Author's Note: There is an affiliation mentioned in this story known as "ISIS." This story was written with the intention that ISIS was an Egyptian Goddess, not affiliated with a terrorist organization. I won't change the name of the laboratory because I happen to like the name.
# symbol indicates a break in the narration.
by Michelle Brumley
“Your father and I have a very important project to attend to tonight. We can’t have you running around the laboratory like some wild animal.” Natalia sounded distracted as usual.
“A wild animal? Is that what you think I am? You and Father always have ‘important projects.’ I may have spent time at ISIS, but only because you dragged me along. I’ve never been to one of your project meetings before.” Meghan made sure her mother couldn’t see her before rolling her eyes.
“Besides, Meghan, you have to work tonight. I don’t even know why we’re having this conversation.”
“We are not having this conversation. You’re just telling me what to do.”
“I’ll be back in the morning.”
Headlights reflected against the window. Natalia got up from her seat at the dining room table. She smoothed the material of her white lab jacket and checked her auburn hair in the mirror. She adjusted her silver-plated name tag that read “ISIS Laboratories.” Without another word, she walked toward the front door.
“See you in the morning, Natalia.”
Natalia’s back went rigid. She stopped in her path and turned to face Meghan.
“Mother, Meghan. I am your mother. Stepmother, but still, your mother.”
Meghan was left alone in the dining room. The front door slammed shut, but not before letting flurries of snowflakes gust through and onto the hallway floor. She watched as her stepmother trod carefully through the front yard towards the idling company car. The ground outside was covered in nearly a foot of fresh snow.
Meghan stood and walked to the front door. She used her sleeve to wipe a section of the glass and peered through it. She watched the car door open. Her father, Dr. Konrad Lacroix, leaned across in the driver’s seat and waved casually at her.
Meghan lifted a hand and, just as casually, returned the gesture. She watched as he smiled and laughed at whatever Natalia had said. The passenger door shut and the car jerked forward, plowing through the snow. Red taillights moved until they were swallowed by the snowfall.
“Time to get dressed,” she announced to the empty room. The wood-burning stove crackled and popped. She rubbed her chilled arms and walked to the fireplace. She stepped carefully around her father’s sleeping cat, Helix. The old cat stretched and mewed softly but refused to relinquish his spot in the warmth of the fireplace. She opened the door to the stove and laid a dry log on the dying ashes. Helix opened one golden eye to stare at her.
“I bet you’ve been to one of father’s ‘important projects,’ haven’t you, Helix?” The cat turned its back on her, bored of conversation, and went back to sleep. Meghan reached out and stroked Helix’s matted black fur. I’ve always been allowed at ISIS. Whatever they’re doing, it must be important. Helix purred, even as he pretended to be asleep. It must be Natalia. I’m certain Dad would let me attend.
The clock struck six. An antiquated bell sounded. The clock was broken. The pitch was warped, but Konrad refused to fix it. It had belonged to Meghan’s mother.. She waited for the final chime before leaving Helix and heading for her bedroom. The warmth from the fire fled once she began to walk down the darkened hallway. Natalia insisted on leaving the lights off and was conservative about burning wood in the house. How would she know how cold it was here? They’re never home.
She fumbled for the doorknob. Her room was full of muted gray sunlight. The blinds at her window were wide open. Her room, though it was small, had the best view in the house. It looked out over the snow towards the sleepy town of Maple Falls. To the right, buried deep within the forest, lay ISIS Laboratories. She imagined she could see her father’s car winding up the icy road. She pulled the heavy blinds shut and flipped on her bedroom light. Her bed pressed against the window.
A faded photograph of her mother gathered dust upon the nightstand. A tall vanity mirror stood to the right of Meghan’s bed. Random clothes were scattered across the floor. She made a mental note to do laundry when she got home from work.
Her work clothes were laid out on the bed. She tossed her long-sleeve shirt and pajama bottoms onto the floor in a pile. Judging by the black cat fur on her work shirt, she knew Helix would find her clothes to nap on later. She brushed at the fur, wiping as much off her white button-up blouse as she could. She hopped into black slacks and sat on the bed to lace up her second-hand black army boots. As she did so, she saw they were scuffed. She fished around in her nightstand and found a black permanent marker. She blacked out the scuff marks until she was satisfied her boss wouldn’t notice.
She put the marker away and picked up her pocketknife from the nightstand. She threw her black apron on over her shirt and tied it securely in the back. Dropping the knife into one of the many pockets, she stood to face her tall mirror.
The clock was not the only thing of her mother’s that remained in the house; there was Meghan herself. She looked in the mirror. She had worn many uniforms in her short work history—from dishwasher to business casual—but she liked the utility of her current apron the most. It wasn’t a glorious job, but it paid her bills and kept her out of the house. She enjoyed her late-night hours at Bill’s Gas Station. She came home smelling like gasoline, french fries and cigarettes. At least she knew what days she worked, when she’d be home and had friends. She couldn’t say the same for her parents.
She pulled her long red hair back and put it in a loose ponytail. She knew she had her mother’s eyes; brown like a doe. At least, that’s how her father had described them. She carefully removed her lip rings and set them on the nightstand. She had made the mistake of wearing them to work when she first started, and old Bill was not pleased. She smiled at the memory. That was nearly a year ago, now. Nineteen and she had worked three jobs already. She had stayed at Bill’s the longest.
Her pale complexion was broken by a scattering of freckles across her cheeks and nose. She smiled at herself in the mirror, and her freckles wrinkled. Natalia said she had them because she spent too much time indoors. Her father said they were a gift from her mother, that she got more the more often she smiled. As a child, she had believed it; she smiled a lot. These days, she didn’t see a gradual increase in the amount of freckles, no matter how often she smiled.
She sat back down on her bed. She found her makeup bag and quickly applied eyeliner then penciled in her eyebrows. She made sure she didn’t look too much like Natalia, with her perfect complexion and makeup. She smudged an eyebrow just to make sure. Satisfied, she tossed her makeup back on her bed and grabbed her truck keys.
As Meghan left her room, Helix darted between her legs. For an old cat, he moved remarkably fast. He went straight to her pile of dirty clothes on the floor and settled into his new bed for the evening. She stopped and looked back at him.
“You’re certainly not afraid to get what you want, are you, old man?” Again, one golden eye opened.
I wish I had your courage, Helix. I’m tired of being left alone.
“Don1’t you ever get lonely?”
Helix didn’t answer.
She pulled her heavy winter jacket from the closet and locked the front door as she left. She waded through the snow towards her old truck. She had forgotten her gloves and regretted it as soon as she tried to open the truck door and found it frozen shut. She gripped the handle and pulled as hard as she could. The door groaned loudly and opened—the force knocked Meghan onto her backside in the snow. She sighed and lay on the ground, staring up at the sky.
Snowflakes fell on her face. The world was silent. She wanted to lie there forever. She felt her jacket begin to dampen and decided to sit up. She struggled in the snow and finally pulled herself up and into the truck. Her hands shook as she put the key in the ignition and pushed in the clutch. The old truck roared to life and she flipped the heater on. She rubbed her hands together and waited for the windshield to defrost.
She put the truck into gear and slowly accelerated, waiting for the chains on her tires to grab traction. She spun out in the driveway momentarily. She crossed her fingers.
“C’mon, old girl. I don’t want to be late for work... again.” The truck moved forward slowly. She drove down the long driveway. A half-mile down the road and she stopped to open the front gate. She drove through, and locked it behind her. Then her home disappeared from her rearview mirror. She was just starting to get warm when she rolled up to the fork in the road. A faded sign read “Maple Falls 10” and “ISIS Laboratories 20.” The sign was nearly covered in snow.
To the left, the road led along the river to the town of Maple Falls and her job at Bill’s Gas Station. To the right, the road started up a long and winding incline that ended at the front gates of ISIS Laboratories. She turned her wheel to the left and started the ten-mile drive towards work. She flipped on the truck radio. She heard the tail end of a classic rock song before it faded to static.
The streets of Maple Falls had been plowed recently. Mud and slush piled along the handful of sidewalks and blocked parking lots. Meghan pushed through the town’s roads, avoiding potholes where she could and trying her best to see through the increased snowfall. She passed the Mercantile Store on her left and the Maple Falls Church. Both buildings appeared empty; most people were probably at home plowing their driveways or having dinner with their families. The old Video Rental store had new graffiti on it. The store had been closed and boarded up for three years now.
The only other vehicle she saw took a slow and deliberate path from the parking lot of The Staggering Elk, Maple Fall’s one and only bar. Meghan stopped in the road and let the car creep past. Once the car was down the road and no longer a danger, she continued on.
The flickering red sign of Bill’s Gas Station loomed into view. As her truck pulled into the freshly plowed parking lot, old Bill waved to her from his truck. His side business was plowing the streets of Maple Falls and tonight, he was going to be a busy man. Meghan waved back and jumped from her truck to the sidewalk. She nearly fell but caught herself at the last minute. She checked her watch: late, again. Bill didn’t seem to notice as he drove his plow truck out of the parking lot and into the empty street.
She pushed open the heavy doors to Bill’s Gas Station. The small convenience store was warmer than home. The one thing Bill didn’t skimp on was the heat. She pulled off her snow-covered jacket and walked toward the front counter. Her foot hit a slippery patch on the floor and she felt herself fall backwards.
“Hey, Meg, I just mopped.” A face loomed over her. Stringy black hair fell over the young man’s eyes. He gave a shy smile as he reached out a hand to help her up. She caught a whiff of gasoline. Meghan groaned and accepted his hand. She knew she was going to be sore.
“Maybe give me some warning next time? Isn’t there supposed to be a ‘Caution’ cone or something?” Meghan asked as she rubbed her bruising hip. The boy smiled and pointed. Meghan didn’t have to look to know the cone was there.
Meghan stood up and brushed off her slacks. She hung her jacket on a hook behind the register counter.
“Ash, has Wally been in tonight?” She opened her till and started counting. The young man took a break from mopping. His brow furrowed.
“I... don’t remember.”
Meghan looked up from counting her twenty-dollar bills.
“Have you been—you know? I thought I smelled gasoline earlier.”
Ash averted his blue eyes. Meghan sighed.
“You’re going to kill all your brain cells, seriously. I wish you wouldn’t.”
Ash went back to mopping. Meghan closed her till after she had counted everything. She turned away from the front of the store and looked out the window. Somewhere, up on the mountain beyond the falling snow, ISIS Laboratories sat and changed the world. Her parents changed the world—without her. Just once, she wanted to see what their “important project” was.
“It’s tonight, isn’t it?” Ash’s voice sounded behind her. She looked over her shoulder and nodded. Ash dropped his mop in the bucket with a splash.
“See, I don’t forget everything. I remembered that there was somewhere else you wanted to be tonight.” He crossed his arms across his chest. Meghan turned back towards the window.
“Ash, my cat could tell I wanted to be at ISIS tonight. Don’t give yourself too much credit.” He raised an eyebrow, then frowned. He rubbed his nose with his sleeve.
“‘Ol’ Bill is going to be gone all night plowing driveways. Why don’t you just go?”
Meghan watched the snow and turned, slowly.
“I’ll lose my job, I can’t just leave.”
“Why don’t you just get a job at ISIS? I mean, your parents work there. It shouldn’t be that hard. Don’t you want to know what kind of super-secret project they’re working on? Without you?”
“Well, yeah, of course...”
“If I thought I could get a job out there, I’d leave this dump in a heartbeat. ’Cept I’m stuck working for old Bill.”
“You’re not, Meg. You should go and find out what’s going on. It’s got to be more interesting than people buying cigs all night.”
“You’re right, Ash. I was looking forward to it. Hopefully I’ll get back before Bill comes back. Watch my till for me.”
Meghan grabbed her coat, checked her pocket for her truck keys, and headed back out into the snow. Ash finished mopping the floor and watched as she drove out of the parking lot.
She was careful as she drove through the empty streets of Maple Falls. She knew old Bill was busy, somewhere, but she didn’t want to get caught sneaking off from work. She decided to take a back road—it would take longer but that way she could be sure she wouldn’t be seen. The snow had started to slow and she was able to turn off her windshield wipers. A cold wind picked up and pushed the clouds from the sky. As she turned the fork towards ISIS, the night sky was crystal clear and full of stars.
The climb to ISIS was going to be difficult. She downshifted and took it slow. She had no idea how the company car could make it up this steep incline if her beast of a truck was struggling. The radio was still full of static. Meghan found herself alone with her thoughts.
Dad will be surprised to see me. When was the last time he let me come and visit ISIS? Last summer? She frowned, trying to remember. She drove for a while, chewing on her bottom lip. No, it must have been the Christmas party. Just under a year, then. I can’t wait to see the look on his face! I’ll show Natalia... he’ll let me in, for sure. She smiled in triumph.
The truck hit ice and, even with the chains on her tires, it pulled the steering wheel from her hands. She cursed, torn back to reality by the speed of it all. The truck went off the road and down an incline. It slammed to a stop at a steep angle. She gripped the steering wheel and sighed.
“Just my luck.” She leaned over to the glove box and pulled out a flashlight and her spare pair of gloves. The door opened easily and she jumped out into the snow. She hadn’t hit a tree; nothing on the truck seemed damaged. She just knew there was no way she could reverse out of the spot she’d managed to slip into. She looked up at the sky and pulled her jacket a little closer. The wind shook the treetops causing the snow to fall in clumps. She turned around and walked back up the incline.
Once she was on the road she shone her flashlight around to make sure she hadn’t hit anything other than ice. She noticed that the truck was completely hidden in the shadow of the hill. She turned around—the lights from Maple Falls were hidden by the forest. She knew she was closer to ISIS than town, and she was going to need a tow truck.
If I can get to Dad, he can give me a ride into town. It’ll be faster than walking all the way back... She started walking up the road and when she reached the next turn she recognized where she was. Years of spending her summers running around ISIS Laboratories told her there was a pathway that would give her a shortcut to the main gates. It didn’t have as many twists and turns as the road took. She cut off through the forest, shining her flashlight ahead of her.
She could see her breath when she finally reached the boundary of ISIS Laboratories’ grounds. A nine-foot tall deer-proof fence cut through the forest to her left and right. A faded sign, covered in snow, read: “Private Property: ISIS Laboratories. No Trespassing.”
Let’s see if Dad ever got the fence repaired. She walked along the fence and counted her footsteps. The hole in the fence was covered mostly by snow and anyone else would have walked right by it. She knelt in the snow and dug away at the fence. Her glove slipped through the hole—they had never repaired it. She was a little bigger than she had been the last time she had slipped through the hole. Her bruised hip caught the fence and snagged. She wiggled and rolled and pulled herself through. She stood up and brushed off the snow.
A sound erupted through the night and echoed through the trees. Meghan froze in place. It wasn’t a wolf or an elk; it sounded more… feminine. It wasn’t any animal she recognized. It sounded like nails on a chalkboard and a woman’s scream. She ran towards the sound.
“Konrad, this is it! This proves your father’s research. It proves that Terra Prognatus is true!”
Dr. Ian Smith’s voice blared through the internal speakers of Konrad’s gas mask. He cringed and nodded, waving off the other man’s excitement.
“There was never any doubt in my mind, Ian.” The two men stood in the snow, staring at where the truck headlights shone. A hand gently squeezed his shoulder.
“Is this it?” Natalia’s voice, this time. The gas masks and identical white jackets made each scientist unrecognizable.
Konrad nodded and motioned for them to move forward.
“Natalia, hand me the blanket, and get the camera ready. Ian, help me lift… it.”
“Her, Doctor. She’s the mother, remember?”
Konrad smiled within his mask.
Natalia followed the two men with a heavy blanket. They walked carefully through the snow to the edge of the headlights. A patch of snow was melted in the shape of a circle. Konrad motioned for them to stop. He reached in his heavy jacket and removed a small book. He flipped through the pages but his gloves made it difficult. He looked towards the sky. Through the thick glass of his gas mask, the moon looked distorted. He checked the stars. Everything was exactly like the notes in his father’s book. The pages ended here, however, and left no description of what to expect when the elusive Terra Prognatus would appear.
A flower bud pushed up from the ground and bloomed in the center of the melted circle. Its petals stretched and bloomed in the moonlight. They sparkled like diamonds. The Terra Prognatus died as quickly as it was born. Konrad watched as it withered and jerked in the thralls of death. The delicate petals fell to the ground.
As the last glittering petal fell—the earth began to rumble beneath their feet. The petals shriveled and faded away. Roots and dirt pushed through the snow. The roots wrapped around themselves, pulling dead leaves and snow into a muddy mess. A body formed from the churned dirt and roots. Snow crawled across the ground and wrapped itself around the creature like skin. The Terra Prognatus had created itself—herself—from the earth.
The Earth Borne opened her eyes for the very first time. She stared up at the star-filled sky and the night became her gaze. Her eyes turned black and reflected the stars. She turned her sight upon the three approaching figures and screamed.
Meghan’s flashlight faded in and out as she ran. She shook it and dropped it when it stopped working. The sound had stopped. Lights shone in the distance and she dropped to the ground. She crawled the rest of the way and pushed through piles of dead leaves. Exhaust escaped from an ISIS truck that sat just ten feet from her hiding place. She saw the backs of three people in white winter jackets with fur-lined hoods. Two of them were lifting something out of the snow. The third stood back and held a video camera. Meghan heard muffled voices.
Whatever the two were carrying began to thrash and pull at the blanket it was being carried in. It knocked one of the scientists onto his back in the snow. The other scientist was babbling through a gas mask and took a step back. The third waved urgently and continued filming.
A long, clawed hand ripped through the blanket; five slender fingers pulled the blanket back. The creature’s skin was slick and gray and covered in a thin layer of snow. It appeared human-shaped, with curves like a woman. Furless, slender and very angry. Roots seemed to run down her arms and wrap around her protectively. Dead leaves stuck to her legs and stomach. The ground burst beneath her bare feet. Dirt and roots wrapped around her legs and thighs, pulling her towards the scientist.
Meghan’s heart pounded in her chest. She moved backwards as slowly as she dared. Her gloved hand came down on a dead branch and it snapped, just like in some terrible horror movie. The creature’s neck swiveled to stare directly at her. Its eyes filled her vision.
Meghan’s mind was overrun with stars. She no longer saw the scientists or the terrifying creature. All she could see was the night sky. She didn’t feel the cold of the night or the snow beneath her body. She felt afraid. All she wanted to do was run. To survive. She had to get away. Get away. Now!
The creature cried out and fell to the ground. One of the scientists held something in his hand, something that had stopped the creature. The other scientist pointed in Meghan’s direction and started moving towards her. Meghan scrambled back through the snow. She couldn’t control herself, she was running. She knew she couldn’t let them, or that creature, catch her. Somehow, she just knew. Meghan ran as fast as she could towards the road. Her eyes watered in the cold and her nose was running. She ignored it all and ran as fast as she could. Her legs and lungs began to burn from the effort. She dove under the hole in the fence. Her jacket caught on the chain-link and she felt it rip as she tore her way through. The metal dug painfully into her hip. She cried out as she dragged her way through the opening. She could hear someone running behind her.
Meghan shot through the other side of the fence. She took a moment to gasp for air but didn’t dare turn around, compelled to keep running until she got back to the road. She felt sweat pooling around her neck and back. Eventually she slowed her pace as her sides began to burn. She clawed her way back up the side of the embankment to the road, then fell to her knees and sucked in air. She still saw ghosts of stars in her vision.
Headlights appeared on the road, headed towards ISIS, towards Meghan.
Meghan put a hand up to cover her eyes. The headlights blurred in her vision. She coughed and struggled to stand up. Her boots slipped on the icy road.
Who..? More scientists? Her thoughts were sluggish. She blinked and again only saw stars. She panicked and blinked again. The headlights returned.
A dark blue truck pushed its way along the road. It slid to a stop just a few feet from where Meghan knelt on the ground. A battered metal door groaned open. A young man stepped from the truck and ran a hand nervously through his black hair.
“Meg?” a familiar voice called out. Meghan stumbled towards him, shivering. Ash shrugged off his heavy jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“Ash, listen—there’s something weird going on out there. We shouldn’t stay here.”
He walked her to the passenger door and opened it without a word. She climbed in slowly, numb from the cold and still dazed. Ash jumped back into the driver’s side and turned up the heat.
“What do you mean?”
Meghan rubbed her tired eyes and grimaced.
“It was weird. I’m not sure what I saw. We should go; I don’t want to get a second look.”
Ash arched an eyebrow and switched the truck into reverse. He carefully backed up in the road.
“What are you doing out here?”
“I, uh, closed the store. I wanted to make sure you’d make it to ISIS alright. I’m glad I decided to come out here.”
Meghan pulled the jacket closer to her shoulders and nodded. Ash continued.
“Where’s your truck?”
Meghan muttered a curse under her breath.
“I slid off the road. I was going to walk to ISIS. I started to but then I saw… something.” She paused. “I don’t want to get the truck tonight. Can you bring Bill’s tow truck first thing tomorrow morning? I’ll pay you. I just want to get home.”
Ash nodded and started the drive down the mountain. Meghan rubbed her eyes with her hand.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” Ash looked across at her.
“What?” She frowned and pulled her hand away from her face. Ash reached across and flipped down the sun visor. Meghan stared at herself in the rectangular mirror.
Her eyes were pitch black.
“What the hell?” She stared and quickly slapped the visor closed. Ash’s sunglasses were clipped to the visor. She grabbed them and put them on.
“I’m tired. Will you take me home?"