Darkwoods

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


CHAPTER 1

Myers felt his arms beginning to tremble as he carried the heavy bag of road salt around inside the cabin, pouring lines of white powder in front of every window and both doors leading outside.
He was never sure how much salt was the right amount to keep them safe for another night, but he tried to be conservative in his use.
There was no telling how many more days the four of them would be stuck inside the cabin, listening through the night as the shrieking and clawing at the outside walls began and continued until dawn.
He had heard the thing’s footsteps at several points, and seen its markings on the outside of the cabin on the days when he could gather the courage to step outside and work on the car, but he had no clue what it looked like, nor did he want to know.
His education in nature had been lacking, and he felt no great shame in admitting to being a city boy, but he was sure even the toughest mountaineers wanted nothing to do with an animal that could put claw marks ten feet high into the side of a cabin.
As he moved drawing the salt lines, Marcella moved around the cabin, checking and rechecking locks, muttering under her breath as she did so.
One night, Myers had asked her what she was saying so continuously, and she had gone slightly pale as she responded.
“It’s the Lord’s Prayer. As much as I can remember. But sometimes there’s interference and I can’t hear any of it.”
Myers hadn’t thought to ask what she meant, as busy as he had been pouring salt at the time.
The salt was one of the few things that had seemed to work in keeping them safe, that Myers knew of.
Something about it just drove the creature batshit, but kept it from just breaking through one of the windows or doors outright, which he was secretly sure it had the physical strength to do.
He finished drawing the lines just as the last edge of the sun disappeared over the horizon, and true dark began to rise up and suffocate the forest around them.
Myers felt it when the day ended, somehow knew it in his soul when true night began to come into its strength, and he went around again, going back over locks and bars that had to have been checked half a dozen times already.
When he was done, he walked into the kitchen and took hold of Marcella to stop her endless pacing, hugging his wife to his chest in a way that was probably too tight to be comfortable for her.
“Did you get them all?” She asked, resting her trembling hands against the small of his back.
“Yeah, they’re covered, and I double checked all the locks. Did you put the kids in the room?”
He felt her nod against his chest, and Myers leaned down to kiss the top of her head.
She flinched away, then returned to her position, taking the gesture dutifully.
The sounds of the forest suddenly died away around them, and the roars of the creature outside began.

-
In the morning, the four of them sat on the bed in the kids’ room and ate a light breakfast comprised mostly of stale bread and the few leaves and roots Marcella had proclaimed to be edible, drawing from her time as a nature scout nearly three decades before. All of them fought the urge to steal glances at the pile of rotting flesh in the corner of the room, and all of them lost.
In the dim light creeping in through the bedroom door, Marcella’s face look worn and exhausted, and Myers was sure he looked worse. 
Between the two of them, they had managed around two hours of sleep at most, constantly jerking awake as the creature screamed and thrashed outside, or from anticipating attacks when none were coming.
Myers felt his chin droop onto his chest for a moment, saw a flash of the creature behind his eyelids, and immediately jerked awake, flinching hard enough to send the mug he was drinking gritty water from tumbling to the floor.
It shattered with an unmusical crash, and they all froze, despite the daylight drifting in from down the hall.
Myers was never quite sure that the creature was entirely nocturnal, but he didn’t want to risk rousing it in daylight when it may be even more pissed off.
He looked into the drawn, dirty faces of his family and saw his fear echoed across them.
“Dad?”
“Yeah, Katie?”
“When do we get to go home?”
“I’m not sure. You’ll know it when I know it, hon. Big promise.”
His daughter smiled when he said the same magic phrase he had been using with his kids since their infancy, but it faded faster than winter daylight.
Myers stood up and looked down the hall toward the front of the cabin, where the hazy gray light poured towards them but never quite filled the space.
His body clock told him it wasn’t noon yet, but the light said it was late afternoon at best.
Since they’d been out here, time had taken on a strange, elastic feeling.
There had been days where the sun had never fully risen, just that constant frozen gleam of the early morning light, and he would’ve sworn before god in his throne that some of the nights had been eighteen or twenty hours long, all of them huddled together for warmth and comfort, biting the insides of their cheeks to keep from crying out in fear. 
The noise would mean their deaths.
If they knew nothing else about the creature, that was enough.

Eventually, Myers got out of the bed and stood, trying to shake out that strange weakness that had begun to overtake his joints and muscles, making him ache and limp like an arthritic old man.
“I’m going to round us up some breakfast,” He said, theatrically thumbing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and trying to force himself to be cheerful.
Katie was nine going on ten, and Kevin was thirteen going on pubescent, too old to fall for the false sense of security Myers was trying to offer, but they weren’t too old to appreciate his attempt.
Marcella forced something like a smile, baring her teeth as encouragement, and Myers left the room, stepping lightly on the carpeted floor.
He passed through the small living room, walking around the detritus that had fallen on the first night that they’d never had the heart to try and clean up.
Things like that had rapidly become unimportant, as time went on and the creature drew near.
He gently pushed the shards of a broken dinner plate out of his path with his foot, taking care not to make the pieces hit each other, then walked into the kitchen, his feet thudding softly on the hardwood.
In one corner, the squat refrigerator sat, mocking him with its emptiness and the absence of its hum.
They had quickly unplugged it when they realized how sensitive the creature was to sound, and accidentally spoiled half their food in the process.
It was all for nothing, anyway. 
Even in the nights when they were as silent as they could get, the creature still came.
Myers had an idea that sound wasn’t the only thing keeping its attention on them.
He picked through the cupboards they had been through dozens of times, finding the same amount of nothing that had been there before.
He strongly considered the roll of trash bags under the sink, then put them back with a sigh.
They were hungry, on the road to starving, but they weren’t at that point just yet.
His eyes stole a glance at the bottle of strong drain cleaner beside the bags, and he hurriedly looked away.
He opened the fridge, not expecting to see anything, and wasn’t disappointed.
His eye caught a tiny splash of color in one of the bottom drawers, and he pulled it open to reveal a single, partially rotten onion, caught between the drawer and the inside wall.
He dug it out, hating the way his fingers sank into its skin at the lightest touch, and hating himself for the way his gnawing hunger rose to a roar as he looked at it.
he dug his finger in further, ripping out the most decayed portion of the onion and shoving it down his throat before his gag reflex could put up much of a fight.
He could almost feel it fall into his stomach and make an echo, but he forced himself to stop after just one bite.
He thought of the business dinners he had been to, ones where a single plate might cost over a hundred dollars and it was considered a faux pas to finish the meal, and twisted his mouth in a way that was almost a smile.
How foolish he had been.
They had all been that way.
But now they were out in the woods, and there was nothing here but the cabin, the creature, and the dark.

-
They each had a piece of onion, slurping and chewing greedily at something they once wouldn’t have spared a glance for, and Myers was surprised that his heart could still feel pain at the sight of the little girl licking pieces of the skin off her hands.
When he couldn’t bear the sight anymore, he left the room again, going to stand in the living room. as he did most days.
Marcella came out after a while and sat on the couch, shifting uncomfortably until she lapsed into a thin doze, her head pillowed on the arm rest.
Myers wished he could join her, but instead he stood at the large front window, staring out across the small clearing in front of the cabin and out into the deep woods, where it looked almost pitch black no matter what time of day it was.
He could see a slight thinning of the trees right about where the road had been, the one they had followed that had led them here, but he knew the forest would creep and grow until it was all the way gone.
It always did.
The trees had their own plans, it seemed, and none of them included their prey escaping.
He gave Marcella as long as he could, then shook her awake.
She jerked awake and nearly cried out, but stopped her voice at the last second, strangling her scream and only exhaling forcefully.
Myers leaned in close enough for his lips to touch the rim of her ear and whispered.
“I’m going out to work on the car. Watch the kids.”
She shook her head fearfully, as she always did, clutching at his arm in a way that made him think of a drowning victim, and he eventually pried her fingers off and stepped away.
Her fear had only delayed him by a few minutes, but the quality of the light coming in from outside had noticeably shifted, already working its way to the long death of another slow night.
He made his way to the front door, carefully not budging the remains of the salt line he had drawn the night before.
In some places, the wind and the movements of the creature outside the door had thinned the line to a dangerous degree, and he made a mental note to double check everything as soon as he could.
He glanced over at the sadly depleted bag of road salt sitting behind the door, taking in its emptiness with a weary eye.
He had bought it more on a lark than any real sense of preparation, had nearly walked out of the last gas station at the bottom of the mountain without it until something in the back of his mind that sounded a lot like his father had spoken up in a grizzled voice, reminding him that there was no one this high in the mountains to dig the car out if it got stuck.
He had dutifully stuck the ten pound bag of salt in the cart he was using and carried it out of the store, making sure to point out to Marcella how ruggedly prepared he was, a true mountain man in the making.
The jaunty yellow price tag glinted in the corner of the bag he hadn’t torn off, smiling at his desperation.
A traitorous tear crept out of his eye without him noticing until it was at the edge of his lip.
Without thinking about it, he reached out with his tongue and reabsorbed the droplet, refusing to lose even the tiny amount of water.
He hesitated a minute longer, then steeled his resolve, forcing himself to pull open the cabin door and walk outside.

-
He stepped out onto the faux old-timey covered porch, his footsteps as light as he could manage without losing balance.
The rocking chair at the edge of the porch creaked slightly in the wind, and he gave it a foreboding look.
Myers walked down the handful of stairs to the clearing, looking all around as he moved across the yard.
He caught sight of a thin, feathered silhouette seated high up in the branches of one of the trees and froze.
As he watched, the bird’s tiny beak opened slightly, and Myers froze with one foot raised between steps.
The bird decided against calling out, and Myers lowered his foot. 
He looked up at the bird and mouthed fuck you, but it seemed unbothered.
He covered the rest of the ground between him and the detached garage in a few long strides, opening the door and ducking inside as quickly as he could manage.
He stood with his eyes closed inside the doorway for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dark while simultaneously not wanting to see what was in the garage.
When he felt ready, he opened his eyes and looked at what remained of his car. 
When they had first arrived, he was positive it had been a top-of-the-line SUV, with all the bells and whistles that could be stuffed into it, and even the next year’s model, which wouldn’t be on the market for another six months.
It had been a glossy black with chrome accents just about everywhere, brand new navigational system waiting to take him just about anywhere he wanted to go while he sat high in his lush leather seat, with built in lumbar support and heating.
He had felt like a god the first time he had taken it on the road.
But now the god had fallen, and he stood staring at its corpse.
He crossed to his father’s work bench, careful not to touch the vines and roots that had begun stretching across the floor, perfectly still yet always seeming to writhe just at the edge of his peripheral vision.
The tool box was almost fully enclosed in those strange vines, tiny glints of red showing through their dark green fingers to give the whole tableau a sinister Christmas feel.
Myers unrolled the sleeve of his flannel and retracted his hand inside, using it as a makeshift glove to grab the protruding handle of the toolbox.
He braced one foot against the leg of the table and his free hand against the wooden side, then began to pull, using counterpressure with his foot to keep from simply dragging the table across the floor.
The vines stretched to an unlikely degree, and he felt beads of sweat quickly appear on his brow despite the cold wind blowing outside, but they eventually gave in and tore with an ugly sound not unlike a large strip of Velcro.
As he watched, the torn ends began bleeding a black, viscous substance, and he quickly looked away, carrying the toolbox over to the car’s open driver side door and dropping it on the seat, quickly raising a hand to his mouth to avoid inhaling any of the disturbed dust.
He removed a long flat head screwdriver and used it to pry open a small cover that had opened perfectly smoothly not long before, leaning away as flakes of rust fell to the dirty floor.
Once it was open, he pulled the small lever hidden within to unlock the SUV’s hood release.
He glanced over the steering column, but the hood had remained closed.
He frowned, tugging the hood release again, to no effect.
Myers kicked off some vines that had stretched across his boot while he wasn’t looking and walked around to the front of the vehicle, where he could see that the hood had opened slightly, maybe an inch.
When the car was still functional, the hood would have opened to its full extension on its own, and an overhead light mounted on the underside would have come on.
Instead, he had an inch, maybe more.
He felt around with his fingertips until he came across the small latch holding the hood in place, managing to get enough force behind his thumb to shove it back.
He lifted the hood as slowly as he could, wincing as its newly rusted hinges screeched in quiet protest, revealing the equally damaged engine.
It was a massive thing, for as many electronics and horsepower as it put out, and despite his limited knowledge of vehicle maintenance, Myers knew it was in a sorry state.
There was rust and dirt and unidentifiable gunk in every direction, with nearly every hose and cable detached or broken, lying on their sides like dead snakes.
As always, he grew frustrated with himself for not paying more attention to the things his father had shown him, the two of them looking into the old farm truck almost every week since Myers was old enough to hold a flashlight.
He set about doing what he could, reattaching the cables that were still usable and applying tape over the cracks and splits in the hoses.
he hesitated for a long time over the battery cables, not sure which was positive and which was negative, knowing for sure a backwards battery would kill the SUV’s electrical systems and their chances of escape in one fell swoop.
The SUV was no help, as it was not the type of vehicle that a suburban dad would fiddle with on the weekends, but rather a high end import to only be touched by specialized mechanics and thus did not have any identifying marks or colors to it.
Myers stared at the battery for far too long, thinking of his father, and the time crept away.

He was drawn back to himself by Marcella’s voice.
“Get back inside! The sun is going down!”
Myers reflexively looked at his watch, which had broken at some point, the hands falling at random with his movements.
It was a thirty thousand dollar watch, hand built by Swedish craftsmen and sworn never to take a second’s break, and here it was, useless.
He went to walk over to the door, but his left foot did not cooperate.
He looked down and saw what he was afraid of, that the vines and roots had nearly encased his boot while he stared off into nothing. 
Myers reached for the small cup of salt he kept on the work bench, the only thing in the room that showed no signs of rapid decay, and poured some onto his foot.
Just before the salt made contact with the vines, they retracted faster than his eye could track, and the salt struck his boot and bounced off onto the floor.
He held the cup in his hand and looked around at the greenery extending over the walls and floor, halfway tempted to simply fling the salt in as many directions as he could manage, but he restrained himself, knowing that he would need to conserve all the salt he could in the time he was here.
Running out of salt was death, and he knew it.
He took the cup over to the door and replenished the salt line that was there instead, then put the cup back on the bench, exactly in the clean circle it had been in before.
Myers left the garage, closing the door softly behind him, but it was no help.
The instant his foot touched the ground outside, the roars of the creature began, making the trees around the cabin thrash and wave as though moved by hurricane winds.
He looked up at the sky and was horrified by how far the sun had progressed, its lower rim already disappearing behind the distant mountains.
As he watched, it sunk steadily further, and he began to run, turning right at the corner of the house just in time to see one of Marcella’s legs ducking through the cabin door.
“Hold it! Hold the door!” He called, ignoring her hiss of discomfort at how loud he was.
It didn’t matter now, the night and the creature were both on their way.
Myers ran up the porch steps and into the cabin with almost no time to spare, rushing around to each of the windows and the front and back doors with his depleted bag of salt.
As the sky darkened in earnest, the creature’s roars became louder and closer, and it became excited for the hunt.

-
Myers awoke the next morning to the feeling of one of Marcella’s fingertips digging cruelly into his side.
He sat up quickly, about to speak, and one of her fingers came to rest on his lips, demanding silence.
He looked at her questioningly in the gloom, meeting her bloodshot eyes with his own.
She removed the finger and pointed to the corner where the pile of rotting flesh still lay, with both of the kids sitting near in it, arguing in low tones.
Marcella cupped a hand to hear ear, telling him to listen, and Myers did.
“What do you think it would taste like?”
“Probably not good. It’s all rotten and gooshy.”
“That onion was rotten and gooshy!”
“Yeah but Wilbur had blood and stuff in him. And poop. We’d probably get sick.”
“It might be worth it. I didn’t get that big a piece of that onion.”
Myers cleared his throat and faked a yawn, trying not to startle the kids. 
They both turned their head to look at him and then shrank away from the corpse and back onto the bed, looking guilty and tired.
“What’s going on, guys?” He asked.
“Nothin’. Just talking.” Kevin answered smoothly, but Myers could hear strain in his tone.
“I’m going out to look for something we can eat today. Maybe I’ll bring a whole moose back.”
Myers met Marcella’s eyes as he spoke, and she nodded wordlessly.
She would go and try to work on the car as much as she knew how, which really only amounted to keeping the vines from undoing what he had done the day before.
“A moose?” Katie asked.
“Yup, maybe. I hear there might be some in these woods.”
“How are you gonna bring it back? We don’t even have a gun!”
“I’ll ask nicely.”
Katie’s giggle at that surprised them all, and Myers was glad to hear it. 
They had lived too long in silence.
“Dad?”
“Yeah, Katie?”
“Why is it goose and geese but not moose and meese?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll ask one.”
“I know that one,” Kevin interjected. “It’s because the word moose comes from Native Americans and goose comes from Europeans.”
Myers smiled, and the kids tried to smile back.
“That’s one mystery solved. Now I can go find us some grub.”
Myers made eye contact with his wife for a second, trying to communicate the feelings that he couldn’t express in front of the kids. 
He saw Marcella’s eyes grow moist, and she gripped his hand as he stood, holding tightly enough to grind the bones together uncomfortably.
“Okay, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Myers said, prying her hand away as gently as he could.

He left the bedroom and walked towards the kitchen, stopping to collect an empty pot to hold whatever edible items he might find nearby.
The wind gusted outside, making low moans as it passed through the cabin’s nooks and crannies.
Myers trembled and glanced ruefully at the dead fireplace, which none of them had been willing to light in a long time.
It seemed like the creature was pissed off by just about everything, but it had a special hatred in its heart for any kind of fire.
All of the worst nights Myers could recall had happened when they were still brave enough to try and set it alight.
He shivered again, not from the cold, and reached for the cabin door, taking a deep breath as he turned the knob.

-
Once outside, he took silent note of where the sun was in the sky, then tried to gauge how long he had before night fell.
It was pretty much a useless exercise, as the passing of time around the cabin seemed to speed up and slow down whenever it deemed necessary, but it helped him get his mind together.
Myers had always had a great affinity for organization and structure, and he needed it now more than ever, in a place which seemed to follow its own rules at every turn.
“I’m doing fine,” He muttered. “Just gonna look around a little for something edible and get back inside. Should be fine. Just a few minutes, really.”
Something crashed through the forest off to his right, and he resisted the urge to bolt.
Cheap shot, he thought.
He took another deep, steadying breath, then walked smoothly off the porch and across the clearing, aiming at the section of forest that was most directly across from the cabin.
The forest welcomed him with silence, its various branches and leaves remaining still despite the wind.
Myers held the pot out in front of his chest, half ready to throw it or use it as a shield on a moment’s notice.
He reached the edge of the clearing and stared into the forest, waiting to see if any strange animal would shriek a warning at his approach.
He had seen and heard many strange things during the day, buzzing and honking and chittering in ways he didn’t recognize as anything he had encountered, but he had never tried entering the forest before.
This was their territory, and he had respected it, until today.
 As his foot left the relative safety of the clearing and crossed into the darkness of the trees, a hush seemed to fall, and he felt the hairs on his neck prickle uncomfortably.
Myers walked as smoothly as he could, looking down every few paces to make sure he didn’t step on any fallen branches or dead leaves, of which there were many.
The toe of his boot nudged a small white rock, and he let out a low moan of horror as the rock simply melted onto his boot, holding tightly with long strands that seemed to almost take the shape of arms.
Myers almost panicked, but managed to keep hold of himself.
Instead of screaming and fleeing, he scraped the white not-a-rock against a real rock, bearing down until he registered a squealing sound in a register almost out of his hearing range, a scream in a voice that was nearly too high pitched for humans.
The tiny tendrils released and the not-a-rock fell away, leaving Myers to continue his search, now looking carefully at anything his foot might come into contact with.
There was a strange disconnect in the type and size of the plants in the forest.
He saw aloe vera nestled up against a clutch of poison ivy, and trees festooned with morning glory flowers that bloomed and closed at random as he watched, seeming to wink at him, to entice him to go further into the forest, to lay down in the soft earth and make it his home.
Myers flinched away from that line of thought, afraid of where it might lead.
He looked back reflexively and was shocked to find that the cabin had become little more than a speck in the distance, an almost shapeless darker brown lump only distinguishable by the glint of the dying sun on the front windows.
He guessed he had lost at least twenty minutes since the incident with the not-a-rock, but there was no telling how much daylight had gone by.
He stopped in his tracks and looked around.
Myers spotted some normal looking mushrooms growing around the bottom of a tree with hideous, jagged bark that hurt his eyes to look at, and he picked a few handfuls before the remaining mushrooms sank into the ground, away from his reaching hands.
He was debating whether to start digging in the earth with his fingers when he felt a shift in the air around him, like switch being flipped in the atmosphere.
A low moaning sound began to emanate from the trees around him, as though the change had caused some excitement in them.
Or perhaps fear.
Myers suddenly felt watched, a primal sensation in the back of his brain that told him something much larger had focused on him.
He tried to glance around using only his peripheral vision, but found nothing out of sorts, only the pervasive feeling of danger and the atonal moaning of the trees.
He bent to pick up the pot of mushrooms, and at the same moment, a twig snapped somewhere nearby, behind a tree that had grown larger around the base than most modern automobiles.
Myers carefully lifted one foot and took a step backward, and he heard a corresponding thud from behind the tree as something moved in response. 
He waited for an attack, but none came.
After a few seconds, he lifted his foot and took another step backward, and heard another thud in response.
As a child, he had hunted moose in the woods with his father, and they had always impressed him with their sheer size and weight, far beyond how they were depicted in movies and animated TV shows.
Once, he’d even been within ten feet of a massive male, listening to its massive footsteps as his father’s eyes commanded him to be silent.
Whatever was behind the tree made those heavy footsteps sound like dog paws walking on linoleum, and he took another step away as soon as his body would cooperate.
Myers tore a strip of fabric off of his undershirt, tying it quickly around the branch nearest to him to mark where the mushrooms were, then took a deep breath before turning his back on the larger tree where something hid.
He pressed the open top of the pot tightly to his chest, hoping to keep the mushrooms he had apparently risked his life for, and began walking back towards the cabin, trying to take measured steps but quickly losing his control as the thing behind him mirrored his movements.
-
Thud. Thud. Thud.
When he was within shouting distance of the cabin, Myers suddenly broke into the fastest run he could manage, hoping to catch the pursuer off guard.
There were a few seconds of silence, and then a bestial roar shattered the air around him.
At the sound, Myers pushed himself to speeds he hadn’t reached since high school, in the years before his midsection had become soft and his muscles had weakened from lack of use.
Even with his all out exertion, the pursuer quickly gained on him, growing in speed so quickly that the isolated thud of each footstep became a continuous pounding, almost matching his racing heart.
As he reached the edge of the clearing, Myers saw Marcella peeking out of the front door, her eyes switching from him to the pursuer and growing wide with fear.
“Salt line! Salt line!” Myers yelled.
“Drop!” She screamed back at him.
Myers immediately fell flat on his stomach and felt the pursuer graze his back as its killing leap carried it over and past him, sending it tumbling towards the garage.
He caught a half second glimpse of dense, shaggy fur clinging to a body carrying huge mounds of scarred muscle colliding with the garage door, and then he was racing across the yard, hoping it wouldn’t regain its feet before he got inside.
He all but flew up the porch steps as the pursuer got back to its feet and let out another of those earth shaking roars. 
He remembered at the last second to move the pot away from his chest so he wouldn’t land on it and break a rib, and instead he sprawled face first onto the hard wood floor inside the front hallway.
Behind him, Marcella slammed the door shut and went to pour salt across the floor, creating a thick, crooked line and using way too much of their precious defenses, but Myers was too busy trying to regain his breath to comment.
He stared out the door, where the pursuer sat in the clearing directly at the bottom of the porch steps, its sides heaving with exertion.
It was a massive thing, somewhere between a dog and a bear drawn by an artist with an uncaring, cruel eye, its long vertical nostrils flaring with each breath.
Marcella stared too, her left hand over her mouth to hold in a scream.
As they stared, the pursuer took a tentative step onto the porch, its disproportionately long legs extending over the steps without touching them.
Neither of them dared to move.
At this distance, they had no chance of escape if the pursuer decided to attack and their defenses weren’t ready.
Myers eyes dropped to the thick, wavy salt line inside the threshold as the pursuer came closer to the open door.
Marcella turned away, putting both hands over her face as the pursuer filled the doorway with its bulk.
The beast reached out one massive paw and tried to pass it through the doorway, but it stopped at the exact point where the salt line began, pressed flat as though there were a glass window between them.
Myers noticed smoke beginning to rise from the pursuer’s paw, and the beast let out another roar before racing back into the forest, leaving deep claw marks as it leapt from the porch and most of the way across the clearing.
After a long moment of silence, Myers extended one leg and kicked the door closed.
“So that’s what it looks like in the daylight.” He said, not sure what else to say.
Marcella shook her head without lowering her hands.
“That’s not the one that comes at night. That one was smaller.” She moaned.

CHAPTER 2
-
The next day, Myers and Marcella stood behind the salt line, staring out into the woods through the open cabin door, their hands entwined in an unconscious gesture that was more boy and girl than man and wife.
“No fucking way,” Myers muttered, and he felt her hand squeeze reflexively at his words.
Directly across the clearing, at the very edge of the cabin property, a new tree stood, fully grown and ominous.
Myers could see a red piece of fabric dangling from a branch, idly swaying in the breeze.
He glanced down at his dirty undershirt, where he was sure he would see the harsh tear where he had yanked the strip off the day before, leaving it behind to mark the tree where he had found the safe mushrooms.
But that had been a long way into the forest, and here the tree now stood, not a hundred feet from the front porch.
He had mentioned to Marcella how he’d marked the tree, and she stood frozen beside him, her eyes wide enough to show white all the way around.
At the base of the tree sat a familiar looking green and white box, completely out of place in that forest.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen any type of human litter, and he hadn’t realized how badly it had been bothering him.
Anywhere he had ever been, from the deserts of the West to snorkeling in the Bahamas, there had always been some type of refuse to break up the calmness of nature. 
A coke can, a wrapper from someone’s sugary snack, even a used condom from time to time.
He had never seen any of it anywhere near the forest, yet he could plainly see the box, bearing the cheery logo of his favorite donut shop from back home.
At the sight of that familiar logo, his stomach gave an unpleasant lurch, something that might have been a growl before it had shrunken from days on end of eating almost nothing and drinking even less.
He looked at Marcella, and he could read the same discomfort in her eyes.
“We can’t eat that. It’s a trick of some kind. Someone in the woods fucking with us.” He muttered, more to himself than his wife.
She took a deep, ragged breath, as though her body were trying to pick up the scent of the food from dozens of yards away.
“There’s probably not even any donuts in there. It’s just a trick or something to get us over there where something can come after us.”
“Yeah, for sure.”
Marcella took a step forward even as she agreed with him, and Myers yanked her back by the wrist, hard enough for her to nearly fall over the threshold.
“We need to stop looking at it. I think it’s more persuasive than it seems.”
Marcella’s face had gone pale while she stared at the box, but Myers could see color returning to her cheeks as soon as she looked away.
“Let’s go check on the kids,” He suggested, still watching that awful paleness leave her face.
They walked back down the hallway and into the room, where the kids were both sitting in awkward looking postures, as though they had been interrupted in the middle of a private conversation.
“How we doing, guys?” Myers asked, forcing himself to sound better than he felt.
“Just peachy.”
Myers rolled his eyes at the sarcasm in his son’s tone.
It seemed not even fear and the potential of being murdered could stop teenaged angst.
“Got something on your mind, son?” He asked, already beginning to clench his fist inside his pocket.
Kevin looked at his sister for support, but she offered none, instead playing with the tattered ends of her blouse with great focus.
“Don’t look at her. Look at me.” Myers commanded. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Kevin’s eyes narrowed, and his fists balled up in a mirror image of Myers.
“We want to out of the room more often! We want something to eat!” He spoke in a voice that might have been offensively loud in a dinner party, but the family reacted as though he had spit out a live grenade into their midst.
Katie ducked beneath the bed and began crying silently, while Marcella moved as quickly as she could across the room to shut the bedroom door.
Myers clamped the palm of his hand over his son’s lips, resisting the urge to hold the boy’s nose and mouth shut until he learned the meaning of true silence.
Kevin stared into his eyes with burning fury, and Myers stared back as they all waited for some sign of attack.
For a long moment, they were all silent and still.
Myers was on the verge of releasing his son when the forest around them began rustling unhappily, protesting the passage of some massive creature.
A low pitched chirping sound began to echo in the forest around them, reminding Myers of the deer he had once hunted with his father.
After a minute or so, there was a massive grunt that sounded almost annoyed, and the trees began rustling and cracking once more as the beast moved on.
Myers released his son, who scrambled backward on the bed until he sat against the headboard.
“And I’m tired of being quiet. So tired.” Kevin whispered, lowering his head into his hands.

-
Not knowing what to say, Myers soothed his family as best he could and went out to the garage to try and work on the car again.
He guessed Marcella hadn’t gotten around to doing much the day before, while he was on his mushroom hunting trip, as the SUV was covered in the creeping vines up to its headlights, and they screeched unpleasantly when he began pouring crumbs of salt on the worst areas. 
As he worked, Myers tried not to think about the gnawing pain in his stomach, where the hunger had never truly faded, or the dryness of his lips and tongue.
He needed to make a trip out to the backyard well, but it was easier said than done.
The well sat in a cone of near constant darkness, lying in wait beneath the shadow of a massive tree Myers could’ve sworn was a sequoia, thousands of miles from where it belonged.
He hadn’t dared to make the attempt in the time they’d been in the cabin, but what little water they had managed to ration out of the toilet tank was on its last legs.
He could vividly remember the only time he had seen a sequoia, on a business trip to the West coast with his father, a trip where he had spent much of the time alone in the motel room and his father was always angry.
Myers snapped out of his thoughts, feeling his body respond to the presence of danger before his mind was aware of it.
He panted heavily for a few seconds, feeling his muscles tighten and his balls draw up tight against his lower abdomen.
Finally, the danger presented itself.
“KEVIN!” Marcella shrieked from somewhere outside the garage.
Myers tried to take a step, but the vines had crept up again while he was distracted and held tightly to his ankle, dropping him to one knee on the concrete.
A bright flare of pain went off in the joint, and he knew he’d be paying for that stumble for a long time.
He reached up for the cup of salt and used it to scatter the vines, relishing their tiny sounds of pain.
 Myers got to his feet, wincing as his knee threatened to buckle, and ran out of the garage as fast as he could manage.
Outside, Marcella was standing at the bottom of the porch steps, one hand over her mouth and the other pointing in the opposite direction.
Already knowing what he’d see, Myers followed her pointing hand and saw a massive insect-like creature that was all angles and hideous exoskeleton holding his son by the throat, his struggling feet kicking at least four feet off the ground.
As he watched, the creature cocked its triangular head, seeming to look intently at Kevin despite having no visible eyes.
“Hey.” Myers wheezed, suddenly unable to force any air into his lungs as he staggered across the clearing.
Kevin’s face quickly began changing from dark red to a frozen blue as he choked.
“Hey!” Myers managed to yell, waving his arms at the insect from only a few yards away.
The creature didn’t look away from his son, so Myers threw the cup of road salt on it, slinging it at an angle so the salt would spread through the air as it went.
Myers expected the giant insect to dodge away from the salt, but the creature was too focused on its prey, and the cup hit it squarely on its chest, its contents spilling across the insect’s broad side.
The creature reacted instantly, throwing Kevin to the ground as the hard scales that made up its flesh began to blacken and melt, filling the air with an ungodly stench. 
Myers didn’t think the creature could vocalize any sounds, but it arched in pain and the pincer-like mandibles protruding from its face began thrashing wildly, and he was savagely glad for it.
The insect turned around, exposing its elongated rear and a wicked looking barb on the end the size of a baling hook, then raced away, disappearing into the woods within a few moments.
Myers limped over to where Kevin still lay, his knee growing weaker as the adrenaline left his body, and squatted beside the boy.
“Are you okay, son?” He asked, keeping his eyes focused on the forest.
“S-stepped on me” Kevin managed, holding both hands to his stomach.
“We have to get you inside, Kevin, it’s not safe out here.”
Myers reached down to take the boy’s hand, but Kevin cried out as Myers began to pull him to a sitting position.
“No, don’t! Don’t move me!” Kevin begged, tears beginning to leak from his eyes.
Myers glanced up, where the sun was already beginning its descent toward the end of another abbreviated day.
“Marcella! We need to get him inside!” He called.
His wife didn’t move.
“Come on, baby, we have to drag him!”
Still she didn’t step off the porch, her eyes wide with fear.
Myers felt his anger grow and rapidly eclipse his panic, erupting in a yell.
“You fucking bitch! Get over here or I’ll be the worst thing you have to worry about out here!”
That got through to her, and she rushed across the clearing to take hold of one of Kevin’s hands while Myers took the other.
Together, they managed to drag him across the clearing to the porch steps, with Kevin moaning in pain at every bump and dip in the ground.
“Okay son, this is going to hurt. Just try and help us as much as you can. Push with your feet on the steps.”
Myers and Marcella each grabbed Kevin beneath an armpit, taking as much of his weight as they could.
Kevin did manage to get his feet beneath himself, and between the three of them, they managed to make it up onto the porch.
Marcella rushed ahead to hold open the cabin door while Myers dragged Kevin across the threshold, scattering the salt line as they moved.
Once they were inside, Myers laid on the floor to catch his breath, noting that it was the second time in as many days.
He tried to roll up his jeans to get a look at his knee, but the amount of swelling made it impossible.
Whatever was going on in there had nearly tripled the joint in size, and he probably didn’t want to see it.
He rolled onto his side and looked at his son, who lay beside him, gasping for breath as well.
Myers didn’t like the look of Kevin’s reddened and tear stained face, but they didn’t have time to check on his injuries yet.
Marcella shut the door behind them and bent to replace the salt line, and this time Myers noticed.
“Wait,” He said, waving a hand. “Give me the salt bag.”
Marcella handed it over, her eyebrows furrowed.
Myers weighed the mostly empty bag in his hand, then leaned forward and poured the thinnest line of salt he could manage across the inside of the doorway.
He went to hand the bag back to Marcella, but she walked away instead.
Probably upset that I called her a bitch to save our lives, He thought, carefully tying the top of the bag into a knot and dropping it beside the door. 
“Katie! Bring us a blanket.” Myers called.
He saw his daughter peek out from the doorway, nervously running her hands through the blanket she had grabbed.
“It sounded scary!” She called. “Is it safe now?”
Myers rolled his eyes. The last thing they needed was more dramatics.
“Yes, honey. It’s fine. Just bring the blanket so we can move your brother into the bedroom without hurting him.”
Myers saw her hesitate again, then gather her tiny resolve, stepping outside the bedroom with deliberate motions.
She dragged the heavy blanket over to where Kevin lay, holding it steady while Myers gently pushed his son onto it.
“Okay, grab that side.” He directed, grabbing a corner for himself.

-

Later, barely an hour after the beast outside had given up on its hunt for the night, Myers felt something sharp digging into his side.
He had been on the border between sleep and the waking world, but the elbow brought him fully awake again.
“What is it? What?” He hissed, quietly enough that only his wife could hear him.
“You called me a bitch today. A fucking bitch.” 
“Lower your voice, the kids are asleep.”
Myers rested his forearm on his face and groaned quietly
. He had known the argument was coming, he just hadn’t known when it would arrive.
“It’s not your fault,” Marcella went on, more quietly. “It’s this place. It goes on and on, never letting us sleep or think or breathe. Brings out the worst in us.”
Myers thought back to the moment of absolute rage he had felt seeing his wife standing immobilized while he struggled, not sure if the feeling had been entirely due to their predicament.
“We need to get out of here, as far away as we can get. This place is rotten, and we should never have come here.”
Myers nodded, as though thoughts of escape hadn’t been his sole focus for as long as they’d been here.
“I don’t think Kevin can stay here much longer. When that… that thing stepped on him, he really got hurt. He was bruised all up his side.”
Myers had examined his son’s injury as well as he knew how, and he didn’t like the look of the “bruise”, or that it seemed to be growing over time.
He had a few friends who were various types of doctors, and he knew they’d all recognized the telltale signs of internal bleeding.
“I’ll go out to the well tomorrow for more water, then spend a while working on the car. But there’s a lot I can’t do on my own, and we can’t risk leaving the kids unprotected.”
He heard Marcella sniffle in the darkness, crying in the near-silent way he had become familiar with.
“We could be right next to them, but if that monster got inside, we wouldn’t be able to do a single thing for them. Just die together.”
Myers had hoped she wouldn’t realize that, but he could hear the certainty in her tone.
“Okay. When the sun comes up, we’ll both go and work on the car. Hell, we might even get it running.”
Myers lowered his arm, and his wife curled into his chest, bumping his bad knee painfully as she adjusted.
In time, she slept deeply, but Myers could only manage that same shallow rest, his brain never fully committing to shutting down.

-
When they rose, Marcella cut up the last of the mushrooms and gave them to Katie, taking a token bite for herself.
Myers spent a few minutes digging around, then poured a small amount of their salt into two cups, leaving one on the bedside table in easy reach of where the kids lay.
“Okay guys, today we both have to head out and get some work done on the car so we can get out of here faster.”
“Are we going home soon?” Katie asked, cautious hope in her tone.
“We’re going to do our best. Big promise.”
“Kevin, can you try and eat a little?” Marcella whispered.
Kevin shook his head weakly, groaning from the movement.
“Head. Hurts.” He managed.
Marcella reached for him, but Myers caught her wrist.
“We can’t do anything for him right now except get the car running. Katie, we’re leaving this cup of salt here in case you guys need it for some reason while we’re gone. It’ll keep you safe.”
His daughter met his gaze, and he hated the terrible knowledge in her wide blue eyes.
“You can go out to the living room or kitchen if you want to, just don’t leave your brother alone too long. He’s sick.”
Katie took the small cup of salt in her hands, holding it as though it were filled with diamonds, which in a sense, it was.
The bag of salt was down to no more than dust, and once Myers took the other cup he had filled out to the garage, there would be none left in the cabin except what was in their hands.
“I’m going to send your mom back in a little bit with some water. Don’t get scared and throw the salt on her,” Myers said, trying to smile.
“I won’t.” Came the solemn reply.

When Myers tried to open the garage’s side door, it only came out a few inches before being stopped.
He peeked into the dim light and could see long tendrils wrapped around the knob, holding it closed.
Marcella went to pour the salt into her cupped hand, but he stopped her.
“Hang on, there’s a smarter way.”
Myers wet the end of his forefinger and dipped it into the dense road salt, pulling out with a surface layer of salt and a few larger crumbs attached, then touched his finger to the vines inside the door.
As they squealed and pulled away, Marcella held her hand over her ear. 
“Ugh, how can you stand that?”
Myers shrugged.
They entered the garage, where the creeping vines had reached new heights, covering the worktable and the SUV up to its side mirrors.
Myers could even see them tightly wrapped around the flap that covered the gas cap, and he wondered darkly whether they’d drained all the gas and ended their plan before it began.
“Come on, just step on them and don’t stay in one spot too long.”
Marcella stepped tentatively on the living mat layered over the concrete, handing the salt over to Myers so she could cover both ears.
“Go around to the front seat and pop the hood. The button should be under the wheel, on the left.”
Marcella took another step, then stopped.
“How do I get it open?”
Myers sighed heavily, hating how thin his patience was becoming but unable to help himself.
He walked over to the door himself and flicked the salt crumbs from his finger onto the vines, ignoring the way Marcella flinched as they shrieked.
“Now open the hood.”
She nodded dutifully, opening the door and looking around beneath the wheel for a second before finding the button.
Myers went around to the front of the SUV and opened the hood all the way, exposing an engine that was almost entirely covered in the vines.
He dug his way down to the battery, tearing away the thinnest vines and salting the larger ones, revealing that the battery that had been brand new as of their last visit to the mechanic had somehow become a cracked and aged thing, its terminals corroded and caked with buildup.
“These things don’t know how engines work,” Marcella said from right next to him, making him flinch.
“What makes you say that?”
“None of those things are overgrown in places where they would stop the engine from working, if we could get it to start.”
Myers wondered how Marcella would know that when she barely knew where the hood release was, then put it aside.
He had more than enough on his plate at the moment.
“Everything seems okay, going by how much I know about cars. The only problem is how dirty and aged everything is now, and the battery. It’s corroded all to hell.”
As soon as the phrase left his mouth, Myers winced.
‘All to hell’ had been a favorite of his father’s, along with such colorful phrases as ‘damn it to shit’.
“I think we can make it work if we clean the terminals off,” Marcella said. 
Again, Myers wondered how she would know that, but dismissed it. They finally seemed to be on a path towards a functioning vehicle, and he didn’t want to jinx it. 
“How do we clean the battery, then?”
Marcella closed her eyes, visibly putting effort into remembering something.
While she thought, Myers squatted down and salted off some vines that had begun to stealthily climb onto her shoes.
“Baking soda.” She finally said, in the tone of someone having an epiphany.
“Baking soda?” Myers repeated.
“Mixed with water. We have to scrub off the gunk with toothbrushes. That’s what he always said.”
Marcella walked past Myers and out of the garage without seeming to notice the confusion on his face.

When she returned with the supplies a few minutes later, he was in the middle of trying to take the battery cables off and not having much success.
She watched him critically for a moment, then took the rusted wrench he was using from his hand and used it to loosen two small bolts hidden beneath the cables, easily removing them.
Myers poured a small circle of salt onto the worktable and she put their supplies inside it, setting the small orange box of baking soda on top of the pot of water, with their camping toothbrushes beside it.
“Okay, all we need to do is put some baking soda on the brushes and dip them in the water, they should take off the corrosion pretty fast. Just try not to get too much water on the battery, it’s bad for it.”
As they worked, Myers occasionally reminded her to lift one foot or the other to avoid the creeping vines, but she seemed much more comfortable than she had a few minutes before.
It took maybe twenty minutes of continuous scrubbing, both of them working in sweaty silence, but eventually the battery terminals and inside the metal latches that would connect the cables to the battery were mostly free of the corrosion.
Myers thought they were done at the fifteen minute mark, but Marcella cautioned against it.
“We don’t know how much charge is left in the battery. It’s been sitting still for a while, and we can’t afford to waste however many tries it gives us.”
Finally, she pronounced the cables and battery to be mostly usable, so Myers reattached the cables while she went around to the driver’s seat and got in.
He shut the hood and gave her a thumbs up, taking a few steps away in case the thing exploded from them messing with it.
Instead of going up in flames, the SUV coughed a few times, then started, purring in the same way it had in their driveway as though nothing of interest had happened to it.
Marcella gave him a wide grin, then went to open the driver’s side door and get out.
The door stayed shut, and Myers felt a chill in his spine. 
He looked out through the window and saw how dark the sky had become without them noticing, the time slipping away as they focused on their work.
He reached for the door handle and yanked on it, to no avail.
The door held fast as though locked, although he could plainly see it wasn’t.
Marcella tried to push it open from the inside while he pulled, but again it denied them.
“Turn the engine off!” Myers shouted, hoping it would release the door.
Something roared from just outside the garage, and he realized his mistake of yelling just before a heavy body slammed into the back wall, shoving the worktable forward a few inches.
Myers could see Marcella screaming, but no sound emerged from the SUV.
She leaned back onto the center console and began kicking the inside of the window, turning her attention to the windshield when it had no effect.
Myers hobbled around and tried every door on the SUV, but none of them would open.
He was in the middle of bracing his feet against the bumper and trying to force the trunk to open when a massive, furry hand burst through the wall behind him, its vicious claws missing his back by only a few inches.
He fell to the hard floor of the garage, lurching back to his feet when he felt the vines begin to writhe beneath him.
  The strangely humanoid hand continued reaching wildly, putting deep gouges into the back of the SUV.
Myers moved as far as he could, taking several long steps away from the SUV.
As he watched, another clawed hand broke through and began widening the hole as something tried to force its way inside.
He turned to pick up the cup of salt, only to find it deeply buried in a mass of writhing vines, the ones closest to the cup clearly scorched and dead from the contact.
He made eye contact with his wife, breathing heavily.
She seemed to be screaming and pounding on the glass, but he couldn’t hear anything inside the SUV.
The two massive hands withdrew from the hole and were replaced by a long snout of some kind, its recessed nostrils flaring as it scented the room.
The entire garage began resonating with the beast’s rumbling growl, and Myers’ nerve broke.
He fled the garage without looking back, leaving Marcella to her fate.

-

CHAPTER 3
-
Myers awoke just as the first rays of dawn were lightening the sky, digging cruelly into his closed eyelids.
He tried to remember something about the dream he had been in the middle of, something about the cabin being on fire, but it disappeared from his memory even as he tried to focus on it.
He jerked awake, suddenly afraid.
There was no way for the sunlight to be hitting his eyes in the bedroom, especially not where the bed was set against the far wall.
He carefully rolled out of the bed, trying not to wake the kids.
They had cried for their mother through most of the night, and had fallen asleep in each other’s arms, taking what little comfort they could.
Myers could see tear tracks in the layer of dirt on their faces, and he looked away.
He stood for a moment, taking in what was left of the cabin.
Only bits and pieces of the night before remained in his memory, burned into his mind by adrenaline.
He had raced into the cabin, but the creature had been following too closely, and he’d had to run straight to the back bedroom, leaving the cabin open to the beast.
What little salt he had given Katie were their only defenses, and he had drawn an extremely thin line of salt inside the door, tipping the bed over so they could all hide behind it against the far wall.
The rest of the cabin had been left open to the creature that had chased him, and it had torn apart everything it could in its fury.
There were several new holes in the walls and ceiling, letting in grey morning light, and every window had been shattered.
Myers didn’t think that was necessary, shattering the windows.
He had only just replaced them all a few years ago.
He walked carefully around the cabin, fixing what he could and righting what few pieces of furniture had remained whole, stepping carefully to avoid the scattered broken glass.
He bent down to pick up a dented can of lighter fluid that had become useless to him, and his vision went blurry on the way back up.
He set the can down on the kitchen counter, then rubbed his eyes hard enough to make strange shapes and colors appear beneath his eyelids.
He didn’t have time to fall apart.
There were things to do.
He very intentionally did not think about the garage, or Marcella, until it could be avoided no longer.

“Where’s mom?” Katie said, nearly catching a surprised elbow to the forehead.
Myers put the picture frame he had been trying to hang carefully on the hook, not liking the way it immediately fell crooked.
The glass had been shattered, and the picture shredded by claws, but Myers could see a small piece of the image that had been there, a few inches of a winding river and what might’ve been the edge of a grassy bank.
That was what he chose to focus on.
“She had to stay out in the garage last night. Hiding.”
“We should go get her out of there, and check on her. There’s no food in there.”
Myers shook his head.
“You need to stay here,” He said, raising a hand to stop her when she opened her mouth to protest.
“She might have gotten hurt or something, and if I have to carry her, you’re just going to be in the way. Remember what we always say, Katie.”
“Just because it’s daytime, doesn’t mean its safe,” Katie replied, her face so solemn that Myers had to smile a little.

-
It took some effort, but Myers eventually got the garage door open.
The old wood had buckled and twisted in its frame, fanning out in long, evil looking splinters, and he had to brace his bad leg against the wall and yank on the knob to get it to budge.
He had considered going in through the holes in the walls made by the creature’s massive fists, but had immediately felt a deep wave of revulsion and fear.
Something told him he should not touch anything that beast had touched, and he obeyed the feeling.
Instead he fought with the door until it opened, and got into the garage that way.
Despite the gaping holes in the building, the garage remained shadowy and sinister, and he could barely make out the shape of the SUV.
After a few seconds, his eyes adjusted, and he realized why that was.
Every inch of the vehicle was covered in the vines, writhing and scraping in slow, vicious movements.
He stared at it, trying to work out how much of his precious remaining salt he could spare on freeing the SUV.
He took a step forward, and was surprised to see the vines pull away, revealing the driver’s side headlight and a bit of the hood. 
Myers took another step and the vines shrieked, pulling away further, revealing more of the hood and windshield.
He looked for any sign of Marcella in the car, but couldn’t see any.
Not even blood.
He moved towards the car and reached out towards the driver’s side door, and the vines kept shrinking away, revealing the handle.
Locked.
He moved over to the rear door and cupped his hands around his eyes to see into the darkness, but there was still no sign of Marcella.
He guessed something could have taken her from inside the car without breaking anything, but he wasn’t sure.
He didn’t know any of the actual rules to this place or these creatures, and only had adrenaline filled encounters to go by.
Myers walked around to the back of the SUV, unconsciously staying as far as he could from the holes in the door where the beast had broken through.
He bent to cup his hands to the window, then flinched backwards as Marcella’s panic-stricken face appeared, pressed flat to the glass and making a caricature of her fear.
After taking a second to make sure his heart hadn’t just stopped dead in his chest, Myers tried the button hidden above the license plate that would release the rear hatch, and was surprised again when it opened easily.
As soon as the hatch was open wide enough, Marcella writhed through, her motions strangely serpentine.
She slid to a seated position on the cement floor, her back against the rear bumper and her head hanging down.
“Marcella? Honey? You okay?” He asked.
She muttered something unintelligible in response, her face hidden by her greasy hair. 
Myers reached out to shake her shoulder, then immediately fell back when her head jerked up, as through someone had grabbed her hair and cruelly yanked.
“Don’t. Don’t touch.” She said, dropping her chin onto her breastbone once more.
Myers hesitated, then gently laid his hand on his wife’s shoulder.
Her response was immediate.
“They told me what you did! You’re the monster! You’re the monster here!”
She shrieked in his face with such force that her voice cracked and began a harsh croak as she yelled.
“Honey, you have to be quiet, or that thing will-“
Before Myers could finish, she shoved him hard, planting both palms on his sternum and pushing with unexpected force, sending him colliding into the garage door.
The back of his head hit first, and his vision exploded with colorful shades of pain, dropping him to a sitting position against the door, a mirror image of the way she had sat outside the SUV.

-
Myers didn’t feel any time pass, but when he looked up again, Marcella had disappeared. 
He kicked his feet instinctively against the vines, knowing they would’ve taken advantage of his stillness, but there were none near him.
He looked around and saw a small pile of them near the garage door that appeared to be quite dead, graying with decay.
As he limped past, his foot brushed against the pile, and they slithered against the concrete in a way that sounded almost like words.
We know, we know.
“What did you say?” Myers asked.
The dead vines said nothing.
He opened the door cautiously and peeked out.
The sun had crept to a new position when he wasn’t looking, as it always did, and now peeked exhaustedly from between clouds that were nearly black.
Myers frowned.
He couldn’t remember it raining at the cabin since they’d arrived, but he was sure nothing good would come of it.
He made his way across the short distance between the garage and the cabin, moving slowly from both his fried nerves and his bad knee.
When he got to the porch steps, a strange feeling of dread came over him, making it harder to take another step.
But he did.
And another, and another.
He was tempted to call out to his wife when he reached for the cabin door, but something told him not to, and in the end he only went inside, stepping softly.
The remains of the front room looked even worse in the failing light, casting strange shadows with glittering remnants of broken glass peeking out at him. 
Myers walked down to the bedroom door, hesitating.
Finally he knocked, hoping not to scare the kids.
“Katie? Kevin? Is your mother in there?”
He tried the knob, and it turned freely, but the door did not open.
“Mom said you can’t come in! She said you’re not real, you’re just a monster who looks like daddy!”
Myers hated the fear he heard in his daughter’s voice, and hated his wife even more for needlessly causing it.
“Come on, guys, just open the door. We can talk about everything when I get inside.”
“Go away!” Came the reply.
“You don’t even have any food in there, we ate all the mushrooms already. Aren’t you guys hungry?”
A nervous, moaning laugh came from behind the door, and Myers recognized his wife’s voice behind it.
“Marcella? Marcella, please let me in. The sun is already setting, we don’t have much time.”
Myers glanced up through a hole in the roof and saw the sun duck behind a cloud without coming out the other side.
He felt a chill on his skin as the light disappeared.
Out in the forest, things began to move, stretching and waiting for true night to fall.
  Myers leaned back and tried kicking the door with his good leg, but his bad knee wouldn’t support his weight.
He tried ramming his body into it, but all he managed to do was make his shoulder ache in addition to his knee.
“Marcella, please! It’s nighttime! I’ll die out here!”
This time, there was no response.
Myers slumped against the door and put his head in his hands.

-
He sat that way for a few minutes, trying to sort his emotions out and away from his plans. 
Being controlled by his feelings had never led him anywhere good.
The outer rooms of the cabin were trashed, so he had nowhere to hide if he stayed in place.
The garage was an option, but there was no salt left to protect him from the beasts, and he was sure by now that they would know where he was hiding, their preternatural senses fully focused on him.
His eyes opened suddenly, his lashes brushing his palms.
He could hide outside, climb a tree or something that was too tall for anything to get him, and wait for Marcella to come to her senses.
Myers stood, stretching out his bad knee as best he could, wincing as it protested the movement.
He walked to the kitchen, digging through the various broken cabinets for anything useful.
He didn’t find anything useful, and his panic began rising out of control as he limped around the room. 
Finally, he stopped to rest, and his eyes found the dented can of lighter fluid that was still sitting on the counter, in defiance of the odds.
They hadn’t attempted building a fire in a long time, maybe since the first night they were in the cabin, out of fear that it would enrage the beasts outside, but he was out of options.
As he recalled, fire had been mankind’s greatest weapon against the night, going as far back as half developed hominids hiding in caves.
Perhaps the beasts were enraged by it because it caused them pain.
Even if I’m wrong, at least I’ll go down fighting. And that bitch will get hers when the salt finally runs out.

He managed to dig a book of matches out from behind the dented refrigerator before leaving, the can of lighter fluid safely tucked in the front of his pants, its nozzle peeking out like a gangster’s handgun.
Myers hesitated at the door, then walked out, not looking back. 
He walked out maybe a hundred feet, just far enough to be through the clearing and into the dark of the woods, moving surely.
There was no reason to try and be quiet, he felt sure the beasts had hearing far superior to any human, so he simply walked to the other side of the tree where a strip of his shirt was still knotted and sat in the soft earth.
He noted several piles of dead vines mixed in with the general detritus on the forest floor, glimmering slightly in the oppressive dark.
I can do this. I can do this.
Myers swept out a rough circle on the ground, clearing the leaves and twigs in a space big enough for him to lay in.
 He dug a shallow trench with his fingers around the circumference of the circle, pouring in the lighter fluid as he went.
Once he was back around to where he started, he tried to pray, clasping his hands before him.
Please, please keep me safe, he thought, ignoring a strange buzzing in his ears.
He bent the first match, and dropped the second one, but the third match flared to life, creating a tiny flicker of light in the endless dark of the forest.
At the same moment, a pair of red eyes appeared, directly in front of Myers and maybe 20 feet away.
Without stopping to think, Myers dropped the match, and the circle burst into light, revealing the distorted reptilian creature that had crossed most of the distance between them in the time it took for the match to hit the ground.
The lizard reared back as it came close, exhaling in a guttural hiss as its scaly underbelly immediately began to blister and burn in the firelight, its misshapen pairs of limbs flailing in the air.
For a moment, he was dangerously close to running away, leaving behind his only defenses, but Myers kept himself within the circle by sheer force of will, remaining in a painful half squat with his bad leg kicked out to one side. 
The lizard tried to claw at him over the low barrier of the flames, but its hand was stopped even higher than the fire had grown, its grotesque appendage pressing flat as though there were a window between them.
Myers waited for the lizard to simply reach over and kill him, but it never happened.
Once its face began to peel in grisly pieces, bits of bone white flesh falling to the ground to reveal blood the color of an oil spill, the lizard hissed again and disappeared into the dark, further than the light could reach.

-
Myers jerked awake some time later, sure that the flames had burned down while he was sleeping and left him only inches from being consumed by some unimaginable monster.
Instead of a grisly demise, he saw the flames dancing along as they had been when he first set them alight, although that had to have been hours ago.
He couldn’t see much of the sky through the forest canopy, but the air had taken on a chill and damp that he associated with early mornings.
On the other side of the flames, the lizard was curled around itself, apparently fast asleep, its massive sides heaving as it breathed.
Myers remained perfectly still and silent for as long as he could, staring at the creature. 
When it heaved a larger breath, drops of partially coagulated blood fell from the holes in its face where it had been burned, hissing as they touched the earth.
He sat in the dark for a long while, staring at the lizard across from him as the light of morning continued to grow.
He eventually noticed how sore he felt from sleeping rough, and the way his mouth felt dry and dead, but he still could not move, not daring to risk attracting the beast’s attention.
 When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he picked up a small rock and tossed it, far to the side of the lizard, where it landed with a soft thud.
The beast did not visibly react.
Myers glanced down at the still burning flame, which had parted when he tossed the stone out of the circle he had made.
He could see a perfect dead spot marring the now incomplete circle, where the fire had simply died.
Curious, he held his hand out over the flame, which died immediately beneath it.
Clearly, once he left the safety of his fire, he would not be able to use it again.
His stomach growled loudly, and he thought he saw a reactive twitch in the remaining flesh on the lizard’s face.
Myers cursed himself for having human needs in an inhuman place, then stood, wincing in anticipation as he straightened out his bad leg.
When the pain didn’t come, he tentatively bent the joint again, leaning more weight on it experimentally.
Still nothing. 
At some point in the night, his injury had simply faded away, although his curiosity did not extend to pulling up his pant leg to check.
Something told him it would be a bad idea to do that, and he listened.
Instead, he took a few steps inside the small circle, just to be sure.
When his knee held up, he took a deep breath before setting one foot outside the circle, keeping an eye on the still sleeping lizard as he moved.
He gently put one foot outside of the circle, and the fire died away all at once, leaving him struggling to see in the dim morning light.
He felt a moment’s hesitation, but it was too late. 
The fire was dead and gone, and his only option was to try and make it back to the cabin. 
He took another step, and another, building confidence as he got further from the lizard without it waking.
He looked back only once, when he felt sure he had gained at least a hundred feet of distance.
Instead, he glanced down to see the dead edges of the circle at his feet once more, and the lizard only a few feet away.
After that, he focused only on the ground between his feet, counting his steps as he went.
When he got to two hundred and twenty nine, he noticed the first changes in the quality of the light.
around four hundred steps, he could dimly see an opening in the trees ahead, a small circle of light in the distance. 
He felt sure he had been much closer to the cabin when he built the fire last night, but he didn’t care.
The strange geography of this place seemed to only notice him in its attempts to get him killed, and counting his steps without looking up seemed to be getting him somewhere.
At six hundred fifty four steps, he froze as he felt the eyes of some great predator locking onto him, and the already quiet forest fell silent in expectation.
 Myers closed his eyes, trying to ignore the sound of breaking branches as something moved closer to him without taking its eyes off the back of his neck.
After a long while, there was a gruff exhalation, hard enough to make the branches closest to him shift, and the sound of heavy footsteps moving away.
The edges of his vision had begun to darken, and Myers barely managed to unlock his body enough to take a deep breath before he fell to the ground.
Instead, he staggered, holding onto a tree for support.
He took several deep breaths, trying to calm his nerves.
When he felt frantic movement beneath his hand, he jerked away, fighting the urge to cry out and summon whatever devil was closest.
He looked closer at the tree and saw slight movement against the trunk, lines and whorls that didn’t quite match the bark around it.
As he watched, the nearly perfectly camouflaged insect rose up on its thin legs, then turned to regard him.
It contorted its thin body, revealing the presence of a disturbingly human face on the bottom of its midsection, blinking and staring back at him.
It began to mimic his disgusted expression, opening its mouth to reveal tiny rows of razor sharp teeth.
When he realized the tiny face was his own, Myers couldn’t fight it any longer, letting out a scream before fleeing in fear.
-
Even in his fear, Myers stayed on course, racing through the woods until he stood at the edge of the circle of shorter grass that marked the edges of the cabin’s property.
His legs had threatened to give out halfway, but he forced them to keep moving with sheer willpower, looking back as he ran for any signs of pursuers.
Nothing had followed him back, but he didn’t feel any safer. 
There were no rules in the woods, and it was easier to assume he was still being followed rather than making the mistake of lowering his guard.
He put his hands on his thighs and lowered his head for a minute, panting harshly.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d drank any water, and his lungs felt like massive thorns in his chest as they fought to keep him upright.
When he looked up again, he was unsurprised to find that things had changed.
Every stalk of grass in the yard had died, turning yellow and brown in the few seconds he had looked away, curling back towards the ground like corpse fingers in a graveyard.
The trees at the edge of the circle had suffered the same fate, turning from overgrown to desiccated in the blink of an eye. 
Myers felt as though he had reached a similar level of thirst to the foliage, and his throat burned with every step as he crossed the yard.
The steps leading up to the porch taunted him yet again, but with his injuries gone and only the wretched thirst to contend with, he managed to ascend and walk through the front door.
The inside of the cabin hadn’t changed, still showing signs of massive damage and broken furniture where the creatures had had their fun, and Myers got the sense that nothing else had been in it.
He walked down the hallway to where the bedroom door remained firmly shut and undamaged, trying to announce his presence with heavy footsteps that he hoped sounded human.
He knocked on the door and got no response.
Myers waited a few seconds, then knocked again, harder.
Still nothing.
He was sure Marcella would never risk putting the kids in danger normally, but the last time they’d spoken had been anything but normal, with her screaming and treating him like he was one of the distorted animals outside.
As if on cue, he heard a soft rustle of movement, then a whisper from the bottom of the door.
“Daddy?” 
“Katie? Are you okay?”
Myers dropped to the floor to hear his daughter better, wincing automatically from a knee that no longer hurt.
“I’m thirsty, daddy. Mom won’t let us come out.”
Myers felt a surge of rage for the woman he had married, acting so out of character and keeping the kids from him.
“There’s no water in there?”
“Uh-uh. No food either.”
“Can you get the door open? Maybe I can help.”
“There’s a bunch of stuff in front of it, the bed and the dresser and stuff. I only got through by squeezing behind it.”
Katie’s voiced cracked and dropped as she spoke, sounding more like an old woman than her boisterous preteen self. 
“I’ll get in and help you guys soon, I promise, Katie.”
“Okay,” She said, not sounding convinced. “Water first. Please, daddy.”
“I’ll get some, baby.”
“Promise?”
Myers paused.
“Big promise.”
Myers heard another voice speaking, some shuffling and scraping behind the door, and suddenly he was alone again, laying beside the door.
“Katie?” He called, knowing she was already gone. 
No response.
He got to his feet, wincing again at his uninjured knee.
Myers felt the urge to try and kick his way through the door, but restrained himself. 
If his daughter was right, he’d only scare the kids and look like the monster his wife apparently believed he was, without even budging the door.
He hadn’t thought of his son all night, but he was sure by this point that Kevin’s condition had only gotten worse, and Myers didn’t want to risk scaring him into an early grave. 
He walked away from the door and began hunting through the debris in the cabin for something to hold water with, earning himself a few bloody scratches from pieces of broken glass.
He managed to come up with the same dented pot he had used to hold his mushrooms what felt like a million years ago, and walked back out of the cabin.

-
He walked along the narrow bath between the cabin and the garage, resisting the urge to look into the garage’s side door as he passed, following it out and around to the back of the cabin, where the small well stood.
Even the sight of it made his throat begin burning again.
He could only imagine how the kids felt.
His boots crunched on the dead grass as he walked towards it, noting that the formerly cheery well had taken on the same aura of disrepair as everything else nearby, its formerly jaunty green cover taking on the same dirty gray tone as the stone beneath it.
Even the bucket at the end of the rope hanging into the well had become worn and rusty, the kind of thing his father would’ve called “character building” after drinking from it.
Myers lowered the bucket carefully, not wanting to risk jarring the frayed roped into snapping, letting it fill slowly before pulling it back up.
When the bucket came back out, it was empty.
Myers frowned at it, unconsciously licking his dry lips with his dry tongue.
He had felt it filling, had pulled the weight of the full container all the way back up, and yet it had somehow emptied before it got to him.
He grabbed hold of the bucket and checked it for any holes or cracks, flinching automatically when something crashed through the brush a few dozen feet away.
It was fine, so he lowered it again, holding his breath when it loudly banged against one of the inner walls of the well.
He filled it again and retrieved it, scanning his surroundings as whatever was nearby kept making its noises.
The bucket was empty again.
Myers swallowed, the process taking several uncomfortable seconds.
He tried licking the few remaining drops around the edge of the bucket, but they evaporated before he could taste them.
He lowered the bucket once more, unsure of what else to do.
Surely whatever was torturing him would grow bored of it if he showed no reaction.
He filled the bucket once more, feeling as though his entire being were focused on the task.
This time when he raised it, the bucket was filled to the brim with blissfully clear and cool water, and Myers grabbed hold of it before it could disappear, drinking until his otherwise empty stomach began to threaten to eject everything he had drank.
With great effort, Myers lowered the bucket from his face, just as the massive lizard made its move, rushing at him from the edge of the woods.
It moved with incredible serpentine speed, making him realize in the last moment before it struck that he had been fooling himself by running from it, and had never had a chance at all.


CHAPTER 4
-
“Myers. Myers, get up. Come on buddy, let’s go. Up and at ‘em.”
He opened his eyes cautiously, not wanting his last sight to be the inside of th e lizard’s throat, and was surprised to find himself laying in the tall grass behind the cabin.
As he watched, a ladybug bumbled across a blade, seeming aimless but determined.
“Myers, I know you’re awake. It’s time to get up.”
 The voice had been familiar if somewhat monotone up to this point,
but when it said the word up, it was suddenly filled with anger.
No, not just anger. Rage. A fury Myers had never heard before in a human voice, sounding closer to the bark of a feral dog.
He got to his feet quickly, wincing at the renewed pain in his bad knee, and found himself looking at a short man in a bad suit, one that was tailored specifically to make the man inside it look more rotund and friendly.
“Williams?” 
The short man nodded without smiling.
Myers had known Williams for many years and had worked with him on dozens of projects, although he never would’ve called him a friend. 
Just another person he had a working relationship within a life filled with working relationships, in his mind.
Williams had habitually worn bad suits and fussy haircuts, affecting an affable personality that had always reminded Myers of a zany side character in an old sitcom, pasting a smile on his face even as he was overlooked and disrespected.
The only time Myers had ever known Williams to drop the smile was when he was one hundred percent sure he had someone’s balls in a vice, and the fact that he wasn’t smiling now immediately put Myers on guard.
Williams nodded again, as though he could hear all of this inside of his old friend’s brain, then pointed to something behind Myers.
“We need to talk, my friend.”
Myers turned to look, and dropped to his knees when he realized what was missing, earning a jolt of pain from the bad leg.
Instead of the ravaged cabin and damaged garage, there were only stalks of grass in an empty field, and woods stretching as far as the eye could see.

-
“Williams! My family, they were stuck here. We have to find them!”
Myers turned and grabbed at his old friend’s suit, but couldn’t seem to get a grip on him.
“Don’t mess up the suit, Myers. It’s the only one I get to wear nowadays,” Williams said, his voice unperturbed by Myers’s panic.
“Where did the cabin go? We have to get inside!”
Myers spun in a circle with his eyes wide, as though somehow the cabin had just stood and walked a few hundred feet away, but there was only the field around him, and the woods.
Already, they looked closer than they had when he had first seen them.
“There’s no reason to shout. I’m standing right next to you,” Williams said, his tone still sounding calm, almost bored.
Myers thought of striking his old friend, if for no other reason than to wipe the smirk off his face, then thought of his hands sliding off the smaller man’s suit and reconsidered. 
Something told him he wouldn’t be able to touch Williams, and to do so would be unwise.
“Good thinking,” Williams said, “Now let’s get on with this.”
Myers made a strong effort to calm himself down and speak in a normal volume, taking a few seconds to breathe.
“What’s going on, Williams?” He finally managed to ask.
“That’s the question, isn’t it? You’ve asked me many times, yet never believe the answer when I tell you. Perhaps this time I should let you try and guess.
What do you think is happening?”
Myers shrugged while glancing back at where the cabin should be, as though it would appear as soon as he looked away.
“Come on, take a guess, old buddy. Time is short, but we have a few minutes. Christ knows it’s the only fun I have nowadays.”
Williams laid a hand on his shoulder, and Myers nearly screamed from the contact.
Once, as a boy, he had taken on a dare to grip an electrified fence from a group of older kids he wanted to impress, and Williams’s touch felt like the exact same electric shock, but there was no older kid to get scared and shove Myers away this time.
Myers groaned as he fell to one knee, and all that kept him from blacking out was the fact that he had fallen on his injured leg.
“Oh my god,” He tried to yell, but only managed a hushed whisper.
“Nah, not down here,” Williams corrected. “The old tinkerer mostly stays up in his room and thinks deep thoughts about the nature of life and the price of oranges in the supermarket.”
Williams prodded Myers with the toe of one of his shiny dress shoes, not quite hard enough to hurt.
“I think if he knew how many of his favorite creations ended up down here with me, he’d look away in shame. Maybe even wash all of you away again, except with no villager to build a boat this time and give you all another chance. Third strike, you’re all out, and we all wash down the cosmic toilet bowl together!”
Williams laughed at his own description, and Myers came to the realization that it wasn’t his old friend he was talking to, but something else wearing his skin.
“Oh, don’t be like that, Myers,” Not-Williams said, reaching down to help Myers back to his feet. “Your buddy Williams is down here, I just figured you’d react better if I borrowed his face for a minute. I can do other tricks, too.”
Not-Williams shoved Myers hard, and he fell to a sitting position, landing painfully on what felt like an oversized log.
His eyes never closed, yet the world around him went dark, and he found himself seated in front of a small campfire.
He looked across the fire and registered another figure sitting on an identical log, but his eyes couldn’t quite pick out who it was by the dim firelight.
“Water cleans.” The figure said, and Myers felt his heart stop in his chest.
“Water cleans, but fire… fire purifies.”
Myers reached out a hand to the figure, and despite being several feet short of contact, the figure raised his head.
Myers stared into the face of his father, and his eyes began to fill with tears.

-
The day had been well spent, although Myers’s shot had missed the only deer they’d encountered by a wide margin.
He had been afraid of his father’s response, but the old man simply laughed and clapped Myers on the shoulder hard enough to buckle his knees.
Had he been much younger, Myers would’ve fallen into the dense muck that replaced the ground in the woods during hunting season, and probably began bawling his head off.
But he had just passed the milestone of his tenth birthday, and part of being a man was never crying in front of another man, according to his father.
Eventually they’d given up the hunt and made a small camp, his father actually letting him choose the spot, only redirecting Myers’s choice by a few dozen feet to stay away from some indecipherable animal tracks.
Myers was glad that his father had been in a good mood for the past few days, a welcome change from the tense atmosphere at home. 
His mother was a vocal, intense woman, and often clashed with his father for no apparent reason that Myers could see, leading to prolonged periods of icy silence in the house they all shared, far outside the city where there were no other friends to make.
Just before they’d left to go hunting, Myers had peeked in on her while she slept, alone in the wide bed she hadn’t shared with his father for several days.
He had taken in the deep bruising over the left half of her face with confusion, and he remembered wondering if she had fallen in the shower again.
Mom was always a klutz that way, as he father said.
They had gone much further into the woods than they usually went, and they hadn’t left since then.
If his father had been in a strangely good mood throughout the day, it was matched only by how dark and solemn he became at night, drinking from his dark brown bottles while he stared into the flames of the campfire he always insisted that Myers built.
“Gotta teach you somethin’, not leave you hanging like my old man left me,” He always said on these occasions.
So Myers built the fires, and they sat in near total silence as the night went on, only listening to the sound of the woods around them.
It was on the third day when his father began really talking, and Myers always wished his old man would’ve just stayed quiet and drank.
“I guess by now you know me and your mom have been having some problems. The kinda problems married people have sometimes.”
Myers very carefully did nothing that could be interpreted as a reaction.
When his father was this far into the bottle, it was best to be as passive and silent as an end table.
“There’s no easy way to say it, but when we get back home, I’m heading out on my own. Me and your mom don’t fit together anymore, and it’s only going to get worse if I stay. 
I guess all I need to know is whether you’ll be coming with me.”
Myers still made no response, and wasn’t sure he could have if he tried. 
His body had locked up painfully against him as he took in what his father had just said, leaving a single tear glinting on his cheek as his only response.
He was sure his father’s sharp eyes could pick it up from across the fire, but he made no move to wipe it away.
“Yeah, I figured you’d want to stay with her. I would too, if I could.”
Myers still did not respond, letting his father speak only to the light breeze making the forest speak in its own language.
His father fell silent for a long while, drinking from his bottle and letting the fire burn down to a pile of glowing ashes while they each followed their own thoughts.
Myers was still weighing the risk of laying down to sleep when his father spoke again.
"But don't you let your mama run away from home, son." 
His father's accent, which normally faded to a manageable level, now came in harsh and heavy, nearly turning his words into growls.
"I'm heading out, that much is sure. But don't let her go thinking she can run away from home. That land is ours, free and clear, and a man needs to know his family is taken care of even if he isn't with them."
Myers thought about speaking, to defend his mother's freedom, but decided against it.
"Funny story came back to me the other day. You'd like it."
His father leaned forward and pulled a half burnt stick from the remains of the fire, the tip still glowing faintly orange.
"My great grandma was a full blood Yaqui indian. She told me a story about her daddy, who was a pretty well known deer dancer in his time, about how his first wife tried running out on him and went to live in the white man's city. Well, some time went by, and he let her think she had made it out, and then one night he went with a few guys to go and find her, and they did.
Dragged her back, as I was told."
Myers could see the glowing orange tip going in and out of view, and guessed his father was lightly moving his hand back and forth over the heat, singeing his calloused hands.
"Your great-great-grandma told me her daddy marked his first wife with fire, just reached out and grabbed a stick to do it with.
I'm not sure what he did exactly, she didn't give much detail about that part. 
He might've toasted her hand a little, or he might've taken off half her damn face. I guess we'll never be sure. But after that, no one in their village would speak to her, or even look at her if they could help it. Because she bore the mark."
Myers was a smart boy, smarter than his father thought was good for him, and could guess where the story was headed.
"'Water cleans', she told me, like her daddy said to her. 'Water cleans, fire purifies'."
He got to his feet as quietly as he could, hoping to disappear into the trees and leave his father telling his insane story to the empty woods, but he hadn't taken more than a few steps before his father's heavy hand came down across the back of his neck, driving him to his knees in the dirt.
Myers was too afraid to cry out, and he watched in frozen silence as the glowing end of the stick grew larger in his vision as it came closer to his face.
"Water cleans," His father said, bringing the burning stick close enough to singe Myers's face. 
"But fire-"

-
"-Fire purifies." 
Not-Williams solemnly finished the phrase, before breaking into weirdly high pitched giggles.
Myers got to his feet for what felt like the hundredth time today, gasping slightly as the memory faded from his eyes.
"Your dad was really onto something, you know. Fire does purify, in the way that your kind understand it."
"What was that? Was that real?" Myers asked, feeling as though he'd just woken from a deep sleep.
"Is any of this real?" Not-Williams said. "You're wasting time on the wrong questions, and now we're almost out of it. Before you go back, you have to know why you're here. That's part of the rules."
Myers gave Not-Williams a look that plainly said he had more questions, but didn't ask.
Not-Williams smirked approvingly. 
"I don't know why I had any faith in your intelligence this time, you never impressed me much before. Here it is, Myers: You're down here as a punishment for burning your cabin down with your family inside it. Coroner's reports were inconclusive, but you and I both knew they were already dead when you lit the match."
Myers felt as though someone had clubbed him between the eyes, and the world began to darken as he fought another bout of unconsciousness.
Surely, there was a mistake. He would never hurt his family.
Everything he had done had been to protect them.
"No mistakes, Myers. No re-doing it, either. That's usually your next question, once you've finished freaking out."
Myers raised a hand, trying to somehow physically ward off the words, but it did not save him.
"By the time she showed up with her fancy lawyer paid for out of your salary, she had it all. False paperwork, bank account numbers, even some crisp photos of you railing a woman half her age in a shitty motel outside of town. She told you if she ever saw you again, she'd have you sent to prison instead of just divorcing you."
Myers put his hands over his ears, but the words still came through clearly. 
He tried to imagine himself ever hurting his family, but there was nothing, only a strange numbness inside his own mind, and the ghost of old emotions.
"And then what'd you do, buddy? Showed up to her new condo where she took the kids with your hat in your hand and liquor on your breath, begging for another chance to make the same mistakes. By the time your buddy Williams came to bail you out, she had already skipped town for the old cabin your father left you after syphilis rotted the brains out of his head. And of course, you took it from there."
Myers staggered and fell forward, catching hold of Not-Williams's lapel to avoid another painful meeting with the ground.
As soon as he touched the cheap fabric, his hands went cold.
"What-" He managed, before the pain began, worse than anything he'd ever felt.
Myers screamed and instinctively held on, earning a scowl of displeasure from Not-Williams.
"Time's up, Myers."
Not-Williams suddenly shoved him in the chest, sending him stumbling backwards with his injured hands held tight to his chest.
His knees folded where they struck something that felt like a low stone wall where no stone wall had been only minutes before, and he fell backward into darkness so deep he could scarcely perceive it.

-
Myers felt as though he had fallen through empty air for several minutes, long enough that he was sure he would become nothing but a bloody smear when he hit whatever was beneath him, but instead opened his eyes to find himself standing once more in front of the well.
He felt strangely outside of his own body for a moment, and though he could feel himself trembling and his mouth shaping strange words, it took him several tries before he could stop.
He wiped a hand across his face and winced from the pain.
He spread his palms in front of his eyes and saw they had become twisted and misshapen with old scar tissue, the bubbled and strange flesh that meant only one type of injury: Burns.
Instead of dwelling on the injury, which seemed to have come from nowhere, he took a few tentative steps.
His body responded well enough, and this time when he sent the bucket down into the well, it returned filled with water.
He gulped several large handfuls, then simply drank straight from the bucket, trying to wash away the strange taste of smoke in his throat.
Despite his efforts, the taste would not fade, and Myers decided to ignore it and focus on what was important.
Around him the forest had not yet begun to move with its nocturnal beasts, but he could feel the gathering of tension and awareness that meant that night time was not far off.
As he watched, the sun moved several visible degrees towards the horizon, the truncated daytime seeming to shift from his gaze.
Already he could barely remember why he had been out here at all, and the emotions and panic of what felt like minutes ago, like sand between his fingers.
His eyes caught on the rusted bucket he had so eagerly drank from, and he struggled for a minute before connecting it to a goal.
The kids.
Marcella.
Something about them asking him, begging him for water.
It came back to him with an almost physical wrench in his stomach, and he quickly dropped the bucket once more into the depths of the well, filling it and hauling it out as fast as he could manage, bracing his good leg against the outside of the well for more leverage.
Once it was filled, he considered the tightly knotted rope around the handle, then simply yanked on it.
True to his suspicion, the rope tore as easily as butcher paper, and he carried the bucket as carefully as he could through the yard and around to the front of the cabin.

-
He navigated carefully through the side walkway, staying as far from the ruined garage as he could, then climbed onto the porch in a few painful steps, hoping his knee would hold up to the added strain.
Once he was back inside, he walked straight down the hallway to where the bedroom door stood resolutely shut against him.
He hesitated a second, then set the bucket down so he could try the doorknob.
To his surprise, it opened easily, revealing what was left of his family.
Kevin still lay in the bed where Myers had left him, although the white sheets had become various shades of red in artistic displays of his son's misery.
Kevin had been flayed open at the toso, his bones and organs exposed in a way that reminded Myers horrifically of the canoes his father had once built.
Myers ran over to the bed, and although his son's visible heart did not beat, Kevin's eyes moved to follow him as he approached.
"Mom?" Kevin said, his tone perfectly normal, as though he were asking for a ride to the store and not continously bleeding through his filleted lungs.
Myers turned to the room he had ignored in his concern for his son and found his wife standing behind him, hands clasped and head lowered like a religious penitent.
"Mom?" Kevin repeated, his filmed and sunken eyes looking through both of them.
Marcella spoke in a gravelly monotone completely unlike her usual voice.
"He needed to pay for it. They both did. It was your sin but they carried it too, so I had to do something about it."
Myers was at a loss for words. 
"We're almost done now. It's okay."
Marcella raised her head to expose her blood drenched mouth and chin, the gaping hole where her nose must have been flaring rhythmically as she exhaled.
"Mom?" Kevin asked again, and she leapt.

-
Myers was so surprised by her sudden movement that he barely got out of the way in time, stumbling sideways to avoid his wife's flying leap, earning a painful rake across his chest from her nails instead of the killing blow she had intended.
She sprawled awkwardly across Kevin's body, her nails shredding through his flesh without hesitation as she quickly spun around to refocus on Myers.
He tried to run for it, but his bad knee betrayed him, and he went down in the bedroom doorway, instinctively rolling onto his stomach and shielding his head a fraction of a second before she landed on top of him, raking at his back with nails that seemed to rival the teeth of any monster in the forest outside.
Myers screamed as she clawed at him, and she shrieked along with him, their voices blending in a grotesque harmony for a moment before she bit down on the back of his neck and his pain became too great for sound.
He felt the skin and muscle of his back being torn to ribbons, blood gathering around him not just in drops, but in rivers, an ocean of pain he wished for nothing more than to drown in.
Myers reached out a hand and she changed targets, focusing her attack on his newly exposed head.
He began feeling rivers of blood falling off the sides of his head, and he nearly blacked out before tipping the bucket of water over.
She reacted as though she'd been burned, shrieking and hissing in pain while crawling away in a strangely crab-like movement.
Myers took the opportunity to get to his feet, carrying the bucket in one hand.
She rushed towards him and he threw the last of the water at her, his mind creating an image of himself as a 20th century firefighter even in his terror and pain.
He barked laughter, and she rushed forward again, seeming offended by his amusement.
This time, he had no water left to throw, so he simply swung the metal bucket with all his strength, feeling a pang in his heart as twenty years of marriage simply ended with one swing of his arms that ended at her temple.
She crumpled to the floor, seeming unconscious, but when Myers moved to take a step, her clawed hand reached out and ensnared his ankle, squeezing with bone crushing force.
Myers brought the bucket down on her skull, and she released her grip.
Then he swung again.
and again.
and again.
By the fifth or sixth swing, Myers was panting and shaking, his over exerted arm struggling to raise the bucket once more, to continue turning Marcella's head into bony mush on the floor.
He gave up on the last swing, simply dropping the bucket onto his wife's corpse.
He stared down at what he had done for a long moment, then turned away. 
It wasn't his fault.
She had hurt the kids.
Myers turned back towards his son, who seemed to have gone from mostly dead to completely dead during the fight, his strange clouded eyes no longer tracking any movement.
"Kevin?" He called out, afraid of what might respond.
Kevin said nothing.
"Daddy?" 
Myers spun on one heel and saw his daughter's feet protruding from behind a dresser, a loose mattress leaning over her and creating a crude shelter.
He went over to her and begin shifting the furniture aside, favoring one side and moving slowly, as his body felt like little more than a collection of loosely associated aches and pains.
She didn't move as he moved the dresser, and he feared the worst, but her eyes were open and wet when he saw them, her thin chest rising and falling as she lay staring up at him.
"Katie, are you okay?" He asked, stumbling over his words in his exhaustion and pain.
She nodded, and raised her arms to him in a way she hadn't since she was a child.
Myers grimaced, his back and shoulders already protesting against carrying her weight, but he could not deny her.
He lifted her with some difficulty, cradling her in much the same way he had when she had first entered the world, her eyes big and bright and full of wonder that would fade across the years.
"Can we go home now?" She asked, her words muffled by his shoulder.
Myers looked around the room, taking in his son's remains on the bed and the mess he had made of Marcella.
"I guess we can give it a shot, baby. There's no reason to stay here anymore."
She nodded against him, and he carried her out of the room, gently resting a hand over her eyes when they passed her mother's corpse.
Out in the hallway, he paused for a moment, looking at the hand he had previously used to brace against her lower back, taking in the dark and viscous blood now on it.
He didn't remember cutting himself, and all her mother's blood had mostly gone on his clothes and the bucket, as far as he knew.
Yet still, the blood stayed, and when he returned his hand to her lower back, it grew sticky and warm within a few seconds.
He began to hear drops hitting the floor, but he ignored them. 
Surely they were just falling from his clothes.
When Katie's head fell limply to his chest as he walked through the living room, he gently stroked her hair with his non bloody hand.
She had had a long, strenuous day. It was only natural for her to fall asleep.
Just inside the doorway, her skin began disappearing, fading in a way that reminded him of polaroids, and the way they faded into being as the film developed.
Only she was doing the reverse, falling apart in his arms until only her skeleton remained, her skull smiling a toothy grin in his arms.
He held her tighter as she faded, ignoring the way her charred bones creaked and rattled as he clutched them.
Myers's vision became blurry as he stepped out onto the porch, but he had no free hand to wipe his face, and the tears fell quietly from his eyes, as they always had.
When he stepped out into the yard, Katie's body turned to ash, leaving him holding her skull to his chest.
Myers began gently rocking her skull out of muscle memory, staring up into the sky as her body fell away.
He waited until the sun had hidden behind the horizon and true night had almost began inside the forest, breathing in deep breaths and exhaling them as choked sobs and hurt noises he wasn't aware he was making.
Once he began hearing the beasts of the dark woods begin their nightly routines, hunting and running and clawing at each other, he placed the skull on the ground at the edge of the forest and began walking slowly away.

He walked over to the ruined garage, his vision going darker at the edges as he covered the longer distance, and he wondered how far he would make it before the blood loss and trauma caught up to him.
The door, which had been previously choked with vines, opened easily at his touch.
When he stepped inside, the vines that had previously overtaken his SUV began to writhe and disappear, seeming to flee from even the shadow he cast.
Myers noticed as he stepped onto some of the slower foliage that he could no longer hear them whisper and hiss, and he smiled gratefully in the silence.
The SUV's door opened as easily as the garage door had, and he climbed in and sat with his eyes closed to rest for a moment.
Just a moment.

He jerked awake some amount of time later, looking out towards the doorway to note that the sun had disappeared entirely and true night had taken hold.
Myers sat up, crying out as the blood holding him to the leather seat tugged at his injuries.
He reached for the ignition and was unsurprised to find that his keys had been lost at some point.
His brain almost immediately ignored this fact, and his hand mimed the movement of turning a key anyway, acting on impulse.
To his mild surprise, the SUV's engine started with no hesitation, rumbling as he sat in silence.
The creatures outside voiced their displeasure at the noise, and Myers was sure the amplification of the small garage was making the vehicle sound like a much larger predator.
He glanced backward at the ruined outer door of the garage, weighing the risk of getting out to try and open it.
Instead, he simply backed the SUV into the door, counting on the significant damage to crumple it at the impact.
The damaged door held for a second, then gave way, sending him out into the yard.
Myers rested his forehead on the steering wheel for a moment, breathing heavily.
He could feel the wet warmth as his back continued to bleed, pooling in the seat.
Without opening his eyes, he flipped the switch to turn his headlights to their brightest setting, smiling savagely at the renewed roars of what he hoped was pain coming from all around him in the endless dark.
He sat up again, then put the car in drive, aiming for the general direction where he thought the road had been the last time he'd seen it.
The woods parted for him, revealing the stretch of dirt track leading back down towards civilization, and Myers left the cabin property as fast as he could, trying not to let any of the monsters at the edges of the forest catch his eye for too long.
Instead, he glanced up into the rearview mirror, almost screaming in surprise when the bones began growing from the back seat, first piling in a grotesque jigsaw puzzle before forming into the shape of two small humans and one small dog. 
As he watched, strips of flesh and organ began to knit between the bones, giving them more definitive shapes, hair sprouting in random patches, in shades he was horrified to recognize.
He heard movement in the passenger seat beside him, but was too afraid to look, splitting his attention between the road ahead and the rearview mirror.
Myers watched as Kevin and Katie slowly emerged from piles of flesh and blood, and their dog Wilbur gleefully wagged his tail between them a long time before he regrew his brian.
Myers began seeing dark spots in his vision, and he was grateful for them.
This final horror had simply been too much, and his brain needed a rest.
His hand dropped from the steering wheel as his right foot pressed down on the gas pedal, sending the SUV racing forward on the seemingly endless road.
He closed his eyes and felt himself quickly fading away, trying not to flinch when he felt a hand touch his arm.
"Turn left up here, honey!"
-
"Huh? What?" Myers said, startled out of a daydream.
"It's this turn!" Marcella said, gesturing at a rustic-looking wooden sign that signaled the turn off leading into the tiny town that rested at the foot of the mountain.
Myers grumbled under his breath.
Marcella's inability to give directions in a timely manner had long been a source of irritation for him, but he quickly leashed his anger.
The entire point of this trip was to get them all back on his side, and starting an argument wouldn't be helpful.
They drove slowly down the single main street in the town, pausing at the obligatory stop sign near the town square before pushing on.
"Dad, can we stop somewhere for snacks?" Katie asked, seemingly out of nowhere.
"There's a cooler full of snacks between you two," Myers replied, gesturing backward with his thumb. "Pick something out of there."
"Those are old snacks! Yuck!" 
Her voice was indignant with pre-teen angst, and Myers knew another argument would arrive shortly if he let her build up a head of steam.
"If we see somewhere good, we'll stop," He said, placating his daughter and earning a reproachful glance from his wife.
"Promise?" Katie asked.
Myers simply nodded in the rearview mirror where she could see.
Kevin, at least, seemed in a good mood. The boy hadn't looked up from his books in at least three hours, and Myers was grateful for it.
His son had inherited a lot of his grandfather's hard headed nature, and Myers often hated the way his father's voice would come from his mouth when chastising his son.
"Look, there's the store!" Katie said, rolling down her window to point and waste air conditioning.
Myers pulled into one of the slanted parking spots, nosing up to the curb on the off chance a drunken yokel would drive through and plow into his expensive SUV.
As they all climbed out, he was struck with a strange sense of deja vu.
He was sure they hadn't been up to the cabin since the kids were toddlers, yet he could feel his mind trying to cough up a memory of his family standing on the curb as they were now, staring at him confusedly as he spaced out.
For just a moment when his daughter turned her head, he thought he saw a bright flash of blood in her hair, standing out in the late afternoon sunlight.
A moment later it was gone, and he began rationalizing it away.
She's always had red highlights in the sun, he told himself, then smiled reassuringly.
"You okay, dad?" Katie asked, already turning away to look into the store's windows.
"All good, hon. Dad just spaced out for a second, thinking about all these snacks."
"Dad had a senior moment!" Kevin sniped.
They all laughed at that, and the spell was broken.
Myers held the door for his family, and he felt a surge of love as he looked at each of their faces.
Things had been tough lately, sure.
But this trip was just the right idea at the right time, and he knew he could win them back over if they gave him half a chance.
The cabin was that chance, he was sure of it.
-


Submitted: April 03, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Ruben Hernandez. All rights reserved.

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