By Charmaine Gratton
Night fell like a flood, saturating the woods in a deep chill and stifling visibility for miles. Leah had run out of path about three hours ago. Her feet were sore from walking, and the sole of her right sneaker hung from the canvas like a tongue pulling rocks and debris into its gaping mouth. Rough terrain makes no difference to numb feet. Her denim-clad legs moved on their own accord, ushering her hollow body onwards. She wondered what would happen when the strength finally left them. The brush around her was thick and scratchy, and rocks jutted out here and there along the path. Leah eyed each one as she passed, determining if it might be a comfortable place to rest. The crackle of leaves and groan of old branches made the forest come alive with inhuman conversation. The wind was cold and scattered with hail. It bit at her bare arms. She swore to herself that if she found a road she would lie on the shoulder and wait for anyone who would stop.
When Leah finally came upon a cabin she was relieved to see any sign of civilization. The structure was soot-black, as though someone had tried and failed to burn it to the ground. It was no larger than a garage and had only one window peering out the front, as well as a dishevelled and rotten porch covered in holes and leaves. Despite its state of disrepair, it seemed solid enough to provide shelter for a night. She knocked on the unlocked door several times but nothing stirred. She tried to call out but her voice was dry and hoarse. When she peered inside, it looked as though the floorboards hadn’t been tested for many seasons. Any shelter would have to do; if she stayed the night in the forest she would surely catch her death. Something rested on the floor by the entrance, barely noticeable in the darkness. As Leah clasped its metal handle, she found that it was an old oil lantern. She fumbled for her cigarette pack and from it retrieved her lighter. The wick of the lantern blazed to life, casting a warm orange glow around her.
She shone the light into the house and found that there was only one room. The walls and floors were black, but was it from paint or ash? The only thing inside was a large, bulging bundle of burlap. Something about the size and shape of it made Leah uneasy as it looked roughly like someone was crouching inside of it. Still, it made no movement as the light hit it, and it did not respond when Leah called out. Two points shone from the front of it, like shiny buttons or pieces of mirror.
Leah stood in the doorway for a while before she lit one of her remaining cigarettes and let the nicotine calm her nerves. Lord knew when she'd find the road again, and she could use a break from the “friendliness” of strangers. Hitchhiking was a dangerous game, and she had hoped to find a safe place to stay before autumn. Countless rides later she had found fewer good Samaritans on the road and more sketchy strangers, truckers shaking from drugs, and men devouring her with their eyes. Broken and hungry as she was, she was reluctant to use her body as a bartering tool. Although, desperate times seemed to be upon her. Some of the other girls in foster care had their experiences with prostitution. They said it was easier if they were high, that way they could pretend they were somewhere else. Leah hadn’t hit the pipe in weeks. The only vice she had on her were the cigarettes she had swiped from the last ride. There was only one deck left. Another gust of wind made the hair bristle on her arms and neck. She put the lamp down on the rough, wooden floor and stepped into the cabin.
Now that both Leah and the lantern were inside, it was the outside world that became pitch black. There was not much to see, the floor was dirty and the wood panels that formed the walls were rough and covered in soot. There were no furnishings, but Leah could see lighter patches where paintings might have hung. She turned her attention to the burlap sack in the lamplight, and saw that there were indeed two pieces of mirror sewn to the front of it. They glittered in the flame, chatoyant and menacing. Leah's unease towards the cabin was finally outweighed by a cold shriek of wind. It startled her into closing the door, sealing out the chill. Then, realizing that she had turned her back on the suspicious package, she whipped back around. She had expected it to have moved, but it hadn't. Of course it hadn’t. Why should it have? She laughed uneasily to herself but the air that escaped her lips barely made a sound.
Leah leaned her back against the wall, across from the burlap bundle. Maybe it was coal, she thought. She could use coal if she had a stove or a fire pit, but with what? She’d already seen there was nothing of help. As her eyes adjusted to the light, however, she saw a metal pot in the far corner. She hadn’t any idea how she hadn’t noticed it there before. The hunger that had faded to a dull ache suddenly hit her full force. Her stomach groaned and twisted like a dying animal. There couldn’t be anything edible in that pot, she thought. Regardless, she stepped towards it, landing her feet gingerly on the groaning panels.
The pot lay on its side so that the opening faced towards the wall. It was roughly ten inches in diameter and made of a charred metal, giving it a hand-forged look. Leah lifted it by the handle and tipped it right-side-up, thinking she saw something on the bottom, but couldn’t make it out in the wavering light. She picked up the pot, muscles straining against the weight, and brought it up to the dim light. Suddenly, it began to click. Her heart skipping a beat, Leah dropped the pot, its weight forcing an agonizing groan from the floor. She watched as the pot’s inhabitant scurried away: A black centipede half a metre long and as thick as her forearm. Its yellow legs clicked a hellish tattoo as it fled, finding refuge under the burlap sack.
Leah collapsed. She rested against the wall and cried, holding her aching stomach. The scare had taken up the last of her energy reserves, leaving her weak and exhausted. She knew she would need to sleep soon. Every muscle in her body burned from overuse. Her abdomen gurgled as if gnawing on itself. The blood-stained sheets of her bed at the group home seemed like paradise. Despite the weight of her eyelids, she couldn’t get the centipede out of her head. She thought she could still hear the clicking of its little feet, like an impossibly fast clock or the drumming of her social worker’s acrylic nails. Although no movement came from the sack, Leah imagined its many legs arranging it into a coil, like a snake. The clicking continued at a steady pace for many minutes, and Leah began to pray that it was just her imagination. She thought about the centipede crawling over her as she slept, poking at her with its sharp yellow horns. The thought made her skin crawl. Still, she thought, it must be safer in here than outside. She shivered at the thought of returning to the cold wilderness, and the clicking intensified. She couldn’t take it. She needed to get rid of that bug.
Leah wielded the now-empty pot like a shield and closed in on her prey. The burlap appeared to tremble in the lamplight, as if anticipating her approach. Raising one foot and gripping the pot menacingly with both hands, she gathered the last of her strength. It was all over in a matter of seconds. She kicked the bag over and the centipede reared and hissed. She swung the pot at the horrid bug and missed, cracking a hole in the floorboard. The pot disappeared into the blackness below, and the centipede followed it, but Leah barely noticed. The burlap sack had split open, spilling part of its unbearably precious contents: a loaf of bread the size of two fists. The impossibly fresh loaf tumbled onto the dirty planks. Leah’s stomach growled like a wild animal. Her dry mouth did its best to salivate as she dropped to her knees and lifted it to her nose, inhaling its sweet, subtle aroma.
Her hungry teeth cracked through the crust with a satisfying loudness, while her tongue worked quickly to shovel the soft innards into her gullet. For a moment of pure and utter bliss, Leah thought that she had found her salvation. Relief turned to apprehension as the texture of the dough changed. It became powdery, absorbing the last of the moisture in her mouth. The aftertaste bit into her tongue, acrid and metallic. She lifted the morsel once more to the light and wondered how she had not noticed it before, the long, black braid that dangled from the mummified head in her hand.
Leah tried to throw up the bits of skull and soot but her stomach lacked the bile sufficient to flush the remnants from her throat. Bits of bone fragments lodged themselves in her esophagus, cutting off air and burying into the tender flesh like tiny claws. Her vision started fading. She heard the clicking once more, applauding as she collapsed into darkness.
Tiny legs tickled Leah’s face, stirring her into consciousness. She tried to swat the dreadful creature away, but found that she could not move her arms. In fact, she couldn’t move anything. Her eyes rolled around until they lined up with two pin-pricks in the darkness. She spied through the holes into the room where her body once lay. Now it was standing in the doorway. The eyes, blazing with new life, were fixed on her. It waited patiently until it seemed certain that the contents of the burlap sack had awakened. A satisfied smile broke the cracked lips, still blackened from ashes. From behind the coarse fabric, Leah watched as her body picked up the lantern and walked out into the night. In the darkness, the clicking resumed.