Chloe listened to her footsteps as she walked through the wooded area. She reveled in the peace being in her home away from home. As a combat veteran, the forest preserve's serenity offered a reprieve from the memories of her overseas deployment. From the position of park supervisor, she maintained a more thorough familiarity with the grounds than anyone. Chloe accepted the important responsibility of preserving the park’s natural splendor. She surveyed last night’s unexpected storm damage, one that caught local meteorologists off guard. Forty-mile-per-hour winds and substantial rain. The local newscasters called it a "popcorn thunderstorm." Chloe arrived at the forest preserve before anyone else to survey any possible risks, especially on the roads and paths. She drove her ATV through the trees, filled with the care of a mother bird for her nestlings. The morning sounds of the new day calmed her anxious undercurrent. Rain’s aromatic memories wafted around her. The perfect peace, she thought. Newborn sunlight basked through the trees at a low angle, creating long beautiful shadows.
The dew-tinged grass held a blanket of fallen leaves. She stopped her agile vehicle among a series of broken trees. That must have been one hell of a lightning strike, she thought as her boots took on the ground’s excess water. She reached down for a large burr oak leaf between several obliterated trees. Chloe savored each leaf’s texture. From the hearty, leathery leaves to the thin, fragile types. The paper-thin material felt light in her hand. A breeze fought her grip to carry the leaf into the air. Her hand opened to allow the leaf’s freedom. She glanced down at the ground.
"Well, that's peculiar," she said to the humid, morning air. A diamond-shaped, metallic ring rested under a thin, silver metal band poked out from between resting leaves. She had recovered random items over the years. Brake pads, alarm clocks, and even a rusted, Rolex watch. She studied the piece for a moment. The metal maintained a sheen silver, copper hybrid color. Pristine without the usual corrosion she would have expected. Why would someone bring something so random out here, she wondered. Chloe bent down for a closer look. She brushed the nearby leaves from the area, revealing a large, rectangular bi-metal door. She estimated its size to be about the same as her microwave. The dirt on its perimeter appeared newly disturbed as if someone had recently installed the box. How curious, she contemplated. Chloe thought back to her patrol of the grounds within the last several days. She didn't recall any notices about a new work order. She considered the amount of attention this effort would have brought. At least one of her usual visitors would have asked about what the workers were doing. She couldn't fathom how anyone could have buried such a box during last night's storm.
Chloe grasped the ring and heaved upward. The door broke its seal with a buried box. She moved the door open wide until it’s end hung inches from the leaf-covered grass behind. The lid wore a holed lip as if designed for someone to pull the top closed from inside. The interior looked unusually shadowed, even with growing sunlight cutting through the trees. She pulled out her phone. The intense darkness made her feel uncomfortable. She imagined looking through space and time. Chloe fought a growing existential vertigo. Her eyes looked into a black deeper than she could have ever imagined. Darker than having her face wrapped in a midnight velvet cloth. Her flashlight came on, illuminating the ground. She panned around towards the opening. The light refused to penetrate the shadowed entrance. This is most curious, she said to herself. How can this be possible? It’s as if the hole refuses to accept the light inside.
A passing breeze caught a small series of leaves near the container’s left edge. They blew about the area. Several fell within the opening. Chloe watched how far they fell inside. The first leaf touched the darkness and disappeared inside. Chloe stood back several inches. Companion leaves evaporated as they made contact.
Chloe grabbed a wayward stick. She pressed a bent end into the darkness. She felt no resistance going inward past the entrance. Her hand moved back. The end that had crossed into the darkness was non-existent. She turned the limb to her face. The wood appeared as if the end had been sliced off by a perfect saw. Her eyes grew with concern. Chloe repeated the experiment. The results were identical. She snatched up a nearby rock. She held the heavy stone over the hole. Her fingers let go. The stone passed into the darkness without sound.
The young woman backed away with a scowl. She panned her camera light over the hole to see if any traces of her experiments could be seen. The hole cast no shadows and no evidence of anything having gone inside. She fought the obscene intention of wanting to touch the darkness with her fingers. She looked around the immediate area, grasping for some clue, anything, to make sense of what had happened. Chloe fought through the confusion. Should I report this to someone? What would happen to my park? Who put it here? What is it?
Saturdays normally brought in large crowds on a summer day. From her usual naturephiles to the families who needed open spaces for their kids to burn through youth's energy. She considered putting up safety cones and perimeter tape. Chloe shelved the idea. This would cause her usual visitors to ask questions and would attract unsupervised children. The thought of little Billy screaming as his hand no longer existed wasn't acceptable. Chloe looked at her watch. 5:36. The woods wanderers and early explorers would be on the grounds soon if they weren't here already. Many of them liked to be in before the unnatural screams of children soiled their escape from life's obstacles.
A leaf lazily descended from above. Chloe watched its floating path. The leaf touched the hole’s barrier. The simple fauna disappeared as if its place in nature never existed. A logical part of her mind rebelled. Something can’t just not exist, she thought with concern. Things change form, shape and consistency, but remnants still exist. Her head hurt. She craved space from the illogical quandary. She carefully moved around the container’s side. Her hands gripped the door at its side and eased the heavy cover downward. The box sealed once more with a thud. She camouflaged the entirety of the metal door with leaves.
Chloe thought about how to keep her discovery from being found. She decided to pair a couple of reasonable ideas and left for her office. She arrived back at the spot an hour later. Relief passed through her to find the area undisturbed. She parked her ATV with its trailer alongside a tree and unpacked her plan. She lined a wide area with safety cones and bright yellow CAUTION tape. This will keep the more reasonable adults back. Bright yellow signs posted on the cones read "Aggressive Ground Bees, Stings Cause Pain."
She spent the rest of her day wondering about the mystery. An online search revealed that what she encountered had been referred to in various writings as an “anomalous void.” She read one statement that summed up what she encountered. “Nothing that goes in ever comes out, more than likely, the item just ceases to exist.” Chloe felt the weight of such a find pressing hard against her internal understanding of the universe. She realized that there were only bad options. Closing the park or this area would only draw attention from the director sooner or later. The ground bees distraction could last only so long, she considered. Keeping the area open will cause someone to find the hole and possibly get someone hurt or killed.
Chloe spent the rest of the day busy with her normal preserve responsibilities. She maintained a binocular distance view of the box. Visitors avoided the taped-off area. At sunset, she closed the park, as usual, sending her workers and volunteers on with their night. She arrived at her townhouse confused and scared. She dreamed of standing inside the box, looking at darkness in all directions. She screamed into the nothing, without the least sound. Her lungs filled with nothing. The dream’s fantasy overwhelmed her. She bolted upright, grabbing at her chest, sucking in large breaths. Adrenaline pumped hard through her. She flash-backed to being in a mortar raid overseas. Her eyes scanned the room's darkness. Her mind processed how to get safe. Small lights from her electronics twinkled as her eyes adjusted. Chloe took a breath and realized there had been no threat. Perspiration covered her. She decided to shower, dress, and go to the box.
Her watch read 4:24 am. She opened the preserve gates, drove through and secured the twin bars behind her. Chloe continued down the road towards her goal. She awoke her flashlight onto the ground and strode towards the box. The evening's insect orchestra serenaded her. She took in the surrounding aroma to ease her growing anxiety. Her steps crunched passive debris as she moved in the lit darkness. Light caught the edge of her faux perimeter. The cones and tape reflected back at her from afar. She walked up closer. The light illuminated an unfamiliar sight along the grass. Chloe increased her footsteps. She stopped with concern. The light showed an open box. A long orange vine-thin, tentacle slithered on the ground off to the box's right. She froze with a revolting terror sifting through her. The heaving tendril appeared unaware or unconcerned about the light. She couldn’t tell. Another identical tendril exited the box. The slithering curiosity traveled perpendicular to its mate. Chloe's heart raced as she worked through the problem.
She moved closer with careful steps, still distant from their potential grasp. Her hand touched a dew-laden safety cone. The tendrils snaked across the ground. She watched the closest vine. She noted its pulsating skin covered with a series of spiky ends and pits. The end held a grouping of bright orange hooks. Chloe's concern increased as red-orange fingers teased the distant sky. Sunrise will soon be here, she considered. A third vine appeared and slid outward towards the opposite direction. She labeled them "one, two, and three." Vine one grabbed an oblong rock and dragged the stone back into the void. Chloe struggled through her confusion. The vine two entangled its hooks into a small tree. The sapling broke loose from the ground and disappeared into the void. The first tentacle reappeared and commenced a new search.
Chloe struggled through the moment. She watched as the three tentacles collected various items from around the box. A busy squirrel descended onto the leafy ground near the hole unaware of any threat. Each tentacle slurped backward towards the box. One and two exited into the nothing. Three's hooks extended to the box lid, grabbing onto the hole. The box sealed shut with an audible thud. Chloe stood in place with her mouth hanging open. Her mind worked to process the absurdity.
She thought about the metal top now visible without its shield of leaves for camouflage. This would attract the attention of someone close by who decided to challenge her rouse. Chloe took a breath. Ok, they don’t seem to like anything moving near the top, I should be safe, she comforted herself. She investigated the area close to the metal lid. She expected to see slime trails or something to indicate the presence of the tentacles. She found only the usual forest floor. Chloe used her work boot to cover the metallic rectangle with leaves and sticks, obscuring its presence as best as she could. I need to hide the lid with something better, she considered. Chloe attempted to imagine the rest of the creature from which the tentacles originated. Her logical mind pressed her to focus on the task at hand. She hurried to her truck. She sped through the darkness to the office building. She checked her watch. Sunrise would crest in forty-six minutes. My only chance is to get a rock large enough over the box so it won’t be able to open once more, she considered.
Chloe used a park construction loader to transfer a boulder through the grounds. She navigated through a slalom of trees, barely fitting the boulder and machine. She eased the weighted rock onto the top of the box, secretly fearing that its weight could break the lid’s integrity. Dawn’s colors painted the sky above.
“Well, that’s one way of stopping them, goddamn ground bees, Chloe,” a regular visitor remarked, pausing during his run. She nodded in agreement.
The morning’s bird calls took over the day’s serenade. Her body relaxed knowing that something so immense blocked the entrance. Chloe swung her focus onto more practical concerns. The day went through its normal paces of families frolicking, couples enjoying their picnics and people walking the many trails. She checked on the boulder before closing up for the evening. The behemoth sat undisturbed. Chloe spent her evening wondering who she should call about the situation. She felt that anyone involved would contact some federal agency that would upturn her sanctuary's peace into a scientific research lab full of noise and tearing down her beloved trees. The idea of losing her consistent coping skill became terrifying. She decided to give herself a few days to consider the situation.
She arrived at the locked gate an hour before sunrise as usual. She felt confident that staying quiet about the box would be her best plan for the moment. She held confidence that such a large obstacle would deter any future curious expeditions from the tentacles. Chloe parked in her assigned spot. She walked through the cool air to the boulder. Her flashlight's illumination swung ahead of her casting a wide beam on the ground. She panned the light at the boulder. Her body locked in position. The boulder lay on the ground in two, uneven split halves. A large, bluish-orange tendril with what she interpreted to be a claw-like appendage careened along the ground as if searching for something specific. The large monstrosity didn't seem to register her.
Chloe stood mesmerized by the event. A pear-green tendril emerged high from the box. The end of its length had what she interpreted as a series of eyes. The tentacle turned away from her. She switched off the flashlight and crouched behind a birch tree. Dawn’s gradual stretch into the starry sky increased her anxiety. She reconsidered powering on the light to confirm her safety.
A noxious smell enveloped her. She coughed uncontrollably, doubling over. Vertigo overwhelmed her. She crumbled onto the grass. Her eyes blurred. She fought to move. Slithering sounds grew louder, blocking out familiar bird chatter. She forced her eyes open to see the blue-orange tendril close in. Its hooked-end attached to her stomach. The smell of melting fabric wafted across her face. Chloe opened her mouth to scream. Her cries echoed into the park. She tried to move her lead-heavy arms in defense. A warm sensation passed through her body, relaxing her intrinsic will to fight. Her eyes remained open without blinking. She stared ahead. The large tendril detached and slid away. Chloe remained still on the ground as sunlight enveloped the canopy above.
She used the available daylight to estimate how much time had passed. Chloe gained enough strength to sit up. Her focus spun on a swivel, forcing her to stay in place. Long minutes passed. She looked down at her stomach. Several holes appeared burnt into her work shirt. She turned on her flashlight to assess herself. She yanked up her top revealing multiple diamond-shaped wounds, each with a scab in place. Her finger reluctantly investigated one. She watched as the lesions healed in front of her eyes. The scabs fell free revealing no hints of any distress.
Chloe stood up, gripping the nearby tree for support. Her legs regained more of their strength. She felt obligated to check on the container to confirm a closed lid. She watched the door seal over the void once more. An intense pain registered through her midsection. Chloe grabbed her stomach in agony. She collapsed to her knees. Six small, flesh-colored tendrils eased out through ragged shirt holes. She screamed as her stomach radiated intense heat. Five obscenities stuck out several inches perpendicular from her body. One tendril crawled up her chest towards her head. The vine wrapped itself around her neck. She fought for air as its body increased pressure. Chloe blacked out and tipped forward impaling the tendrils into the soil. The tendril at her neck relieved its grasp. The thickening appendage slid over the back of her neck, holding her head to the ground. Chloe felt the tentacles moving underneath her. A warm euphoria passed through her body as it ripped apart in place. Blood and visceral sprayed around her, covering the ground in all directions. Five tentacles broke free from her corpse. Each bloody dirt-covered form slithered off in a different direction. The tentacle on her neck slid to the grass and disintegrated in place, leaving no trace. Sunlight basked overhead. The closed box shook with ferocity. Metallic claws arose from the dirt around its perimeter and began digging. The box sank into a deepening pit. Loose soil filled in over its diamond ringed top. Nearby leaves and twigs fell into the concavity, obscuring its history.
The local authorities concluded the park supervisor’s death to be the result of an undefined animal attack. They closed the sanctuary until a full grounds sweep could conclude its safety. A memorial plaque of the young woman’s heartfelt service hung in the office. The new supervisor never saw the five patches of orange-hooked moss spreading from the nature preserve into the local neighborhood children’s park.