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We first noticed the thing on Monday morning. It had been slouched silently in the alley between 24th Street and 25th, black and bulging. We stopped, looked at it. It held our attention. We stood in the alley before it, heads cocked. There was no way to tell how long it had been there, growing, spreading like a festering wound.
By Monday evening, a small crowd of us had gathered. We barely spoke, and when we did we spoke in hushed voices, as if not to wake it. Nobody dared get close, and so there was a no-man’s-land, five or so feet of ancient, trampled newspapers and empty Doritos bags.
The crowd returned on Tuesday morning. The thing had gotten a bit larger; its black, rubbery mass had spread just a tad. The putrid stench that was creeping through the air was minutely (though noticeably) stronger, and ladies held handkerchiefs to their faces.
Our silence was a little disturbing. No one was sure what to do, what to say. Children, wide-eyed, clung to their mothers’ legs, hung on to their wrists as if the thing would reach out and eat them up otherwise.
On Wednesday, the thing’s growth seemed to have been halted by the growth of our gathering. We were hopeful. Maybe, now that we’ve noticed it, it’ll shrink and go away? Yes, yes; let’s hope so. Has someone called the police? The chief’s here already. The newspapers? I’ll go now.
Not so, however. It was bigger again the next day. People were beginning to really make speculations as to what it was. Tar? No, can’t be tar. Don’t you smell that? Do you suppose it’s some dangerous chemical? How did it get here, then? Any one of a number of things could have happened. An accident. Could it be … mold? A fungus? Yeah, yeah – maybe something diseased died here. The guesses rippled through the crowd, and we all began to feel a small knot of fear sinking in our stomachs. No, no – not fear, exactly. It was subtler than fear. Fear drives people into action – this uneasiness drove us into apprehensive inactivity. Someone else’ll handle it. There’s nothing I can do.
As we stood by, as we did nothing, it expanded. It bubbled, it putrefied, it spread, it crept along the pavement. Still, nobody touched it. Day by day, as our horde of bystanders grew, as solemn-faced and mildly interested reporters commented on the strange substance that had appeared between 24th and 25th. Days passed, and the news spread as it did. Scientists, chemists emerged on TV. Someone should take a sample. We should analyze it. Figure out what it is. Figure out how to stop it, to make it go away.
Nobody did anything.
It wasn’t hurting us, not really. It just hunched there, out of our way, out where nobody had seen it until that one Monday. The world had more important things to worry about. Our mystery-stuff was mentioned in news stories across the nation, sure – but it was just a mention. After wondering, speculating for a moment, they moved on. Economy’s in the pits, they said. Nobody’s got healthcare. And meanwhile, it spread.
The day it reached the edge of the alley, so nobody could go in, we noticed that it was moving. Pulsating, like some sick, black amoeba. Or as if it were breathing, or it had a beating heart in there somewhere. It was just barely there, just the faintest of pulses – but we saw it.
It scared us, at first – but then it just became a part of the whole. And, eventually, the whole big black mass became a part of the whole of our city. Someone had it roped off, and we forgot about it. On occasion, one of us would stop, take a glance, shudder a bit. But we would walk on. Sure, the rope had to be moved back every week or so, but that was it. The authorities told us they were thinking about it, trying to see what could be done. In reality, nothing was being done. Every once in a while they brought it up at a meeting, but it would be brushed aside. Not important enough. People aren’t dying. We’ll deal with it later.
Soon, the whole street was roped off. Businesses closed because nobody could get to them. But they moved; they survived. They ignored the stinking, black, pulsating mass that had crept up the pavement, was now crawling up the side of the buildings.
We all felt real horror, though, the first time we brushed our teeth and spit and found that some of it was in our saliva. When we opened our jaws and looked into the mirror and yes, there it was at the back of our throats. Stuck in the crevices between our molars.
We went to doctors, but they couldn’t help us; they had it too. We tried everything. Use mouthwash, more tooth brushing. More alcohol, less alcohol, swallow bleach. The suggestions were endless and of infinite variety. None worked.
Soon enough, though, we accepted it, just as we had accepted it when it had first appeared in the alley between 24th and 25th. Because it was just as we had known; no matter how ugly or repulsive, that thing was here to stay. It had gotten inside of us – or, perhaps, that’s where it had started in the first place. Whatever the case had been, however, we knew that there was nothing we could do to stop it – the sole reason being our indifference. It was awful, it was everywhere. But we just didn’t care. It wasn’t hurting us. And plus, it was too big anyway. Nothing we could do.
We could point and stare all we wanted, but there was no getting rid of it.
We weren’t going to try.