Summer had always been my favorite season because the warm weather meant I could stop going to the sweaty gym at work in favor of the great outdoors. There was nothing I enjoyed more than cycling on the bike path along the river. Being the creature of habit that I was, I never strayed from the northbound trail. Yesterday, however, I was feeling adventurous, and went south instead. It was a mistake that I will never repeat.
It was a tremendously hot day, the kind where opening the front door felt like putting one’s head in the oven. The moment I stepped outside, a wave of scorching humid air assaulted me, forcing me to reconsider my workout schedule. Wiping sweat from my brow, I retreated back into the safety of my air-conditioned home, and decided to wait until evening before heading out.
By 8 PM, the sun’s influence was weakening, and the temperature had become slightly more manageable. It was always cooler by the river anyway, so I figured I’d be comfortable once I got there and had wind blowing on me. I took to my bike and rode to the municipal park where, as anticipated, the weather was a bit more agreeable.
As I arrived at the junction between the northbound and southbound trails, I spontaneously decided to head left, into uncharted territory. The southbound path was surprisingly pleasant, bringing me nearly to the edge of the water. To my left was a dense forest, whose trees shielded me from the remaining rays of sunlight. Unlike my usual route, this one followed an even mix of flat terrain and hills, providing me with a more balanced workout. The best part was that, whether due to the weather or the time of day, I was the only person there that evening. It was wonderful: I could go at my own pace without being passed by weirdly competitive riders or having to dodge annoying rollerbladers who never stayed within their lines.
I had just reached the bottom of a hill when the atmosphere suddenly became dense and heavy, like I’d ridden into a tub of jello. At first, I thought I had hit a pocket of humidity, until I noticed the visual distortions. Everything began to warp, as though my contact lenses had been replaced with funhouse mirrors. In my peripheral vision, shadows were twisting and contorting, making them seem alive. A thick fog rolled in from the forest, engulfing everything around me and snuffing out the horizon. If not for an eerie twilight glow emanating from the river, I would have been left in total darkness.
“Don’t stop! No matter what, don’t stop or you’ll die!” a woman shouted in the distance.
Was she talking to me? Who else could she have been speaking to? I’d been riding for over an hour and hadn’t seen a soul. I’m not sure what crept me out more: The warning, the intense pressure, or the unusual optical illusions. Regardless, I wanted to turn back. I gripped my handlebars firmly and attempted to perform a U-turn on the narrow path. However, an unseen force kept my wheels fixed in one direction. Have you ever been in the saucer-shaped ride at the carnival? You lay, untied, to a vertical plank. The saucer starts to spin, pinning you against the plank for the duration of the ride. That’s what it felt like. Try as I might, I could not get my bike to budge because something was pushing my bike to the ground.
I hit the brakes softly, hoping to disembark and turn myself around manually. As soon as I slowed, a sense of dread pierced my heart like an arrow made of ice. The blurry shadows I’d been seeing at the edge of the forest suddenly made a beeline towards me. Their shapes became clearer as they approached. Hundreds of black, clawed fingertips skittered over the grass like giant spiders, leaving the turf yellow and brittle in their wake. The hands seemed both solid and liquid at the same time, as though they could change states on a whim. When they advanced, they did so with the fluidity of corn syrup, yet they still managed to dig themselves into the dirt as easily as a shovel. The hands were attached to narrow arms that extended from the forest like stretched-out bubble gum.
Horrified, I started pedaling, trying to put as much distance between the wretched creatures and myself. It was difficult: It felt like I was carrying three times my bodyweight in the thick air. It was like pedaling with the resistance maxed out, but without the rewarding boost. No matter how much effort I put in, I advanced mere meters in the effort required to cover a mile.
A low growl bellowed from the forest. Between the greenery, I could see something massive slithering along, following me. The appendages that chased me were all emerging from the single life form hiding behind the tree line. Sweat poured out of me as I desperately tried to pedal farther from its grasp, but exhaustion was quickly winning out over adrenaline. Each time I tried to slow my pace so I could catch my breath, the sickly dark hands threatened to reach me. I kept my eyes on the road ahead, hoping that, if I could just reach the end of the bike path, I would be safe. Unfortunately, it was like chasing a rainbow. Every meter forward pushed the horizon farther away.
It was only when my muscles started to cramp hard and my lungs became enflamed, that I finally gave up trying to run. I had given it all my might, pedaling for an eternity, to no avail. There was no fight left in me. The clawed fingertips came at me like vultures on fallen prey. Fingers shot up and clutched a handful of spokes on my back wheel. They instantly rusted and broke off. I knew I was going to suffer a similar fate. Aching with pain, I hopelessly closed my eyes and braced myself for my demise.
“Now! Run!” said the voice from before.
As though by magic, the overwhelming weight bearing down on me lifted. Gravity had returned to normal. The morsel of hope was enough to give me the strength to jump off my bike just in time to see it consumed by the hands. In seconds, it crumbled into a heap of scrap metal.
“Quick, into the water!” she urged.
I turned to the river, darted towards it, and plunged into the cool liquid while the arms gave chase. The hands stopped at the water’s edge, skittering side to side hesitantly. Finally, they snapped back into the forest like elastic bands. I heard the creature scream an ear-piercing howl. The noise was so loud that it caused the water to ripple. I watched in shock as the monster’s outline faded in the distance.
I turned to thank my savior, but what I saw made my stomach drop. She wasn’t a person, that much I knew. Her head was minuscule and wrinkled, like a barbaric shrunken tribal head. Instead of hair, an uneven mass of kelp hung from her scalp, dangling in front of her pure white eyes. A thin, skin-like film sealed her mouth shut, but the jagged teeth it restrained could easily bite through the semi-opaque layer of flesh in a single chomp. Her half-submerged body was covered in moss, surely hiding horrors beneath. Her webbed hands clutched my shoulders, yanking me into deeper waters.
Screaming for bloody murder, I twisted and thrashed, trying to break free of her grasp, but I was already too weak to change my fate. My screams turned into gurgles as she pulled me underwater. I’d been so stupid to trust her: I was just a French fry she’d wanted to steal from the other creature’s plate.
It was only a matter of time before I drowned. You hear people talk about seeing their lives flash before their eyes in these kinds of situations. Not me. No, my thoughts drifted to very weird places. Mainly, I worried about how disgusting my cat’s litterbox was going to get in my absence, wondering how long it would take people to notice I was missing. A day? A week? A month? My house was going to be a mess. Had I vacuumed? Would people remember me as a slob?
Just as I was about to pass the threshold of unconsciousness, I remembered the pocket knife I carried in case of emergency. My numb fingertips caught hold of it, and quickly flicked the corkscrew out. With the very last of my strength, I jabbed the weapon into her hand.
“HYAAARRRGHH!” she screamed, pulling her arms back to nurse her wounds.
My mouth burst open and I inhaled, water pouring into my lungs. Everything went dark.
When I came to, I was on the shore miles away from my city. I’m not entirely sure how I made it back to the surface: Whether I was helped, or just surprisingly more buoyant than I thought. I didn’t question it, though. I was just happy to be alive, albeit in poor condition. You know that feeling you get when you go to the gym for the first time in years because you made a New Years resolution? That sore feeling in muscles you didn’t know existed? I felt that, but ALL over. By the end of it, even my toe muscles were hurting.
I eventually got home, vowing never to take the southbound path again. Though, honestly, I think I’ll stick to the gym from now on.