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.