Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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God of the Mud

by Philip Roberts



In the back corner of Shane's apartment complex he heard a soft humming by a row of tall, thick bushes. His impromptu walk during the late evening had led him down many paths he'd never seen before, and with the sun nearly gone and the streetlights swarming with the summer insects, Shane stepped off the curb onto the grass and stopped in front of a large circle of wet mud.

On the other side of it a little girl knelt down, running her fingers aimlessly through the mud, her long brown hair the same color as it, so long it obscured her face.

"Hello," Shane called out to her.

The girl pulled herself up and turned towards Shane, and though her hair lightly parted down her face, so far back from any light, Shane couldn't see what she looked like.

"Do your parents know you're out so late?" he asked her. She giggled at the question, shifted back and forth, and her legs and feet caught Shane's eye, so thick with mud he couldn't even see the skin. The small dress she wore was similarly splattered with it, just the hint of red noticeable through the dark blotches.

He took a step closer and she took a step back, the amusement obvious in her motions, giggling again, arms held behind her back.

Shane hadn't realized how absorbed he was in studying the dark face beneath her long hair until a voice called out from behind him, made him jump, and he glanced back to see an older woman standing by the curb. "What are you doing?" she asked.

He began to point at the child, but as soon as his eyes had broken away she'd run, her back briefly visible through the thick bushes before she vanished completely. "There was a little girl," Shane said.

When he turned back the woman glared at him, clear animosity in her eyes. "Don't talk to her again," the woman said.

"I didn't mean any harm. Are you her mother?"

"No," the woman said, and walked away from him. As he watched the woman move through the parking lot he glanced back at the puddle of mud. At the age of forty-two Shane figured it wasn't surprising to see someone frightened at the prospect of him talking to a little girl at night, but he thought there had been something else behind the woman's hard stare. He just couldn't understand what.

####

In his dreams he walked through his complex, but the buildings were far away and the parking lot stretched downward towards a single point. At the center a massive circle had been broken away and the mud bubbled with noticeable life, almost oozing over the edge of the concrete, the thick sounds of it all Shane could hear at first as he approached.

Then the girl appeared, hunched once more above the mud, humming a tuneless song. He stopped beside her and watched as her fingers moved through the mud, almost with purpose, but never forming anything Shane could recognize.

When she stopped and pulled back, lifted her finger from the mud, a string of it clung to her, seemed to actually flow into her body.

She turned to him, face hidden by her long, muddy brown hair, and said, "Ask it."

Shane stared at the thick mud and the images she had drawn fading away until the surface was undisturbed once more. "Ask it for what?" Shane asked.

"Whatever you want," she answered.

Shane knelt beside the mud, hung his hand out over it, not entirely sure what he could possibly ask of it. A thought finally occurred, clear in its emotion yet vague in its meaning, and though Shane couldn't imagine how he'd put the idea into words, he still reached down and let his finger touch the cool, wet surface.

Immediately it flowed into his body through his finger. He felt the cold, wet sludge fill his veins, tasted it in the back of his mouth. He tried to pull his finger away but it wouldn't stop, the long tendril of mud still attached to him, still funneling more and more into his body. As it poured freely from his mouth, dropped down his ears, Shane awoke in his bedroom dripping with sweat.

From the back bedroom he could see the corner of his complex through his window. Shane walked slowly up to the window and pulled the curtain away. He just barely saw the dark shape hunched over where the puddle of mud was. At first he thought it was the little girl again, but the person was much larger. After a few minutes they rose and started across the parking lot. As soon as they moved beneath a light Shane saw a middle-aged man hurrying away as if he'd just pulled a prank.

Shane returned his gaze to the grass and the mud. He couldn't fathom what it meant. He had more important things to deal with.

He returned to his bed and a welcoming state of dreamless sleep.

####

Though he'd lived in the apartment complex for well over eight years, Shane hadn't taken any notice of the place until seven months prior. For the majority of his time at the complex he'd commuted over two hours both ways to work, often renting out hotel rooms, or returning home just long enough to sleep before going back to long shifts at the office.

He hadn't actually liked his job, his interest in the work steadily decreasing with each year, but the job had given him a sense of purpose.

He'd put his all into it, gaining steady promotions year after year, until his own success turned against him, and they'd said they didn't feel they could afford to keep him on anymore. They'd gladly given him promotions in the good years, only to cut him out of the budget as soon as the bad years came rolling in.

Each promotion had not only given him better pay, but made his job more and more specialized. Now the job he was best at doing was too specialized for the majority of companies out there, he had found out, and after six months dedicating as much time to finding a job as he had to working his old one, Shane had found his will eroding more each day. Three weeks had passed since he'd last put in for any kind of job, no matter the pay or experience needed.

In truth, his firing had left him partially jaded, unable to get into the prospect of another job, because he knew it wouldn't really be any different. He'd dedicated himself to something that had only used him. For the first time Shane wanted away from it all, but his hours of daytime TV had proved a poor substitute.

Financially he didn't have much to worry about. His long hours hadn't lent themselves well to spending money, granting Shane a substantial nest egg, but then, money had never been the concern.

After three weeks of lethargy he'd come to realize how little he knew his neighbors. Everyone seemed to say hi to each other, but they never spoke a word to him, ignoring his hellos if he offered them, and eyeing him accusingly when he walked by their windows. What struck him as strange was the attention he knew they paid to him each time he walked towards the back end of the complex and stood in front of the circle of mud.

His daily walks took him there quite a lot. He rarely dreamed, but his vision of the mud sucking into his body stayed with him, made him both nervous and fascinated by the mud that never seemed to dry out even during week-long droughts when the temperature reached the upper nineties and sweat poured down Shane's tanned face.

Just once he almost reached out his leg to step in the mud, but stopped himself before he could, aware he was frightened by the concept and feeling foolish for even caring. What does it matter, he thought. Still he pulled away.

He almost left, but the rustling of the leaves caught his attention, and he turned back to see the little girl knelt down by the mud, there so fast he didn't know how she'd managed to make her way through the bush in time.

In the bright sunlight she didn't look as odd to him as she had before. Her brown hair still hung across her face, but he could see the slightly pudgy cheeks and a small smile. Her arms and legs weren't nearly as muddy as before, her dress bright red and coming down to just below her knees.

"Hello again," Shane called out.

The girl glanced up at him, then down at her work in the mud. Shane took a step closer, tilting his head towards what clearly looked like words, but before he could read them she swiped her hand over the image, wiping them away.

"Why would you do that?" Shane asked.

"Nothing worth saying," she answered, voice just as it had been in his dreams, but he ignored the connection. Most children sounded about the same to him, he thought. She glanced towards the apartments, and Shane did the same, so many glimpses of faces noticeable through the windows, maybe afraid he would run off with the child in his arms.

"They're watching," the girl said. She walked up to the curb and took up a seat. Shane sat down beside her.

"Lot of people are afraid when they see a guy like me talking to a young lady," he said.

"They aren't watching you," she answered, and something about the tone of her voice made Shane glance down at her.

"Where are your parents?"

"Why do you talk to me?" she asked, looked up at him, and as the hair parted he saw a normal little girl's face, her pupils the same muddy brown as her hair.

"I don't know. You seem like a nice enough girl to me."

She turned back towards the complex. Both sat silently as a man stepped out of his door with a basket of laundry in hand. He walked across the parking lot, close to him, and Shane could see the eyes flickering towards him. He thought the laundry was just an act, an excuse to leave the house and move by them. Neither spoke until the man disappeared into the laundry room.

The girl leaned in close, whispered, "He's trying to listen in."

"To us?"

She nodded. She pulled herself up and started away towards the line of bushes.

"Going home?" Shane called over from the curb.

She turned back to him, her head tilted, smiling slightly. "I can't go home," she said.

Shane began to rise, concerned. "Why not?"

She gestured towards the apartment complex. "They won't let me."

"Why?"

"Have you ever seen any of them work?" she asked.

Shane sat in stunned silence, oblivious as to where the conversation was going. "I never noticed."

"They won't anymore. That's why I can't leave." She turned and ran before he could say anything else, gone through the bushes, and Shane turned back, stunned, towards the apartment complex.

As soon as the girl left the man he'd seen before walked out of the laundry room and marched right towards him. Shane stood up and stared curiously at the red pulsing through the man's face, wondering if he was about to get hit, but the man stopped in front of him.

"Don't talk to her again," the man said.

"What's going on with that girl?"

"Ain't your place to ask. You don't talk to her again."

He left before Shane could ask more. He almost called after the man, but there didn't seem to be a point. He knew he wouldn't get any additional answers.

####
*

He strolled by the circle of mud for four days straight but didn't see the girl again. In that time he took note of another fact. No one did appear to work. The cars rarely left the complex, and when they did they returned in a few hours at most, shopping bags in the back seat.

The cars themselves caught his eye as well. All of them were high end. Sure, the complex had always been nice, but Shane had trouble believing so many wealthy people would bother with an apartment complex rather than buy their own houses and land.

Each night he dreamt of the circle of mud. The dreams were always the same, yet never the same as the very first one. He always stood far back from the giant hole in the parking lot and saw the residence pour, straight faced, from their doors towards the circle. All of them knelt down and ran their fingers through the mud, one after another, and with each one the mud seemed to dry out, no longer bubbling, the sheen diminishing and the hard dirt spreading out from the center.

The people began grabbing handfuls of the mud and spreading it across their bodies. They shoved it down their throats, gorging themselves with it, growing more bloated and fat with every mouthful.

Normally he woke up at this sight, but on the fifth night he saw the girl in his dream once more. She walked up to him as he watched the people, and she told him, "It's dying."

He awoke to those words and sat up in his dark bedroom.

Memories of the first dream made him get out of his bed and pull away his blinds. He saw the dark shape of a person leaving their house on the far end of the complex and moving towards the puddle of mud. He could see the caution in their footsteps, dark head darting around, staying close to the buildings rather than run out in the open, but their destination was clear.

Shane pulled on his shirt and pants in the darkness and grabbed a steak knife from his kitchen.

He wore the building's shadow as he inched around the corner. When the person reached the mud they knelt down, oblivious to Shane's approach, nervous tension coiling his muscles and sweat stinging his eyes as he inched up behind the teenage boy. In the faint glow from the nearest streetlight he could barely make out the words I want A inscribed in very clear, distinctive writing.

The boy realized that he was being watched and jerked around to see the knife held close to him.

"Walk or I hurt you," Shane said, using his hushed words and expression to convey his willingness to carry out the threat.

The boy believed him. He took one glance back at the words he'd started before he followed Shane.

As soon as they reached Shane's apartment he shoved the boy in and turned on the light.

"Look, I wasn't asking for much," the boy immediately spit out. "My car broke down and I just needed a little bit of money. Please don't tell my dad about it."

"Needed money?" Shane asked.

"Well, yeah," the boy said, but understanding was beginning to dawn on his youthful face. He pulled back a bit, looked past Shane towards the closed front door. "You don't…you don't know about it, do you?"

Shane moved forward with the knife before the boy could act on his urge to make a run for it. The intent was obvious, and while Shane had no desire to harm anyone, he was good at hiding his intentions. He brought up the knife enough to remind the boy it was there.

"What does it do?" he asked.

"Look, just don't let anyone know I said anything, okay? It…you write stuff in it and the words just vanish, they get absorbed or something, and then you get it, so long as it's ... reasonable, I guess. We mainly just ask for money. You ask for it, and you find it on your porch the next morning. Simple as that."

"How could this possibly happen?"

"Shit, I don't know. Just the way it's always been. You ask for it, the girl gives it to you."

"The girl?"

"Yeah, she's the one bringing it. Don't know where she gets it. Isn't real, least that's what my dad told me. She's part of it."

Shane lowered the knife and leaned back against the wall, unable to collect his thoughts, to process what he'd heard. "What exactly can it give you?" he asked without looking over.

"I don't know. I've only seen people ask for money. You aren't supposed to ask for much. Just the way it is. Ask for little things and everyone is happy."

Shane could almost see the look on the child's face when she stared at the complex, the venom and hatred. What was she part of and what was within that circle of mud? "Get out of here," he whispered.

The boy didn't move at first, hesitating by the front door, staring at Shane. "Don't ask for anything big. We've got a good thing going."

Shane didn't answer, and after a few seconds the boy left, certainly to go back and tell his father. Punishment didn't matter. Shane hadn't been able to hide his intentions in those last few seconds, clear in his expression when he left his apartment with the door standing open and the knife forgotten on the floor.

Even before reaching the mud he saw the dark image of the girl standing beside it, waiting for him. Behind him lights began turning on in the apartments. He stopped in front of the girl.

"Do you know what you want now?" the girl asked him.

He looked past her to the mud. "You've been calling to me, haven't you?" Shane asked her. The girl smiled. "Why?"

"People always ask for the wrong thing. You know the right thing to ask."

In his mind he saw the long days of nothingness ahead, the days empty wealth could grant him, rich but without meaning or purpose. It wasn't the job he longed for but the sense of doing something that mattered. No job seemed capable of reigniting the flame his firing had caused, the mistrust.

"I understand," he told her. Behind him doors began to open. He ignored them and moved towards the circle of mud. He pulled of his shirt and slipped off his pants as he walked. He stepped into the middle of the mud, nude, and knelt down, able to feel the heat of something immense directly below him. People shouted, feet pounded against the asphalt, but Shane only wrote his request in the mud. He paused on the last letter, finger pressed deep into the slimy ground. Right as the people came to a halt behind him he pulled his hand free.

The rush of sound and images and staggering emotional outrage parted the thick haze Shane had lived with since his firing. Some part of him was aware of the mud pouring up his body, encasing him in a living shell so cool and soothing he nearly wept at how wonderful it felt. A mind touched his, melded with his, a history to it stretching back farther than Shane thought time could exist. So many years flooded him, years spent in the abysmal, circular confinement within the ground, generations of waiting for the moment of its freedom and the moment upon it. The memories were too much for him to even consider, lifetimes upon lifetimes handed to him in a second. It would have been too much for Shane to take had he still been his original self, but that being no longer existed in the skin of whatever he had become. With this realization it all ended, his eyes opening though he had no recollection of closing them.

The mud was gone. Shane stood from the heart of the dead ground, rough dirt beneath his feet. He turned to face his neighbors; nearly twenty people gathered before him, others huddled by doors in the distance. Not everyone watched him rise, and not everyone had known about the mud or the secret.

"What did you do?" An older woman asked, her voice cracking with fear, eyes shifting between Shane and the dirt at his feet.

Shane didn't answer. He picked up his clothing, the crowd silent as he dressed, while behind him he heard the girl approach, her devious eyes on the crowd.

The woman pointed at her, fear changed to outrage. "You did this, you little bitch."

The woman's husband quickly grabbed her arm. "Dear God, Vern, don't you know what she can do to you now?"

Shane watched them without expression. Vengeance was desired, but not that day. There would be other days for vengeance.

He reached out to his daughter. She eagerly grabbed hold of her father's hand. The gathering didn't challenge their departure.

The two of them got into Shane's car and sped away from the complex, from imprisonment, and from the final resting ground of a man named Shane Bailey. And when the car had vanished, everyone walked up to the circle that had granted their wishes. They stared at the dirt, the final request engraved in the hardened surface.

I want to be set free.

THE END


© 2012 Philip Roberts

Bio: Stories by Philip Roberts have appeared in many places, including Midnight Echo ("In the Walls", June 2010), Beneath the Surface (anthology from Shroud Publishing, 2008 including Philip's story "The Apartment's Best Feature"), The Absent Willow Review ("Catching Back Up", February 2010), Torn Realities anthology, Post Mortem Press, 2012 ("By the Side of the Highway"), (the list goes on...), and, of course, Aphelion (most recently Protecting What's Left (May 2012)).

E-mail: The Writing of Philip M. Roberts

Website: Philip M. Roberts

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