The town of Pasadena, or what was left of it, consisted of a few ramshackle buildings and sputtering street lamps. The bricks used to pave its streets were long since buried and replaced with sprouting weeds and well-worn dirt paths.
“Hey, paw! Hey, paw!” said one of Abey’s kin, who’d taken an uzi.
“Lookit at this here gun, paw!”
“Hey, hey!” objected Al. “Be careful with that!”
Abey’s deformed boy stumbled on a branch, pulling the trigger of the uzi as he fell. I pushed Paula to the ground, as a hail of bullets hit a man with a deformed mouth and eye. He twitched, then fell over dead. Sal ran over an smacked the gun out of his hand, but was surrounded by the strange Pineys seconds later.
“Consarnit, Rupert!” exclaimed Abey. “Ya done shot, Earl. He owed me a doller!”
“Jesus Christ! He coulda shot all of us! Put the safety on!” insisted Sal.
“Much obliged you straightenin’ out the boy,” Abey thanked. “Still, I like them guns you fellers brought. You buy ‘em in Phil-um-del-fee-yea?”
“Yeah, I get you some more,” smiled Sal noting his interest. “I got connections.”
“Good,” said Abey, pleased. “We gonna need ‘em.”
The walk into town continued.
“Abey,” I began getting up. “I don’t mean no disrespect, but isn’t Pasadena in Burlington County up north?”
“Hell, cuz, that there ain’t the original! This here’s got the Well. This here’s got the Jersey Devil!”
“Yeah,” I said under my breath. “I suppose it does.”
The Pineys herded us into the largest building. Paula and I carried Taylor inside, while Tommy, nursing a head wound, gave the other three gangsters a wide berth. Al and Gino followed, guarding Sal. Abey gestured for Rupert to shut the door and they locked it from the outside.
“Now it’s just us and you,” sneered Sal anxiously, his eyes meeting mine.
From the ground, I leapt at Gino. I had to take him first, but I left my guard down against Tommy. Punching the bodyguard in the throat, Gino crumpled, but Tommy had found a board and smashed me across the back of the head with it. I reeled, then Al got a grip on my arms while Sal and Tommy worked me over.
“Get off of him! Stop!” screamed Paula.
Tommy backhanded her, sending her stumbling over Taylor, who continued to look more pale and emaciated by each passing second. I went limp, Al loosened his grip, so I slid to the ground, then sunk my fingers into his crotch before he realized his mistake.
“AHHHHHHH!!!” wailed Al, loud enough to shake the rafters.
Sal tried to kick me, but I caught his foot and twisted him to the side. Tommy nearly caught me with the board, but I rolled away at the last second. Gino was just about to recover, when I leapt and kicked Tommy in the face. His grip loosened on the board and I pulled it from his hand, then broke it over Gino’s head.
Sal was leaning against the far wall, still trying to get his balance. He looked around, noticing his little army had fallen. Just before I charged at him, the door opened and Rupert and another man grabbed Sal by the arms.
“That’s the one. Bring ‘em,” instructed Abey from outside.
I aimed a bleeding finger in Sal’s direction.
“No matter how this turns out,” I growled. “Pines or no. You die.”
“Yeah,” smiled Sal. “Been there, done that.”
Sal was escorted outside and the door was shut. I went back to Paula’s corner of the room, keeping a watchful eye on the gangsters. They still kept Tommy at bay, despite his eagerness to rejoin their group. Taylor looked pale and cold sweat soaked his hair and clothes.
“Give me your jersey” asked Paula. “I have to keep him from going into shock.”
Reluctantly, I slid off the red and black hockey jersey. I looked at the initials. Guess I wouldn’t need it anymore anyways.
“It won’t matter,” I said to Paula glumly. “If we don’t get him to a hospital, he’ll be dead within hours.”
“Look,” she snapped back, resisting my despair. “You want to just let these weirdos kill us?!”
“Maybe. Maybe I’ll just let them kill you.”
“Oh, right, c-cause I’m some kind of sellout, right?” she sneered defiant. “Because I work for a big, bad company, we’re all evil.”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” I hissed, leaning right into her face. “You don’t drill for oil in your living room. You don’t dump garbage in your kitchen. You don’t piss in your own backyard. If you lived out here, you’d see.”
“Comco just wants to build a few houses. Maybe one strip mall. Who are you to say they can’t?”
“The Pines don’t want them,” I insisted. “During the Revolutionary War, they built the bog iron factories out here. Dozens of little towns and villages sprouted up over night. Then the industry went bust and turned them all into ghost towns. The Pines swallowed them back up. Same thing when they forced the Indians to move here, they abandoned the farms. And now, you got the tail end of the last invasion, the folks of Pasadena. The Pines are destroying their town and taking it back.”
“You see it as mother nature taking revenge,” replied Paula, beginning to understand.
“When Comco comes, their buildings will be bigger and will last longer after they’re abandoned. It’ll be a severe blow to the ecosystem here. And like any organism, it’ll have its own way of fighting the invaders, just like it did before. Only this time...”
“All that doesn’t matter right now. We have to get out of here before they kill us.”
“Oh, they won’t kill you.”
“Didn’t you see? The villagers. They’re all men.”
At that moment, they swarmed in, like a plague of locust. Smelling of rotting meat and body odor, the villagers of Pasadena attacked in the near darkness of the old building. Overwhelmed, I was struck on the head and stunned for about a minute. When I came to, I felt myself hovering in midair.
I was tied back to back with Tommy and Taylor. One rope pinned our arms at our sides and went above our heads to a makeshift pulley, suspended by two ancient telephone poles. The end of the rope was tied to the bumper of a 40 year-old Ford pickup, which sputtered black smoke as one of the Pineys tried to keep it running.
The “Well” we were suspended over, had long since collapsed and was now a 20’ diameter wound in the earth. I looked down and felt a warm breeze from the pitch black darkness of the pit below. We were on the east side of town and the folks of Pasadena surrounded the local Well as the show began. Al and Gino smiled uneasily, while Sal beamed. He’d come such a long way in two days.
“Abey,” I pleaded. “You’re making a mistake. These men are killers.”
“Hell, ain’t we all, cuz? Especially you, bein’ the Jersey Devil!”
Laughter, or what sounded like laughter, rippled through the crowd. Their dumb smiles shone in this flicker of victory. I could see Paula being held by Rupert and two other villagers. They pawed her breasts eagerly and I made the mistake of letting the fact that it bothered me show on my face.
“Don’t worry, cuz,” laughed Sal. “You’re girlfriend is in good hands. Many good hands!”
“Hey, hey, Sal! C’mon!” pleaded Tommy. “I was just followin’ orders, nuthin’ personal.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the thing, Tom,” said Sal sadly. “You might feel guilty, what us breakin’ the rules and all. You might go tell the old man and well--- Hey, it’s just business.”
“We’ll wait, ifin’ ya like ta beg,” offered Abey.
“Go to Hell,” I growled.
“You first, cuz!”
The truck began to back up slowly, but just as we dipped past the lip of the hole, a Piney carrying a shiny, gold doubloon lunged out of the darkness and pulled the driver out of the cab. He smacked the driver with a branch and pulled the keys out of the truck. I began swinging us back and forth, trying to catch the lip of the hole with my feet.
“C’mon! Push!” I ordered.
“Buford!” snapped Abey. “What the Hell you doin’, boy?!”
“Buford” grabbed an uzi off of Rupert and shoved him into the well. He shot at the ground indiscriminately, scattering the Pineys and gangsters. They returned fire, but the bullet holes didn’t seem to bother him. Finally, with one last effort, I caught the edge of the hole with my ankles. “Buford” popped his head over the side.
“Never a dull one, eh, guv?” smiled Nate/Buford.
“Just pull me up,” I urged. “Nate! Look out!”
Abey had run back inside the nearest building and came back with an ax. Nate/Buford, turned around just in time to see it hack through his neck. As his head fell past me, I heard a whisper on its lips.
Abey held the bloody ax aloft.
“Thems my kin you kilt, cuz! Now you goin’ to Hell, express style!”
The old hillbilly hurled the ax, plunging it deep into the telephone pole and severing the rope above us. We plummeted backwards, Tommy taking the brunt of the first collision with the side. Face first, he slammed into the muddy stone and scraped for a good twenty feet or so. Taylor and I landed back first on top of him and I felt Tommy’s bones break.
We were in some sort of underground cavern, but the only light was from the hole above. A light wisp of steam wafted from a nearby hot spring at the edge of the light, but when the wind changed, I could feel a cool breeze. No, not just cool. Cold.
“Where are we?” moaned Taylor weakly.
“Sure beats the Hell out of me,” I said, struggling with the ropes.
The fall had given the rope some slack and I tore free as best I could. Up above, I could hear the Pineys laughing. Dirt and rocks rained down from the edge of the pit above. From what little light reflected off the warm pool of water, I could see that the whole town of Pasadena was built on what looked like a giant, hollow rock.
“How are we going to get out of here?” moaned Taylor. “I can’t move.”
“Don’t try. I think we’re safe here, for now.”
Just then, Tommy regained consciousness and began howling in pain. If I had a gun, I would’ve put him out of his misery. His face was smashed, his nose was gone and almost every bone in his body was shattered. He was in such bad shape, he barely had the energy to scream. The Pineys began throwing rocks at us and I dragged Taylor into the darkness. That’s when I heard another scream.
It was back.
We were in its lair.
As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see that the pile of rocks we were standing on was actually a mountain of bones. One of the skeletons was dressed in a pair of farmer’s overalls.
“Abey says hi,” I relayed.
“It’s back!” cried Taylor. “We’re gonna die.”
“Maybe,” I said, hoisting him onto my back. “But if there is a way out, we’re only gonna get one shot at seein’ it.”
Tommy’s scream was suddenly cut short. From the darkness, the creature pulled his broken body into its maw. The screams were painful to hear and the crunching sounds were even worse. I couldn’t risk just running in any direction. I could fall into a deeper crevice or worse. Finally, my prayers were answered, unable to resist seeing the horror show, the Pineys dropped down a load of lit torches, which lit up the cavern for a few brief seconds.
I spotted the cave and scrambled for it. I could hear the creature in the darkness behind me. He had already thrown Tommy’s carcass aside and was coming for us. I dove into the cave and heard a sharp thunk against the side of the entrance. The creature wailed and then returned to its meal. For a split second, just as the torches began to die, I could see the thing’s wings and head silhouette against the glow of the torches and reflecting off of something much bigger. Something to this day haunts my very dreams.
“What is it?” cried Taylor.
“It’s just another part of the ecosystem,” I said flatly. “It’s just nature’s pendulum swinging back in our face.”
Above, in Pasadena, the town was having a hootin-anny. There was drinking, fiddle music and dancing. Of course, Paula was the only one the villagers could dance with and they took their turns groping her. She ran from one corner of the square to the other, trying to get away, but there was just too many of them. Even Gino threw her back after she got too close to the woods.
Al examined an ancient fuse box. It’s rusty switches were the only thing keeping Pasadena alive. Al noticed one of the switches was only half turned out. Before he flipped it, he saw Sal and stopped him before the Pineys could overhear them.
“What the Hell are we doin’ here, Sal?” asked Al discreetly. “We gonna stay with he cast of Hee Haw here or what?”
“Naw, don’t you get it? We can pin Paragon’s death on these inbred fuckers,” laughed Sal as he whispered. “Hey, maybe you can send the old man, out here first. Know what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I don’t know about leavin’ her here, though. That’s a fate worse than death, if you ask me. And what the Hell was in the hole?”
“These cornholers been without broads for so long, you better not even bend over. That’s the only hole they’re interested in, capeche?”
Rupert and his second cousin/half-brother, Jerimiah, maintained a watch around the town during the festivities. They knew the creature would take anyone that wandered away past the lights. Jerimiah stopped in the outhouse, while Rupert stopped to examine a colorful tree frog. The entire time, I had been climbing.
The cavern I was climbing up was dark, dank and slippery. The foul stench enveloped me like death itself, but I refused to go back down. I escaped Hell once and I had no intention on going back.
Up top, Jerimiah had finished his business and began to pull up his pants. He didn’t see the lid rise behind him. I put Taylor on a ledge, climbed out the outhouse hole and then pulled him up with me. A minute later, Rupert turned toward the outhouse, just in time to see Jerimiah’s lantern go out. He went to investigate.
Back in town, Abey was having Paula held down, while he cut off her shirt with a rusty knife. Sal and the boys watched with fading interest. Out of the corner of his eye, Abey saw Rupert’s lantern go out. He shot to his feet.
The villagers grabbed every gun they had handy. (And they all had at least two.) They emptied round after round into the darkness of the woods. Bullets splintered off the trees and branches and leaves rained down in clumps. Paula sat up, but Sal immediately grabbed her by the arm. Al, noticing the sputtering street lamps, went back to the fuse box and reached for the last switch.
The Pineys stopped firing and the lights surged to life. Pasadena lit up like its namesake, surprising even Abey. But was even more surprising was that I had already been running full bore at them, with Rupert’s shotgun and Jerimiah’s pistol. Abey opened his mouth just in time for me to jam the shotgun, breaking his buckteeth and blowing buckshot out the back of his head.
Sal took Paula by the arm and ran for the truck. I shot three more villagers, before they even realized what hit them. One of them let loose with the uzi, mowing down half the people standing in front of him. They weren’t prepared for the deadly efficiency of the weapons.
Not like me.
I cut a swath of destruction without missing a beat, running out of ammo and picking up new guns with one hand, while killing my next victim with the other. I grabbed a villager by the hand, forced him to shoot himself, then shot through him to hit the two who were running up behind him.
A short, squat Piney fired two pistols at me. I leapt above his line of fire, locked my legs around his neck, then took him too the ground, while I shot the next ones. I put a bullet in his head for good measure. Then, I took a shot at Sal, but nailed Gino in the back of the head. Sal took off with Paula in the passenger seat. Al leaped into the back of the pickup as it sped off, taking a piece of buckshot in the leg.
As the truck torn down the nearest dirt path, it’s one working headlight dimly lighting the road, Al watched the town’s fusebox overload and explode. The whole village went dark, save for the muzzle flashes I delivered to whatever crossed my sight.
Paula didn’t know whether to be grateful or angry.
“We have to go back!”
“Are you fuckin’ wacked?” gasped Sal, not even considering it. “After what I just did, you should---”
Sal’s obscene offer was cut short by the creature’s wail. Without the light to keep it at bay, it soared out of its lair and flew after the only source of light in the area. To the creature, light meant pain, and it saw this as an opportunity to extinguish the light forever. Sal’s mouth dropped opened in awe, as it zoomed straight at him. Al turned in time to scream, while Paula leapt from the moving truck.
Without turning back, she sprinted headlong back to Pasadena. A few seconds later, the truck, it’s windshield pierced, came flying overhead and sailed into the trees to her left. She could hear Al screaming as the old truck smacked against an old pine and exploded in a ball of flame.
Paula could hear the branches collapsing behind heard. The creature’s wail stung her ears and as it bore down upon her, I pushed her aside and jammed a 30 inch shotgun barrel into its beak. The creature backpedaled, trying to stay aloft with its wings.
In the background, one last light in Pasedena flickered, illuminating the bodies of its final inhabitants. I had appropriated their weapons and the gangster’s, but I was running out of ammo and I had no idea if one of the Piney’s guns would just explode in my hand.
Bullet after bullet, hit after hit. I never missed and the creature just seemed to take more punishment. It was too stupid to turn around, too angry to stop trying to go forward, but in too much pain to do anything other than hover and snap at me. I fired an automatic pistol with the right, dropped the shotgun and fired Paragon’s assault rifle with the left. I switched to Abey’s shotgun on the right, taking out one of its eyes. It smacked away the assault rifle and I jammed an uzi into its stomach.
Finally, it fell to the ground, but was too stupid to know it was dead. It lumbered around, then made one last, pathetic charge. I sidestepped it at the last second, feeling its talons rip me across the hip. I sent it headlong into the pit with one last shot to the back of the head. It got caught on the telephone poles and knocked them down.
As it returned to its lair, it took the edges of the hole with it. The telephone poles fell on the largest building, pulling another pole down, and causing more ground to collapse. Taylor had limped his way out of the outhouse, which suddenly fell into the ancient hole which it stood over. Paula and I grabbed him under both arms and then fled Pasadena as it sank into the ground, never looking back.
Several hours later, I managed to lead us to a bread and breakfast at the edge of the Pines. One of the customers was a doctor and immediately tended to Taylor, while Paula and I waited outside for the police. Somehow, she knew, I’d never wait.
“You’re just going to leave, aren’t you?”
“You saw what I did--- What I’ve done. I’m a monster and monsters belong to the Dark.”
“You saved us,” she corrected. “Why not stay here? I can help you.”
“Would you help me destroy Comco? To burn down their offices and wreck their equipment? To make it so no one could ever invade the Pines again?”
“We wouldn’t stop them,” she cooed, putting an arm on my shoulder. “All we would do is delay the inevitable.”
“No,” I corrected. “We would delay disaster, but I don’t think I can make you understand that.”
And with that, she kissed me. It was long, warm and full of passion. It was the sort of kiss that was like a last breath of hope, like the last thing you remember on your deathbed. And just as soon, it was over, and I was wanting it all over again.
“I still have to go.”
“Whatever you say, tough guy,” she relented. “I don’t suppose you can find someone to take your place. Probably no one as tough as you.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, disappointed, seeing the approaching police lights. “I can think of one person.”
Bandaged and bruised, Mike limped out of the passenger side of the cruiser seconds after it stopped rolling. After I had left him, he later regained consciousness long enough to crawl to the highway. He was picked up by a state trooper, who took him to the hospital. He remembered little of the days events. Paula rushed into his arms.
“Oh, my God! Mike! Mike!” she cried.
“God, I was so worried,” he said weakly. “I couldn’t remember anything after I got shot. Where’s Taylor? And that Piney?”
Paula turned toward me, but I was already gone, like the last days of Spring. I continued my trek in the darkness, pausing briefly to look back at the light and watch the twosome embrace again. I thought of what was and what could be.
Then I turned back to the darkness and walked down a sandy patch of Pine Barren road. One image filled my head, but it wasn’t of Paula, or the kiss, or the villagers I had murdered. I was thinking of mother nature and her revenge and of the cavern beneath the ruins of Pasadena.
For in the fading of the flickering torch light, I saw whence the creature had come. A buried glacier, four stories tall, slowly melting with the help of a hot spring. Buried for millennia, with man’s encroachment on the Pines, it had only now began to melt. But the creature I killed was just the first, the first of hundreds, maybe thousands of the ancient creatures trapped in the ice. Their cruel angular faces were trapped in the ice waiting.... waiting....
Waiting for mother nature to take its revenge.