BLACK ICHOR

By Hillary Dodge

From CHM #44 February 2024

We shouldn’t have fucked with the black ichor all over us, stringy globs slimed to the surface of our skin, getting in our mouths as we kissed, sliding between our limbs as we intwined. Like a toddler’s first foray with glue, we should have washed it off right away. Scoured all the places where it coated before sitting on the nice sofa.

But fucking—that’s what you do when you survive, when you come crawling, half-dragging your sorry, exhausted ass out of the quaking gateway, trembling in the moments before its eventual collapse. Because we had stopped it, hadn’t we? We killed the beast, its fluids spattered across our faces in a grim chiaroscuro of victory.

And in so doing, we reclaimed our lives, our estranged love. We had once been in love, hadn’t we? It seemed so long ago, our normal lives, before the gate had opened.

* * *

Things were strained between us, had been for a while. You wanted something I didn’t. We fought all the time. But when the apocalypse came—a sudden cessation. While everything got worse outside, we drew closer together. It was a curious thing.

Strange noises woke us up at night and you pulled me close. Black mold spotted the neighbors’ faces, and we hid, arms around each other, when they knocked on our door crying for help, snot bubbling and throats raw.

Things started to go missing. Birdsong first, then the cat. Our favorite songs were suddenly missing the chorus. We rewound the tapes again and again looking for them, but the words were gone forever. We couldn’t even remember them.

Not long after, all the meat began to rot—even the ground beef stored in the freezer—fuzzy gray fronds bursting through the plastic. Cans fizzed and popped, splitting open like overripe carcasses. Bread petrified overnight into tasteless stones. We squeezed packets of expired ketchup and mustard into our mouths, desperate for something to fill our howling stomachs as the days passed.

* * *

Before we lost power, our parents began to call us on repeat, saying the same things over and over, broken records and skipped CDs. Words that made no connection to the ones that followed, sentences jostling against each other in unrelated ways.

My parents were closer, so we headed there first. But it was no use. The car stopped at the county line, and horribly, we found we could not move a foot past the car, our limbs refusing to obey. There were others gathered there at the border, but not one person could step beyond. Cars piled up at the invisible barrier and people beat fists against the pavement. But it did no good. No one could leave.

* * *

The mayor called a town hall meeting, and everyone showed up, the high school gym packed with desperate citizens, stinking of fear. We stood at the back, hands clutching one another in uncertainty.

“How do you expect us to survive with no food?” shouted Ed Barnes, the now-fat quarterback from 84’.

“My children’s teeth fell out. All of them,” yelled Nancy Gorse, the housewife with the cheating husband.

“I understand your fear—our fear,” said the mayor, hands raised. “But we must remember to remain calm.”

“Queue typical mayoral response,” Jed McDermot stood up, brown trench flapping open to reveal his latest conspiracy theory t-shirt as he punctuated his words with overblown gestures. “I seen where it started—all these changes.”

The crowd rattled around him like dice about to spill from a cup.

“It’s in the old mall, the broke-down one out by the highway.” McDermot jabbed a finger in the direction of the highway. “That’s ground zero. That’s where we gotta go to stop it.”

The dice spilled and the crowd surged out the doors, trailing us along in its wake.

* * *

The detour was your idea. At first, I argued. They would need us. They would need all the help they could get. But, no, you said. You needed to get something first. Something that might help.

As we approached the house, we already knew something was different. I mean, it was obvious, wasn’t it? What was once on the left was now on the right. The kitchen window, which looked out over the gardenias before we left now overlooked the driveway. And the garage door opened onto the gardenias.

It was the same inside. Everything flipped in some manner. Doors led into unexpected rooms. The stairs had lost their treads and become a steep slope of wood. Your heavy heirloom chest bobbed and bounced off the floor, now inexplicably weightless. The wine glasses were sculptures of sand that crumbled with the barest touch. Even the colors of the carpet, walls, and upholstery had become the opposite value on the color wheel. In the garage, I found my VW Beetle from high school, shrunken to the size of a matchbox bar. This I pocketed on a whim, spinning its small tires with my fingertips.

It’s useless, you declared, of the thing you had come for. Everything was different now and it wouldn’t work. This was always your problem, I pointed out, you never commit. I know it’s stupid, you admitted, that I thought a good luck charm would help. Wear the damn blue hat, I said. But it used to be orange, you said with a sigh.

* * *

We arrived at the mall long after the rest of the town. The front entrance was hacked open, boards pulled to the ground and gate bent upwards. We crunched across the broken glass and into the empty mall. Signs from another era graced empty shopfronts: Gimbels, Ritz Camera, Piercing Pagoda, Penneys, Brown Derby.

Signs of their passage showed us the way. A dropped handbag. A lost shoe. Scuffs in the dust. And Jed McDermot’s left hand…about fourteen feet away from the rest of his body, his stupid flaming sword tattoo bisected at the wrist. An elegant swirl of blood pinstriped across the tiles.

Where did they go, you asked.

We listened, almost expecting to hear the muted sound of mall music. But instead, we heard a sliding, grinding noise somewhere down the passage to our right. All was darkness except for the subdued gray light that fought its way through the dirt-encrusted skylights…and a curious flickering glow at the far end of the mall.

We weren’t very prepared. Neither of us had thought to bring a flashlight, not that it would have worked reliably anyway. But, as we crept through the mall towards the light and sound, we found the rest of the town. Well, bits and pieces of them, anyway. Mostly unrecognizable, except for the left half of Nancy Gorse’s face, looking strange without the structure of the skull beneath to support her sharp cheekbones and pointy nose.

We paused at the entrance to the arcade, realizing this was the epicenter. Somehow all the consoles had been left behind when the mall closed, and every one of them was turned on. Lights flashed and strobed. Sounds jangled and chirped and trilled. Mechanical clinks and whirrs and pings—both familiar and abrasive—met our ears. It was a sensory storm in the quiet and stillness of the abandoned mall.

Jeez, you said, wiping the sweat from beneath your blue hat. I would kill to have one of those in the house.

We may have to kill if we ever want to get back to the house, I said, veins turning to ice, forgetting for a moment that our house was no longer our house.

You saw what I meant as it slid-rolled into sight. Giant segments coiled around the arcade cabinets, dozens of legs scrapping and banging against the artwork.

It’s a centipede, you said, stupefied. The centipede.

* * *

A gurgled cough drew our attention to a leg sticking out from behind a large dead potted plant. Behind the pot, slumped most of the mayor. His hands were busy with a glistening reddish rope, trying to stuff it under his jacket. I knelt at his side.

“Mayor—”

“It’s no use,” he was mumbling to himself. “We are doomed. Have been for some time.” Tears streaked his face. “I should have destroyed those satanic games when the mall closed…teens caught sneaking in…drinking, playing…opening portals to hell.”

He paused and tilted his head, and by the time the sound registered, the centipede had skittered through the arcade doors, slid around the potted plant, and wrapped itself around your leg, pulling you off your feet. You screamed and bile boiled at the back of my throat because I had never heard you make that sound.

I threw myself after you, but it was dragging you faster than I could reach, tugging you through the doors and into the arcade. I stumbled through the broken glass and scattered tokens, chasing your shoe—the only thing I could keep sight of—as the giant bug whisked you around the cabinets and under the pinball machines.

Your screaming became distant, and as I rounded a set of claw machines, I glimpsed the segmented tail of the centipede retreating into the glowing screen of its cabinet. The tips of its tail legs crossed the threshold with a sickening buzz that caused the lights to flicker and pop.

I did not hesitate. I jumped after you, sliding through the screen, feeling woozy and vibrating to my bones as I passed through the humming portal.

* * *

I landed on my butt, ribs aching from colliding with the joystick. On the other side, the landscape distorted and bent the light into varying shades of darkness. It was hard to keep you in sight as the beast writhed and zig-zagged around the glowing fungus.

The air crackled as bolts of light shot across the blackness. The centipede turned and turned again, doubling back, spinning around, knocking into the fluorescent mushrooms that appeared and disappeared at random. As it moved, it passed through patches of space and time that warped and refracted, causing the centipede to expand and shrink, become pixelated, appear multihued, or even translucent at times.

Your eyes caught mine and I felt a tug deep inside. We needed each other. We could not be apart. This much distance was too much distance. We had not been so far from one another’s touch in many weeks. I felt deeply ill, and I know you did too.

I cast about for something to throw or use as a spear as the centipede drew closer in its manic path. It came around a mushroom and curiously your blue hat turned orange once more. How it had stayed on your head was another mystery I doubt we would ever solve, but in a sudden moment’s inspiration, I rushed forward and shouted at the thing. It reared up, loosening you from its coiled grip, antennae questing before it as its jaws opened and closed.

I tossed the only thing I had in hand—my VW Beetle from high school—shrunken to the size of a toy, torn out of my pocket in a desperate attempt to distract the beast so I could pull you away. And as the miniature car sailed through the air, it began to expand. The centipede pushed forward and caught the car in its mouth which exploded apart as the Beetle returned to its former size, sending one half of its head over its back and the other in front of its waving arms, splattering us with its black ichor.

I dragged you from beneath its calcified segments, wincing at the pungent smell of its seeping glands. We were covered head to toe in sticky black ooze, warm at first but quickly cooling.

* * *

We broke apart the game cabinet after crawling out, smashed the screen and buttons to pieces with our fists. Our blood mixed with the black ichor and still we pounded it until the buzzing stopped. And then we broke all the other machines, worried that however the portal came to being—through whatever demented combo of button and joystick movements—we could not allow it to be remade.

We picked out pieces of glass from between our knuckles and then we kissed, lips and mouths open and tongues hungry to push inside. We didn’t think. We didn’t stop to clean up or wipe down. We fucked. Fucked like it was the last and only thing left to do in all the universe.

And as our limbs slid against one another, hands probing and touching, we began to feel the ichor catching and pulling at our skin. It was a minor sensation that was easily ignored at first, with so many other sensations taking precedence. But a heat began to build, and our skin began to stick. We sucked at our tongues and when we tried to pull away to put our mouths to other places, we found we could not. Our lips had melted together, buccal mucosa stitched together with strands of black ichor.

Our hands quested over our bodies, and we found ourselves melded together in other spots, tender and secreting. The pleasure built and burned, and we could not pull apart. We had become trapped in one another.

* * *

We shouldn’t have fucked with the black ichor all over us. We were so close to returning to our normal lives. We had defeated the beast, broken the gateway, restored the rules of physics. All that was left was to pick ourselves up and get the hell out of the mall. Take a scalding hot shower, cross the country line, and order a burger and fries at Yvette’s Diner. It would have been so easy.

We shouldn’t have fucked with the black ichor all over us. We know that now.

End.

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Hillary Dodge is a writer, motherthing, horror-enthusiast, and goat-cheese apostle. She has explored the far reaches of the South American continent, wandering abandoned estancias and climbing the ribs of shipwrecks. Her short fiction has been published in online and print magazines, podcasts, and print anthologies. Visit her online at hillarydodge.com.

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