It took Joe a couple of days to find someone to show him the caves, but his efforts were finally rewarded when he found Steve gassing up an old Jeep Wrangler at the only station in town.
“You the guy asking about the caves?” Steve had asked.
“To see if the legend about the lizard people is true.”
Joe figured the locals would play coy at first. “There was some kind of chemical spill and now you’ve got lizard people living underground.”
“Okay.” Steve chuckled. “The spill was a while ago, but no one got hurt.”
“So, no one’s getting sacrificed?”
“Why would we do that?”
“To keep the lizards happy so they don’t eat you.”
“Makes sense if they existed. I can show you the caves, but there’s nothing in there worth seeing.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“You can’t know, but if it makes you feel better, you’re too skinny to feed to anything.”
Joe pocketed an extra battery for his GoPro before getting out of the car.
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
“GoPro. Never seen one?”
“Yes. I meant why are you bringing it?”
“For my podcast.”
“Signal’s going to be too weak for a livestream.”
Joe shrugged. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll just upload it later. No biggie.”
Steve handed Joe a headlamp. “You’ll need this. Don’t wander off. If you get lost, it’s unlikely we’ll find you again.”
Joe slid the strap over his head and adjusted the light. “How do I know you won’t get lost?”
“You’ll just have to trust me.”
Joe paired his phone with the GoPro. “This is my new buddy, Steve.” He turned the camera toward Steve, but he’d already headed for the mouth of the caves. “Or there goes Steve. Anyway, I’m about to tour some caves that legend says are inhabited by lizard people. If you don’t hear from me again, then I’ve probably become a snack for a lizard family.”
Joe turned the camera and followed Steve into the caves. The entrance quickly narrowed into a space so small, his shoulders brushed the damp walls. “Is it this cramped the whole way?”
Joe looked around, filming the glistening rock illuminated by his headlamp. “No, but this is pretty claustrophobic for anyone.”
Steve ducked, so Joe followed suit. They walked hunched over for several feet before a burst of cool air hit his face and they entered a wide cavern. Small openings dotted the left side, and in front of them the ground sloped down into a pool of murky water.
“Jesus,” Joe whispered. “Is that sewage?”
“It’s not sewage and it’s only a few inches deep. We’re going into that cavern over there.” He pointed to a large black spot on the other side of the pool. “It leads to a massive cave with more impressive shit for your podcast.”
“Well then,” Joe said, willing himself to forget about what might be in the water, “lead the way.”
He slipped a couple of times on the stone floor that rose sharply on the opposite side of the pool but managed to avoid a total soaking. As they approached the opening, something moved across the beam of light Steve’s headlamp provided.
“What was that?” Joe tried to capture it on film but only shadows remained.
“What was what?”
“I saw something over there.” He pointed into the cave. “You setting me up?”
“Why would I do that?”
“To scare me.”
Steve laughed. “You’re imagining shit.”
Joe turned so his headlamp panned the cave slowly. He saw nothing but the multitude of stalactites that covered the ceiling. “Folks, I think Steve’s fucking with us.”
“Okay,” Steve said and held up his hand. “We’re going downward for a bit. Keep your lamp on the ground, so you can see where you’re putting your feet. It’s slippery in spots.”
As they descended into the cavern, the cool air he enjoyed a few minutes before seemed to dissipate. “Getting kind of warm, eh?”
“Yeah, there’s not a lot of fresh air down here.”
“Kind of hard to breathe.”
“Not much farther. Here.” Steve handed him a bottle of water. “It’ll help with the nausea.”
Joe drank almost half the water before replacing the cap. Steve said nothing as they continued deeper into the cave. For several minutes, Joe enjoyed the silence, whispering commentary now and then so his viewers wouldn’t get bored by endless footage of darkness and heavy breathing. Slowly, the thick, wet air began to take its toll on him. His head hurt and his limbs felt heavy. He drank the remaining water in the bottle, but it didn’t help.
“Hey, Steve?” he said, but the words sounded wrong. “I don’t feel so great.”
“It opens up soon.”
Joe wanted to turn back, but just lifting his feet to walk was becoming a chore. “I can’t, man. I…”
His vision clouded and a rushing sound roared in his ears.
Bits and pieces of memory floated through Joe’s head before he fully regained consciousness.
“Steve?” he called, trying to get up. “What?” He couldn’t move. Something thick and wet covered his face. He pushed at it but couldn’t free himself. “Hello?”
Joe patted his pockets. “My phone. My phone.” There it was. He turned it on. Although he couldn’t lift his arm more than a few inches, Joe pushed his hand outward as far as he could. The screen lit up. He was still livestreaming. How was it even possible to have a signal? “Guys, if you’re still watching, I can’t move. Something is around me. It’s like…a net?”
He heard a muffled noise somewhere beyond the cocoon he seemed to be in. Joe turned on the flashlight.
“If I can just—”
When he turned the phone around, the light captured something out of nightmares he hadn’t even dreamed yet.
“Is that…? Oh fuck.”
“Marvin, we talked about this.” Bill sighed. “Vagrants only and no evidence.”
“It’s nothing. No one knows where he went or who took him. Calm down.”
“If they come looking—”
Marvin patted Bill’s shoulder. “Let’s just watch before we panic.”
He clicked on the video, streamed live the night before, and waited.
“My phone. My phone.” Joe’s voice was a whisper, but the high pitch of his tone conveyed his panic. “Guys, if you’re still watching, I can’t move. Something is around me. It’s like…a net?”
More shuffling and then a grainy image appeared. “If I can just—” A ripping sound and then, finally, an image appeared. “Is that…? Oh fuck.”
Marvin saw himself briefly, although between the poor lighting and the graininess of the image, no one else would know it was him even if he’d given Joe his real name.
“Please,” Joe begged. “Help me.”
Marvin heard himself chuckle and then he stepped back, revealing his companion. Tall, slender, and covered in grey-green scales, the creature who used to be his wife leaned forward. Charla no longer spoke a language he could understand, but the way her forked tongue passed over her lipless mouth told him she was pleased. She stroked Joe’s face through the cocoon she’d wrapped him in to “marinate” his flesh so that it was soft enough for her to peel it from his body.
“Please,” Joe said again, this time sobbing. “Help me.”
“Enjoy, my love,” Marvin said to Charla. “Sorry, Joe. A girl’s gotta eat.”
Joe screamed before the video stopped. Marvin held the phone in his hand, wishing he’d noticed it before Charla took over. No one could identify him, but now more tourists would come. More people would want to see the caves. That was good for Charla, but not for the town. If anyone discovered her… He refused to go down that path. They’d figure it out.
“You didn’t let her—?”
“I’m not an idiot, Bill.”
“Because if she ever scratched you…” Bill left the thought there.
Marvin stroked the scaly spot hidden by his sleeve. “If she scratched me, what?”
“We can’t have two, Marvin. Everyone agreed to let her be as long as she was the only one.”
“I know.” A cold veil slipped over his mind. More and more, he felt the lizard taking over, making it difficult to think of anything but the scent of their skin. He understood Charla’s hunger now and felt bad for denying her what she needed for so long.
“We can’t keep sacrificing these poor souls.”
“You can’t,” Marvin said. “But I can. A small tribute now and then isn’t such a bad thing.”
“They’re innocent people.”
Marvin licked the back of his teeth. A small fork had developed at the tip of his tongue. It itched for something he hadn’t yet given it. He eyed Bill, whose skin was loose enough to peel without the cocoon. “You’re not innocent, though,” he whispered.
“What?” Bill tried to stand, but Marvin was faster. “No! Marv—”
Renee Miller is a Canadian author of dark fiction. Her latest novella from Unnerving, RETAIL, gives readers a peek into her day job as a grocery manager. Although, she says there’s not as much killing in her real life.