by C. G. Aaron
The river was low the first time that I died. Not that there was any direct correlation between the deep muddy water and the cause of my initial demise. It’s just something you notice. Most folks drive by the river enough that they tend to ignore it, but I don’t. I try not to anyway.
That particular day sticks out in my mind. I guess that’s no big surprise given what would transpire. The Kanawha River hung low on the great pillars that shot up and out of it like thick elephant legs. Cars and trucks whizzed along on the bridge above, eight lanes of citizens minding their own business, trying to get somewhere on time. Just a year before, the Elk River had rushed toward the Kanawha quick and high, washing away great swaths of residential hillside, stranding folks without bridges to cross and without clean water to drink. Just a few years before that, a huge vat of poison was loosed into the river, a side effect of a greater entanglement, but that’s a different story for a different day.
This story isn’t a story about a river at all. In fact, the story of my first dance with the reaper actually revolves around a tall pile of cold dirt and rock. I awoke that day as I typically do. Stiff muscles barked displeasure at signs of morning movement. The bare steel floor of my cell was cold against my feet. The red light on top of the camera in the corner provided my only morning light, a singular burning ember in a windowless room.
“Lights!” I commanded, and was rewarded with a loud metallic CLANK followed by the cold wash of sterile fluorescent light. I stretched deeply and walked over to the corner of my cell. Looking up into the steady red ember of the camera’s electric eye, I shouted. “So, you going to let me out so we canstart this lovely day, or am I just going to sit and shiver?” The metal door clicked and creaked slowly open on massive hinges.
“Follow the line!” barked the man’s voice on the intercom. A series of flashing red L.E.D. bulbs chased one another through the hall and into the darkness.
“Yeah, yeah. Just like yesterday and the day before that and the day before that.” I muttered under my breath as I followed the blinking lights obediently.
I didn’t deserve this. According to 12 of my peers and the State of West Virginia I deserved it, but justice was far from the courthouse on that day. I was put away on trumped up charges and manufactured evidence. They knew what they were doing. They knew they needed me down here, and they were going to get me here no matter the cost. What’s a little injustice in the name of safety? I couldn’t blame them. It was a good fit, me and them, but I didn’t deserve it.
Thank the Lord I wasn’t serving my actual sentence. Twenty to life in a State penitentiary didn’t suit me. It likely don’t suit anybody. No. I was lucky in a way, if a framed man can be called lucky. My sentence was commuted and I was placed in the care of the State of West Virginia Department of Health and Well Being. The West Virginia DHWB, as it is known, is a massive government bureaucracy. It’s an easy place to lose track of the exact whereabouts of certain convicts who might be of some greater service to the citizenry. So, there I was, housed in a secret facility located on an island in the middle of the Kanawha River, buried a mile below a surface covered in twisting chemical pipes.
I was a M.O.T.H. man.
The “Monsters Of The Hills” program is a secret conspiracy made up of only those who can be trusted, a select and disgusting few. M.O.T.H., as it would almost immediately come to be known, is overseen and funded by the direct descendants of Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary
Mallette, the couples who witnessed the first supernatural machinations in the State of West Virginia when they tracked, trapped, and tagged the famed flying Mothman of Point Pleasant. Since that time, supernatural activity in the area has increased exponentially. Much of the activity, such as random appearances of the Mothman, is completely harmless, but some of the activity must be dealt with directly. That’s where M.O.T.H. steps in. From covering up the more and more frequent monster sightings up in Braxton County to negotiating peace with the bat-people down in Hellhole Cave, M.O.T.H. stands sentinel against the things that go bump in the night. And, as it turns out, they do so on the backs of conscripted labor.
Being a M.O.T.H. man is not a fate I’d wish on anyone. You stay locked in a private prison cell buried deep beneath the old South Charleston chemical plants, ever the subject of various experiments performed by lab-coat-adorned sadists. The freedom it affords you over a regular prison sentence is not real freedom at all. Your first day on the job you’re sent down to the micro-bio-scan. It’s this old tanning bed that’s been retrofitted with state of the art gene-scanners. You lay down in the bed of the thing and they zap you over and over again for hours. It feels like each of your cells is being popped in one of those big movie theater style popcorn machines. Kind of smells like that too, only less like butter and more like burnt hair. At the end of the whole thing they have you. They copy all of you, all of your biological functions, all of your genetic instincts, all of your muscle memories into a series of ones and zeros and store it all via some sort of Goddammed, space-aged tanning-bed osmosis.
Once they got you with the micro-bio-scan, they can basically 3D print you at any number of locations hidden in hillsides and hollers from Wheeling to Welch. They press a button and out splurts this biological goo, ribbon by ribbon, until there you are. Well, there your body is at least. You see, that’s where things get really weird. They can’t figure how to record a human soul electronically. I’m pretty sure that’s what all those experiments are about, getting a photocopy of the spirit-me. Well, until they figure that out, the only way to make that 3D-printed meat-sack move is to connect up via satellite.
That shit’s for the birds too, lying face down in that bath tub of petroleum jelly with all those electrodes hooked to all your softest bits. Not a nerve is spared, if you get my meaning. When the juice first hits you and you get uploaded into space it feels like that time in junior high your buddy dared you stick a paper clip into the wall outlet. Your mind goes sort of numb for a bit and sometimes you have a little dream. Then just like that, there you are, somewhere else entirely, naked as the day you were born and off to slay the latest demon set out to terrorize whatever holler it is you got zapped to.
The arrangement obviously wasn’t ideal, but it was a living. It was a trade in the very literal sense of the word. I traded my skills and my time for a semblance of freedom. The good people of West Virginia got to continue feeling safe, and I got to see the river.
On that day, I did what I had done dozens of times before. I followed the blinking L.E.D.s until I reached the end of the line. I looked up and the Pale-Faced-Man met my stare directly. His thin mustache twitched. He wore a long lab coat that must have once been a glimmering white. It was now a dingy golden brown mottled in crimson and putrid green. He smelled like the back end of a garbage truck.
“We have had a bit of luck,” said the Pale-Faced-Man matter-of-factly. “Ground crew sigma believes they have a lead.”
The ground crews had been having trouble with their latest task: finding the mouth of the great Kanawha Valley tarrasque. They knew it was set to wake from its centennial slumber sometime in the coming months, but had no idea where to start the process of sedating the damned thing before its eyes opened. M.O.T.H. ground crews had staked out most of downtown Charleston for months, blocking traffic with bright cones and scaffolding and spending countless days under the city’s streets searching for signs of the tarrasque from one man-hole to the next. Last I’d heard, all they’d figured out is the location of one huge clawed foot. Which foot was anyone’s guess.
The problem is tarrasques are these great big spikey dragon-dinosaur bastards that kind of hibernate underground. They get damned ornery when they wake up, and somebody has got to get down there and sedate the thing or else your whole mountain chain could be in trouble. A single tarrasque could run the length of Lewisburg to Beckley, with all of Sandstone Mountain covering just one of its two great big horns. In order to sedate a tarrasque you have to be at it’s head. That’s where all of the good sedatin’ orifices are located. So, finding a single foot doesn’t really do you much good considering the overall size of the monster and the very specific location your after. If we’d found its asshole, at least we’d know which direction to start hiking.
“Sigma?” I asked. “They haven’t been downtown in weeks.”
“The mouth is not downtown,” said the Pale-Faced-Man. “It is actually much closer to home.”
“You going to let the rest of us in on the joke?” I asked, a sense of anxiety creeping down my legs.
“The tarrasque’s mouth is at the mound,” answered the Pale-Faced-Man, with a subtle smirk.
“Lord have mercy,” I responded, my voice barely above a whisper. I knew exactly where the Pale-Faced-Man meant when he said ‘the mound.’ Matter-of-fact, anybody who’d ever spent any time at all in Charleston likely knew exactly what the Pale-Faced-Man referred to.
In the town of South Charleston is a great big mound of dirt. Archaeologists and historians tell us that it is an ancient burial and ceremonial mound of the indigenous folks who lived in West Virginia a long time ago. In modern times, the mound is a cut-rate tourist attraction with steps circling up to its
peak. Folks can walk up there to take pictures, but mostly they just ignore it on their way to buy Chinese food.
An idea struck me with the force of a cartoon light-bulb glowing bright above my head. “Seems a mighty big waste of time and money to zap me just across the street. Might as well just let me walk on over to the mound to take care of this.”
“Not a chance,” said the Pale-Faced-Man. “You will stay here with us so that we can monitor your work.”
“And my whereabouts,” I replied.
“Precisely,” said the Pale-Faced-Man.
It took a few minutes for the scientists to adhere all of the various electrodes to all of my soft spots, and then it was off to the tub of petroleum jelly. I gritted my teeth and awaited the zap. When it hit me, I went numb and started to dream. I dreamed of the river. The lazy flow of the dark water was calming. A single barge floated along with the current. A mound of coal came to a sharp peak at its top.
It was only a dream and in a flash I stood naked and cold in the basement of a South Charleston laboratory operated by the West Virginia DHWB. I scrambled to find clothes and managed to outfit myself with a fresh-from-the-plastic lab coat and an old pair of sweat pants from a nearby locker.
“You will find what you need in the freezer on the west wall,” the voice of the Pale-Faced-Man stated into my ear. A microscopic two-way communicator was 3D-printed along with my actual flesh and blood. I kept asking for some sort of bad-ass laser gun hand, but it didn’t seem to be in the cards.
I walked to the west side of the building and pulled open the freezer door. It was stuffed to capacity with severed animal heads. The faces of two dozen unfortunate dogs, raccoons, and ground hogs stared at me through foggy plastic bags. The word ‘RABIES’ was written on each bag in huge red letters.
“So, I’m off to battle a tarrasque with rabid raccoon remains?” I asked.
“Second shelf, towards the back. You’ll know it when you find it,” answered the Pale-Faced-Man.
I dug behind the immaculately manicured melon of a particularly vicious looking shi tzu and immediately found what I was looking for: the makings of an improvised explosive device and enough powder oxycontin to make McDowell County float.
The plan was simple enough. I’d rig up the bomb on a timer and set that powder oxy as the payload. I’d sneak up on the tarrasque and be sure to find the area right where it was snoring. Then, I’d start the timer, GTFO, and when I was safely topside the rig would blow enough powder into that monster’s snout to keep him snoozin’ for another hundred years.
I gathered the items I needed and set to work. I’d have preferred a full face respirator to work with that much poison, but the simple paper mask I found would have to do. With the turn of a few bolts, the job was done and I was making my exit from the DHWB lab.
Head on a swivel, I ran to the nearest manhole. I pried it open and down I went into the sewers of South Charleston. I was in its territory now. I was on the trail of a mountain behemoth. I made my way through the maze of the wet filth, covering my nose with my free hand and working with what little light was available.
“I get you don’t want me to have a laser cannon, but how ’bout a flash light next time?” I said as I squinted into the darkness.
“Please keep your mind on the matter at hand,” said the Pale-Faced-Man.
Eventually I managed to find my way through the dark labyrinth of flowing filth. I passed under the busy whirring of cars above me, MacCorkle Avenue, I was close. It only took a few more steps and a single turn to my left. There it was, the inconceivably huge mouth of the tarrasque.
I walked as quietly as I could manage, bringing myself within a stone’s throw of the underground goliath. The creature was so large that all I could make out in the darkness was a huge, razor-sharp beak hooded by a singular black-hole of a nostril. The leathery snout of the thing heaved as it inhaled, and I was knocked back a step as the great creature let out a lengthy and humid exhalation. I would never understand how these giant monsters could go unnoticed by such a large portion of the population. Here it was larger than life, larger than a Goddammed dinosaur, snoring like a hound dog as it clogged up the sewer system. I guess the truth is that folks don’t want to see these things, so they just don’t. They go about their day-to-day never wondering about that strange vibration they feel when they go to pick up their dry cleaning.
There was no better time to act, so I set about preparing my make shift bomb filled to the brim with that powdered poison. I was connecting the last switch on the timer when I felt a sudden and unexpected shift in gravity. The tarrasque’s breathing patterns had changed. It was waking up.
Much of what happened next I remember as a blur. As people always say after experiencing these sorts of things, it all happened so fast. What I do remember is the tarrasque catching my scent. This was obvious by the sheer force with which the thing started to repeatedly sniff, the single gaping nostril searching for some olfactory grip on whatever had disturbed its slumber. I also remember panicking. Now, panicking is not something I’m prone to do, and if it were a habit of mine I’d likely never been hit with the rap that got me in this situation in the first place. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it happened. And when it happened, it happened bad.
You see, the last thing I needed was this monster starting to stir, or trying to stand up and potentially causing an earthquake or basically eradicating the entirety of the town. So I did what I had to do. I triggered the bomb and threw it at the giant leathery nostril.
I turned to run and covered my head waiting for the explosion. I had rigged the bomb for minimal shrapnel, but there was sure to be some debris flying in the air in very short order. Then, it happened. A great immediate thunder clap erupted from behind me. There was a white hot flash of brilliant luminescence followed by a chalky chemical smell. It was hard to breathe. I felt a powdery snow fall all around me. I drifted in the air for a moment. Then, the air was the river, and I was floating with the current, lying atop a mound of coal peaked high on a lazy barge. The sun beat down on my face.
The tarrasque returned to its slumber. My heart ceased its drumming, another dead hillbilly with a nose full of oxy.
I awoke to a single red light shining in the corner of my cell. “Lights!” I gasped, and was startled by the wash of sterile fluorescent light.
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