“I can’t...I won’t...I-I just can’t do it again!”
The unusually dim, yellow lights, the insufferable small talk, the 3 hours of actual work, and 5 spent wasting precious time only to finally be free to go home absolutely exhausted. Jenn sat in her car and stared numbly at the concrete office building, mouth agape. Sure at one point, she had been excited to work here, but that time had long since passed. Now, every day she fought with herself to get out of bed, to put on the make-up, to drive the dark streets to purgatory. She eyed her car clock, calculating exactly how much more time she could sit outside. Three minutes until clock-in, she painstakingly pushed the door to her blue Camry open. One foot dropped like lead to the pavement, then the other. Two minutes until clock-in, she stood with hunched shoulders and gazed absentmindedly at the building. Pain filled every fiber as she forced herself to walk toward the building with an unnatural gait like an alien recently took control of its first bipedal body. One minute until clock-in.
“Nope,” life snapped back into her, “I’m not doing it today,” Jenn spun around to face her car in the dark and quickly retreated to its warm interior. She pulled out her phone, opened the workplace app, and told her boss she was sick. It wasn’t a complete lie. No, she didn’t have a fever, chills, or even a runny nose, but she was sick of this place. Jenn twisted her key and her engine turned over, filling the quiet parking lot with defiant noise. She decided any chances at some extra sleep long since passed her by, so she drove to a gas station. There she picked up her favorite energy drink, far from healthy but a small indulgence, before heading to her favorite park.
Jenn loved visiting the riverfront park, but since her job started sucking her soul out of her, she’d rarely been there. The sun started to warm the earth as she pulled into the entrance. She drove down the winding dirt road until she found the familiar pull-off and parked. She backed into the spot, grabbed her fizzy, sickly-sweet drink, and sat on her trunk. She drank as she watched the sunlight glisten on the soft-flowing river only a few feet away. Small waves washed over the small rocks on the bank and sweet breezed rolled with it. She certainly enjoyed this more than sitting at a desk, staring at a bright computer screen in front of a sterile white wall all day.
Middle of the week, early morning, Jenn believed she’d have most of the park to herself. Still, she opted to take her favorite trail, partially hidden and not well known. She tossed her soda can in the bin and brushed her way past the saplings guarding the narrow entrance. She traveled barely a quarter mile before she felt eyes watching her. Stopping suddenly, she listened for tell-tale signs of human activity - rustling leaves, a snapping twig - but nothing caught her attention. She looked around in all directions, including up, but once again, found no sign of anyone or anything following her. She chalked it up to jitters from the overly caffeinated drink she’d all but downed not too long ago and continued along the path to the lake.
A sharp pain ripped through her head as she opened her eyes. The last thing she remembered was something rising from the waters. Darkness crept away from her blurry vision as she tried to make sense of the scene before her. A cool, wet sensation penetrated her shoes and kept rising, to her ankles, her shins. She looked down, and as her head moved a fresh flare of agony threatened to crack her skull, leaving a dull throb in its wake. She went to grab her head, a natural instinct to pain, but couldn’t. Pushing the headache back, she finally became aware of her situation. Her hands, duck-taped to the steering wheel, water rising to her knees. Panic washed over her. How did I get here? What’s going on? She squirmed in her seat, fighting ever harder to free her hands. Her feet stomped the ground but met harsh resistance as the lake water rose to her waist. She screamed at the top of her lungs, begging for help. Looking straight out, however, she realized there was no help to be found. The water fully encompassed the windshield.
A whimper escaped her throat as her inevitable fate slapped her in the face. The water in her car rose as she sunk lower. Light faded from the gleaming water outside as the depths promised to swallow her. Up to her shoulders now, she wiggled her hands against the wheel hoping the water would help dissolve the tape’s adhesive. It was unlikely, but desperation took control. Suddenly, the car jerked. A dull thwack sent a fresh wave of pain through her head as the sound entered her left hear. She jerked her head in the direction of the noise. She had little time to take in a large breath as the water covered her mouth, then her nose. Just as the water promised to blind her, another slick slap pounded the window. She swore, in the freshwater lake, a large sucker-filled tentacle smacked the glass. Each suction cup-like feature popped off the glass in a ripple as unconsciousness consumed Jenn once again.
Jenn’s eyes opened to a blinding white light. She squeezed them shut again and turned her head to the side before daring to reopen. Once she did, she noticed gritty sand coating her splayed out, wet hair, rocks in the distance, the shoreline. Unable to sit up, muscles aching without effort, she moved her eyes around slowly. The sky above shone bright, trees stood somewhere behind her head. She blinked and a massive, inky blob blurred on the shore as she gazed down through her bunched-up knees. She pushed up on her elbows to gain a better view. Shaking arms refused to support even the smallest weight and she collapsed once more. Her eyes closed for an unknown amount of time. Upon reopening them, the black blob sat closer to her. Shadowy tendrils stretched toward her. Still, there was nothing she could do. No scream, no cry, no scrambling away like a crab. Smokey tendrils pawed at her and her eyes closed, unable to hold them open any longer.
She woke up, her head lopped to one side, arms bound behind her, tied to the chair. Groggy and confused, she heard shuffling behind her, murmuring.
“You just had to leave her alone. Now you’re making me the bad guy.”
A moan escaped her lips as she tried to right her head too quickly, her neck muscles protested.
“And now she’s awake,” the man said to someone, not her, “Great!”
A low-pitched warbling sound followed. From her vantage point, she saw a door in the center of a wooden wall, a window next to it, and a sink under that. Before she could try to swivel her head around, a lanky man in a well-worn, button-down shirt and ragged jeans moved in front of her. He bent over, his narrow, bearded face moved disconcertingly close to hers. He seemed to be studying her.
“I’m so very sorry,” his jittery behavior made Jenn believe his words rang true, “You were never supposed to be here and he was never meant to be so careless!” he shot a disapproving look behind her. Another low whine came from something unseen. She began to turn her head slowly, when a small hand grabbed her chin, pulling her face back forward.
“But unfortunately, here we are.”
“W-what’s going to happen to me?” Jenn managed to stammer.
“That is a very good question,” he straightened up and began pacing in front of her.
“I could let you go if you promise not to tell anyone, but then again, I could never trust that promise. Too much is at stake,” he seemed to talk to himself, “But I’m also no murderer.”
“You tried to drown me,” Jenn’s voice gained traction.
“Quiet!” the man snapped at her, “I’m thinking.”
A few, agonizing moments passed in silence before Jenn dared to speak again.
“Why exactly am I here?” she asked meekly.
“You have to understand I can’t let you go,” she could see he was sweating how, biting his nails, contemplating his options.
“Because you saw him.”
“What are you talking about?” She tried to painstakingly remember any of the day's events, “Wait, are you talking about that octopus?”
“Ha! An octopus, in a lake?” His eyes were wide and he looked ready to laugh in her face.
On the verge of tears, Jenn failed to understand why she was here, what he thought she saw.
“I haven’t seen anything,” she pleaded, “I promise.”
“I wish I could believe you,” he spat “But you see, people will say all sorts of things to get out of tough situations. And I just can’t let him be discovered, not yet.”
Jenn hung her head as tears flowed from her eyes. She pleaded to be set free, that she could be trusted. The skinny man seemed to pay her no attention. As he paced in front of her, she tried desperately to free her hands from the ropes binding her. The material dug into her wrists though, so tight she thought they would likely cut her. The man stopped suddenly and stared out the window. When he stopped, she stopped struggling. But something else in the room took that moment of pause to strike. A harsh blow smacked into her back, nearly knocking the wind out of her. She fell forward onto the floor and quickly scrambled around. The chair lay on the floor shattered to pieces, a slick, inky tendril retreating alone the floor. Her eyes followed it back to the beast it belonged to. Large, dark as sin, and covered in a glistening slime the mass seemed to contain no features other than a plethora of appendages.
The noise had startled the man out of his contemplation. He shrieked at the beast and in two swift strides planted himself right behind Jenn. He grabbed her newly freed and raw wrist while jerking her arm back. Before he could complete the motion, however, another thin tentacle shot past her face, narrowly avoiding her ear, and yanked the man to the floor. Jenn stood for a moment, her brain unable to process what he was seeing. Everything about the beast screamed of wrongness. It shouldn’t exist, but it did. How? Why? Hundreds of questions flooded her thoughts as her mind struggled to catch up. Was it even helping her? A few moments later, the shroud of deafening silence she’s imposed upon herself broke. The man slid across the floor, kicking and protesting, but the low-pitched warbling emanating from the creature consumed every other sound. She took her chance and bolted.
As she sat in her car, the sun behind the horizon, memories forcibly assaulted her head. She ran, faster and harder than ever before. Twigs snapped, her heart pounded louder than her feet. She didn’t know in which direction she ran. She didn’t know how long she traveled. At some point, a field entered her sights, and she stumbled over a fallen branch on the edge. Someone helped her up. A tan uniform, ranger hat, a dirt-covered truck. She tried to shake the thoughts off. A bad dream. The ranger took her to get checked out. She lied. She said she’d gotten lost, and scared. After all, who would believe her?
Now as she swiveled out of her car door, one foot slapping the pavement, then the other. She stared forward at the dull, gray, concrete, beautifully normal building. She strode confidently towards its familiar walls, entered the glass doors. The elevator took her up three floors before depositing her in a beige carpeted hallway. The dim lights lit her way past one cubicle after another until she reached the familiar one, like every other cubicle in every way, except this one was hers. She’d never been happier to see her bland, boring desk.