The air was cold, damp and heavy. It coated his throat with each breath, weighing him down with bits of dirt and debris. He stirred, first with the fluttering of eyelids, then to the wiggling of his nose, and then down the back of his neck and out through his arms, torso, and legs. It hurt to shut his mouth, and his fingers were numb. The stubby ends of his toes, too, felt sore, having pressed against the tops of his gym shoes for what presumably was a lengthy amount of time.
How long had he been here? And where was here?
As his eyes acclimated to the darkness, his mind scrambled for some tangible explanation. The moist, rocky walls around him suggested he was in a cave, but how did he get here? His last memory was of his wife, watching her sing along to the latest Miranda Lambert song on the radio as she drove their SUV down a stretch of forested road. One of those big logger trucks drove in front of them, loaded with a fresh haul of lumber for the mill. He remembered the smile on her face, the sense of freedom as they drove aimlessly away from their home, jobs, and obligations.
It was their honeymoon, and they were going to Seattle. He could already smell the coffee roasting.
The man tried to climb to his feet, but movement proved challenging. His back was stiff, and when he turned his head, his nerves sounded the alarm all the way down to his feet.
“Hello? Dinah?” His voice echoed down a number of caverns. Nothing stirred. Nothing replied. “Is anyone there?”
Think. Think! What was the last thing that happened? His wife’s face sprung to mind again, her lips mouthing those Miranda Lambert lyrics. Her light blue eyes stood out against the deep green backdrop.
The man pushed himself up to his knees, clenching his teeth as every joint eschewed him. He had to have been lying here for hours. Did they go on some tour, and he just couldn’t remember it? Had he gotten lost somehow? Fallen off a trail?
“Hello?” The pain made his question into a shout. Still, nothing stirred. The cave was dead silent — that eerie, perfect silence that could drive a person insane.
The man managed to push himself upright. He sucked in a few more breaths and climbed to his feet, stretching his back as much as he could. It still hurt, but the pain was slowly diminishing as the fear settled in.
Around him, it was an almost impenetrable pitch of black. A minuscule glimmer of light, the size of a needlepoint, twinkled way off in the distance. The rest was just a void, one he reached out to, his feet shuffling carefully in search of a wall to sidle along. The man eventually stumbled into something, and he began shuffling toward that far-off speck, one hand firmly planted against stone.
The sound of his feet cut through the noiselessness like two pieces of sandpaper, endlessly grinding against jagged metal. It was so loud, he thought it made his ears bleed, but the liquid drizzling down the sides of his head was something else. It was dew. Cave dew.
Just then, the man walked into something round, sharp, and massive in size. It recoiled at his touch, its pointed fibers stinging like nettles.
He fumbled around his pockets for something to defend himself with. Empty. Where was his wallet? Wait. What was this? A box of matches.
The soft glow of a single match flickered to life, and the moving mass before him became something concrete, defined, and tangible. Eight other flames flickered around him. Eight eyes reflecting his solitary match.
Before he could scream, his source of light extinguished on the ground as the gargantuan beast extended its long, razor-thin legs. The creature emitted a teeth-grinding noise, slowly lurching forwards.
That’s when he bolted. The direction didn’t matter, so long as it was away — so long as cool air brushed past his face. He kept his hands along the wall as much as possible, and as the clattering of legs echoed after him, he kept his mind on her.
They were newlyweds. They were survivors. They were two beings adrift in the ebb and flow of the world, anchored in turbulence, and they found each other. Almost immediately, they knew they were in love with one another — one of those romanticized kinds of love naïve tween idols sung never-ending songs about.
The corridor split into two tunnels up ahead. As the split neared, he slid around the right, backed up against the wall and waited. Waited for his breath to come back. Waited for the sounds of those legs to simply stop, turn around, and scuttle back the other way. Whatever this thing was, a giant spider(?), he was hoping he could wish it away.
“Garden variety or not, just kill it, please?” she asked. Her eyes glanced toward the roving black smudge on the wall, recoiling almost immediately with each pass.
He looked down at the paper towel in his hand and then over at the spider ascending the walls of the kitchen. This would be one of hundreds this time of year, and he simply had no more remorse left for the little creatures.
“Sorry bud,” he whispered coldly, almost mechanically, as he squeezed tighter and tighter until the POP erupted between his thumb and forefinger.
* * *
Whatever was pursuing him, the creature suddenly stopped. Silence settled in once more, and then the sandpaper noise, as he furthered his trek into the abyss. It was narrower in this tunnel, and knee-high boulders dotted the floor. The man climbed over the ones he couldn’t step around, and he was moving at a steady pace until one of the boulders opened up. Little legs dug into his, lacerating his flesh with prickly knives. He clenched down on his lip and kicked as hard as he could. With each painful laceration, he bit down harder, kicked harder.
In a few moments, he crumpled to the floor. Whatever was in the boulder, it didn’t bother to pursue him, so he lied there, bleeding out.
He hated feeling weak around her. He hated knowing she would one day understand he was fallible. So he killed for her. Every parasite that invaded their home. Every bug that intruded upon her reading.
When the 17-year cicadas came to trash her garden, he chopped them all up with a lawnmower. Those who sought higher ground were met with a weed wacker. Each day a new cell would invade, and each day that cell would perish. It was the economics of keeping her happy. It was the price of satiating her contentedness with the world. It was the dutiful carrying-out of an empress’ orders.
The only thing he could do was crawl, slither, inch like a worm — one hand leading while the other hand pushed. The ground was rough, and it took all of his strength to keep just enough of his torso lifted above it as he snaked his way forward.
There was another light up ahead — another orb gleaming in the distance. Was it a way out? He pressed harder. He had to know. If he really had fallen away from a tour, they could have been nearby looking for him.
“Dinah? Dinah!” he called. No response.
He tried to recall everything that happened in those last few, fleeting moments. Once the Miranda Lambert song ended, they talked about dinner. It was getting late, and they were both hungry. The logging truck was still in front of them, and he was worried Dinah was driving too close.
A series of clicks rattled off behind him. Before the man could react, tiny arms coiled around his backside and lifted him upright. One of the arms wriggled into a wound, and it took everything he had not to cry out.
“Dinah’s not here,” something shrill said. It was far from a human voice.
“Where’s here?” the man coughed out.
“Does it matter? You belong to us, now.” The creature snickered as it coiled around him, bending an insectoid face with human-sized mandibles into view.
“What do you want?” A feeling far, far beyond fear washed over him. It was an ancestor of dread, a sense of the inevitability of one’s demise.
“To do what you did to us. To break you the way you’ve broken us, Matthew.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve never seen you before!” His words were meek. Pleading. Soft.
“Remember the spider on the kitchen wall? The cicadas in the garden? The centipede in the bathroom?” the voice hissed. Its legs clamped down tighter, and Matthew found it harder and harder to breathe.
“No,” he squeaked.
“You’re LYING. You killed us. You killed every last one of us!”
“I didn’t mean to.” It’s what he wanted to say. It’s what he was trying to say as his eyes welled up. He opened his mouth, but something muffled slithered out, eating up the last bit of strength he had left.
“You didn’t mean to? That’s your answer?” The creature balked. “Then why, pray tell me, did you kill us?”
He thought of her one last time. He thought of her smile, her eyes, her light skin under the afternoon sun. He thought of the way her mouth moved when she spoke and the way her voice reached higher octaves when she was happy. He thought of that special look she had when he did something for her, when he fixed something she asked him to fix.
He thought of her swerving off the road as a log slid off the back of the truck in front of them.
“I was just… following… orders.”