Originally published in America’s Emerging Suspense Writers, edited by Z Publishing House. © 2019 by Patrick Moody
Quinn stood by phone, watching the red light blinking on the answering machine. He hesitated a moment before pressing it, listening for the third time. As he pushed ‘play’, his neighbor’s deep, soothing voice rumbled from the speaker.
“Quinn! You must come see me. It’s very important I talk with you today. Extremely important. Bring that sister of yours, too” There was a slight pause. Quinn could hear the cry of seagulls in the distance. Mr. Akau cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, it was just a whisper, “The flowers. Don’t touch them, no matter what. I mean it. No matter what.”
The machine beeped as the message ended. Frowning, Quinn walked over to the refrigerator. A large magnetic corkboard covered the entire thing, plastered with family photos under the heading “The Foster Family Journey”. Quinn studied them, each one a family picture from each place they’d lived. Mom and Dad looked the same in every one, faces beaming, smiles wide. Quinn, on the other hand, looked incredibly awkward, rarely looking into the camera, his face somewhere between a smile and a frown. His older sister Isabelle, or Izzy, gave the same glare, her arms crossed over her chest, looking like she’d rather be anywhere else on Earth. It didn’t matter where they were: the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Black Forest in Germany, the mountains of Nepal, even the Grand Canyon…all four faces looked the same.
Mom and Dad had left a note at the bottom of the corkboard:
Be good, kids. We should be in Honolulu by tonight, so if you need us, try our phones. If not, here’s the number for the hotel. Izzy, we’re trusting you. You’re old enough to hold down the fort. Quinn, listen to your sister. We love you! See you in a week! Kisses, Mom and Dad.
Listen to your sister.
Quinn read that line over and over until he gave himself a bellyache. He couldn’t believe his parents would go away for a whole week and leave Izzy, of all people, in charge. While they were off shooting the black sand beaches for Polynesian Nature Magazine, he was stuck at home with her.
“I’m the responsible one,” he said aloud. “At least I don’t sneak off with boys and skip school.”
Just to be safe, Quinn looked around to make sure his big sister wasn’t lurking nearby. The last thing he wanted was to have a fight their first day alone in the house together.
He could still see the blinking light of the answering machine in the corner of his eye. Something was troubling Mr. Akau. His voice sounded strange, almost scared. Since moving to Kaua’i, Quinn had spent nearly every weekend helping his old neighbor in the garden. Mr. Akau was the smartest, calmest person Quinn had ever met. If he was scared of something…
It was already noon, the sun bright through the windows. Mr. Akau had called more than two hours ago, but Quinn had been so busy seeing his parents off that he’d missed it.
He ran to his room and quickly changed out of his pajamas. Mr. Akau was technically his ‘neighbor’, which on Kaua’I meant that he lived less than 20 miles away. He lived on the shoreline in Princeville, a few miles up from Quinn’s town of Hanalei. Most of the land around Quinn’s place was either farmland or national park, so the houses were few and far between.
If he started riding now, he could reach him in twenty minutes. As he buckled the strap of his bike helmet, the sudden smashing of drums and pounding bass shook his room. The collectibles on his dresser and shelves wavered and rocked, Godzilla and Frankenstein figures threatening to topple from their displays.
Quinn quickly moved to steady them. It was a small house, and the littlest noise seemed to carry. When Izzy and her band started up in the garage, it felt like an earthquake was ready to topple the place. Mom and Dad had been gone for less than two hours, and she was already at it.
“This is gonna be a long week,” Quinn huffed, making his way to the garage.
He plugged his ears as he rounded the corner, finding Izzy in the middle of a bass solo, sweat beading her brow, eyes shut tight. Her drummer, Loni, soon joined in, clashing and clanging her symbols, followed by the guitarist, Ava, who strummed a chord so loud she nearly fried the amplifier.
Quinn cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting at the top of his lungs to get his sister’s attention.
Finally, Izzy opened her eyes. When she saw Quinn, they narrowed. She whistled, and Ava and Loni fell silent.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
Quinn’s cheeks flushed as Ava and Loni looked on. He hated when Izzy spoke to her like that, especially in front of older girls. It made him feel more like a kid than he already was.
“The message,” Quinn said, swallowing as her voice caught in her throat. “The one from Mr. Akau. Did you hear it?”
Izzy made a face like she just sucked on a lemon. “No. What’d he want?”
“He says we need to come see him. That it’s important.”
Izzy waved her off before she even finished. “I’m busy, Iz. Whatever our weird neighbor has to say can wait ‘till I’m done, here.”
Izzy’s words cut through Quinn like a knife. “He’s not weird. He’s just different”
“No? Then why does he live in a shack up in the woods? Why doesn’t he drive a car, or have a tv, even? It’s a miracle he has a phone! He spends too much time talking to plants. And too much time filling your head with ghosts and guardian spirits and whatever other nonsense gets into that crazy old brain.”
“He’s. Not. Crazy.”
“Whatever.” Izzy turned back to Ava and Loni.
Quinn was so angry his stomach felt like a pot of boiling water ready to spill over. He clenched his fists until his knuckles ached.
Why did Izzy have to be so mean? Mr. Akau was different. That didn’t make him weird. Or crazy. Since when was being a little different a bad thing?
“FINE!” Quinn shouted. Izzy jumped. Quinn tried not to yell that often. His sister did that enough for the whole family. “I’ll go see him. At least there’s someone in this house who cares! And by the way, you’re about ten times weirder than he is!”
Loni and Ava stood slack jawed at Quinn’s outburst. Izzy’s face turned a frightening shade of red, the birthmark on her cheek darkening.
“What did you say?”
Her voice was cold as she inched closer.
“You heard me, Izzy. Good luck with your stupid band. You sound horrible, by the way.”
Quinn ran out of the garage, fighting back tears. He didn’t mean that last part. Ava and Loni were always nice to him. When Izzy got him going, he just couldn’t stop himself. Dad always said count to ten. If you count to ten, the anger will blow away like the wind. But Quinn’s never did. He could count to a million and still feel it.
He hated his sister, sometimes. Living with her wasn’t easy. Moving to Kuai, settling into a brand new school, struggling to make friends…none of it had been easy for Quinn. Most of the kids looked at him funny when he came to class wearing his Creature From the Black Lagoon t-shirt, or his Frankenstein sneakers. It was tough. Sometimes he heard them call him “That Weird Kid”, because he was into horror movies and monsters. It didn’t help that his middle school was small. Once you were a “type”, you were that type forever.
Mr. Akau had introduced himself the week they’d settled in. He immediately took a liking to Quinn, and they both bonded over their love of horror films and ghost stories. Mr. Akau had plenty, most of them about Hawaiian myths and legends. Quinn spent almost every weekend helping Mr. Akau in his garden, listening to tales of vengeful spirits and shape shifting demons, his imagination running wild.
In a few short months, Mr. Akau had become something like a grandfather to Quinn. Hearing Izzy talk about him like that…he just didn’t understand. Mr. Akau was always there for him, especially those dark days when the kids in his class, or Izzy, were particularly mean. Mr. Akau always knew the right things to say when Quinn sad, or angry, or lonely.
As for Izzy…she didn’t pay Mr. Akau any mind. Or Mom or Dad, really. All she seemed to care about was her band.
Quinn went to the kitchen to pack a small snack for his trip. He didn’t make it two steps into the house before Izzy kicked open the door behind him.
“You little brat!” she screamed. “Didn’t you hear Mom and Dad this morning? While they’re gone, I’m in charge. Me. You know what that means? It means you do what I tell you, not the other way around.” She grabbed Quinn by the wrist. “Are you listening to me? Don’t interrupt my band practice again. Got me?”
Quinn tore free from her grip.
“I’m calling Mom and Dad the second I get back. Just because they’re gone doesn’t mean I have to listen to a word you say.”
Izzy folded her arms across her chest and grinned. “Oh yeah?”
Quinn was shaking, now. He was in no mood to fight. He wished he could take back what he said, but it was too late.
As soon as he said it, Quinn recoiled, expecting Izzy to hit him. Instead, she raced into Quinn’s bedroom and slammed the door shut.
He pounded on the door, listening as Izzy smashed something against the floor.
Quinn put his ear against the door. Another smash. A loud snap.
Before he could pound again, Izzy burst through and shoved right past him, back into the kitchen and out to the garage.
Quinn sighed as she looked down at his bedroom floor. One of his favorite Godzilla toys, the one Dad got him special from Japan, was broken in two, its tail snapped clean off. Fighting back tears, he scooped up the two pieces and put them inside his backpack. Izzy had knocked over another shelf, too, the one filled with all his Wolf Man and Dracula piggy banks. They were okay, mostly, but one Wolf Man had chipped an ear, and one of Dracula’s fangs was broken clean off. He set them back in their places, and wondered how his own sister could be so nasty.
Backpack slung over his shoulder, he ran out to where his bike leaned against the front porch. Mr. Akau was waiting, and Quinn certainly didn’t want to spend any more time under Izzy’s thumb.
Fallen palms crunched beneath Quinn’s tires as he pedaled up the mountain road, the coastline to his left, Hanalei Valley to his right. The sun was bright overhead, shooting down between the palms in a peaceful, golden glow. Quinn loved the ride up to Mr. Akau’s. He loved feeling the wind on his face. Mostly, he loved the freedom of being alone with his thoughts. You couldn’t really get much more alone than living on the north shore of Kaua’I. As far as Hawaii went, he was on the second furthest away from the Big Island. The frontier, basically.
The end of the world.
He breathed deep, smelling the salt spray of the ocean, the fresh cut grass from the valley, the pine nuts and palms lining the street. Izzy and her antics felt a million miles away, and that was just fine. Quinn found himself smiling as he pedaled faster, the road narrowing as the low valley gave way to the foothills of Princeville.
But his smile didn’t last long. As he rode, he noticed the flowers lining the curbsides. Strange, bright orange flowers that looked like flames, or fireworks when they first pop.
“The flowers,” Mr. Akau had said, ”Don’t touch them, no matter what.”
He’d almost forgotten that part of the message. Now that he remembered, the flowers seemed to be growing everywhere he looked. They sprouted from vines creeping up along the palms, from the cracks in the road, from the fields to his right and sparse woods to his left. The green grass seemed to have disappeared under them. As far as Quinn could see, the valley floor seemed swathed in bright orange flame.
Butterflies roared in his belly. Something wasn’t right, here. The fear in Mr. Akau’s voice when he warned them filled him with an icy chill. Quinn pedaled faster, thighs burning as he stood up on the seat to pump himself harder and harder up the winding road. The flatlands gave way to forest covered mountains, and even through the dense trees, the bright, alien flowers bloomed, piercing through the dark, woodland floor.
Nearing the top of the hill, he could make out the skyline of Princetown, one of Kaua’i’s nicest neighborhoods. A lot of people from mainland US had vacation homes here, big lavish villas that sat on the edges of cliffs overlooking the endless blue ocean. Mr. Akau was a retired professor of mythology from the University of Hawai’i, but now worked around the estates as a landscaper, tending to the enormous lawns and sprawling gardens.
Riding past the edge of town, Quinn came upon a dirt road that led nearly straight up a cliff face. Gathering the last of his strength, he rode up, trying to ignore the flowers blooming all around. They seemed bigger now, growing from the size of a dandelion to a rose, and even bigger, swelling like melons, their petals opening like mouths, gaping and ready to swallow him whole.
As he rounded the top of the hill, Mr. Akau’s bungalow came into view. Quinn slammed on his breaks, skidding to a halt and nearly toppling over into the grass.
The small wooden house was nearly buried under giant orange flowers, their stalks as big as tree trunks. The pedals had grown to the size of branches, orange veined in deep red, and looked like the tentacles of some giant squid, reaching up over the roof, near the windows, down around the door. Leaving his bike on the grass, Quinn sprinted towards the door.
“Mr. Akau!” he called. “Mr. Akau!”
Quinn was nearing the front of the bungalow, his side cramping. He’d never run so fast in his life.
“Out back!” a voice called. “Take the side path! Mind the flowers!”
Just hearing Mr. Akau’s voice set Quinn at ease. His heartbeat slowed, the butterflies slowly leaving his stomach.
Cautiously, he made his way around the left side of the house, following the cobblestone path that ran beside a small, trickling stream. The giant flowers loomed overhead, blocking out the sun. Quinn was very careful to stay on the path, clutching the straps of his backpack, making sure not to get too close.
Mr. Akau was waiting for him in the garden out back. Quinn was shocked to find none of the strange flowers anywhere near it.
Mr. Akau’s private garden was the best in town. Quinn wove his way through the moss covered path, passing beds of flowers, roses and hydrangeas, orchids and lavender, flamingo flowers, pineapple and avocado trees, all arranged in orderly rows. Near the center of the garden, the rows warped into a series of spirals lined with gardenias, ending in an enclosed grove of banana trees surrounded by willows, and bordered on all sides by stone statues and wooden tiki totems. In the middle of the grove stood a tall pillar, twice Quinn’s height, covered in strange symbols that gleamed when the sun hit them just right.
Quinn made his way through the beautiful, multicolored spiral, finding Mr. Akau trimming a branch off of one of the willows. When he saw Quinn, he set his shears down and wiped his face, fanning himself with his wide brimmed hat.
. “I’m glad you made it, Quinn. It’s good to see you.”
He held out a sun-darkened arm, shaking Quinn’s hand
“You too, Mr. Akau.” Quinn breathed deep. The old man always smelled of freshly cut grass. It was comforting.
Mr. Akau stepped back, looking over Quinn’s shoulder and into the grove.
“Where’s Izzy?” he asked with a troubled look.
Quinn shook his head. “She…” he paused for a moment, wondering if he should tell him the truth. If Mr. Akau knew the things Izzy had said about him, it’d hurt his feelings. Instead, Quinn sighed, “She’s busy. Band practice.”
Mr. Akau gave him a long look, his eyes twinkling. They always did that, like he was in on some big secret no one else knew.
“I know why she’s not here,” he said soflty. “Your sister doesn’t think that much of me,” he smiled. “I’m the old kook who lives in a shack on a mountaintop. Why would she listen to me?”
“I do,” Quinn said, trying to comfort him.
“Yes. You do.”
“Mr. Akau, the flowers…I’ve never seen anything like them before. And they grew so fast! What’s happening?”
Mr. Akau grimaced, looking about the grove. A gust of wind blew in from the nearby cliff face, sprinkling the air with ocean salt.
“Inside, Quinn. There’s something I need to show you.”
Quinn followed him inside the bungalow, entering the single room lit by candles and gas lamps, casting the small house in a calm glow. Mr. Akau had collected many things over the years…tokens and trinkets and all sorts of strange objects. They filled the shelves on the wall, cluttered the tabletops. Quinn had spent hours upon hours rummaging through them. For him, looking around Mr. Akau’s was like being on a treasure hunt. Even in that small house, he’d always find something new. Something magical.
“What do you have there?”
Quinn eased the backpack off his shoulders and opened the zipper. Mr. Akau leaned over to peer inside, then frowned. He took out the broken Godzilla figure and set it on the table.
“Izzy’s at it again, eh?”
Quinn shrugged. “We had a fight, earlier.” He bit his lip, feeling his eyes well up. “She…she always goes after my things. She says monsters are stupid, that eleven is too old to still have this stuff.”
Mr. Akau lifted the figure, studying it closely. Godzilla looked so tiny in his big, weather beaten hands.
“It’s a shame,” he said, “that Izzy doesn’t believe in monsters. She’s not like you, Quinn. Not like us. I guess my stories weren’t enough to convince her.”
Quinn’s heart leapt into his throat. He looked to the Godzilla figure, then back to him. “You…you believe-”
“In monsters? Of course.” He put the Godzilla down on the table, watching Quinn staring at it. He chuckled. “No, not those kind of monsters. Plastic and vinyl from Japan aren’t the things real monsters are made of. They’re not figures, or films, or manga. I believe in real monsters, Quinn. Things made of this earth.” He reached into a nearby drawer and pulled out a tube of glue, setting the tail back on the figure.
Quinn stared at him, dumbfounded, his head swirling. Monsters? Mr. Akau believed in actual monsters?
His mind flashed back to those long nights spent hiding under his blanket, flashlight in hand, scared to death of the creepy crawlies under the bed, the boogeyman in the closet, the tap, tap, tapping ghosts in the attic. He remembered running into Mom and Dad’s room after one of his nightmares. He would force Dad to check his room some nights, and he would spend hours with Quinn, reading stories until he felt safe enough to close his eyes again.
But even after all that, Quinn grew to love everything monster related. It felt like he was conquering his own fear by embracing it.
“Here,” Mr. Akau said, handing him the mended toy. “You asked about the flowers.” He reached across the table and slid a piece of wax paper to Quinn’s side. “Open it,” he said, “but be careful not to touch what’s inside.”
Curious, Quinn unfolded the paper. Pressed inside was one of the strange orange flowers. This one was old, and the color had faded over time, its stem withered, pedals wrinkled and brittle.
“Quinn,” Mr. Akau said, his voice suddenly low. “I have a story to tell you. I need you to listen very closely.”
“I will,” Quinn replied, eyes trained on the dead flower pressed into the paper.
“The last time I saw these flowers bloom, it was seventy-seven years ago. October the 29th, 1939. I was a small boy, living in a tiny village on the south point of the Island. A small place, the kind of town where everyone was related in one way or another. That morning I woke up, and there they were. I could see them from my window, dotting the field beside our house. They’d simply appeared. Bloomed overnight. Just beautiful and…and startling, in all their glory. We thought it was a sign from the akua, the gods. Maybe Pele herself, for they burned bright like fresh spilling lava.” He leaned back in his chair, stroking his long, white beard.
“That night, the Marchers came into our village.”
“No, that…that can’t be. The Night Marchers are just-”
“A story? Like Dracula, or Godzilla? No, my boy. They are real. And that night, they marched.”
Being new to the Islands, Quinn had no idea about the story of the Night Marchers until Mr. Akau explained it to him one afternoon in the garden. An old legend…spirits of ancient warriors who marched by torchlight through the Islands, returning to their old battle sights and burial grounds. The stories said that if you look at them, they’d steal your soul…so it’s best to hide inside, lock your doors, and lie face down as they pass. Some said they were friendly to their descendants, violent to strangers. They moved through towns like an unstoppable tide, and there was nothing you could do make them leave. You just had to wait.
Mr. Akau leaned close, tapping the wax paper.
“The night they came was cold. A howling wind whipped across the fields. It sounded like the death cry of a demon. I cowered in my bed, listening to the palm leaves thrash against my window. I feared the entire Island was getting ready to break. And just as soon as it began, the wind stopped. The whole world went quiet. Even the insects fell silent. It was if the entire island of Kaua’I was holding its breath.”
Quinn felt himself trembling in his chair, trying his best to stop his hands from shaking. He met Mr. Akau’s eyes.
“The drums,” he said, his voice a thousand miles away. “I heard the drums, first. So far away, pounding rhythmically, like the beat of a heart.” He tapped two fingers on the table, mimicking the sound. “I thought I was hearing things, at first. But the drums grew louder. They were coming closer to the village, beating loud. Ba-pum, ba-pum. I looked out the window, trying to see where it was coming from. The moon was low that night, and bright over the field of flowers. It looked like another world, out there. Ba-pum, ba-pum. The smell came next.” He wrinkled his nose. “Horrible, like rotten fish and crab. It smelled like everything in the ocean had died and was wafting along the breeze. It filled my bedroom, so bad that my eyes began to water and I felt sick to my stomach.” He shook his head and made a sour face.
“Mr. Akau, it’s okay. Really. You don’t have to go on if you don’t want.”
He smiled at Quinn. It was a sad smile. His eyes looked tired, the wrinkles around them deeper than usual.
“No. I have to. For you and your sister, I must.”
Quinn sat back, unsure if he wanted to hear the rest. His whole body felt cold.
“Chanting followed the drums. Rough voices. They didn’t seem human. The ground below shook with every word they shouted. A hundred voices melded as one, powerful as rolling thunder. They didn’t sound human. Not at first. I left my bedroom, the floorboards shaking underfoot, and found my parents in the den. My father was standing by the door, a knife in one hand, a ti leaf in the other. I looked at him and didn’t understand.” He sighed. “My father was a gentle man. Caring and soft spoken. Seeing him poised at the door with that weapon…he seemed like another person. My mother was fighting back tears, and when she saw me she ran and took me in her arms, leading me to the window. We crouched down. ‘Don’t look,’ she said. ‘You mustn’t look!’
Seeing both my parents terrified left me frozen. I could only nod and follow my mother as she pressed herself against the floor. The chants grew louder. An ancient Polynesian tongue, so distant I couldn’t make sense of it. The drums pulsed and hammered behind them. Our house was shaking now. Pictures fell from their places on the wall. Silverware speechless clattered to the floor in the kitchen. My father, knife in hand, crouched by the door, his face a mask of fear and determination. I’d never seen such a look in a man’s eyes.”
Quinn watched as Mr. Akau’s own eyes glistened, their gaze so distant.
“Even from the floor, I could see the lights from the torches. How they burned! Brighter than the sun.” He swept his hand out. “Hundreds of torches, cutting through the night like a golden dagger. And then I did something I should not have done. Something that I’ll never forgive myself for.”
Quinn bit his lip in anticipation. He looked down and noticed he’d been wringing his hands so hard they’d turned red.
“I crept up and looked out that window. I saw the beings that played those drums. Chanted those ancient chants. Carried those torches that glowed like demons’ eyes. The Night Marchers. Warriors from ancient times. The ones in the lead blew on their conch shells, so loud I felt my ears would bleed. In their hands they carried spears, their heads adorned with all manner of stone and bones. Their feet made no sound upon the road. They were marching, but floating, their ghostly pale bodies swirling like vapor, human one minute, shimmering blue mist the next. Their eyes were white orbs. Pure white like snow, yet they saw everything. I began to shiver. You could see the ice crystals hanging from their hair, their noses, their arms. Never had I experienced such cold.”
He leaned down with his head in his hands.
“They slowed when they reached the village. I crouched back down below the window…too afraid to look upon the Marchers for a second longer. We could hear shouts from the neighboring houses. Angry. Scared. Confused. The shouts turned to screams, the screams to howls. I stayed on the floor, my mother holding me in her arms, trying to block out the sound. My father looked at me, then, and smiled. I smiled back, unsure. Before I could speak, our door burst open, the wood splitting like kindling. My mother grabbed me by the head and shoved my face to the floor. I heard my father yelling, heard him struggle against something. A loud sound flooded the den, a swishing, sucking sound like a whirlpool. My father cried out. My mother held me tighter. I struggled against her, but she kept my face planted on the floor. How badly I wanted to see my father. The drums began once more. The conch shells blew their final call, and once more, the village was quiet. I opened my eyes, and my father was gone. The ground where he stood was blackened, as if touched by fire.”
He shook his head.
“The Marchers had taken him. He’d fought back, but they’d taken his soul, and so took his body, too. By the time the Marchers passed through, half the village had disappeared. Along with the remaining families, your great grandmother and I abandoned the village. Most of the survivors burned their homes and set off with their belongings on their backs, or pulled by carriages.” He paused and smiled. “Our village was called Malokahawai. Peaceful River. A silly name. For we did not know the horrors that went on there.”
“Horrors?” Quinn’s mind was so fuddled, he didn’t even know where to start.
“Something drew them to that place. The Marchers don’t appear randomly. They visit sights of ancient battles, or places where their own kin have fallen. But…” He scratched his beard once more, “Something felt…different about this group. They seemed to march for another reason.”
“They’re looking for the descendants of a long lost enemy.” He pointed to his cheek, where a white scar gleamed against his tan skin. It was in the shape of an upside down V, the exact opposite of Izzy’s own. “This is the mark they look for. The mark of Pele, the Goddess of Fire.”
Quinn looked down at the flower in wax paper. “Izzy…”
“I noticed her mark the day your family arrived. It’s not Pele’s mark, but it’s similar enough. If the Night Marchers see that, they’ll stop at nothing to take her.” He sighed. “Seventy-seven years ago…the flowers bloomed, and the Marchers came. Now, they’ve bloomed once more.”
Quinn moved his hand away from the flower as if it were hot as a stovetop.
“We need to leave!” Quinn shouted. “We need to…we have to…” He struggled to calm himself. “We need to...oh, Mr. Akau, what do we do?”
“We protect ourselves, Quinn. You must go back to your sister. Tell her everything I’ve said. Not matter what, you must make it clear to her that she’s in danger.”
“Alone? I…I can’t go back alone. I need you there with me.”
Mr. Akau reached out and took Quinn’s hand, patting it gently.
“I must stay here and do what I can. There is much work to do, and the sun is nearly setting. You’re brave. You have the spirit of a warrior inside you. You and Izzy both. I can see it clear as day.”
Quinn felt like the world was falling down around him. Like he was standing at the edge of a cliff with a strong wind and no balance. “What are we supposed to do?”
“You don’t think I’d tell my friend a story like that and not give him what he needs to protect himself? Heh! What kind of neighbor do you think I am?” He flashed a smile that set Quinn’s mind at ease.
“First, I want you to take these.” He lifted up a canvas sling filled with large, green leaves. “These are ti leaves. Put them around your house. Place them in a circle like a moat. The Marchers don’t like it, won’t go anywhere near it.”
“Like garlic for vampires.” The words felt silly even as Quinn said them, but it was the only thing he could think of.
Mr. Akau nodded. “Yes. Yes, I suppose you’re right. Like garlic for vampires.”
“Is that it?”
“No. There’s other things you must do. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Stay away from your windows. Lie facedown. If you hear the drums or the chants, don’t look up. Just lie still as can be. No lights, no noise. Not a sound.”
He handed Quinn the bag of ti leaves. He shoved it into his backpack along with the mended Godzilla.
“We can’t call the police? What about everyone else. Can’t they see the flowers too.”
“This county has one sheriff, Quinn, and I don’t think he’s up for what’s coming. And the flowers…” He shrugged. “I don’t know if everyone can see them.”
Quinn balked at that. “What do you mean? I’m seeing things? We’re seeing things?”
“It’s just a feeling I have. Special people can see the flowers. Not everybody. Who knows why? Perhaps the ones who can see are the ones who are meant to warn. Like us. People who believe in monsters.”
I’m treated weird enough. If I’m seeing flowers that aren’t there…what will people think of me, then?
“You should be off now, Quinn. It’ll be dark soon, and your sister needs to be warned.” He bent down and rested a hand on Quinn’s shoulder. “She’s older, I know. And she can be cruel to you, as sisters often are. But you need to protect her tonight. She doesn’t know what’s coming. You need to be the one in charge.”
Mr. Akau smiled. “I know you will. You’re strong, Quinn, and braver than you know. Go, now. Best you get down the mountain before dusk.”
“Okay,” he said, head still reeling. His legs felt like lead as he walked out into the grove and towards his bike. The sky was red and tinged with orange, eerily similar to the flowers.
He turned and found Mr. Akau on the front porch.
“One last thing! Don’t sleep with your feet pointed towards the door!”
Really? He couldn’t believe that was an actual rule. How on earth did he know that?
Because, he told himself, he’s Mr. Akau. He knows everything.
“No feet toward the door! Got it!”
He picked up his bike, making sure his backpack was strapped on tight, and got his foot on the pedal. He looked over his shoulder one last time to see Mr. Akau waving before racing down the winding mountain road, hoping he had enough time.
Please, let there be enough time.
The monsters were real. He knew that, now.
And they were coming.
* * *
The sun was just beginning to dip below the trees as Quinn burst into the house.
He looked around frantically, hoping that his sister hadn’t decided to go out on a joy ride with her band mates. With Mom and Dad away, that wouldn’t be a stretch.
“What?” Izzy called from the living room.
Setting the bag of ti leaves down on the kitchen counter, Quinn hurried inside, finding Izzy lazily splayed on the couch, watching a music video from some unlistenable band.
“We need to get ready,” Quinn said, so out of breath he could barely get the words out.
Izzy’s eyes never left the television.
“Get ready for what? We’re not having a party, last time I checked.”
“The Night Marchers,” Quinn said, “Mr. Akau told me-“
“Told you what, another ghost story?” She sprang up from the couch, “Why do you think I didn’t come with you, today? Because of this. Look at you! You got yourself all worked up because of some stupid bedtime story an old professor told you?”
Quinn fought down the urge to jump over the couch and tackle her.
“It’s not a story. Didn’t you see the flowers today? Did you notice anything at all?!”
Izzy scoffed. “He’s really gotten to you, hasn’t he?” She threw her arms up. “Is everyone in this town crazy besides me?”
Quinn felt his blood boiling, his cheeks burning. “He’s not crazy!”
“He’s as crazy as everyone else on Kaua’i. God, I can’t wait to get off this island. At least in Seattle people don’t still believe in fairy tales. Or Auckland. Jeeze, people were even cooler in North Dakota! You know what? I can’t wait until I turn eighteen. First thing I’m doing is buying a plane ticket off this rock.”
“Well guess what?” Quinn shouted, “if you don’t listen to me, you might not live to eighteen!”
He hoped that would be enough. He hoped that for once in her life, Izzy would take him seriously. Instead, she laughed. She laughed so hard she doubled over, holding her stomach.
“That’s good, Quinn. Because maybe the Night Marchers will come take me.” She held out her arms like the Mummy, slowly lumbering around the couch. “Come, Isabelllllllle,” she said in a deep, mocking voice. “We’re here to steal your soooooouuuuullllllllll.”
“Shut up!” Quinn screamed. He couldn’t take it anymore. “We need to put the leaves around the house. Now. Before dark.”
Izzy didn’t break from her Night Marcher impression. “Or else weeeee’llllll come, Quiiiinnnnnnnnn.”
“Yes, you idiot!” He cried. He didn’t care anymore about what Izzy thought of him. She had no idea what was coming.
“And we need to stay in our rooms past dark. Don’t look out the windows. Don’t lie on your back. Just stay face down.”
Izzy slowly lowered her arms, her head cocked to the side. “You…you really believe this, don’t you?”
Quinn couldn’t bother answering. Instead, he ran outside with the ti leaves, setting one every two steps until the whole house was surrounded. He kept two, one for himself and one for Izzy to keep in their beds.
The whole time, Izzy stood on the porch, half laughing, half in shock, watching as Quinn frantically positioned the leaves.
“Does Mr. Akau even know what century this is?” she called.
Quinn was so flustered he nearly tripped over Mom’s garden gnome. He was past caring if Izzy believed him. Now, he wished she would just shut up.
Fat chance of that.
“I still can’t believe Mom and Dad let you spend all your time up there in his weird little garden. Look at what it’s done to you!”
Quinn bunched up the canvas bag and threw it at her.
“I’m doing this to protect us! You just don’t get it, Izzy.”
Izzy threw the bag back, hitting Quinn square in the head. “Whatever, Bride of Frankenstein. At least I’m not the one putting magic leaves around the house. Maybe they’ll grow and you can finally meet Jack and the Giants. You don’t have any beans, do you?”
Quinn marched towards the porch, ti leaves in hand. He shoved one into Izzy’s chest. “Take it,” he said, trying to sound as tough as he could.
Izzy took one look at the green leaf and threw it to the ground.
Quinn watched her go into her bedroom, saw the light flick on from the porch.
Please, Izzy. Please just listen, for once in your life.
Quinn began pacing once darkness fell. He looked out the windows, into the valley beyond the last streetlight. The moon was low in the sky, a huge, orange orb hanging above the world like a paper lantern. Ti leaf in hand, he went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. He thought about making something to eat, but his insides were a mess. He couldn’t stop himself shaking. Fear and anger rushed through his body, and every sound was making him jump. He kept sniffing at the air, remembering what Mr. Akau said about the bad smells. All he could smell were the overripe bananas sitting on the countertop.
After he filled a glass of tap water, he turned off all the lights in the kitchen, letting his eyes adjust to the dark. A moment passed as he stood there, letting himself grow accustomed to the silence.
The silence. That’s how it began. He moved to the window and pressed his ear against the glass. Usually the insects were loud this time of night. He couldn’t hear anything. Not a single chirp. He shuddered.
Like the world stopped.
“Pretending to be a vampire?”
The lights flicked on as Izzy stood in the doorway, watching him with a smirk.
“Izzy, please. Shut the lights off. Just…just go back into your room.”
“Relax. I only came in to get a soda. Then you can go back to playing Mister Creeper Face.”
Quinn closed his eyes and tried counting to ten. With each second, he felt the anger bubble up inside.
“I don’t know why I bother,” he said, finally. “I don’t even know why I care. You don’t care about anything. You want to leave? Fine! I’ll save up myself to get you a ticket if you’re gonna be this horrible all the time!”
Izzy froze. Quinn watched her face. He’d seen that look many times before. It never meant anything good.
Without skipping a beat, Izzy charged through the kitchen and back into Quinn’s room yet again.
This time she didn’t bother locking Quinn out. Instead, she stopped in front of his dresser, hands on her hips, humming to herself.
“Let’s see,” she said. “What little plaything does Quinn not need anymore.”
“Ah!” she said, looking up at a Universal Monsters poster. “I guess he doesn’t want this one. Too old.” She reached up and tore it from the wall. Quinn gritted his teeth as he heard the paper rip. Izzy crumpled it up in her fist and tossed it aside. “And look at you!” she said, inching towards Quinn’s Mothra piggy bank. “I think I messed with you before. Let’s finish the job.”
Before he could lunge at her, Izzy had the bank over her head. She turned and glared at Quinn before smashing it on the ground. Pennies and quarters exploded across the carpet, spilling out from the cracked porcelain.
Quinn’s vision went red. He charged across the room, tackling Izzy to the ground. Sweat beaded his face as he tried to hold her down. Izzy squirmed and kicked, sending Quinn tumbling backwards until his head hit the foot of the dresser.
“I hate you!” he cried, gathering up the shattered Mothra bank.
“Well,” Izzy said, picking herself up off the ground. “Guess that makes two of us.” She pointed her finger, “You leave this room, you’re dead.”
She stormed out, slamming the door so hard behind her it nearly broke off the hinge.
Quinn leaned back against the dresser, and for the first time that day, he let himself cry.
After cleaning up the mess on her floor, Quinn sat on his bed, staring at the clock. It was almost midnight. The insects were still quiet, but that was all.
Maybe Mr. Akau was wrong. About the flowers. About the Marchers. About everything.
You’ve been listening to too many stories.
He shook the thought from his head. Mr. Akau wouldn’t lie to him. Not ever. He was the only person in the world who knew him, who understood him, who made him feel heard and seen.
“They’ll come,” he whispered. “And I’ll be ready.”
Quinn waited an hour before opening her bedroom door. He peeked down the hallway, listening for Izzy.
He’d cried himself numb. It happened more often than he liked to admit, and he often wondered if many boys his age cried at all. But he was done for now.
All that was left was anger. He never got along with his sister, but this night was different. Izzy was getting meaner by the day, and what she’d done tonight was just cruel. Quinn found it hard to love her at all. His heart felt hollow, just an empty hole in his chest. Izzy didn’t want anything to do with him With Mr. Akau. With Mom and Dad.
Things would be so much better, Quinn thought, if she just left.
He crept down the hall as silently as he could, careful to avoid the spots on the floor he knew would creak and whine underfoot. The hallway was dark, but he moved by the light of the moon trickling in from the window at the end of the hall. Izzy’s room was the last door on the right. Quinn paused when he got close. No light was shining under the crack. Izzy never went to bed early. But maybe tonight…
Holding his breath, Quinn inched the door open, careful to not make a sound. When it was open a sliver, he looked in. Izzy was fast asleep, her leg dangling off one side of her bed. She was snoring loudly, and Quinn could hear the music pumping from the headphones over her ears. He never could figure out how she slept with music blaring like that.
Her room was a total disaster. Mom always called it the ‘bomb zone’. Rumpled piles of clothes covered every inch of the floor. Used dishes and bowls were piled up on the nightstand, bags of chips scattered everywhere. It smelled like the locker room at school.
Quinn sneered at his sleeping sister.
Maybe you wouldn’t be such a miserable brat if you washed your socks every now and then.
He inched toward the bed, never taking his eyes off Izzy’s face. Even when she slept, she looked angry. The heavy metal streaming through the headphones probably didn’t help. No wonder she woke up in a bad mood all the time.
He remembered Mr. Akau’s final warning. ‘Don’t sleep with your feet pointed to the door’.
Izzy wouldn’t listen. Quinn didn’t think she ever would.
You want out? Fine.
He crawled along the floor, moving silently through the random piles until he was at the foot of the bed. He grabbed a hold of the leg, and, making sure Izzy was still snoring away, slowly began to pull. The bed was heavy, especially with Izzy on it, and it took a long time. Quinn pulled it inch by inch, stopping every so often to reposition himself as he shifted the bed away from the wall. He no longer cared if Izzy woke up and caught him. Anger fueled him, blocking his senses, filling him up until he felt ready to burst.
After ten minutes, he had the bed pointed towards the door. Izzy snored away as a new song began playing in her ears. Quinn stood up, staring down at her for a long time…watching the shadows dance off her face in the moonlight. He felt the urge to give her a slap, just for good measure.
Let’s see how you like this ghost story.
As quietly as he entered, Quinn left, shutting the door softly behind him.
Back in his own room, he looked at the clock. The red numbers were blinking ’12:00’.
On the dot.
He shut off the lights and crawled into bed, throwing the comforter up over his head. He lay face down, his face pressed into the pillow, and waited.
Ba-Bum. Ba-Bum. Bum Bum Bum Ba-Bum.
The drums woke him from a light, uneasy sleep. Quinn shook in his bed, pulling the blankets up higher until he was swathed in darkness. They were so faint, like the sound of thunder miles away. He couldn’t tell if he was hearing things, or if he was still dreaming.
He opened her eyes. The sound was drawing near. With every beat, they grew louder. Closer.
The wail of the conch shell tore through the night, piercing Quinn’s ear drums. He bit down on his lip to stop himself from screaming. It was so loud. How could anything sound so horrible?
The drums were closer now, and with them came the smell. Quinn’s nostrils quivered as a dank, rotting stench wafted into the room. It permeated the covers, his pajamas, even his own skin. It smelled like rotting fish baking in the sun. Like low tide. Like blood. It was so bad he could taste it. His mouth felt dry and sticky. He pressed his face into his pillow, coughing and gagging. The smell grew stronger as the drums pounded louder, faster, more determined.
Don’t look. No matter what you hear. No matter what you feel or smell or taste…don’t look.
The drums pounded once more, right outside the house, and fell silent. Quinn had given up trying to stop trembling. He held his hands over his mouth to block out the taste, the smell. The silence seemed to last forever.
Until the cold swept in. Even under the sheets, blanket, and comforter, Quinn was chilled to the bone. He could feel his fingers and toes go numb. His pillow was like ice against his face. It was a painful, sharp cold. An evil cold.
The knocking was coming from the front door. He listened in terror as it creaked open, and a howling wind ripped through the house. Pots and pans clattered. Silverware rattled. Chairs slid across the floor.
He curled herself into a ball, clutching onto the ti leaf until the stem snapped in his frozen hand.
The footsteps echoed loudly down the hall. Many of them, all marching together. He tried to count, but soon gave up. An army of the dead was in his house, in the hall right outside his bedroom door. The smell was so bad he could no longer think straight. Rotting meat. Sulfur. Wet, burning leaves.
He closed her eyes so tight he feared his eyelids would freeze shut.
Slithering, cold mist warped around him, kissing his skin like fire. He felt invisible hands of ice gripping his throat, and he struggled to breath. The ice filled his lungs, his stomach, his brain. The ice hands squeezed around his ankles, his wrists. Quinn’s heart was beating so hard he feared it’d burst, and the tears streaming down his cheeks froze like winter rivers.
The Marchers were walking out, now. Their ghostly footfalls echoing down the hall, back through the kitchen, out the front door. The smell left with them, and Quinn opened his mouth to suck in a breath of fresh air. He felt his wrists and ankles, rubbing the warmth back into them.
He jumped as the conch blew once more, and the drums answered in turn. Rolling over on his side, he opened her eyes, just a sliver, and saw the flames of the torches burning just outside the window. They glowed bright orange, brighter than the moon. Soon, they were moving. Torch after torch passed by as the Marchers made their way down the road. The drums faded after a time, drifting away and melding with the sound of the wind, until silence fell upon the world once more.
Quinn stayed in bed, trying to catch his breath, the ti leaf clutched to his chest. His thoughts swam a thousand ways in his head, visions of Mr. Akau as a little boy, seeing the undead warriors pass through the icy mist. His father, knife in hand, trying to protect him. The pure, white eyes of the Marchers. Cold eyes. Hunter’s eyes. Blind and all seeing at once.
Sighing, he let his body relax, tense muscles loosening as he sank down onto the mattress. Outside, the insects began to chirp. The night had returned to the living, once more.
The thought sent him into a deep sleep. One without dreams, without sounds or smells. Just darkness, silent and still…
Like the world had stopped turning.
* * *
Quinn woke with his whole body in pain. He searched his arms and legs for bruises, thinking he’d have plenty, but there was nothing there. Every muscle ached. His head felt like a bowling ball, thoughts muddled and foggy. For a split second, he forgot where she was, until he looked around his bedroom and found his Horror of Dracula poster looking down on him.
Outside the window, he saw it was a bright, cloudless day. The memories of the past night seared into his mind like a hot knife.
He stopped in the hall outside his sister’s door, his eyes drawn to the hardwood floor. There, leading all the way down, lay footprints. Far larger than any he’d ever seen. They’d come in barefooted, their toes leaving big imprints along the bamboo floor. Black footprints. As if they’d been burned in with a blowtorch from metal shop. A faint scent of old wood smoke blew through the air.
Breathing hard, Quinn balanced himself against the wall, following the footprints to Izzy’s room, afraid to even touch them.
His heart dropped when he reached the doorway.
The frame of the door was charred black, the door itself split into a thousand pieces. Quinn stepped over the splintered wood, knowing what he would find but hoping it wasn’t true.
Izzy’s bed was empty, a dark outline where she’d been laying asleep. It had the shape of her body, like a shadow, the mattress and blankets singed and smoking all around it.
Quinn staggered back, stifling a scream.
What have I done?
Originally published in Massacre Magazine, Issue # 5, edited by Julia Kavan. © 2015 by Patrick Moody
The man stumbled into the lobby of Willow Creek Pain Management, eyes wide, scratching at his skin as though a raging fire burned under its surface.
He staggered up to the desk, droplets of sweat beading his brow. Dark circles formed half-moon craters beneath eyes that glowed bright yellow in the sunken pools of his face.
Rachel knew he didn’t have much time left. His skin had gone sallow as old wax paper, jaw clenched so tight she was afraid he’d break his own teeth.
Why did he wait so long?
Surely he could see the sky. She made sure to hand out Farmer’s Almanacs to every one of her patients. Every patient. In actuality, she had two. Bobby Freedman had come in for his first visit a month ago. That one hadn’t gone well, either.
She wished they didn’t have to stay so far out like that, miles away from civilization. People like Bobby were stubborn. They liked being secluded, out where the lights weren’t so bright, where the sound of car engines were nothing but distant whispers. It made it harder for them to get help when they wanted it.
Most didn’t. In a way, she was glad for that. The ones who did come to the center certainly kept her busy, and she’d have a lot of explaining to do if twenty or thirty howling people showed up once a month after closing time. Her boyfriend was already on her about the hours she kept. She could only lie about late-night paperwork for so long.
But she’d never turn away the ones who yearned for comfort. Rachel had a soft spot for broken minds and tortured souls.
She led him to a small room down the hall, no bigger than a janitor’s closet. Aside from the heavy chain curled up in the corner, the space was barren. Bobby slumped down against the wall.
“I need it,” he gasped, nails digging into the raw flesh of his forearms. “Please, just…just stick it in me.” He rolled up his sleeve, presenting her with a veiny, bite-ridden bicep.
“It’s too late for that,” Rachel said.
“What? No, no. I can’t go through it again. Not straight. That last time…I…don’t make me beg...you can’t…”
“I’m sorry,” she said, checking her watch. “You’re lucky you got here when you did.”
He cocked his head. “Huh? I…I was sleeping. I thought it was tomorrow, anyway. You can’t blame me for getting the day screwed up…”
“Were you in the fields again?”
He shivered, hugging himself. “I can’t sleep under a roof. Not when it gets like this.”
“We have a lawn here, you know. And there’s the grove out back.”
“It’s not the same,” he spat. “Not like the farm. Not where they are.”
Rachel gave him a knowing nod.
“Take off your clothes.”
Bobby did so without question. He unbuttoned his shirt and undid his belt, letting his trousers drop to the floor. Rachel felt a sense of pity as she watched him fold his hands over his crotch, goose pimples raised on pasty flesh.
“Please. Please make it stop,” he cried, voice growing frantic as he clawed at his chest, his neck, the sides of his face. “Make it stop, make it stop, MAKE IT STOP!”
Rachel had been working at the Pain Management Center ever since she left college with a degree in sports medicine. For a while, it was relatively quiet. Willow Creek was a small community. Hicksville. Fly over country. The most dastardly injuries she ever dealt with were the broken wrists and twisted ankles of the local little league team. There was the occasional slip and fall worker’s comp case, too, but nothing extraordinary.
Not until those first few came down from the woods, lurking near the front door well after nightfall.
“NO!” Bobby snarled, doubled over in pain, “You said you’d help! You said-“
White foam dripped from his mouth as his body convulsed. The jolt sent him to the floor, arms and legs wrenching like a pretzel. The giant vein on his temple pounded so hard that Rachel could almost hear it. Red lines formed in the yellows of his eyes like food dye swirling in egg yoke.
“It will be over soon,” she said, lunging for the chain. She grabbed a hold of Bobby’s wrist and locked the shackle in place before he had a chance to move.
“Think of the sun, Bobby. Bright blue skies. Can you do that for me?”
He let out a loud howl, sad and deep like a wounded dog.
Rachel ran for the door. Bobby chased after her until the chain uncoiled and ran its whole length. He tried to claw at her sleeve, but the chain tightened, propelling him back against the wall.
She shut the door and slammed the six deadbolts into place, watching him from behind the thick glass.
Bobby clutched at his scalp, writhing in agony.
The hands went first.
His fingers elongated, knuckles cracking as bone and sinew wretched itself apart. His once manicured nails contorted in sharp, jagged points like discarded beach glass. Dark, wiry hair sprouted from his palms, down over the back of his hands until the pink skin was buried under a mass of sleek, oily fur.
His stomach tightened, abdomen contracting as he panted in shallow, ragged breaths. Rachel winced as the bones separated in a series of sickening snaps, jutting up against his skin like a trash bag stuffed with broken twigs. His shoulders slumped, muscles contracting, flesh ripping until dark blood oozed from the tears. His chest shriveled, rib cage sickeningly pronounced as the skin sucked in tight as a vacuum seal. Every inch of him was soon covered in thick, wild hair.
Bobby let out a bloodcurdling cry as his nose widened, cartilage popping as it pushed his eyes farther apart. The nose lengthened into a snout, whiskers protruding above lips turned black. The teeth sharpened to fangs, bone white and longer than Rachel’s fingers.
He writhed around on the floor, screaming so loud his voice went hoarse. His body retched as he vomited green sludge against the wall. His ankles cracked, tendons splintering as his feet and legs molded to grotesque, misshapen haunches.
When it was over, the thing Rachel saw was neither man nor beast, but something far worse. Some hellish monstrosity lying somewhere between. Even from behind the door, she could smell its putrid, animal musk.
It looked up though the glass, eyes demonic, faintly glowing.
Almost on reflex, she hastily made the sign of the cross.
She checked her supplies, making sure she had all she needed. The cabinet was filled with syringes, vials, and prescription bottles by the hundred. She took three bottles of Vicodin and put them in a plastic bag. She then pierced a vial of morphine with a syringe, pulling the plunger until the chamber was full.
Once the medication was set, she opened the walk-in refrigerator, where slabs of meat and frozen road kill dangled on hooks like some demented butcher shop. She chose the fawn she’d dragged off the road earlier that day. Suppressing a gag, she pried its frozen legs off the hook, watching as the coagulated blood pooled from the puncture wounds like crimson gel.
Bobby would be hungry. They were always hungry after the change. Rachel knew he’d prefer something warm. Something fresh, so he could feel the steam of the blood as it ran down his throat.
Sorry, Bobby, she thought, Looks like you’re stuck with a deer popsickle tonight.
She watched him from behind the glass, absently fingering the crucifix dangling around her neck. The creature in the next room clawed at the wall, dragging the heavy chain as it paced in manic fury. She had to remind herself that she was looking at a man. Bobby was still in there, somewhere. She couldn’t bear to think he wasn’t.
She waited until the beast wore itself out. Grunting, it collapsed onto the floor, resting its head on its front paws. She counted to one hundred once the yellow eyes closed. Syringe armed and ready, she carefully unbolted the locks.
The needle made a slight pop as she jabbed into the rough hide, emptying the morphine. Bobby shuddered but didn’t wake. Rachel made sure the shackle was secure, giving it a slight tug. It held. Well-forged silver never failed.
He needed to rest. Rachel laid the half frozen deer on the floor and returned to the front desk. With a heavy heart, she sank into the chair and stared at the clock. Seven hours till morning. Seven hours until the vile curse worked itself out of his system.
She eyed the bag of painkillers and sighed. For any normal injury, the dose was much too high. For Bobby…she wasn’t sure if it’d last more than a few days.
That’s what bothered her the most about people in his condition: The pain. It was unbearable. She couldn’t even imagine the horrors involved with the change. She had asked one of them about it, once.
“It doesn’t go away,” the old man said. “Even after the change is done. Your muscles are still torn. Your bones are still fractured. They heal faster than most, sure, but a month is hardly long enough. It never mends proper. Day after day, all you’re left with is the pain. The burning and the aching, the sting like knives in the gut. Can’t sleep, no matter how hard you try. And night after night, all you see is that damned moon hanging in the sky. It mocks you… and all you can do is wait...”
The man had been the town’s game warden, investigating a spate of animal mutilation around the local farms. It was only his second week on the job when he ran into them on the outskirts of the Wheeler’s place. It was his own fault, he’d said, for going out alone under a full moon. The initial wounds of the attack healed quickly enough, but it took another lunar cycle for him to truly understand the consequence.
It only happened up near the farms, way out on the town limits, on the borders of the national forest. The farmers themselves were fine. Rumor had it that they’d fitted all their equipment with silver, from the blades of their thrashers right down to the nails in their toolboxes.
The first victims were the hunters that flooded into Willow Creek during open season. Most kept to the designated grounds, but the few unlucky ones who posted up near the farmland quickly found themselves in hostile territory, especially when night fell.
Some were campers, like Bobby. He’d come to the Creek on his spring break from college, looking for a little peace and quiet. He was supposed to meet up with some friends, but they never showed, so he’d ventured off alone.
The rest were loners. Fringe dwellers. Pagan spiritualists looking to commune with mother Gaia or Doomsday preppers waiting out the inevitable apocalypse in their hand built lean-tos and fortified cabins. People with few friends or family. Folks whose disappearances wouldn’t cause a big stir.
The ones in the woods were careful about whom they chose.
Most of them learned to accept it, Rachel discovered. The ones who didn’t usually ended up killing themselves.
She couldn’t reverse it, though she’d spent countless nights researching how. Surgery was out of the question. There was no medical precedent. All she could do was ease the pain. It wasn’t much. In the end, all she wound up doing was turning them into junkies. She knew it was illegal to dump that many pills on somebody at once, but at least they weren’t robbing and killing for it on the street.
The first pale rays of dawn flooded through the glass door. Rachel checked her watch just to be sure it was safe.
She found him lying stark naked on his back, pale as a bottom feeder, lips cracked and caked in dried blood. He looked up with watery, grey eyes.
“It’s morning,” she said, kneeling down to hand over his clothes. “You made it.”
Bobby struggled to move. She released the shackle off his wrist and helped him up, carefully bending his battered limbs as she shimmied his pants over his legs, trying her best to not look at the purple bruises that covered him head to toe.
“I’m sorry,” he said, staring down at the floor, “if I said anything…did anything…”
“It’s fine,” Rachel replied. “Just don’t wait ‘till the last minute next time, understand?”
He nodded, embarrassed, looking down at the mangled deer carcass.
“Some buffet you got.”
“That one was on the house. Your hunting days are over.”
“You need help cleaning up?”
She looked around the room, to the gnawed bones of the fawn, the guts and entrails splattered and dripping between claw marks dug into the sheetrock.
“I can manage,” she said. “But you need to be on your way before this place opens.”
She led him to the lobby and gave him a pair of old crutches. Bobby’s face screwed up in pain as he lowered himself onto them.
“You’ll get the hang of it after a bit,” she assured him, then placed the bag of painkillers in his coat pocket. “If you need any more, you know where I am. Or even if you’re just hungry. I’m always finding game for the fridge.”
“I’ve only eaten animals, you know.”
“In case you were worried about…you know. They…they wanted me to try a human. A hiker.” He shuddered. “They said the young ones taste best. They…they said they’d show me what parts to start with...”
“Bobby, listen to me, you can’t-“
“I didn’t do it,” he said. “Even when I felt the change rip through me...The idea of it, the thought of it…”
“That’s a good thing. You shouldn’t feel ashamed.”
“I can’t keep fighting it, you know. One day I’ll have to.”
Rachel saw the pain in his eyes. Pain no drug could ever dampen. It was the pain of someone who was a stranger in his own skin. Someone who didn’t feel like a someone anymore.
A tear rolled down his cheek. “It makes me sick, Rach. I can still smell her. I…I wanted to. I so badly wanted to…the thoughts…they keep piling up in my head. I can’t shake them out anymore.”
She took his hand. His skin burned like a stove top.
“If I ever do it, I want you to kill me,” he said. “Put me down. Use silver. Real silver. Slit my wrists with it. Melt it down and pour it down my throat. String it up and hang me with it. It doesn’t matter. Okay? I need you to promise.”
Rachel looked down at his hand, tracing the path of a burst and blackened vein with the tip of her finger.
That wasn’t a promise she’d be able to keep, and she sensed he knew it, too.
Bobby reached for the bag she’d given him and shook a whole bottle into his mouth before he turned and limped out the door.
Rachel watched as he hobbled down the road, hoping that none of what he said would ever come to pass. She hoped the others would leave him be. After a time, he disappeared into the trees, back to the hunting grounds.
She glanced at the calendar. It would be twenty-seven days until the next full moon. Twenty-seven days to sit and wait and worry. Twenty-seven days until they poured down from the hills, and she was left to deal with the cursed men and the monsters that raged inside them.
Rachel began to dream.
She dreamt of the smell of blood and fur, that primal funk of iron and grime, and the way it lingered in her nostrils no matter how vigorously she scrubbed the floor.
She dreamt of ribcages breaking, of white bone snapping and the marrow inside.
She dreamt of the prayers she recited, jumbled words that fell on the ears of a deaf God no matter how many times she said them
She dreamt of polished silver, the way its surface gleamed in moonlight.
The Gondolier’s Story
Published in America’s Emerging Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers, copyright © 2019 Z Publishing House
My old Captain, Siya her name was, had a penchant for philosophy when it was just me ‘n her at the till, plyin’ the solar currents between moons. She had a bucket load of phrases, some she borrowed along the way, most she’d conjured up herself, and one she repeated more oft than not was this: “I reckon all you need for a civilization, the only real thing, is a good story. Myths and long memories. That’s what it takes. Once you have those, you’re up and runnin’.”
Captain Siya gave me plenty to think about. Plenty of curious ideas to figure, and I’d spend my time turnin’ ‘em over in my head until I thought I had a grasp.
She gave me a book, once, and books were rare. Felt like she was givin’ me her first-born. Said a captain needs to know their history. I didn’t tell her I hardly knew my letters, though I had other things goin’ in my favor. Star placement, current streams, and no small reckoning of physics. Still, she shoved that book into my hand, and you can bet I learned my letters. Learned ‘em quick. Didn’t want to be First Mate forever, mind you.
Can’t tell you the name of the book. But I can tell you that it was old. It was one of them paper ones, too. The kind you see under glass in them fancy museums? I count myself lucky. I don’t know how many people have actually held one, before. Anyway, at first I couldn’t make head or tail of the names, the people or the places. They confounded me. Confound me still, though I suppose I understand ‘em better in hindsight. Most of the stories were about gods, or what they called gods, and heroes, which were, as far as I could figure, humans like you and me. They were a crude bunch. No strangers to a bit of bloodshed. The heroes weren’t all that heroic, and the gods seemed to bicker more than a crew waitin’ for back wages on a long-orbit haul.
I can tell you, without a doubt, the most important thing I learned from that book is this: Human beings, from way back ‘till now, haven’t changed a lick.
Captain Siya died with her boots on. Once the mutineers were cleared, and I am not ashamed to admit I took great pleasure in that, we set her in a pod and discharged it from the loading dock. She’s floatin’ around the star Hagious, about now. Must be. I put the book in her hands. It was the last thing I did for her.
Back moonside I was commended for bravery and offered a captaincy by the folks who owned the ship. I declined. Didn’t want to haul bio supply anymore. Didn’t have the stomach for it, not without old Siya to whip me into shape and tell me what needed doin’. After a time, a new group of folks approached me, and offered me a position that I couldn’t turn down.
They’d seen my commendation. Turns out Captain Siya had friends in strange places. They asked if I’d ever killed and I said yes. They asked if it was justified under Merchant Law and I said yes, I was pretty sure. That was the size of it. I was to be a captain, all right, but a captain without a crew.
They showed me around the vessel, a gondola, they called it, and I swore the name rang a distant bell. It was a sleek thing, outfitted for pleasure but still offering some firepower. I stepped aboard and fell in love. She was called the Nine. I asked one of ‘em, the woman with the crisp uniform and shiny metals what it meant. She explained that it was a transport ship, built for nine individuals, ten including myself. I’d take these nine to a certain location, drop ‘em off, and wait for one to return. She spoke so quick and so matter of fact it took me a second to realize what was wrong with that last part.
“One?” I asked. “How ‘bout the other eight?”
“The nine you will be transporting are soldiers,” she said. “Best of the best. The destination you are transporting them to is a testing ground. One will return. You are to transport said soldier back to this base. For this, you’ll receive a captain’s salary, full pension, and housing.”
“And that…all that, for one trip a year?”
I went to shake her hand so quick she nearly pulled her gun.
The first voyage to Labyrinth One, that’s the name of the testing ground, was a strange one. I kept my composure for the most part, but bein’ around soldiers makes me nervous. Don’t know why. Constables, too.
They boarded in silence, six men and three women. I call ‘em men and women, but kids is what they were. Each wore a simple combat suit, light-weight and shining black like insect shells. They got on the Nine and took their seats. I smiled, I think, and welcomed them. Maybe I told ‘em a joke, or said something akin to a joke, just to break the tension. The sprats were ignorin’ me completely, their eyes fixed on some distant speck in the middle distance. Now that I think on it, them poor kids had a lot on their minds. Some ramblin’ gondolier wasn’t worth their time.
Labyrinth One had a single landing platform, a sleek metallic disc set into the cliff face. The thing was magnetized. Aside from attaching and detaching, I had nothin’ to do but wait. I wished ‘em well. Can’t remember the exact words. I’m sure I stumbled over ‘em, and I’m sure none of them heard me, anyhow.
They rose; all tensed up, I could even tell beneath the combat duds, and unloaded their packs. Knives. Rope. Guns. Swords. Lights. Typical gear. They armed themselves on the platform. Still silent.
That was the damndest thing. Weren’t soldiers supposed to be the most talkative before a fight? That’s when all that bonding happened. Battlefield camaraderie.
The nine soldiers marched single file into the mouth of Labyrinth One. I thought of the heroes from the paper book, those naked men in nothin’ but leather sandals and magic swords the crazy godlings gave ‘em. They messed around in caves, too.
I hoped them nine kids were smarter than those heroes.
I waited most of the afternoon, until the green moon rose and the sky turned that sleepy shade of purple. Footsteps woke me from a daydream. Loud, harsh things, bangin’ and clangin’ in the dark, until one of the soldiers, I think it was one of the soldiers, stumbled out onto the platform.
It took me a while to figure if it was a boy or girl.
Her skin wasn’t skin anymore. I know that’s a terribly unhelpful way of puttin’ it, but it’s the honest truth. She limped onto the Nine with feet no longer feet, and gripped the seat with hands that weren’t quite hands. Mostly it was her eyes that struck me. Glass, I think, or some kind of plastic.
“You…you alright, private?” I ventured.
Her face changed, then. Colors shimmered. The girl… was she still a girl? Her voice sounded like something you’d get over a bad comm link, like the disturbance when there’s too much radiation in the atmosphere, you know?
“I am Onda.” It was a fuzzy, metallic croak. “And I am the champion. Ready for deployment, Gondolier.”
An arm that wasn’t an arm bent up in a weird angle.
Too many joints.
I returned the gesture with a weak salute.
I was twenty when Captain Siya’s corpse joined the stars. I took this job a year later, and I have served as Gondolier for forty years. My hair is white. My teeth are all new. My bones creak, and my back aches somethin’ terrible when the white moon makes its wintry visit and the temp drops. But I can still mend sails, and work the till, and navigate the stars. Forty years. Forty trips to Labyrinth One. Forty years of greeting nine boarders and ferrying one back.
Scared me to death, each one of ‘em. I asked the woman in brass, the one who’d set me up with this job, where the survivors ended up.
“They serve on the Holdout Moons,” she said. “Tip of the spear.”
“Super soldiers?” I asked. I’d heard of such things.
“No,” she said. “Heroes.”
That was all I could get out of her.
Three hundred and sixty dead kids.
Figure the sense of that trade off. Go ahead. I’ll give you time. Been turnin’ that one over more than half my life.
It was routine. Natural as spit. The would-be heroes boarded the Nine, and I flew them to Labyrinth One. I’ve aged. The heroes never did.
We landed on the strip. It was cold that mornin’, and my knee was actin’ up fierce. I made to settle in for a long, painful wait, dreamin’ of the hot shower that would be my reward for a service well done.
The kids got ready on the platform. Belts with blades and firearms. One had a pole. Another some kind of axe. Three had new fangled weapons, somethin’ to do with sound waves. They looked silly, really, but I knew better than to scoff at military tech.
As they marched, the boy bringin’ up the rear stumbled, and a knife slipped from his belt. The wind was howlin’ so loud at the cave mouth I don’t think he even heard it drop.
“Hey!” I yelled over the wind. “Hey! Private! You dropped-“
He disappeared, swallowed by the shadow of the cave.
The knife skidded across the platform. I hopped off, a wave of hot pain searing my knee. Another disc wrenched in my lower back as I went to pick it up. The thing was huge. Serrated, like the kind hunters have on the green moons. The kid’s name was etched on the wooden hilt, burned on with a soldering iron.
“Oh, hell,” I muttered. Thing must have been at the kid’s side his whole time though boot. Maybe it was a family heirloom, and old Mamma or Papa Parker gave it to little Paker, followin’ the family footsteps to war.
I’d never been inside Labyrinth One. I had orders to stay out, for one. Second, the ones that came out scared me so bad I’d started taking pills for the nightmares.
I hefted the blade, feeling the wood grain against my palm. Hadn’t gripped a knife that big since I’d dispatched the last of the mutineers all them years ago. Heirloom or not, I had no business holdin’ it. But Kenji did.
Labyrinth One was quiet. Dark as sin, too. I reached down to my belt, blindly exploring with shaky hands until I found my torch. I clicked it on, and a welcome orb of clean, white light enveloped me like an egg. The walls of Labyrinth One weren’t rock, like I figured they’d be, it being built into the side of a cliff and all, but of smooth metal. I took a step, stubbing my toe somethin’ fierce on a rock. I lowered the torch and found the floor littered with them. It was rough goin’, and I had to lift up my knees with every aching step, like hiking through the woods when the roots come up like twisted snakes waiting for an ankle to break.
A scream bounced off the metal walls and set my molars vibrating. Labyrinth One seemed to be nothing but hallways, and none of ‘em were straight. They branched off and wound, sometimes bending in sharp ninety-degree turns. They forked, and some just ended with a flat, featureless wall. I followed the screams. A few shots rang out, and when they did I crouched down, thinking one would hit me, as I couldn’t tell where the damned things were comin’ from.
Blood dries brown. Seems simple enough, but some people don’t know, so I figured I’d include that bit. The walls of Labyrinth One were coated in it. It looked like rust, only I smelt it, and soon came upon some that wasn’t so dry. Puddles of it, bright red. Smears. Drops, leading like a trail. Rivulets trickling around bones.
I stopped at a fork. One of the kids was on the floor in front of the left hall. He was dead. I don’t know where his lower half was. With my torch in one hand and Parker, Kenji’s knife in the other, I stepped over him.
Never noticed just how white the spine is.
Wasn’t long before I found the soldier’s lower half. It was slumped against the wall, propped, like he’d been sitting there. Another turn and I found one of the girls. She’d been impaled right through the metal wall. Luckily, and I say that for my own sake, she’d been pinned face first. I didn’t have the strength or the stomach to see her face.
Labyrinth One stretched on in its darkness and serpentine curves, its craggy, uneven floor and odd acoustics that made me think perhaps I was hearin’ some of them new sound weapons and gettin’ brain damage. My knees were screamin’. The handle of Parker, Kenji’s knife was slick with my sweat. I passed more of the kids.
Some were fresh, but most were skeletons, or close to it. I recognized most of the faces.
A roar brought me to my knees, and with it came a smell like some kind of electrical fire. My nose ain’t what it used to be. Takes somethin’ real powerful to catch my notice.
That roar. It shook the ground. Rocks and bones shifted under my feet. One of my boots had cracked, and my heel was bleeding. I limped on. It was foolish, I know. But none of the dead boys and girls had been Parker, Kenji. By my count, and I was so frightened I was surprised I could count, there were two left.
The hallway broadened, ending in a circular chamber.
The roar was close, now. I clicked off my torch and crouched in what shadow I could find. Didn’t do any good. With a loud pop, greenish light flooded the place from long bulbs snaked along the walls.
Parker, Kenji and a girl were in there. Somethin’ else was, too. It was big and moving through these thick bundles of smoking wire that hung down like vines. Large glass tubes that looked like sleep pods lay cracked and strewn on the floor. In the center was somethin’ that looked like some kinda battery. Them nuclear ones that keep the colder moons heated and lit.
It powered a great mess of a machine. Gears and mechanical arms. Pincer like things, the kind you find on certain insects. Saws and tubes of fluid. A dented table was set in front of it. The sound it made was deafening.
But that wasn’t what kept me crouched in the shadow. It was the other thing in there with us. Tall, stalking through the wires. It roared again, and when it did, I heard something like the hissing of a hydraulic pump, and steam poured out of what I took for its mouth.
The girl charged with her pole, the tip a gout of liquid blue flame. The thing, machine, I realized, swatted it away. It stood twice her height, and was composed of a grey, matted metal. The girl threw the pole aside, and in a blinding motion drew her pistol and arched the muzzle under the thing’s jaw. She managed three rounds before it took her by the leg with one hand and the arm with another, lifting her over its head and down upon the two horns protruding from its skull. She didn’t cry out as they pierced her through.
Another mechanical hiss, another roar, and it was upon Kenji, Parker. I cried out to the boy before the metal hulk struck, and even aimed to toss him the knife. My voice caught hoarse and strained in my throat, and instead of fighting back, Kenji, Parker let his arms drop to his sides, his weapons forgotten, and saluted the machine.
I’ve thought of this moment for some time now, debatin’ which things I should leave in and which are better left out. The more I think on it, the less particular the better. Trust me on this. I haven’t slept much since then, and I don’t wish that kinda aggravation on anyone, especially someone willin’ to listen to an old gondolier’s tale. There’s some things you don’t want in detail.
That machine, not the living one, mind you, but the one in the middle of the room…that’s what went to work on Kenji, Parker. The one with the horns kept him steady on the table.
What followed was butchery. Plain and simple. Quick, precise butchery, and when it was done flayin’ the skin and peelin’ back muscle, sawin’ bones and inserting wire and metal rods, the boy wasn’t a boy anymore.
In time the horned machine let go. My legs had gone numb from crouchin’ so long, and the numbness was twistin’ to a dull pain. But I never moved. Just watched and waited until the heap of metal draw in one big, heavin’ breath. Though it couldn’t have been breath. More like that hiss the horned one made. It sat up, gazing around the room with those glass eyes I’ve been seein’ in my rear view for thirty years. They found me in the shadow. I panicked, looking to the horned one, hoping it wouldn’t notice, but the thing looked like it had shut down. It stood posed to the butcher machine like a statue. Spatters of blood hissed on against its steaming plates.
The new soldier stepped down off the table. It was unsteady on its new bearings, so I rushed to give it some help.
“You were to wait at the ship,” it said. The eyes were so round and glassy that there were no pupils, so I couldn’t tell if it was really lookin’ at me.
I held out the knife, hilt side first.
“I thought you might need this.”
Its head jerked down. “No.”
“I saw you drop it on your way in.”
It didn’t answer, and I didn’t expect it to. The ones that come back aren’t a talkative lot, and when they do have somethin’ to say, it’s almost shouted, and so earnest it’s abrasive. They don’t talk like us. It’s almost like slogans.
“You know how to get out?”
It stooped down until its reflective face was level with mine.
“They do not show us the exit. We are to find it ourselves.”
I was going to answer, but it grabbed a hold of me.
“You have already.”
It pointed to my bleeding foot.
“Your bio stream,” It said. “It will lead us from this place.”
We followed my blood by torchlight until we made it back to the gondola. It shoved its way past me and onto the Nine, taking a seat near the front before I had a chance to board.
I dialed up the engine, and once it blinked to life I made my decision. That would be my last haul to old Labyrinth One.
We flew in silence. It didn’t look at me. I don’t know if it ever truly had.
“You sure about this?” I offered the knife for the last time.
“Where I’m going, I have no need of it.”
I let the matter settle there, and slipped the knife into my good boot. It has served me well ever since.
“And where is that?” I asked.
“The Holdout Moons, where the enemy spreads like disease. It’s there I’ll earn my glory.”
I don’t think I said anything after that.
I brought us up atmosphere side, studying the smattering of stars. It took a while to spot Hagious, and I wondered if Captain Siya circled it still. I wondered, too, if the paper book was still intact inside the glass coffin.
Myths and long memories, she’d said. That’s all it took. Damned if she was right.
The Gravedigger’s Call
copyright © 2019 by Patrick Moody
Originally written as the prologue to THE GRAVEDIGGER’S SON, this piece was intended to give the reader a better glimpse into the day-to-day life of a Gravedigger, both inside the cemetery and out. The events take place 300 years before the novel begins.
He was only to dig them up, and Speak to them.
The Gravedigger sat sharpening his shovel among the headstones. Black obsidian, it gleamed in the light of the lantern. Slowly, back and forth, he ran a whetstone along its point. Under the blue shade of the moon the engraved shapes danced on the polished black. It was a tool of the greatest importance, an heirloom passed down through his bloodline since the first of his kind exhumed the earth. He leaned forward and whispered softly to it.
“Tonight, my friend. Tonight we will Speak with the dead.”
He slid a finger along the shovel’s edge, deeming it sharp enough. Propping it against his shoulder, the Digger made his way through the yard. The cemetery loomed before him in its vast expanse, through fields and meadows, hills and rivers. Solemn gray stones rose from the earth, spread out like some silent city. As he passed he took note of the names, the dates of birth and death, for a Digger must know all who rest in his yard. He was their keeper.
He climbed up a small hillside, out of which sprung weathered tombstones narrow and bent, some badly tilted and threatening to topple. He placed them right side up, testing the strength of the soil. The stones on the hills were always in disarray. Perhaps it was the work of those who slept beneath them. Whether this was out of malice or boredom, he did not know. He did not pretend to understand the ways of the Dead.
He was only to dig them up, and Speak to them.
He continued his march through the silent city with only lantern’s light to guide him.
The lone grave stood at the top of the hill. He picked away at creeping moss, uncovering the name chiseled into the slab and the epitaph beneath it.
Edmin Grant of Shadefall.
Passed from this World and into the Beyond in the comforts of home and company of those he kept dear.
The Gravedigger knelt and placed a hand over the slate.
“Hold on, Edmin. I am coming.”
He dug at a steady pace. No need to rush. The Dead would wait. The ground was soft and gave easily. The obsidian shovel worked into it like a knife through butter. He dug deep, stabbing through roots and clay before he heard that familiar crack. The Gravedigger threw the shovel out of the hole and set about uncovering the casket.
In one swift motion he pried open the lid, rotting wood and rusted hinges snapping and splintering under the pressure. He set the debris aside and studied the corpse.
Edmin lay in a state of peaceful repose, arms crossed over his chest, fingers intertwined. His funerary garments had begun to unravel, the threading loose and rotted. The skin had long been wasting away, gray and wrinkled, thin as parchment. A few patches had dissolved here and there, exposing yellowed bone.
So, the worms haven’t gotten to you yet. Count yourself lucky, Edmin. Your casket is strong
Edmin’s beard had grown long post-mortem, an unruly thicket white as snow. The Digger removed a small blade from his belt and undid the stitching behind the lips. Using both hands, he coaxed open the jaw.
Time wears. Time degrades. Time turns life to dust.
But not you, old boy. Not yet.
The Gravedigger placed his hands upon the dead man’s temples, preparing to speak the ancient Words of Resurrection. He felt the warmth of his fingertips against Edmin’s cold flesh, every nerve sizzling as he worked himself into the Digger’s Trance.
“I have dug deep, and I have reached you. Hear me now, Departed. I have listened to your Call, and have journeyed down from the land of the Living. With these Words, I give you breath.”
He placed his index finger on top Edmin’s forehead, lightly brushing along the eyelids.
“With these hands, I give you Life. Speak now, friend.”
The dead man’s eyes opened. Ooze the texture of egg yoke seeped from sunken lids. They had been his eyes, all those decades ago, and now only hollow sockets hooded in shadow.
Edmin twitched, head jerking side to side.
“Calm, calm,” the Digger said softly.
Edmin sat up, bones cracking and splintering as he contorted. He opened his mouth and moaned. His breath smelled of earth and rotted cloth.
“You seek my aid,” The Gravedigger said. “Tell me, friend, what you would have me do?”
“The floor….” He whispered, “The floor…Alys…it’s there…it’s there!”
“What’s there, Edmin? What is it?”
Edmin set hollow sockets on the Gravedigger for the first time, his mouth twisted in agony. He reached out a spindly, skeletal hand.
“My wife, Digger. You must…you must tell her…show her…”
* * *
The Gravedigger led his horse into the city. It was a vast, sprawling thing of winding cobbled roads and tall wooden houses. They seemed to spring haphazardly, with their steeped and gabled roofs, weathered shingles, and countless chimneys that reached into the night sky like ten thousand smoking fingers. They reminded him of the tombs in the yard.
The destrier slowed to a trot, and the crowd parted to let the black-clad rider pass. Each bowed to the Gravedigger, tracing the sign of the Void through the air.
He came to a narrow house nestled behind a wood gate and wilting garden. A lone lantern burned pale in the window. If not for Edmin’s precise directions, he would have missed it for a thousand similar homes.
He knocked, brushing the road dust from his cloak. An old woman greeted him from the other side. She let out a squeak as her eyes fell on his black clothing, and quickly allowed him inside. It wasn’t customary to keep a Gravedigger waiting. She bowed courteously and traced the sign of the Void. The Digger nodded in turn.
“Yes,” she said hesitantly. “That is I.”
“May I enter?”
She scurried aside, giving him a wide berth.
He made his way down the hall. Alys followed close behind, wringing her hands.
“Can I…can I get you some tea? Or-“
“No. Thank you.”
“I have some biscuits. Or…or cheese, if you prefer.”
The Gravedigger did not answer, too busy pacing the entryway, studying the creaks and moans of the floor. He paused by the staircase, lightly pressing down with his heel. The wood was soft and bowed beneath the heavy boot.
The Digger knelt. He rapped a knuckle against the boards. Removing the iron bar from his belt, he placed it under a small crack, prying gingerly until the board gave way with a snap. Alys jumped. He reached down and pulled out a small object wrapped in twine and burlap.
He motioned for Alys to hold out her hand. She did so, shaking, as he unwrapped the burlap, revealing a copper-plated melody box. Its sides were engraved with images of twisting vines and blooming flowers. He gently wound it, placing it onto Alys’ palm as small clockwork hammers fell upon brass bars and notes began to chime. The music came sweetly, and when it did, Alys’ face glowed like a child lost in wonder.
“He hid it,” she said. “All this time. He hid it. I’d thought he’d sold it, or given it to the raiders when the city was sacked. They’d taken everything else. Everything that could be taken.”
“Edmin knew how much you loved it,” The Gravedigger said. “Even when you went hungry, he vowed to never part with it. His only regret was that he passed on to the Beyond before revealing its hiding place.”
“What-“ She hesitated.
The Gravedigger was patient, and gave her time to collect herself as the tinkling melody played in the hall.
“What else did he say?”
He leaned in, his lips close to her ear. She listened intently, trembling as he spoke in his low, calming tone.
“He said that he loves you very much. He said he’s been waiting for you, and if need be, he’ll wait a thousand years.”
Alys nodded, quivering.
“Can I…can I give you a silver?” she asked, voice unsteady. “It’s not much, but it’s all I have to spare. For all your work.”
“We take no payment. ‘Tis the Vow. The service gives more comfort than any coin.”
He paused at the door. “Is there anything you’d like me to tell him?”
“Oh,” she said, smiling, as if remembering some distant dream. “There are many things. Much too much. I…I think I’ll tell him when we meet again. Thank you, Gravedigger.” Again, she traced the sign, holding the melody box close to her chest.
The Gravedigger let himself out and rode back to the cemetery, to his home among the tombs and ossuaries, to the flower adorned plots and weathered stone, whistling an old, nameless tune as a red sun rose in the sky.
Celia and the Swing
Originally published as “Ten Little Indians” copyright © 2015 by Patrick Moody; first appeared in Dark Moon Digest #20, edited by Stan Swanson and Lori Michelle
“Ten Little Indians” was also produced as an audio drama by The Wicked Library, appearing in Episode 722, produced by Daniel Foytik and narrated by Addison Peacock.
Celia’s friends loved to sing. She could still remember the first time she heard them, out behind the old stable. It was late afternoon, and the sun was just beginning to dip beneath the rows of willows lining the gravel drive. She remembered the excitement she felt, drawn to the song like a moth to lantern light. She remembered the damp grass brushing her ankles, the nervousness growing and flitting in her tummy like ice-covered butterflies as she spied them around the corner.
For the whole week, Celia had been exploring the yard. Her new house had a big one, and for the time being, it was all hers. Outside was good. There was a lot to do. In her mind, it was magical. A place where anything could happen.
She didn’t like being inside. The house was old and smelled like must and mothballs. She didn’t like the way the wallpaper peeled like the skin of an old banana, or the strange hum of the rusted radiators that made the floors go click, creak, click, creak. It sounded alive, and groaned as if it were sick. And it was always worse at night.
She didn’t like how big all the rooms were, how empty and hollow they felt, the hallways narrow, all sharp and jagged edges, or the old, dusty paintings that lined the walls, pictures of long-dead people in strange clothes and eyes that looked angry. Nothing seemed right. Half the lights didn’t work, and the ones that did would spark and sizzle if you flicked the switches too fast. Even the water in the tub came out reddish-brown, and the kitchen didn’t have a refrigerator. Celia was actually getting tired of eating pizza and Chinese delivery every night. All the soda was giving her tummy aches.
Mom and Dad had bought the house so they could “flip” it, though she wasn’t quite sure what that meant. First she thought they were going to live there forever, but Dad said it was only temporary. Him and Mom wanted to fix it up, and once they scraped and hammered and painted enough, some other family was going to move in. Celia wished they were that other family. It’d be nice to live in a house that wasn’t falling apart.
She watched Dad up on the ladder on the front porch, working the paint roller up and down the giant columns. He told her that it was a special kind of house. A plan-tay-shun. Celia repeated the word over and over until it got all jumbled and didn’t make sense anymore. It was like a man-shun, he said, only a bit different. One lucky family lived in it, but there were a lot of other families who worked for them. Celia thought that sounded nice, but Dad said it was a very, very bad thing, and that she’d learn about it in school. Celia just nodded.
As she watched him slop on the fresh paint, she heard a sweet lilt of voices in the distance. The sound carried across the breeze, soft and gentle as a sparrow’s song. Celia skipped along down the drive, following it to the stable. It was an old, run down thing, the wood half-rotted and covered in thick, prickly moss. She stopped and kept perfectly still, straining her ears. The voices swelled. Children’s voices.
“One little, two little, three little Indians
Four little, five little, six little Indians
Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians
Ten little Indian boys”
Celia crept over to the side of the stable, making sure to keep low and quiet. She peered around the corner and saw them, a small group of kids, hands interlocked, slowly moving in a circle. She’d never heard that song before. It sounded old, like a grandmother’s nursery rhyme.
“Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians
Seven little, six little, five little Indians
Four little, three little, two little Indians
One little Indian boy”
She watched the smiles on their faces, the warmth in their eyes as they slowly spun like a nine-headed top.
She gasped as her foot landed on the dried twig.
The voices all paused as one, and the only sounds Celia heard were the crickets in the trees and the beating of her own heart.
She kept her eyes trained on her feet.
“Someone’s there,” one of the boys said.
“It’s a girl!” another chimed. “I saw her.”
“She was watching us,” a third said.
Celia closed her eyes. She didn’t want to be caught spying. Making new friends was hard enough, and she didn’t want to get a bad rep-yu-tay-shun. Mom said those weren’t good to have.
“It’s okay!” the first voice called. “You can come out, if you want.”
“We won’t bite!” another chirped.
Celia gathered herself, taking a deep breath before marching out around the corner. She found the children still standing in a circle. They were all smiling.
“I…I heard you singing,” She managed, “and I….I-“
One of the girls broke away from the circle, her pale dress billowing slightly in the breeze.
“It’s all right,” she giggled. “We were a bit loud. I’m glad you found us.”
Celia let out a deep sigh of relief. She didn’t want them to be mad. There was something in how they spoke, something about the way they dressed, that made her want them to like her. Though she couldn’t put her finger on it, there was energy around them, some invisible aura… as if they were angels, or living dolls sprinkled with fairy dust.
The girl pointed to the house in the distance.
“You live there?”
Celia looked over her shoulder. The plan-tay-shun seemed so far away. She could still see Dad with the paint, though he was only a speck.
“I…I only moved in last week,” she sputtered. “But we’re not staying very long.”
One of the girls pouted. “Oh, no?”
“That’s a shame,” another said.
“She seems nice,” one boy said to another.
Celia felt her cheeks redden, trying in vain to stop herself. She hated when she blushed.
“You have very nice voices,” she said.
“Thank you,” the tallest girl replied. “It’s an old song our friend taught us.”
“It’s one of our favorites,” the smallest boy added.
“Though it’s not as fun as swinging!” a second put in.
Celia’s heart fluttered when she gazed at the boy who spoke. He was so handsome that her knees suddenly went lax, as if they’d been sculpted with melting butter.
He smiled as their eyes met.
“Perhaps you can swing with us, some time.”
“Oh!” the first girl said, “There’s so many great places to swing around here.”
The handsome boy shyly dug his shoe into the grass. “We can show you how to do it. The right way. If you want, that is.”
Celia thought back to the playground at her old school. Aside from her friends, that was the thing she missed most. Whole afternoons would be spent on the swing set, and Celia would pump her legs till her thighs felt like they were on fire, forcing herself up higher, higher, higher until she nearly swung up above the bars. She could still remember the sound of the air whooshing in her ears when she’d lean back and close her eyes, clutching on tight to the creaky, metal chains. When she got high enough, she’d hold her breath and count down from ten before launching herself from the rubber seat, flying through the air, crying out in joy as her tummy leapt up into her throat and the green grass came up fast from below.
Maybe these new kids had their own playground, somewhere. Some magical place where the swing sets weren’t quite as rusty. Where sweet songs called birds to crystal springs, and fairies spied from cleverly hidden mounds.
“I’d like that very much,” she said, cheeks burning as the boy smiled.
Before Celia could ask where their playground was, she heard Dad calling in the distance. She looked to the house, then back at the children, fighting the urge to pretend she hadn’t heard.
“I have to go,” she said. It was painful to take those first few steps away from them.
“We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Will I find you here?”
“Maybe. Follow the song.”
Celia nodded before she turned and ran back to the house.
* * *
Dinner was takeout, again. Celia hovered over her white cardboard box, delicately prodding the chunks of lamb drowned in brown curry sludge, scrunching up her face as the spicy scent stung her nose.
“Dad, can you make me a swing?”
He looked up from his food. “A swing?” He paused for a moment as he finished chewing. “Sure,” he said. “I have the perfect place for it, too.”
Celia smiled, and as she went to bed that night, her dreams were filled with playgrounds and children’s songs, and fairy dust showering upon the old stable, shimmering among the moss and mushrooms.
The next morning she found Dad out by the old sycamore next to the drive, looking up at the gnarled, thick branches that reached out into the sky like giant’s arms. A thick rope hung from the lowest one, corded and wide as Celia’s wrist.
Dad gave it a good tug, testing the strength of the branch before he turned to her, patting the piece of wood he’d set into the bottom as her seat.
Celia was so happy she didn’t know what to say.
Dad stepped aside as she hoisted herself up onto the seat. Her feet dangled off the ground as she balanced and looked up to the branches above, up into the empty spaces between the leaves where blue sky poked through like sapphire gems.
She swung all morning and into the afternoon, sailing up to the boughs of the sycamore, feeling that familiar burn in her thighs as she propelled herself up and down, forward and back again. She leaned back on the swing, eyes still closed, and pretended that she was a shooting star falling through space, traveling at the speed of light as she skipped across galaxies like a stone across a calm, infinite lake.
She rode Saturn’s dreamlike rings, looped among the clustered moons of Jupiter, heading full speed towards the red mountains of Mars when a voice cut through the darkness and pulled her back to Earth.
“That’s not how you swing.”
Celia opened her eyes and found the children standing in a ring around the sycamore. One of the girls stepped forward and grabbed a hold of the rope. Celia caught her breath as she settled to a stop.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“There’s a better way. Once you try it, you’ll never want to go back.”
Celia shimmied off the rope swing, dusting off her jeans before stretching her sore legs.
“Come on,” the girl said, “We’ll show you the best place to swing. A secret place. Our place.”
Celia looked around at the smiling faces. One was missing. The handsome boy. She looked around to the other eight.
One of them noticed and gave a sly grin. “Henry’s there already. He’s with the Moss Man.”
Celia frowned. The Moss Man?
“The Moss Man showed us how to swing.”
“And he teaches the songs!”
“He’s very friendly,” another said.
“Come ooon,” one of the girls said. “Let’s go meet him! I’m sure he’ll like you.”
Celia looked up to the sky and watched as the red sun began its slow dip below the trees. It’d be nighttime soon. Mom and Dad wouldn’t like her out past dinner.
“I…I can’t, right now.”
The children frowned.
“That’s a shame,” one of the girls said. “The Moss Man would really love you. I can tell. You have kind eyes.”
“Thank you,” Celia managed, unsure of what to say.
She stepped forward and took Celia’s hand. It was so warm.
“That’s all right,” she whispered. “Tell you what…since you can’t come with us, how about we send him to meet you?”
Celia felt the butterflies rumble in her tummy.
The girl nodded. “It’s simple. Do you have a candle?”
Mom had a bunch. They were nestled in boxes in the cellar. Oil lamps and antique lanterns, too. Celia nodded.
The girl’s eyes brightened. “Take one and put it in your bedroom window before you go to bed. That way the Moss Man will know which room is yours.”
Before Celia could respond, the girl turned and skipped away. The other children followed suit, marching off into the woods like a row of ducklings. Celia could hear their voices fade into the trees as they sang.
“One little, two little, three little Indians…”
* * *
She did as the girl said. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Even as she lit the candle and set it on the windowsill, she wasn’t quite sure if she wanted the Moss Man to come. What was a Moss Man, anyway?
Celia closed her eyes and tried to picture it, and when she did, all she could see was a creature with a big green beard, with hands like tree branches and clothes sewn with gold and brown leaves. Maybe the Moss Man was just a silly name, and he wasn’t strange at all. If they liked him so much, he couldn’t be that bad.
Celia got in bed, pulling the covers up around her face as she watched the candle burn in the window. The soft orange flame danced in the breeze, casting a hazy, pale light across the bubbled glass.
How long would it take?
How would he even get in? Dad always made sure to lock the door before he and Mom went up to bed. Celia thought about sneaking down and opening it, but the old wooden floors were so loud she was sure they’d wake.
And if she got caught, she wouldn’t be able to explain herself. Mom would get worried, and Dad would just say it was her imagin-ay-shun. According to him, Celia had a big one. But that was okay. Kids were supposed to have those.
She waited for another hour, watching the flame flicker in the dark until her eyelids grew heavy and she sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
The smell woke her, first.
Celia’s nose flooded with the scent of dirt and mulch. She searched around the room, eyes adjusting to the dim light of the candle. It smelled like the woods. She brought her fingers up to her nose and gave them a sniff. Her nails smelled like she’d been digging through weeds. But she hadn’t. A cold, icy sting settled in her tummy.
Then she heard it.
The front door opened, hinges squealing, echoing up the staircase and down the hall. Celia pulled her knees up to her chest and scooted further onto the bed until her shoulders hit the headboard.
She thought about running to Mom and Dad’s room. But she couldn’t. They wouldn’t understand. She was a big girl. That’s what Dad had told her the last time she went to them after a nightmare. Big girls shouldn’t be afraid of nightmares. Dreams weren’t real.
They came slow, moaning up the stairs, one after another. Celia’s heart was beating so fast she feared it would burst out of her chest.
She pressed her ear to the wall.
It was walking by the bathroom.
Past Mom and Dad’s room.
By the linen closet.
Thump. Thump. Creeeeeeeeeeeeak.
The smell grew even stronger. Celia tried to pinch her nose and breathe out of her mouth, but it was no use. She couldn’t escape the stink of turned soil and wet leaves. Twigs and mud. Roots and bark and stone. Mold and rot.
When the last footstep faded, she sprang off the bed and sprinted to the door as silently as she could, twisting the lock shut with a snap.
She hid herself behind an unpacked box of clothes by the closet.
She could see the handle moving in the light of the candle, jiggling soft at first, then harder.
She gasped as the pounds grew frantic, the sound booming in her ears until her head hurt.
“Please,” she whispered, “please, go away.”
A tear rolled down her cheek and into her mouth, cold and salty.
The pounding ceased.
Breathing, now. Loud, behind the door. Rattling, heaving breaths. Deep and ragged.
Celia curled herself up in a ball.
Something bad was outside that door.
She waited all night, listening to that breathing, scared to move a muscle until the candle burned down to a stub of puddled wax and the sun rose, throwing its light through the soot-stained window.
The breaths stopped, then. She could hear the thumping and creaking down the hallway as the footsteps retreated back through the house. The jiggle and slam of the front door.
The smell faded.
Still, she waited. Another hour, she told herself. Then she’d get up. Then it’d be safe. Dad would be making coffee, soon. Then the smell would be gone for sure.
Slowly, she moved to the door, hands shaking as she went to undo the lock. She pulled it open, holding her breath before poking her head out into the hallway.
Everywhere, she saw footprints. Big footprints. Bigger than Dad’s beat up work boots. They trailed from her door all the way through the hall and down the stairs.
Footprints made of moss.
* * *
The children were waiting for her when she went outside to the rope swing.
The boy was there, too.
She said his name was Henry.
Celia felt the butterflies rumble in her tummy as he walked over to her, leaning up against the swing.
“You didn’t let him in,” he said sadly. “The Moss Man wasn’t happy.”
Celia wanted to tell him how scared she’d been. How frightening the sounds were, and the smell that made her sick to her stomach. But she didn’t want him to think she was afraid.
“Tell him I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to go like that…honest.”
He smiled. “You can tell him yourself.” He held out his hand, urging her to take it. “Come with me.”
Celia looked down at the hand. She wanted so badly to hold it. To feel how warm it was. To see him smile.
“He’s much friendlier in the daytime,” he said. The other children nodded in agreement.
Celia wasn’t sure. Yet she wanted to make them happy. She took his hand.
They marched single file into the woods.
Celia looked up at the trees. They grew larger, the further they walked. Their branches reached out and blocked the sun, shrouding the forest floor in creeping darkness. It was a strange feeling, like walking in a basement with broken lights.
Again, they sang. It was the same tune Celia had heard before, but the words were different.
“Ten little Indians standing in a line,
One toddled home and then there were nine.
Nine little Indians swinging on a gate,
One tumbled off and then there were eight.
Eight little Indians gayest under heaven.
One went to sleep and then there were seven.
Seven little Indians cutting up their tricks,
One broke his neck and then there were six.
Six little Indians all alive,
One kicked the bucket and then there were five.”
Celia didn’t like their new song. She didn’t like how mean it was, how their faces still lit up even though the words weren’t nice.
She tried to speak up, but something made her voice catch in her throat like she’d swallowed a golf ball. She tugged on Henry’s sleeve. He looked over his shoulder and just smiled, then gave her hand a little squeeze. Celia followed, tripping over the roots and broken twigs, listening as they sang even louder.
“Five little Indians on a cellar door,
One tumbled in and then there were four.
Four little Indians up on a spree,
One got fuddled and then there were three.
Three little Indians out on a canoe,
One tumbled over and then there were two.
Two little Indians fooling with a gun,
One shot the other and then there was one.”
The song ended as they entered a small clearing. Celia looked around at the mossy, earthen floor dappled in pale sunlight, the deep green vines wrapped through the rocks like serpents.
An oak tree loomed in the center.
It was the biggest one she’d ever seen. The roots rose up from the moss like the tentacles of some giant beast. The trunk was so wide she didn’t even think all ten of them could wrap their arms around it. Its branches were knobby and gnarled, the bark grey and sick looking, like a lumbering old man with a thick, mossy beard.
“He’s here!” Henry whispered. He let go of her hand.
Celia watched as the children faded into the glen. Some of them scrambled up the limbs of the tree. Others disappeared behind the brambles and thickets. Some sat down on the mossy outcroppings of rocks, smiles etched on their faces. Like angels, she thought. Living dolls sprinkled with fairy dust.
“The…the Moss Man,” she said, voice trembling,
“Oh, yes,” Henry said.
He jumped up and grabbed a hold of the lowest branch of the oak, pulling himself up with the grace of an acrobat.
He sat down, knobby knees dangling over the edge.
Celia gasped when she saw his eyes.
The other children appeared on the limbs of the great oak, each with beady, black eyes. Still smiling. Watching like a murder of crows.
“He’s waking up,” one of them said. His voice was hollow, rattling like a whisper on the wind.
“This is his home.”
“Where he brings us to swing.”
“He wants us to teach you.”
Celia would never forget that clearing in the woods. The hazy sunlight beading off the moss. The limbs of that ancient tree rising like a monster from the pits of her darkest nightmares.
She would never forget the fear she felt as the children watched hungrily from the branches, or the sight of the thing that reared its shadowy head from behind the trunk of the oak.
As she turned and ran back to the house, pumping her legs as fast as they could carry her, she knew she’d never forget the sound of their voices, and words of that song.
She’d never forget the smell of those woods, the darkness of that forest floor.
The children’s eyes.
The ropes in their hands, knotted and looped.