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Texas Gothic

Part 1

Ever wondered what lies beneath the hard clay earth?

The rain hadn’t stopped for days. On the fourth day, I was staring out my window in a haze of boredom as cloudy as the sky above my two-story, cookie-cutter home. Lying on my right side with my head upon an absurd mountain of pillows offers perfect high-definition viewing of the street I live on. My siblings chattered down the hall in their rooms, my brother to his online DND friends and my sister enacting glamourous lives through her Barbie dolls. The family cat wanders into view and rubs against the old tree in our front yard, and the weird neighbor who is obsessed with our cat (a long story), walks up to pet him. Why is he out in the drizzle? I don’t know. He’s a weirdo.

The moment he steps into a puddle, en-route to cat, he sinks waist-deep. A few more seconds pass and his face is a kaleidoscope of emotions; fear, confusion, surrender. Then the rest of him disappears with nothing but deep red bubbles.

I yank away from my window, a puzzled and semi-terrified look on my face. Our cat takes a drink from the puddle, oblivious. Or had it not really happened at all? Was my boredom-soaked brain playing a trick on me? My hand dove beneath my duvet, wandering around over the memory-foam mattress covered with cute woodland creatures until it finds my TV remote. I push the power button and the little indicator light at the bottom of the screen blinks. This smart-TV was one of the best Christmas gifts ever. Hands down.

The screen blinks to life and I wander through the channels until the news pops up, the red bar marquis at the bottom blinking a bolded-font ‘EMERGENCY: STAY INDOORS.’

“Fan-fucking-tastic.”

A glance at my phone told me work was in about two hours, so I gussied up the Cheddar’s uniform as much as possible, tossed my hair into a ponytail, and made my way downstairs with a yawn. I could call in, but I imagine Ronnie, my manager, wouldn’t respond well to, "I’m sorry but the news said to stay indoors." So, off to work I went.

Pulling into the parking lot, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. There were maybe five cars out front, and four in the back where the employees park. I gather all of my pens from my car cupholder and arrange them by color in the pocket of my apron, spritz on a bit of perfume, clip my ID card on my breast pocket, and head inside. Fairly normal attendance on a Monday evening, so I wasn’t even concerned when I clocked in and found out three people hadn’t shown up for work.

I was most definitely not prepared when I headed into the kitchen to find two coworkers sobbing and a weary-looking general manager. I stopped dead in my tracks, my arms locking around myself as though I just stepped into the walk-in freezer.

“What’s going on?”

My manager looks up from his phone, upon which he had been furiously texting, and sighed.

“They’re dead. Sam and Blaine.”

I’ve only been working here about six months, so I wasn’t entirely attached to anyone. Though, this news sent a chill down my spine and hot tears into my eyes. I didn’t ask how. I didn’t ask why. That night was a blur. Refills, remakes, and copious amounts of, "Would you like that fried or grilled?" I barely made it through my shift before I clocked out, and wandered to my car, carefully avoiding puddles as I did so.

When I got home the house was quiet, as per usual when closing at a restaurant. I could hear my mom snoring as I made my way down the hall to the blue glow under my door. A news anchor droned on about staying away from standing water and human remains, and, while I admit it was terrifying, I was just too tired to give a shit. I stripped down to my undies and curled up beneath my goose-down duvet, clicked the power button on my TV remote, and immediately succumbed to sleep.

The next day, as I was doing my readings for a class later in the afternoon, my mind wandered. What the hell was happening? Where were these people disappearing to? Were the dry, Texas grounds thirsty for something more than water?

I rubbed at my freckled cheek with my hand, sighing, and ignored the fear pooling in my stomach. Was it only puddles from the rain? The weird salty rain that smelled of rust and blood? With a couple of sharp pats to my cheek and a trip downstairs, I found myself drawn to the bags of concrete in the garden shed. I pursed my lips, nudging one with my foot, before heaving it over my shoulder and making my way to the front yard where the red-tinged puddle and other clear, acrid puddles rest. Silent. Deadly.

“No thanks.”

The bag of concrete hit the ground with a thud that I could feel in my ankles. I twisted and pulled a corner of the paper bag off. Upending the bag, I watched the soft, grey powder flow into the water, thickening and darkening as it worked its way into concrete. I repeated this for the other puddles before dragging the back of my hand against my forehead as thunder rumbled above. I stowed the concrete in the garage so it was closer to my workspace. The job wasn’t over yet, but I had class in an hour.

My phone has this uncanny ability to only ever receive any calls, texts, or notifications in the middle of lecture. Then again, the consistent Amber Alerts had everyone silencing their phones and I had stopped caring after the 15th one that same day. It was getting worse. In a class full of 30 students, people notice when only 17 students show up. I glanced every now and then at the PowerPoint on the projector screen, but my mind was elsewhere as my finger scrolled the track-pad on my laptop through a Google search of Texas lore and legends as well as landscaping and soil content. Did you know most Texans don’t have basements or storm-shelters? What is beneath the ground that we are more afraid of than an F-5 tornado or ridiculous storage fees?

I slammed my laptop shut as an emergency alert pops up on the upper corner of my screen, causing multiple people in the classroom to jump. My face gets hot, and I slowly slide my computer into my backpack and endure the rest of lecture; though I am not really there. Grackles shout and titter outside in the courtyard below the lecture hall, making concentrating that much more difficult.

The drive home is longer than usual. My arms feel heavy and my head weary. The radio emits the emergency alert siren, and I fear even making it home. The GPS app on my phone pipes up with, "Watch out. Object on road ahead," and I jump at “her” voice. Narrowing my eyes, I see what appears to be a log in the middle of the road. As I get closer, it looks less like a log and more like a…leg?

I push the hazard light button on my dashboard and ease onto the shoulder of the empty, two-lane highway. Peeking out of my window just to be sure, I crack open my door and slide out, immediately frozen with my back against my car door.

The smell is horrendous, like rotting milk mixed with blood and feet.

I gasp, a mistake, as the smell melts onto my tongue with a sickening sweetness. I pinch my t-shirt collar and pull it up over my nose, edging toward the thing in the road. I squat and tilt my head to the side as I study it.

It is most definitely a leg.

It looks sheared off at the hip, the head of the femur missing and the skin puckered, red, and angry. Thick, yellow, bubbly fat lines just-beneath-the-skin layer of the thigh oozes like melted butter over the exposed muscle. I make a face as I stand, holding back the bile that’s climbed its way up my throat, when something catches my eye.

I lean down toward the foot, narrowing my eyes at a black smudge just above the ankle bone. I can just make out an outline of the Lone Star State as I stand up straight, having been oblivious to the semi-truck headed my way. I am knocked parallel to the ground and my skull cracks on the blacktop.

Roadkill.

*******

I sit up with a gasp, sweat beading upon my forehead, red hair stuck to freckled skin, and my heart raging inside my ribs. The sun melts through the thick blinds on my window, peeking out from behind the receding storm clouds and shining golden on my face and the menagerie of succulent plants on my windowsills. I breathe deeply a few times, staring out my window at the puddles on the ground. Muddy, murky, little bits of grass floating in them. No red. No concrete. That is how summer-storm puddles are supposed to be. My chest, still heaving, aches for a moment as I struggle to locate my remote.

On clicks the news channel, and I am relieved to find that the next few days will be sunny and that the city is working to direct the flooded water to medians and gullies. There is no mention of emergency or fear, only forecasting of that good old Texas heat.

I shuffle from my bed still dressed in the tattered-with-love jeans and cutoff t-shirt I was wearing when I fell into a boredom-induced power-nap. Shaking my head, I slip my bare feet into a worn pair of checkered shoes and, gathering my carpet-pattern shoulder bag and phone, make my way downstairs to the kitchen. My mom was standing at the sink, the dishwasher open at her side as she rinsed and loaded, rinsed and loaded. My voice cracks nervously as I call her on my way out the front door, keys jingling in hand.

“Would you please let the cat in?”

As I meander toward my car, the creepy cat guy down the street waves over at me with a smile, and I muster a sheepish grin and a slight wave as I climb into my car, already late for class.

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