With no immediate danger apparent, we took refuge in a rare apartment not marked with the strange postings. There was no furniture inside, as if nobody had lived there for quite some time. Peering through the blinds and out into the calm night, I couldn't help feeling that any measure of safety we might find would merely be a comforting illusion.
The only room in the house with no windows lay on the second floor - a long narrow bathroom. Mike searched for the light switch in the darkness and flicked it with relief. "Lights work."
"Yeah, but why?" I asked, not willing to trust any beneficial turn of events, no matter how small. "And the automatic lights out in the carports work, too…"
"Got me." He carried the little girl to the bath tub and told her gently to try to sleep.
After closing and locking the door, I turned the faucet experimentally. Nothing happened. "No water… but maybe it's just because nobody was living here."
We both slumped on opposite sides of the narrow space.
"What do you think GLORWOC is?" he asked, trying to pronounce the word we'd seen posted on the doors of apartments we very much did not want to enter. "Glor-walk? Maybe it stands for something."
I shook my head, gazing absently at my shoes, and at the under-sink cabinets against which they rested. My pants were still soggy from the rains in the back paths, but I wasn't about to feel even more vulnerable in this eerie place.
And where was it, exactly? My apartment key worked, and my car was outside in a nearby carport. The buildings all looked right, as far as we could tell at night. Was this another dimension, a parallel world where something terrible had happened? If so, what?
And if this was another world, then how would we ever get back home? How would we ever know which gap was the right one? Would the back paths let the guiding wire we'd laid remain? I doubted it.
Unanswered questions plagued me as I reclined against the wall, half-asleep for some interminable time.
A jolt brought me fully awake. Listening to the distant vibration, I tried to place it… but couldn't recognize it. Also woken up, Mike blinked and looked at me with tired, bloodshot eyes.
"Stay here," I said, groaning and standing. "I'm going to go look around."
"Shouldn't I come with you?"
"We can't leave her here alone."
He nodded unhappily. "Be careful…"
I crept out without another word, closing the bathroom door behind me.
Eyes wide, ears alert, I let my senses drink in the faint early morning light. The barest blue hue vaguely outlined the empty rooms to my left and right. I approached the closet in each slowly, taking one step a time, making absolutely no noise. I heard nothing, and swung each closet open with a jump of apprehension - but found more nothing.
With the second floor clear, I moved down the stairs, cringing at each painfully loud creak. Finding nothing in the kitchen or the living room, I reluctantly decided to call the apartment safe, at least for the moment.
Cracking open the blinds just a tiny bit, I looked out.
The wan pre-dawn blue revealed barely more than it hid. Impenetrable shadows ran long and confusing across the grass islands, bushes, sidewalks, and cars outside. The scenery was made only more confusing by the intermittent lampposts shining small pockets of orange on their surroundings. Sliding out the front door we'd bashed in, I closed it carefully behind me.
The first that struck me was the clean, sweet feel of open air. The day was cool but refreshing, and I would have called the weather amazing at any other time. Dark clouds ran corrugated across half the sky, but the other half formed a vault of dim incandescent blue overhead.
Nothing stirred in the dusk, save a few trees swaying with ephemeral morning breezes. A deathly silence hung over everything. I walked slowly along the grass, sticking close to the wall of the apartment buildings, peering at every nook and shadow. I kept subconsciously anticipating movement and life, habitually used to this time as a period of awakening and the start of a new day, but the lack of sound or presence only disturbed me further. What had happened here? Where was everyone? Actually, from the smell emanating from my apartment the night before, I imagined many of the families were dead in their marked homes… was there another me, dead in my apartment?
Not willing to check any of the marked apartments, I crept along toward the front of our development, peering around every corner for several long moments before I made any move.
As I moved, I began noticing subtle, inexplicable signs of devastation. A streetlight had fallen across the outer fence, apparently snapped by something that had left the trees around it intact. A van sat pitifully torn in two, as if something had taken a bite clean through the middle. Peering at it from afar, I could see no bodies or blood or scorch marks or anything else that might have indicated how it had happened.
My ears strained, and I realized what was missing: there were no birds. The morning was alternately still and breezy, but no chirps or calls echoed out from the trees around.
Growing increasingly paranoid, I imagined I could feel hollow eyes watching me from every window around, families of corpses within furious that I had dared to creep by their quiet apartments-become-tombs.
Crouching now, I came to the entrance to our apartment complex. Hiding behind a pillar, I looked west into dim blue and darkness, and then east into dim blue and lightening sky. I'd expected crashed cars and decaying bodies and all manner of destruction, but the main road sat empty.
The hardware store wasn't far. I decided to risk walking there. We would need tools if we were going to survive a third encounter with the back paths. Darting from cover to cover on the side of the road, I kept looking forward and back, but no obvious source of danger presented itself.
Crouching behind a large rock, I looked out - and then jumped away from something breathing behind me.
I quickly realized it was a dog - but it was in no condition to do anything but breathe. A large circular hole had been torn in its stomach and back legs, exposing its inner organs. Slimy and covered in internal goo, they still pulsed with life. The dog rolled its eye and looked at me, giving a pitiful whine of pain.
It couldn't speak, but I knew what it wanted. I resolved to return here on my way back, once I had an appropriate tool.
It was only as I reached the hardware store that I realized that people would have made a run on anything useful if a disaster was looming - but my fears were unfounded. The large building sat undamaged, the front door swinging wide open in the breeze.
Now even more paranoid, I carefully looked around the dusty space from the door, but still saw nothing dangerous. Filling a large bag with anything I thought might be useful, I spent as little time there as possible.
The sun cracked the horizon as I began walking back, still on edge. I almost wanted something terrible to happen, if only so I could stop looking over my shoulder constantly. I shaded my eyes against the strangely bright dawn and made for the injured dog.
By the time I found his gully again, I began doubting my senses. Blinking, I tried to clear the strangeness, but nothing I did helped. It was only when I saw the dog directly that I realized that what I was seeing was not an illusion.
Sickly phosphorescence surrounded the animal's open wound, giving off ethereal blue shimmers in response to the dawn's direct sunlight. Staring at it, I could almost see it ever so slowly eating away at his body… but his skin and outer flesh far more so than his inner organs. I felt sick, imagining what would happen to him if the strange corruption were allowed to progress. He would live far longer into his horrible death than any living being should have to - a pile of muscles, organs, and inner flesh exposed to the world. Had that happened to the families in all those apartments, too?
As the sun grew brighter, so did the eerie phosphorescence. I followed it with my eyes away from the dog, along the ground where he'd dragged himself to get here… and then I saw glimmers of it up in the trees, slowly eating away at intermittent leaves… and it was on the road… and variously strewn about on nearby grasses…
Looking at myself in terror, I was relieved to find nothing. Except…
I tore off my jacket, throwing it on the ground. A few shimmering spots of unwholesome blue glimmered on the back, around the bottom. What had I touched? When had my jacket been contaminated? What the hell was it? Poking the jacket with a stick, I confirmed that small frayed holes had been eaten in the material.
Truly horrified to my core for the first time since I'd encountered the back paths, I wasted nearly a minute standing in place. What could consume streetlights, vans, dogs, trees, grass, and jackets alike? Was this what the posted warning signs had been referring to? The rumble I'd heard that morning… I could now fathom the sound… it had to have been a nearby building collapsing, its foundations likely eaten right through…
Checking my bag of tools for contamination, I took off running as soon I was satisfied that they were clean.
I ran through the apartment complex in terror, changing my route constantly to avoid large patches of shimmering blue. Somehow, on my way out before dawn, I'd managed to walk a narrow invisible passage of safety - eerie corruption ate away at the sidewalks I'd avoided, and I could now see it smeared on door handles and the sides of cars and anything else infected people had touched before… before their skin had…
I shook my head, fighting the urge to be sick.
The apartment we'd taken refuge in remained normal in appearance, free of the strange consumption for the moment. I silently thanked whoever had nailed the warning signs to every other home.
As I opened the front door, I froze. I'd opened my own apartment door the night before. The door handles… staring at my hands, I studied them for any sign of corruption, but breathed a sigh of relief when I found none. Had I just used the key to open and close the door? I couldn't remember. Fishing my keys out of my pocket, I held them up.
A slight sliver of blue glowed from within one of the deeper grooves.
Throwing them away in disgust, I pulled out my pocket, making sure it hadn't spread to my clothes. Satisfied, I bolted inside, announcing myself as I ran up the stairs. "Come on, come outside, we have to go!"
Mike emerged after a moment, holding the little girl in his arms at the top of the stairs. "What is it? What's happened?"
"I can't even explain it," I shouted back. "Just don't touch anything glowing blue. Seriously. Do not let it touch you."
"Why, what happens?"
I shook my head and led them outside, checking them over in the sunlight. "You're clean."
We ran to the gap to the back paths, finding refuge in a wide swath of untouched grass immediately outside the entrance. It was strange that I felt safe there, but, at that moment, the world at large seemed far worse than whatever new nightmare awaited us within.
"What's that?" the little girl asked, smiling and pointing at the shimmering phosphorescence all around.
"Nothing," Mike said calmly, holding her in place. "Just… decorations. Christmas lights."
I wonder if he guessed the horrific things that glimmering corruption could do to living beings. How was he still so calm? I laid out the tools I'd grabbed, studying our options. We had to come up with a plan. If the back paths just turned upside down the moment we entered, we would die, unless…
I lifted the length of rope I'd grabbed, my manic smile of momentary triumph returning. "Forget running the maze. We have to do something it won't expect… we're gonna climb."