Gladys wasn’t entirely certain where she was. It was dark, cold and she was alone. I could use a light, she thought and suddenly there was illumination. She turned and looked, but other than its general direction, Gladys couldn’t tell where it came from. She looked around and although it was very familiar, she had no idea where she was.
Gladys sensed danger, but not here. This place, at least right now, was safe. The floor and walls were of brown rock and two feet to her left was a small bubbling pond. Gladys kneeled—her replaced hip not aching in the least—and drank several cupped palmfuls of water. She hadn’t been thirsty, but it had been very refreshing. In fact, she felt better, her confusion easing despite still not knowing what was happening.
Gladys sat by the pond and stretched her legs out. She didn’t want any more water, but she had no place else to go. She took a deep breath and looked around her. This was some kind of cave, but Gladys had no idea why she was in it. She didn’t like nature—the closest she’d ever come to roughing it was a hotel she’d stayed in without checking it out on Yahoo first. So how has she come here?
“No,” Gladys said aloud. That wasn’t the question she needed answered. What was on the outside of here? She turned her head and saw the dark mouth of the exit to the cave. Had that been here all along? Gladys hadn’t seen it before. She crawled to her feet, expecting a creaking of bones that never came. In fact, Gladys looked down at herself and guessed offhand she was at least forty pounds lighter. She raised her hands, twisting them back and forth—why, she hadn’t been this small since…
…since the Christmas party at the VFW back in ’79.
Gladys pondered how she could recall such a thing so clearly and how it could so undeniably be true, but no answer seemed to be coming. She looked back to that giant empty hole. As good and as strong as she felt right now, she was afraid to go there. As if something was waiting in or on the other side of it. Maybe it was the reason she was here.
As if in response, there was a mighty knock against the far stone wall. Dust shook from the jagged shelves of rock, sifting to the floor. She took a step back and felt cold seep into her shoe. Gladys looked down and saw she’d stepped into the pond. She withdrew her foot, seeing a rippling image looking back at her. She bent (her knees didn’t even so much as crackle) and examined her reflection. Not a strand of grey and only slight crow’s feet tickling at the corners of her eyes. She passed a hand over her breasts, feeling their firmness and could tell even considering their hefty size they weren’t the saggy things she’d all but stuffed in her brassiere this morning.
What was she back then, forty? Gladys dialed back in her mind, she’d stopped keeping track of her birthday nigh on ten years ago and was never any good with her numbers. Hell, she’d memorized all the prices on the menu in just about every combination imaginable so she could make change right at the counter when someone paid for a meal. She’d barely been able to talk Fred out of raising the prices three years back, else that would have flummoxed her whole works.
Gladys and her reflection nodded in unison and she rose. In here, where ever this place was, she was young again. Well, younger. It had dawned on her that this place was a dream, but definitely no ordinary one. It had a solidness to it, a—what had that one businessman said to his co-worker a few weeks ago—a robustness. Yes, that word suited how she felt about this place perfectly.
But that thing on the other side of the wall was hammering away even harder now. She could feel it on the other side like a thick slab of ice wrapped in a towel pressed against her cheek. The feeling made her want to pull her teeth out, like there was some sort of poison at their roots. If this place was somewhere between dream and real then she’d have to prepare herself for whatever was trying to come through. Gladys bent, marveling at how lithe and loose her body was, and picked up a rock that was easily thrice the size of her fist. It was heavy, but when she threw it, it easily cleared thirty yards at least. Gladys would have to be stronger. She looked at the pond.
The suddenly not-so-old woman got on her knees and began cupping water into her mouth by hand. The thing on the other side pounded even harder and chunks began to break out of the wall. She drank faster, her arm and wrist moving at carpel tunnel-inducing speed. A giant crack traced down the wall and it had to be only a matter of seconds before the thing was through. Giant tentacles whipped through a hole and the thing gave a near-victorious roar. Gladys turned her head away and dunked it into the pond, sucking down mighty gulps of water.
Her stomach surely should have been filled to bursting, but it was her whole body that filled. She could feel there was more of herself in her body, as if she’d been some giant in a prior life and was now straining against the confines of this tiny mortal body.
Moments later, she came to the realization she was sucking on moist earth. The bubbling pond was no more. Gladys rose, her wet blonde hair falling into her face like thick vines. The thing had broken the wall, but was so big it was still having difficulty forcing its way through. But a sea of tentacles wriggled from the gaping wedge of dark it had created and from what she could see of it, Gladys would have guessed it was over twenty feet tall.
She made a fist, feeling the strength of the muscles wrapped around the bones of her forearm. She was powerful. Gladys felt like she was almost floating her body moved with such complete effortless as she—yes, as she walked toward the monster. She didn’t need to see a reflection in a pond to know she looked the same as she had when she was sixteen, back when Stevie Jenkiss had asked her for a kiss and when she’d acquiesced he’d grabbed a breast to go along with it. She’d been heavy-chested even then and after his hand had amateurishly squeezed in a way that had hurt, even pinching the nipple like a clothespin, she’d slapped him. So hard his lip had split across the jagged tooth he’d chipped the summer before. She’d seized the power back from him that he would have robbed her of that day and Gladys had a feel about her now that was much the same. She understood that this whole place—the walls, the pond, even the hole off in the distance she was deathly afraid of, even more so than the monster—was a construct of her mind. Was her mind in some crucial way and if she didn’t defend it, that monster would destroy it. Destroy her, maybe even devour her if it were hungry. She had no idea of what real damage it had done by rending a hole in the cave wall, but she had to stop it before it could do even worse damage.
Without taking another moment to think about it, Gladys leapt at the thing as it came through. The trunk itself from which the myriad of tentacles shot out was almost indescribable. A black and green, squarish thing that looked mostly unfinished—almost as if its design had been an afterthought of some hurried god or the hand stroke of a child’s drawing—but at its very top was a humongous, red-rimmed and lidless eye, the brown pupil fully fixed upon her.
Gladys sailed some fifty feet through the air before the first tentacle shot out, wrapping around her ankle. It squeezed, much harder and more painful anything Stevie Jenkiss could have ever managed, and its legions of suckers bit into her naked flesh.
She screamed. But it not in defeat. As Gladys’ blazing eyes remained locked on the monster’s lone one, she screamed even more fiercely and loudly. It was a warrior’s cry.