In the soft glow of the summer moon, a hand broke through the ground, white and skeletal and streaked with dirt. Its bony fingers flexed, stiff and slow, tasting the night like the arcane sensors of some alien creature. The crickets and bullfrogs fell silent, and preternatural quiet reigned. Soon the hand became an arm, ragged strips of flesh hanging from faded bone. Then a head appeared, its face a grinning skull, its gaping eye sockets squirming with worms, and long strands of black hair still clinging to its rotted scalp. It clawed its way from the earth like the second coming, born again, and stretched wearily out in the grass beside its grave.
Thick, numbing mist swirled like smoke in its brain and the ice crusting its marrow sent chills down its spine. Slowly, it began to thaw and the world swam into focus. Above, the brilliant face of the moon kept eternal watch, and many unseen trees rustled in the warm night breeze.
Home, the thing thought dazedly. I have to get home.
The low position of the cloud wrapped moon suggested that it was after midnight, and the thing's heart dropped.
Mama would be upset.
Moaning at the stiffness of its joints, the thing pushed itself weakly to its feet, where it swayed for several seconds as if drunk, the world spinning around it.
Steady, it looked around and saw that it was in a grassy clearing surrounded by forest. An owl hooted forlornly, startling it.
How did I get here?
Searching its mind, the thing came up blank. The last thing it remembered was walking along Railroad Avenue. It was on its way home from…
Where? It couldn't remember.
It found that it couldn't remember much of anything, and a steely band of fear close around its chest. It had to get home. Now.
Sucking a sharp intake of breath at the grating of its bone, the thing shuffled through the tangled grass, walking instinctively southwest. The forest surrounded it, trees dark and looming, and its heart skipped. Moonbeams filtered through interlaced treetops and lit the way just enough for it to see. Pine needles and dead leaves crunched crisply beneath its feet, and when it stepped on a pine cone, it hissed in pain.
The land sloped down from the clearing, the forest becoming sparser. As it walked, the thing tried to remember what happened. One minute it was walking, the next it was lying in the grass. It imagined mama waiting up, standing in the darkened living room, arms folded across her purple robe and a look of disapproval across her face, and something like longing pinched its chest.
Past a cold, babbling brook, the hillside evened out, and the thing found itself standing in a shallow culvert running alongside a highway. A timber truck blew past, the wind dispaced by its passage nearly knocking the thing down.
Home, it knew, was across the highway. Not far.
Wincing at the pain in its feet, it stepped onto the blacktop. It was half way across when headlights washed over it, blinding it. Throwing up its arms, it turned toward its approaching death.
Instead of hitting it, however, the car threw on its brakes and screeched to a halt, its back end sliding and fishtailing. For a brief moment, it looked into the car, surprised at the look of horror on the face of the passenger, a woman. Then the car turned the way that it had come and sped off.
As it left the highway, it wondered why the woman had looked so scared.
Roughly a half mile past the highway, it came to a small house on a hillside. A shed stood a hundred feet from the back porch. It leaned against the splintered wall for a moment's rest. It thought briefly of lying down and going to sleep, but the promise of mama at home, waiting, hardened its resolve.
It pushed away from the shed, and suddenly bright yellow light filled the world.
A dog barked.
Dazzled and disoriented, it retreated behind the shed. The dog was snarling now.
A screen door banged open and a man's voice spoke: "What is it, Ace? What's out there?"
The dog was howled with frightening ferocity.
"Alright!" the man called. "Whoever's there, come out!"
The thing didn't move. It knew, somehow, that the man would hurt it.
"Come on!" the man sounded closer now. A loud cha-cha sounded. "I'm armed!"
He was so close that the thing could hear his feet crushing pine needles.
Its heart pounded.
"Hello?" he was right around the corner, and the thing's heart slammed against its ribs. It jerked its head left, right, looking for some escape or salvation, but there was only the moon, cold and indifferent.
The man appeared, and the thing fell back a step, cornered like an animal. The man started and swung something around. The thing tensed and white light stung its eyes.
"Please don't hurt me,"the thing tasped.
The man let out a terrified scream and dropped the gun. It hit the ground and discharged, thunder filling the night and a blast of buckshot slamming into the wall of the shed. The thing cried out and threw up its arms to protect itself.
When nothing happened, it relaxed and tentatively lowered its arms. The man lay still on the ground, arms and legs splayed.
The thing blinked in surprise. What happened?
He didn't move, and after a moment, the thing went to his side. In a spill of porch light, his face was twisted and his eyes vacant, staring sightlessly into the beyond. The thing's heart sank into its stomach and its hands flew madly to its face.
The man was dead.
The dog was barking, spitting.
Horror drove the thing back into the woods, but the man's twisted features followed it like a bad omen. The thing shambled, staggered, and lurched down country, leaving the higher hills. Just as the eastern sky began to show the first pale blue strains of dawn, it crested a hill, and below, spread out like a glimmering buffet, was a sea of lights.
Moving carefully, the thing descended the hill and picked up Central Avenue, the main drag, just past the town limits. At this hour all the shops and restaurants lining the sidewalk were closed. Only a few cars passed by in the street, and every time it heard one approach, it retreated into the shadows. At the corner of Central and Railroad Avenue, it met a man. Before it could stop itself, it was standing in the glow of a streetlamp. The man saw it, screamed, and ran away, looking fearfully back over his shoulder.
Why do people keep running away from me?
The thing didn't know, but something was wrong, and it was starting to get scared.
By the time the thing reached its street, the sky was pale blue. Fiery orange, tinged with purple, lit the eastern horizon. A boy on a bicycle delivering papers almost hit it. When he saw its face, he dumped his bike and ran away screaming.
It watched him, then turned to look to its left.
A small ranch overlooking the street. It looked different somehow. Dirtier.
The porch light was on, though, as it always was when the thing was out.
Mama was going to be so mad.
At the door, the thing knocked, and for the first time, it caught a glimpse of its hand, its heart freezing in its chest.
The appendage was white and dirty, bone visible in places. Ants scurried across its knuckles.
The door opened, startling it. It looked up.
Mama, in a purple robe, looked back at it, eyes widening with shock. Like the house, she looked different. Older. Her hair was gray and her face was deeply wrinkled.
The thing's head spun.
What was going on?
"Mama..." it said.
Mama blinked. "Cynthia...?"
"Mama...what happened to me?"
It felt hot tears streaming down its face.
Suddenly mama was holding her and stroking her cheek and what was left of her hair.
"I've been waiting so long," Mama said through her tears. "So long..."
"Mama...something's wrong with me." Cynthia's voice trembled and the remnants of her lips quivered.
"Shhh. You're home now," Mama said, "that's all that matters."
Safe in the warm embrace of its mother, it remembered what happened to it. Remembered the van following it, remembered the man dragging it in and driving it into the woods. Remembered the rape, the fists, the hands clutching its throat.
"Shhhh. You're home now, baby. You're home..."