It watched her from just beyond the reach of the car lights. For how long, the deputy couldn’t say. Her arms, her legs, lay loose, seemingly detached, and unable to be moved in any position or direction along with her head. Her only option was to stare into the trees and their casted shadows, lines of intersecting black, which hid the wounded creature from view – though she caught flickers of shiny hard-skin and twitching appendages jutting briefly from the cross-stitch forest pattern.
Remaining wide awake despite the grievous injury on her neck, dripping thick blood onto the road near her face, Doris took to counting the seconds gone past in her head, using the rhythm of the running engine while she waited for pain and for death – though neither came. The poison in her veins, she soon realized, was meant only to hold her immobile while the giant insect took its time devouring her as it did that emptied buck.
Deputy Moors then began to wonder if and when the centipede would strike again, wondering why it lurked so tentatively as if it were afraid. Her gun lay useless some feet away from her ungrasping hand, tossed away in the struggle. Were it in her hand, her finger still clenched around the trigger, it would lie just as futily. So as the seconds ticked on, the deputy couldn’t help but begin to think that it was actually that little cold-then-hot metal thing which caused such an unwelcome hurt that scared the insect away.
If she could have laughed she would have. Stupid bug brain, too dumb to understand what hit it, too smart to disregard safety for a meal. She could hear it, skittering around in the crackling ground cover, click-click-click. Moving like a wave of fluid, the curve of its body rose and fell now close to the roadside, giving Doris a sense of its full length. Panicked heat then emanated from her mind when she spied the hundred-plus legs inside the foliage gaps, remember the sickening feel of them against her own body, groping and holding. Count the seconds, just keep counting, one thousand seven hundred fifty-three and counting, though who could be sure anymore.
At roughly one thousand eight hundred ninety-seven, the marsh turned red and blue, big circles of alternating color painting the scenery, exposing the hideous hidden monster in brief intervals. From above her head tires rolled up close and car doors opened then slammed, boots ran on pavement and hushed voices spoke in heavy, short tones.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
“Son of a bitch.”
“Didn’t I tell you? Knew I heard shots.”
“Looks like she got it on the neck, shit, goddamn that’s a lot of blood.”
“Don’t think you should move her, could be paralyzed.”
“You know how long it’s gonna take for an ambulance to get out here? Middle of fucking nowhere at three in the goddamn morning? She’ll bleed right out by then.”
“Calling it in anyway, meet halfway maybe.”
“Alright, alright, help me get her in the back.”
Strong arms pulled at Doris, hands under armpits and clamped onto legs. She moved, lifted awkwardly through the air, carried with puffs and grunts, heavy man-smell in the air – you gonna be alright deputy, said a familiar voice in her ear. Knight in non-shining armor, dark-sleeved shirts moving to place her gently across the car backseat, scent of stale beer and days-old body odor, what heroes they are but if she could she’d tell them to run away far and to not look back.
“Okay man, I’m gonna take her car down to the Sheriff’s annex in town. Take her to Saint Anthony’s quick, sirens on.”
From where Doris lay, though the windows, she saw a big man run past, pounding on the ground, and heard the sound of her vehicle drive away, seeing one small glimpse of red fading taillights before they were swallowed up by the black marsh. The other climbed into the driver’s seat, and she saw the face of Officer Robins turn back to her, sweaty with mouth hanging open, the deputy still stiff stuck and half-propped across the seat. “You gonna be okay,” he said again, under his breath as he started the car and the wailing sirens came to life.
And slowly he turned the squad car around on the narrow road, and Doris saw to her unmoving horror, from the corner of her stagnant vision, the form of something large following the vehicle just behind the tree line. Faster and faster they drove up the road, back past the farmland, and the shape of the thing moving kept pace on the edge of the deputy’s sight, pushing aside the blue-then-red corn stalks as it did.
But suddenly,, the deputy felt her toes curl, felt her fingers tingle, her face spasm. Gradually, as the poison ran its course, Doris regained command over her body, bit by bit, pain resurfacing, her vocal chords loosening in her throat and her tongue unfreezing.
“Jeremy!” she shouted to the young man behind the wheel, startling him into a swerve just as something large smashed into the passenger-side door.
* * *
Consciousness went out in small spurts. She remembered the rolling of the car, the smell of dirt up her nose, warm feel of blood down her forehead, the distorted whirr of the siren spinning then dying, all of it cut into neat and clean portions separated by spans of nothing. When the movement and noise stopped and all was still, she began to wish for the numbness to return, her every joint and muscle burning it seemed with hurt. Yet she could move her every limb, gingerly, and nothing seemed to be broken from where she lay.
It took Doris some seconds to realize that she was actually lying vertically, face pressed into wet mud where the glass of a window had once been, torso held upwards against the slanted roof of the squad car, held fast in place by the steep valley of a ditch. In vain she tried to contort her body, pushing against the ground to turn herself around but there was not strength enough in her arms and she fell, panting, pressure building inside her head. Turning her neck carefully, she saw the form of Officer Robins fallen slack in his seat, held in place by a seat belt.
She let out a sound of exasperation, able to move but unable, the threat of sleep beginning to overtake her, and Doris closed her eyes lightly, hoping to wake in a hospital bed. But something outside brought her back, scraping against the car’s exterior, and then with a violent plunge and crunch, twin fangs appeared in the vehicle’s roof, pushed clean through and dripping a clear and thick liquid, only barely missing the deputy’s midsection while, outside, those legs and long body draped across the cracked windshield. And it took all of the deputy’s restraint to gulp back a mounting scream.
Now she had motivation, new strength to move and twist and bend her back in ways it did not wish to bend nor had bent for years. Crawling and scrapping, she pulled herself up over the seat, out the opposite door hanging open and half-falling off into the cold morning. With grunts, Doris hauls herself over the edge; fresh blood pour from glass cuts across her face, her hands, and drops herself over the edge into the muck at the ditch’s bottom. Only a few feet away, the monster bug grappled with the inert vehicle, too preoccupied to hear the sound of the woman hitting the ground.
For a moment, Doris lays helpless in the water and mud and tall reeds, staring up into the black shape of the centipede haloed by the shining interior of the fallen car. Running is not an option, the deputy doesn’t have the legs, the speed, to outrun the insect let alone climb out from the ditch. But another shape then appears to her in the dim light, an elongated piece of metal sticking out from the popped-open trunk, teetering on the verge, only a lunging grab away. She gathers herself, her body aching, unresponsive legs like liquid under the skin. Jump, Doris, jump, and though the pain and with clenched-closed eyes she propels her body upwards only a few inches, arm and hand outstretched just enough to have fingers touch and tilt the metal, knocking it loose to fall back down with a wet smack alongside the deputy.
This time the centipede hears and reacts to the commotion, jerking back from its mechanical prey. It creeps over the car’s chassis to search with its insectoid feelers and eyes for the soft, small human.
The human pulls her prize free from the suction of the mud, heavy shotgun in her hands, dull in the dark, and pump-loads the weapon. From far away sirens wail, coming up the road, close but not close enough. Skitter goes the centipede, fast legs, all moving in concert, the upper body lifting free from the car to loom large over the deputy. And she fires.
The blast clangs out loudly and the force throws the weakened Doris onto her back. The centipede screams – as much as a bug can scream – thrashing about in pain, writhing and falling in among the grasses. From where she sat, mud squishing against the back of her shirt, Doris could see now the spot where the creature was wounded from before, where the truck hit and where the bullets were buried. She takes aim for the weak point, launching scatter shot full on into the wavering chitin, cartridge after cartridge, until the gun runs dry and clicks hollow.
Limp and with the hole-ridden segment of its back half now fully disconnected from its body, the centipede laid motionless. Doris waited, watching for its return to life while waiting to attack it with nothing more than the butt of the emptied weapon. The sirens were close, right above her head. She tempted fate to turn her face up to call out to the voices, yelling incomprehensible rambles up to confused police and paramedics.
Doris pointed with the shotgun, pointed to the slain creature, pointed and looked and froze when she saw only empty ditch stretching away. It was empty except for the discarded bug part, scarred and pock-marked hunk still twitching, running legs moving nowhere, green ooze seeping out from the open end. She ignored the calls from the men up above, ignored the orders to stay still while they slid down to help her, and walked up to the spot where the centipede had just been.
“Well, shut my mouth…” said the deputy, quietly, exhaustion drooping her face and her shoulders as she stared down at a large and dark, deep hole dug into the soft soil, the barely audible sound of moving earth floating up from below.