Press was clutching the sweaty mic, rehearsing with Sarah in their echoey boiler room rehearsal space, and waiting to see if Vyv and Marc would show up. He struggled some with “Under the Ballpark,” but it was “The Lost Continent” that got to him. The lyrics, which he had written himself, all-of-a-fucked-up-sudden made him want to run from the building.
Growling along to the electric chiming of Sarah’s Ibanez hollow-body licks, Press again started to feel the sickness that didn’t want to admit it was a sickness. It seemed to disguise itself as a desire rather than sickness. He’d pretended it wasn’t the sickness, the one that made people scrabble in the ground; people who sometimes vanished completely. But he was scared, bone-scared, that the sickness might actually be just what he had.
The rehearsal squat had cooled off quickly after the sun set, but sweat was sticky in his palm, starting to run down the battered old Shure microphone. He kept hammering out the vocals but all the time he was feeling a subtle feverishness, a little nausea—a growing energy, too. It was as if someone had dosed his beer with bad meth: energetic, in a hateful way. A weird smell was coming off the mic as he forced himself to yowl out: “A portal to a molten sun you’ll find just up 99/ Follow me, mind the pothole/ Fall into a continent way better than fuckin ours…”
And then he stopped singing. He stared at the mic. It seemed to be sweating.
The lyrics to “The Lost Continent” had something to do with Hibiscus Bernard’s ranting invocations; but in Press’s mind, he’d written it to be satirical, to mock Bernard’s cult—but now…
“Press, dude, you’re missing the cue!” Sarah said, rolling her eyes and stopping the guitar strings’ vibration with the flat of her hand. “It’s right there at the end of the third bar—”
“Yeah, whatever,” he said. “I’m done waiting for them.”
“Marc’s always late, I don’t know about Vyv.”
“I don’t care, I’m done for today, I just…” He grabbed the warm Corona from the top of the crackling old Twin Reverb, downed the last of it, tossed it at the pile of broken glass in the corner, and rushed out the door just as the bottle crashed to pieces behind him.
“You’re a dick today!” Sarah called after him, hitting a loud dissonant chord on her guitar. The sound followed him into the grasslands.
The intrusive energy was buzzing through Press’s nervous system—it was as if he could feel his actual physical nerves as a network, every individual branch, each branching giving out a sickly humming like an offkey guitar string. He had a mental image of his nervous system alone, sans body, running across the sere, grassy flat ground at the edge of town.
And still he ran. There was still a little light, some from the few working streetlights behind him, and he saw a lizard flicker toward its night-time den; heard coyotes ululating to one another in the Bolt Gun Hills. Felt the foreign energy prodding him, shoving him onward. He heard his panting, loud in his ears, as if through a PA system…
Where the hell am I going? he asked himself.
Press made himself stop, right there in the middle of the sandy, dusty plain, in a patch of sage. Gasping, wiping sweat and dust from his eyes with the back of his hand, he blinked around—and then forgot to breathe for about ten seconds.
He was staring at a hole in the ground.
His fevered mind fixated on it. Was it an entrance to the underworld paradise Bernard’s followers yammered about?
Then Press was moving toward it—almost felt like he was puppeted to it. He knelt beside the hole, and saw it was only a depression in the ground, just a foot deep. The twilight’s shadow was pooled in the shallow sinkhole, making it seem like an enticing shaft a man could fall into, could plummet down and down so far he’d never feel it when he hit the bottom. He’d be moving too fast; instant jelly on impact.
Press crept to the middle of the depression—and then he was digging with his hands, his fingernails, tearing up handfuls of dark earth. A musky odor rose from the exposed soil. Deeper, deeper, get past the foulness to the shining realness, go deeper!
He caught himself, and straightened up. “Oh fuck,” he muttered.
It was a sickness—the sickness—it had to be. It was taking him into the digging phase.
Press stood up, and jumped from the hole; he had an irrational fear that if he stepped on the dark part it’d open up and swallow him. He went panting onward—he couldn’t have said how far—and then a light seemed to beam out to him.
Was that her house? Was it Paloma’s place?
Press staggered through the garden of mostly unrecognizable plants, past the open well, up to the front door, and yes, it was the little adobe house of Paloma Plascencia. The door was open, light poured out, but inside it seemed darker than it should be. The wall on the left was cluttered with brightly-patterned figurines, set in little niches. On the right, rows of dried plants hung from pegs. The disarray seemed to hoard shadows that made the room darker than it should be, given the glowing coals in the firepit and the two lanterns over the table where Paloma was working. She was using a pestle and mortar, pulverizing a small octagonal cactus, her long, long black hair streaming past her shoulders, past her hips, nearly to the floor. She looked up at him, her eyes pooled with shadow like the depression where he’d been digging.
“I think I have it,” Press said, his voice a croak. “The… sickness.”
He held up his hands to show her. They were blackened with dirt.
“You’ve been digging,” she said softly.
“I just found myself doing it. I feel so weird. It started just like yesterday… I wanted to just start running and… ended up here. You got anything to drink?”
“Mezcal,” said Paloma. “I made it from my agave patch.”
“God, fuck yes.”
She got up, and—obscured by her long black hair—swept across the room, took a mason jar from a shelf of charged jars, unscrewed its top, and handed it to him. “Drink, but not too much. You just need to mute the effects.”
He drank two full gulps. He felt a little better; the intrusive energy backed away. But he was still very afraid. “You heal people. Can you help me?”
“Can you pay—or barter?”
“I’m good for it, I just can’t do shit right now. It’s… growing in me.”
“There’s something I’ve been trying to get a hold of that might help,” she said, staring past him.
Press heard a rustling behind him and turned to see the silhouette of a child just past the reach of the light in the garden. He heard the small shadowy figure say something—like “Pul, ma, zezz zezz zezz…” It was more an extended gutteral noise than words. Not the voice of a child; more the croaking of a dying old man.
It took one step closer, bringing only a corner of its face and a little of its body into the light. It was a sickly, wizened little thing, humanoid but not definitely human. No child. No definite age. Vyv had told him about the creatures; her little brother used to see them before he disappeared— “fluppies” had been his word. Undagens, Press heard Hibiscus say once. Himself, he’d taken to calling them grease monkeys. He’d written a lyric for Sarah to sing. The lights go out on their own/ They’ve gone and crept inside your home/ They don’t want you, don’t want me/ They just like to fuck with stuff…
“I threw some bones,” Paloma said. “They told me someone was coming. I give the weird little guys toys to play with—pieces of old radios, toilet-tank parts, a few rusted tools, the headlights from a 1987 Dodge Dart. Things like that. They do errands for me in return. They do sometimes understand what we say, even if they pretend not to.”
“You call them ‘weird little guys’?” Press was afraid to take his eyes off the creature at the doorway. Afraid it might leap on his turned back.
“Weird little guys, duendes. Whatever.” She shrugged. “There’s a place underground, but you’ll have to go quickly. Wait any longer, it’ll be too late. This one will take you. They know the Glory Udders.”
“I don’t think I should go down there,” he said. “I feel like it… wants me to.”
“Sorry, you know I need to stick around here. Take the mezcal, sip it lightly now and then. I’ll add an herb. It’ll protect you for a time. It should taste like old socks that’ve never been taken off.”
And so it was with a revolting taste embittering his mouth that Press found himself following a waddling, dim figure along the bank of the San Joaquin. He was carrying a lantern in one hand (Paloma had insisted on it, saying flashlights could be unreliable), and in the other the mason jar, a third full of herbed mezcal. There were campfire lights farther down the bank, and across the river. Someone down the bank called out a challenge to him and he ignored them. Press was going to follow this little guy wherever he went, no matter what anyone said.
But then the little guy was gone from sight.
What the fuck? Had it vanished? Then Press saw there was a cave entrance, quite small, to his right. It must have gone in there.
He felt the sickness tingling in him again. Coming back.
Press sipped his mystery cocktail, shuddered, and then went to the little hole in the rockface overlooking the river. It was barely big enough for him to fit through. He got down on his hands and knees, pushed the light in ahead of him, then the jar, and wriggled into the hole.
Though contusing his knees and elbows on the rough stone, he kept going, finally emerging into a small chamber just big enough to stand in. He didn’t see the little guy, but ahead was a narrow tunnel with sand on the floor. In the sand Press could see small footprints.
He got to his knees, picked up the jar and the lantern, then made himself enter the stone passage.
The cave angled downward. Now and then were animal tracks and scat—and the small humanoid footprints. He thought he heard a voice whispering to him, Dig. Come down, down, down. Break through to the shining reality beneath.
The passage went on and on: zigging, zagging, straightening. Press wondered how he’d gotten himself into this. Maybe this quest was a trap, maybe it was…
Suddenly the passage opened wide, into a low-ceilinged cavern. And fifty feet up ahead was the Glory Udder, just as Paloma had described it.
His lantern seemed superfluous because of the strong but perverse green-gold glow from the udders. The mottled udder bag, with its four black teats, emerged from the ceiling of the small cavern like a grotesque joke on stalactites. Below it, on a rough stone table, was a deposit of glutinous material: drippings built up into gelatinous formations resembling downtown Los Suelos. Deeper into the cavern, Press saw more bulbous outgrowths of Glory Udders.
He came closer to the nearest and saw a fur of livid fungus coating the sides of the table-like stone and draping down over the rough basalt floor. The fungal coat quivered when he drew near; patterns appeared in it. Was that a face in the carpet of fungi? Were those eyes opening?
Feeling the illness creeping up in him, Press took another drink of the Mezcal herbal solution. It gave him back some objectivity. He set the lantern down and lifted up the jar beneath the udders—they seemed to wriggle, within themselves, in anticipation.
Paloma had told him to squeeze the thing’s milk into the jar. He hadn’t thought she’d meant something so literal as this cow’s udder seemed to be. A sound emitted from somewhere in the ceiling above the trembling udder, then—a deep bovine foghorn sound. It seemed to say, “Kill me…kill me…” He remembered stories of the Los Suelos slaughterhouse cows speaking, saying, “Thank you“–just before they were killed by the bolt gun.
Hand trembling like the shivering of the udder, Press reached up, clasped a warm, soft teat, and massaged it the way he’d seen people do in movies—and it worked. Milk, faintly green, squirted down into the jar. He kept at it as something mooed, Kill me, till the container was about two-thirds full of a mix of herbs, Mezcal, and Glory Udder milk. The jar began to glow.
Press turned to go—but found he couldn’t move. He looked down to see that strands of the moss-like fungus had stretched out, were wound about his hips, were pulling him toward a gap that had appeared in the floor as the fungi parted… and there was a deep hole down there, a deep hole lined in more fungi that rippled as if summoning him down, down…
Press screamed and struggled to get loose. No use. He was being dragged to the giant mouth in the floor.
He looked desperately around, saw the lantern just within reach. He grabbed it with his left hand and smashed with all his strength down on the fungi. The glass fuel chamber burst, burning kerosine spattering onto the fungal carpet, and something shrieked from the hole in the floor. The grip loosened and Press pulled free, lurching away from the hole, carefully preserving the jar in his right hand.
Using the glowing jar for light now, he made his way feverishly back through the passages and out into the clean air by the river. The image of the furred fungal mouth in the floor gaping for him kept coming back, as if it were still trying to swallow him.
At Paloma’s house she added certain salts to the mixture in the jar, gave it to him to drink. He barely managed to keep it down but quickly felt better.
“That should last you a while,” she said. “The illness may creep back, though. So someday you may have to do this again.”
“I’m never fuckin goin back there.”
Paloma smiled sadly. “If only it could be never.”
Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.