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Fuck Dart and his fucking dice, thought Crank as he approached the ruins of the house. Losing to a pair of sixes, the trade-drop fell to him this time. Somehow, Dart always managed to come out on the winning side of this gamble. When this exchange was over, Crank was dead-set on confronting the wiry raider and his dice. No one man was that lucky all the time. Especially not when it came to the Mire.


There was water everywhere. It sloshed about his legs, filled his boots, and crept up through the leather of his pants. And the stench? The Mire stank of rot and fish; any light that managed to filter through the density of vines and foliage was sickly and lacked warmth. Of all the places in Appalachia, the Mire was, without question, the soggiest sack of shit Crank had ever seen. He hated the swamp with a vehemence that was remarkable ever for him. And somehow he and the crew always got stuck with moving the crates through the Mire. There was something unnatural about the Mire, about the way the light and shadows seemed to breathe and carry the whispered words of an ancient awareness that had awakened.


Flexing his grip on the rifle, Crank edged closer to the drop zone, a trailing lead of rope that was wrapped around his waist stretched out beneath the murky water behind him. It was always this house, always on this day, always with the agreed-upon item for trade. The weight of the bloody sack looped over his shoulder grew with each step closer he took towards the house. The water flooding the remains of the lower level was pock-marked with the occasional string of bubbles here and there, pockets of gas releasing into the air. Or so Crank told himself.


At the edge of the busted wall, Crank came to a halt. The ripples caused by his steps carried forward into the house, and as they bounced about, an iridescent light began to form up in the corner. It lacked any substantial form that Crank could tell, but it was growing in radius and intensity. Illuminating the interior of the ruins, the strange, spherical mass of light seemed to slowly waver up and down, back and forth, hovering without a sense of true stillness.


“You gotta get closer, dumbass! The crate ain’t gonna float to you,” Dart shouted, standing with the rest of the gang on a small island of land about fifty feet away. Laughter followed, along with someone making a clucking sound.


Crank twisted in the swampy water to stare back at the gang. “Fuck off, Dart. Next time you’re doin’ it,” he hollered back in an attempt to maintain appearances. Turning back to face the house, Crank swallowed against a dry throat and shuffled forward towards the light. Pale and cold, the glow did not offer a sense of ease or comfort; in fact, Crank felt tiny prickles running up his arms, alighting nerves and making him want to drop the rifle and the sack to scratch at his skin. He’d never get used to the sensation, and after watching Whit rip the flesh from his own arms that one time was a memory he’d not forget.


Never stare at the light.


The sphere pulsed and drifted a bit lower, the lifeless light it cast focused more upon the waiting crate. Trying to keep his eyes from lingering on the ghostly orb, Crank shifted the rifle so that it hung to his side. With his hands free, he reached up and loosened the large, lumpy sack from his shoulder. Bringing the bag in front of him, Crank gave it a small shake to show it off, the stain of blood looking more like poisonous ink in the light’s touch. “Here, like always,” he said, trying to keep his eyes on the crate and not the creeping closeness of the unnatural light. Setting the sack down next to the yellow crate, his movement to pick up the crate was interrupted by the sensation of countless tiny hooks spreading throughout him, picking at his flesh in an incessant manner.


Before him, the slow pulse of the sickly light filled his vision. Crank could feel the crate in his hands, but he couldn’t move. He could hear the sudden screams of the gang behind him, but he couldn’t respond. All he could do was stare into the light, unable to look away as his eyeballs felt as white-hot coals within his skull. He wanted to scream, but his tongue was thick and trying to tear itself free from his jaw. He wanted to run, but his skin was being consumed by a thousand hungry mouths filled with razors. He wanted to breathe, but his lungs were filled with fire that wanted to burn free.


A snap. A shout. A desperation.


Crank crashed into the mud and water, his fingers like claws around the handles of the crate. The rope that was looped around his waist was taught, pulled by Dart and the gang to drag him back into the reality of life itself. Gasping for air, he thrashed about in the muck while the gang hauled him closer, hand over hand, to their tiny island in the Mire by the single lifeline they always used.


Dart’s fist crashed downward, sinking into the solid mass of Crank’s face in an effort to shut him up and knock some sense into him. Crank groaned and rolled to his side, releasing his grip on the crate. Dart, eyeballing the rest of the gang, wiped bloody knuckles on his pants and then pointed to the group. “For fuck’s sake, never look at the light.” Giving a kick to Crank’s moaning form, Dart shook his head. “Get him up, grab the crate, and let’s get the fuck out of here.”


As the gang secured the dropbox and got Crank on his feet, Dart glanced back to the ruins of the house. The light was gone, casting the building into the eerie darkness that infected the Mire regardless of the time of day. Running his tongue against his teeth, he nodded to himself. The sack was also gone, accepted by whatever it was that supplied the goods. “Until next time,” he whispered, reaching into his pocket to rattle the dice around before turning to follow his gang away from the place.

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