“What kills a dog?” Evan asked, standing clear from the pile of discarded animal remains that Joe had been wading through.
“Dunno, a bear?”
“Ain’t no bears in Indiana.”
“How the fuck do you know?”
Joe picked his way further into the immense collection, pushing aside the dry brush that had been obscuring the strewn-about graveyard. Unwilling to follow, Evan turned back to the path the two boys had taken through the marsh – thin fading line of disturbed forest twisting away from sight.
“C’mon man, don’t puss out on me.” Joe was invisible within the leaves now, sound of sneakers kicking around the hollowed bones echoing beneath the oaks.
Taking care where he stepped, Evan entered into the bush after Joe. And though he tried not to see the things over which he walked, every downward glance led the boy to identify a different creature. Rabbit, squirrel, possum, deer – the parts and pieces of these he had learned on hunting trips through the marsh with his father. Evan had seen too many dead forest dwellers to find this discovery of Joe’s as exhilarating as he did. But then, Joe had never gone hunting before, had no father to take him.
“You gotta see this shit, even better than it was yesterday!” Joe yelled out. As Evan drew closer, a putrid smell overtook him, smell of rotting meat. Pushing through the brush, Evan caught sight of Joe’s back, red t-shirt dark with sweat underneath the shiny plastic stock of his air rifle, crouching over what looked to be a large deer carcass. Coming closer, Evan saw the antlers of a full-grown buck, much of its muscled bulk ripped clean from bones to leave a large gory gouge across the animal’s side and haunch – maggot-swarmed flesh turned grey, sweet-smelling in the heat.
“Wanna poke at it?” Joe asked, handing Evan a broken-off tree branch, its end slathered in glistening black blood. Evan took the stick and absent-mindedly prodded at the killed beast, listening to the soft writhing of the feeding larvae as he swirled the insides of their meal-home.
“Ain’t you worried that the thing that killed it might be near?” Evan asked the other boy, who had taken up a new and sharper branch and was digging it deep into one of the buck’s eyeholes, examining the thick oozing that the puncture produced.
“Nah…” Joe had pushed the stick far enough into the animal’s head that it had almost certainly penetrated brain matter. The boy proceeded to spin the dry end around between thumb and forefinger, as if attempting to scramble the contents of the buck’s head – “Probably coyotes or something.”
Evan looked at the mass of the creature, at the severity of the wounds, noting that the neck lay untouched – “Coyotes didn’t do this.”
It had been fun before, riding down old Morris road, racing one another on hand-me-down BMX bikes, swerving in and out of the paths of oncoming pickups. An adventure, Joe had said, though to where he wouldn’t say, smirking from behind the black mesh of the screen door as Evan’s mother fried Saturday morning bacon behind them. Should have known Joe would take him to something gruesome – the boy had taken to naming the split-open cats and raccoons found along the highway, remarking upon their bloated progress. Now, the smell of death fully entrenched within his nose, Evan wished to God that they were back on Morris road, laughing under the warm blue and white sky.
Something stirred – a crack of dead wood and a rustling of dry vegetation. Evan stretched neck and eyes toward a dark figure moving indistinctly, obscured behind a scattered mass of trees.
“Joe.” Evan’s voice was a whisper, hardly audible over the insect songs hanging overhead. Evan kicked at the other boy’s back with outstretched, muddy shoe. Joe, engrossed in the pale matter he had excavated, jumped at the touch, standing quick and spinning with hands balled up.
“A thing’s out there, don’t know what it is.”
“If you don’t know, why the fuck you scared?”
Evan wanted to answer that he was scared because he knew the stories about the marsh, about the monsters lurking through its trees, about a witch living at its darkest center. But he knew Joe would sneer at his fears and his stories, laugh and spit and shove him down to the dirt. Another crack and Evan looked in time to see the distant white flash of a doe’s tail. He watched it bound away, leaping legs only visible for seconds until the spotted animal disappeared among the mesh of tree trunks.
“Just a deer,” Evan’s chest collapsed, his breath resumed.
But Joe was already moving deeper through the dead, again vanishing behind shivering branches. Not wanting to be alone, afraid of the marsh’s stillness, Evan pushed after his friend. Evan pushed through rough scratching wood, lines of red scraped across bare arms and legs, hot dripping of blood sliding down wet skin. After long minutes of painful searching, he found an exclaiming and excited Joe, standing in a small clearing before mounds of disturbed dirt. Past the boy, past his pointing and yelling, lay a black hole reaching down beneath the earth.
“Goddamn, what you think dug this?”
Evan couldn’t answer, the hole was like nothing he had seen before – the first thought was that it seemed to be an oversized rabbit burrow, large enough to fit his entire height without him hardly having to stoop. No animal he knew of was so large and able to dig so extensively. Peering further into the void, Evan’s foot banged against a hard object, long and heavy – a bone – causing him to curse, pain shooting through his foot and up his leg. The bone was larger than the others; it reminded Evan of a horse skeleton he had seen dug up on his grandfather’s ranch, long and bleached limbs stretching out amongst the dirt, straight toothy smile seeming sinister. “See that pasture,”, said grandpa, pointing out to the rolling green and yellow past the wood plank fence, “holds ‘bout two dozen more of ‘em. All them get put down sooner or later,” he told Evan, eyes distant.
The two boys stood in silence before the entrance to the underground passage for some moments. A cold draft blew up from its depths, carrying with it a faint, rhythmic groaning.
“Some animal down there,” Evan spoke with throat running dry.
“Sounds big,” said Joe, sharp grin on his face, “gonna shoot it.” He pulled his rifle around, pointing the steel tube down the hole, his shirt lifting to reveal the stubby hilt of a knife stuck down the waist of his jeans. Evan had seen the blade before, buried at the bottom of Joe’s dresser drawer, beneath his black Sunday slacks. It had been his father’s from the army, that’s what Joe said, metal shining in the slanted sunlight falling through the bedroom blinds – the fearsome blade was nearly as long as Evan’s forearm when he held it.
“Gonna shoot it and skin it.”
Joe turned his back on Evan, placing a firm foot down the oversized rabbit hole. For a moment, Evan felt a sensation of warm liquid trickling down his wrists, inside of them, an urge to shove the other, much smaller boy – to send him tumbling headlong down the dirt passage. Always so dismissive, beg and plead to come play ‘cause no likes little short legs Joe, always running his mouth, starting fights, see him come down the street on the seat of his bike with blood smeared between his mouth and nose. Just push and be done with it, push him hard so he can’t catch himself in time, so his soft head breaks on hard-packed earth and bleeds quiet and broken down in the dark where not a thing can hear him except the hungry beast sleeping out of sight. Evan put a hand out, fingers grazing the stuck wet shoulder of Joe’s shirt.
“You ain’t keeping me.” Joe spoke without turning, without seeing the stiff spring-loaded arms set to throw one hundred pounds of force against his unsecured frame. “Go on and tell mommy, I’ll be back up with a trophy before anyone comes lookin’!”
And without another word, Joe was down the hole, hands held against curved walls as he slid his sneakers along the decline. And then, the trickle, the racing, sweating desire to see a body broken, broke as suddenly as Joe’s departure. Evan moved to the edge of the disturbed dirt, peering down to see the shape of Joe dissipating into the colorless void.
For minutes there was nothing to see and nothing to hear but the soft noise of sneakers scraping across semi-moist earth. Left with only the earthen gash and warm serenity of the wavering marsh, Evan was filled with an ever-pulling urge to return to the road, to leave Joe and the scene as it if it had never been found or experienced.
Road would be East, he thought, had to be, ran north to south straight up and down. The sun was high, gleaming spots breaking through the leaves, almost centered above but still leaning to one side of the sky. Still morning, it had to be, it was morning when they left. Couldn’t have been more than two hours since leaving his mother’s sun-warmed kitchen, they’d come this way plenty of times before and made it back to town before lunch.
Wasn’t the first time they’d come deep into the marsh neither – though never quite so far as to be completely separate from the sounds of passing trucks as they were now. Joe liked to come out and shoot at tiny furry creatures with his rifle – holes though their necks or bellies, gruesome mix of hair and blood. Joe would smear mud beneath and around his eyes, holding the gun at his hip, stalking between the trees like an Indian or a soldier hunting through the jungle. It scared Evan when Joe would fall so deeply into his roles, at times turning his thin-squished gaze and half-raised gun towards the other boy, as if wondering how well those little round pellets would punch through people skin.
Evan came, though, for the peace of the marsh, the quiet sensation of falling backwards from the often glaring, intruding presence of other folks, a place that he could never reach by himself, lacking the nerve and know-how. And Joe would always ask Evan first because he knew no one else would ever go with him. But this was no longer quiet separation and they were no longer two boys playing war or explorer in the woods. Evan stood alone above the hole, his fingers still tingling from the pressure to act violently, head only now unclogging of flesh-tattered imagery. If they were playing at a game, he didn’t like it.
“Joe!” Evan shouted down the burrow, “Joe, I’m gonna go home!”
The thought, the too vivid image of Joe lying bloodied at the far end of a dark tunnel brought a feeling of upward rejection to Evan’s throat, of skin-dripping dizziness. No, he didn’t love Joe or even like him much, but to want his painful demise was beyond anything Evan could ever wish, to hurt anyone was beyond him, at least he thought it was.
“Joe!” No answer in voice or scuffle but squinting into the deep, two small glints of reflected sun gazed out of the murk. Evan peered down further, neck craned down as he tried to discern the source of the lights. A noise, something like the gargling of thick liquid down the throat, rose upward from the hole, the glints growing larger. The gurgling was joined by movement of earth, vibrations beneath the boy’s feet. One final glimpse down the pit revealed to Evan the outline of a long and skeletal head swiftly carrying up its sun-glinting eyeballs.
Evan ran through the bones, out of them, into no specific direction. He had forgotten the position of the sun, forgotten the road, his bike, and the way home. Evan had forgotten Joe. There was only running, escape from a terror he hardly knew the shape of. Evan ran through tree branch and bush, over mud and swampy ground, the lazy ripple of the nearby river following his strides.
If the monster had risen from its den to give chase, Evan could not hear it over his own ragged breathing. He ran until his legs were alit with fire, until his lungs felt as if they had shriveled, no longer able to hold any amount of air. When, at last, he gave in to the demands of his body and stopped moving, Evan collapsed upon hard dirt and roots, vomiting his mangled breakfast and yellow liquid between his hands.
When Evan regained his breath and could bring himself to stand, he found himself lost. Above, the light sat straight upward with no leaning bias – in no left or right or turned-around stare could even the faintest hint of road or field or house be seen. But the creature, if it had ever been so at all, was not after the boy – his ears fought to detect the smallest scrap of that horrible gurgling through the buzz of the marsh.
Evan paced, unsure of what to do, back and forth steps an attempt to calm the boy’s frenzied thoughts – what he saw did not exist in science, he knew of any and all creatures that could dwell inside the marsh and that, that was not one. And Joe, what about Joe? Whatever it was that came surging up from the burrow, certainly Joe would not have hesitated to let loose a rifle round in either attack or defense – or at the very least, in warning.
But there hadn’t even been a yell echoed up the decline, only the gurgles and the rough shoving of dirt. And when that awful rising skull-thing touched the daylight, the thought of his friend’s safety was the furthest from his head, it made Evan cold to think that.
Friend was a word Evan used lightly in regards to Joe, but the boys had known one another since they were babies, living on the same street, front doors separated by less than a dozen grassy steps – such close proximity forced friendship onto the two young boys. Especially since no one else much liked the other boy – always talking, never standing still, but Evan never had the heart, no, the spine, to say no to Joe, even he grew a whole bunch taller than the other boy last summer. He wouldn’t have even gone with Joe had his mother not shoved Evan out the door – “don’t waste another beautiful day inside with your video games,” she said, high voice bringing red to his cheeks as he hurried out the door, half-chewed eggs being swallowed down. Knew Joe had nothing good to show him, knew it from the look on his face, little sneer, hell, Evan had half-expected him to pull a prank or flat-out try to scare him…
He stopped his pacing, stopped dead, embarrassment again in his face and cold drops forming on his forehead. Of course, no such monster existed, of course it had been Joe wearing a mask, come climbing up the hole with a thing in his mouth to enhance his monstrous grunts and growls.
“Goddamnit Joe!” yelled Evan out into the woods, all fear dissolved. “You got me you damn asshole!” He forced a laugh, balling his fists and tensing his body as he expected the small boy to jump out at him, screaming, for the final scare. At first, the marsh responded with only its continuous buzzing and rippling. It wasn’t long, though, before the droning was disturbed by the faint rustling of light footfalls upon snapping twigs. Evan spun to see the shape of a person approaching through the trees.
“C’mon out you sonofabitch, you ain’t scarin’ me again!” Evan’s shouts went unreturned, the figure advancing without growing any more distinct. It was then that Evan realized, with a dropping smile, that the dark form approaching was far too tall to be Joe in disguise – taller than the snapped-in-half tree trunk that had half-fallen to hang suspended above the path, the thing stooping low on the spot that Evan had easily run through upright.
He did not shout again at the thing, watching as it effortlessly moved through the marsh without hurry, seeming to roll forward as if it were a pillar of black smoke. Evan then found himself moving almost as silently between the oaks, pain removed from lungs and legs. He could scarcely feel his feet touching down against the ground, only focused on increasing the speed by which the green leaves passed through his sight. He ran for minutes, no thoughts aside from an unwillingness to meet the being chasing after him, whose presence he could surely detect only a handful of yards behind – hot humidity enveloping the back of his neck.
In front of him, the trees began to reveal the straight, solid lines of a structure – a squat building of cut logs. There was no door nor open window that he could see, so Evan cut sharply around a corner of the small cabin. Frantically, the boy scanned the new wall for a way inside but again, Evan encountered only an impossible wall of even-laid tree bodies. Just behind, Evan could hear that bloody-throat gurgling coming from around the corner of the cabin. At last though, around yet another corner, Evan found his break, door-sized opening in the monotonous exterior, dirt path leading inside and wooden threshold overgrown with weeds, marsh overtaking the interior.
Eyes adjusting poorly to the loss of direct light, Evan felt at the frame for a door to shut, finding heavy wood hanging from rusted hinges. He slammed it shut with a screech and a scrape – all was black and still. The only lock to hold the door in place was a heavy bolt, grinding into place with dusty resistance. No sooner was the door secure when it buckled and jumped, assaulted from the opposite side by something large and strong. Evan placed the whole of his weight against the rotted, hollow-seeming wood, bouncing with each bang, the whole of the construct splintering and jangling behind him as if it would fall apart at any second.
But, with a final crack and a dying-away gurgle, the monster seemed to vanish. Evan was left heaving, wet back against the worn-smooth grain as the marsh sounds returned to prominence. As his vision adjusted to the dank interior, frightening shapes revealed themselves to Evan – gnarled horns and fang-filled jaws, black eyes of the dead. He was inside the trophy-lined walls of a hunters’ cabin.
His heart rate dropping from its heightened pounding, Evan began to feel somewhat safe. Perhaps that old door was stronger than it looked or the creature weaker than its size dictated. Cautiously, the boy crawled away from the door, keeping low to stay out of sight of the grime-covered windows – as if the monster didn’t already know his location (but why didn’t it attempt an entrance through the breakable glass…?) Still, with small hope, Evan searched the one-room shack for a means of communicating to the outside – a phone would be too much to wish for, but maybe a battery-powered radio could be found among the stuffed corpses.
Bucks made up the majority of the kills mounted up on the walls, though other, more exotic fauna were interspersed throughout the rabble. Evan picked out wolves and wild mountain cats, the large, far-spreading stiff wingspans of elegant birds of prey. At the far-end of the room, he made out the head of a roaring grizzly bear.
The place smacked of familiarity. Though Evan was sure he had never before stepped foot where he stood. It brought to mind a story, one told to a smaller Evan – shrouded under baseball-stitched blankets while Cal, his older brother, whispered down from the upper bunk after the strip of yellow light beneath their parent’s bedroom door went black. A story of a hunter who lived alone deep in the marsh, a skilled archer and marksman, taxidermist of great renown, leaving behind the posed, still-life corpses of his kills.
“They say the man grew tired of hunting only beasts,” Calvin would say, voice full of trembling huskiness, slanted eyes dark in the dim bedroom – “they say he turned to hunting people, found humans much more fun to hunt.” And the older brother’s voice would drop lower, his face drawing closer, lines lengthening and features sinking into his face. “But soon he found the greatest prey of all – the things that people would protect more than anything else…”
Cal smiled, teeth gleaming in the nightlight glow. “No one has ever found his hunting cabin, but there are some that say if it ever was found, they would find rows and rows of tiny skeletons lined up inside that dirt-dug cellar.” And he would stop, voice trailing off, sensing the fear streaming off his little brother though Evan tried his best to uphold a brave face.
So, without another thought toward the creature skulking outside, Evan moved further into the cabin, away from the dim brown sheen dripping out of the caked-over window panes. He moved to where a cellar door would be if there was one, the end of the building shrouded underneath a flailing dankness.
“What happened to the man? Is he still alive?”
“They say he died a long time ago – but no one really knows…” curved teeth in the half-light.
Evan’s foot pushed against something wooden, something metal scraping the smooth worn flooring. Mindlessly, he groped for the object, unable to take his eyes off the rippling dark. Soft wood feeling uneven and infested with moisture, thin enough to wrap small boy hands around but heavy, smell of blood and Evan saw the orange-crusted wood-cutting ax head floating off the floor.
He pushed the blade forward, pushing aside the unseeableness of that last corner. No door, only a wall same as the other three. But Evan’s foot then dug into yielding ground, slipping off the edge of splintered sharp floor boards. No door, but a passageway leading down below the surface. Light only penetrated its upper layers, the rest funneling into static-filled nothingness – bright spots playing against Evan’s straining vision as he fought to find shape down the hole.
Hole too similar to the one Joe vanished down, similar except more than dirt lined its deep sides. Much like the piles that had brought the boys so far into the marsh, bones decorated the earthen tunnel – wide enough to fall into – and spilled upwards onto the battered wood flooring where dark splatters haloed the most concentrated collections.
Seeing that decline brought new sickness to Evan’s throat, pooling spit inside his cheeks. He thought of Joe, thought of his sweat-plastered back disappearing down that hole. Evan remembered the feeling of desire for blood, desire to see Joe grow tiny and crumple. Foolishly, he opened his mouth to call for his friend, stopping just short of ejecting out a voice, short inhale of air.
Evan heard the gurgles before seeing the pale glimmers bouncing up from the depths. It emerged before Evan could tell his legs to run, not that they could carry the boy fast or far enough. Relax and stay still, your life was short and without pleasure, be happy to see it end, be happy that it will be with little pain – just be still. The thing arisen from the hole was nearly as tall as the cabin itself, long thin body standing upright, supported by legs of exposed bone and burnt-black muscle. In basic appearance, the monster was human with similarly-structured arms and a head – bulbous like the cracked thing lying empty at Evan’s feet. But its flesh seemed to hang off the bones – too long, too spindly, insectoid legs – in strips, black as the lightless hole the thing had crawled out of, the skin appearing as a raggedy jacket hanging off the sharp frame.
Like the rest of its body, the monster’s head was essentially human, yet too long as if placed in a clamp and squeezed then pulled to stretch it into an irregular shape, eyeballs empty of life, glittering colorless. Unable to move save for tightening his arm, raising the heavy ax defensively, reflexively, to head height, Evan watched as the monster unhinged its lower jaw from the rest of its skull, revealing yet another deep and dark recess, framed by the bony and pointed protrusions that formed its teeth – large and wide enough for a man’s head, certainly a boy’s.
Without noise, without advancing time, the thing had moved, appearing in front of Evan. The boy’s arm burned with strain from holding the heavy tool. He stared into the unheaving ribs of the naked beast, searching for signs of fleshy innards, fresh glistening meat – Joe, you’re in there ain’t you, all chewed up and ate…
And then that unhinged jaw was lowered to eye-level, perfect view down the sightless gullet, stench of long-spoiled meat and warm blood rolling out. Its bone-lips moved further apart, jagged pale shards pointed out, dangling still-stuck pink stringy bits.
Time raced while not moving at all, bubbling throat juices popping around Evan’s ears. He did not want to run. Over soon, stay so still, what life do you have worth running for, surviving is too difficult, drop the heavy load and let your arms lay free and still and the pain will end so swiftly. But Evan did not want to die, though he felt death hurtling toward him, felt his own body plummeting forward through a curved and narrow tunnel towards an impossibly tiny dead end. The end was hot and humid, pressure of near-future pain just above his soft, hairy head. It would be easy to be still.