Though the author is a professional photojournalist and has covered many car crashes, all characters, events, and organizations depicted in this story are fictional.
by Luciano Marano
Wesley had beaten the cops. It happened sometimes, but not often. So he quickly pulled onto the shoulder, leaving his car running and the door open, grabbed his camera off the passenger seat and leapt out, determined to make the most of his good fortune.
The drivers looked to actually still be inside their vehicles this time.
He needed this. The supposedly epic car fire his editor had ordered him all the way out to Port Orchard to shoot had been a bust, nothing but a torrent of smelly smoke pouring from under the hood of an old VW van in a diner parking lot and some geriatric hippie telling annoyed firefighters, “It’s never done anything like that before!”
Dumb luck had Wesley headed back downtown when this came over the portable scanner. It was the street name that had cued him to how close he actually was: Magnificent Avenue. He used to buy weed from a guy who lived out this way, back when it was still illegal here and everybody’s parents had yet to start frequenting boutique dispensaries, casually throwing around words like sativa and cannabinoids as if they had not been eager to lock even their own kids up for enjoying the exact same thing just a few years ago.
Wesley couldn’t afford anything in those fancy shops, which had effectively put his guy out of business, and he mostly stuck to beer these days anyway, so he’d had no reason to be on Magnificent Avenue for some time. He’d always thought the name was somebody’s lame joke because there was certainly nothing magnificent about the road. It was just another heavily wooded strip of asphalt dotted with a few homes, neither stellar nor shabby, clinging almost desperately to the highway. Occupying that supremely passable patch of the Kitsap Peninsula that lay between the industrial epicenter of Bremerton and Gig Harbor, just across the county line. The absolute outer limits of the known universe so far as his editor at the Kitsap Daily Review was concerned.
But he’d found it quickly enough: a three-car crash, pretty nasty one, too. The smell — hot metal and rubber, burnt oil, and something else, something almost sugary that Wesley could never identify no matter how many hundreds of these he shot and smelled — that strange mix so unique to serious car crashes hung heavily in the air despite the chill breeze and drizzle.
The drizzle which had, he was practically certain, caused the crash. It really was true, even here in the nearly ever-soggy Evergreen State, that nobody could drive in the rain.
Wesley started working his way from wide to medium to close-up shots, moving nearer all the time, while keeping an ear open for approaching sirens. They’d let him stay because the law said they had to, but no cop would let him get this close again. Especially not with the bodies still there.
The Canon 5D Mark II was comfortingly solid in his hands, the resounding click of the shutter as familiar and automatic as his own heartbeat. As part of him only saw settings — f-stop, focal length, shutter speed — and compositions, the rest of his brain began to slowly take in what he was documenting.
There was a lot of blood.
It was smeared across one side of the cracked windshield of the blue Volvo sitting halfway off the road with both front doors open. A woman was lying in the grass near the passenger’s side, one foot still up inside the car. Her other leg stuck out at a strange angle just below the knee, and a sharp point pressed outward from within her jeans. Wesley heard moaning, thought it likely coming from her. The front of the car, he could tell even from back where he stood, was completely crushed.
A stain of blood was also on the driver’s window of the red pickup idling near the yellow centerline. A matted patch of dark hair was pressed against it, he saw, unmoving above the massive crater dented into the door and left front end. That’s where they’d come together. Not good for the pickup driver, Wesley mused, not good at all.
The third car, a black sedan parked slightly further away, on the shoulder, seemed undamaged. The windows were seriously tinted. Wesley wondered, Was the driver a witness? Sitting inside, on the phone maybe? They could have been the one who called it in to the cops; somebody had had to.
He noted the license plate had one of those twisted snake symbols on it that meant the driver was a doctor or something medical. And there was a sticker with a blue cross symbol on the windshield, like a hospital parking pass. Could these people be so lucky?
Wesley absently snapped an artsy picture of the blood pooled on the road between the Volvo and pickup that would be way too subtle for the editor. It was being quickly thinned and spread by the rain and looked like watery ketchup now. Probably, he thought, it was too much blood anyway. The editor would never use any of these pictures, too many angry emails and outraged Facebook comments were sure to follow.
Still, Wesley was now half of the floundering newspaper’s two-person photography department left standing after the latest round of layoffs. And since Ancient Andy, who’d been at the paper since the industry moved on from stone freaking tablets and had all the seniority in the world, showed no sign of retiring (or dying), and staff gigs for photojournalists were quickly becoming rarer than hens’ teeth (one of Andy’s favorite sayings) Wesley wasn’t keen on returning to the office empty-handed.
Just shoot it already, he thought. Let the boss decide it’s no good. Maybe he’d even man up and use one. Outrage was better than indifference. Clicks are clicks, and in the world of news reporting these days, it’s the clicks that count.
Wesley felt nothing but the usual professional satisfaction as he rearranged the world inside the viewfinder, forcing chaos to compose. It was strange to think of all the things he’d seen through this single window. Once, he’d harbored a secret hope that someday he’d be lucky enough to witness something truly incredible, like Robert Capa on D-Day or Ali towering over Liston; something as timeless as Eddie Adams’ Saigon execution or just one face worthy of Diane Arbus.
But he’d found no hidden wonders in a career of everyday victories and mundane tragedies, hard as he looked, and he’d long since stopped hoping. It was at about that same time he’d given up weed, come to think of it — growing up and giving up all at once, he thought. Wesley was thirty-seven now, too young to retire and too old to move on to something new.
Pushing such dismal thoughts aside, he went ahead and just shot the crash already. It was beginning to rain harder.
When he’d been starting out, eagerly rushing to chase every siren, Wesley probably would have felt something more. Back when the photo staff was robust and editors cared more about context than clicks (and weed was still fun and affordable) he would have photographed something like this in an appropriately respectful manner.
Now, countless collisions, fires and too many miles of police tape to contemplate later, he simply considered how nice a contrast the reds of the truck and blood were against the mottled greens of the trees that lined the road, the gray of the overcast sky.
Pleased, he knelt so as to place the prone woman in the foreground, adjusting the aperture to throw the accident slightly out of focus behind her. It was front-page stuff. She was young and pretty, lying on her stomach with her eyes closed and the side of her face pressed almost gently into the wet grass. Straight hair, long and dark, was plastered to her forehead, but he could still see the ugly bruise there already darkening. Her lower lip was cut, too, as if maybe she’d bitten it during the crash.
Wesley was wishing he’d grabbed his bag from the backseat, thinking of the great detail he could pull from her face with his 50-millimeter lens, when her eyes snapped open.
“He’s eating her.”
The woman’s voice was a weak whisper, but startlingly focused. She was not confused, not babbling like so many others he’d photographed stumbling and staggering out of smashed machines. This woman knew exactly what she was saying.
Wesley snapped another picture, but it was no good now. She was moving, trying to get up, and it was ruining the shot. He began to tell her to lay back down and rest, that help was one the way, when he heard sirens growing louder in the distance and knew time was running out.
So he left her there to crawl in the grass, stalked around the Volvo and began shooting the truck. His phone buzzed in his back pocket — the telltale tone of a whip crack letting him know it was his editor — but Wesley ignored it.
Again, he worked from wide to medium to close-ups, moving around to the front of the truck, documenting the damage. The broken glass on the road. The dark hair pressed up against the bloody window.
The sirens crescendoed and began to fade, passing the exit and continuing down the highway. Were they lost? Wesley had found the accident easily enough. Where were they going? The insistent rain soaked his hair and jacket, but was kept off the front of the 22-to-105-millimeter lens by the black tulip-style hood. The whip cracked once more, and again he ignored it, making his way around the front of the truck.
The man in dark blue coveralls was on all fours above the woman, who lay spread-eagle on the road with her mouth gaping open, wide eyes starring blankly into the falling rain. She was also young and pretty, and looked very much like the other woman; perhaps they were sisters? The blood on the Volvo’s windshield had obviously come from the hideous gash on her forehead.
Listening, Wesley thought, this guy is listening to her heart, or maybe to her breathing. He’s probably the doctor who owns that black car.
The man’s enormous bald head was down near the woman’s face, his eyes closed as if in concentration. He was smiling.
Of course he’s listening, Wesley thought. What else would he be doing?
What else indeed? Although, for just a moment, for just the briefest flash of a second as he’d come around the truck, Wesley could have sworn that he was licking her.
Even as he recalled the other woman’s disturbingly stoic report – He’s eating her – Wesley robotically depressed the shutter button before realizing he’d meant to do it. The quick series of clicks was loud against the hush of the scene. The man glanced up and his grin widened.
He was sickly pale and really, really fat. His bloated body strained against the jumpsuit as if barely contained, bulges of flesh shifting and pooling anew with each movement as he hefted himself to his feet.
“This one’s just shuffled off,” he said brightly, clapping his meaty hands together and rubbing them vigorously. “Always remarkable, isn’t it, the way their lights just sort of blink out?”
Wesley’s tongue stumbled over a response, his brain reeling to catch up (there was just no way he’d really been licking her, right?) and mumbled, “Uh, I’m with the newspaper.” He lifted his camera from around his neck and held it before him with both hands. “A photographer.”
“Fantastic!” the fat man exclaimed. “Are you alone?”
“What I mean is do you work alone?” The man craned to look past him, down the street toward Wesley’s idling car. “Is anybody else with you?”
Three successive whip cracks sounded, and the big man’s face twitched.
“My editor.” Wesley was whispering, but wasn’t sure why.
“Oh?” the man’s smile went on and on.
Wesley was noticing things now, his brain catching up to his eyes at last and registering unsettling hints that lighted one at a time, slowly at first, like stars coming out at dusk. He felt something enormous turn over in his guts, far beneath the fluttering pigeons of disquiet in his chest. Interest, perhaps? Excitement? It had been so long since he’d felt either, Wesley could not be sure. This situation, he decided, merited a closer look.
The fat man was wearing little paper booties over his feet, like the kind workmen wear inside a client’s house to protect the floor. They were quickly dissolving in the rain and blood. Through his dawning unease, Wesley noticed the name tag on the jumpsuit read simply Patient. He took a few tentative steps backward, the thing in his guts getting louder. No, it was definitely not excitement, he thought.
“I’m sorry,” Wesley said.
“Not at all,” the fat man beamed.
“The police,” Wesley said, “I heard it on the scanner, they should be here.”
“This one,” the fat man tapped the dead girl with his foot, “did manage a call before she expired. But I imagine they’re quite busy with that spot of trouble at the hospital. No doubt somebody stumbled upon it by now.”
“At the hospital?”
“Yes, nasty business,” the fat man shook his head gravely, but the smile did not falter.
The county’s largest hospital was back in Bremerton, the way Wesley had been going when he heard the 911 dispatcher announce the crash. The sirens had been coming this way, though. They were going right past the accident and Wesley could not — Puget Sound Psychiatric Hospital.
The thought hit him like a punch to the gut, and the wind left his lungs just as quickly. Wesley knew it wasn’t too far away, only a few exits down the highway, in fact. In the same direction the sirens had been going.
He’d been sent to photograph the grand opening of the hospital (which Ancient Andy had sneeringly called the Funny Farm) several years ago. He recalled the refined topiary arrangements outside, the lovely calming shade of yellow the building had been painted. Anything so as to distract people from the noises coming from within, right?
“What’s going on?”
The new voice dragged Wesley’s attention back to the moment, and he was alarmed to see how close the fat man had gotten. He could almost reach out and …
The woman standing by the now-open driver’s door of the idling sedan waved cheerily. She was thin as the man was fat, painfully so, and wearing a white lab coat, fully buttoned. Her skin was likewise all but bleached of color, and her short dark hair had been cut very sloppily, the sort of thing a little girl might do with scissors.
“Who’s your new friend, Kyle?”
Without looking away from Wesley, the fat man said, “This gentleman’s a newspaper photographer, Kate. That’s my sister.”
“Oh, so good of you to stop,” Kate said. “Is he alone?”
“Looks that way.”
“Wonderful,” Kate clapped her hands delightedly. “It’s all my fault, I’m afraid. I just can’t seem to keep straight in my mind which is the proper side to be driving on. The man in this wonderfully rustic little truck swerved to give me room and went right into the path of those lovely ladies in the cute blue thingy.”
Kyle shrugged. “Women drivers, right?”
“Yeah.” Wesley took another step back. “What can you do?”
As if their moves were part of some synchronized routine, Kyle took a large step forward and reached out. “Might I see your camera? Just for a moment, I promise to be very careful. I’m thinking of buying one myself, always been something of a firebug.”
“Shutterbug,” Wesley heard himself reply.
“Jitterbug?” Kate spoke from behind him and Wesley jumped. How had she come around the truck so quickly? It was raining even harder now, and he slipped as he turned, nearly falling.
“Litterbug?” She was close enough for Wesley to notice her glasses were too large for her head, and they were crooked. One lens was cracked. “Bed bug,” she laughed and clapped again. “Snug as a bug. In a rug. Wanna hug?”
She was wet enough for him to see she didn’t appear to be wearing anything underneath the lab coat. The fabric glazed her skeletal body like paint. Her legs were bare below the end of it, and so were her feet. She followed his gaze down and wiggled her unpainted toes.
“I just love going about barefoot,” she said. “Don’t you find it enjoyable to eschew shoes? Oh my, that’s rather to fun say, isn’t it? Eschew shoes. Try it, Kyle.”
Gigantic hands clasped Wesley’s shoulders and he felt waves of heat pouring off the enormous form just behind him.
“It was a truly terrible accident.” Kyle’s tongue probed Wesley’s ear as he spoke. “Still, we probably wouldn’t have stopped, being in a hurry such as we were, but it’s Mother, you see? She gets so very hungry.”
Wesley strained frantically against the big man’s grip, but one thick arm moved easily to snake around his waist and he felt himself lifted off the ground. The words for what he was feeling came to him then, silly as it was, and they came in Andy’s cantankerous whine. He felt, as the old man would say, like a goose just walked over your grave.
And why were all the geezer’s sayings about animals?
Kate leaned forward and whispered, as if imparting a great secret. “Mumsie gets awful cranky when she hasn’t had a nibble.”
A familiar, nostalgic feeling of surreality washed over Wesley, making his fingers ache for a joint. That’s what this is like, he thought, it’s like being way too high. And then he began to feel as if everything happening was always going to happen, that it was inevitable and maybe even important — maybe even essential for the continuation of what passed for reality — that it did happen. He was just a witness, after all, seeing these things as if through a window.
Calmly, he raised his camera and snapped a picture of Kate. Far behind her, something moved; something large and black. He zoomed in and through the frame of the viewfinder saw the girl, the one who’d crawled from the Volvo with a broken leg. She’d made astounding progress in her flight from the scene, having dragged herself nearly to his car, which was of course unlocked — the door was even still open — the engine idling. She’d almost made it, too.
The thing that sat atop her twitching form was like nothing Wesley had ever seen. It was a monster, a midnight-black beast with coarse hair and an enormous head lowered into an open crater of gore in the girl’s stomach, slurping and chomping with unspeakable eagerness. It was truly incredible.
“Looks as if she’s gone and helped herself,” Kyle said, teeth nibbling Wesley’s earlobe. “Mother’s not one for restraint.”
Wesley depressed the shutter button. Upon hearing the latest short burst of clicks, as if it knew he was looking at it now, the thing went very still over what remained of the girl and then slowly raised its massive head. Strangely luminous yellow eyes, like alien suns seen through a magnifying glass held by some psychopathic child-god, blazed above is gaping maw of snow-white fangs, streaked pink now with blood. Little ragged bits of flesh dangled between them.
With something akin to what he thought must be terror, but not entirely unlike what he’d always imagined as being awe flooding his brain, Wesley pressed the button again, utterly unable to help himself. This was it. The thing’s tongues lolled out of its gaping mouth, twin tips curling upward in a nightmarish approximation of an alluring beckon.
“That’ll be a keeper,” Kate said, then glanced wistfully over her shoulder. “We tried to tell them in the hospital. We tried to warn them that she’d eventually come to collect us.”
Kyle hissed, “They said we were crazy.”
“Legally insane,” Kate agreed, reaching out to snatch Wesley’s camera.
The thing reared up on two impossibly thin legs, so much taller than it should have been, and began stalking toward them. The ground itself seemed to tremble. The trees cowered. Wesley’s eyes would not close, not even to blink, as his ears were filled with a deafening otherworldly shredding he thought could only be the fabric of his own sanity giving way.
The terrible and wondrous thing before him grew larger as it neared, until it was the whole world. Wesley saw in its eyes something he could not describe, but which he knew was what he’d always been looking for. In the screaming faces of the wounded and despondent, in the smiles of winners and tears of losers, in the shattered remains of every car crash, the smoldering leftovers of every house fire, he’d searched for it.
Somewhere far, far away he felt the cool rain pelting his upturned face become warm and slick as it was replaced by drool, and the breeze became a blast of hot reeking breath. And he heard the greedy clicking of his camera as he at last bore witness to its arrival.
About the Author
Luciano Marano is an American journalist, photographer, and author. His award-winning reporting, both written and photographic, has appeared in numerous regional and national publications, and he was named a 2018 and 2020 Feature Writer of the Year by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. His short fiction has been featured in several anthologies – including Monsters, Movies & Mayhem (winner of the 2021 Colorado Book Award for Best Anthology); Crash Code (a 2021 Splatterpunk award nominee); The Nighside Codex, and Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Vol. 3, among others – as well as the podcasts PseudoPod and Horror Hill. Originally from rural western Pennsylvania, Luciano now resides near Seattle, where he is currently at work on a novel and seeking representation. A U.S. Navy veteran, he enjoys movies, craft beer, jogging, and would choose Wolverine-style healing abilities if he could have any superpower – or maybe just the ability to grow Wolverine-style sideburns.
About the Narrator
Born in Brazil in 1967, Julian Bane arrived in the United States at the age of 11. His love for the arts started at an early age: first with comics and drawing superheroes for his school paper to shooting Star Wars action figures and styrofoam planets with a Super 8 camera, all the while building miniature sets and props. As a young man, Bane admired, leading characters in shows such as Doctor Who and Star Trek. These characters later influenced Bane to become an actor.
“Their impact on my mind was strong, The Doctor, Captain Kirk and Sherlock Holmes were some of the best characters ever created.”
After three years in the Air Force pursuing a career as a jet fighter, Bane came to turning point in his life and decided to return to his original passion: the arts and more specifically, acting.
Bane traveled to Los Angeles and over the last decade has dedicated his life to perfecting his craft: acting, writing and directing. His has performed in plays such as The Tempest, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Wuthering Heights and leading the cast as The Traveler in Hollywood’s first production of H. G Wells The Time Machine. He has also branched out to the small and big screens, appearing in multiple TV shows,music videos, documentaries and films.
Along with doing audio characters such as The Doctor in the Doctor Who Legacy series, Brahms on Starship Excelsior and Leviathan on Darker Projects… Bane has branched out into narrating Jack Reacher and Doctor Who short stories on YouTube.