A bloated orange sun settled into the mist shrouded ridge, back lighting a strip of red forest on Big Hump. Pretty, but they shouldn’t be out this late. And now look at this mess.
Thick brown mud clung to Antonio Scarpazo’s boots. He’d known crossing this lonely field was a mistake. And given this muck, he’d been right. The corn had been a waste anyway, woody and full of borers. Might as well put it to use. He scraped sludge from his boots onto a clump of corn stubble.
Wind rattled the corn leavings as he worked, the air tainted by earth and rotting leaves. The ridge had faded to a melancholy blue-gray. He shivered. This place was getting to him; city guys like him didn’t belong out here. Pretty soon and he’d bolt, same as Palmer and the others.
Clay clung in front of his heel, but most of the sole was clean. He’d clean the heel later when he came across a stick. His next step landed soft and sank. He pulled, but he was stuck like a fly in pine tar. Just his luck. Should’ve been watching his step, not dreaming of flying the coop. But deep in mud was the story of his life.
He raised his toes and tugged. Nope. He locked his hands behind his knee and yanked, anger giving him a boost of strength, and the boot came free with a slurp.
Rayneil called out, “What’s taking you so long?” She stood about five paces ahead, a frown bringing out the lines on her face, the fading sun catching her halo of gray-blond hair.
“Hang on. I’ve got to kick off more goop.” Couldn’t the crotchety skank spare him a minute or two?
She clenched her arms to her sides and shoved her hands into her jumpsuit’s pockets. “Hurry up. It’ll be even colder when the sun goes down.”
“I know well enough about the cold.”
But she was right; tonight would be a cold one. Low clouds had scudded in from the west, forming purple-black lines above a sliver of yellow dusk. Tony kicked his heel on fractionally firmer ground. An inch of thick ooze still clung to his sole, so he tried dragging the toe across a patch of yellowing dock. Them weeds would really piss off the warden.
Movement on the ground caught his eye. A wave swept across the dull brown face of a puddle, as if something swam beneath the surface. A fish couldn’t survive that gunk. A frog? Bit late in the year for a frog.
A row of fleshy tubes of tissue poked above the water. Disgusting. Were those worms or maggots? He’d have a bit of fun. “Hey Ray, come look!” Mud slid from the protuberances, revealing pale flesh. As if—
“What?” asked Ray in her nasal twang.
He didn't want to tease anymore. This wasn’t funny. Something was off. Ray came up beside him, but he barred her with an arm, so she wouldn’t get too close. That thing rising from the mud, could that be hand? If so, it was a small hand, the hand of a child. But—his throat constricted, and he barely choked out, “Stay back.”
“Who are you, telling me what I can’t do?” Ray shoved down his outstretched arm. Then stared. Her jaw sagged. Her eyes grew huge. “That’s a kid! We’ve gotta help. Let me by.” They played a sort of keep away, him blocking, her trying to shove past him.
“What’s wrong with you, ya ape?” Ray, short and skinny, but hard as the metal she used to pilfer, dug her bony elbow into his side. He gasped at the pain. Smack! Ah, that smarted. She’d kicked him! He squatted and nursed his calf. Ungrateful, old witch. She dodged around him and closed in on the puddle. He straightened up to watch, thinking she deserved what she’d get. But his gut clenched as the kid’s arm…or whatever…moved back and forth, slow and deliberate. No way was that thing was a kid. A kid couldn’t be underwater, moving intentional-like with no panic. And the smell coming from that puddle reminded him of the dead fox he’d found in the icehouse, all stiff and covered in mold.
Rayneil, grasped the thing and tugged. “Come on kid. I got you.”
In a moment, her butt hit the ground, a glove of slime dangling from her fingers. He turned away, and spewed vomit; he hadn’t even had to heave. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked toward Ray. She was still staring at the strip of goo, a tight mask of horror on her face. With strangled retching sound, she flung the disgusting slime into the corn stubble.
The thing, now streaked with white, waved back and forth, then it stretched forward, and the hand-like part groped a hunk of weeds. How could something that can’t be alive move?
Ray screamed like a cornered rat. Bravery or a big dose of stupid, flung Tony forward. He hoisted her by the armpits and dragged her back a meter, her wiping her palm frantically on the leg of her coveralls.
Something larger was rising out of the mud.
Frozen air seared his lungs, and he slid in boots slick with mud, but he didn't care. All that mattered was the making-no-sense, awfulness of what they’d seen, they bounded across the field like a pair of crazed hares.