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Sludge

One Too Many

By Clay WolfPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
2

I could hear it below me, swirling around a hidden vortex just underneath the surface. The inky substance corrupted anything it touched, staining it the same black as itself; contaminating everything in its path. Wildlife is a memory of the past and plants tend to be withered and dying making food nearly impossible. When the water had turned dark and too polluted to drink, about six and a half months or so ago, I didn’t think it would be this bad. That someone would have a plan. After all, I was just an accountant. Numbers run my life. We started with three. My wife, my daughter, and I. For a moment, I close my eyes and try to picture their faces clean and full of joy. I can’t. My deep green backpack plunges from my shoulder onto the rocky precipice on which I stand, teetering dangerously on the edge. I pull it back just in time to stop it from tumbling into the jet-black reservoir below, only to see my last bottle of clean water roll out of the unzipped pack and spiral into the depths of sludge. Zero supplies left. The worst number.

My exasperated laughter echoes off the rock walls below me and hearing my own voice only makes me laugh harder, and more maniacally. With a sigh, I slide to the cold ground and drape my legs over the edge and allow them to dangle over the sludge about ninety feet below. I drag my painfully light pack over to my side and pull out the only two objects left inside. With love, I trace my hand over the composition notebook’s crinkled cover before tucking my fingers underneath the weak chain that is wrapped around it.

Little pebbles stab into my legs and begin to drive me insane, so I move to my left only to knock my bag over. Now empty, I just let it fall off the side of the cliff and tumble below. I don’t need it anymore, so watching it disappear means nothing to me. For a moment I look at the thick, syrupy substance that has fundamentally altered life. The dry yet cold landscape around me is endlessly grey and dead. At the start of our journey, the smell of everything rotting made our trek like walking through a can of soup. The scent was so foul that we could hardly breathe. Now that I sit alone, I can’t seem to smell anything. A numbness spreads through me as I turn my attention back to what I hold.

Hands shaking despite my efforts to prevent it, I turn over the notebook. The closed locket that I wrapped around it stares up at me. The cupid on the tarnished brass, begs me to walk away; to forget what has happened. God, I wish I could. As my lips begin to waver, I attempt to unclasp the latch. Tears well but I manage to prevent them from falling despite my throat closing up. I take a moment to recollect myself before reluctantly continuing.

As that brass heart tears open, my real one shatters. Her handsome face, clean like I try so desperately to remember. The snapshot untampered with reveals her blue eyes that shine as bright as any star and a smile as infectious as the sludge. The only thing full of vibrant color that I've seen still in existence within this hellish landscape. My little Micah. I press my eyes closed and unwrap the chain, holding it to my chest. I could almost imagine her arms wrapping around me and squeezing back; as always, it fades too soon. I place Micah on the ledge next to me as I look back to the tattered notebook.

The pages stick together, the unforgiving elements preventing me from seeing my wife’s words. She always kept diaries, and always in untitled composition notebooks. I don’t know how she kept track. Lenora never let me read them, it wasn’t "proper". The thought makes me chuckle again, but I stop it as soon as it starts and my thoughts wander back to our fantastical life before the sludge. She liked to pretend we weren’t living in the twenty-first century. Dressing up as a Victorian-era lady was one of her favorite pastimes, one that I sometimes humored her by wearing a deep blue waistcoat and a puffed-out shirt just to see her smile. When Micah came along, she used to swoon over the dresses that my poor daughter got stuffed into. I hated all of it. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to have it all back.

Finally, after getting lost in thought, I find a legible page. 'Day 47.' My hands curl into fists while holding the diary, tearing the page a bit.

'We came across a gentleman named Viktor today while foraging, who was even still wearing a suit! My Andrei and I decided to let him journey with us after he provided enough water to last the four of us about two whole months! Of course, rationing will still apply but it’s something. Especially after just over a month of drinking stale water not yet affected by the sludge; this is a godsend. I have spoken endlessly to Andrei about being tired of this uncomfortably foul water. Micah has barely been able to stand after this heat came in, but now she’ll be able to run! Andrei told me that four was a better number than three. At first, I doubted him, but now that we have Viktor… there might just be hope for us!'

I tear the page out. One too many. I scream with frustration into the void below me out of a mix of sheer guilt and grief; still, I only hear my voice echoing back. The only other living thing around here must have been Viktor, the Raiders seem to have moved on as there hasn’t been any sign of them since the attack last week. Continuing to flip through the pages, I can see where the constant traveling to merely find food to survive another day wore down everything; and everyone. Some of the pages I could look at are entirely illegible due to hurried chicken scratch, others tore out long before I got the chance to see them, and even more destroyed by the elements. Even on these seemingly impossible to read pages, I would search for a word. Just a single word. I wouldn’t dare miss it. Soon, I began to close in on the last few pages, the fresh ones. None of them stuck together but I half wish they did.

'Day 179. I refuse to leave this behind. Viktor and Andrei insist that we need to be as lightweight as possible but I can’t bear the thought. They keep making jokes about using this as fuel for our fire to keep the winter at bay. It’s odd, though. I haven’t seen even a hint of snow even though the temperatures have dropped. Now that I have begun to think of it, I haven’t seen any rai-' The entry ends with a tear in the page where the pen she used to write tore through the brittle paper. I flip it over. 'Day 186.' She had written over the tear in the page. 'I couldn’t open this for a week. I mean, how could I write this? Writing it down only makes it real. It can’t be real, none of this can be. She was in my arms the entire time! Never once did I look down, I swear I had kept her safe and that I was careful. If I had only just checked on Micah, she would still be alive.'

The handwriting progressively becomes shakier and shakier. I bow my head slightly and swallow the huge lump growing inside my throat. 'It’s been a week since we buried her. I did what I could with the wilted flowers I could find but nothing I did made her grave look less like a thrown-together roadside memorial. Andrei hasn’t spoken since and I fear that he is losing himself in his own head. He can’t even look at me, and I think it is because all he sees in my face is Micah. Viktor urges us on but… I don’t know how much longer we can go. I do know that I can’t keep on moving any longer.' That entry doesn’t continue. There were three of us once more. I turn the page only to find it blank. My brow furrows and I keep flipping only to find nothing until the last page. Scrawled in little tiny letters is a single word. 'Goodbye.'

“Goodbye,” I whisper, letting the diary slip from my grasp and watching it twirl into the life-altering substance below. It splats on the top layer, barely breaking the surface tension of the sludge-infested water. It allows me to stare at that last page for a moment longer, as if Lenora herself was clinging to the surface, reaching for me from wherever she is. A physical representation of refusing to let go. Two left.

I grit my teeth as I think back on when I woke to her empty sleeping bag and Viktor’s concerned face. Anger flashes through my mind and I resist the urge to punch the rocky surface next to me, knowing that it won’t solve anything. It was only when there were the two of us left that he admitted to trading with the Raiders. He swore he didn’t know this would happen, that he was just trying to keep us safe from the Raiders and their automatic weapons that he had been threatened with. Viktor claimed that they were supposed to leave us alone as long as they got water, that was the deal! I guess that he didn’t anticipate their greed, that they would attack us and see Micah simply as collateral damage. The desperation in his voice let me know he was being genuine, but I couldn’t see past the fact that he destroyed my family. I snapped. Somewhere down beneath that tar-like pool of ‘water’, Viktor lays. Unlike the notebook, I enjoyed watching him slowly descend into the ever-consuming sludge.

Now there is one. No tears have fallen yet, and; I refuse to let them. In my delirium, I had placed the heart-shaped locket right next to me, not noticing it was a mere inch from the cliff edge. I turn to pick up the heart-shaped brass locket, only to see it tip over the edge and fall. Instinctively, I dive for it. Thrown off-balance, and without any real hold on the ledge, I begin to slide down the almost vertical canyon slope. I can see my death reflecting back at me in the sludge which patiently awaits my potential failure at every turn, every single day. Desperately, I claw at my uneven rocky surroundings as time slows and my flailing hands sluggishly find no purchases. As more and more of my body is pulled towards my demise, out of the corner of my eye I see a single crevice wide enough for me to latch onto. I barely manage to grab hold five feet below the ledge. I move to bring my other arm up to grab hold but the locket latches onto a rock that is jutting out from the crag. I go to lower my heart-shaped brass memorial to loosen it from the rocks' grasp, but almost lose my grip with the other hand. The lack of hydration after our supplies were stolen has taken a toll. I feel myself fading and the chain digging into my hand.

Zero. I keep repeating it in my mind over and over. That number has always filled me with dread. Zero. The one number I can’t bear. I close my eyes and feel the chain straining. I have to make a decision. Micah or me. So I do. Sometimes, life isn’t about numbers.

psychological
2

About the Creator

Clay Wolf

Just an aspiring writer hoping to find his place in the wonderful world of artists!

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