(From the "Miscellaneous" Creature Features)
"I can’t believe we’re gonna be able to tell people that we survived a crash landing."
Ted Fernandez, a passenger on the nearly-doomed ValueAir flight 1219 with service from Albuquerque to Denver, walked around the front of the plane with both hands on his hips. He surveyed it with mild disinterest, much like one would survey a neighbor’s new car. Printed near the nose of the plane was a bright, smiling anthropomorphic cartoon jet, giving a friendly ‘thumbs up’ to the crowd of passengers below. Its big, elliptical eyes now seemed to say "Oh Shit, Guys! Can We Keep This A Secret?" Ryan, Ted’s teenage brother, came running under the nose of the plane, his eyes nearly bulging from his sockets with adolescent excitement.
"Holy crap, Teddy! Do you think anyone’s gonna believe that we had an emergency landing? Do you think we’re gonna make the news? Oh, crap! I’m gonna be on the freaking NEWS!" Ryan’s hands and feet fidgeted wildly as he spoke. Ted, always the voice of reason, brought him down. "Ryan, take it down a notch. A few of these people are seriously messed up right now. They don’t need to see you bounding around the plane like an asshole jackrabbit." Ryan, still smiling, bit his lower lip and continued around the plane. Ted called out after him: "And don’t wander too far from the plane." Ryan raised his hand in acknowledgement.
Two hours earlier, Ted and Ryan Fernandez were at 35,000 feet somewhere above northern New Mexico. Ryan had his nose buried in one of Ted’s old EC comics (a recent obsession, taking hold after he discovered a hidden cache of comics underneath the desk in Ted’s old bedroom last fall) called The Vault of Horror. Ted had only just fallen asleep with the plane began to fall from the sky. Flashing lights, violent shaking, debris dangling from the ceiling, children screaming, the silent old man in the window seat grabbing Ted’s arm, now paralyzed with fear but somehow shrieking, and, seemingly only seconds later, the sight of the tips of pine trees racing past the wing. The plane touched down a moment later, coming to a bumpy but otherwise peaceful stop. They had landed in a long, treeless stretch of valley, perfectly placed between the mountains as a hospice for dying low-cost airliners. Minutes later, the ValueAir staff had wrangled the passengers out the emergency exits and down the yellow, inflatable slides, where they all waited patiently for more instructions.
Ted knew that they were somewhere in the mountains near the New Mexico border, but since the captain hadn’t appeared from the cockpit since the landing, details beyond the purely obvious were scant. A crowd of the remaining 31 passengers of flight 1219 stood quietly near the left wing, on the edge of a vast forest that surrounded the valley. A fat man sat Indian style on a mat of dead pine needles, holding his two daughters in a double death-grip around their waists at either side of him. He was still in shock. An elderly couple held each other, sobbing softly. An athletic girl with a spectacular afro sat alone, munching on an apple. A young professional in a suit stared angrily at his cell phone. Out of service. Ted turned to face the forest around them. This place, thought Ted, was somehow… unclean. Maybe it was the way the setting sun filtered through the pines on either side, splashing crisscross shadows on the people below. But this strange feeling, he thought, was probably just the result of the situation, an echo from the residual shock.
Twilight was approaching, and with it came the cruel cold of the February night. Ted wished he could go back inside the plane for his jacket, but thought better of it, given the uneasy state of national security. Who knows; one of the attendants might just shoot him in the back for climbing back up the slide. As Ted checked his back pocket for a cigarette (knowing full well that there wasn’t one there), the captain emerged from the emergency exit above the wing. Finally.
"Ladies and gentlemen, as you may have noticed, we have made an emergency landing." This announcement was greeted with annoyed grunts of mock laughter. "And, unfortunately, we are unable to contact anyone via the radio. Apparently, an electrical malfunction aboard the plane caused massive damage to our instruments."
The pilot, a chubby, middle-aged man with square glasses, almost looked like Teddy Roosevelt giving a stump speech as he stood in the doorway.
"Fortunately, I am aware of a settlement a few miles to the south. We passed over it several minutes before we landed. I’d like to bring a party of four men to the settlement, where we can arrange for a rescue." The young professional with the cell phone interrupted loudly.
"Why in the hell don’t we all go? Why only four of us?"
"Well, I’m not quite sure where the settlement is, and I’d rather not risk any more problems. The ValueAir staff will remain here with you, and will escort you back into the plane if weather becomes inclement." A murmur of aggravation rippled through the crowd below. The captain began to sweat. "Please, folks… everyone settle down, and we’ll get you all taken care of and off to your final destinations as soon as we can."
The captain slid down to the ground, his navy blue legs bobbing comically as he fell. He stood up, brushed off his legs, and approached the crowd. "You sir," the captain pointed to the young professional, "and you sir, you sir, and…" he turned to face Ted. "you, sir. Will you all please come with me?"
"Well, I can come, but I’m bringing my brother. I’m not leaving him alone." Ted grabbed Ryan by the shoulder and pulled him close.
"That’s fine." The captain, armed only with a flashlight, led the small group into the forest to the south. Ryan whispered into Ted’s ear: "Where are we going? What’s this all about?" Ted shook his head, and made a follow me motion with his hand. Along with the young professional, there followed a skinny man with a beard and a muscular black man in a sweater.
As they walked, the sun set and the sky turned a rotten, ugly blue. The cold night had begun. The visible band of the Milky Way looked like a gangrenous wound. Ted longed for that jacket, and, even more so, the cigarettes in the front pocket. He became increasingly aware of the unclean feeling that seemed to bleed from the forest around him, an oppressive blue darkness that seemed to swallow even the powerful beam from the captain’s Mag-Lite. After an hour of trudging through the mountainside, they came to a clearing, and as they did, they spotted a dying old streetlamp, sputtering out streams of blue light.
"This must be it, thank god," Said the captain. "Good job, everyone!" The settlement was dead quiet as they entered. Ryan and Ted exchanged worried glances.
They approached the streetlamp, which hugged the edge of a well-kept road leading to the center of the tiny settlement. Numerous cottages, barns, and residences lined the road, but there were no cars, nor bikes, nor rails to be seen on the ground. As the captain led them down the street, humming triumphantly as he did, Ryan whispered to Ted:
"Look at the houses. They look funny."
He noticed a strange non-pattern to the development. All of the structures seemed to be stylistically different from each other. An adobe home sat next to a ranch house. A two story brick walk-up looked drastically out of place next to an art deco townhouse. Then, Ted saw something else. Some of the houses looked unfinished, but not in a way that you’d normally see in the suburbs or in a city. Some of the houses seemed to be exactly half completed, as if an artist had been drawing them, but had stopped halfway to begin another project. Girders and splintered floorboards seemed to levitate in midair. The wooden door to one home almost seemed to be… translucent.
"Uh, where the hell are we?" asked the bearded man.
"I think I see the town center up ahead," said the captain. "There are sure to be people there who can help us. Let me do the talking. I know how difficult some of these locals can be." He led them into the city square, following the trail of dim streetlamps, finally stopping at a waterless fountain in the center. From here, the settlement almost looked like something out of an old western. A bar with swinging saloon doors stood opposite one side of the fountain. On the other side, however, stood a simple storefront with a dead neon sign reading "Alice’s Diner." To the east was a very modern looking establishment. Its glass window read "Java Joe’s" in large, white cursive. This place had some serious theme schizophrenia, thought Ted. Like some kind of creepy Disneyland after closing time.
A deep voice came from the saloon.
"Any survivors?" it asked.
"Oh, yes, yes! All of them this time!" said the captain. The group of five gathered together near the fountain, succumbing to confusion.
"What the shit?!?" said the man with the beard. "Is this some kind of hidden camera crap?" The young professional backed away from the saloon as a figure emerged. It was a man, dressed in clean overalls, with long but well-kept brown hair. "The one in the suit is very stylish. I’d like a sample, please." he asked politely. He pronounced "shample, pleashe."
"Why yes, go right ahead- that’s why they’re here!" said the captain. The man in overalls walked toward the young professional, who backed away, his brow ruffled with deep lines of confusion. Two women appeared from Alice’s diner, both well dressed and groomed, grabbing the young professional by the arms. He struggled to escape as the man in overalls approached him, but with no success.
The man in overalls reached his hand into his own mouth, and, with a sound that reminded Ted of peeling an orange, removed his lower jaw from his skull. It glimmered with slime in the moonlight as he stuffed it into his front pocket. The young professional mustered a terrified scream as the jawless man, his mouth hanging open like an enormous, flapping wound, wrapped his hands around the professional’s face, settling his mouth-hole on the captive man’s left eye. A gurgling, muffled foaming sound erupted from the young professional’s head has he went limp. The man wearing overalls pulled his head away, revealing a thin, white rope of tissue connecting his mouth and the professional’s eye socket, which still held one spastic eyeball. It whipped back into his mouth-hole as the two women dropped him to the ground, turning to the captain, who looked on approvingly.
Ted grabbed Ryan by the wrist, spinning around only to find the square now lined with people. All of them looked to be from different walks of life. Children, elderly people, college boys wearing baseball caps. All of them smiling. All of them slowly approaching. Ted reached into the fountain, picking up a smooth rock the size of his fist.
"RUN, RYAN!" he yelled as he ran toward an elderly man standing outside of Java Joe’s. He smashed the rock into the old man’s skull. A splash of pale blue liquid sprang forth from his head as he fell backward. Ryan sprinted past him into the wilderness beyond the city.
"Pleathe don’t do that. It ithn’t very polite," said the old man as he stood back up, wiping the oozing blue wound in his head delicately with a handkerchief. His blood looked like Maalox. Trust the Maalox family for fast, effective relief, thought Ted as he backed away, dropping the rock to the asphalt.
Like ants, they came pouring out onto the street from the structures around the square, all of them well dressed, clean, hell- they even looked god-fearing. The remaining two men from the group made a dash to the north, but were quickly surrounded by dozens of settlers, who fell upon them slowly like curious churchgoers at a bake sale. A final cry of "WHAT THE SHIT?" was drowned out by moaning, sucking sounds, and a polite murmur of "Oh, dear, I’m thorry, did I thtep on your foot?"
Ted backed away, turning in all directions, realizing that he’d probably soon be dead as the thousands of settlers crowded in around him. At least Ryan had escaped, he thought. Maybe he’d warn the others. His hopes were dashed when he heard his brother’s scream echo in the distance. Slowly, almost casually, the crowd grew closer, and Ted felt two cold, powerful hands clamp underneath his arms, locking him in place. A cool palm lifted his chin, grabbing him firmly by the throat. A friendly looking bald man in a golf shirt approached him, reaching into his mouth and ripping out his lower jaw. A spry, white tendril flickered eagerly in the gaping, drooling maw. His skin seemed to sag around his face, as if he were wearing a loose mask of flesh.
They’re architects, thought Ted, as the mouth closed upon his eye, the little white tendril creeping past his eyeball and finally into his brain. But they never build anything from scratch.
The settlers poured forth into the forest toward the valley.
Trevor La Pay does research and development for a firm in the creepy desert southwest. He’s a regular guy just like all of your friends, though.
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