Jim Kjeldsen is a historian-journalist who lives in Bellingham, Washington. His previous books include the nonfiction "The Mountaineers: A History" (Mountaineers Books, 1998, still in print) and the forthcoming "The Carnival of Speculation" (WSU Press, due in 2016). He is a finalist for Best Online Short Story 2015 for "The Giant Gila Monster," Indiana Voice Journal, June 2015.
She didn’t sit close to him all night. When he picked her up, she acted aloof. At the movie, she didn’t laugh, instead leaning away from him. Driving down Canyon Road to drop her off, he thought he might as well inch closer on the truck seat. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“Hey, there’s the entrance to the old quarry,” he said casually. “There’s been some odd goings on there.”
“How so?” she inquired incuriously.
“Oh, people disappearing. Never to be found again. Folks sneaking in at night and coming out so scared they can’t speak. Ever.”
She harrumphed. But only a little.
“Maybe they scared themselves in the dark.”
“I don’t know. They saw something.”
There was no lighting on the road except for the thin sweep of headlights. Trees loomed, enclosing them almost in a tunnel. The effect of light across the branches was eerie.
“Look at that!” she shouted.
Reverse fright. Now she was trying to scare him.
“What is it?” he asked in measured tones.
“Someone was standing beside the road. Go back, we have to be sure.”
“A girl, I think. I just caught a glimpse.”
Dylan cautiously turned his truck around and went back down the road. Tree trunks were on either side, branches yawning, but no one was there.
“Again,” Cara ordered. “Do you have a flashlight? I'll get out and walk it.”
If this was reverse fright, she was good at it. He didn’t have to fetch a flashlight. Caught in the high beams was a girl standing behind a tree, arms wrapped around her chest, each hand clutching a shoulder. She stared as they approached, oblivious. She was naked. Cara rushed to her side with a blanket.
“Have you been assaulted?” she asked solicitously. “Is he still around?”
The girl didn’t answer.
Dylan wrapped her shoulders. She looked at him with blank eyes and tried to speak but nothing came out. Hesitantly, they led her to the pickup. She sat in the space between them, and he was about to drive to the hospital when she began to come out of it.
“I don’t want to die,” she shuddered. “Please, I don’t want to die, not like the others, please. Oh God, please.”
“What others?” Dylan asked.
“Please, please,” she pleaded, “don’t let it get me.”
“Who else? Where?” Dylan demanded.
The girl pointed up the slope. Comforted by Cara’s touch, she calmed a bit. “All of them,” she said. “I saw them go. They’re all gone.”
Cara clasped the girl’s head to her shoulder, hair still dripping.
“Who did it?” she whispered. “It’s okay, we can help you. Were you raped?”
“It didn’t rape them, it ate them!” she shrieked in alarm.
Cara gave Dylan a look. The girl was really loopy.
“What’s your name?” Cara asked softly.
“Kia,” the girl volunteered quickly, as if she might never get to say it again. “We went for a swim. All I could do was run. I didn’t know where.”
“The quarry,” Dylan said. “You were at the quarry swimming?”
“Kia, you’ve got to tell us who was with you. How many?”
“Sarah, Joel, Crandall,” she whispered. “They’re dead.”
“It ate them.”
Cara had her cell phone out and was dialing 911.
“Let’s wait here,” she said. “The police need to collect evidence. The medics can help her.”
Dylan looked up the hill. The quarry had been closed for years, since a boy drowned there. Actually, he disappeared. Dylan assumed the body had gotten trapped in one of the caves that littered the bottom of the pond. That’s why the quarry had been flooded in the first place, to conceal them.
“We used to swim up there,” he told Cara. “It’s a maze of limestone blocks.”
They were soon awash in blue and red beacons. Medics put the girl on a stretcher.
“How many others are up there?” a deputy asked Dylan. He was short and gruff. The equipment on his belt made him look fat.
“Three--two guys and a girl.”
“They were eaten?”
“That’s what she said.”
The deputy nodded knowingly.
“How did she get here, there’s no sign of a car.”
“The trail zigzags up the hill, or you can drive around and come down from above. She had to come down the trail.”
“I’ll see what’s up,” he said, chortling at his own joke.
Cara got into the aide car with Kia, who wouldn’t let go of her.
“I’m going with you,” Dylan told the deputy.
“Crime scene, kid, you’re not allowed,” he said brusquely.
“This hillside is riddled with trails and old dumps,” Dylan said. “Even if you’re lucky and reach the main quarry, you won’t know where to look.”
The deputy looked skeptical.
“You know the area?” he asked.
“Like the back of my hand.”
“Stick close, no fooling around, and no destroying evidence.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” Dylan said.
He was soon leading the huffing deputy, choosing which forks to take as they climbed. Out from the trees, a full moon lit the upper reaches of the hillside. They came out onto an expanse of flat rock. Beyond, the lake glistened. There was no sign of anyone. At the water’s edge were clothes hastily tossed aside, including underwear.
“Two boys and two girls,” the deputy muttered. “They must’a been skinny dipping. Why didn’t the girl grab her clothes and take them clothes with her?”
Dylan led him above the quarry where a four-by-four truck was parked, but no one was there, either. They went back down, and the deputy gathered the clothes into a plastic evidence bag. He handed it to Dylan. “Don’t open it,” he scolded. “Don’t drop it. Don’t fuck with it in any way. Just take it to my car. Got it?”
“Yo,” said Dylan, but when he looked up the deputy was gone. He called out but got no answer, and spotted the deputy’s flashlight on a rock. It cast its beam directly into the water as if pointing the way.
Dylan edged backward toward the trail with the bag of clothing in front of him as protection. He waited for the deputy to reappear. That is, he waited until he heard a curious sniffing, then something touched him on the chest, gently, almost loving, yet he bolted in fright and ran down the trail without stopping to look back. Throwing the bag of clothing into the back seat of the deputy’s cruiser, he raced to his truck and jumped in. He almost jumped right back out again. Someone was there.
“Cara!” he said, heart palpitating wildly. “You scared me half dead. What’re you doing here?”
“Waiting for you,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave you alone. I’m glad you’re so impressed I stayed. I was about to come get you.”
“Jesus,” he said, gripping the steering wheel and fumbling with the keys. “You’re either the bravest girl I know or the dumbest. The deputy vanished. Maybe he’s gone undercover, but it sure didn’t seem like it. Why screw around at a time like this?”
He gunned the engine and sped away, putting distance between them and the rock quarry.
“There’s something up there, I don’t know what. It sniffed at me. I don’t get it,” he muttered, more to himself than to her.
They stopped at the sheriff’s office, but nobody was around. Dylan left a note explaining that he’d been separated from the deputy and couldn’t find him again. Then they stopped at the hospital to check on the girl.
“What happened up there?” the nurse quizzed them. “Her feet are cut to ribbons. She’s scraped up from one end to the other and so terrified she can’t talk.”
“We picked her up on the road,” Cara said. “We thought she might have been assaulted.”
“No sign of that,” the nurse said. “She’s been traumatized by something else.”
Dylan wasn’t sure what to say as he drove Cara home. When they arrived, she pleaded with him, “Don’t go, talk to me.”
He was startled. She’d shunned him all evening. “About what?” he asked.
“Life,” she said sarcastically, then relented. “Otherwise, we’re in for a sleepless night.”
Dylan ran his hand through his hair. “I got scared and ran,” he said, “real scared. I didn’t wait to see what happened to the deputy. I’m a coward, or I would have searched for him more carefully. What if he isn’t okay? I should go back and check.”
“Are you fucking nuts?” Cara said, surprising him. “The other deputies know where he’s at. They’re probably there by now. What are a couple of kids going to do? Instead, tell me why you asked me out. I wouldn’t normally say anything, but this isn’t a normal night. A football jock with a steady girl from a public school asks out a library mole from a Catholic school. Why?”
“I dunno. How’d you know I had a steady girl?”
“Google,” she said.
“Oh. She’s in San Francisco with her family. I wanted not to think about her for a while. I see you in the library when you’re working, and you looked interesting. What more can I say?”
“Alyssa might not be too happy about it.”
“Christ, did the two of you get together to swap lies or something?”
“Research. You didn’t think I’d go out with you until I checked you out, did you? She’s sexy. You must make a nice couple.”
“We go out together because it looks good. We spend as little time alone as possible.”
“You have to be alone to have sex.”
“Says who? Anyway, with Alyssa? Get real. It would make a mess. She’d say, ‘Ooooh, that thing’s sticky.’ ”
“I ask only because I like you, football pads and all,” Cara said, “but I don’t want to cause problems.”
“If you mean when I tell Alyssa--and I will tell her--don’t worry. She makes fun of you all the time and would only think I was after a little Catholic juice.”
“Cara, don’t be so slow.”
She blushed. “Oh, sorry. I’m not naïve so much as unaware of public school dating mores. I guess I thought everybody slept with everybody.”
“Welcome to the real world.”
“I’m confused, it doesn’t seem like I fit into your world.”
He brushed it off. “So far, we seem to be doing okay. Stranded girl, disappeared cop, missing kids. Let me get to the point. I like your brain and suspect that under all those crummy clothes there’s one hell of a body.”
She shrugged off the revelation as if of little importance. “My apologies for prying. Where do we go from here?”
Dylan pulled her to him abruptly and kissed her. He didn’t know if he really wanted to, she looked so sexless. But the kiss convinced him they were on the right track, wherever they were headed.
The cell phone leaped in Cara’s purse. She answered and handed the phone to Dylan. “It’s for you. They must have tracked the number through 911.” Dylan listened as the voice on the other end demanded to know where the deputy was.
“He must be up there somewhere,” he said. “I was scared shitless and took off. This guy’s a pro, he can take care of himself.”
He handed the phone back. “I haven’t got the guts to face this. Like that girl, I don’t want to die.”
“Jesus, you are a coward!” she exclaimed. “You went up the hill once, and that’s more than 99 percent of the population would do.”
There was something comforting about her, the almost black eyes, the dark hair, the olive skin, the frumpy way she dressed as if concealing something worth discovering. It was strangely familiar.
“I’m afraid, too,” she said. “I’m afraid you’ll jilt me and never have anything to do with me again.”
“Looks like we’re in this together,” Dylan said laconically. “There’s no way out now.”
He smiled inwardly, but left wondering what it was like to fall in love, whether this warm feeling of mutual understanding was it, whether it would last, or if he would wake up in the morning thinking of Alyssa and her pouty, wet kisses.
Instead of going home, Dylan turned toward the quarry. Cara’s comment about being a coward had gotten to him. He’d run away once, and he wouldn’t do it again. He expected to find police lights flashing, dogs on the trail, news reporters, swarms of bystanders. Nobody was there. The deputy’s car was gone, so he must be all right. Dylan dropped into bed at 3 a.m. His emotions kept crashing into each other like football players at scrimmage. Why had he been so frightened? It was not like him to turn and run. He was more a stand-and-fight guy. The deputy had been condescending, and Dylan figured he’d leave him to his job and get the hell out of there--that was the answer.
What about Cara? Most of all, what about Cara? She fit like a glove, and he didn’t know why. She said she liked him. That was his last thought as he passed into the world of dreams. He didn’t sleep for long. At 7, his phone jangled, and he picked it up expecting to hear the slurred voice of a drunken friend asking for a ride home. Instead, there was a sharp, commanding voice, more of a bark.
“Dylan Glaser? Chief deputy Reichert here. I understand you accompanied deputy Nolan last night. Where is he? We need to know immediately.”
Dylan tried to clear the fog from his eyes.
“He told me to take the bag of clothing to his car,” he said. That part wasn’t totally true, but Dylan felt he could fudge a little. “When I left, he was still searching the quarry. I didn’t see him after that.”
“You just left him there?” The tone was accusatory.
“I took my girl home. When I returned, his car was gone. I assumed he’d wrapped it up for the night. It wasn’t like there was anything going on up there.”
“Well, he disappeared. Another deputy drove his cruiser back to the station. We thought he must have hitched a ride with you for some reason.”
“Let me know immediately if you hear from him.”
There was no more sleeping. It was just as well he didn’t try. The phone rang again 10 minutes later. Cara had gotten a call as well.
“I just left him there,” Dylan obsessed. “Something happened to him because of it. It was my responsibility to help him.”
“Land of Jehovah!” Cara screamed, her patience thin as a doily. “While you’re at it blame yourself for the starving children in Africa. That’ll do them a lot of good.”
“Can I come and get you?” he asked. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on.”
Cara looked different in the daylight, less faded. Her face was brighter, her hair glossier, her lips fuller. They went straight to the hospital. The girl was awake, but she jumped at every shadow and flicker in the room.
“I told the police I didn’t know what happened,” she confessed in a whisper. “If I tell the truth, they’ll lock me up. They did that once before. I’m never going back to the psych ward.”
They’d gone skinny-dipping, two couples, her boyfriend and his best friend and his best friend’s girl. It had been fun, swimming in the dark, until the other girl disappeared. Thinking she was in the water, her boyfriend dove in after her. He never came back up. As Kia and her boyfriend were waiting, wondering if the other couple were playing a prank, Kia saw something that left her paralyzed, unable to move a muscle. Coming up behind her boyfriend was an opaque, slippery thing, undulating toward them.
Her boyfriend turned and saw it, too, then flashed out with his fists. Whatever it was collapsed into a puddle of goo. Kia begged him to run away, but he grasped a tree branch and swung it at the thing on the ground to smash it. It absorbed the branch deftly. Then it absorbed the boyfriend. All of it happened so fast she didn’t know what to do. She began to cry.
Then she ran, her clothes remaining where she’d dropped them. She ran down the hill until she stumbled into the road. There she stood, waiting to die, praying over and over, “Our Father who art in heaven …” It was the only prayer she knew.
“Don’t tell anyone I told you,” she hissed. “I’m trusting you so you can get this thing, but leave me out of it.”
Dylan wondered if her story might be a joke, an extended prank. If the deputy hadn’t gone missing, he might have thought so.
“We need to go back up there,” he told Cara.
He said “we” because he knew he wasn’t brave enough to go alone. To his surprise, Cara said, “Yeah, okay.”
This time, there really were police cars, lights, dogs, and a TV helicopter. The area was sealed off. They couldn’t get in. Dylan pulled off the road and put his forehead against the steering wheel. The day had grown blustery, wind whipping around the truck as if it were an island in the middle of a tempestuous river. He was trying to recall every detail of the night before. Cara was doing the same, although they hadn’t talked about it. “Don’t!” he shouted. “Don’t think. It hinders objectivity.” Almost at once, they looked at each other and said, “The bag.”
The bag with the clothes. It was too heavy. In Dylan’s fear, he hadn’t thought about it. The deputy had handed it to him, and he’d hefted it unconsciously. It didn’t occur to him that the bag should have been much lighter.
“I watched you throw it into the deputy’s car,” Cara said. “It didn’t register. I was just watching your muscles. They were too taut. You had to swing it around and heave it.”
“There was nothing more than clothes in it,” Dylan said, “unless the deputy put in something else.”
They needed to find out.
At the sheriff’s office, all the cruisers were parked behind the building. The desk sergeant, who glanced at the parking lot surveillance monitor when they came in, was eating his lunch. They’d seen several cars in the lot with gray-green insignias on the side, and looked in the back seats. One car contained a large green trash bag. Dylan hesitated, so Cara tried the door. It wasn’t locked. No sooner had she put her hand on the door than it flew open, sending her sprawling. Dylan caught her as she fell. They watched as something slick moved at high speed out the door and under the car. It was like a shadow, camouflaged, reflecting whatever was around it. There was no shape, just movement. It looked like a puddle of oil. They backed away slowly.
The thing whipped toward them, came upright in an almost human stance, or mimicked one, hesitated a fraction of a second, and retreated back under the car. The wind blew some dead leaves toward the station. They shimmered. It was among them. The leaves coiled with the side of the building, the shimmering found a vent, and it was inside.
Cara and Dylan were stunned. She’d been thanking God for a wonderful life. He’d been regretting that they never had sex. Death was close by.
“Why?” Dylan stammered.
“I don’t know,” Cara said.
“Why didn’t it kill us?”
“I don’t know.”
On unsteady feet, they made their way into the station.
“We need to see Chief Reichert,” Cara told the desk sergeant. “It’s an emergency.”
The sergeant looked at his lunch enviously before turning his attention to them.
“Sign in first. I’ll see if he’s here.”
The sergeant inspected their signatures as if they were counterfeiters passing off fake hundred-dollar bills to the cops. He let them through the security door and pointed down the hall. Chief Reichert looked up inside his office. “Yeah?” he snarled.
“You called about deputy Nolan,” Dylan said. “Have you found him?”
“I think we know what happened to him. He was eaten.”
The chief got up and closed the office door slowly. It locked with a click of finality.
“No shit,” he said. “Did he taste good?”
“It’s in this building,” Cara said, looking around anxiously. “We saw it coming in just now.”
“What is? You’re going to have to be a lot more specific than that.”
“We don’t know,” Dylan said. “All we know is that the girl we picked up saw it. The deputy saw it and maybe tried to capture it. Now we’ve seen it.”
“A description would help,” Reichert added.
“It looks like a giant jellyfish,” Dylan said. “It moves fast and hides against the background. Look for a shimmering on the surface of something solid.”
The deputy unlocked the door.
“Out,” he ordered. “Stay out or you’ll be arrested for interfering with police business. Get the hell out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” Dylan said meekly.
They stopped at a food stand to get something to eat, then sat on a park bench, munching solemnly. “Maybe we’re tired and hysterical,” Dylan said. “It’s probably nothing but a hallucination.”
“With four people missing and Kai’s description?” Cara said. “What planet do you live on?”
“We tried,” he said. “We just weren’t convincing.”
“Bullshit,” Cara retorted. “We’ve been fumbling around like two psycho druggies. We can do better.”
However, she had no concrete ideas on exactly how they could do better.
“Let’s wait until it kills someone,” he shrugged. “That should make it easier to convince them.”
Cara ignored his sarcasm.
“We need to think this through,” she said. “Here we are, knowing that more people will die, if they haven’t already. Yet we aren’t able to do anything about it. A Cassandra position,” she said, and at his blank stare added, “The Greek fable, the girl who knows that tragedy is about to strike but can’t get anyone to listen to her warnings.”
“The question is, what’s our responsibility?” he asked. “We’ve already risked our asses. Isn’t it up to others to find out what’s going on? Or do we own up to the fact that the thing has fallen into our laps and try to save innocent people?”
“You make it sound like a multiple choice test,” Cara said. “Beeeep! Too late. You die.”
“We’ll die anyway,” he added. “That’s a fact. And if we decide to run from it, the thing might eventually catch up, and we’ll have wasted a one-time opportunity. Maybe that’s what life is all about, not wasting your one chance.”
“What the hell, let’s go see if we can get it back in the plastic bag,” Cara said.
“We’ll be the bait,” he added. “Risk ourselves unhesitatingly for the greater good. It’ll be glorious.”
“Wow, a terrific philosophy for an asshole,” she said.
They approached the police station with trepidation, looking in every direction for the slightest shimmer. Inside, no one was around. The desk sergeant was gone, leaving behind most of his lunch. Cara leaned over the desk and picked up a slice of ham between two fingers.
“People eat this stuff?” she asked no one in particular. “Yuck.”
They searched the building but found neither a person nor a shimmering glob. Nothing.
“I haven’t a clue,” Cara said. “Maybe they fled, or …”
She halted in her tracks and muffled the gasp that rose in her throat. Reaching behind, she touched Dylan to steady herself as if he might be the last person she ever touched. Then she turned and buried her face in his chest.
“What good is that going to do?” he asked, but over her shoulder he could see what had stopped her. Ahead, on the floor, was a pulsating mass glistening in the dim light, almost opaque but not completely. Inside, still quivering, was the desk sergeant. They watched as the sergeant dematerialized with frightening speed. The sergeant vanished, and the glob again was a glistening mass camouflaged against the floor. Dylan backed off slowly, keeping Cara behind him. The thing followed them.
“Don’t break and run,” he said. “It’s too fast.”
“It let you go once,” she whispered. “Isn’t that a little weird?”
They propped the doors open and led it into the parking lot. Once the sun fell on it, the glob became one with the pavement. Dylan slipped quietly into his truck, gunned the engine and sped away. Cara was still shaking from the encounter. “Do we tell the others?” she asked.
“How would I know,” he said. “My instinct is to run from the damned thing. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do.”
Just then, he braked hard and took a sharp right into the cemetery, banging Cara’s head against the window. Before she could screech at him for driving so erratically, he said, “Keep your eyes straight ahead.”
She did so.
“It’s in the back,” he added.
In the rear-view mirror, she caught the bed of the truck glistening.
“It’s still with us,” she whispered. “It could have attacked at any time. It doesn’t know where to go.”
“It’s probably full, having so many cops for lunch,” Dylan said. “Anybody you want to get rid of?” he asked quietly. “We pay them a visit, and whop, they’re gone.”
“Gross,” Cara said. “It doesn’t want to eat you, though I’m not convinced I share your immunity.”
“Any friend of mine is a friend of its,” Dylan added. “You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
“It certainly is able to get around unnoticed,” Cara said. “Why are we in a cemetery?”
“My dad worked in that quarry before it was flooded,” Dylan said. “After it was shut down, he got the job of maintaining the place. I spent half my childhood there watching him. This is the back way in.”
“It must recognize you!” Cara said. “Perhaps if we go back to the quarry, it will return to the water, presuming that’s where it came from in the first place.
“Oh, shit,” she said, looking in the mirror. “It’s moving.”
Dylan drove to the parking area above the pit.
“Dylan,” Cara said suddenly, “where did it attack you?”
“What? In the chest.”
“On your T-shirt?”
“I’m not wearing anything else.”
“Something just occurred to me. You know how you and the deputy found those kids’ clothes? And how Kia got away naked? It seems to home in on clothing.”
Dylan was quiet. “Goddamn, that’s deductive,” he said. “If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, it’s kind of a wild idea.”
“Unless you have a better plan.” He shook his head.
They slowly began working their way out of their clothes. When they’d stripped, they left the clothes on the floor of the cab and edged out the door. The thing stayed where it was.
“Use your T-shirt, maybe it’ll follow,” she said.
Dylan pulled his shirt off the floorboards and dragged it out of the truck and along the ground. The shimmer moved with it.
“Damn, you’re right,” he admitted.
They made their way on bare feet over the rocks and down the trail to the pond. It oozed behind, blending in with the rocks. When they got to the water, Dylan pitched his shirt into the pond. The thing didn’t hesitate. It jumped in with a splash.
For a moment, they stayed frozen in place, Dylan staring at the pond and Cara looking around for other hints of danger. For the first time, he noticed her breasts, moving along his back, her soft skin warm against his own.
“It’s working,” she whispered.
“No shit,” he said.
He slowly began to back away. Hand in hand, they made their way to the truck, then jumped in and drove away without getting dressed. Dylan waited until he was certain it was well behind them before pulling off to the side of the road. Jeers from a passing car barely registered as they pulled back on their clothes. The police station was crowded now, with people trying to determine where the deputies had gone.
Watching them from the parking lot, Cara asked, “How do we do it? Big and formal, or private and sly?”
“Private and sly,” Dylan said, fearing the glare of TV cameras. “Before we start making plans to get rid of it, I’m a stickler for procedure. I haven’t popped the question yet.”
“What question?” she asked, looking around, wondering if they might be discovered. No one paid them the least attention.
“Will you marry me?” he asked.
“Oh, sure,” she said absently.
They kept peering around them.