Chapter 9

The bus hurtled blindly through the darkness, Wanda now white-knuckle-gripping the steering wheel while Tim worked the pedals. Liz sat back with Arnold, patting his arm comfortingly every time he moaned. They drove in tense silence for a long time. Wanda’s eyes were shifting from window to window when something caught her attention. Out the windshield, off to the side and just barely visible in the distance, was a young girl. They sped past, Wanda doubting her eyes too much to say anything. Soon, the girl faded into the distance behind them and, seconds later, Wanda saw her ahead of them again. They passed the girl a second time and, once more, she was ahead.”Stop the bus!”Tim snapped out of an exhausted trance and slammed the brakes, sending them all rolling forward. Arnold grunted in pain. “Why are we stopping!?”

“There’s someone out there. I think it’s a girl… she looks our age.”

They all pushed against a window and, sure enough, the girl was standing with her back to them off in the distance. They all stood in silence inside the bus, watching for anything strange. The girl was as still as a sculpture.

They walked out of the bus, Tim helping Arnold down the steps, and listened intently for any hum or buzz. Met with complete silence, Wanda started towards the girl with her friends behind her. Liz closed the doors and hid under a seat while the bus itself shot worried glances between the kids and the mysterious figure.

Wanda called out but the girl stood silent. As they got closer they could see more details– short flipped hair, a red romper and yellow shirt, just like–

“Phoebe!?”

A door swirled into existence in front of the girl with a muted pop and opened. She turned her head slightly so they could almost see her face, paused for a moment, and stepped through. The three ran to look in after her and found a cave tunnel smattered with grey mold, the girl nowhere to be seen. Fuzzy clumps of spores floated through the air, dancing gently down the tunnel and disappearing around a corner. Arnold looked back at the bus and started to walk towards it when Wanda pulled him through by the arm. The door slammed and disappeared behind them.

The mold squished under their shoes as they made their way down the narrow tunnel. Arnold pulled his shirt up over his mouth as spores drifted by. “I definitely should have stayed home today,” he said, grimacing at the stabbing ache in his side.

The tunnel opened to a large grotto around the corner. Grey water flowed down silvery rocks into a foam-sloshed pool. Lining the edge of the pool were bulbous lumps of fungus and, among them, a small body. Wanda felt her heart shoot into her throat.

Nestled on a bed of fungus, caked in a layer of spores, was Phoebe.

Wanda covered her mouth in shock and Arnold’s knees buckled, leaning against a wall to keep from fainting. Tim knelt down to examine her. As he reached to touch her sleeve, there was a brittle snap, then a sound like rice being poured from a bag. A seam began to crack and fray down Phoebe’s face, running from the top of her head to her chin and continuing its lightning-bolt path down her stomach and to the bottom edge of her romper, caving in on herself as it went. In a few short seconds, Phoebe’s body was a barely-recognizable grey husk, split wide and filled with piles of dust. Inside, the dust piles shivered and cascaded. The three of them stared in stunned horror as dozens of small insects emerged from the piles, crawling out onto the floor and flying off into various cracks in the grotto walls.

The buzzing of wings faded and another popping noise pulled their attention to a far cave wall. Another door had appeared and, near the door standing with her hands folded neatly in front of her, was Phoebe.

But where Phoebe’s face should have been, an enormous yellow eye stared out, seeping with dark ooze. Its gaze slid slowly over each of them in turn. Then she turned and walked through the door.

Tim regarded the husk of his friend with a lump in his throat. His eyes began to well up when Wanda punched him in the shoulder and pointed at the door. With no other good options, they followed.

Next: Chapter 10

Previous: Chapter 8

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