3LBE #10
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Saurian Bridge

by Lee Clark Zumpe

 

Down where the old town used to be, over the fouled black-watered creek that meanders through cavernous rat-guarded sewers and pools in some dark subterranean pit, just beyond the former industrial section across which a thin shroud of rust is slowly descending, I found the bridge. I cannot explain how I allowed myself to be lead through the squalor and filth that is the vestiges of a hundred years of urban decay. Something willed me there. I could not resist.

There, rats run in angry packs, hissing and clicking defiantly at humans. The air is sour smelling and heavy with particles of soot and dust that cake the inside of your throat and sting your eyes. Rain is constant, an incessant drizzle that oozes out of brown clouds and collects in foam-ringed puddles on the cracked pavement. Mountains of rotting garbage line the alleys, where mangy cats and dogs shuffle through the rubbish.

The buildings are old, dating back as far as the late 1800s, to the first decade of this century. They were tenements for the weak and feeble and misanthropic. They were constructed as slums, and they have only deteriorated since then. There is no promise of beauty there, nothing that might induce hope. All is cold, hard, industrial, emotionless brick. There is no glass to cover windows; instead, most openings are covered by boards or thick blankets or sheets. Others are uncovered, and from these stare glassy-eyed apparitions. The few malnourished, weak, and beaten-down residents of this quarter teeter on the border between life and death. For some, their minds still function, but their bodies are motionless and diseased; for others, the reverse is true.

It was not in one of these ghost-infested, rancid mounds of steel and brick that I found the bridge. It was in an even older place, a building whose wooden heart is now wormy and frail. In the befouled basement of this place, a dirt floor hides beneath strewn lumber and damp yellowed newspapers, broken bottles and layers of pink-tinged parchment whose corners are peculiarly curled. Everywhere are small heaps of filth over which flies vie for possession. There are patches where fires once burned, fires which served to keep men and women warm in the face of oppressive winters. There is grime on the walls and ceiling that could never be totally scrubbed away. A black, oily substance coats everything in the room.

I found myself there one lamentable afternoon, having been drawn by devices I cannot hope to understand, staggering over the refuse beneath my feet and literally choking at the stench. I would not have been surprised had I found a corpse stretched out at my feet, writhing with maggots, for here was a sense of complete despair and anguish. There was a very tangible impression that life had been forsaken from this place.

The crackling of bugs scampering through the trash sickened me somehow, and I cringed as the sputtering oval of light cast by my flashlight caught them crawling up and down the walls and scurrying along the orange-brown surface of an ancient drainage pipe. I followed the length of this pipe, saw how its form burrowed up at an angle from the ground and twisted about so that its gapping mouth faced upward.

This was the bridge, though I did not know it at that time.

From down in its bowels I heard gurgling sounds, bubbling waters stewing from somewhere down its length. Though I can point to no rational reason, its very appearance horrified me. It may have been the flakes of rust that peeled from its back like the skin of a reptile. Perhaps it was the immense size of the thing, its width being a good three and a half feet — it seemed utterly capable of lunging forth and devouring anything its belly might demand. And then again, those repulsive things which swarmed over it, those colonies of cockroaches and silvery worms and thousand-legged insects that ducked in and out of its mouth and rippled over its surface, may have generated my distress.

Hesitantly but unerringly, I walked towards it. Again, the compulsion was more than subtle. My apprehension was easily overshadowed by my sudden and unfounded need to be near it and to touch it.

As I drew closer, its internal juices swelled and stirred and I imagined thick sludge rising like bile up its glistening throat.

My flashlight flickered and died. I jostled it violently as I felt every pore in my flesh erupt with sweat. The batteries knocked and the lens momentarily spat forth an anemic dull stream of feeble light, and then the darkness conquered that too.

From the pipe I heard the liquid again, rising quickly now, surging through the cylindrical passage, racing up urgently until little droplets of vomit rained to the floor. I could see none of this, but the sounds were graphically descriptive… my mind pictured the blood-thick spittle seep over the lips of that pipe, followed by a thick stream of dark and foul mucous gushing out, spurting and flowing over the debris upon the floor.

I imagined the frothing, spreading pool and felt my feet as they edged me back toward the staircase that had delivered me onto this wretched scene. A single dot of light shown from above, guiding me toward the door. At last my fear reawakened my logic, and I shook the invisible grasp that had lead me to the bridge. With haste, my hands flailed before me as I prayed that anything they might touch would be uncorrupted by the evil of this place, I attempted to retreat.

And then, a voice called out.

“You mustn’t go. Not yet.”

I froze. My heart thrashed in my chest.

“It was no mistake that you came here, Gavin.”

I dropped the flashlight. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the darkness.

“You’ve come too early. You will understand in time.”

Water splashed. I heard a hiss of wind, a crackling sound. I stepped backward, inching away, fighting paralysis.

“When you return, you will understand. For now, go. You must return to your home. Have patience. The time will come.”

I opened an eye. The faint light from above was brighter now and illuminated a narrow slice of the basement. I thought I saw movement there, something slender and slick-surfaced glistening as it slipped from shadow to shadow. And, perhaps, I saw eyes peering back at me — thin and yellowish slits with blackened alien pupils.

These things I saw, or thought I saw, when first I visited the bridge. I have returned twice since that day, against my will.

I have not heard the voice again, except in my nightmares, wherein it repeats itself over and over again, and taunts me and promises me that I will some day see those awful eyes again.

The second time I went to the bridge, I was careful enough to bring a more powerful flashlight. When I shown it down the throat of that pipe, at first I saw nothing but slithering things which descended and ascended the pipe in delicate circular paths. Again, I heard the water far below, swirling and unsettled. I heard other things, too. I heard muffled sounds which could have been voices, laughter, cheering. I heard birds, and animal calls.

I dropped a nickel into the pipe, and listened as it bounced from wall to wall, listened as it rolled and slid, listened as finally it reached the murky soup below and broke its surface. Something thrashed and splashed, then, and clawed at the sides of the pipe, something which seemed disturbed and angered.

I ran.

• • •

When last I visited that place, I came to realize that the pipe was no mere corridor to the underground networks of sewers. I knew then that it was a bridge.

Again the light of my flashlight dove into the yawning mouth of the pipe. The water was closer to the surface. Quietly, it rose. I could not see it at first, I couldn’t even hear it but somehow I knew it was slowly creeping toward me. Shortly, the cockroaches and silvery worms and thousand-legged insects came marching out over the lips of the pipe, briskly abandoning their inner sanctum, swarming over each other in a hasty retreat.

Then, not far below, the surface of the water came into view.

It lurched toward me, sloshing the greenish carpet of slime which covered it.

When at last it reached the open end of the pipe, it stopped. Not a single droplet spilled. I stirred the surface with a finger, appalled by it, but uncontrollably fascinated. Something beneath the surface sent out a message of ripples.

Again, I could hear voices, much clearer now. Still, I could not determine what they were saying, and I did not really believe they were speaking to me. But, I could hear them.

When I had pushed aside the fungus and the true surface of the water was visible, my flashlight seemed to catch on something beneath the surface. I tried to focus on it, but the poor light and the depth and the murkiness of the water made it difficult to perceive anything below. I brought my face down into the very maw of the pipe, so that my nose was a hair above the putrid-smelling water, but still I could not see what it was that winked back at me when my flashlight caught it just so…

I know it seems insane, and perhaps that is precisely the word with which I should label myself, but I could not stop myself from the action that followed.

I dipped my head down into that black filth, plunged it into the thick, black stew.

And then, I saw the other side. There was blue sky, trees. It was not far away, not far at all. I could see purple buildings, and figures in the background moving about. It was another place. I did not know where it was, nor how this pipe led to it. I knew only that the pipe was a bridge.

I reared back, frightened, astonished, dumb-founded. I looked at the pipe, searched out the spot where it ducked beneath floor level and underground. I tried to explain it, considered the possibility that it was an optical illusion. I made every attempt to convince myself that I had imagined the image, but to no avail.

Since that day, I have not returned. I have been too ill to leave the confines of my studio apartment. Doctors cannot diagnose the disease from which I suffer, nor can they offer me drugs to treat its horrendous symptoms.

My hair began falling out weeks ago, and now each morning I awake to a wreath ringing my head upon my pillow. A rash that began upon my leg now engulfs most of my body. My skin is dry. My flesh cracks when I move. White scabs litter my floors and sheets.

My fingernails are yellowed and twisted, my eyes bloodshot and sore. My tongue bleeds when I eat.

I can only guess that something in the water made me sick.

• • •

I do not know how long I have slept. It seems that many days have slipped by. I crawl out of bed, and as I do so my muscles rebel in series of sharp spasms. My eyelids are caked with puss and I cannot open them. Across the room I falter, haltingly, then down the hall and finally into the bathroom I stagger. My hands play over the faucet lever and I have difficulty operating it. When the water comes I wet my face, and scrub at my eyes with a towel trying to cleanse them of the shell that kept them from opening.

Slowly, I open them. There is a little pain, and everything seems hazy. Outside is darkness, only a streetlight spills in through the window to give some light to the room.

In the mirror, I see those eyes. Those thin and yellowish slits with blackened alien pupils. They glare back at me. I gasp, and a long thin tongue snakes out of my mouth.

I cannot say how I managed to make the long journey back to the bridge; I only know that I now find myself here knowing only that much time has passed since I first was drawn to this place. I have brought no flashlight, nor do I seem to have need of one. My eyes have somehow adjusted to the gloom of this room and I can now see things I could never before see. Down the once-creaking staircase I dart, awed that this day it does not complain under the strain of my weight.

Upon reaching the lower level, I can feel it. I feel the flesh peeling away from my skin, flaking and tumbling gently to the floor below, settling in layers of oddly curled pink-colored sheets. At once, I am compelled to undress, and in doing so I find myself wholly transformed. My flesh now is scaly and course, my hands slender and bony with fingers tapering out into long, sharp claws. A tail sweeps the ground behind me.

“It is time for you to come home, brother,” calls a voice. It beckons me to the open end of the pipe. “Time that you cross. And join your kind.”

My humanity abandoned, I gracefully ease my reptilian body into the pipe and cross the bridge headfirst.

 

 

Lee Clark Zumpe - Since he began writing professionally in the early 1990s, Lee Clark Zumpe’s work has appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies such as Nerve Cowboy, Flesh and Blood, and Dark Legacy. Some of his most recent publications include the poem “Psych Ward”in the Fall/Winter 2001 issue of The Higginsville Reader, and the short story “Dreaming in New Bern” in Songs of Innocence. Later this year, Anxiety Publications will produce his chapbook of poetry titled An Invisible Shimmer. His work can also be seen in upcoming issues of The Edge, Wicked Hollow, and Star*Line. Lee Clark is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the Science Fiction Poetry Association and the Mythopoeic Society. In addition to writing and working full time at Sears Home Services, he is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he recently received the Charles F. Brooks Award for Technical Writing. Visit his online at http://blindside.net/leeclarkzumpe.


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ISSUE #10

June 2002

FICTION

ART