Parte 9

The forest was alive. Even before the fog came, we could see it moving and wriggling with electric energy as the thunder roared overhead and lightning cracked at the top of the mountain. I’ll admit for a moment, I actually wondered if a forest fire would be preferable. Obviously death hadn’t been enough to keep Jennifer and countless others from coming back in some form, and so I later decided that setting every strange abomination on fire would only create more dangers for us.

I won’t beat around the bush. We were scared. We knew enough and had seen enough to know we wouldn’t be safe. As the rain poured down and the cables and lines swayed from side to side off the tower, Daniel and I were not only afraid for our own safety, but for everyone else’s.

This broadcast tower was keeping the town alive. We were keeping the town alive. An alcoholic and a failed theatre actor: who knew?

The lights flickered again, prompting the broadcast to turn to static and skip as I scrambled behind the desk to get the sound going again. For mere seconds, the waves would go silent, then spring to life again just as a rumble would vibrate underneath the tower. I noticed Daniel flinch, holding one of his ears just moments after the broadcast came back and static-filled music played again.

“You hurt?” I asked him, but he shook his head, stretching out his jaw.

“No. My ears won’t stop ringing though.”

I shrugged it away, imagining all of those cliche excuses. It’s the weather or the pressure is different up in the mountains, so on and so on. But he bounced back immediately, marching over to the window to scan his eyes over the dreary-looking forest. It was hard to see much of anything through the rain, but he squinted to make out shapes on the horizon.

“There’s something moving out there.” He said almost breathlessly. “…Far away, but it’s getting closer. It’s hard to see.”

I didn’t need to see for myself to know what he was looking at. In the midst of the rain and the lightning, the fog would still find a way to roll in. After all, it wasn’t really a product of the weather at all. It was more of a living thing, or rather, an amalgamation of all formerly living things on this side of the mountain range.

“…I need you to run the emergency broadcast.” I told him as I pushed away from the console and popped up out of my chair. A strong wind whipped past, rattling the walls and making the wooden floorboards creak beneath our feet. I felt unsteady, suddenly worried the old stilts holding us up would give in and we’d crash down into the trees below. The only thing worse than the fall would be the exposure to the open woods, should we even survive the way down. The floor rumbled as if the building itself were breathing before it settled back into place. I looked at Daniel and he looked back at me; we both knew we’d have to prepare for the worst the storm could do.

As he practically fell into the chair, turning on the microphone to broadcast a crackling message over the air, I rummaged in the storage closet for industrial sized flashlights and the keys to the generator shed. Now, all of this supplies made more sense to me: backpacks, emergency food rations, first aid kits, flares, fire starting kits … this place was never meant to be a radio station. It was most likely a ranger lookout that had been adapted into something capable of large-scale broadcasting. While knocking things out of my way in search of the keys, I found a pack of walkie talkies, and checked them for batteries.

Daniel was already done with his announcement by the time I found them, and appeared at my side to snatch one out of my hand. He seemed to be thinking the same thing I was: if the power went out, one of us would have to go out there to turn on the generator. One of us.

We couldn’t risk both of our lives with nobody to take over the responsibility.

“Did you start the music again?” I asked him.

Daniel nodded. “It’s going.” He said, but the lack of confidence in his voice spoke of a deeper thought. It was running now, but if the lights continued to flicker, it might not be for much longer.

There was nothing else to do but wait. As the fog bounded through the forest, moving the trees with the weight of its eerie inhabitants, could only watch as it engulfed the entire woodland.

I had never seen the fog rest at the edge of the forest, but it did this time. Something about the music, or rather the signal, kept it from crossing that line between us and the town further down the mountain. We unplugged our headsets, letting the music play in the studio for us both to hear, and sat down at the edge of the window on the floor. It was the calm before the storm as we stared at the swaying poles and wires outside, wondering which one would be the first to snap or end up snagged in a tree.

A moment passed, but it was a long and excruciating moment of silence. Dan was the first to break it, as his talkative self almost always was.

“You wanna know what I did before this?” He asked, but I knew he’d tell me anyway. I nodded still. “After I graduated with a master’s degree in performance art- a master’s degree - the only acting job I could get was recording a commercial for some plumbing service. I recorded lines in an actual studio, talking about toilets for twenty takes. And you know the worst part?”

He laughed, looking over with this stupid, somewhat disheartened grin. “They didn’t even pick mine. I heard the commercial on the radio in my car and it was someone else completely. Never in my life did I think I’d be legitimately pissed because I wasn’t chosen as a spokesman for toilet cleaning.”

That actually made me laugh, even if it was a bittersweet moment of lightheartedness. I shrugged my shoulders with an expression of nonchalance. “Go figures you’d get let down by the radio twice.” I gestured to the room around us and Daniel snorted mid-chuckle.

“What about you?” He asked in return. “Tell me a stupid thing you’ve done.”

I had to think for a moment, not because I couldn’t recall any but because there was too much to recall. Somehow, all of my stupid mistakes just ended up … sad.

“I almost died in a bathtub once.” I said, chuckling even if it wasn’t all that funny. Daniel seemed unsure if he should laugh or not. “I was shitfaced and I felt terrible so I wanted to take a bath. Ended up passing out almost the second I got in it and Jennifer found me after I had apparently flipped face-down. She honestly thought it was a suicide until they got me breathing again and found out I was still just as hammered as when I went in.”

That time, I laughed but Daniel didn’t. I even knew it wasn’t funny, but I was desperate to grab at straws just to find a reason to take it lightly. When I saw the severity of the frown on his face, my smile disappeared and I suddenly felt like a child being scolded.

“How long have you been sober?” He asked. I didn’t need to question how he knew it was an ongoing thing. After all, he had seen enough on my computer to know most of the truth by now.

I felt a tightness in my throat and the breath I took in next was shaky and uneven. “M-my first sober day was the day I came into work a few weeks ago.” I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from letting it tremble. Putting it into perspective felt pathetic, reminding me of just how soon it was. “…The only reason I’m not drunk right now is because the fuckin’ grocery guy only brings me cheap, shitty iced tea.”

That time, we both laughed, but it didn’t last. In a second, amusement turned to tears as I unwillingly felt a sob escape me, both of my hands covering my face. With my eyes squeezed shut, I only felt Daniel’s hand pat between my shoulders and remain there until I uncovered my face. I refused to let myself cry out loud. Those thoughts and feelings were pushed back down as my eyes returned to the fog at the edge of the forest. I watched it move and swirl, many eyes and many shapes moving and twitching as if waiting eagerly to be allowed further. The shed was so close to the edge. Too close.

A familiar pair of eyes stared back at us then. Up in the tree, free from the fog and hopping near to tap its beak at the window, was that damn bird again. I looked at it closer this time. Its eyes were hazel. Now, I found myself wondering less where it came from and who it had borrowed those eyes from.

“What did you see?”

I heard Daniel’s voice, but didn’t process it at first. With a deep breath, I wiped away the tears from my face and turned to him with a ‘hm?’ of confusion.

“…At the graduation party. You were in the woods and you saw something. Didn’t you?”

The word ‘graduation’ in itself made my stomach sink. I looked away from Dan again, squinting as I struggled to bring those thoughts forward again. Somehow, just looking for the memory caused an internal pain.

“I didn’t know there was anything fucked up about the woods back then.” I said. “I told you that I left here, right? When I was a really little kid. My dad died and my mom remarried, so we moved in with him out of town. Then I came back the week of graduation with a bunch of people I used to know as kids and they all said this woods got creepy since I left…”

Bits and pieces were still missing from my thought process, but I was piecing them together in the moments I paused and kept silent. It was some terrible puzzle slowly coming into view, and it made my face turn to a grimace.

“I wandered off, probably because it was loud and everyone was acting like an ass. But out in the woods, I heard something. It was a growl I thought at first, but now that I remember that sound, it was … it was a voice. A low, gravely, painful groan. This animal stepped out of the bushes and I thought for sure it was some kind of cougar or wild dog, but its face… oh god, it had this face. Yellow eyes like a wild cat, but the nose and the mouth were … different. Human and familiar.

“He looked at me and I saw his mouth move, trying to say something. But all that came out was this terrible rattle, like it hurt to breathe. It sounded like he was suffering, like it took everything he had just to say a single word. I-I ran back to the party and I drank and drank and fucking drank until I couldn’t remember that thing’s face anymore. And it worked for a good, long time too. But now? Now that I’m sober, all it took was thinking about it once for it to be stuck in my head again.”

Dan gave me an apologetic look, as if he had some reason to feel sorry about it all. His hand fell on my back again and he opened his mouth to speak. I’m sure it would have been some great words of wisdom or encouragement, but he never had the chance.

There was a flash of lightning and a deafening crack as it struck one of the poles standing around the station. The thunder blended into the sound of the crackling radio for a split second before the lights went down, the sounds stopped, and we were plunged into a dark, thick silence.

All I could see in the dark were Dan’s eyes, illuminated by the flashes of lightning as he watched the forest’s edge. The fog twisted and moved in patterns of rolls, tumbling over itself like a living beast as it crawled towards us. It was almost too dark to see, but my eyes could make out blots of shapes inside of the fog - arms, legs, bodies, all of them eager to inhabit the land they had been barred from until now. The mist swirled around the stilts of the tower, creeping upwards before we had no choice but to made a split decision.

Daniel turned on his walkie talkie, testing it by holding it up to his mouth. I could hear the crackle of his voice come through mine even just a few feet apart.

“I’ll let you know when I’ve got it going.” I told him sternly, jumping up to my feet. I was about to push open the fire escape with no hesitation, but I felt a rough hand grab the back of my shirt before I had the chance.

“Stay in here so you can get the radio going.”

“No.” I answered flatly, refusing to follow that order. There was a scowl pulling at the edges of my lips as I glared at him. “I wasn’t there when you got hurt and I couldn’t help Jennifer either. So let me do this. …Let me do this.”

We stared at one another for almost too long, but I could feel him slowly letting go of my shirt. His arm dropped, giving back my freedom to move, and he nodded his head once in silence.

Daniel, if you’re reading this, you snooping bastard … thank you.

The door took a heavy burst, but I shoved it open and was surprised for a moment when I didn’t hear an alarm. Of course, it didn’t take long to remember that the power outage had taken everything, not just the lights and the radio signal. The fog was already rising, covering the ground and crawling upwards over the sides of the building. It was only moments before I was trapped inside of it, not sure whether to run for my life or take it slow to stay hidden. It would have been no use. They knew I was there already.

I held my flashlight in shaky hands to illuminate the steps of the fire escape. There were no vines, no slimy, mud-covered appendages, and nothing waiting there to trip me. Still, I didn’t trust that the fire escape was unoccupied. I could hear a faint clank from the bottom, as if something was trying to pull itself up to the open door behind me.

The sound in that fog was maddening. The amalgamates were suffering inside of themselves, parasites eating off of one another and groaning in some constant pain. The ones that didn’t moan and cry in their torment were voicing aggressive growls or rattling breaths as they searched through the fog for another living thing to tear apart and add to their collection of stolen bodies. My flashlight caught a glimpse now and again of milky white eyes or the glimmer of rain-soaked skin or fur. I didn’t dare look back, but I could hear and feel the crash of weight against the fire escape, as if something was trying to crawl its way up underneath a section as I passed.

Once the end of the stairs was in sight, I made it my goal to run to the shed as quickly as possible and lock myself in immediately until the generator would start. The problem would be getting out. My light caught the end of the step, and there I saw what had been making all of this noise.

A woman’s face stared up at me with dead, pale blue eyes. She was dragging herself, her upper body struggling to leave the ground and crawl its way up, as her lower half was weighing her down. This half of a woman, one I remembered seeing sprawled over the branch of a tree, was being engulfed in roots and bark. The living plant her corpse had been fused with pushed itself along the ground but clumsily, as if it was too heavy and too scattered in its movements to make any progress.

Her arms, however, were still moving and capable of grabbing me if I got too close. The worst part was how pleadingly she looked at me, as if the human part of her was begging for a way to get out. I couldn’t help but feel that the aggression was fear, but it didn’t tug on my heartstrings quite enough to convince me to stop. I jumped over the edge of the stairs, falling only a couple of feet from the ground and making a straight line to the shed. The keys in my pocket jingled and slipped between my fingers as I tried to find the right one, all the while far too aware of every shadow and every glimmer of eyes creeping closer.

The fog was too thick to see well. My flashlight only served to show me that there was nothing directly in front of my eyes, but it was perhaps a blessing that the creatures hunting in the fog were stuck in it just as much as I was. I still sensed that they knew I was there, searching and struggling to catch anything in their grasp. I ever heard the shriek of one, like the sound of a whining animal in pain, as it was caught in the clutches of another, larger, and likely more terrifying beast.

I felt the surface of the wood in front of me, whispering words of relief as I patted along the edge of the shed until the door was at my fingertips. A pair of keys were fished from my pocket and my clumsy fingers struggled to swiftly find the one small bit of metal that I needed.

Just then, I heard a crackle. It was the walkie talkie connected to my hip, Daniel’s voice on the other end.

“Did you find it yet?” He asked, but I felt my stomach tie up in knots when his voice rang out over the silence.

I wasn’t the only one to hear him. Heavy grunts and stomps of feet, like hooves digging into the dirt, surrounded me. I could hear the shriek of something vaguely avian mixed with a human-like scream, and bellowing roars that shook my skull from the inside. I was in a rush to open the door, trying every key as I blindly searched for the right one. Finally, as I prepared to swing the door open, I could feel the vibration in the ground as something heavy and tall landed by my side as if jumping from the tops of the trees.

In the blinding fog, I could see brown and grey fur, spotted with blood. It smelled like rotten flesh and mold, its joints cracking and groaning as it bent down to my level. I could see its eyes in the periphery of my vision - at least six of them, pale, stained with flecks of jaundiced yellow, sitting above an elk-like snout. Its antlers scraped the side of the wood with a terrible, jaw-clenching sound. I felt a touch to my back, and recognized it immediately. The spider-like appendages that had brushed my arms on the last fog day weren’t the legs of some giant spider, but this thing’s fingers. It breathed in, then out with a rattle, and the stench of blood and death was warm against the side of my face.

When I told Daniel that almost drowning in a bathtub was the stupidest thing I had done, I meant it. It was the stupidest thing I had done … yet. But this day, I changed all of that.

I threw the shed door open, stepping out of the way to let the heavy wooden plank hit the hulking beast beside me directly in its nose. Moving quicker than I ever had in my life, I slipped into the shed and jammed the door shut behind me, locking it up tight and throwing anything I could find in front of it as I heard the beast bellow more in annoyance than in pain.

My light shone on the generator, but I had to work quickly. I felt a tremble in the floor as whatever stood outside knocked against the door so roughly that it caused dust and debris to fly into the air. I fumbled with a can of oil, spilling a bit of it onto my shoes and my pants but still managing to fill the machine as that thing outside rounded the edge of the shed in only two large steps. It pounded on the roof, big enough and powerful enough to cause the wooden beams above my head to crack bit by bit. I threw the nearly-empty oil can to the side and tried to find every button and switch in order before the ceiling collapsed under the weight of that thing’s fists.

I flipped the first switch, then the second, knocking my fist against it as I impatiently waited to hear it spring to life.

“Dan!” I yelled over the walkie talkie. “I’ve almost got it. You have to get ready to switch the breakers though. They’re downstairs, go!”

I heard his voice, but it was muffled and his words weren’t making sense over the endless crackle. God, I hoped he heard me. I felt a pain in the back of my head as a bit of wood from the ceiling fell with another forceful hit, and suddenly I could see a pale light from above as the foggy sky became visible. A hole had been punched in the ceiling, but in moments, it was blacked out by the multiple eyes of that tall, decaying abomination from the woods.

I flipped the last switch and the generator began to rumble. It was a success, and regardless of whether or not I survived to escape this crumbling wooden hazard, the station would have power in moments. I staggered back, clothes and hair smelling like oil, staring up at the pale eyes above the roof with frightened defiance.

The shed rattled, another hard punch or kick hitting it from the side where I stood. It was enough to push me forward and knock me onto my hands and knees, but it didn’t last. I could hear it before I saw it. The lights outside buzzed as they all came alive one at a time, bathing the entire clearing with a yellow light. That’s when I heard my device crackle again, Daniel’s voice speaking clearly on the other side.

“I can’t get the radio started.” He told me in a panic. “It’s - there’s not enough power to run it! It won’t work!”

It seemed like a failure at first. But then I remembered that stupid, laminated piece of paper I had been staring at for the last month on my desk. Rule #1: When the radio is down, activate The Bell.

I was only pissed that he’d be the one to push it after that button had been tempting me since my first day.

“See the button on the wall? The one behind the case? Push it.” I shouted back to him sternly. “Don’t hesitate, just push it!”

I could hear him on the other end, fiddling with the case before he did exactly as I said. The next thing I heard was surprising.

Nothing. I didn’t hear a damn thing. At least, not from the speakers on top of the radio tower. Instead, I heard Dan let out a pained yell and fumble around the room before a small mechanical whine and a clatter followed. Later, I would learn what that was: it was Dan throwing his hearing aid across the room.

The creatures outside didn’t disappear. Rather, they became noisy in their pained and agitated sounds, rumbling past and dragging themselves away in any way they could. They were retreating to the forest, bothered by some sound that my ears couldn’t pick up. A drone, perhaps too high or too low for my ears to hear, was driving them off. The Bell, just like every other tool around here, was solely there to control them all along. Or rather, to control the forest itself.

The eyes disappeared from the hole in the ceiling and I could hear the hulking creature above me slowly stomp away, resigning itself to return to the mountain. My legs felt like jelly and my head was pounding, but I still managed to find the door and push my way out into the fresh air again, just as a glimpse of a giant, mud-covered hoof disappeared into the treeline.

Daniel had propped open the fire escape when I came back up, slowly and exhaustively forcing my way to the top. The lights were on, the radio was off, but we were safe for the time being. The first thing my co-worker did was pull me into a hug, lifting me a few inches off the ground, and saying these profound, thoughtful words to me:

“You smell like petroleum.”

I wish I could say that was the last time anything weird has happened here. But, as you can guess, a day or two has passed and everything is still bullshit. The sink doesn’t cry anymore, but we still get some weird calls and Dan told me that it rained pebbles the other day. I told him I was pissed off that he didn’t collect any for me like a baby otter. I’m sure things will always be weird around here and there will always be some story to tell, but for now, I think I’m going to focus on doing my job and lasting a bit longer than employees one through twenty-seven. But I'm sure if you don't hear from me, Dan will be sneaking on my laptop again some day. I could change my password, but … nah.

This is Evelyn at the 104.6 Emergency Broadcast Station, and in case you were wondering, that bird is still out there. Daniel decided to name it Bartholomew.

I fucking hate Bartholomew.

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