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February 19, 2024

Loop

By Pete McArdle

Christine was awakened by something slithering across her leg and she opened her eyes to see a half-naked native lop the snake's head off with a machete. The severed head rolled close to her hand which she jerked away on the unlikely chance that the serpent's jaws still possessed volition. The savage pulled hard to free his knife from the fetid jungle muck, barked at Christine in some guttural tongue, and yanked her to her feet as if she were a child.

Christine saw fear in the flare of the man's nostrils and when he turned and fled into the thick undergrowth, she hurried after him, slip-sliding in her fancy dress shoes. One of her feet sank deeply into something and she fell face-first on the jungle floor. Looking back she saw she'd lost a shoe, it was half-buried in the decaying carcass of some small animal. A cloud of buzzing flies swarmed the dead thing, unperturbed by the cloying stench of corruption.

Feeling her gorge rise, Christine scrambled to her feet, kicked off the remaining shoe, and ran after the dark-skinned stranger. She saw him up ahead, waiting for her in a clearing between two scabrous, vine-entangled trees.

But as she drew near, the native looked past her and his eyes grew wide with terror. He wheeled about and sprinted away, no longer concerned with her welfare, and it was then that she heard the loud thumping of massive feet and the rat-tat-tat of snapping branches.

Certain she'd die if she looked back, Christine ran, or did her best approximation considering how the squelching mud clung to her toes and the razor-sharp grass cut her skin. Worst of all, she could hear the thing's mad insectile hum, as if it were in her head.

"S-s-stay," it hissed. "Wait, and we shall be as one," it whispered.

Sweat stinging her eyes, Christine tore around the massive root system of a fallen tree and there to the right was a steep hardscrabble rise. Although the stones flayed the soles of her feet, she was able to move much faster on the rough incline and she acknowledged a glimmer of hope: perhaps the thing couldn't climb.

As she scrambled up the stony rise, her heart pounding wildly in her chest, the sounds of pursuit seemed to diminish and fade. She didn't dare glance back but by the time she reached the dense foliage at the crest of the ridge, the terrifying sounds were gone.

Bending over to catch her breath, Christine gave thanks for her stunning luck: the beast had passed her by.

But then the screaming started.

It was the dark savage who'd helped her -- who else could it be? -- and as his screams crescendoed off the high jungle canopy, she found herself whimpering. The poor devil howled, much louder than she'd have thought possible, and like that . . . the screaming stopped.

Even as Christine plunged headlong into the lush, moist vegetation, the voice of the insect God was back in her head.

"S-s-surrender," He said.

And He was a God, of this Christine had no doubt. He knew exactly where she was and He was coming for her with His righteous wrath and shiny clacking mandibles.

Christine's mind seemed to unravel as she ricocheted off trees, fell down, and got up without stopping her feet. Heavy-legged and breathless, she pushed on with no thought of rest, for the Lord of the Jungle was coming, yes indeed, and He climbed quite well with His many legs. Christine came crashing out of the brush into a clearing and slammed on the brakes, stopping mere inches from a deep ravine. She was trapped -- and now she would die.

The angry deity was rapidly approaching, the swaying tree-tops marking His progress, and Christine could only gibber nonsense, oblivious to the warm urine spilling down her legs. She'd heard the native's terrible screams, his soaring aria of mortal agony, and soon it would be her turn to sing.

The insect God murmured, "I'm here, Chris-s-s-tine," and then the hideous thing burst into sight, all flailing antennae and crazed mosaic eyes. Christine shrank back and felt herself falling, and falling, and as she fell the buzzing voice in her head said, "No, don't go . . .

. . . on the Meadowbrook Parkway, there's a fifty-minute delay there due to a three-car accident which is still being cleared. Your best bet would be to take the Southern State to exit -- "

Christine slapped the mute button on the clock-radio and stared at the ceiling. What an awful dream, she thought. I shouldn't have had that last glass of chablis.

The early morning light, filtering through half-closed blinds, made the bedroom ceiling look yellowed and ancient. Wondering when it had last been painted, Christine noticed a cobweb. Standing up on the bed, she swiped at the cobweb with her pillow and upon examining the pillowcase found not a web, but a streak of granular dirt. How'd dirt get up there? she asked herself, and then stripped off the soiled pillowcase.

Christine put on her old, threadbare bathrobe and fuzzy slippers and padded downstairs. Jack, her husband, had long ago left for work -- not only had she dreamt of giant talking insects, she'd also overslept -- and the kitchen was deserted. She poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down to the newspaper, which was open on the kitchen table.

"Human Remains Found At Local Beach" she read and sipped her coffee. The coffee was stale and had grounds in it -- she spit it back into the cup. I think I just found human remains in my coffee, she thought, smiling ruefully. She decided to have breakfast in town after she'd freshened up a bit.

When Christine put her cup in the sink, she noticed a stain by the drain. It was a dark rusty red, almost like blood. How many times had she asked Jack, who preferred merlot or cabernet, not to pour the dregs of his wine into the sink? Christine grabbed the steel wool and scrubbed at the stain but only succeeded in making it bigger. Examining the surface more closely, she realized it was rust, the porcelain was marred and she'd made it worse. She wondered if the sink could be repaired or if it was simply too old. Shaking her head, she went upstairs to wash up.

When Christine hit the light switch in the bathroom, two of the five bulbs over the vanity blinked out, giving her face an unhealthy pallor in the mirror. "Damn it!" she yelled, the sound echoing off the tiled walls. "Is everything in this house falling apart?" And then she looked at herself in the mirror and took a deep breath.

The vivid nightmare had clearly cast a pall upon her, skewing her perception of things and threatening to ruin her day. But she would not give in to despair, for outside the sun was shining, the sky was a cloudless cerulean blue, and her crocuses were finally in bloom. She was going to enjoy her stroll into town and if she came across the insect God, why she'd simply crush Him with the heel of her shoe.

Christine began brushing her long auburn tresses. She was proud of her beautiful hair but today it seemed a little dry and brittle, and as she ran the brush through it, the bristles quickly became clogged with hair. What the hell?

She leaned in to the mirror and ran her fingers through her hair, and yes, it had thinned a little but she wasn't twenty-five anymore, far from it. Perhaps she should change her conditioner. Up close, she noticed the wrinkles around her eyes -- 'laugh lines,' Jack called them -- and several small areas of sun damage.

Christine was an unabashed sun worshiper, always had been, and if her skin had become a bit patchy, it was a small price to pay for the loving embrace of the sun. But was that a new spot by her ear? It seemed darker than the rest.

She wet a white washcloth and gently rubbed the area.

Inspecting the washcloth, she saw it was dirty yet there was still some discoloration on her face. Letting the water get hot, she lathered up the washcloth and scrubbed the blemish more vigorously.

Looking into the mirror, she gasped, the skin had come right off revealing small globules of fat and shiny fascia. And somehow there was dirt and debris mixed in with the fat, the wound was absolutely filthy. Ignoring the voice that said go to a hospital, she scrubbed the area with a vengeance and watched in horror as the wound rapidly deepened, revealing muscle and sinew, and finally, bare bone.

Christine noticed more patches of dirt on her face -- they were everywhere! -- and leaning over, she scrubbed them with all her might until the water in the sink was cloudy and dark. Then slowly, ever so slowly, she lifted her head and looked in the mirror.

Her big green eyes stared out of a dry ivory skull and she screamed, or would have if she'd had lips or a tongue. A voice from the doorway said, "Honey, are you all right?"

Someone was gently shaking her, she opened her eyes and saw it was her husband, Jack. "That must have been some nightmare," he said, "You were moaning and rubbing your face with your hands."

Christine pulled her husband close and quietly cried into his shoulder. As she wept, Jack caressed her neck and said, "There, there, Christine, everything's okay. It was just a dream."

Soothed by her husband's warm, familiar touch, Christine rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling, which was newly-painted and pristine. The painter they'd hired did wonderful work but there was something about the man that gave Christine the creeps.

"You're gonna laugh," she said to Jack, brushing away a tear, "but I think the whole process of having the house painted has really shook me up."

Jack grinned and said, "Is Gary turning you on, is that it?"

"Ugh, please!" she said, grimacing at the thought of being anywhere close to the painter with his greasy hair, bad teeth, and heavily-tattooed arms. "I think he had that red dragon done when he was in the penitentiary, probably for manslaughter."

Jack chuckled and said, "I would have guessed rape, myself."

Christine whacked Jack with her pillow, once, twice, and again until he jumped out of bed, laughing.

"I guess he is a little scary-looking," said her husband, "but his work's really super and the price is right. Besides, as soon as he finishes the kitchen, I'll pay him and then he's outta here."

The front doorbell rang.

"Speak of the devil," said Jack, "I'll go let Gary in, make us all some coffee, and help him get set up in the kitchen." Jack walked to the doorway and looked back at Christine. "Unless, of course, you'd like me to send him up here." Then he ducked out the doorway as the pillow flew harmlessly into the hall.

God, I love that man, thought Christine, getting out of bed and slipping into her running clothes. Jack was kind and generous and always knew the right thing to say. Best of all, he made her laugh. Maybe tonight, she thought, tying her shoelaces tight, I'll break out that silk negligee I got for Christmas and show Jack how much I appreciate him. Grinning, Christine tied her long hair up in a ponytail and practically skipped down the stairs.

She'd planned to scoot right out the front door, thereby avoiding the kitchen and the sight of the painter's sullen, pock-marked face, but a splash of color caught her eye. There, on the floor leading out of the kitchen, was a big puddle of fire-engine red paint. The spill must have just happened -- so why the hell was no one cleaning it up?

Furious, she strode over to the puddle and saw it was more of a dark, rusty red and didn't smell a thing like paint. Christine looked into the kitchen, and what she saw there took her breath away.

And then she woke up.



"Loop" originally appeared in 69 Flavors of Paranoia.

Article © Pete McArdle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-01-02
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
3 Reader Comments
Cryin' Ryan
01/02/2012
06:58:52 PM
What beautiful artwork! The color looks like rust . . . or red wine . . . or, gasp, 49er red!!!
Sand
01/02/2012
09:55:10 PM
Or what was left of Sanchez after Coach was done with him...
Mike Aronstein
01/05/2012
08:24:52 PM
Very well written by a great dentist.
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