The Stuff of Nightmares

Tony looked out the window, squinting to see clearly through the streaked glass.

"What is that?" he asked while taking a drink of soda.

Jerry ran stubby fingers through his slicked back hair. His unkempt appearance belied the stout interest in scientific experiments he fostered. As a kid, he ran makeshift tests in his garage or backyard, once even building a miniature maze in his sandbox to see if crickets were smarter and quicker than beetles.

"Yeah, that's right, Tony," Jerry replied to his confused friend. A satisfied grin spread across his face. "It's my own little world. An ecosystem unto itself, growing and flourishing. Or at least the beginning of one."

Tony had known Jerry since first grade, and in all that time nothing his friend did surprised him.

"Why? I mean what's the point?"

"I want to see what will happen. Evolution is an amazing concept, and I'm gonna try to make my own little cycle of it. I figure there has to be the beginnings of some life in there somewhere. And I aim to wait long enough to see what it is."

Tony turned and faced his friend.

"So not cutting all of your grass is gonna create new life?" He stifled a chuckle.

"I know, I know, but it's a start."

"Whatever you say," Tony replied with a smirk. "Whatever you say."

Jerry opened his front door, and grabbed the newspaper up from the porch. The sun was already sending streams of life-giving light down through the swaying trees. He sighed. He had been hoping for some rain; grass grew quicker when it rained.

Deciding to head into his backyard, Jerry set aside his morning paper and shuffled to the back of his house. He suddenly had a strong urge to view his creation.

The spot was carefully chosen: a six foot square section of grass near the rear fence line where his trampoline used to be. In fact, that was what had given him his idea in the first place. The soil beneath the trampoline was always covered with rotted leaves and weeds, but never grass. So after he dismantled the trampoline (he never used it anymore, and it was a liability), he seeded the area. And then he simply neglected to cut the grass in that one area, occasionally adding fertilizer and more seed, until it began to grow exponentially.

Jerry set his cup of coffee down on the edge of the counter as he hurried along. The mug failed to maintain its precarious balance, and promptly crashed to the dusty tile floor, shattering on impact and spraying bits of ceramic and hot black coffee across the floor.

But Jerry hardly noticed. He'd clean it up later. All that mattered to him was checking his experiment.

Grabbing a small clipboard that was hanging next to the doorwall, he slid the glass to the side, and stepped out onto his patio.

Jerry casually sauntered over to where his own personal ecosystem was flourishing. He briefly entertained the notion of putting up a fence around the area to help control his little experiment, but quickly decided against it. Whatever had developed in the area apparently was not bothered too much when he cut the grass. He was able to get a clean cut right up next to the spot, leaving a sharp, vertical edge of grass bordering it. And since the grass was already nearly three feet high, it really separated the area nicely.

On either side of the spot was a six-foot tripod light pole with a black floodlight attached to its tip. Each had a 200-watt incandescent bulb securely screwed in place. A heat-resistant tarp hung firmly over both poles, and was punctuated by precisely-placed two- inch diameter holes. Jerry had found the perfect size and locations to allow optimal sunshine and rain to reach his miniature ecosystem.

Jotting down a few miscellaneous notes on the clipboard, Jerry bent over and withdrew a small magnifying glass from his shirt pocket. The curved glass revealed what the naked could not see.

Strange, tiny creatures roamed the tangled thicket of grass, dirt, rocks, and twigs. Too numerous to count, the bugs varied in size, shape, and in some cases, disposition. A few of the larger ones pushed aside smaller ones. Occasionally they even attacked and devoured them.

Jerry focused on one bug in particular. It was large (about the size of a golf ball), covered in black hair, and possessed the unusual ability to extend and retract its numerous legs.

"Interesting. Very, very interesting," he said in his best mad scientist voice. "Let's see what will happen if I add some food."

A stainless-steel container stood next to the fence. It had a heavy lid on it that was secured tightly with a steel latch and heavy duty padlock. A pair of large silver tongs rested next to it.

Jerry reached into his back pocket and withdrew a small gold key. He then proceeded to insert the key into the padlock, and turned it until it clicked open. The lid creaked as it was lifted.

The stench was minimal, but pungent nevertheless. He peered into the container, a handkerchief over his nose.

The bloody mush gave no clue as to its contents until a pair of severed mouse heads bobbed to the surface. The tiny black eyes were frozen open, but did not see.

Jerry slid the tongs into the mess until he found one of the mice. He quickly lifted the dripping rodent out of the ghastly soup, and dangled it over the area where he had seen the strange bug with the legs.

At first, nothing happened. Jerry reached over and picked up his magnifying glass, and with unsteady hands, held it up to his tiny world.

The bug was still there, its bulbous body swaying in a grotesque mockery of a dance. It was attempting to reach the dead mouse, but couldn't. Once or twice it even shot out a few of its legs, but still failed to reach the carcass.

Jerry was about to lower the mouse when he noticed something unsettling: the bug had its mouth parts hyper-extended to catch any blood that dripped down.

Equal parts of revulsion and fascination swirled in Jerry's head. He had never seen anything quite like it, and wasn't sure just what to do. Should he continue feeding the creature, and monitor its growth? Or simply deny it its easy sustenance, and allow it to fend for itself, thus letting the natural process of evolution proceed. He couldn't help but worry that if he chose the latter, the little beast might just end up devouring everything around it, including any other creatures in his contained ecosystem.

Jerry reluctantly tossed the mouse back into its container, and snapped the lid into place. He thought about trying a different type of food (perhaps a granular form of wheat, or dried fruits and vegetables), but decided that since the bugs were obviously carnivorous, even cannibalistic in some instances, it would be better not to change their diet. Their growth was amazing as it was, and he didn't want to upset the balance.

So with this clipboard in hand, Jerry sauntered back to his house, content with his observations for the day.

The darkness hung over the room like a wet blanket. The only illumination was the digital readout from a small plastic clock next to the bed. It showed 2:21 a.m. Outside the room, a pale moon occasionally peeked out from thick cloud cover.

Jerry was in the midst of a pleasant dream. In it, he was seated in a plush chair next to a podium. Several hundred people stared in appreciation and awe from the main floor of the auditorium. He dutifully waited for the speaker to introduce him, before standing to thunderous applause. He was receiving recognition for his revolutionary publication regarding his ecosystem.

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very..."

The sound abruptly cut off his dream. Even though it was somewhat small, it was surrounded by silence, thus magnifying it to the point of relevance.

Jerry's eyes popped open. He recognized the sound, and despite his best attempts to dismiss it as his imagination, he knew exactly what it was.

It was his stainless steel container being opened.

Or more accurately…being pried open.

Sitting up in bed, Jerry listened intently for further confirmation about his suspicions.

And what he heard froze the blood in his veins.

Apparently, somebody had forcibly opened the food container and was now fishing inside for something. He could hear the wet, squishy sounds of his homemade slurry being investigated. And then a soft crash, followed by several muffled thuds.

In a flash, Jerry was out of bed, flashlight in hand, and temper ready to unleash its wrath on whatever poor fool was stupid enough to mess with his stuff.

He had reached the doorwall when a strange and frightening thought occurred to him:

What if it wasn't a somebody? What if it was a something?

Wild images of his experiment gone awry danced across his mind. He tried to push them back, but couldn't deny their plausibility. What else would want to dig around in a container full of dead mice? And furthermore, any stray animal seeking food would not have been able to open the latch on the container.

Suddenly the prospect of something nonhuman causing the disruption excited Jerry. His experiment had exceeded all his hopes! He'd be rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams!

The backyard was silent and still. It wore the night well. A gentle breeze washed over the scene, lifting the delicate stench of dead mice into the cool air.

Jerry readied his flashlight in front of him with shaking hands. He was as excited as he was frightened. He had no idea what he would come across, let alone how to deal with it if he did. He moved forward out onto the patio, and then the lawn. Chilled blades of grass poked up between his toes, making him wish he had worn his shoes. A few twigs jabbed at his ankles. A light dew wet his feet.

The beam from the flashlight sliced into the darkness, outlining the experiment area in a yellow glow. Jerry stopped where he was, and strained to focus on the spot. He was about twenty feet away from it, but could still tell it didn't look right. Fighting his own fears, he inched closer.

One of the tripods was knocked over, and rested precariously against the other stand. The light fixtures were both dented inward; the bulbs shattered. And the tarp had thin, parallel slashes across it.

Jerry stood frozen where he stood. At first, anger welled up in him against whoever would have vandalized his property. But then his imagination kicked in.

Was it the experiment itself that did the damage?

He could only wonder.

And if so, how could anything have evolved so quickly? The nutrient cycle wasn't altered, the abiotic components did not change, and any photosynthetic organisms present didn't increase enough to justify what he was seeing. He alone was responsible for the stochastic events that had occurred, thus curtailing overall growth to his desires.

It just didn't make sense.

Jerry trained the flashlight on the stainless-steel container lying on its side. It was dented considerably, and predictably, completely empty. The steel latch on the lid was twisted like a wet pretzel, and the padlock was so mangled it wasn't even recognizable as a lock anymore.

Swinging the beam of light across the fence, Jerry looked for any signs of the vandals. He checked the neighboring yards as well, hoping that there would be some clues left behind by the people responsible for the damage.

The people?

It had to be people who did it. It couldn't have been...

The night had grown colder since Jerry first when outside only five or ten minutes earlier, and seemed to be in cahoots somehow with something else. It allowed something to move about freely within its domain in exchange for an increased notoriety, so to speak. The night reveled in its dark reputation, and constantly sought out new ways to embellish itself.

The eerie silence was noisier than any construction site. It settled over the backyard and the one person standing in it like a bad case of the flu, invisible, and yet devastating.

He had two options.

One: simply turn around, go back into his house, and retreat to his bedroom where good night's sleep would make things easier to understand the morning.

Or two: delve into the mystery, right then and there.

A sudden noise cleaved through the uneasy silence of the night with startling efficiency. It sounded like something was crawling through the grass.

Without thinking, Jerry scanned the yard with his flashlight, but saw nothing. For just a moment it failed to occur to him the true source of the noise (his experiment), and by the time he realized his oversight, the sound had become much more pronounced.

Jerry whirled around and felt a cold punch in the gut when he saw just how far his house was. When he left it only fifteen minutes earlier, it was just his home and backyard. But now that he stood near his experiment, in the middle of the night, armed with only a flashlight, the house seemed to be a million miles away.

He thought of making a run for it. He'd have to eat a truckload of pride, but at least he'd be in the relative safety of his house. Once there, he could arm himself, or call for help, or even study the yard from a safe distance.

With his mind scattering in a thousand different directions at once, Jerry broke into a mild sprint; his eyes were locked on his destination: his house.

Only a few more yards. I can see my family room, the TV, my couch, all nestled snugly in their respective places, all quietly awaiting me to return to them.

Jerry's legs were pumping furiously, his bare feet slapping down hard onto the cool concrete of the patio.

I'm so close. Just a little bit further.

He could see his frantic reflection in the doorwall's glass. It alarmed him to see himself so scared, so disheveled. He looked like a homeless bum who just woke up after a night of heavy drinking.

My house. I'm just about there. Only a little...

And then Jerry realized something that didn't belong in the comfortable realm of reality. Something made up from the stuff of nightmares.

I'm not moving.

Or more accurately, he was not moving forward. His legs were still chugging away, but he was not getting any closer to his house. He immediately stopped, and shoring up what courage he had left, reached one of his arms behind his back...

and onto the thing that had latched onto his body.

The tentacle was pulsing with muscle and sinewy strength, and tremored with a slick efficiency that no potential prey would be able to escape from.

And then Jerry began to slide backward, slowly at first, but then with increased purpose, until a scant few seconds had elapsed before he found himself next to his experiment.

He screamed. He thrashed. He did everything in his power to break the hold, but whatever the arm was attached to was immensely strong, and apparently rather hungry. And Jerry knew that some dead mice floating in a bloody soup would not satisfy its hunger any longer.