When mom, dad, and Dustin finally returned home, they explained to me that they had gone to some Thanksgiving bake contest with a few of their friends. Both mom and dad are bake nuts, always practicing their cooking and entering it in contests. They even won a few prizes and trophies for their culinary skills.
Obviously, Dustin would never have gone to anything like that, so he had just gone to see one of his friends. Meanwhile, I was in that subway for who knows how long, with no idea how I had gotten there in the first place. They asked me what had happened to me and why I hadn't answered their phone calls all day, and I bet you can guess what I told them.
"Well, about that…I was being chased around by a grotesque insect creature in an old abandoned subway while you guys were over at that bake contest with the pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes and gingerbread. So how was YOUR day?"
Yeah, like they would have believed that one. I have to be extremely careful of what I say around them, because the more I go on about what really happens, the less they trust me and the more they doubt my sanity. Basically, every ounce of the truth that they hear from me, the closer I get to being medicated and asked to look at ink blots twice a week in some therapist's office, thus giving Dustin an easier time in his never-ending quest to make my life miserable.
So I told them I was going to Lola's house to spend the night, they agreed and just went on talking about how their sweet rolls won first prize at the bake contest.
I just sat there silently while we ate dinner together, looking down at my plate of green beans, mashed potatoes, and chicken casserole, trying not to think about what might happen to me tonight, and whether I would be a victim of the insect version of Dracula while Lola crept around in the dark looking for evidence of mutant monsters to give to the FBI.
"So, Wendy?" asked dad, while I sat there feverishly pondering the latest weirdness. He was sitting at the seat across from me at the dining room table, next to mom, while Dustin sat at the far end of the table, cramming chicken into his mouth like some ravenous and equally mad animal that hadn't eaten in weeks. Dustin has spiky black hair and pear-green eyes, as well as a few freckles here and there and dimples that make him look like a happy, fun-loving, good-natured sixteen year old who has never done anything wrong.
Though nearly two years older than me, he is nothing at all like that, but people just don't realize it because they expect his personality and actions to be just as pleasing as his big smile and shining eyes.
My dad has black hair as well, though he keeps it close-cropped instead of spiky. His eyes are the same color as Dustin too, but they do look a bit different. For instance, dad has a rather big nose, while Dustin's nose is less prominent. They both are blessed with a tall body builds, and a catlike grace and agility to match it. Dad has "bonded" with Dustin, whatever that means. Although I know he loves me, it seems that Dustin is just too great for him to believe or acknowledge that he treats me so badly. If dad knew even half of what Dustin did, he might not even choose to believe it and instead would go on as if nothing had happened.
But then, sitting at the table, seeing that I was obviously worried about something, dad managed to look sympathetic, or at least concerned.
"Wendy?" he said. "You really don't look so well. Are you alright?"
Looking up from my plate, I smiled thinly at him, not really realizing that my creeped-out grin was only helping to sharpen his suspicions that something was up. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little tired, that's all."
"You sure?" he persisted.
"Yeah, yeah." I assured him, trying to keep the still audible shakiness out of my tone of voice. "I just have a lot of…homework to do, and it’s kind of…you know, hard. Don't worry, though, I'll get it done."
"Are you sure nothing's wrong?" asked mom, pushing a tuft of her hair behind an ear. Like me, mom has blue-gray eyes and rather pale features, as well as dark red hair.
"Yes, really, I'm fine. Why do you guys think that?"
Dustin stared at me deviously from across the table, and his lips turned up in a smile that suggested he was about to start harassing me for some reason or another. I wasn't in the mood for it. In fact, I'm never in the mood for it, but nonetheless, he said, "Because, Wendy Weird, you look guilty, like you're hiding things. You got a dead body hidden in the basement or something?" despite the jocular nature of his question, his words were prodding and accusing. Dad snickered to himself, as if he thought this was greatly amusing, and he probably did.
Narrowing my eyes at him, I replied, "No, but you look a little on the dead side yourself. Sure you didn't just crawl out from a grave a couple of years ago and pose as part of the family?"
"Wendy!" snapped mom, obviously offended by my remark, but seeming to be not at all peeved at Dustin's.
"Hey," Dustin suddenly said, his tone a bit milder than before but no less accusing. "What the heck is that? It looks gnarly, and not in the good way." Grimacing, he pointed at the ugly scar on my right hand.
Trying to think quickly, I set down my fork and flexed my fingers experimentally. The wound didn't look like it had healed at all.
Instead, it seemed to have gotten...worse. It looked redder, deeper, more swollen, and in some places it was flecked with yellow and black. I still felt not even the slightest sting or ache. My heart fluttered with surprise and confusion upon seeing these changes.
"Archie." I blurted, speaking of our British Shorthair. "He must've done it while I was sleeping. it doesn't hurt."
"Well, it looks like its infected or something. Disgusting." My brother made a gagging noise, and then smiled mischievously when I flinched involuntarily at the word infected, probably because I was now suspecting that this was no ordinary wound.
'If that gets any worse,” said dad, “we’re going to have to get it looked at by a doctor.”
"Well, I'm going to get ready to go." I said, dismissing myself from the table and walking into the kitchen to set my plate on the counter.
"Don't forget to pack a toothbrush." dad called out from the dining room.
After preparing a backpack stocked with a few items I might need, including that same flashlight that I discovered in the book bag, the dagger, my cell phone, and a couple of other things, I left, leaving mom and dad to happily continue chatting about their triumph at the bake contest, oblivious to the strange thoughts that now occupied my mind.
I decided not to take Sammy with me, for he was just beginning to really get over whatever spooked him.
It was eight thirty two at night, and I discovered that a thick fog had crept in during the few hours that I had stayed inside, shrouding the neighborhood in eerie wisps that floated lazily, filling the air with icy cold moisture that seeped into my bones and triggered my imagination to wonder if flying things could be hidden in its ghostly blur. The fog clung to treetops, frosted the windows of nearby houses, beaded the hoods of parked cars. A chorus of crickets chirped loudly in the grass as I walked along the sidewalk. A few solitary fireflies hovered around as well, blinking and winking like fairies from unseen areas in the dense fog that conspired to hide almost everything.
Oakville often has foggy nights like this, but very rarely is it this thick and hard to see through. It sometimes seems as though the night has a mind of its very own, with enigmatic purpose and intention. In this case, I doubted highly that it was working in my favor, considering the fact that we might have to make a quick escape if things turned ugly in that subway, and this fog would obscure our vision and make it difficult to flee.
I wondered why Lola was so horrendously bold as to want to go there, especially after hearing the frightening story I told her earlier in the day. She called it being brave, but I was too nice to call it stupid.
Still, we are friends. She is the only one who believes the stuff that happens in my life, so I support her whenever possible, because that's what friends do, and without friends, where would we be?
Though almost every corner was shrouded in fog, I could still see ahead at the end of the subdivision, where I would take a turn and begin to make my way to Oakville Family Park, which was near Arrow Street and the subterranean lair that waited.
Though the natural sounds of crickets, and the even fainter noises of croaking frogs could be heard, the fog muffled and distorted them, making these normally soothing vocalizations sound disquieting further fueling my unwanted inner ranting about what could happen tonight.
The park was less than two miles away, and Lola was waiting, perhaps with night vision goggles and other high tech gadgets to assist us in the hunt for the unexplained.
The truth is out there, apparently in the form of a bloodthirsty winged monstrosity, and in this indisputably odd night, here I was, trudging along to greet it again when I was lucky enough to escape the first time.
Perhaps I truly am crazy.
The Oakville Family Park is a relaxing place to be in by day, but it seems to take on a whole new personality at night. With its new cloak of fog, as well as the odd atmosphere of this night, it seemed almost sinister. To me, a cemetery wouldn't have been creepier.
Surrounded by many tall looming Oaks, decorated with scrawny bushes and hedges that almost completely encircled its perimeter, accompanied by the dense fog; all of these things gave the park a withered and spooky appearance. In the warmer climates of spring and summer these bushes are even more decorative with their assortment of berries and flowers. Now though, the cold weather had caused everything to fade into darker colors, forcing blooms into dormancy, wilting carefully planted flowers into shrunken and brittle petals.
Upon reaching the park, I immediately saw Lola sitting in a nearby bench. She was dressed in a snow-white faux fur coat and Reebok sneakers. She looked like an odd and impatient Eskimo.
"How long have you been out here waiting?" I asked as I got close enough for her to hear me.
Instead of answering, she said, "you're slow. I almost thought you chickened out and decided to leave me to do it alone."
"Now why would I do that?" I replied, grinning sarcastically.
"Because you don't trust me to kick butt if we run into that thing. You think I'm just full of big talk, but I'll show you."
"But you are full of big talk." I pointed out.
"So, what, are you going to use your witty comments to force it into submission like a snake charmer playing his flute to make cobras dance?"
She shrugged. "It's worth a try."
"Lola, really." I protested, coming to sit down beside her on the bench in an effort to reason with her. "We don't have to do this. What are you trying to prove?"
"That this thing exists. Didn't you know that already?
"But you're just taking my word for it."
"I'm the only one who ever has."
After a short silence, she said, "This is going to help you."
Bewildered, I demanded, "what?"
"If we can get proof of this…thing, no one will ever doubt you again. You won't be Wendy Weird anymore. They won't make fun of you. We might become famous for finding a creature like this. It might even change the world."
It touched me that one of Lola's ambitions behind this idea was to help me, but I still didn't want to do it.
"Is it worth it to risk our lives by going in there? I argued. "I'd rather be Wendy Weird for the rest of my life than to be sucked dry and left in the dark."
"What makes you think this thing was trying to kill you?" she countered.
"I don't know, but it isn't really a good idea to tempt fate like this."
"We aren't tempting anything. All I want to do is go in there, see if it’s there, and try to snap a picture of it. That's all." She pointed to a camera that I just noticed was hanging by a nylon strap around her neck.
"Alright," I relented, standing up from the bench. My knees wobbled a bit, but I managed to hold steady. I still couldn't believe we were about to do this. "Let's go."
Nodding, she stood up too, and we both proceeded south down Arrow Street, toward the subway, which wasn't far away.
It was a short but tension-filled walk to our destination, and the fog seemed to be in communion with this watchful night, intentionally against us, floating around our eyes like ectoplasm, making it difficult to see. We could barely see four feet in front of us now, because during my short walk from my house to here, it had thickened like a sauce left to simmer on a stove to enhance its taste and quality.
Despite it, we kept going, our familiarity with the curves and turns of Oakville streets serving us well. The hulking forms of various buildings and townhouses could vaguely be glimpsed, shadowy and unrecognizable.
After a few minutes, we found the gaping mouth of the subway entrance, which was more foreboding than anything I had seen in a long time. Indeed, it looked like the maw of a colossal beast, lined not with sharp teeth but with wispy strands of cobwebs, shimmering with condensation from the fog and from the soft but barely penetrating glow of street lamps gathered near.
"Do we really have to do this?" I asked, staring at the darkness with dread, somehow knowing that what lurked in there could see very well in the gloom, perhaps even better than a cat, while we could rely only on flashlights to navigate.
"Yes." Lola answered firmly, turning to stare at me. Her eyes were filled to the brim with curious determination, something that described her well, but maybe it hid a deeper motive, which defined her fully: the longing for justice and understanding of mysteries, so her friend could be treated right and not mocked by others anymore. Her bravery came naturally to her, and it seemed that a meeting of the eyes was enough to transfer that courage to me. So I said no more, we both switched on our flashlights, and walked into the darkness ahead, which gladly welcomed us.
The cold, musty air was oppressive. It reeked of rodents, dust, and mold. The only sounds were our shallow breaths and the barely audible noise of our shoes on the stony floor as we headed deeper underground. We held our flashlights low, as if this might disturb the creature less.
Lola whispered, “where did you see it?" Her stifled voice, soft as it was, echoed all around the cavernous walls and tunnels, making it sound much louder than she had spoken it.
Even quieter, I whispered back, "Never really saw it. Just the...skin."
"Where?" she inquired.
"This way." I began to lead her toward the escalator, to that room with the blue booths. As we descended the unmoving stairs of the escalator, something squealed nearby, and both of us flinched.
"Rat." I explained, my whisper ragged and faltering with the now rapid beat of my heart, which was already impatient to get going again because of the building tension. "It was just a rat."
Lola looked unconvinced of my assurance as she cautiously probed her flashlight back and forth across the blue booths, and even near the windows, as if expecting something to be clinging to the glass.
"Don't do that." I warned, concerned that her darting flashlight would attract unwanted attention.
"Don't do what?" she asked, halting in mid-step to face me. Her beam focused on the floor.
"Never mind. Let's just find that skin, snap a picture of it or something, and get the heck out of here, fast."
"Where did you see it?"
"Up on the ceiling. Be careful."
She aimed the flashlight upward, and began to explore the ceiling. I didn't want to look, I didn't want to see that thing again, holding on to the rafters, but morbid curiosity claimed me, and I followed the direction of Lola's beam with my own, looking for the exoskeleton. For a few moments we searched for the place that I was certain it had been.
I suddenly detected a horrible smell, the pungent and unmistakable odor of decay. Knowing what it might be, I moved my light to the ground again, and shortly located the rat carcass that had been dropped from above. I gagged from the grisly appearance of this cadaver, and also from the nearly intolerable smell.
Then I played my beam directly above it, on the ceiling at the spot where I had seen the massive insect skin.
The exoskeleton was not there. There was nothing but cobwebs and empty space near and on the rafters.
Somewhere close, a rat shrieked again. We both reflexively flinched, and a realization overcame me.
"The thing took it down." I said, stepping away from the flattened rat on the floor.
"What?" Lola murmured, not understanding what I meant."
"Lola...someone took it down."