by Alexander Stanmyer

From the #16 Oct 2021 issue of CHM

It started—when else?—on Halloween. Doughnuts swung from strings. Pong balls clattered about the room. A jack-o-lantern vomited seeds out onto the table and machine-roiled fog settled into low nooks and crannies of the Clark University dorm we partied in.

I was dressed as a greaser. Just call me Ponyboy—though I’d always hoped I looked more like Matt Dillon’s Dally. Holly went as a monster. Or, more accurately, Max from Where the Wild Things Are.

We drank red wine from boxes with a couple dozen friends.

Things got hazy for a while. Holly and I drifted apart and came back together several times that evening—like we’d do again and again over the next decade.

Eventually, we found ourselves alone in one of the dorm rooms like it was the eye of the storm at the party’s center.

She looked at me mischievously. “Want to see something cool?”

Of course I did.

She knelt down to the floor and moved aside a couple of empty beer bottles and discarded cups. I noticed a small half-ring was set into the carpet. She pulled at it and a panel lifted up, revealing a surprisingly large crawlspace.

A blanket was spread out there among the remnants of old mischief. An old bottle of wine. Candles melted down almost to their bases. The barest husks of charred roaches.

I was surprised there were no condom wrappers. Or condoms.

It smelled like dust. And what else? The sea? Damp woods?

I know we crawled down there. I know it. But I can’t remember how far we went or what happened or what we saw or how I ended back up at the party, alone. At the time, I chalked it up to too much wine; a brown out, we used to call them.

Later, I found Holly outside, breathing in fresh air on the lawn. We kissed—it was the first time and she tasted like wine. After, we went back to my apartment where most of our clothes came off. I remember the feeling of her teeth nibbling my ear.

The next morning, I woke with a sour hangover. Holly was out of bed before eight.

“Got to go,” she said, pulling her shirt over her head. “Headed down to the river.”

“Fish?” She was a biology major and was applying to grad schools. I knew she was doing research in one of the nearby state forests.

“More interesting than fish. Hydras. Things can live forever.”

“Hydra huh? Well, have fun, Hercules. Call me later?”

She smiled and left. She didn’t call.

We remained friendly the rest of the semester. I wanted more out of things. She didn’t. We drifted apart. I never stopped thinking of her.

* * *

Holly watched her father die that winter. It was slow and it was agonizing. Neuroendocrine cancer. Spread all over like some fungus from hell. Rectum, liver, brain. I went to the funeral. She didn’t cry. Just stood there, thinking, the gears turning in her head.

“He was so strong,” she told me one fall evening as we sipped cappuccino at the local espresso joint. Snow fell outside in fat flakes. “A bear. An ox. At the end… he was human jerky.  His eyes were sunken and dull. Except when they loaded him up with dope. Then they shined with ignorant bliss.

“The end came quickly. But not painlessly. You could tell in the breathing—shallow, dry, and too-fast—that it was not a good way to go.

“When he died and the nurse officially announced his passing, my mom lost it. ‘We have to warm him up,’ she said. She climbed on top of him and tried to pull me with her. ‘Don’t let him get cold!’ All I could think about was how silly a thought that was. He was dead. Keeping him warm wasn’t going to change that.”

“Damn,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. I was sorry for a bit. Now I’m mostly pissed off. The kind of universe that allows a man to die like that is not one tended to by a compassionate being.”

We finished our drinks without saying more. Outside, snow piled higher, erasing the world.

* * *

As New England spring settled in—mud, daffodil shoots, rain, and more mud—we started to see each other more. Lunch in the student cafeteria. Study dates. The occasional run-in at a Saturday night house party. To my disappointment, we didn’t find ourselves sharing the same bed again. I wanted it. She didn’t. At least not then, she explained to me on more than one occasion. Wasn’t ready for anything more.

Most of the time she looked tired: bags under her eyes, hair that wasn’t quite as tamed as it used to be, and a habit of spacing out during lulls in conversation. Lab work, she explained, was taking up most of her time—she had started working with one of her profs on an honors thesis. McClellan was his name. He was on sabbatical from his professorship in Edinburgh, was taking the year to do some research stateside at Clark and teach a couple of undergrad courses.

When she wasn’t working in the lab, Hollly spent most of her time trying to get her dad’s estate in order. She was an only child, and her mom was too devastated to handle legal minutiae. At the age of 21, she was forced to play the roles of grieving daughter, full-time student, and, now, head of household.

“Let’s do something tomorrow,” she said one night as we studied in the library together. “I need a break.”

“Coffee? Drinks?”

“How about a hike?”

The next morning we took a short drive out of the city and to the nearby town of Boylston. We parked near the Wachusett Reservoir and took a walk along its banks.

We found a sandy area and kicked off of our shoes. The water was cold and clear. She moved around, searching until she found some submerged logs in shallow water.

“Here,” she said, bending down. “Check it out.”

I took a look at what she was pointing at: a small, translucent stalk was attached to the log. Maybe an inch long. Several short tentacles extended from the top of it. “Hydra?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“This slimy little thing lives forever?”

“As long as nothing eats it, or it doesn’t freeze, or dry out.”

“Lot of ifs to be using the word immortal.”

“Ifs for this one, yeah. For the hydra in the lab? Ones without predators? Seems they are eternal. You can take a hydra and throw it in a blender. Mix it up until it’s nothing but hydra soup. Then, if you put the cells back together via a centrifuge, the hydra will regrow. I admit it’s sort of a Ship of Theseus question. Is it the same animal? If hydra have souls, is it the same soul upon reconstitution? Stem cells are how they do it. And this is without mentioning the fact that in laboratory experiments, they don’t seem to have an upper limit to their age.”

“You’d figure something inspired by its mythical namesake would be more, well, fearsome. Or at the very least, multiheaded.”

“Want to know how it eats? It catches its prey using nematocysts.”

“Nema…” I tried repeating the word.

“Nematocysts. A biologic harpoon contained within a cell. When prey draws near, the organelle’s cap explodes, sending a threadlike needle spiraling through the water. It spears its prey, literally drilling the thread into the prey’s flesh.” As she spoke, her pace increased, her voice rose. “Oh, and then, if the predator carries neurotoxin—like our friend the hydra is—it passes its toxin through the biological thread into the host. Paralyzing it before it’s hauled back to the hydra’s mouth. It’s one of the most complex cellular constructs in nature.”

“Sexy,” I said.

“It is. At least at the molecular level.”

“Holly,” I said, waving a hand at the reservoir. “What the hell are we doing out here?”

“Looking at hydra.”

“No,” I said. “I mean what the hell are we doing out here?”

“Jackson…”

I took a breath and then let it out. “You’re my friend. But I want more. And if you don’t, you’ll still be my friend. But I need some clarity.”

“It’s not that I don’t want more…”

“Then what?”

“It’s… it’s hard to explain.”

“Is there someone else?”

“Jackson…”

“Who?”

“It’s John.”

“John?”

“McClellan.”

“Your professor?”

“Yeah. My professor. It’s complicated. And not, like, in the usual sense of when someone says that.”

I felt myself deflate. I wanted to tell Holly that he was probably just using her, that things could never work out between them, that I was a better choice. But it wasn’t my place to do so. It was her life. “Complicated how then? If not the usual way?”

“Let’s go back to my place. I’ll explain.”

* * *

We drove to her apartment and settled in with cups of tea in her bedroom.

She took a sip of hers, took a moment to gather her thoughts, and then gestured with the mug to the window that overlooked a grey stretch of Main Street. “Think about this place. Clark University? Worcester, Massachusetts?  The University’s got a solid reputation nowadays, sure. It’s got a great geography program. Good undergrad education and research opportunities. But there’s no reason for the school to have attracted the kind of talent it did at the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th century.”

“Can’t say I’m particularly familiar with the century old history of our fair institution and its dead old men.”

“Albert Michelson, first American to win a Nobel in physics for his studies of the speed light, taught here. Arthur Webster, founder of the American Physical Society, replaced Michelson when he left. Robert Goddard, founder of modern rocketry, the man that, perhaps more than any other, set humankind on its path to the cosmos, was Webster’s student. Later, Goddard became a professor at the school. Guess who was one of Goddard’s students? Edwin Aldrin Senior. As in father to Buzz. And those are just a few of the luminaries.”

“So? It’s a university. That’s where that kind of people work.”

“So what I’m saying is there were some serious heavyweights here. People unravelling the mysteries behind it all. Maybe not Einstein, but damn close. And it wasn’t just physics. The birth control pill was made right down the street in a collaboration with the university. How many trillions of sperm has that little thing snuffed out? Secrets of life and death. Of the stars and the cosmos. They’re here. In this old mill town. Why?” She shook her head. “Hell. It’s even the only place in the States that Freud ever gave a public lecture at. Not that his theories proved particularly prescient, but still. The Austrian had serious clout.

“I ask you this: why? Why here? What is so damn interesting about this place? This city? Especially at the turn of the century?”

“Maybe the dean or president was into physics?”

“Nope. Well not exactly. Jonas Clark, the school’s founder, made his money out west in the 1800s. At first he dealt in mining supplies for the gold rush, later sold furniture, then he got into the insurance business, and so on and on until he was a wealthy man. Later in life, he came back east and bought a mansion in New York City. Started collecting rare books and art. Made several trips to universities in Europe.

“He eventually came back to Massachusetts rich in money, texts, and knowledge. But academia didn’t accept him. Wasn’t old money. Didn’t graduate Harvard. He wanted in. He was after something. But those blue blood bastards refused to let him into their inner circle.

So he did what any wealthy, entrepreneurial American would do: he founded his own university. At the time, it was hailed as the largest charitable donation in the history of New England. He bought swaths of property, set up a library, a graduate program, research labs. Hired faculty. The works. He died in 1900, but the all-star scientists kept coming.

“Except none of them stayed happily or long. Michelson left for the University of Chicago after a few years. Goddard had the longest tenure of the bunch, but he hated teaching in Worcester. He’d rather be out in Roswell launching rockets. Eventually, he resigned. And Webster? Webster blew his brains out in his office with a revolver.”

“Some kind of Worcester curse?”

“Something is here. Not a curse. But something big.”

“And you think that you know what it is?”

“I have ideas. Clark was after something. He brought these men in to help him find it. He gave them money, financed their research, but he needed help. When he died, the search continued. What was he after? It was immortality, I think. He was close to finding it. The problem? All those scientists that left? They didn’t like the cost of what Clark was asking.”

“Holly, this sounds…”

“Go ahead. Say it. Call me crazy. People called Goddard crazy. Then we landed on the moon. There is something down there. Clark knew that. Beneath the ground. Something that was maybe sealed away or forgotten. Something to do with the stars, the aether, with light, with life and death. Professor McClellan is after it. We are after it.”

I raised my hands in an attempt at a peace offering. “Okay. Say I did believe you. You still don’t want to go through with this. I’ve seen this movie. Kurt Russell ends up freezing to death with nothing to keep him company but a bottle of whiskey and a man who may be an alien intent on devouring him.”

“There is a cost.”

“And you’re willing to pay it?”

“Who’s to say I haven’t already?”

I took a sip of tea to try and melt the icicle that had formed at the top of my spine, but the tea had already cooled.

We again drifted apart after that day; she had chosen McClellan. I figured I might as well respect her choice. We stayed friendly; it felt like we were two rogue planets circling each other’s orbit in the dark—sometimes close, sometimes far, but never warmed by the light of the sun.

* * *

That summer my own father died.

I was in Berlin working a summer internship at a niche German-English publishing house. I was finally getting my shit together—even had managed to sell a few poems to some small magazines. Token payments, of course. But still, I was a published poet. The future felt bright. I had started to move on from Holly. Then Dad died.

It was an aortic aneurysm that did him in. My mom had called me in tears while he was still alive and in surgery at the hospital. He wasted away over the next forty-eight hours. Once his bowels went necrotic, there was nothing left to do but pull the plug.

I never got to say goodbye in person. My brother held his cell phone to my dad’s ear while I was on a layover in Zürich. I told him I loved him and forgave him of whatever wrongs he had done while being hurried by the attendants at the flight desk.

Sitting in my seat on the plane, the woman next to me asked if I was scared of flying. No, I told her. My dad was dying. She apologized and handed me a tissue.

When we landed in Boston, I turned my phone on and saw the text from my brother. 

He’s gone.

* * *

I sort of fell apart after that. I wasn’t particularly close to my dad, but the fact that he was gone, just like that, sent me spiraling. Life became both precious and meaningless due to its brevity. I drank. I raged. I brooded.

 I’d lost other people I’d known before, of course. My grandfather. My mom’s cousin. But no one as close and, well, real as my dad.

It hurt, and it scared me. I should have gone to therapy. Instead, the New Englander in me soldiered on through it all in an emotional state that was something like sleepwalking punctuated by moments of overwhelming grief and realizations of my own mortality. I avoided all but the most essential of responsibilities and gave into easy base impulses—boozing instead of studying, sleeping late instead of exercising, takeout instead of cooking, videogames instead of putting in the effort to socialize. Which, of course, only compounded the problems I already had.

Things came to something of a head one Saturday night, back on campus. It was—when else?—Halloween. My roommates had dressed as zombies and dispersed to this or that party. I stayed in to mope, using some non-existent paper deadline as an excuse. Instead of writing, I drank whiskey and listened to music and stewed.

I was lonely and, to be honest, horny.

I texted Holly. Asked her if she wanted to hang out. I figured that as for the horny part, I was on my own, but that maybe she’d want to chat and catch up. Maybe it’d help fill the hole in my heart.

She responded that, alas, she was in the lab. Some other time.

I tossed my phone onto my bed and turned up the music, trying to drown out the images in my head of Holly hanging on the elbow of a professor that I somehow imagined to be simultaneously kilted and rugged and elbow-patched and erudite.

It didn’t work.

* * *

Life felt like it sped up.

We graduated college. Me with no honors next to my name in the graduation program. Holly with summa cum laude and highest honors.

I got a job teaching middle school English. She went to grad school for biology in Edinburgh. Didn’t take a PhD to piece that connection together.

I got married. It was a mistake. She was a warm body and I was lonely. The grind of daily life set in. It damn near crushed me. Wake up. Work. Chores. Sleep. All done so I could make monthly payments on student debt that just barely took care of the interest, never mind the principle.

I kept drinking. Anything to numb the grind. Years slid by. Memories captured here and there, like insects captured in a trail of sap.

My wife wanted kids. Turned out I didn’t. Funny how you can somehow skip that essential pre-nuptial conversation when you’re young, horny, and incapable of being comfortably alone.

Naturally, all that led to divorce.

I cleaned things up a bit in the aftermath. Started exercising. Lost about 15 of the 30 pounds I had gained since college.

One day, I looked up Holly online. Her Instagram profile showed pictures of her in Edinburgh, flanked by castles. She was working in some lab, white coat and all. She looked happy. Healthy. The glacial lines that grief had carved in her face were gone.

There were no kilted men at her side in any of her pictures—no McClellan. I felt hopeful. I told myself I had never stopped feeling for her, that I had hid it all behind booze and marriage and lies to myself.

One night shortly after finding her account, emboldened by, of all things, several helpings of a friend’s bottle of Talisker, I decided to send her a message.

Hey. Been thinking about old times lately. How’s life?

She responded moments later. It would have been just past three in the morning in Scotland.

Hey yourself. Life is… different.

Yeah. I can agree there.

Are you going to the ten-year reunion next month?

I don’t know. I hadn’t planned on it. But…

If I go?

Then I’ll be there.

And just like that our orbits were pulling us back towards each other.

* * *

We met on the lawn in front of the library—named after Goddard—for the reunion cocktail hour.

Holly looked good. Actually, she looked gorgeous. Like she was still 22. Not that 32 is ancient, but it seemed as if she hadn’t aged a day since I’d last saw her.

Suddenly and embarrassingly, I wanted to see what she looked like beneath her clothes.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey Jack.”

We hugged. She was a few glasses of wine into the night already. I caught up quickly. We chatted with each other and with friends we hadn’t seen in years. Shadows grew long. The moon appeared in the dimming sky above Goddard’s library. Dark thunderheads gathered in the distance. The air smelled of gin and ozone.

And then we were back in the dorm room I’d rented for the weekend. Warm. Close. In our underwear. The light was fluorescent and through the covers seemed to cast the room in liquid amber. A bottle of wine was open on the nightstand though I couldn’t remember us drinking from it.

I ran my hands over my face and through my hair. “Something about you,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Things get fuzzy when you’re around.”

“The warm kind, I hope.” 

“Yeah,” I said. “The warm and fuzzies. But…” I tried to tell her how it was more than just that, but my thoughts were woolly. It was like trying to unspool a tangle of yarn. Things would go along until I’d hit a tangle and lose the thread.

“But what?”

“Never mind,” I said. I turned my attention back to her body next to mine. Ran a finger over its smoothness. Studied its topography. When I reached her knee, some kind of nagging thought stopped me. Another knot in the yarn.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

I realized what it was. When we were freshman, she tore an ACL playing soccer. Never played seriously again. I remembered the scar just below her left knee. It was gone now.

I ran a finger over that knee. “How’d that happen? Where’d your scar go?”

“Want to know a secret?”

“Sure.”

 “It’s my research. I’ve made promising gains.”

“Seriously? Hydra? Stem cells?”

“Not exactly.”

“Then… aliens,” I said, doing my best Ancient Aliens impression.

She smiled coyly, but said nothing.

“You’re not serious.”

“Something’s down there. Beneath us. Whether Earthly in origin or otherwise, I don’t know. And there’s more than one, I think. I’m close, in Edinburgh, to finding another. Beneath the castle.”

“This whole thing about your dad?”

“In a way. But not in a bring him back from the dead kind of way. He’s gone. Dead, cremated, and scattered wide. This is for me. I do not want to die. I am not going to die.”

“And, uh, the thing beneath Clark University is going to save you?”

“I wouldn’t call it saving. And it already has.”

“Then what?”

“All I know is that I won’t be going out the way my daddy did. Or from old age either. You know, I always did like you.” She draped an arm and leg across me “But I wasn’t ready for more back then. You weren’t ready.”

“And now I am?”

“I think so, yeah. You’ve felt grief and loss. Your father. Your marriage. Me. You want something now. Truly. From the bottom of your soul. You’re willing to give it all up for something, I think.”

“You,” I said. “I want you. I’d give… anything. Everything.” I was drunk, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t speaking the truth.

“I know. I want you too. I did back then too. But it wouldn’t have worked.”

“I—”

She put a finger to my lips. “Hold the questions for now. I need to show you something. In my room.”

She took me by the hand and led me from the bed. We put our clothes back on and I followed her out into the hallway.

The dorm felt different somehow.

From somewhere came the sound of bare feet running down a hall. Giggling from behind closed doors. There was a charge to the air. A passion. The kind before the sudden violence of a bar fight, maybe. Or the moment just before the clothes come off a lover whom you should not be seeing. It was unnerving. But it was also exciting.

She came to a door and opened it. Realization washed over me.

“The suite. The one with the Halloween party. The access hatch in the floor.”

“Yep.” She closed the door behind us. We went into the bedroom and stood above the little rectangle in the carpet that marked the hatch. A duffel bag had been tossed on the bed.

“It’s funny,” she said. “That Halloween night. We stood right here. So close.”

“It’s like—”

“It was meant to be.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. Planets in the dark.

“What happened that first night there? Why can’t I remember.”

“Things get fuzzy around me, remember? Except, it’s really her that makes things fuzzy. That first night we were in here? That was her that made you forget. Happened to me too, without even realizing it. It’s the spores. The amount her servants eject aren’t virile or numerous enough to spread her and effect a transformation. They do fuck with the brain though. Like a bunch of good cocktails minus the severe hangover.” She took a knee on the carpet and pulled the hatch open. “Open my bag and grab the headlamps from it.”

“Who is this her that you’re talking about?”

“Do you want to be together? Truly?”

“I do, but…”

“Then grab the lamps. If you want to make this work, this is what you’ve got to do. I’m going to be around for a long, long time. I’m not wasting it with someone who won’t be. We need to go see her. And once we do, there is no turning back.”

I unzipped the duffel and grabbed the headlamps. We put them on and she hopped down into the hole. The same candles and blankets and wine bottles from a decade before were there. 

“There’s no other way in?”

“The lab McClellan was working in all those years ago is closed. They fixed the floor. Poured fresh concrete in our dig. You want to start digging a hole in the middle of Main Street? When we breached her chamber, we found that this access shaft connects to the tunnels just outside.”

“What’s she like?” I wasn’t sure if I believed Holly’s story. But I wanted to. Desperately. It would mean that she was not insane, that I was not insane for following her here.

“Her size is… glorious. Though I don’t think I thought that at first sight. Awesome, in the true sense of the word, was what I thought. Terrible.”

“Does she have a name?”

She shook her head. “I think of her as mother. There are others, you know. Buried across the Earth. Like in Edinburgh. I wonder if they have names for each other. Or if they’re of one mind.”

“What will it be like? Afterwards?”

“You’ll be, you. Mostly. And more.”

“Mostly and more? Sounds like a bad band name.” 

She didn’t laugh, but instead got on her hands and knees and began to crawl.

If there was a chance for me to turn back, it was then. I could have torn that headlamp off, walked out of that room, and found some classmates to spend the night reminiscing with. 

Instead, I followed her.

It was not easy. The shaft was narrow. My elbows grew raw. The air smelled of dust and my eyes watered.

Deeper, and deeper we crawled. I tried to keep track of the many turns we took, but I couldn’t keep things straight. Was that a right we’d taken at the last fork? A left? Had there even been a fork? How was Holly navigating this labyrinth? The questions kept coming as if some dam had broken.

What was I doing?

And more importantly, why was I doing it?

Was I chasing a past—a love, or at least a hope for one—that had never really existed? Had I simply lost my damn mind?

I was scared.

“Holly? What happened to McClellan?”

Though I couldn’t see her face, I knew she was smiling when she spoke. “She was hungry when we breached the chamber. Ravenous.”

I recognized the words as the professor’s own from so many years ago. “He was eaten?”

“Dissolved, would be a better word. Easier to digest that way.”

“So he went in first?”

“No. I did.”

“Why did she dissolve him, then?”

“Best not to ask those kinds of questions of a god.”

We crawled deeper and deeper still. I was scared and I crawled on because the alternative, making a choice to go back, alone, in the dark, was even more terrifying. The dusty metal walls of the access shaft had at some point given away to dirt and bedrock. There were dark stains and thin furrows in the earth as if made by clawing nails.

My heart hammered. I felt like my carotid was bulging, near to burst with the pressure of my own blood. The air was thick, soupy. Spores floated. I could taste their fungus-like funk.

Memories came to me then, each bleeding into both one another and the present. Us crawling in these very tunnels a decade in the past. Us tangled in our sheets and each other. Furrows dug in the earth, furrows dug in my back. Me, alone and sobbing, walking back from McClellan’s lab. Us standing in the water of the Wachusett reservoir. The hydra. Its barbs.

Then the camera pulled back. Around me—around her—the blackness of it all. The hum and burn of the stars. Below, the Earth like a blue pearl. Pangea. Our outermost flesh burns and chars and blackens as we enter the atmosphere and existence becomes fire. The impact is violent, the devastation we cause, vast. Forests burn and lakes boil. Lizards scream.

Much of us is lost in the crash. Burned, and smeared, and broken. But the core holds. And so we burrow. Deeper, and deeper.

Darkness envelops us. We sleep. We dream.

Eventually, I come back to myself and the memories, her memories, melt like snow. 

Holly was gone and I was alone.

The headlamp flickered.  

In front of me was a widening in the tunnel. From it, a breath of damp air that smelled of brine and rotting flowers. I edged forward and found myself in the presence of a god. A wall of pale flesh, impossibly huge. A pale leviathan. Slick and white and pulsating.

“That’s her,” Holly said from I don’t know where. “And only a small piece of her magnificence. In the words of Whitman, she is large. And trust me, she contains multitudes. Her grossness extends far, far into the earth.”

Something brushed against my ankle. Soft. Warm. Prehensile.

“Holly?” It came out a whimper.

There was a wet noise in answer. A sort of soft gurgling and squelching. The sound of sex. Of wet meat being torn.

Sharp, agonizing pain flared on the back of my thigh. The darkness was illuminated for a moment by that pain. I felt my blood run warm down my leg. I tried to crawl from that pain, but my hands wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. They kept fumbling. Clawing. Digging furrows in the earth.

And then. Oh and then.

And then things went past fuzzy.

My tongue felt thick in my mouth. Like it were made of wet paper. Dissolving, even. My shirt rode up and I was being dragged from my leg. What was it called? The hydra’s barbed harpoon? My brain scrambled desperately, trying to find the word for the thing, as if that knowledge could somehow save me. 

The headlamp must have slipped from my skull. Its light receded, growing smaller and smaller like a distant star. And then it was gone as I was pulled around a corner. Back into the bowels of those tunnels.

The word came to me. Nematocyst.

A hand brushed against my face. Familiar teeth nibbled my ear.

“I’m sorry. It’s going to hurt. A lot. The soft parts go first.”

And then? I tried to ask. I don’t know that I made a sound other than a gurgle. My tongue sloughed wetly from my mouth, slipped back down my throat. I thought I wept, but when I managed to bring my hand to my face, I found the sockets of my eyes empty, my cheeks smeared wet.

“And then,” she said, the sound of her voice fading. “You’ll be you. And more. Remember the hydra? Blended together and reassembled? We’ll be together. Finally. Forever. That is, as long as mother’s not hungry.”

* * *

The darkness of the tunnels was the darkness of the womb. It was absolute and it was all I knew.

My clothes were gone. I lay slick and steaming. The ground beneath me was bedrock.

My thoughts were as sharp as the icy stars so far, far above.

Was I me? Was Holly, Holly? These things no longer mattered.

I stood, my legs unsteady as a fawn’s. And yet there was a strength deep in the muscle and bone and marrow that wasn’t there before. A conviction.

Come to me, Holly said. Or she said. They both said. The voice was one and the same and it was near and it was far.

I found my way to her through those tunnels as a scarab navigates by the wheel of the Milky Way. Or perhaps Holly led me by the hand. In any case, branching paths no longer presented any dilemma. Nothing did.

I came to her chamber.

She was large and she was beautiful. A wall of pulsing flesh the color of falling snow. She was the future that I never had.

I grew hard at her sight.

“I missed you, all those years,” I said. “I needed you. This.”

Want to see something cool?

“Of course.”

The wall that was her parted slightly. Warm air rushed from her as if she exhaled. The breeze smelled of brine and rot and dust and the burn of the stars. Through that slit I saw warm darkness and wet flesh and sweet beauty and sweet release.

The air was thick with her spores. I pressed my body to her. Heat radiated from her in waves with each beat of her slow, epoch-like pulse. I shuddered.

She was warmth and she was darkness. She was the snow outside, erasing the world.

Her teeth closed about my ear. She closed about me.

Were the tears I wept of pleasure or despair?

It was a question better left for Theseus and the philosophers.

End.

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