Murray’s flashlight beam swept left and right as he walked the power plant’s gangways. The map he’d been given was straightforward and his route simple but it was late. He was tired. On the third time through, his mind wandered and so did the beam.
Murray saw a finger.
At least he thought it was a finger. A small, pale, sausage-looking thing thirty feet down a darkened path. Three feet on was another. He wasn’t supposed to go off the map’s route; Mr. Spivy had been very insistent about that.
But I’m either losing my mind or someone seriously needs help.
Murray stepped off the appointed route.
Murray drove his ’84 Chevy toward the Tremball power plant with blank detachment. His eyes veered between the road to the faint white band on his tanned finger. No ring now, and no Janet beside him, chiding him for retreating to such a dump. But the town of Tremball was just like Murray: empty, tired, and more alive with memories than anything else. He thought they’d get along just fine.
At quarter of six he pulled into the plant’s driveway alongside a sedan — the only other car in the lot. Mr. Spivy was waiting.
They shook hands; Murray’s strong, beefy hand engulfing Spivy’s flaccid one.
Janet would’ve said Spivy was a “limp dick”, and two months ago, Murray would’ve laughed. But he’d caught Janet in bed with her shift supervisor who, by actual observation, was not a limp dick. So instead of settling down, the ink was drying on divorce papers and Murray was taking another shit job in another shit town as if he were fresh out of high school.
Spivy described the job and Murray half-listened, thumbing his bare finger.
Murray followed the trail of blood that led from one phalange to the next. Four fingers in all. A woman’s fingers, judging by the chipped pink polish on the nails, leading him into the deep where the flickering fluorescents didn’t reach.
“Somebody there?” he called. “Somebody need help?”
There was a small child sitting on the gangway, its back to Murray, its little body quivering with sobs.
What the hell? He stepped closer. “Hey, kid.”
The child turned.
“Built in the fifties… One of the first nuclear reactors… Put Tremball on the map…”
The sun sank; shadows of the reactor’s towers stretched over the worn pavement, reaching for Murray and Spivy who talked faster, his tongue smacking in a dry mouth.
“Insufficient precautions… Leakage… Drinking water contaminated. Terrible, terrible.”
Murray agreed. Terrible to catch your wife with Sal Panta-frickin’-fino, the schlub…
“Plant shut down… the damage was done… Deformities…
Murray dropped the flashlight and the beam went wild, chaotically illuminating the misshapen head; the puckered O mouth; the bony snake of a spine curling tightly beneath pallid skin; one eye black and dead, the other watching him. The child-thing reached out a scrawny arm that began in its neck. In its hand was another hand. A woman’s hand. Fingerless. The kid clutched it. “Mama….”
Murray turned to run. He took two steps and stopped, screaming.
“…The cancer, oh… ravaged Tremball…”
Murray’s eyes wandered to the entrance of the plant where the black windows were eye sockets and the chain strung across the doors was an iron rictus. “Why the security?” he asked. “Why not let it rot?”
Spivy was apologetic. “Insurance. Kids break in. It’s not… safe.”
A man was there.
He looked welcoming but for the fact his face was melting off his skull as Murray watched, stupefied. The man raised an arm, offering a glass of water.
“Thirsty?” A dollop of flesh dripped off his chin.
Paralyzed, Murray tried to process what he was seeing when a tiny hand gripped the back of his leg. He screamed and turned to run, stepping on something soft that burst wetly and then crunched under his boot.
The kid! Christ, that was the kid!
Spivy handed him the keys.
“You’re not gonna show me around?”
“I’m afraid not. Other appointments… But there’s a map at the security desk, your uniform and flashlight. Make your rounds on the route marked in red.” Spivy gripped his arm, hard. “Stay on the route. Do not stray.”
Murray frowned. “No straying. Yeah, okay.”
The mandatory pathway was long gone and Murray was lost in the labyrinth of the power plant. He rounded a corner and retched. His dinner — shrimp cocktail and beer — splattered on the floor. But the shrimp were un-chewed and began to flounder in the vomit like bloated, red-tailed maggots.
A woman’s hand touched his shoulder. The sweet stench of decaying flesh wafted over his neck. “Thirsty?”
Murray started to cry.
They were everywhere. He saw their shadows, heard their faltering steps, smelled their pulp as it rotted off them… and that question, always so down-home polite and so mercilessly sinister at the same time.
Murray stumbled into a corner and the horde shuffled toward him — a crowd of twisted spines and blackened skin; mothers holding limbless babies; old men with milky eyes, reaching.
A man-thing broke from the group and lurched forward. In its hand was a glass of water. It looked better than the others… except for its missing jaw. Under the nose was a lip and row of white teeth. Below lolled a slug-like tongue attached by a strip of rotting tendon. Murray watched, appalled, as the tongue arched up and touched the teeth.
Thirsty? Murray heard in his mind, plain as day. Oh, Janet… I loved you, I did… You strayed, but I strayed too…
They closed in, pressing the glass to his lips. It tasted sweet… and it burned.
Night descended and the power plant’s fat towers were black silhouettes against a dark blue sky. Spivy looked away and sighed. “There’s a vending machine. We keep it stocked if you get hungry, but you should bring your own drinks. Okay?”
The man sounded tired. Murray nodded.
The sedan sped away with a stink of burnt rubber and Tremball’s newest night watchman, its fifth in as many months, went inside.
Jennifer Ripley lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and wouldn’t have it any other way. She is currently at work on a nautical fantasy trilogy that consumes whatever’s left of her day after her two precious little girls are done with it. She hopes you enjoy her work as much as she enjoys writing it.