Mae woke up suddenly.
She was aware that her legs were cramping painfully underneath her, but she didn’t dare move. She sat for a moment, eyes still closed, listening for the sound that had alerted her.
The night was quiet around her. She could hear muffled breathing coming from the cardboard box next to her, and then a muffled thump as the occupant inside changed position slightly.
The night had turned colder very quickly, and Mae could feel the chill had sunk deep inside her joints. She would be hurting tomorrow, but it would be worth it if she could come closer to unraveling her mystery.
Satisfied that nothing was happening, Mae’s thoughts drifted to the soul inside the box. Poor Bea. Penniless, alcoholic and mentally lost, the old lady existed on the fringes of life and reality. Mae was here in part to guard her from whatever was supposedly roaming the bogs, snatching up homeless Pineys. But mostly Mae was crouching behind a battered refrigerator carton in the dead chill of a winter midnight out of curiosity. She had to know if there was a truth to all the Jersey Devil stories she had heard.
She admired Bea’s courage, though. The poor ancient creature was clearly terrified of this area after dark. She believed her own stories of comrades vanishing out of their nightly hovels to never be seen again. Bea said it was the Devil who came and took them, come to claim the souls that were his while they were still breathing.
Mae believed in crafty serial sickos more than devils, and thought she just might have a shot at a big story this time. All the elements were there; spooky area, homeless victims, a mystery with some history…
Maybe she could even get Time or one of the other biggy publications interested. Mae liked The Community Pages where she worked, but it was time to move on to bigger waters. She just needed one good, meaty story.
Without moving her head she glanced down at the camera in her hands. A tiny green ready light blinked dimly back at her reassuringly. She just hoped she didn’t sit here like this all night for nothing. Maybe she would at least hear something she could write about tomorrow.
There were plenty of homeless that still holed in the Whitesbog woods at night. She suspected a few of them were probably hoping for some demonic figure to take them away. For some, life on their own was like living in Hell already.
Suddenly all the hair on Mae’s neck went up and the night seemed to grow frigid in an instant. Something was wrong. Mae listened to the silence in vain. There was no sound at all except her faint breathing. Then Mae grew aware that something unpleasant and hot was happening to her leg.
She started in spite of herself and looked down. Liquid was streaming from the edge of the box and had started to seep into Mae’s equipment bag and pants. An acrid, humid odor hit her nose, and Mae shuffled backwards to get out of the offensive flow.
“Bea! Wake up! You’re peeing on yourself!” she hissed. Mae was disgusted. No mystery was worth getting peed on. She pulled her bag to safety and stiffly crawled around the edge of the box. She was going home. Bea could sleep on her couch if she wanted, after she took a shower.
Mae grabbed the edge of a corrugated flap with every intention of telling Bea so, but the words turned stone on her tongue. The first thing she saw was Bea, lying half out of the box. She was curled in a fetal position, but Mae could partly see Bea’s face from underneath the matted hair.
Bea’s normally sleepy expression had opened up with hyper awareness. Her eyes bulged from their sockets like red veined grapes about to explode. Her lips were peeled back from her teeth in a mock snarl, and her jaw was convulsively shaking.
Mae forgot the cold, her wet leg and her mission in a glance and felt raw terror gripping her like a fist in the pit of her stomach. Her friend was having some sort of seizure, and Mae didn’t know how to help her.
“Bea! Are you okay?” Even in the electricity of the moment Mae knew how stupid her question sounded. She moved forward to grab the old woman, thinking she might drag her to help, when something shot out of the box and clamped itself around the back of her neck and head.
Pain shot out from below her ears as whatever it was that had her tightened its grip. Mae’s vision began to black out, and she was dimly aware that she had collapsed on top of Bea.
Something hard was pressing into her chest, and she realized that she was still clutching her camera. Barely aware of what she was doing, she managed to twist her arm out from her body and struck out at whatever it was that had her.
She felt the camera strike something and than twist out of her hand as she lost her grip. Whatever had her was coming out of the box; she could hear the cardboard scraping and was aware that the iron grip around the back of her neck was loosening a fraction. She felt herself being drug forward by her skull, and she kicked out as hard as she could.
Her foot struck something solid dead on, and she heard a hiss. The grip on her neck loosened even more, and she wrenched herself free and started scrambling. Every thought in her mind was gone except for the desperate need to get away from whatever large and scary thing had been hiding inside that box.
Something grabbed her around one knee, and she was suddenly paralyzed with pain as she felt her leg being pierced at the joint. Mae opened her mouth to scream, but found a large cold hand quickly clamped around her nose and mouth. She struggled for breath as whatever it was that had her drug her to her feet. She could feel breath on her neck, and then something sniffing her hair and ear vigorously.
“Plaaaaaaythaaaaang……” hissed a whisper when the sniffing paused. The hand around Mae’s face loosened slightly and she sucked in air that tasted of stagnant lake. Her eyes were peering over the hand on her face into the darkness. There was no movement. She kept herself still, desperately trying to figure out how to get out of this.
“Juss bite it dead.” Another deeper whisper came from behind her. Mae was aware that her body was beginning to tremble uncontrollably. Her arms were pinned to her sides by what felt like an abnormally long, bony arm. Mae realized she was going to die and briefly wondered if anyone would ever find her body.
In desperation, she swung both her legs forward and then kicked backwards as hard as she could. She felt the heavy Doc Martins she had worn make contact with legs, and whatever creature was holding on to her lost its balance and staggered forward with a grunt. The arm that had held her was thrown forward, and Mae hit the ground and started rolling.
Mae rolled until she thought she must be out of reach of her attackers, and then tried to jump to her feet and run. She staggered forward as her injured leg collapsed, and then something cracked into the back of her head, sending a black flash of pain through her brain like a shockwave. Mae fell to the ground and lay still.
A hand grabbed Mae by her hair and jerked her around to a sitting position. Dazed, she forced her eyes to open partway. An out of focus face was peering intently back at her. Long and black, Mae thought the face staring back looked like it was carved out of obsidian. It seemed to smile, because a hundred shiny little black daggers appeared in a split beneath what looked like flared nostrils.
“You suffer now……..”
Mae watched numbly as an arm like a small tree rose up and smacked into the side of her head. She was barely aware of the pain as her mind slid gratefully into darkness.
The next thing Mae was aware of was the throbbing pain in her right knee. The pain enveloped her leg to mid thigh and felt like fire that made her want to scratch her flesh off, but Mae forced herself to lay without moving, eyes closed.
Mae turned her mind from what felt like the beginning of a major infection to her current situation. What had attacked her? Had she hallucinated black stony giants, or had that been real? It was hard to think of what may have happened to Bea. The yellowed whites of her eyes bulging in terror seemed burned into Mae’s thoughts like a brand.
Carefully she let one eye open a fraction to see her surroundings. She seemed to be lying in a circle of light, like a spotlight on stage. Where the edge of the light ended darkness rose up so absolutely that Mae thought there might be a wall there, but somehow the room felt much bigger. Seeing no one, she risked raising her head for a good look.
The floor was smooth and appeared to be made of some sort of translucent marble; the intense light gleamed from the refracted surfaces embedded within, making it glow. There was no noise other than her shallow breathing. Mae pushed herself into a sit, the sound of her movements echoing dully from invisible walls.
The circle of light and the wall of black completely surrounded her. She peered into the inky dark for some clue of what might be there. There was none. The light above her head was too bright to look at, and Mae winced and blinked back spots after trying.
The pain in her leg seemed to run all over her body in patches that shifted and chased each other through her nervous system, and her mind felt fevered.
Despite the pain, Mae stretched her hand out to the edge of the light. The tips of her fingers passed into the darkness and completely disappeared. It was like dipping her fingers in hot black paint.
Mae squeaked in shock and pulled her fingers back, expecting them wet and parboiled. They were dry and clean, but reddened as if they had been scalded. Mae examined her hand for a moment and then peered at the liquid darkness, trying to comprehend the unnatural situation she found herself in.
“I must be tripping…” she whispered out loud to herself.
A musical laughter bounced around her in the darkness, echoing as if in a cathedral. Mae jerked around and tried to stand, but the stiffened leg refused to obey. The laughter welled up to cascade around her, but instead of feeling terror she felt herself being mesmerized by it.
It was like listening to stars laughing, a crystal joy that reverberated in the chambers of her heart making them shiver with unnamable longing. Her eyes stung from sudden tears, and she realized that she was laughing too.
The sounds combined and welled up like a fountain of unseen color and light until Mae felt like she was going to burst, and then it was snuffed out in the blackness. Mae panted in the silence, feeling self conscious and awkward.
She found herself craving more laughter, and dreading it at the same time. She adjusted her weight away from the pain in her leg, when a voice cut through the dark like a moonbeam at night.
“You were found alone like the rest of them, lost in the cold; the unremembered. Broken and tossed aside in a disposable society, yet you don’t seem much broken.”
Insult flared up in Mae. “Do you mean; am I a bum? Are you blind? I happened to be working …” Mae cut her words short. It suddenly occurred to her that she was the victim of some very wealthy cult, and the fact that she was a journalist trying to dig up a good story might not be appealing to them.
The second thought that occurred to her is that she had dug up an amazing story, if she could live long enough to tell it. Mae could feel the attention of whoever was in the darkness on her words, and her brain raced for an answer.
“…on my body… exercising.” The words tumbled out, sounding thin and false. “I was attacked by... a bear? I think.”
“How dedicated of you; most would find it a bit cold and dark for a midnight jog.” The statement sounded edged and dangerous somehow, and Mae found herself dry mouthed while a mass of cold fear settled in her stomach. She nodded dumbly, trying to look truthful.
“And in such unconventional footgear.” She felt a smile underpinning his words. Mae glanced at her feet and winced at the sight of her sturdy boots covered in mud and sand. She closed her eyes and swallowed against the sudden urge to cry.
“I was… was walking….and hiking. I like the night…” Her voice trailed off, and the silence seemed to stuff itself into her ears like wads of thick cotton.
“As do I,” the voice purred. “My little liar.” Instead of the harsh accusation Mae had expected, the voice circled around her soothingly, almost lovingly. “You are lucky that I happen to appreciate a good liar like no one else in this world, or the next.”
Now Mae was crying. She felt angry and embarrassed for her clumsy fabrication. What kind of idiot would say they were working out at midnight in Docs?
She pressed her fingers to her forehead hard, willing herself to composure. The voice wound around her again, this time like a sinuous snake sliding smooth scales across her mind giving her shivers.
“Can you feel how close to that next world you are at this moment? The last moments of life are the sweetest by far. Savor the last light… the final golden moment before the onset of night.” There was quiet movement in the darkness beyond her vision. “How sad to see your sunset come at noon.”
Mae tried to stand up, the panic in her chest overriding her injured leg’s resistance. She was halfway up when, like lightening splitting through a storm soaked night, a figure suddenly shone on the edge of the darkness. Mae sank back down to one knee, amazed.
Before her, unaffected by the strange inky black, was what she thought must be some sort of dark angel. The bright light that pooled around her seemed dimmed by his magnificence.
His skin shone like moonlight on water, his hair fell away from his face like the mane of a lion, and it looked like it was made of separate strands of silver and night.
He stepped forward and knelt on one knee before Mae, looking intently into her face. His eyes fixed on hers, and she was drawn into their depths. Dreamily she tried to figure out what color they were, but they seemed to shift and swirl like an angry ocean. Her pulse pounded in her ears like crashing surf.
He was asking her something, and she answered him everything. His eyes engulfed her, and stripped away everything she was to the bare soul. To make up for her lies she opened her heart and spread her entire life out to him.
He listened with great interest as she divulged every secret she had ever had. All the while she talked she felt herself being washed away in his vision, a sand sculpture set free, while the smell of sea enveloped her senses.
Then he smiled at her, and the smile cut through the vision like a fractured glacier. The words she had been saying rang in her ears mockingly. She had not only spilled out the fact that she was a journalist who had found more than she had bargained for in a story, but every embarrassing detail of her life from early childhood on.
She felt drained and cold, with an overwhelming urge to sleep. The tangy smell was stronger than ever, but it was making her stomach twist. A sticky red pool was oozing around her, and retched as she recognized the smell.
“Are you glad you found your exciting story, Mae?” His voice was still musical, but there was a chill to it now that seemed to strike out at Mae as she struggled to crawl away from the slippery mess.
She slipped in the pool of blood and bile as he burst into laughter again. Fear welled up in her, stifling all cognizant thought and Mae collapsed into terrified sobbing.
Author's Note: This is an excerpt from my soon to be released book, The End of Mae. I'm in the final rewrite stage, so criticism is welcome. I'd rather hear it now then after it has a cover :D