BY MEL MASSEY
WE PASSED through a space as large as the portal to the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River. I couldn’t remember having left it open. Inside, the smell became a nauseous stench and I crooked my arm over my, face breathing through shirt fabric. Underfoot, the ground became the soft and rotting vegetable cast a gentle luminosity.
“Go home Danny. Danger. Leave now. Stay safe in home.” The voice came from the ground at my feet.
The worm sticking knee high out of the hole was reddish brown and thick as a garden hose. The end writhed in my direction, talking. How could it speak, even make noises? I remembered how much I liked the gentle creatures, so helpful in making aery passages through the soil. Their activities caused our plants to flourish and bloom. I had a soft spot for these writhing minions of nature, but this was insane.
We were on the edge of a vast field mounded with plastic bags bursting with rotting food. There were also rusty appliances and tires. Fumes from sullen fires smouldered into a yellow miasma that hung over the immense dump. The stench was intolerable even breathing through cloth. Where had the stuff come from?
The terrain rose to a misshapen hill, a sort of bleachers against the distant wall of the composter. Something moved catching my attention and I focused my watering eyes. The hill was teeming with things, moving organisms with too many arms and legs and misshapen plants. Many were dragging construction waste. Worst of all, bones and old meat hung from some mouths. As countless as bugs in a nest, they were filling up my composter. The cats and I crouched behind thick branches; rotting green and brown stalks. Celery.
“What’s going on?” the words burst out of me.
Immediately, I was on my back and Lincoln, large as a donkey, stood over me, pie-plate eyes glaring. “Quiet,” he growled. But the warning was too late.
I had given away our location and the swarm turned towards us roiling like surf over a filthy beach. We stood to face our destruction.
The gallery of mutants writhed forward sweeping over inflamed pockets of glistening red in slimy gardens. It occurred to me that there was the source of the fungal toad disease. The poisonous growth was tended, glistening with vitality and hung with black pods bursting with yellow seeds.
I remembered reading an article about a global plague attacking amphibians. Some species had been obliterated. A lunatic fringe of scientists warned of an impending catastrophe if the fungi adjusted to the higher temperatures of global warming and went looking for warm hosts — mammals — us!
There was a steady hum, the concerted sounds of orifices, a chorus of the damned.
I looked up, saw dwarfed by distance and mottled with brown rot, a grapefruit I had thrown into the composter months ago. Forgotten in a refrigerated drawer, it had grown splotches of mould and was now falling apart. A figure perched on the top of the huge decomposing fruit. The king on its throne. I stopped the hysterical laughter rising in my throat.
“Steady, Dan, here it comes,” Shmolin said.
The monster jumped from its perch. The body was grey papery stuff like a wasp nest and it had spindly withered limbs with backwards folding joints and a bloated orange head. It hopped and skittered down the slope, kicking stuff and critters out of its way in an avalanche of rubbish.
As it came downhill, it grew until it was colossal, tall as a house of horrors. The covering was purple and gooey brown, the decayed organs of prehistoric monsters, striding forward.
“What have we here?” it asked the sound echoing out through a black hole in the head as if from a deep cavern. Rivulets of chalky foam drooled out with the noise. “Puddy tats come to play?” it answered its question in a voice both menacing and hideously friendly.
Then it turned its head parts at me, reflecting mirror orbs in the location of eyes.
“You, Dandy-Dan are part of the little troupe. I see you every day, you and your weird woman, now mostly crazy, one of my projects I am proud to say. Now, almost complete. Done like a doughnut, some would say. Those slinky pussies, your only friends; carnivores as happy to discuss as eat you, same difference to them. All heading the way of the Do-Do bird.”
The voice speech was hectoring but curiously intimate, a boss tormenting an inferior. Brown smoke eddied from patches on the enormous body. The stench of burning plastic and bone caught in my throat.
I glanced at Shmolin’s mouth and jaws, the jagged teeth and ferocious eyes. I remembered how her claws pierced plump mice and the birds that dangled from her mouth flapping hopelessly. Killing, she inhabited a beastly universe of merciless triumph. I battled the treacherous thoughts.
Shmolin spoke quietly. “The garbage king and his minions — isn’t that a great word, Danny boy? They are experimenting. Probably making more filth, but it could be that hybrid fungus that feeds on mammals when it gets warmer. Our species, all species. But it’s probably just hogwash and baloney.”
She wrinkled her nose and licked her lips.
“Now wouldn’t that be a sandwich? But we can’t take a chance. High power instructions, all that stuff. Me a familiar? Ha! Well, maybe. You’d better hope!” She looked at me questioningly, “Meanwhile, Danny-boy you’d better get your thoughts under control; what makes you think I’d find you appetizing raw, anyway?”
My eyes tracked Lincoln approaching the towering monster. I could barely see him move, one paw steadily after the other, head outstretched. The filthy tower bent forwards focusing its vision organs on me. It did not notice or ignored the big cat stalking it. Grating sounds issued from the mouth cavity.
“You and your kind, a throw-away species. You forget me in the cold and pitch me out to rot. Burn black oil to smoke and fill the air, garage air. Soon we will all breathe it. However, some with pleasure.”
The voice had made a place for itself in my head. It was speaking pure truth, however disgusting. I was even sorry for it. I was responsible.
What could I do to redeem myself? As I bent to kneel, horrid words came to mind, ancient rhymes of fealty and obedience. There was a place of gathering darkness in my mind. I sensed the presence of an entity preparing to replace Danny. Me!
Behind Lincoln and his objective, the front of the wave had stopped but the living waste piled behind was rising higher in a putrid tsunami. The stink intensified and every breath took in unclean air.
The monster’s voice went on gaining strength, drawling and humorous as I sagged towards the ground. “I’ll look forward to seeing how you, the wretched woman and the puddy tats enjoy the summers to come; and summers they will be!” the voice promised gleefully.
“Here we go, Danny,” Lincoln’s words echoed in my mind, as he sprang.
The cat’s body appeared small, even slight against the looming bulk of the garbage monster. It hung in mid-air before a massive limb struck it down. Seemingly unharmed, the cat rebounded high onto the stinking tower, lashing out repeatedly until cascades of rubbish poured down the sides releasing clouds of brown smoke.
However, the brute was indifferent. With a casual swipe, it smashed Lincoln to the ground. This time the blow caught the cat full force. Contorted on the ground his open jaws showed broken fangs and an ear and face in strips of red and white confetti. However, he was still alive; the crumpled sides of his body heaving, sucking breath.
I heard a yowling screech as Shmolin bounded forward.
She did not rush at the monster’s upper body as Lincoln had done. Instead, she hunched at its base thrashing her clawed paws into the supporting mound. Her limbs disappeared into the pile like whirling fan blades. The creature’s limbs flailed ineffectually above her.
It appeared that Shmolin’s attack would only delay the inevitable; the monster would aim its blows lower and smash her or roll forward crushingly. However, the garbage king was slow and as it shuffled forward, its base crumbled, pitching it over. It was piled so high so high it appeared to fall apart in slow motion as sections of debris and waste peeled off the central body.
“You’ll seeeeeeee . . . .” The hole in the head part blasted brown smoke as the tower disintegrated. Shmolin leaped backwards to avoid the falling rubbish and crouched over Lincoln’s twisted form, tail slashing.
The counter-attack never came. The tide of crawlers and living waste stopped . . . and recoiled. An exhalation of defeat and resignation echoed around the black walls of the composter.
In the distance, I heard my wife.
“Help, Danny, Help! It’s in the house. Where are you? Hurry, hurry!”
I could imagine Annie looking for me around the yard. That is where I prowled when I couldn’t sleep; counting shooting stars when one could still see the sky. Always, I tried to stay within earshot because her nightmares woke her at any time.
“Get over here,” Shmolin said. Without waiting, she leapt to my side, turned her head sideways and closed her jaws around my waist. Giant vice grips supported me with finger length teeth clamping my body.
In two airborne bounds, we passed out of the composter. It was just as well that the giant cat was quick. By the time we were on the brick path I was sagging from her mouth, growing rapidly towards human size as she shrank to domestic cat.
“You’ll come back soon, Dan, won’t you?” she said, letting me slump to the ground. “Bring one of those vet quacks with you. It’ll break your piggy bank all right.” Then she was gone.
When Annie found me she was staring, arms rigid at her sides.
“I heard something in the bathroom and when I went in, there was a huge brown rat on the toilet seat. It looked at me with red eyes. It seemed like forever, then it walked out the door, slowly as if it belonged in our house. Do something, Danny! I can’t go inside.”
She was beside herself, hair still tangled by sleep. She said she had woken from a dream of falling from a cliff onto rocks. When she couldn’t find me in my room, she wandered through the house into the bathroom and saw the varmint. Was it linked to the Sinister Way? The course in magic had taught that in medieval times evil always chose the left-hand path, the sinistra of the occult.
Black cats, toads and rats were common familiars, I recalled. That word again, a familiar to someone or something.
She took out a cigarette and lit it. The smoke swirled around in the thick air like effluent in still water. It smelled of burning chemicals and I was frightened for her.
“Annie, you quit.”
“I know, Danny. But I need to smoke now, I’m so nervous. Where were you anyway? You look strange and you reek of slops and smoke. What were you doing? It’s nearly morning. What’s going on?”
In fact, the air was dank with dew and grey light washed over the sky.
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ll buy a cage trap.”
Tomorrow I would figure out how to set the thing up our bathroom. What would we do with the pest if we caught it? Hiring an exterminator was inconceivable. Now, I had to reassure my wife that everything was normal, that I had been out back stargazing or meditating, something positive.
“What’s that light?” she asked, pointing in the direction of the composter where a faint glow lingered behind the shed. The breeze had blown away the fumes and the air smelled like a spring morning. The jungle had retreated and an unexpected ray of sunshine lit the path.
Behind us, I could hear Shmolin dragging the brave cat or his body out of the garden. I would go back as soon as I had settled Annie. Ignoring her protests, I plucked the cigarette from her lips and crushed it on the bricks. Then I led her out front into the growing daylight. Tomorrow Shmolin and I would consider our options.