I just woke up in this place, and I don’t know how I got here. I’m not alone, but I don’t know any of the people that are with me. We’re all dressed rather formally, so perhaps there was a party or a ceremony of some sort?
The thing that really puzzles me is why we’re all covered in dirt.
And why we’re just walking around the same plot of land, over and over, going round in circles, going over our old footsteps, over and over. I’m just following those in front, and I have the sneaking suspicion that the ones behind are just following me. But who are the ones in front following?
I’m also rather confused as to why it’s the middle of the night and there’s a storm, yet we’re still outside? What kind of party was this? Out here, surrounded by the dense trees? Out by the gravestones?
I briefly wonder whether I’ve been drugged. I must’ve, because I don’t remember anything before this, I don’t know how I got here, my head feels all fuzzy and my body is all stiff and moving is difficult. I try to say something but I just groan — words are too much effort right now, articulation escapes me.
Judging by the look of the others, they all feel the same.
Perhaps we all partied too hard, and are now just waking up to a monstrous hangover? That might explain a few things. The bad head. The struggling movements. Difficulty talking. Not remembering anyone or anything. Maybe someone had the bright idea to come out here to the cemetery whilst we were all blackout drunk.
I look up at the midnight sky above, and my hazy eyes settle on the glowing moon, full and pregnant. The cold sight of its eerie luminescence fills me with a hushed awe. So fixated upon that astral body am I, that I don’t properly look where I’m going and my foot catches beneath the snarled root of some skeletal tree.
I stumble forward, a shocked grunt forced out of me. I almost fall flat on my face — wouldn’t that be funny, the hungover person who’s still experiencing the afterglow from the night before clumsily tripping themselves up? — but at the last second I regain my balance, legs moving awkwardly, stiff arms pinwheeling either side of me. Once I’ve gotten a hold of myself, I look down at my feet, frowning.
My legs aren’t working properly.
I test them, taking one cautious step after another.
No, they’re definitely not functioning as they should — I’m really struggling to bend my knees. Did I pull a muscle? Did I break something? I try to think back, but memories evade me, like autumn leaves being blown in an October wind.
Perplexed, I stagger on, looking down at my misbehaving limbs every now and then, as if they’ll catch my disapproving glances and will quickly rectify their efforts. Alas, my stern gaze does not penetrate the numb and wooden flesh.
We pass by a familiar old tree, its gnarled limbs extending towards the group. A few of our number walk right on through the offending branches, and I wince as scraps of skin are torn from their faces. If they are hurt, they do not show it.
We walk on. Around and around.
At the centre of our perennial pilgrimage is the cemetery — it’s rarely out of eyesight, occasionally obscured by trees and shrubs. The headstones lean drunkenly this way and that, like the teeth of a heroin junkie. A few have even fallen flat over, lying on their faces or on their backs like drunkards who have surrendered their will to the poison in their veins, collapsing into the gutter.
Lots of new dead being buried tonight, I realise. Much of the earth has been dug up, gaping holes exposed like missing teeth, ready for the caskets.
Round and round we go, stumbling and grunting, the headaches never abating, the sense of inebriation not once alleviating. My God, what on Earth did we drink? And how much of it?
I don’t know how many times we spin around this merry-go-round before the realisation hits me.
No, not lots of new dead being buried tonight.
All of them are being buried tonight.
A frown furrowing my brow, I cast furtive glances into the cemetery, squinting ferociously into its foggy depths. All of the ground has been dug up.
Every. Single. Plot.
Surely not? Surely some of these were buried a long time ago — just look at the state of the stones! And how many graves must’ve been dug; why, there must have been some horrendous catastrophe to require this many coffin pits! And I certainly don’t remember such an event.
I go to ask the fellow to my right what’s going on, but only a sandpapery moan escapes my lips. Gah, blasted hangover!
We stagger on under the full and fat moon, as the tendrils of fog coil and writhe around our ankles like the disturbed ghosts of snakes.
What are we doing? Not for the first time, I wonder just what the hell is going on. Why are we here? Why are we walking around in circles? Who is following whom? Our crowd has dispersed slightly — enough so that the front has come around to join the tail end. We’re just one giant ring of shuffling bodies. Who started all of this? What’s the aim? Where are we going? Again, I try to voice my concerns to one of my fellow night shufflers, but the noise that I spit out sounds nothing like how I remember my voice sounding. Or, at least, I don’t think it does. It sounds more like a growl, than anything. Not very articulate or poetic.
And still, we plod on through the underbrush, all the while my eyes keep darting back to the dislodged headstones and disturbed earth. There can’t be that many dead all at once, there just can’t be. Then an idea occurs in my mind: vandals! The very thought boils my blood — hoodlums desecrating these final resting places, disturbing the dead. How dare they! How dare they! The notion makes me snarl — almost involuntarily — lips drawn back in an animalistic sneer, exposing my teeth. I catch myself and quickly close my mouth, smoothing the anger lines on my face like the sheets of a rumpled bed. I look side to side at the others, but none of them appear to have observed my outburst, and if they have, they paid me no mind.
On and on we stumble through the night, as the moon above bathes us in its waxy yellow glow. The fog is still swirling and pooling, as if it is an ankle-deep liquid. I am plodding along, my legs and body stiff like brittle matchsticks, when the hunger first strikes. I have never felt such a craving — it really can’t be called a pang, it’s more of an intense desire. I wonder when the last time I ate was, and I can’t remember. My head’s still as foggy as the ground, and my recollection of past events has gone the way of the horizontal gravestones.
The urge to eat, eat, eat is overwhelming. I must feast. I must grab something and gorge myself. I look around at the bushes and trees for a handful of berries or perhaps an apple, but nothing I see satisfies that rumbling in my belly.
No, I am hungry for meat.
The grip of the hunger is almost unbearable, and I can hardly think of anything else other than to walk, walk, walk until something strolls across my path, when the clouds start to roll across the sky, obscuring the pregnant moon.
The darkness that comes is great.
But not absolute.
Oh no, not absolute at all. There is some source of light.
It is us. We are glowing.
In the dark of the night, I see that those around me are illuminated from within by a sickly green glow. As the spectres of the sky completely envelope our lunar friend, the inner radiation becomes more and more apparent — highlighting features and details that had previously gone unnoticed.
How blind I’ve been!
I look from side to side at those who walk alongside me, and I’m slightly horrified to see leathery skin pulled taught across skeletons, like the membrane of a funeral drum. Lips are stretched backwards, exposing tooth and gum, eye sockets are deep and almost hollow, containing eyes like billiard balls that roll around with a bovine glaze. Gasps and groans whisper out of their mouths. And they glow, glow, glow.
The next two thoughts occur to me simultaneously. The first, is that I am surrounded by dead things, and that I must get away, I must, for they will eat me, they will consume me! The second, is that if they are not already ripping me limb from limb, tearing handfuls of flesh away from my supple body, then that means…
I look down at my own hands and I’m stunned to see that the skin is grey and waxy, the fingernails cracked and dirty and yellow. And from within comes a sick luminescence, like from an alien deep-sea fish. My stomach drops and pure, unadulterated fear is dumped into my veins. I try to voice my concern, but all that escapes my peeling lips is a hoarse groan. I want to cry but the tears don’t come and my face feels frozen, feels paralysed, feels locked, feels stuck and wooden. I want to scream, to shout, to reject this in its entirety. But all I do is groan and shuffle along with the others in the shadow of the night, where the fog’s icy tendrils stretch and reach, and the trees rustle and quiver with barely perceptible movements.
And the clouds roll on, thicker still, until the moon is all but blotted from the sky by the encroaching gloom.
And our sickly glow continues to grow as the light around us dims.
What is this? What are we? I try to ponder these thoughts, but my brain won’t let me; the migraine is incredible now, dully throbbing behind my right eye like a ball of fire. I can feel things inside ripping and tearing — as if there are millions of tiny hands grabbing crude fistfuls of my grey matter and are scrunching it up like used up paper. The pain is unbearable, the hunger unsatiated, my body is stiff and coldly burning from within — every decaying fibre of my being screaming at their very existence.
And then I see it.
The trail of bright green goo, glowing along with us, brighter than us, throbbing.
It’s trickling down through the trees, an eerie river descending from atop the hill. I stop and stand, moving my neck slowly — muscles creaking like wooden floorboards, joints popping like gunfire — following that unnatural river. I raise one stiff hand towards it, trying to raise attention to it. I cannot point with my hand — my fingers are locked in a claw. And I cannot voice my concerns — a slightly desperate grunt is all that I can muster.
Those around me continue to pay me no mind. They keep on shuffling, several bumping into me from behind and then gloomily parting around me, like Moses and the Red Sea.
Taking for what feels like an eternity, my hazy gaze finally follows the glowing, pulsating trickle of goop to its natural conclusion: down the slope through the trees, across the path that we tread, and into the cemetery.
The whole cemetery is lit up with this brilliant green shade, eerie and utterly wrong. I stand there, staring at the place, slack jawed and horrified. What is this? What happened? Who did this?
My vision blurs and doubles for a second as the pain within my skull intensifies. I let out a moan of agony, and still my post-deceased brethren walk on, banging into me, shuffling around me. I don’t know what’s happening deep within the confines of my brain, all I know is that I don’t have long. Somehow, I have retained some vestiges of my former thinking power — something that those whom I walk with have lost — but my grip on it is slipping fast.
Staggering, one arm raised to my aching head, I begin to veer away from the path, heading for the trees. I collide with several bodies and almost get knocked to the ground. A few of the others stop and groan and growl at me — are these questions? Are they asking me what I’m doing? I ignore them and press on, struggling up the incline, barely feeling the claws of the skeletal trees that gauge at my flesh. I follow the rivulet of glowing greenness, up the hill towards its source.
I want to know, I have to know. Know what, I can’t precisely say, I just… need to know. This urgency driving me on, I push on through the blinding headache, repress the screaming craving for flesh, fight against the rigor mortis that is rapidly claiming my body for its own, up the slope and through the woods. Behind me, I can hear the shufflings and stumblings and wheezings and groanings of those who still walk on, round and round the glowing green graveyard from which they’ve been unwittingly and ungracefully rebirthed into this world.
As I draw nearer, I can sense my body failing. As I approach the source, the intensity of the glow steadily increases. Almost as if it can sense me. I am close, now. I can feel it. I can smell it. The wrongness in the air. The unnaturalness of it.
And then, almost by accident, I stumble upon that which I have been seeking since I woke up. I almost don’t realise I’ve found it, so banal and boring is the barrel. It’s only the warning label on the side that draws my attention, but my failing eyes are too cloudy to focus. I stumble towards it, like a man staggering towards water after being lost in the Sahara, arms extended in an almost parody of what I am — an undead.
I draw nearer and the words and symbols on the side of the open metal drum swim before me, before fading into focus with one last gargantuan effort.
Somewhere, deep inside my rotting brain, the last of the synapses connecting my memories, my thoughts, my feelings, my conscious actions to my control of my physical body snap; severed by decay.
CAUTION: TOXIC WASTE INSIDE
20th July 2020
Written for Reedsy’s Weekly Writing Contest