There’s three of them outside, hikers probably. Older maps usually show a route over the motorway behind my house but there isn’t one anymore. I don’t mind them usually, they just walk down and then walk back up a few minutes later and I go and explain the situation to them. I saw these three early so I hoped I could go out and talk to them before they walked down, save them the trip. They looked like a family, one man walking a little bit in front of two women, one just a teenager. The girls were looking at a map while he strode ahead, confident. It was late evening, the sun just barely falling behind the hill. Summer nights like this means the night comes late. I saw them from my window and walked around to my front door quickly. I put my hand on the handle and glanced outside through the glass.
Then I stopped. I stopped because so had they. For a moment, I thought they had just stopped walking to check the map or something but just the glimpse sent a chill through me. Like something was just barely off. Uncanny valley, right? I looked at them a little closer and saw that they had not just stopped, they had stopped mid step. The one at the front had their front leg raised in the air and the other two were weirdly balanced forward, a position that would be difficult to maintain. I assumed they had seen me and were doing some sort of performance, like those street performers that look like statues and maintain poses. Then I spotted it, the thing that had made my skin prickle.
Their map was stuck.
It was somewhere between the adult woman’s hand and the floor. Mid-air. It was not touching anything that I could see and was completely still despite the strong breeze. My mind raced through the options. Wires wouldn’t explain how it was so still. Maybe it was actually solid and only looked like thin paper. Either way, I let go of the handle. If they really were performers, no harm in staying inside and leaving them there. I had neighbors, so even if there was a problem then other people would be aware of it. I rationalized it to myself and turned away, unable to get rid of the throbbing cold in my stomach. I walked into my kitchen, made a mug of tea and sipped it, trying to warm myself despite my already perfectly heated house. I couldn’t help myself. I walked over to the window. They were still there, hadn’t moved an inch. But I was closer now. Looking back, I wish my window had been further away. I wish it was thicker and soundproofed. But is wasn’t. So I could hear them. The walkers were talking.
I could see it now, their mouths moving just a little to communicate enough. It was hard to make out words but the mother and father were talking in an attempt at a calm tone to their daughter. She was sobbing. I felt a pang of sympathy, shame for ignoring them and a rush of fear. I had ignored how wrong this felt before but this was too much. I desperately wanted to go help them, to hug the daughter and tell her was okay. But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t go outside, then it would happen to me. I’m not sure why but I had the overwhelming feeling that the exact same thing would happen to me. It was getting even harder to see them. They had stopped moving as the sun set and now they were only barely visible from the lights in my house. I remembered my neighbors and looked down the street. I could see Moreen next door, she was looking out the window like I was. I tried to get her attention but she was looking at the hikers. I usually avoided calling her, she was nice but always had some new drama going on. She’s just old and bored so she tends to talk a lot but we’ve been vague neighborly friends for a few years. However, I quickly picked up my phone and dialed her number. I saw her turn and walk out of sight before picking up.
“Hi, Moreen. It’s just me.”
“Patrick, are you at home right now? Do you see those people outside my house? They’ve been standing out there for hours.” It had only been minutes. An exaggerator as always.
“Yeah, I see them. Please don’t go outside.”
“I wasn’t planning to. Bloody travelers would probably beat up an old woman.”
“I think they’re just hikers. No need to be worried. I think they are just…” I couldn’t think of a good reason for why they were acting like that but wanted to assuage her fears. “Well, let’s just try and figure out what they’re doing and if they need help. Just don’t go outside, okay?”
“I heard you the first time. You don’t need to worry about me, Patrick. I’m going to call Albert to see if anyone further down the street saw where they came from.”
“Okay, thanks, Moreen. Talk to you in a bit.”
“Bye, dear.”Click. I looked back out at them, almost impossible to see now. It was only because I knew they were there that I could even make out their shapes. And I could still hear them. They were louder now. I could make out a couple words. Then just one, over and over. Help.
I suddenly cursed living alone, wishing I could at least talk to someone. Maybe if there were houses on the other side of the street, I could at least communicate with the person across the street from me. But it was just open fields. I used to like that view. I looked down the street again. And again, my spine felt like it was crawling out of my body. Maybe I have some sort of ability to spot things that were out of place in just a glance. But something else was wrong. The lights from the houses were out. The only lights that were on were the three closest houses on the right. I looked the other way and they were all on, all the way down the street. That’s how it usually was until much later in the night. I looked back and tried to see details in the blacked-out houses. Probably a power-cut. But why was it just those ones? Weren’t we all on the same grid? Then a flash. The furthest house’s lights just went out. All of them at the same time, like a fuse had blown.
I frantically reached for the phone and tried to call Moreen again, damning myself for not knowing the numbers of any of the further neighbors. It cut straight to an automated voice; the line was in use. I hung up and started pacing, looking out at the two remaining lit houses and glancing at the hikers outside. I couldn’t see them but I knew they were there. The voices were quieter but they were talking still. Could they see me? I had no way of knowing. It was too late now, I should have tried to talk to them earlier. I let out a shriek as my phone burst into life. It was Moreen.
“Moreen? Is that you? Are you okay?”
“No need to shout, I’m fine.” A sigh of relief. Cut short as the corner of my vision flashed. The next house had gone dark. It was only Moreen’s house lit on the right side.
“Did you talk to Albert?” I tried to keep my voice level. I didn’t want to panic her. Maybe it was just a power-cut.
“He picked up but then started talking nonsense. He said his arthritis was acting up, worse then usual. He couldn’t move. Something about a power-cut. He wanted me to call an ambulance, but you know how Albert is. Hypochondriac. I think we should go check on him an-”
Her lights went out.
“Moreen? Moreen! Are you still there?” I could hear her breathing.
“Patrick, something’s wrong. I can’t turn around.”
“It’s okay, Moreen. Just a power-cut. You’re just scared.”
“There’s something scratching.”
“What?” My voice sounded like a child who just heard the monster under their bed talk.
“On my door.”
“That-that’s just your cat.”
“The door is ope-” Then, she screamed. I pulled the receiver away from my ear as the loud, piercing shriek filled the air. I could hear it from the phone and from the house directly.
“Moreen?” I sounded distant from myself. Click.
I’m not sure if I hung up or she did. I looked out my window, trying to see the hikers. They were quiet now. They probably heard it too. I felt like I was in a daze. I stumbled over to my sofa and sat stiffly. My laptop was open next to me, half-finished work on the glowing screen. I deleted it and started typing. I’m not sure why. No one saw this coming; maybe I could warn someone. I typed frantically, fingers moving faster than in all the work I had ever done. Then, a flash, and my lights went out. The only light was the glow of the screen. My fingers could still move, but I couldn’t stand up. I could talk. I know because I screamed.
I dare not make any sound now. My laptop is still plugged in and getting power. This isn’t a power-cut. I haven’t heard the hikers since the scream. I hope they’re okay.
The only thing I can hear is the clicking of the keys. And the scratching at my door.
Everyone is familiar with the idea of a soulmate, someone meant for you, your perfect match. The missing piece of you that exists out there, off in the world, just waiting to cross your path. The idea is touching, and viewed as a little naive by most people. After all, true relationships are built on hard work and dedication, not false promises of perfection.
I met my soulmate when I was a young adult, overcome with a strange sense of being watched one night when I was out on a walk. Although I lived on a street filled with houses and life, at that hour, you’d think it was a ghost town. The perfect way to clear your thoughts, and take in the outside world without the buzz of kids and cars.
The feeling that washed over me wasn’t the same kind of fear inducing sense of being watched, it was more like a strange sense of knowing.
Except the street, aside from me, was empty for as far as I could see or hear. There was not a moment in which I had passed someone by, or heard the tell-tale scuff of shoes on pavement that told me someone else couldn’t sleep. It was dead quiet.
I chalked it up to sleep deprivation, but allowed my pace to pick up as I started back down towards my home. I want to preface this with self awareness by saying I’d always been open minded to the idea of there being more out there. Aliens, cryptids, the paranormal, anything that could be possible, was potentially possible in my mind.
That’s not to say I was a firm believer in these things. On the contrary, I’ve always been logical as can be, like anyone else this day and age. There was always the thought in the back of my mind that we can’t quite disprove life after death, or aliens existing out there, or even a cryptid or two staying isolated from us.
I also want to admit that I’ve always been an avid horror fan, with a particular small hope that something terrifyingly exciting would happen to me just once in my life.
But as we all know, you have to be careful what you wish for.
Just as the feeling of being watched, if not stalked completely at this point became suffocating, I heard him. Rather, his shoes, scuffing the pavement behind me as he jogged along to catch up to me. My back was turned to him, and I kept my eyes ahead to avoid looking paranoid. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, goosebumps pricked up on my skin.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, a strong grip and determined fingers gently digging in with a sense of urgency.
“I don’t want to scare you, but there’s something in the bushes that’s been following you down the street for the last twenty minutes.” His voice was a bit labored, and he lacked any sense of tiredness. If I had to guess, he might’ve been riding a wave of adrenaline that had come on suddenly.
That in itself alarmed me. All evidence suggested he must’ve just come from his home, one of the ones on the street, in quite a rush to warn me about my situation. Still, I could hardly find words.
“Excuse me?” Was my voice always that small? “Someone’s following me?”
By now I was facing him. He was taller than me, not hard to do, considering I’m a young adult man standing so dashingly tall at 5’ 6. He was considerably taller, though, maybe even an entire foot. It was hard to make out his features, but I could tell he was handsome even in the dim streetlight glow.
His eyes were the loveliest shade of green.
“Not someone, something,” the stranger clarified, casting a tentative glance to the bushes across the street as if to prove a point. I swallowed, my stomach dropped with anxiety and I could feel myself tense up.
There were a million questions to ask, that I should have asked, but at the time only one went through my head.
“But I live over there, how do I get home?” My voice was a whisper, I realized. Without deciding whether I really believed this man, I found myself worried about alerting this mysterious thing that was apparently fascinated with me.
In hindsight, one might wonder whether or not he made it up just to talk to me. That’s what I believed when I had time to calm down, but right then and there, my panic was starting to take hold. Just how would I make it home if I had to cross the street, where this thing was currently hiding right now?
The stranger smiled, warm and brave. It was gentle, promising that all would be well without words.
“I’ll walk with you. Everyone knows about safety in groups, right?” He offered a hand, guiding me further down towards the crosswalk and occasionally peering behind us and back at the foliage. “I’m Rider, by the way. I’m sorry if I scared you. I woke up to use the restroom and I saw you walking down the street by yourself.”
“Elias,” was all I could manage. I was far too busy trying not to look behind us, even though my terrible curiosity wanted me to.
“I know it sounds weird, okay? I thought I was seeing things at first, and then when I saw it run across the street when you were under the lights again, I realized I wasn’t,” Rider continued, gently nudging me along the sidewalk and blocking my view of the path behind us with his body.
The rest of the short walk was silent, we were both listening out for whatever he’d seen and on our toes. But we made it just fine, and I never saw nor heard a single thing out of the ordinary. As I fumbled to unlock the door of my home, I felt sadness wash over me.
It wasn’t my own. It was foreign, alien.
Rider saw my hesitation and gave me another charming smile, filling me with the courage to start thinking for myself long enough to all but throw the door open. The poor cat was scared half to death when it hit the wall with a loud smack, staring up at us with wide eyes. All things considered, the disgruntled cat was a welcome sight.
“Well, you’re home, safe and sound,” my savior chuckled, keeping a respectful distance outside the door. I was thankful for that, I’d always been socially anxious and the idea of having to kick him out after he helped me was not a good one.
“Yeah, I sure am. Ah, thanks, for walking with me,” I murmured. Compared to Rider’s confident cadence, I sounded like a ghost who didn’t want to be seen.
Without missing a beat, Rider offered me his number and warned me against walking alone at night for various reasons.
“Especially here,” he added, as casual as someone discussing their day. “He got pretty close to you before you reached the lights.”
At the time, I thought nothing of that comment beyond Rider explaining what he saw.
After that night, my life became a lot more exciting than I asked for. For one, Rider and I became very close very quickly. Never in my life had anyone ever paid me any attention, cared about what I had to say or given me much of a second thought. Until I met Rider. Where I was appallingly, undeniably and painfully average and routine, Rider was adventurous, exciting and handsome to boot.
You can probably guess that we were dating before long. It was just a casual relationship beginning, and we were slowly spending more time together to try and ease into a more serious one. As it stood, he never stayed overnight because he knew how much it stressed me out to be around someone for more than a few hours. That was another amazing thing about him, he understood my defects enough to accommodate them. It touched me that someone thought I was worth that effort.
So, casual it was.
Until late April, well into the night. Ever since the incident before, I’d stopped my night walks and taken to new coping methods in my home when I felt anxious. Rider had helped me many a time when I’d called him on the verge of a panic attack while he was dead asleep, helping me form new hobbies or things to keep me busy that wouldn’t put me in as much danger as being out alone at night would.
He cared about me, after all.
It was late again, just passed midnight when I curled up on the couch and turned on the TV for background noise. My sketchbook was out on my lap, and my hands fiddling with a pencil while I tried to decide what to draw. Feeling confident I wouldn’t need to disturb Rider’s sleep tonight, I decided to draw him and give it to him as a gift when we next met up. Silly, I know, but I was so grateful to him.
And then there was a knock at the window across from me.
Tap…. tap…. tap…..
The knocking was almost nervous. Nowhere near as nervous as I was when I lifted my gaze from the paper in front me, up to the window across the room. It was well lit in here, and terribly hard to see anything outside. I could hardly see at all, save for two pairs of glowing red eyes staring back at me.
I almost choked on my own fear, anxiety rising as fast as my pulse as my hand slapped around for my phone. A few moments of sheer panic, and then my fingers smacked the familiar cold and flat surface, and I was dialing Rider’s number in an instant.
“There’s something outside my window… Please help me,” I croaked, still making full eye contact with the intruder watching me. Rider gave no verbal response, but I could hear him rushing out of bed and pulling clothes on. It was no more than five minutes later that he was at my door, disheveled.
As shocking as the ordeal was, it was even more shocking when Rider all but ran for the back window. For the first time since I’d known him, I saw a flash of rage on his face I never thought he was capable of.
Only when Rider ripped the back door open did the thing outside look away from me. I couldn’t hear anything over my partner’s furious cursing, his body stiff and face red with anger as he paced the back yard and shouted after the thing. Rider didn’t come back inside for a long time.
When he did, he looked exhausted, like he’d been busy at work. But when I inquired, Rider simply made me promise never to go outside when I see it again, and to always call him first. Always. There was a hint of something dangerous in his tone, something angry, daring me to protest.
But I smiled weakly and told him of course I’d call him, he was my hero after all. And I told myself he was only angry because he was scared.
That seemed to calm Rider down, and he relaxed and came inside. For the first time, he stayed the night with me. I don’t know if it was because of what happened, or the air of uneasiness that settled over me like a fog, but I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Even though the only person who’d ever protected me and respected me was sound asleep next to me, it felt wrong.
It felt bad.
Eventually, I quietly slipped from my room and returned to the couch. As I finally started to drift off to sleep, and my consciousness lapsed into dreams, I once again caught the gaze of the eyes from before. There was something so, so upset about them. Sadness that knew no bounds. Anger that could rend entire worlds, and send the gods to their knees.
I slept until I was awoken by Rider grabbing me rather violently by the arm and yanking me off of the couch. He was shouting at me, but I’d just woken up, I couldn’t make sense of it in my haze. The back door was open, my furniture had been upturned and broken. My senses didn’t return until the pain from a hard slap to the face knocked them right back into place.
Rider hit me.
That same day, he declared — not asked, declared that he would be living with me from then on. I was too affection-starved to say no. If this was the only person who would care about me, the only one for me, then so be it. No one can survive alone.
Things fell back into some semblance of normalcy for a while. And I learned very quickly to stop reporting anymore “incidents” of being watched to Rider if I didn’t want to be punished for them. I’d never been one to socialize much, but I was also punished if I attempted to go out or contact family.
One night in utter defiance, I walked out and spent a night to myself in town. Deep down I knew I only stayed out so long because I was terrified to return home, Rider would be furious and I knew even though it felt wrong I’d be on my knees begging him to love me, apologizing for being the ungrateful worthless pig I was.
By the time I did get home, Rider was already asleep. But he made sure to make his point; my phone was smashed to pieces on the kitchen floor and the note next to it warned me that it I ever did this again, my legs would receive the same treatment.
I like to think of myself as strong, but I’m not. I started crying, unable to understand how or why someone who treated me so amazingly had come to treat me like I was nothing in such a shockingly short time. A toxic whiplash, stinging my skin and burrowing deep, deep into my gut.
And that’s how it was from then on for the next year. My time outside was limited to an hour a day, and I was not to take it first thing in the morning or any time Rider was sleeping. The eyes outside the window became the only routine I had anymore, each time I saw them I kept it to myself. But it hurt, the eyes, they were so upset.
I could relate to that.
On my birthday Rider decided to celebrate by locking me in my room for most of the day and at the end of it, attempting to force himself on me. I say attempting because my memory of what happened next is extremely hazy, and not because he succeeded in being a total piece of shit.
No, it’s because of what I saw. The window shattered, glass splinters flew this way and that. The roar coming from it shook the walls, I swear, shook them so hard I thought they’d fall. As a large, red-eyed form entered my peripheral vision, I squeezed my eyes shut. Stupid as it was, in that instance, my only thought was that I was going to die and this time, Rider wouldn’t protect me.
Besides the roar, there wasn’t any noise beyond a sudden, wet tearing sound and a violent splatter. My memory cut out here, it’s just blackness. But they told me later that Rider’s body had been reduced to the human equivalent of wet tissue paper, all over my bedroom. They told me someone in my home dialed the police, but no one actually spoke to them or told them anything.
I don’t know how I got from the bedroom to the living room. There’s a vague memory of large, cold arms on my back. The warning bite of clawed fingers on my side. They said when they found me, I was hysterical. I was begging for him to come back. “I don’t want to be alone again, please!”
They assumed I was talking about Rider, whose killer was never caught. The police ruled me out as a suspect pretty quickly. I’m small and, when they found me, malnourished severely. Rider only let me eat if I weighed less than a certain number on any given day.
Last night, I was finally able to come home after my home was cleaned and restored. Everything felt empty and lifeless, drained of all meaning, painfully lonely. As anyone can guess, I spent all evening in one of my worst panic attacks to date, crying so hard that I had to sit by the toilet because I was throwing up. Too afraid to sleep in my old room, I instead resigned to the familiarity of my couch.
Again, as I was drifting into sleep, I saw two pairs of red eyes watching me from outside. This time, there was no sadness. Not like before, at least. It was a empathetic sadness, as if we were understanding what tragic lives we’d both lived thus far in one glimpse.
Recognition dawned on me, words not from me probing into my mind clumsily. As awkward as my attempts to speak with anyone else. I sent back encouragement, careful, with what little light I had left in myself. The eyes widened slightly, and then softened.
Memories that were not mine eased into my mind. The perspective from the outside of my home at night, glancing inside. Rider producing knives, waiting for me to sleep. Rider at his own home that first night I let him stay, measuring out pill dosages that would kill someone of my height and weight. That very first night we met, Rider watching me from his window, a dark idea blooming in his expression.
I understood, then, that this red eyed being had been protecting me all along. Each time I was supposed to die, it had purposefully provoked Rider’s ire to redirect his attention. It couldn’t be there during the day, but at night, it was free to roam.
And I understood then, that Rider had never charmed or comforted me in some mysterious way I couldn’t explain. That this being had been sending me comfort, bravery and the will to calm for my own sake whenever it could.
When I woke the next morning, I also understood why Rider never allowed me to glance or step foot outside until he’d woken and cleared the home of whatever evil the thing haunting us left behind.
Scattered all along the perimeter of my home were the most beautiful red flowers I’d ever seen.
“They say the tree bleeds when you peel off the bark.”
Liz’s eyes flickered in the orange light. Her lips curled into a small smile, as if she enjoyed that particular detail.
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no way a tree could bleed,” Tucker said, yanking his burning marshmallow from the fire.
“There are photos, though. I’ve seen them all over Instagram. Bright red blood, oozing from the bark.”
“It’s supposed to be the blood of Monstruo’s victims,” I added. “The legend goes, the tree absorbed all the blood spilled at its roots. Now instead of sap, human blood pumps through its veins.”
Tucker let out a peal of laughter. “Absolutely not! That’s ridiculous. Come on, you guys were in my Biology class. You know there’s no way human blood is pumping through the xylem and phloem –”
“It’s true,” Liz said, shooting him a glare.
“You know what? I bet the whole thing is a myth. I bet Monstruo himself didn’t even exist.”
I glanced at the tree. It stood in the shadows, several yards behind us. Blackened bark. Leafless branches. A sore thumb in the forest.
The Hanging Tree. Or el árbol del ahorcado, as some of the locals called it.
“It’s nothing more than a tourist trap,” Tucker continued.
“A tourist trap only the locals know about? Doesn’t make much sense to me,” I said.
Tucker sighed. “You know what I mean.” His marshmallow fell into the fire with an unceremonious plop. “It’s an urban legend to tell around campfires like this one. A spooky haunted tree. The legend of a perverted, cannibalistic killer. It sounds like the plot to a Stephen King novel. I guarantee you — Monstruo wasn’t real.”
“He was real. Every single person in this town who’s old enough to have seen it, says it happened.” I glanced over at him. “And this tree is where he hung his victims’ bodies.”
Tucker laughed. The sound echoed off the trees, making it sound like a chorus was laughing with him. “Yeah, and those same locals just call him ‘Monstruo.’ The Spanish word for ‘monster.’ If he’s real, why don’t they call him by name?”
“Because they don’t want to give him the dignity.”
It was Liz speaking, now. The smile had faded from her face. She scooted closer to the fire; the black shadows faded from her face. “He did such terrible things. Referring to him by name would only glorify that.”
“That’s a clever lie. But it doesn’t fool me.”
I shifted closer to Tucker, who was plucking another marshmallow from the bag. “Come on, Tucker. Ever notice how this part of town is basically abandoned? And no one ever builds on the empty lot a few feet over, even though it’s dirt cheap?” I laughed. “The things Monstruo did are so terrible, even money won’t get anyone near it.”
“So terrible. So, so terrible. That’s what I keep hearing. Yet, funny how I’ve never heard any details or facts.”
“You want facts? I’ll give you facts. He killed 17 men, women, and children. And you do a hell of a lot of disrespect to those people, when you claim he didn’t exist.”
Liz nodded, her dark eyes glancing at Tucker.
“Look, I’m not trying to disrespect anybody. I just –”
“I’m not done.” My voice cut through the cold air like a knife. Tucker jumped. “He didn’t just abduct and kill those people. It was a lot worse than that.”
Tucker’s marshmallow burned and crackled. Liz shuffled her feet across the dry leaves.
“He led each victim, blindfolded, to the tree.” I glanced down from their faces, and into the blinding flames. “Then he killed them, and strung their bodies up in the tree as if they were trophies to show off.”
Liz’s eyes shone brightly in the orange glow. She wiped her sleeve across them.
“And then he eviscerated them.”
“Oh,” Tucker said, softly.
“Then he took them back to his house. But not before he removed their right shoes — and added them to his creepy-ass memento box. And then… do I have to say it?” I asked. The pillar of smoke billowed up between us, shrouding Liz and Tucker in a gray veil.
“He ate them,” Liz whispered to him.
“Oh, come on! What a load of nonsense.” Tucker stood up and rolled his eyes. “I can guarantee you, there is not a shred of truth in that story. No Monstruo, no cursed tree. Someone probably just made it up on the internet.”
“You just think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
He laughed, blowing on the blackened marshmallow. “Yeah, you bet I do.”
“Then how about this? The day after Monstruo died, the tree died. Then all the foliage, within a few feet of it. Nothing grows there to this day.” I gestured to the tree, barely visible from our spot near the campfire. “You can’t deny that, Tucker. You can get your lazy ass up and see it for yourself.”
Tucker didn’t reply.
“Go on. Look at it,” Liz said. Her smile was back. “Or are you too scared?”
Tucker grumbled and turned around. “I can see it from here. And you’re right — but, obviously, the tree died because everyone peeled off its bark.”
“Okay, so that’s why the tree’s dead, maybe. But what about the fact that nothing grows around it?”
“The tree’s roots probably choke everything out. Or the soil’s too compacted, from all the teenagers visiting and stomping it down.”
“Right. Let’s talk about those teenagers.” I smiled, leaning closer to the fire. My face grew uncomfortably warm. “They climb it, decorate it, make out under it –”
“Hang effigies from it,” Liz added. Even now, a stray piece of rope hung from the lowest branch, swaying in the wind. I tried not to look at it.
“Yeah. And do you know what happened to those teenagers?”
“Adrian Keller climbed it to take a selfie. A month later, he was committed to a mental hospital because he violently attacked his mother.”
“Okay, so? He was probably crazy before he even saw the tree.”
“I’m not done yet,” I snapped. “On a fine Wednesday afternoon, Greg Patel skipped school to hook up with Aria Stewart underneath the tree. She got pregnant — and, months later, miscarried something so terribly deformed, the doctors refused to call it a fetus.”
Tucker didn’t have a snarky reply for that one.
“And Sidney Taylor. Let’s talk about her. After hanging an effigy from the tree, she started sleepwalking. At first, she’d wake up under the tree. Then she’d wake up in neighbors’ lawns. Finally she woke up in one of their houses — surrounded by a pool of blood and two corpses.”
“That’s enough,” Liz muttered. “He gets the point, you don’t need to repeat it –”
“She’d taken off the right shoe of each corpse and stripped them naked. And each one… each one was missing large chunks of flesh. When doctors pumped her stomach, they found –”
“John, okay! You’ve made your point!” Liz snapped.
A thick silence fell over the three of us.
Finally, Tucker said: “I still don’t believe it.”
“So touch the tree, then,” Liz shot back. “We’ll write you at the sanitarium, we promise. Right, John?”
I raised my eyebrow at her.
“Fine. I will.” Tucker heaved himself up off the ground. With heavy footsteps, he started into the darkness.
“Shoot. I didn’t think he’d actually do it. Wait! Tucker!”
I followed them through the trees. Soon enough, the three of us were standing before the Hanging Tree.
Swaths of bark were peeled off, and a thick sap — almost blood-like — oozed from the wounds. The bits of rope swayed in the wind. Initials and hearts were carved all over the bark that was still intact. I noticed a faint marking that read Greg+Aria, near the roots, and my heart dropped.
“Tucker, please, don’t do it.”
Tucker stood on the border of the dead circle — where the weeds and shrubs dwindled into sticks, leaves, and rotten mud. His arm was stretched out, fingers inches from the trunk.
“Tucker. I was just joking. Don’t do it.” Liz tugged at his sleeve.
“Relax, Liz. It’s just a tree.”
Of course, Tucker was going to do it, now. He’d always had a crush on her. No way he’d pass up this chance to impress her and be some sort of macho man.
“Tucker, please, don’t.” Liz looked at me expectantly, as if she expected me to dissuade him. I was silent. “Come on, let’s just go to sleep. This whole idea was dumb.”
“I want to touch the tree, Liz.” Tucker took a step forward. “I want to prove to you I’m right. That this whole thing is an elaborate hoax.”
He took another step forward, arm outstretched.
Liz grabbed his shoulders.
But it was too late.
His fingers pressed into the bark. When he pulled them back, rust-red sap covered them.
Liz stepped forward, eyes brimming with tears. “No. This is all my fault. Now you’re going to go crazy and kill people and –”
“Get a hold of yourself, Liz,” Tucker said. “It’s just a tree. And a dead one at that.”
The three of us walked back to the tent in silence. Tucker handled the fire; I cleaned up a bit around the campsite. By the time I got inside, Liz was already asleep — only her messy hair poked out from the sleeping bag.
I opened my own sleeping bag, snuggled in, and closed my eyes.
* * * * * *
I jolted awake.
For a second, I couldn’t place where I was. It was cold, colder than I’d remembered it being that evening. I fumbled through the darkness for my cell phone.
The light from my phone lit the inside of the tent. I saw Liz, sleeping peacefully in her bag. Her mouth hung slightly open, a wet spot of drool on her pillow.
The other sleeping bag was empty.
“Tucker?” I said. Softly, at first.
“Hey! Tucker!” I called. Liz stirred next to me.
I slowly stood up, careful not to rustle the sleeping bag too loudly. With one hand, I peeled back the entrance of the tent.
Everything was pitch black.
I pressed the flashlight button on my phone. It lit the clearing in a bright, white glow. The charred remains of our campfire; depressions in the dirt, where we’d left our folding chairs.
And in the distance — a silhouette. Standing right under the tree, facing away from me.
“Tucker?” I shouted, running towards him. I stopped a few feet away; he didn’t turn around. “Tucker, are you okay?”
Silence — save for a schlick, schlick sound.
I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tucker, what –”
The entire tree was covered in carvings. Hundreds of them. All in Tucker’s handwriting, all of the same word:
“Tucker! Hey! Are you okay?”
As if waking from a deep sleep, Tucker jolted and glanced around. “Uh, yeah, I’m fine.” He glanced at the trees. “Why am I out here?”
“Doesn’t matter. Come on, let’s get you back to the tent.”
I didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.
* * * * * *
Liz and I were incredibly worried about Tucker. But days, and then weeks, passed without incident. We began to believe that the Hanging Tree really was just a tree, and he was right all along.
Until that fateful Saturday night.
I was sitting in my house, eating a late dinner alone, when someone knocked on the door.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
I jolted upright. “Who’s there?” I yelled, glancing at the deadbolt. Locked.
“It’s me! Liz! Open up!” Her voice warbled with emotion.
My heart sank. Something was terribly wrong. “Liz, are you okay?” I called, as I hurried to the door.
“I’m okay. Just open the door, John. I need to tell you something.”
I grabbed the doorknob. Yanked it open.
Tucker stood next to Liz on my porch, smiling. The barrel of a gun poked against her skull; he slowly turned it, so that it pointed at me.
“I’m so sorry,” Liz said to me, starting to sob. “I didn’t want to. But he said he’d shoot me if I didn’t. I panicked… I’m so, so sorry.”
Tucker motioned for me to step forward. “Come on, John. Or are you scared?”
“Okay. Okay. Calm down, I’m coming.” I held up my hands and stepped into the cold. Tucker grinned.
“In the car,” he said. “Backseat. Both of you.”
I climbed into the backseat. Liz cried against my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she kept repeating, over and over.
I felt numb. Like I was watching a terrible movie, watching s scene unfolding in front of me, utterly powerless to stop it.
The car tore through the night. My shoulder hit the door, hard, as we made turn after turn. “Where are you taking us?” I asked, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible.
He didn’t reply.
But I didn’t have to wonder long. Soon enough, I saw the empty lot approaching. The forest rose up behind it, shrouded in shadow.
“You’re taking us to the Hanging Tree, aren’t you?”
Silence, save for Liz’s soft sobs.
He drove right across the empty lot, through the weeds and shrubs. We skidded to a halt at the forest’s edge. “Out,” Tucker grunted, as he swung the door open.
We trudged through the forest in silence. My feet rhythmically crunched the dry leaves and sticks with each step. Like a clock, ticking down to the moment of our death.
We stopped in front of the blackened tree. Its branches twisted and crossed the indigo sky. A cold wind blew; the shreds of rope swayed.
“Stand over there,” he commanded Liz.
“Why are you doing this?” she cried.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing, Liz. He’s sleepwalking.”
“I’m not sleepwalking.” Tucker snapped towards me, his blue eyes wild and dark. “I’m not doing this because some cursed tree infected me. I’m doing it because two of my friends betrayed me.”
“What are you talking about?” Liz shouted.
“Oh, come on. What do you think I am? Some kind of an idiot?” He reached into his bag and pulled out a length of thick rope.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t act so innocent!” he spat. “You and Liz have been hooking up behind my back for weeks, when you knew I was in love with her!”
“That’s not true,” Liz said, softly.
“Oh, don’t deny it. And then you take me for some kind of idiot just because I don’t believe in a cursed tree! What kind of friend does that?”
He grabbed me roughly by the waist. In one swift, strong motion, he looped the rope around my shoulders. “A fitting punishment for a fitting crime, don’t you think?”
I tried to wriggle free. I thrashed and kicked and shouted. But Tucker, standing six inches taller, had all the leverage. I didn’t have a chance.
After fumbling with a knot, he looped the rope over the lowest branch and tugged. My feet left the ground. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I was hoisted up the tree. The blackened, leafless branches came closer into view.
And then I noticed the scratches.
Hundreds of them. White like scars, covering the bark. Desperate. Anguished. Human.
“Monstruo didn’t hang dead bodies from this tree,” I muttered. Liz looked up at me, eyes wide.
“He hung them alive.”
I tore my eyes away from the bark. Below me, Tucker was looping the rope around Liz. She wasn’t crying anymore; instead, she was thrashing. Kicking. Fighting.
But she wasn’t strong enough. Moments later, she was hanging next to me.
Tucker dragged his bag over the ground. With a zip, he pulled it open and reached inside. A steel knife glinted in the moonlight. Then he walked over to us.
First he gently pulled off my right sneaker.
Then he pulled off Liz’s boot.
“Please. Tucker, don’t do this!” Liz pleaded, one last time.
I remained silent. Instead, I wriggled against the rope. Jumped. Thrashed. Tried everything in my strength to get free.
The rope began to loosen.
Liz met my eyes. I tried my best to make a face at her, to signal what I was doing. Catching my drift, she put our plan into action. “Tucker, listen. I’ve only ever liked you. Not him.” She forced a smile. “Look at me, Tucker. I’m telling you the truth.”
He took a step towards Liz, and, finally, tilted his head up to look at her.
I fell to the ground, charged, and tackled him. After getting in a few good punches, I leapt up and pulled down Liz’s rope.
“We need to call the police,” Liz said, latched onto my arm. “We need to –”
Tucker collided with her.
The scene played out before my eyes as if in slow-motion. Tucker grabbed her by the wrists. He dragged her across the mud. In one frenzied motion, he pressed her hands against the tree trunk.
I leapt at them. But it was too late. Liz was shrieking, looking at her hands. They were covered in sticky red sap.
“I touched it! Oh, my god, I touched it!” she cried out in disbelief.
“Come on, let’s go!” I cried, grabbing Liz’s wrist and yanking her towards the lot. “We need to go!” Tucker was already reaching for the knife, his face twisted in an expression of anger.
“Liz! Come on!”
We ran through the forest, through the empty lot, and into the night.
* * * * * *
That night, Tucker was arrested for assault. The following morning, they found his cellmate dead, on the floor, lying n a pool of blood. Missing chunks of flesh.
Liz started sleepwalking a week after the events. She committed herself to a mental institution the next day. We exchange letters sometimes, but I don’t think she’s ever going to leave that place.
So that’s my experience with the Hanging Tree. And, listen — I’m not telling you this tale to scare you. I’m telling you because I need your help.
A week ago, builders broke ground on the empty lot. As we speak, they’re cutting down bits of the forest — including the Hanging Tree.
To build a daycare center.
Toddlers and caregivers will be on that cursed ground. Learning, playing, growing. Utterly unaware of the darkness that once stood in its place.
Maybe everything will be fine. But if Tucker and Liz are any indication, it won’t.
I’ve called everyone on the city council; I’ve spoken to the mayor. I’ve tried getting through to the daycare company. I’ve even tried protesting in the streets.
Nothing helped, and no one believed me.
So now I’m telling you.
If you live near El Bosque, Texas, do everything in your power to put a stop to it. If enough people complain, maybe they’ll get discouraged and give up.
If not… well, I won’t be here to see it. I’ve done my part, and I’ve got enough blood on my hands already. I’m leaving town tomorrow.
God help us all.
“Yeah, bro, and it’s still December. It’s like they’re completely ignoring the months in between the other months that have major holidays.”
“True, true, annoys the shit out of me though, you know?” My friend nodded and we walked curiously around the isles filled with red hearts, very large stuffed animals and boxes of chocolates and candies saying the cliché messages “I Love You,” “Be Mine,” and the like.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the holiday; I just wish they’d just start selling all of this stuff like in late January. At least a month, you know, at least a month of planning is all you need to plan for the epic Valentine’s Day, and that’s just for the people that are going to go all out. Me? I’ve wanted to do something not just for me, but for my best friend and his girl, and honestly anyone seeking for love on that special day, but I just never knew what to do, until just recently.
Let me catch you up to speed. Have you heard of the Valentine House? It’s known to be one of those well-hidden B&B’s in the middle of nowhere, where couples go to spend their romantic company together. Unfortunately, it’s been said that crazy shit happened there, and the owner died of a heart attack as a result. I guess he couldn’t handle the stress and the accusations placed on him. Anyway, after that point, it was considered abandoned, and unfit to be placed as the number one hotel for lovers, until just recently. The name of the place has been brought back by some rumors, which the place was back in business and for those that have a longing for love, that they’d be able to find it. I told Gabriel about it, and he just shrugged, thought it was complete bullshit.
“So, when are you going over there?” Gabriel asked me at the checkout line, as he was buying his girl a white and red teddy bear saying the words “I Love You Beary Much” on its chest with a chocolate rose sewn onto his paw.
“Probably within a month, the sooner I can get it over with, the better.”
“But why that place, though? Couldn’t you just rent out any other lot but that one? What if that place doesn’t even fucking exist?”
Skeptical, I raised an eyebrow and asked, “What do you mean?”
He exclaimed, “Like, even if the place is real, don’t you think anyone would want to go to a place that people would disappear or die, especially on Valentine’s Day? I just don’t want you to go missing is all, bro.”
I’m not one to believe in crazy rumors like that; how can you believe such a bizarre thing unless you find out from the source?
“I don’t know, but this place seems too good to be true, I have to at least check the place out to see if it’s real or not.”
He shrugged, “Hey, it’s your funeral, man.” We soon left the store and went our separate ways; he was heading back to his house, and for me, my apartment.
I had to prepare myself for the trip, so I decided to look for more info. Apparently it was so old or so vague that no official information was given for the Valentine House. I was about to consider giving up, until I saw a Valentine’s Day card slip under my front door. It was a couple weeks before February at the time, so it was a little too soon. I thought it was odd at first, but when I had opened it, it revealed what I needed to know. It was cryptic, but gave enough direction to understand. Fueled with anticipation, I gathered my things to start my trip, and drove to the flat lands, for I now had a date with a house, and its name was Valentine.
I lost track of time on how I’d imagine this place would look like that I didn’t realize the sun was nearly up. What welcomed me in the new morning were the flat grey land and the long black road before me. By the time I was about to crash due to exhaustion catching up to me, I saw a wooden sign, showing some letters and numbers. With nothing around to stop me, I parked near the sign to take a closer look. It was obviously rotten with age, and was also vandalized. Upon closer look, it showed the following: V, L, E, N, I, E, H, U, E, 15, M, E, and S, with someone vandalizing the sign with red saying the words “TURN BACK.”
It clicked that I was on the right track, and by unknown reason it gave me the extra adrenaline rush to keep going. As time flew by, the sky changed, and the landscape had turned from flatlands into hills, and before I knew it, I saw the one building that could be known as the Valentine House. It looked so out of place, like a pristine white mansion was smack dabbed into the middle of nowhere; busted, rusted vehicles of all types littered the front of it. The closer I got to it, the more excited I got, and it was almost to the point that I almost lost my focus on the road. I soon reached the supposed parking lot of the house, and from first glance, it seemed like about twenty cars were parked before this monument at least. I got out of my mini cooper, and prepared myself for the worst. I even held a handgun close to me if any funny business were to arise.
I reached to the door, and before I laid my knuckles to the wood, it suddenly opened before me. “Welcome to the infamous Valentine House,” a cheery old man said to me. Catching me off guard, I stammered, “Uh, hello, my name is—”
“Let me show you around,” the man said, interrupting my introduction. I nodded, and followed the man into the seemingly popular home that was both beautiful, but also mysterious.
The foyer was like the usual design and style of any typical mansion, but with Valentine fashion: heart and ‘”love” themed knick-knacks, light red walls, bouquets of roses, in shades of deep red to almost the color of blood were scattered throughout the room, but what caught my eye were the various sized frames with random couples placed throughout. I walked to a picture hanging on the wall; the frame was a bit dated, with a country themed design with red hearts on the corners, the picture being in complete black and white.
“Who’re the people in these pictures?” I asked.
The old man turned with a grin that showed he was almost too happy. “We at the Valentine House keep photos of the people who spent the day of love and romance in our rooms; each one a memoir, a souvenir, even a memento; we display them like badges of honor in this house.”
“This house seems dedicated to honoring Valentine’s Day,” I thought to myself.
“Sir?” the man asked me, breaking my train of thought. “If you would, please, follow me.” He disregarded his overjoyed demeanor as he walked slowly down the hall. I followed him, and soon, we reached to the first door of the house, revealing a golden heart on it; the number one in the center. “This room is known to be ‘The Rose Room.’”
He opened the door to reveal a hybrid room, a master bedroom with the aesthetics of a sun room. What was inside was breathtaking: the beautiful fresh, earthy smell of colored roses was overgrowing the room. The roses’ vines were spread throughout the room, attached to the walls and floor like veins and arteries to the human body; their thorns uncommonly larger than usual. What I didn’t realize, however, were two bodies in bed, constricted by the very plant that signified love; having said that, next to the heart shaped bed that laid the couple showed the most beautiful bed of roses; the dew from the sunlight that peeked through glistened, though I couldn’t tell if it was water, or something else.
“I hope you don’t mind the mess. As you can see, some of our couples tend to stay much, much longer, and we’re no people if we’re to rush love from this place.”
I wanted to press questions to him, but he already closed the door, and asked me to follow. Annoyed, but reluctantly, I shrugged, and pressed on. We soon stopped once again to another door, revealing another heart; in the middle was the number two.
“We call this ‘The Secret Admirer’s Room,’” he said, and once again, he opened the door to me, revealing what I could describe as ones desperate attempt to proclaim their love for someone. In one corner of the room, clothed skeletal remains were slumped on the floor; an open box with a shriveled organic object in one hand, a large blade of what I had to assume was glass with blood so old and dried it was flaking away from the shard in the other. By the door was another skeleton, also clothed, in the position that it was trying to escape from the grisly sight, but was unable to. “Love can be cruel to some people; for one can show the most heartfelt feelings to someone, only to be simply denied.” I wanted to look more into the room, but he closed the door, and ordered me to press on.
For each room we passed followed another abstract scene, followed by a few words of back-story from the old man, and as much as I was stunned, it kept me curious about the next room. Some of the other rooms involved a room regarding young love, showing two young children frozen in time. Another room was for lovers’ quarrel, showing a mannequin with a missing arm, with purple and red marks throughout the figure, and a paper heart pinned in its chest with a knife. Longing, Fantasy, Sweet obsessions, and even a room that was nothing but hearts; both real and artificial; as much as I wanted to go into each room, the old man prevented me from entering, so I had to look from the doors opening before he closed it.
After what seemed like hours, and looking in so many rooms, it wasn’t long before we reached the supposed final room of the tour, revealing two black doors with a much bigger heart, but instead of a number, revealed a crown shaped in red. The old man was eerily quiet when we reached to this room, but instead of asking each and every room we saw, I had to ask, “What room is this?”
“…This is the ‘Red Honeymoon Suite,’ he croaked, as he took out a key with a heart at the end to unlock the double doors before us. After the sound of a loud “click,” the doors opened themselves, revealing nothing but darkness and a smell that was a mixture of things: sterile, but also rotten; metallic, but also sweet. “Would you like to come in, and see the inside of this room?”
Out of all the rooms I couldn’t go in to, this happened to be the only one I can. Without missing a beat, I quickly walked into the dark room, where the mixture of smells grew more potent with each step I took.
I was soon enveloped in pure darkness, with the only source of light coming from the doors opening. “Close your eyes. You don’t want to be blinded by the lights,” he said. Without saying anything I did what he said, preparing for what grisly fate awaited me in this house of supposed love and death. Before I knew it, the lights came on, and what was shown had got to be the most grotesque room of all. It had the layout of a studio apartment, with the walls decorated with viscera, intestines, and skin to appear as ribbons or even wall décor. The chandelier above me had its artificial lights splattered in dried blood, with its rusted metal strands wrapped in more guts, shriveled from age. On the floor, was broken wine bottles, syringes, and dried rose petals, piled like leaves from the autumn season. Finally, before me was the exact visual of a Valentine nightmare. Dead bodies, skeletons, cadavers were nearly everywhere, clothed, unclothed, skinned and dried; some were in the California king bed, and some on the floor, some chained and attached to slings; all in sexual positions…like a macabre orgy frozen in time. It was so overwhelming, that I had to steps back, only to bump into the old man.
“The ‘Red Honeymoon Suite’ is a room specifically for those in true love; a miniature world to explore their inner, most sinful desires for one another and others.” He glared at me as if I found out about a dark secret, and he’d had to keep me quiet, but despite his look, he continued. “This room is very popular for more than just two people; in fact—”
“I’ll take it!” I didn’t mean to interrupt, but after seeing all of this, all of the sickly sweet facades of any term related to Valentine’s Day, that this was what I wanted. I wanted the entire home for not just myself, but for the future people that I bring here. This house is so sickly devoted to such a holiday, that – funnily and oddly enough – I simply love it too much to have it for just one day.
“Excuse me?” he questioned me, raising an eyebrow.
“Let me rephrase: I wish to buy this house.”
He cleared his throat. “Allow me to repeat what you’re proposing: You, sir, wish to ‘buy’ this place? You’re not here to reserve a room…?”
I shook my head. “I’m what you’d call an entrepreneur, and this place has so much history built into it. Allow me to take the reins and make this place into the best hotel, motel… hell, even a B&B, that there is.”
The man fell silent, and slowly gave a slight chuckle and then sighed, “I’m quite happy that you like this place, but I must tell you that this place isn’t for sale. The residents still reside in these halls. I’ll admit, this business hasn’t been pleasant as of late, but the people that reside here, they are what keeps this place alive. Their hearts, their emotions, their memories…”
“…Their ‘mementos?’” I asked.
“Yes, yes, you’re right; even their mementos.”
I walked around the room, my eyes scanning the hellish scene before me still, my stomach turning, my sanity dwindling away; I turned to the man once more. “Tell me, would you say that you love your job?”
The man smiled. “Why, yes, I’d still work here in this mausoleum of love, even in death. Even if there wasn’t any business here, I’d still treat this place as a world of love.”
“And you’re sure I can’t persuade you into selling this place to me?”
He frowned. “No. This place can’t be bought, and you can’t force me to sell it to you.”
I looked away from him, and I suddenly felt hot. I felt not like myself, and as I was noticing my sudden changes, the man gave me a scowl. “If you’re not here to reserve a room, then I suggest it would be best if you left.”
It was then that I had revealed my gun to him, showing the same wide grin he had shown me when I first got here. “It’s such a shame, that you’re so blinded by this damn holiday that it can make even the queen of hearts sick.” I laughed at him manically as he stepped away from me.
“Please, sir, you don’t know what you’re doing—”
I shot the old bastard in the heart as he pleaded, his body gave a loud thump as he bled out on the engraved heart on the floor.
I stared at my gun in my hand, seeing my hand tremble with adrenaline, the sudden silence started to ring in my ears, as I blew the subtle smoke from my gun. I looked at the spot where the man had died by my hand, only to see that he was gone. Not just him, but everybody that was propped was also gone, and only the remnants of rose petals and dust was there surrounding me.
“Pleasure having business with you,” I said, as I instinctively walked out of the room. I blew a kiss to the sudden emptiness of the room before closing its double doors behind me. With the old man gone, I was finally able to look in each room, only to find that each room was like the Red Honeymoon Suite: rotten, abandoned, and no bodies in any shape or form, except for the mannequin in the Lover’s Quarrel room. Each room I was able to revisit felt empty, and for each room I went into, the heavier my chest got.
I started to even question if all the things I saw was real and that I was losing my mind, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that I stumbled upon something that should’ve been exploited a long time ago, and in the end, I got my wish by stumbling upon a building that was once known as the Valentine House. I eventually made it to the foyer, and seeing the once red walls to be a gloomy grey. The knick-knacks gone or broken beyond recognition, the roses blackened and dry, and the mementos…they were all real. I saw the pictures of the unfortunate, seeing their smiling faces, from various years dating from 1938 up to 1996. I couldn’t help but feel their pain, at which I ended up sobbing on the spot. I was soon starting to debate to placing the gun I had to my head and ending it, but a heard a loud thud, bringing me back to reality, if not momentarily. It was a red book, with a white lace job. I picked it up, and I saw what had to be a registry. Flipping through the pages, I saw a folded piece of paper. I opened it, and read the contents.
“To whom it may concern:
This paper shows proof of ownership of the Valentine House. Under the house name, you shall allow anyone with a broken heart to come and stay until they feel loved enough to leave at their leisure. That is the Valentine way. I should hope that my legacy will live on to be a sanctuary for those that seek love, celebrate it, cherish it, and the like. My only wish is to make people happy, as I have with my loving wife and family.
~Robert “Cupid” Valentine
February 14th, 1928”
After reading what seemed to be the ownership title of the house, I felt a cold chill run down my spine. Feeling like I was being watched, I quickly grabbed my bearings, book included, and rushed to my car. Seeing the other rusted cars had also vanished, I quickly drove away from the building; it soon crumbled before my eyes. It’s as if the people that were stuck there had wished to be free by tearing the house from within. “May God wish you safe travels,” I said to myself, as I laid my eyes to the red book beside me, thinking of the souls that were dormant in that damned house.
I soon made it back to my hometown, and drove all the way to my friends’ house. Gabriel was surprised to see me so pale, and brought me inside, his girlfriend in the kitchen making cocoa. I wanted to tell him what I saw, that the house was real, and I managed to escape the devoted hell before it crumbled onto me. As soon as I sat on his couch, however, I suddenly crashed, only to wake up in the middle of the night.
I felt relieved that I was still at Gabriel’s house, and I stretched in relief. I stumbled in the dark home to find him, so I could thank him and his girlfriend for letting mmeme rest. I soon realized the house seemed quiet…too quiet.
“Gabriel?” I shouted. No answer. I reached to his room, only to find the door locked. “Hey, man, you up?” I said, banging his door.
I was starting to worry, so I shouted even more, more than loud enough to wake someone from a deep sleep,
“Gabriel, this isn’t fun—”
My heart stopped as I looked at the sudden, odd reflection in front of me. I stepped back, looked up, and to my horror, revealed a metallic heart, with the number 214 in the center. I was frantic, and banged on the door until it finally gave, only to see darkness. I flipped the switch, and I saw carnage. The fresh smell of blood came from two unidentifiable piles of flesh in the corner, and on the carpet, written in viscera, a message read: “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
In the center of that message was a teddy bear. The same teddy bear that Gabriel had bought back in December, with splatters of blood on its chest, paws, and face.
Alright, we all remember those cardboard castles of our youth, the ones that were better than any Fisher Price playhouse precisely because they had been painstakingly cut out, taped together, and decorated with our own hands. And unlike the fancy plastic cottages your parents spent a fortune on, these ones could be altered and added on to endlessly with a little creativity on your part and a few cardboard boxes your neighbours were just going to throw out. If you were the kid lucky enough to fall into possession of a refrigerator box, your coolness status was set. At least for a few weeks, anyway.
Feeling nostalgic yet? Good. You’re in the same frame of mind I was before my happy childhood memories of cardboard and duct tape were forever marred.
So, my story. Three years ago, my parents decided we were going to move. My sisters and I took this with a grain of salt because my parents are notoriously disorganized and none of their plans come to fruition without some serious delays. But sure enough, they soon began the renovations the house needed in order to sell. I was working at a fairly well-known clothing store at the time, and it was common for us to receive 15-30 boxes of stock every weekday. They were big boxes which, after being emptied, just ended up in the dumpster.
I took some home and started stockpiling them in the basement, figuring they might be useful in case my parents were in earnest about this moving thing. One night after my sister had picked me up from work we were carrying down a few of the flattened boxes to the basement, and I started thinking about the really awesome box tunnel my cousins made when we were little. It stretched all through their basement with lots of nooks and crannies, and we were allowed to paint it however we liked. Naturally we were occupied for months playing with this thing.
Remembering this, I looked at our growing pile of boxes and then at my sister and voiced an idea I’m sure we were both considering. “Casey,” I said, “we could make a really kickass box fort out of these.”
Now, before you start wondering about the mental capacity of my sisters and I (considering that we were able to amuse ourselves with a box fort), let me tell you it started out mostly as a joke, a “wouldn’t it be hilariously ridiculous if we did this?!” sort of thing. But, yeah, we ended up getting really into it… we’re a pretty creative family so it was mainly the building of it that was fun. It’s not like we spent hours in there playing “house” or anything.
We built it upstairs, our first 8 boxes serving as a tunnel between my two sister’s rooms, Taylor and Casey, with a little doorway into the bathroom and another tunnel branching off towards my room. We got out the Sharpies and vandalized it to our heart’s content, we put up funny pictures inside, Casey even hung some Christmas lights which gave a nice effect. Any four year old would be proud to call this box fort his own.
I brought home more boxes. We elongated the tunnels, getting fancier and adding curves at the end so that, when inside, you could never see an entrance unless you crawled through to the very end. We even covered the whole thing with blankets to make it prettier and to keep out the light from all the little gaps and crevices throughout. Our dog, Juliet, was timid at first but joined the box fort club as soon as the three of us crawled inside to read ghost stories, because she didn’t want to be left out.
It was really dark in there – we usually brought in flashlights – and pretty much any time we crawled through we were prone to fits of giggles, mostly because we were three fully-grown girls crawling through a box fort. I mention this only to show that, despite the total darkness and claustrophobic size of it, there was none of that “palpable atmosphere of terror, foreboding, and ill-will” that often accompanies creepy places. At that point it was still perfectly commonplace and funny, though you’d be hard-pressed to get one of us to crawl through it to get to the bathroom at night, when the house was quiet and everyone asleep.
My parents were understandably annoyed at the massive obstruction in their hallway which they had to hop over to get to their room, the linen closet, and our bathroom, but they are generally very accepting of our antics and only threatened to dismantle it once or twice. Nonetheless, we decided that we were unsatisfied with our box fort, because we wanted to make an epic box fort. However, having already taken up the space in our bedrooms, the only place left to extend was across the hall to my parent’s bedroom, something they would never agree to while living in the house.
Luckily, they were going to be leaving for a week. That’s when we filled all the free floor space in their bedroom and closet with box fort, and that’s when the weird stuff started to happen.
It was a progressive thing. We’d be in there hanging up goofy pictures or whatever, and then we’d hear a shuffling noise down one of the many branching tunnels. We assumed it was Juliet trying to find us, but after calling her and searching for her, it would turn out she’d been lying in the sunny patch on the couch for who knew how long. One time Casey and I were in there hanging up paper bats we cut out and we heard the shuffling from far off.
“Juliet! Jooooo-leeee-etta!” I called.
“What are you talking about?” I said, confused because her face looked scared all of a sudden.
“It’s not Julie, Taylor just took her for a walk. They’re both gone.” I stared at her a moment, remembered Taylor shouting something about ‘walking the dog’ not too long ago, and then we both scrambled to the nearest exit. Once outside the fort we immediately lapsed into fits of giggles, feeling ridiculous now that we were “safe.”
“Do you think it’s mice or something?” Casey asked, crinkling her nose.
I said I didn’t think so, the store was pretty clean and the house never had mice, but there had to be another explanation. The noise came from the portion that stretched into my parent’s closet, a big walk-in with a window to the back yard.
“The window’s open in here, I bet it was just the breeze rustling the boxes.” A perfectly logical explanation which we were happy to believe.
That night while I was in bed I found my gaze drawn toward the entrance of the fort time and time again. It was really dark in there, and something about having that gaping black tunnel in my room made me feel very vulnerable. Eventually I turned over and slept the other way, but I made a mental note to cover it up with a sheet the next day.
On day two of no parents I had used the grocery money to buy ingredients for a cookie-decorating extravaganza, so I was in the kitchen baking those with Casey. We had a movie on at the same time so it was a bit loud in there, and we didn’t hear Taylor until she was standing in the doorway yelling at us. If I remember correctly, the conversation went something like this.
“What the hell, Casey, what do you want?”
Case and I gave each other quizzical looks, and Taylor looked at us like we were stupid.
“Are you serious? You make me come all the way down here and you don’t even want anything?”
“Tay, we didn’t call you.”
“Casey did, I was on the lap top in my room and she told me to come in the box fort with her.”
“No I didn’t, I’ve been here making cookies with Muse the whole time.”
“Oh whatever, Casey, you totally did, I heard you. And then when I went in you left and came down here.”
At this point, seeing one sister was pissed and the other confused, I jumped in and got the whole story from Taylor. Apparently she was in her room when she heard Casey calling her name from inside the box fort. She asked her what she wanted and Casey insisted she come in the box fort, so exasperated, she finally did. She couldn’t see Casey inside though, and a moment later she heard her laughing with me, down in the kitchen.
Where she had always been.
Needless to say, the atmosphere in the room instantly went from warm and comfortable to super creeped out and I felt the need to step up as big sister to lay their fears to rest. We went through the “you’re lying,” bit for awhile, but once both parties were satisfied the other was telling the truth it was time to do some investigating. Grabbing a kitchen knife more for courage than for any real fear for my life, I volunteered to check out the box fort while they waited outside and kept an eye on me.
I am a logical, reasonable person. I greet the supernatural and paranormal with, I think, a healthy degree of skepticism. I am open to the possibility of anything – ghosts, vampires, mermaids, whatever – but I will not believe it until I have solid scientific evidence proving its existence. At the time, in my mind, that had not been produced, which is why I had little trepidation in investigating the fort after that incident. If it happened to be an intruder, well, what could they do to me in a cramped little box fort with my sisters right there? Besides, someone had to do it.
With these thoughts I entered the fort and found… nothing. No ghosties, ghoulies, homeless wanderers, and no one in the house, either. Somehow I managed to convince Taylor that she’d heard the loud TV downstairs mixed with Casey and I’s voices, and we all settled down to eat cookies and watch movies together, comfortably mollified.
Maybe it was an after-effect of the incident during the day, but that night, Casey and Tay both had trouble sleeping. In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night to Casey’s scared voice calling “Muse, Muse!” I’m sure parents with small children probably get used to this, but when I woke up to that I was instantly terrified. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my knife, and ran to her room. For those of you weirded out by the fact that I keep a knife in my bedside table drawer, keep in mind that I’m a fairly petite woman with next to no chance of defending myself against an intruder without a weapon of some sort. Anyway, Casey’s room was dark and when I flipped on her light switch she was sitting up in bed with her eyes wide open, looking like she was going to cry. Seeing nothing amiss, I demanded to know what was wrong. By this time Tay had wandered into the room with Juliet in her arms. Casey told me that she had been sleeping when suddenly she woke up with the feeling that someone was in the room, watching her. She found herself staring at the entrance to the box fort. This chilled me a bit, having had a similar experience, but what she said next was even more strange. She kept her eyes on the entrance, willing herself to stop being creeped out, when suddenly the boxes started to shake like something inside was moving rapidly through them, away from her room. Apparently that’s when she started calling my name, waking up Taylor as well.
For the second time that day, I did a full search of the box fort and the entire house, finding nothing. I would have chalked it up to a dream if it hadn’t been for another strange occurrence the next day. Casey woke up an hour late for work because her alarm didn’t go off. Her alarm didn’t go off because her cell phone was missing, which she claimed she had placed beside her pillow before she went to sleep. Taylor and I made an effort to help her find it before she left, checking her bed and floor and calling it from the home phone, but neither of us was surprised or too concerned about it because she was notorious for misplacing things. When Case came home that evening I asked if it had been there when she woke us up in the middle of the night, and she couldn’t remember seeing it. But she had been texting her friend in bed and made sure to set the alarm and put it beside her. In the end we decided there was nothing to do but wait for it to show up.
At around three in the morning I was woken, yet again, by some sort of commotion outside my room. Again I grabbed my knife and was alarmed by the noise, but mostly what I felt was anger and annoyance: I’d had enough of all the drama and wanted to put an end to it.
Juliet was in my parent’s closet, barking her head off at the box fort, and Casey and Taylor were already up, wondering, like me, what was going on. Taylor picked up the dog and carried her out of the room, and she instantly shut up, leaving Casey and I standing in the closet with bewildered looks on our faces. It was silent for a moment, and then suddenly Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” song rang out loud and clear, making us jump.
“What the fuck?” I said, still trying to get my half-asleep head around this. Normally my sisters make fun of me when I swear, apparently I don’t do it right, but this time they seemed to find it appropriate.
“That’s my ringtone,” said Casey, looking at me strangely but making no move to get her phone.
“Well, answer it!” I said, exasperated.
Casey lifted the blanket that covered the opening of the box fort, and there was her missing cell phone lying in the centre of the first box, still blaring that song from an inadequate speaker. She flipped it open and put it to her ear.
I waited for a moment, then asked, “well, who is it?”
Casey made a noise of disgust and closed the phone. “It’s nothing, it was just our voices echoing in the background. They must have hung up.” She folded her arms. “Did you do this?”
“Why the hell would I steal your phone and wake us all up at three in the morning?!” I asked incredulously, and Casey turned to Taylor next.
“I didn’t touch your phone!” She said, with a note of fear in her face.
“Are you guys joking? This isn’t funny!” Casey said, agitated, “you’re scaring me.”
At this point I could see the situation was turning from weird to can’t-sleep-anymore scary, so I sighed and said I would check the whole house over, AGAIN, and proposed that Juliet had used the phone as a chew toy and left it in the box fort. It was the only thing I could think of at the time, and though it seemed to reassure my sisters, it really wasn’t that plausible… Juliet was missing most of her teeth, and the only thing I’d ever seen her play with were soft plush toys, slippers, and dirty underwear (I know, ew.) I doubted she’d ever want a cell phone in her mouth.
There was nothing amiss in the house, and I made sure to double check all the doors and windows this time, too. Everything was locked, we were safe, this had just turned into one of those weeks where a lot of small occurrences were adding up to a big headache. Before I went to bed, I asked Casey if her phone had shown the caller ID for that call.
“No, it just said, ‘Unknown.’ I don’t get why we didn’t hear it, though – it was so loud.”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “and change your ring tone.” It was too late to figure things out.
By day everything seemed fine. The three of us hung out at the beach by our house and we all felt pretty good afterwards, laughing and joking about how freaked we all get at the slightest sign of oddness. Casey was going to a party that night so it was just Tay and I at home; I got the sense that Tay was still feeling weird about the box fort, so I decided I’d do my best to make it fun again. I didn’t want another late-night wake up call. I grabbed a pile of old magazines, some scissors, and glue, and suggested we make a collage on one of the inside walls. We had some upbeat music playing and were discussing an upcoming family trip when Tay suddenly leans over and turns the music down, as though she’s listening for something.
“What?” I ask.
“Did you put Juliet outside?” she says, looking confused.
“No, she’s probably downstairs. Why?”
“I didn’t put her out either, but I can hear her barking.”
“Well, maybe Case did before she left,” I said cheerfully, “let’s go check.” For the record, I couldn’t hear anything, but Taylor’s always been more aware of Juliet than I am.
When we checked the backyard we couldn’t find her, and we didn’t hear any barking. I could tell Taylor was getting a bit anxious – she loves that dog – while I was starting to be frustrated. Juliet won’t come when we call her, so we had to search the house yet again. We checked all her favourite hiding spots but there was no sign of her until we got upstairs and were hopping over the box fort to check closets and bedrooms. Taylor straightened up suddenly and told me to “Shh.”
“I hear her again,” she said, making me pause so I too could listen.
“I don’t hear anything,” I said after a few moments.
“Can’t you hear her barking? It sounds like she’s far away.”
“Are you sure it’s not another dog? We didn’t let her out…”
“No, it’s definitely her,” she said, walking into my parents closet to listen at the window. “Come here, it’s louder in here. She’s got to be outside.”
When I said, once again, that I couldn’t hear anything, she rolled her eyes and replied, “you’re deaf, then,” and headed downstairs for her shoes.
We searched for our dog for four hours that night, on foot and in a car, calling Casey home to help later on. My heart was in my throat the entire time, thinking we’d come across something awful at the side of the road, and wondering how I was going to console two girls who loved Juliet like a baby and had never had anything bad happen all their lives. There was also an unsettling feeling at the back of my mind to do with that far-off dog barking, but I pushed that away for the time being.
The next day was spent in anxious endeavour, making posters and putting them up, canvassing the neighbourhood. My poor sisters were close to tears, and I was wondering why this had to happen when my parents were gone. At the end of the night they had settled in to watching a movie half-heartedly, while they waited for a call, and I went upstairs to discreetly call my Mom and ask her to come home early. I didn’t know what was going to happen with our dog but I knew I needed some help consoling my sisters.
When I finally went to bed, the house was quiet: my sisters had locked up the house, turned out the lights, and were sleeping, and I was bored with my book. I couldn’t sleep, and like a few nights previous, I found I couldn’t take my eyes off the entrance to the box fort. I had covered it up with a blanket as I’d intended to earlier, and while that seemed to help somewhat I was still feeling weird about it. At some point I chastised myself in my head (“this is stupid, I’m going to sleep”) and prepared to roll over to the other side, when movement caught the corner of my eye. The blanket cover over the entrance had fluttered a bit, as though a breeze had blown through. This was odd, as all the windows had been closed when we turned on the air conditioning the previous day. I watched intently now, trying to determine in the dim light if the blanket was actually moving in and out as though someone were breathing under it, or if this was just my imagination.
My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. As I watched, something touched the blanket from inside with a single, slender finger, and traced a vertical path all the way to the bottom.
I’m not a particularly brave person, but something happens to you when you’re in charge of the protection of others – suddenly scary things don’t cripple you with fear because you know you have to be brave for the people you love. I did the only thing, at this moment, that my brain would allow me to do after reasoning with itself and coming to the most logical explanation. I turned on my light, quietly got out of bed, and softly called, “Juliet?”
When my call received no answer I made to step forward, and suddenly the boxes shook as though something were passing through them. I admit, I jumped and my heart started beating a mile a minute, but I also remembered we hadn’t actually checked inside the box fort in all the commotion. Picking up the flashlight that lay on the floor near the entrance, I knelt down and lifted the cover, shining my light inside.
There was nothing in the small tunnel leading out of my bedroom, but I couldn’t see around the corners.
“Juliet,” I called, trying to keep my voice down so as not to wake my sisters. Then again, “Juliet!” but in that stern come-here-this-moment voice. Finally, I heard a quiet whimper, like she used to do when she was a puppy, and that shuffling noise moving further away from me.
I cursed under my breath. Aside from all the “creepy fucking box fort in the middle of the night” associations going through my mind, all I could think of was my little dog hurt and afraid, and how I wanted to get to her before my sisters to see what damage had been done. Things could get hysterical with them real fast if Juliet was in bad shape. So, hero winning out over coward, I got on my hands and knees with the flashlight and went inside.
It was eerily quiet in there, that kind of absence-of-sound quiet that makes you feel like your ears are plugged with cotton, only you can hear your own breath just fine. When I got to the end of the tunnel I looked right first, towards my sisters rooms, but there was nothing there. When I looked left, I heard a shuffling and my flashlight beam caught the tail end of something black turning the corner. Juliet.
“Juliet,” I hissed, “Juliet, come here girl.” I made my voice more sweet and inviting, but that dog never comes when she’s called. I sighed and pushed on further, passing by our aborted attempt at a collage on my way. When I got to the end, I turned my flashlight down the long tunnel leading to the closet. The cheap light wasn’t strong enough to see to the very end – it simply stopped at a wall of blackness.
My resolve wavered here. I must have stayed there on my hands and knees for a full minute before that whimpering noise came to me again and something shuffled further on in the tunnel. It urged me onward. I determinedly made my way towards the closet, each moment expecting my weak flashlight beam to illuminate the red fleece blanket with penguins on it that we had used to cover up the the closet entrance to the fort. But I found nothing.
Not even an opening.
The best way I can describe it is by comparing it to that game we played as children, where you close your eyes, lay on your back on the floor, and raise your arms and legs in the air. Two friends take hold of your hands and feet, and as slowly as possible, lower them to the ground. It feels normal at first, but at some point your brain expects your body to hit the floor, and when it doesn’t, when you keep moving more and more downward, you feel as though you’re impossibly passing through the floor.
That was what it was like being in the tunnel. I kept crawling through, shining my little flashlight on ahead, slowly growing more and more disturbed when I didn’t reach the ending, or see any sign of it. And there was something else nagging me, something about the way the boxes had shook when whatever was inside moved away from me. Juliet is a little dog, a miniature schnauzer. When she walked through the tunnels she didn’t even have to duck; all you could hear was the soft padding of her feet and her nails scratching against the cardboard. The boxes only shook and moved when something big crawled through them, like me.
I don’t know how far I went or how long I was in there, but at some point I actually stopped with a definite “this isn’t right” feeling. I visualized the fort in my head: by my estimation, I should have been somewhere in the back yard by then, suspended two stories into the air. It had finally dawned on me that I was currently located in a space that couldn’t possibly exist, chasing something that was obviously bigger than Juliet… I freaked out and got the fuck out of there.
When crawling in the opposite direction didn’t seem to lead anywhere but a black, endless tunnel, I really lost it and started pulling apart the boxes at the seams, punching my way through and finally finding myself in a tangled mess of blankets and cardboard in the middle of my parents closet.
It must have looked silly, me in a heap on the floor like that, but when I looked up at the close walls of that 5ft by 10ft walk-in closet, goosebumps prickled up my back and arms. It was like stepping outside for a jog, then turning around after 10 minutes of running to find you hadn’t even left your front steps. It just didn’t make sense that I had crawled so far in that tunnel but gone nowhere, and followed something that was somehow still inside. To this day I can’t explain it and I don’t even like to think about it. Even worse, I don’t like to remember that insistent whimpering that followed me all the way back.
Shaking with residual terror, I began dismantling the box fort right then and there. When my sisters emerged from their rooms, bleary eyed and confused, I just mumbled something about having to take it down before mom got home, and continued on with my work.
I left just one box. I figured If I was going crazy, I might as well go full out… thinking of our dog, I left a single box standing in the closet by itself and carried all the rest of them out to the fire pit in our back yard.
The next morning I burned them, and my Mom was home by the afternoon.
That’s not quite the end of the story because there was a bit of happiness in store for us later, but I almost wish it was the end. It wasn’t much “closure” for me, what happened afterwards. We ended up finding Juliet a few days later. She was okay – a little erratic and jumpy for a bit, but happy to see us. My family was so overjoyed that nothing could really dampen their spirits, even a little thing like where I found her. It seemed like for everyone but me, all thoughts of the box fort had been completely washed away.
The day she came home, I was the only one in the house, washing dishes from a pancake breakfast and letting my mind wander. Suddenly I became aware of a muffled scratching and yelping sound coming from somewhere nearby. My heart lifting, I checked the back door, the garage door, and the front door, all to no avail, before I realized the noise was coming from above me. Slowly I made my way upstairs, following the noise all the way to my parents room, and finally to their closed closet door. I opened the door, and my little dog bounded out to me, jumping and barking for my attention.
I got rid of the last box after that, but it may have been too late. Mom came into my room that night, carrying a bundle of socks and underwear and asking me which ones were mine. She still did our laundry sometimes and couldn’t tell what belonged to who. I picked out my things, and as she was leaving she turned around with a grin, chuckling and shaking her head. “Whose Halloween costume is that hanging in my closet? It scared me half to death!”
I put down my book. “What costume?”
“You know, the tall black one with the long arms and the white eyes. It’s very life-like. Is it from a movie or something?”
I only stared at her blankly for a second. “Oh, uh, yeah, it’s mine. I’ll move it downstairs.”
I waited until I heard my Mom’s footsteps move downstairs, then I noiselessly made my way to her room. My fear had an almost hypnotic effect on me that drove me towards the closet: all I knew was that I had to see. The closet door was open, but the light was off. Holding my breath, I flicked it on, and surveyed my surroundings. Clothing, boxes, belts, ties, suitcases, blankets – all were hanging or shelved with some order – then at the back, an empty space about half a foot wide where the clothes had been pushed aside. A single plastic hanger was swinging back and forth, quickly losing momentum. The window beside me was open.
Below are a selection of emails from Leonard Tomlins, a person of interest in two separate missing person cases in the North Sheffield area. It has been the conclusion of the writing officer, and his colleagues, that Leonard Tomlins has passed away since the writing of these emails. Until further information can be found, these emails offer the only narrative available on the dual disappearances of Sarah Lither and Samuel Tomlins-Lither.
To: James Lang
Hey man, sorry I haven’t had chance to speak to you before you left. Didn’t really know what to say since I missed your goodbye party. Still, though, I kind of have an excuse. I woke up on Friday and went through the whole routine, cleaned up a little for Sam’s visit, got myself showered and ready and when I went to leave there was a dog waiting by my front door. Like, seriously, just this manky looking little thing with a note around its neck that read,
“Give it everything”.
It was a real curve ball! I took the little thing in and it made itself at home while I went and knocked on some of the neighbours’ doors. After a while I was told about a guy a couple of doors down who had lost his dog a few weeks ago, but when I saw him he told me they’d found their dog dead a couple of miles away in a ditch. By the time I came back it was too late to come see you. So, real sorry for that. I’m going to try and take it to a shelter tomorrow with Sam and then maybe things will be back to normal, and maybe we’ll have heard a bit about your case, eh?
Best of luck.
* * * * * *
To: Helen Ansbury
Subject: Apologies Over This Afternoon!
Helen I am so, so so sorry. I cannot emphasize enough that what happened today is not normal! Sam has never behaved like that before. I’ve already made a donation to your website that I think will cover some of the damages Sam caused in your reception area, and I have a friend who works in flooring and I’m sure he could do something about the stain on the rug. And I’m more than willing to pay for any medical expenses that result from the bite on your hand. And, again, I just want to apologise for the mess he caused! Sam is a perfectly healthy and normal child, I don’t know what would have made him do that. I just can’t emphasise it enough. And I know it may be the last thing you want to think about, but please phone me so we can discuss you taking in this dog. I know Sam spun a pretty compelling tale but that dog is not my dog. Sam’s mother and I didn’t buy it for him two years ago, and we’ve not spent the last three months trying to put it down because we want to move to a nicer house with wooden flooring. In fact Sam’s mother and I have split up, we no longer live together and haven’t since Sam was two. I do not have the money to look after this dog, and I don’t believe I can give it the home it deserves. For the sake of the animal please phone me on the number I left at your reception.
* * * * * *
To: James Lang
Subject: Bad Luck Man
Hey, so I heard about the trial. I mean, I guessed after I didn’t hear from you on Friday, but your mum filled me in when I saw her a couple of days ago and she passed on this new email address. She says you guys get email access for good behaviour, is that right?
So yeah, I don’t think I’ve had the chance to fill you in but I wound up keeping the dog. Sam’s been real weird about it. He went home after the weekend and told Sarah that I bought him the dog. And he says to her, no joke now, that I told him that if he didn’t behave, and tell mummy how important spending time with daddy is, that I’d kill the fucking dog. Next thing Sarah’s phoning me and going nuts. She’s all horrified and threatening to get Alan to come kick my ass, and obviously I’m pretty pissed so I start screaming too and next thing I know some real nasty stuff gets said and we don’t talk for like a week. So yeah, the kid clearly loves the dog, so I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. Guess the next move is taking it to the vets.
Thing is though… I just don’t like the dog. When Sam’s not here it sits and looks at me, and almost never moves. It’s just not right. It doesn’t move right, or behave right. And when Sam does come here it acts real normal, but only around him and even then it’s like it guards him from me. I check in on him at night and it sits on his bed and just stares, and if I come too close it growls. There’s some other, really weird stuff too. I’ve checked a hundred times, and I’m desperate to hear other ideas, but I swear this dog hasn’t been to the toilet at all.
Seriously. Every day I put him out in the garden and I haven’t seen anything left, and it’s not a big garden. And the damn thing eats so much. It went through 50 kilograms of food in a single day! It’s eating through my damn bank account and it’s not a big dog either. Bit bigger than a terrier, but smaller than a Labrador. I must be missing some piece of the puzzle, like maybe it digs a hole and buries the mess? You used to have dogs, is that something they do?
* * * * * *
To: James Lang
Subject: Thanks for the call
It was nice speaking to you properly. I know you don’t get long on the phones, and ringing me meant missing out on a chat with your mum. Still though, thanks. So yeah… I followed your advice. It was a really clever idea you had putting talc down on the dog’s bed. Didn’t really go as planned though. Not that it didn’t work, it’s just that what I found didn’t make a lot of sense. I mean, the marks just got real weird. They started out looking like a dog’s but changed with each new print, and next thing you know…
You know what, don’t worry. It just didn’t work… and I’m beginning to think this is actually Sam. Maybe he came home when the teachers weren’t paying attention? I don’t know how… but he must have. I think something is really wrong with him. Every time he comes around it’s just not the same. He sits by that dog for hours, and no matter what I do I can’t go near them when they’re together. Sarah’s been feeling the same way. We’re talking a lot more since Sam’s been misbehaving so much, so that’s one good thing I guess. He’s still going back and forth between us and Sarah thinks that’s the problem. I told her she could take full custody for a month or two to see if it helped, but she didn’t want to take the dog, and Sam would never leave it permanently. He only lets the it stay with me because, and I’m quoting now,
“He needs to make sure Daddy behaves.”
Which… yeah, is probably one of the freakier things I’ve heard in my life, but lately he’s been a pretty freaky kid. I don’t really know how to handle it. The other day I found him letting the dog clean up a cut and the dog was just licking away and Sam was moaning, real loud. Even the neighbours came out to see what was going on and all I could was drag the kid by the collar inside, all the while the dog tried to eat my ankle. I’m pretty sure everyone on this street thinks I’m some sort of weirdo. If you’d heard the noises Sam was making though, you would have thought it too. It wasn’t… right. They aren’t noises a kid should make, or even know how to make. Makes me wonder what he’s been exposed to at Alan’s.
I asked him why he was letting the dog do it, and all Sam could say was that the dog was hungry, and he wanted to feed him, and it felt good. So yeah… thanks for the dog advice man but honestly, I don’t think it’s the dog. I think Sam’s got some serious issues. I think he’s the problem, though I don’t know how or why.
* * * * * *
Subject: Please Phone Me ASAP URGENT
Dear Dr. Sletter,
I really don’t understand the content of your last email. I would appreciate a phone call so we could discuss what happened in your veterinary office on Thursday afternoon. Typically in situations like this I would pay for any damages or fees the dog incurred, but as far as I’m aware you’ve made no attempt to seek reimbursement. Also, I’ve heard you fired your assistant, which was really unnecessary. It wasn’t her fault that she was bitten by the dog, and as far as I’m aware he’s a stray mongrel so anything she said after being bitten was probably the result of an illness, fever, or maybe even a concussion she had received during the struggle. I know she said some silly things, but let’s be honest about what probably happened. Your business lost another client’s dog during a struggle with mine, and I feel very responsible. I don’t know if that little guy jumped out a window, or made an escape through an unguarded door, but either way I wouldn’t feel comfortable if you blamed the poor woman who got bit, even if she did accuse my dog of swallowing a beagle whole like a snake. It was clearly something said in the panic.
So please, please, phone me, so we can discuss this further.
* * * * * *
To: James Lang
Subject: Update On Sarah
I know it’s been a while. I didn’t really feel like speaking to anyone after Sarah disappeared. I figured I’d drop you an email though because I’ve changed numbers a couple of times since we last spoke, and I don’t know if you’ve got the right one. I just wanted to say, thanks for trying to help with the search. I know you tried to get out for special circumstances so you could come look, your mother told me the whole ordeal with the parole board. Sorry that at the time I didn’t really think to say thanks.
Now it’s just me to keep on looking. Yesterday all the volunteers officially quit, and the police said they have no choice but to focus on other cases. So this is the first time in a while it’s just been me on my own, not surrounded by cops and volunteers. So yeah… I don’t really know what to do now. Sam’s moving back in tomorrow, he can’t really stay with Alan.
I always thought I’d be such a good dad, but when I told him he’d be living with me he got so happy and jumped up and down and he said,
“I knew he’d fix it! I knew he’d fix it!” and… I don’t know. I guess all I can say is, I’ve raised one fucked up kid. I must be a terrible dad. I don’t know what I did that was so wrong. Sometimes, when I’m feeling really angry, I don’t even blame myself.
I blame that fucking dog.
I need help man. I really need help. Please phone me when you get the chance.
* * * * * *
To: James Lang
I wanted to say sorry. I didn’t do a great job being a friend did I? No one’s going to really know what happened, and you’re no different. We used to talk so much, before the wives, and the kids, and whatever it was that got you and your brother in so much trouble. So I just want you to know that they’ll come and ask questions. They’re going to comb this house, and they’re going to want to know so much and they’ll think I’ve got the answers but fuck man… I don’t. You’ll believe me won’t you? You know I would never hurt Sam, or Sarah.
I just went to the shop, and I came back. That’s it.
Seriously, that’s it. Sam was sitting with the dog when I left, I asked if he wanted to come with and obviously he said no, so I just left him there. Then I came back and the house was wrecked. At first I thought an oil pipe under the house must have exploded but then I got closer, and there was this smell. Jesus… I couldn’t even stay in there. I nearly passed out. I’m writing this at the library, I took a shower at my gym. I had to. The stink followed me everywhere I went.
I think… I think it might have finally taken a shit. There was so much of it and it didn’t look like shit. It was like oil, but with hints of red. Like blood. Like blood and oil, about a foot high throughout the entire house. It was turning the walls and floor to mush, like everything had been stewing in the slick broth for years. Gallons of it must have spewed out from that little thing, and from the marks on the wall the force was horrific. I mean, fuck… some of the windows were smashed out. And in one of the walls, embedded in the cheap plasterwork, I even found a tooth.
And a dog collar.
And a ring…
I think it was Sarah’s.
Jesus Christ. I’ve gone fucking mad. Sam’s gone. I think it hurt him. I think it must have. It must have done something to him. I went looking, I went looking through the shit and the blood and the… other stuff, maybe guts, I don’t know, but I couldn’t find him. No trace of him. Nothing.
I won’t be here when you get out. If they ask you about me you can show them this, it won’t help much though. I’ll be dead. I’ve got nothing left. Sarah’s gone. Sam’s gone.
I think I get it now though.
“Give it everything.”