And barrels. Lots of barrels.
In the feeble light she could make out that the floor and walls were no longer concrete, but stone, like a mine shaft made by people with tools, but no machines.
A barrel poured water from a spigot into a tin cup. No more sports drinks for her. And dry, stale bread to eat. She had to pick out the weevils. She found a bottle that, when she removed its cork, smelled something like lemonade. But it was concentrated lemon juice, and it burned her sore throat as she choked it back up onto the rough stone floor.
Breathing was next to impossible, now, as if her mouth had been filled with wet cotton balls. Still, she struggled on, as the gas lamps became candles, and the shelves became disorganized piles on the floor. Until, in the now near-perfect darkness, her hand met a rough stone wall.
The end of the line.
The orgasm came in throbbing waves so powerful his body went rigid, muscles taut like stretched rubber bands. This was the most intense experience he had ever had. Even the rain soaking his back could not interfere with it.
He managed to relax his cramping fingers—he’d been squeezing hard all this time—and lifted his head enough to regard her face. She stared up at him. Lightening flashed in the sky, followed closely by a guttural rumble of thunder. Her visage was cast into relief, looking like a porcelain doll. He pressed his lips over her mouth, using his tongue to push hers, which now protruded between her lips, back inside. He probed inside her for a moment before getting to his feet.
The small stand of trees set back from the road, beyond the unkempt space she lay in, next to the road, was filled with staccatos of with light from the lightening, and the constant stream of truck headlights coming around the bend of the access road. The lights penetrated a few trees in, casting shadows and light, as if something was moving just inside the tree line.
He looked to his left, at the Costco distribution centre, which lay just beyond a broad irrigation ditch and behind a chain-link fence. He’d caught up to her here, at the water’s edge, where she’d hesitated before the inky black.
As he regarded the distribution centre, so tantalizingly close, awash with light and activity even this early in the morning, he looked down at her and fastened his pants and belt.
What a beauty! She stared unblinking into the night sky, even as the rain beat onto her eyes, then ran down her cheeks like tears. Sightless eyes, now.
He suddenly found this disgusting, the way the raindrops bounced off eyes like striking congealing balls of jelly. So he reached down and rolled her onto her front, feeling a thrill at the site of her dress, once held closed by a delicate zipper, now ripped open, exposing one shoulder blade and the small of her back to the rain.