Play Monster: Virginia Horror Story


Virgina horror story of two young girls facing reality that the monster outside may, or may not, be their father. Written by Kyle Moore.

“Do you remember when we used to play monster?”

Elizabeth looked over at her sister. The words pierced the thick dusky air, cutting through the oppressive humidity and curling shadows. Outside the last rays of a bloated, blood-colored sun scraped along the dust coated windows and seeped through the walls, promising a few more moments of baking heat before nestling beneath the horizon.

Most of the girl’s brown hair was tied up in a pony tail. Those strands that managed to break free of the hair tie were pasted to her head by sweat. Elizabeth remembered there was a time when it was said that Southern women don’t sweat, they glisten. So much for that. Cassie’s once light tan top was streaked with deep, dark streaks of gray-brown, and her faded black jeans blossomed with faint tell-tale plumes of dried salt.

Cassie’s eyes looked straight ahead, ignoring Elizabeth as she pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them. “Do you?” she prodded.

Elizabeth slid down beside her sister, paying little mind to a floor caked in dust and speckled in rat droppings. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”

Cassie turned to look at her, her already light brown eyes catching the last slivers of a dying sun so they blazed a brilliant gold. She smiled, and Elizabeth knew it was not a happy one. “Me too,” she mumbled.

Elizabeth wondered just how far back Cassie remembered.

Elizabeth bowed her head, her eyes staring at her own scuffed and worn jeans without really seeing them. She was instead letting herself get lost in those early days when everything was so soft and pink and filled with warmth and love.

Their father had always been a goofy man with a pot belly and the complexion of someone who avoided the sun at all costs. He was the kind of man who wasn’t so much a man as a boy whose body kept growing long after the soul stamped its foot down and halted all progress on principle. This is perhaps why Elizabeth and her sister connected so easily with him. He could be stern at times—he would yell at them, and even spank on rare occasions. But more often than not all he seemed to really want to do was play with that same reckless abandon that was the proprietary domain of youth.

Elizabeth could even see him now, with half the blankets and sheets in the house draped over him, hanging down in swaying tatters as he lurched after them. He would growl dramatically and when he saw either of them, he would stomp and howl before charging, his heavy footfalls thudding throughout their house.

The memories of giggles filled Elizabeth’s ears as she remembered fleeing in mock terror from the blanket covered monster.

Cassie was always the smart one. She would try to make deals with the monster, giving up her sister’s hiding spot in lieu of becoming the monster’s sidekick. Their father would accept of course, and find Elizabeth who, back then, fell for Cassie’s gambit every single time.

He would tickle her until she couldn’t breathe, and, for fun, tickle her even more. Inevitably, when Elizabeth felt as though her lungs were on the verge of exploding, the monster would turn on Cassie, and surprise her by breaking their deal and tickling her until her sharp, high-pitched, screams filled the house and threatened to shatter the windows.

This would eventually lead to the two sisters teaming up and finding some way to beat the monster, usually by hitting it really hard with pillows.

“Remember the pillows?” Elizabeth finally said.

Her sister chuckled softly in reply. “He would get so… dramatic.”

This was true. He would scream and moan, those blankets whipping back and forth with each blow. After a few hits, one of the sisters would finally land the death-blow. Their father would howl in pain as he staggered, the blankets trembling with each over-acted movement until he collapsed on the floor.

“I remember the first time he did that, you thought you really killed him,” Elizabeth smirked.

“I did not!” Cassie spat back defensively.

Elizabeth shifted her gaze back towards her sister. She was so pretty, even with the filthy clothes and the moist sweat that cut through layers of grime. Cassie had her father’s eyes, warm and intelligent, but unlike their dad she was rail thin and olive-skinned. Elizabeth glanced at her own arms and recognized her father’s pale complexion.

“You even said it. ‘I killed him! I killed him!’ You ran through the house screaming that,” Elizabeth teased her.

Cassie scowled at her before looking away. Behind them, through the wall, there was a soft thud. Elizabeth stared intently at her sister, who made a point of not returning her gaze.

“I wasn’t talking about that anyway,” Cassie said. There was something shaky in her voice, and Elizabeth, feeling the tug of an older sister’s duties, felt the need to hug her. But no. Not now.

“Okay, so what did you mean?”

“I meant later.” Cassie looked back at Elizabeth. Elizabeth pretended not to notice the red rims around the younger girl’s eyes, or the glistening smears down her cheeks.

“You mean all those times at the park?”

Cassie nodded, and new, different memories engulfed Elizabeth. She smiled warmly. “He’s coming to get you Barbara,” she said in a low, sing-song voice.

Cassie snorted before responding in a high-pitched squeak, “Who’s Barbara?”

At this both sisters laughed. It was that special laugh, earnest and familiar, the stuff of shared inside jokes that have eased themselves into a warm, gold-tinted past. It was such an absurd memory, but one that, even now, had her in tears. And she was almost positive that these tears, at least, were tears of laughter.

Elizabeth never forgot that day. As with most, much of her childhood succumbed to the fog of an imperfect memory, but some memories, those formative moments, are crystallized, preserved in amber until deep into old age. This was one of those moments.

It happened in October. Thinking back, Elizabeth realized that was the year (she was, what? Ten? Yes, she was ten that year) when playing monster changed forever.

It was an abnormally hot autumn, even for southern Virginia which didn’t get good and cold until December. Their father, who normally preferred to spend the warmer months cowering inside with a well maintained air conditioner, had opted for a rare expedition to the great outdoors. In this case the great outdoors meant the playground half a block away from their house.

As Elizabeth sat on the dusty floor with her back against the wall, she could smell the smokey air of her childhood. North Carolina was on fire at the time, and a campfire aroma filled the atmosphere and turned the afternoon sun into an angry blood orange.

She remembered running around in the playground, her hands sticky from the popsicles their father gave the girls. She remembered Cassie, her normally chestnut hair ablaze in yellows and oranges in the strange smokey sunlight.

Elizabeth remembered her sister calling out, “Daddy! Let’s play monster!”

He had been sitting on the bench up until that point, an odd, soft smile on his lips as he watched the girls run around the brightly colored play-sets. At Cassie’s invitation, that smile widened, and he slowly pushed himself up to his feet.

Elizabeth had watched her father from the swings. When he stood the sun was behind him, turning him into a tall, black figure outlined in red-orange fire. He took one shambling step, and then another. The movement was out-of-place and jerky, somehow rendered in stop-motion animation. His form would lurch to life with a sudden jolt before hanging in time, slowed as though his muscles were confused, before crashing forward, each step looking as though it would end in disaster.

He had taken three or four steps before his voice came smooth and low, the words dancing in a haunting lilt. “He’s coming to get you Barbara.”

Elizabeth had stopped swinging. She was ten, a big girl by all accounts, and completely beyond being afraid of monsters. And yet, this transformation drilled deep into her center, curled up and turned into a tight little ball that felt like a scream trapped in her lungs. On that blank black canvas where her father’s face should have been, her mind etched the most horrific of details—jagged wounds weeping blood and gore, eyes covered in milky cataracts and swiveling insanely in their sockets, teeth crooked, yellowed, and pitted with time and decay.

She remembered wanting to scream, to run, and yet frozen, trapped in the hazy autumnal air like an insect that drank too long from the sap of a tree before becoming forever its prisoner. And then she heard it, a small voice, like a bell, the tone clear and yet confused.

“Who’s Barbara?” came Cassie’s eight-year-old voice.

The spell wasn’t broken so much as shattered. Their father’s lurching steps had stopped abruptly, and as he turned. Elizabeth could, again, make out his features, etched now in the sunlight. It was just their dad, chubby pink cheeks and a smile full of mischief that had been bended into a look of bemusement.

“’Night of the Living Dead?’” he asked hopefully as he looked first to Cassie and then to Elizabeth. He was met with young, innocent, but most importantly, blank faces. “No, I guess not,” he had concluded. “You’re mother would probably kill me, wouldn’t she?”

The memory faded away, and Elizabeth looked over to her sister. Her small and once delicate fingers grazed against black metal and ancient wood grain, her eyes staring at the object at her fingertips almost in a trance, but Elizabeth willed herself not to focus on it. Not to look upon it, even as the faint whispering sound of shuffling feet seeped through the locked door between them.

“The game changed after that, you know,” Cassie said without looking up. Her voice had a lazy, dream-like quality to it. It was the voice of a daydreamer stuck in class at two-thirty in the afternoon on a fine spring day.

“Yeah,” Elizabeth nodded. Her eyes drifted over to the dust coated window and the bloated red sun diving towards the horizon. “But that was just dad, you know? He was always into that kind of thing. I think… he felt it was kind of like his job. Get us into the scary stuff while we were young.”

“Guess so,” Cassie mumbled. Her fingertips kept skating over the cold black metal surface, back and forth. “He took the game serious enough didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth scoffed and nodded. She had become aware of a similar weight, pressed against her on the ground. Wood grain. Black metal. It spoke of a future that was coming too fast, and she violently pushed it out of her consciousness in favor of a past she still wished she inhabited. “I think he was having a lot of fun, but…”

Playing monster had become a special game for the two daughters and their father. And for his part, Elizabeth’s dad seemed to be trying to earn himself a spot as a zombie in a movie or TV show.

Back when they were just playing tickle-monster in their bedroom, their dad played up the growling and stomping about. It was almost a cartoon sketch of what a monster should be. But since the day he quoted the line from “Night of the Living Dead,” their father went for realism.

Whenever they went to play monster, their dad would start by letting his eyes go dead, staring emptily ahead and never centering on any one girl. His jaw would hang open; on some occasions he would even allow a rivulet of drool to slowly snake its way from his lips, finally coming to rest on his shirt in a dark, blossoming pool. Exaggerated stomping turned first into a limp and then into a subtle but effective shuffle. But the moans were the worst.

Their father worked his way up when it came to the moans. At first it would sound like he was clearing his throat, even coughing here and there (even now Elizabeth suspected the coughs were more a result of years of smoking and not part of the act). But eventually the strange noises that came from their father’s throat evolved, first into soft, low mewling before working their way up to slow, reverberating moans that ended in the most terrible rattle.

That was the thing about the moaning; it was believable. Elizabeth never admitted it, but she had had nightmares about those moans and the far away, dead look in her father’s eyes. As her father slouched around the playground, it was hard not to think that he really was the walking dead.

This would all eventually lead to the crescendo. The moans would again shift into growls that in turn shifted into speech. More specifically one word.

“Braaaaaaiiins,” Elizabeth caught herself saying in the dying light. For the first time in a while Cassie looked up at her, her eyes filled with anger and fear and accusation. “Sorry,” Elizabeth whispered.

The silence that passed between the two sisters was thick and ugly, filled by a black Armageddon of horrible memories. It was the kind of silence in which grudges festered and flourished, but Cassie’s look of anger cracked into a morose smile. “I get it,” she said. “He was…”

Her voice trailed off, unable to find words that could mesh with the strange emotions inside of her. Elizabeth could relate; that had been her life for the last year. She had gotten used to the feeling of being off balance—of normal causal emotional relationships being obliterated, turned into a rotting corpse parody of what she was used to.

“Do you think he took it too far?” Elizabeth finally asked, the question serving as an awkward kind of truce. “I mean…”

Cassie shrugged. “It’s how he was. I think, if things were… you know… normal. I don’t know. I think he wanted to make sure that when we grew up, he had someone who understood him—liked the same things.”

Elizabeth chewed on this for a minute. Outside the fat red sun finally kissed the horizon and lazy sunbeams filled with floating dust like glitter stabbed through the room.

Over time, whenever they played monster, the game kept changing. It had changed to the point where instead of tickling, when their dad caught either one of them, he would start gnawing at their scalp as moans of ecstasy rattled and hummed in his throat.

She had seen it on a number of occasions; Cassie always ended up getting caught eventually. At once, getting caught by the monster was hilarious and terrifying. The way their dad was so adept at letting his eyes fall dead, glassy, like those of a doll, and the way he could lifelessly open and close his mouth over Cassie’s skull—it was all so dreadful and uncanny, like watching someone get mauled by a marionette. And yet, it was still their dad—pudgy, with a face infused with good cheer. Elizabeth would sooner find herself more afraid of her own teddy bear than her dad.

Still, as the dusky light cast the room in a yellow-orange glow, Elizabeth found herself lost in the last time she remembered playing monster with her dad.

It was early winter in Virginia. The leaves had long since been shed by trees, leaving behind ashen husks that clawed at the skies with bare limbs like the bony fingers of skeletons. The grass crunched underfoot, frozen by the chill of the night before, and everyone’s breath hung in the air, thick and other worldly like phantoms before evaporating like fleeting memories.

They had gone to the park, so of course they were going to play monster.

No one else was at the park at the time, just the three of them, the sisters running around like lunatics among the swings and slides and the weird little things attached to springs that you rode like horses. Their father had started off this expedition to the park like he did most expeditions—sitting on the bench and watching the girls with soft, warm, amusement.

Abandoned playground in McDowell County, West Virginia

Elizabeth couldn’t remember who made the suggestion. In the years leading up to that day, both sisters had taken turns dragging their dad into a game of monster. All Elizabeth remembered was that not long after showing up to the park, they were running from the shambling man and his litany of low moans that vibrated along the soul, slowly biting into it like a rusty saw.

Cassie was the first girl caught. Their dad made a great show of dragging her down to the ground and “eating her brain,” before letting her go and wandering around the playground stupidly looking for his next meal

Elizabeth, who was usually pretty good at avoiding their dad, also got caught once. She remembered the feel of the mulch digging into her exposed flesh as he held her down and opened and closed his mouth against her skull. He cheerfully moaned, “BRAAAAAAAIIIINS!” until Cassie beat him off and Elizabeth could make her escape.

And then they were both fleeing, running from the ambling figure of their father, bundled up in old jackets and scarves, looking as much like a walking corpse as ever.

Elizabeth remember running onto the main play-set. It was large and colored a bright red, with several ways to climb onto it. Cassie was right behind her as their father was last seen by the swings. He was moaning and flailing so badly that one of his arms got tangled in one of the swings, allowing the girls a convenient escape.

The crisp air was filled with their giggles and gasps as they scampered up the opposite ladder, and tried to decide as a team what was the best part of the play-set to retreat to when Elizabeth let her eyes drift over to the swings again.

“Where’d he go?” she asked.

Cassie went from a crouch to full erect, her head swiveling as much as it could on her slender shoulders. When Cassie’s large brown eyes finally settled back on her sister, Elizabeth saw terror bubbling up in her little sister’s face.

Both girls ran from one end of the playground set to another. They didn’t dare call out, a terror that went unnamed clutching at both of their hearts. Elizabeth found herself torn between two completely different species of horror. On one hand, there was the sense of abandonment, the idea that they were now alone, and if anyone wanted to they could come along and pluck them from existence, and do with them whatever their dark, twisted imaginations could concoct. But there was a darker fear there, thicker, a kind of sediment of terror that drifted down to the very bottom.

Here, Elizabeth felt something irrational, impossible. She was overcome by the idea that their father was still there, but no longer—her father. Elizabeth’s lizard brain started to hum at his absence. Her eyes scanned the park. In her imagination, she could see her father lurking behind every tree and under every picnic table, only it wasn’t really him. His skin was now ashen gray, even green in some places, and his eyes; in the darkest corner of her imagination, Elizabeth pictured her father with shriveled eyes, white-green raisins sunk deep into his eye socket. That was if he had eyes at all. More likely she would just see hollow, blind pits lined with chunks of red and black meat that glistened in the dull overcast daylight. Elizabeth imagined yellowed fingernails and tattered clothes that were stained with sweat and blood and time.

Both girls stood on the play-set for a long time before either of them spoke. “Liz! Where is he?” Cassie asked.

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth had hissed.

“What are we going to do?”

Cassie looked up at her. Years later, Elizabeth would come to call that the “little sister” look. In her own head, Elizabeth took it to mean, “Okay Liz, you better come up with a better idea before I do something stupid, and I mean now.”

Elizabeth had just shrugged.

It was Cassie that made the first move. Back then, Elizabeth had been momentarily frozen in shock, but now, over ten years later, Elizabeth had gotten used to it. Cassie fed on instinct and impulse, and maybe that is what kept her alive as much as Elizabeth’s reliance on deliberation and caution.

Cassie grabbed Elizabeth’s hand and dragged her to one end of the play-set where, eventually, the two sisters decided to go down the big slide at the end and wait at the picnic bench until their father showed up again. Elizabeth couldn’t remember the logic behind this course of action—only that at the time it made perfect sense.

And so the two girls, one twelve, one ten (and a half thank you very much) crept along the reinforced brightly colored plastic to the spiral slide. The arch that stood guard over the yellow plastic that wound its way to the ground stood tall and aloof over the two girls. They looked at each other nervously under its indiscriminate blue glare, each girl daring the other to go first.

After much silent negotiation, most of which came in the form of threatening glares, Cassie agreed to go first, but only if she got to sit in Elizabeth’s lap as they went through. As such, Elizabeth sat down first under the royal blue arch. She tried desperately not to think about how the strange acoustics of the slide made her breath sound harsh—too loud—an ever-present reminder of her life and how fragile it was.

Once Cassie seated herself in Elizabeth’s lap, the harsh sound of their reverberating breaths became worse, almost an insanity, like a hive of bees sent spinning around their heads, threatening to sting over and over again until their bodies swelled with hot, searing, pain, promising only misery until death finally came with its hollow promises of release.

Elizabeth forced her arms to push off, to push them down the winding, slithery, yellow slide—towards the future that awaited them whether they were ready or not.

They flew. Elizabeth remembered feeling the wind on her face and the way the trees blurred around her as she and her sister wound their way down the slide. For a moment, the phantom of their father, the monster, was erased from their memory, and there was only the rush. Elizabeth and Cassie both whooped and cried, the exhilaration of speed had manifest in a buzz of pure joy and thrill. The world turned into a blur as the tan-bark of the playground became a reddish-brown haze while the yellow plastic slide promised more thrills ahead.

But a roar filled with hate and vengeance cracked the sky and sliced its way into Elizabeth’s heart. The world around her froze, and she realized that she had pushed her hands and feet against the edges of the slide without knowing it.

Cassie turned around and flashed Elizabeth with the biggest, most panicked, brown eyes she had ever seen. Despite everything that had happened since, Elizabeth still remembered those eyes.

Everything was as though it were encapsulated in ice. Every tree branch, every picnic table, every park bench, to Elizabeth, seemed encased in white and blue cages of timelessness. The snack bar, steel shuttered and desolate, appeared like a relic from a lost age, unintelligible to most.

And then there was a hand. It was pale, with pink blotches, and it snapped above the rim of the spiral slide. Both girls screamed, and the hand crashed down upon them.

They scrambled and tried to claw their way back up the slide, but on the left edge another giant hand shot up, each finger cocked and hungry, before it too crashed down, seeking their bones, their flesh, trying to tear them from the land of the living.

When the scrabbling hands found nothing but reinforced plastic, a pained howl erupted from beneath them, and Cassie and Elizabeth both quaked in fear, crying in each others’ arms. Their father, who had been careful in hiding under the slide the whole time, skittered up the slide like a snake, his large pink tongue dangling out of his unhinged mouth and wagging like the tail of a dog. Those dull, lifeless eyes hung to either side as they’re father clawed his way after the girls.

Elizabeth ran, her hand clenched down on Cassie’s hard. She could hear their footsteps banging against the play-set, and under that panicked machine gun rhythm she could hear their father slithering up the slide, awkward elbows and knees banging against the sides and sending hollow thuds reverberating throughout the contraption.

The girls had made it to the other end of the play-set when Elizabeth looked back over her shoulder. Their father’s head was just visible above the slide, his hair a tangled mess, and his dead eyes staring blankly past her. First one hand gripped the blue arch, and then another, and he pulled himself through, collapsing to the floor of the play-set with a heavy clamor. His mouth opened mechanically before he uttered a long, low groan that died in a gravelly growl.

The two sisters screamed again.

Elizabeth’s heart raged against her ribcage as she pushed her sister down the other slide, this one shorter and red. And that was when everything stopped.

Cassie didn’t go down the slide right. Elizabeth, in her terror, had pushed her little sister too hard and half way down, Cassie’s head banged against the slide before her whole body tumbled over itself. The little girl poured off of the slide and spilled onto the tan-bark into a silent crumpled heap.

Elizabeth couldn’t tell how long the silence lasted. Back then it felt like it went far too long. The horror of their little game had quickly been replaced as Cassie remained motionless on the ground. An ugly question bubbled to the surface of Elizabeth’s consciousness then, a question that stung at her eyes and hollowed out her chest.

Is she dead?

The question mark had just finished forming in her head, however, when a piercing scream followed by loud, pain-riddled crying filled the air.

Beneath her feet, the play-set quaked violently, and a new noise assaulted her ears—one crashing boom after another, each one racing closer and closer to her. Elizabeth had just enough time to spin around and see her father, face red, eyes no longer dead but wide with fear, and legs pumping like some frantic engine.

He didn’t even bother with the slide, instead choosing to leap over it and landing on his knees, coming to a skidding halt that exploded in a shower of tan-bark. His body hadn’t even come to a full stop when he was already scooping his big arms under Cassie, and drawing her to his chest.

“Sh-sh-sh-shhhh,” he cooed to her. “Baby, shhh, lemme see. Where does it hurt? Show me where?”

His voice was soft, gentle. Elizabeth may have caught a note of worry, but if she did, her father worked hard to shove it out of the way.

As he held her, she could see he had scraped his arms as he hit the ground. A single small stream of blood trickled from just below his elbow, but he didn’t seem to notice

Cassie had pointed to her forehead, and their father gently pushed her bangs out of the way. “Well,” he said, “you’re in luck.”

“It’s not bad?” her shaky voice asked hopefully.

“No,” he said. “You’re gonna have a healthy knot up there for a few days kiddo.”

“How is that lucky?” she asked, distraught.

Their father smiled warmly, hugged her tightly to his chest, and said, “I don’t eat scrambled brains.”

Elizabeth let the memory drift away into the twilight of the darkening room. That was their dad. Thinking back over all of the memories she had of them, that memory more than any pedestrian words she could imagine described exactly who he was.

Cassie’s voice cut their way through Elizabeth’s thoughts. “What do you think he would make of all of this?”

Elizabeth pondered for a moment. On the other side of the door she could hear more whispered shuffling and even a muffled bang before she filed that away, compartmentalized into the filing cabinet labeled, “Handle Later.”

“Scared like everyone else,” she finally answered. “I mean, everyone’s scared, you know, but…” Elizabeth ended in a shrug.

Cassie grinned. “At least part of him would think it was cool, huh?”

Elizabeth chuckled and nodded. “When he wasn’t scared for his life, yeah, he’d probably take a step back and think it was all kind of cool.”

The sisters fell silent once more, and for a brief, blissful moment, so too did Elizabeth’s brain. No real thoughts, just a small internal sabbatical from a year of terror and misery. Sadly, it couldn’t last, and the “Handle Later” filing cabinet in her mind loomed impatiently before her.

Her eyes drifted to the wood and metal object at her side, and she felt the words slither from her lips, lifeless, unbidden. “Are you ready?”

“No,” Cassie replied. Her voice was small, almost like they were kids again, running from their father as he played monster.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Elizabeth said, hating the flat, dead tone to her voice. She wanted Cassie to argue, to validate her dissent. She needed her to.

“I know,” Cassie said, and Elizabeth felt herself collapse a little. Somewhere in the previous few fleeting seconds, they had crossed an imaginary threshold. The future, once comfortably some distance away, had somehow turned into the present. “Handle Later” turned into, “Handle Now.”

Elizabeth looked at the shotgun on the floor. She felt numb, like this couldn’t be happening, even as her fingers curled around its considerable heft.

“Do you have the key?” Cassie asked, and her voice sounded almost as dead as Elizabeth felt inside.

“Yeah,” she answered as she pushed herself back onto her feet.

The two sisters stared at the door while Elizabeth slipped her key ring out of her pocket. It slid smoothly into the lock and turned without the slightest of resistance. Her fingers curled around the dingy door knob, and she paused. She didn’t want to turn it. She didn’t want to push the door open and see what she knew was inside.

It wasn’t fair.

But they really didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t right.

A year of horror raced through Elizabeth’s brain. Headlines screamed in bold black and white, proclaiming that the stuff of movies and horror novels had become reality.

There was no origin story. No virus from some deep dark jungle, no super soldier project gone awry, no alien meteorite and no new street drug that carried horrific consequences. It just… happened. One day life was like it always had been, and the next day, people started eating each other.

People that were supposed to be dead instead started walking, decaying on their feet as they lurched after the living. As it turned out, what sealed mankind’s fate was that it all started in the hospitals. All those morgues filled with bodies ready to rise again—an army of the hungry dead risen in buildings filled with the weak and incapacitated to feed on and grow their numbers.

An actual zombie apocalypse. Humanity didn’t have a chance.

Cassie and Elizabeth survived by staying together and staying smart. They avoided the epicenters, avoided the riots and the looting, and took only what they needed and only when they knew the risk was manageable.

And it all culminated in this. In coming home. In finding the thing lurching silently just on the other side of the door.

Elizabeth turned the knob and pushed the door open.

Dim gray shafts of light spilled into the room on the other side, tracing lines over the ambling figure that awaited them. Its gray slacks scraped the floor, and its white button up hung loose over its trousers.

It was facing away from them at first, but the sound of the door creaking open must have grabbed its attention as it slowly started to pivot shakily on one leg. For a moment, as the light from the window caught its face, Elizabeth’s heart began to flutter.

He didn’t look… He looked like their dad. His hair disheveled, his face uncommonly thin, but intact. She recognized those soft eyes and his mouth that seemed to always curl into a smile full of mischief.

In that moment she half expected him to break into a wide grin. “Gotcha, didn’t I?” she could almost hear in the dusty air.

But without a single word he kept turning towards them, turning until the light caught the empty eye socket. He turned until Elizabeth saw the opposite cheek, the flesh ripped free in jagged gouges. His shirt, open, revealed a torso riddled with deep wounds. The flesh looked like it was torn out of him, and on one side the wounds were so bad that something thick and red and hose-like had started to swing free like a lolling tongue.

Revulsion filled Elizabeth as her gaze focused on his right hand. He was holding something, and as his dead eyes glared at them, he mindlessly brought whatever he was holding up to his mouth. A sickening wet squelch assaulted the sisters as his teeth tore into it, and in that instance, Elizabeth knew what must have happened.

Locked in this room after he had turned, their father must have taken to eating chunks of himself.

He chewed with loud, sloppy, wet slaps as he let the chunk of glistening flesh drop to his side. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed, and then the quickly darkening air was filled with a low, soft, moaning sound.

Instantly Elizabeth felt hollow, the moan driving her back into her childhood, back to the days when this same figure would play monster, and chase after them with that exact, same, moan.

The shotgun slipped from her numb fingers, dropping only a few inches to the floor and resting against her knee. He’s coming to get us, Barbara,she thought, and knew then and there that she was his. She knew that he would slouch his way towards her, and this time, when he wrapped his hands around her head, she would feel first his lips press into her hair, only he wouldn’t stop there. She would feel his teeth, sharp and hot, cut into the skin. She would feel her skull crush under the power of his jaws, and she would hear the crunch in the strange acoustics of her own head.

Would she feel his teeth bite into her brain? Would she feel herself dying as his fingernails ripped blindly at her face and neck?

In moments she would know the answer to these questions, and maybe that was a good thing. Maybe the nightmare could be over.

The walking corpse that was once their father took one step and then the room exploded.

To Elizabeth’s left, Cassie’s shotgun barked to life. One boom after another erupted into the room as brilliant red clouds exploded from their father. Tears poured down Cassie’s cheeks as she reloaded, pumped the 12-gauge, and blasted the creature again.

Chunks of their father dissolved into red mist, breaking away in clumps like childhood memories until what was left was little more than mangled red pulp that collapsed to the ground.

Elizabeth collapsed with it, falling to her knees, her eyes riveted to the still corpse.

Cassie sniffed. Her spent shotgun clattered to the ground and she collapsed beside her sister, resting her head on Elizabeth’s shoulders.

They looked on in silence for the longest time. The last vestiges of daylight had finally seeped out of the world, and the remains of their father had turned into a cold black pile of shadows in the center of the room.

After a time, Cassie whispered, “Bye dad.”

“We’ll miss you,” Elizabeth added as she held her little sister.

And it was over. The job was done. Cassie wiped her nose with the back of her hand and trembled as she got to her feet. As she picked up her shotgun she chuckled, the sound coming harsh, almost cruel.

“What?” Elizabeth asked.

She was met with a jaded smile. “It was better when he just played monster.”


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Beyond The Uncut Trees: South Carolina Horror Story


Horror story of a frightening creature terrorizing a frontier South Carolina town. Written by Norman Coulson.

(may be too intense for young children)

My name in Julius Smith. I used to be the sheriff in Saint James parish, a hamlet on the South Carolina frontier. My previous career was on the east coast of South Carolina, where I maintained law and order there with the King’s stamp for some time before coming to this eerie land to receive a promotion. One evening I was drinking in Jack William’s tavern my place of lodging for the night. My home was nearer to town but there were reports of outlaws in this area. The woods were invested with the vermin, people displaced by the war with the Cherokee. These brutes now plundered, poached, murdered and raped. My prey was gone by the time I came but hoping the fugitives would return, I stayed.

Jack William’s tavern was a new inn built but ten years ago, but by the look of things it seemed more like an ancient ruin. Most buildings seemed like that here on the edge of our blessed King George III’s country. The folks who live around here seemed rugged and harsh. This tavern was a frequent destination for locals and it stank of their presence.

It was a quiet night at the inn. The only two other guests were two sailors drinking at a table beside me. I think they came so far inland to avoid the crimps. Jack the innkeeper was busy with his lone tavern maid rinsing some glasses. In a few minutes he would be closing the inn and locking the door for the night. It was rare to see anybody enter the inn after darkness. Even the most indecent of men tried to avoid traveling on these treacherous roads at such a late hour. Thus it was shocking when the door was opened by none other than Sir Joseph Waverly.

Historic American Buildings Survey W. N. Manning, Photographer, March 31st, 1934. FRONT VIEW - WEST ELEVATION. - High Street (Old Tavern), Mooresville, Limestone County, AL HABS ALA,42-MOVI,2-1

Sir Joseph Waverly was a respected landowner in this parish. The owner of 5000 acres of land and a hundred slaves, he grew tobacco. I should say he used to be the owner of a hundred slaves because a month ago the most peculiar thing had happened. In town I was informed that two of Waverly’s slaves had been captured by a group of citizens. These runaways had been reportedly easy to catch. Most fugitive slaves fled deeper into the countryside to find refuge among Indians. There were also rumors that some of the slaves had formed their own communities in the swamps where our dogs could not so easily track them. These slaves, however, behaved entirely differently. The two of them ran directly into town. On the approach of a couple of citizens who demanded to see their passes they just kept running. They did not flee into the woods, but continued towards the main road. The only place that would have led them is to the next town and likely more people ready to capture them. That was unnecessary however, as they were quickly caught. I confronted them and told them I would bring them back to their master and let him punish them as he saw fit.

Upon my mentioning Waverly’s name the two slaves fell to their knees and begged not to be taken back to him. They pleaded with me to kill them or sell them to some other master far away from here, even to the sugar estates in the Caribbean, just not to take them back to Waverly. Waverly had never been known as a particularly severe guardian towards his slaves, but I assumed he must have changed his ways. I was somewhat moved by the slaves’ pleas, but I did the job the crown gave me, and took the two back to Waverly.

When I arrived at the estate I knocked on the door. A house servant opened it with a grim look and ushered me into the parlor. The slaves were left outside with my deputy. Almost immediately Waverly entered the room. He wore a huge grin and seemed delighted to see me. Perhaps any company was pleasant on an estate as remote as his. I told him about the two slaves. The moment I said that was why I had come his grin disappeared and his eyes faced the ground.

“Never mind them.” He said. “They are free, in fact all my slaves are now free. I shall write up the papers for all of them as soon as the opportunity presents itself.” I was shocked by this answer fearing that the man, though only in his late thirties, had gone mad with age. Nevertheless, it was not my way to question the decisions of distinguished men such as him.

When Waverly entered the doorway of the tavern that night, he did not seem to notice me. “What would be your pleasure sir?” Jack asked him in his usual humorous tone. Jack, like many in his profession, was an eager old man always interested in discussing the latest gossip and determined to make his customers feel jolly.

“A mug of rum” Waverly responded, sitting down at a table in the corner far away from the door. The tavern maid fetched him his request. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. The speed at which he drowned the rum made even the two sailors snicker. He quickly ordered another one. This one, too, he consumed at a rapid speed. I was shocked to see a man of his station behaving in such a manner, but I kept my distance.

Waverly was now beginning to sway a bit and asked the inn keeper to come over to his table. “Jack dear Jack, I have developed a craving for wolf’s meat, as have my wife and son. Do you have any for me? I want a lot. In fact,” he sighed, “in fact I will buy all you have. I will pay you double what you would get from any other customer.”

“Forgive me sir, but I have none, no customer that I can recall has ever made such a request,” said Jack.

Waverly smiled “How about triple then?” as if he had not heard what Jack just said.

“I am sorry sir I cannot.”

Waverly looked distraught. He pulled out the money he owed Jack, placed it on the table and staggered out the door. I thought I heard him mumble as he left, something about “death,” but I cannot be certain.

As the door closed behind him I could see Waverly get into his carriage. His coachman was a one legged-negro freedman by the name of Johnson. Rumors were that his master, in a fit of anger, had broken his leg which required that it be amputated and replaced with a wooden one, but feeling guilty about it afterwards had freed him. Later he had come to work for Waverly. I learned the next few details of that night from Johnson since I was not there.

Waverly’s carriage pulled up to his mansion. It was a large and ornate building, but it was on the very edge of civilization. On the edge of the estate were uncut woods thick as a swampy underbrush. What lay beyond was largely unknown. The crown posted a few forts with soldiers out in the wilderness on lands captured by the French, but we only heard occasional rumors of their exploits. Somewhere thousands of miles away I knew that the Spanish colonized a place called Alta California. What lay between our land and theirs was a mystery to me.

When I lived on the east coast I imagined all sorts of fantastic creatures lived in the endless wilderness which lurked beyond our borders. I enjoyed hearing the tales of trappers who told me fantastic stories of their journeys. They told me of antlered rabbits called jackalopes, the ferocious monster called the hidebehind which hides behind trees waiting to ambush men, to feast on their flesh. They had tales of wild, hairy, ape-like men, and Indians who could fly. One man even said he had seen the seven cities of gold which the conquistadors had once looked for, and offered to draw me a map to it for a substantial sum. Even back then I was not quite that gullible. Nevertheless, it was all so thrilling and I wanted to believe. Now, however, things were different.

When I moved out here the world seemed to become much darker. The world may be round, but I felt I was at the edge of it, with unknown horrors beyond. I had not the comfort of being surrounded by people, as I had in the port towns in the east. My reading material consisted of books such as the works of rational men, like Dr. Benjamin Franklin. They provided me a little comfort at night, but not as much as I hoped. If the reader will forgive my digression I shall return to the story at hand.

Without saying anything to Johnson, Waverly got out of his carriage and staggered to his front door. Johnson drove the carriage back to his cabin, but then got out and walked towards the mansion knowing he was now about to see the demise of his master. He walked along the right side of the house as quietly as he could with his wooden leg, to the kitchen window where he knew his employer was heading.

Waverly entered the door of the kitchen and saw what he prayed in vain was all just a hallucination. In the corner his now one-armed wife and young son lay. They were frozen with fear lacking even the strength and courage to beg for their lives. In the other corner of the room lay two eyes. They were bright and blue like two large sapphires. They had no visible lashes and blinked less than human eyes did. The eyes were fixed on Waverly’s throat.

“I am sorry, but I could not obtain any wolf’s meat, do with me what you want.” Waverly said boldly, courage increased by the amount of rum he had drunk. In a voice that sounded like nothing known to God or man, the eyes responded. “Then our dealings are complete. It is you, your wife and son who must feed me.” Unlike his wife and son Waverly did take the time to plead. “Take my wife and son, but do not eat me I have been a faithful servant to you.” The eyes however, proceeded to lunge at him.

I was awakened in the early hours of the morning by a knock at my door. “Who’s there” I asked.

In a moment I heard Jack’s voice “It is only me Mr. Smith, there is a young Negro boy here to see you. He says it is urgent.” I groaned and rolled out of bed. It took me a minute to locate a match to light the lantern, but I eventually did. Finding my clothes, I dressed, put on my wig, and went down the inn’s stairs where the boy awaited my arrival.

I recognized him immediately as young Anthony, Johnson’s twelve-year-old son. “Good day, sheriff sir” he said, with a child’s eagerness. “My father has sent me here to fetch you. He says our master is dead, brutally murdered.”

“Murdered?” I said with some alarm.

“Yes sir.” Anthony responded.

I sat down. Even though I was sheriff and had seen quite a few murders in the past, it was still a shock to hear somebody I just had seen alive the previous day was now dead. When I recovered I gave Anthony a penny and told him to fetch my deputy Trevelyan, who lived nearby.

When Anthony and Trevelyan appeared I gave him the news and the three of us set out towards Waverly’s manor. The King’s highway was well maintained although there were a couple of fallen logs obstructing our path. The woods around us were fresh from the morning dew, creating a pleasant aroma. We were nearing the house when the pleasant smell ceased, replaced by a foul odor like that of rotting flesh. The three of us stopped in our tracks.

I sniffed for the source of the smell. It seemed to be coming off from the left. I told Trevelyan to follow me and ordered Antony to remain on the road. We crept slowly pistols drawn through the underbrush. Ahead of us was a large clearing which looked like a meadow. Trevelyan moving slightly ahead of me entered the clearing, but then stopped in his tracks. I followed. Right under Trevelyan’s boot was a small weed covered in dried blood. My eyes shifted slightly to the right and saw that it was part of a trail of blood that lead just a few inches away to a severed human arm. Looking up I saw a sight that sickened even my stomach.

There were scattered limbs everywhere, they were from several people, I couldn’t tell how many. All were men as far as I could see, black and white, young and old. There were heads, arm, legs, and feet. Many of the parts were severed open with their contents slowly leaking out. Ravenous flies were everywhere having a feast. Blood trails leading in all directions indicated that many of the limbs had already been dragged off by scavengers but such a feast had been prepared that it seems the few predatory animals in this area were having trouble finishing off this massacre.

Off to our left there was a cracking of leaves. Trevelyan and I turned swiftly our weapons pointed at the potential threat. It was only John Mason, Waverly’s neighbor and a landowner of almost as much means. When we pointed our pistols at him he did not stop or try to talk to us, he just kept walking, though he did give us a stare. In his eyes was a glazed exhausted look. I noticed that he had just come back from a hunting trip. Over one shoulder he held a blunderbuss. Over the other he was carrying a dead wolf. It was an old-looking creature. Its scrawny appearance suggested that in life its meals were irregular. The people of Saint James Parish are not in the custom of making wolves’ lives easy. Mason passed us by and continued on the way back to his manor.

Trevelyan and I did not say another word to each other. We just walked back to the road where we found Anthony and continued with him back to the Waverly house. When we got there, I decided to talk to Johnson before examining the house. When we entered his cabin Johnson was sitting before a small fire. He turned his chair around and bade us hello, but otherwise did not move. I forgave him for not rising in my presence due to his injury and the horror of what had just happened.

“Alright Johnson, please tell me from the beginning what has happened here.” He stared off into space for a moment before beginning his story.

“Well sir, one month ago life on this plantation changed forever, for our master became no longer a master, but a slave like us. A horrible monster came here out of the deepest reaches of that dark wood outside of our plantation. The creature was strong enough to break through locks and force open doors. It was also intelligent and had apparently been observing us from the shadows, living our lives, for some time. It knew English only too well. It also knew who was in charge on this plantation and that it was him who should be its target. It killed the white overseers and the slave drivers and left their corpses in a big heap just outside the boundaries of this plantation. Then as the master was the only leader left, the monster made him its personal servant. It took the master’s wife and son hostage, holding them in the master’s kitchen which it made its own den, and demanded that the master feed it or see them eaten. The master tried to shoot the creature, but this beast is immune to bullets and for challenging it, the beast ate one of the mistress’ arms. In the end Master Waverly had to comply.

“The monster was not like any animal I have ever known. Most predators are happy to have a meal and do not care too much what it is. This animal, however, wanted specific forms of meat. The monster’s first target was the plantation’s supply of hogs. He ate every one of them. Next he quickly finished off what cattle the master possessed. If the creature had not been meat eater only we all would have starved, it was such a glutton. Two days ago the creature requested wolf’s meat. The master went out hunting but could not find any. Men have already killed the wolves who used to live in this area.”

Johnson then proceeded to tell me about the previous night when Waverly visited to the tavern. Normally I might have been able to dismiss such a story as the ramblings of a superstitious Negro. What I had seen earlier that day, however, left me uncertain. I did not let either Trevelyan or Johnson see it, but I was trembling throughout my whole body.

“What does the creature look like?” I asked trying to sound as calm as possible.

“I never actually saw its shape.” he responded, “I only saw its outline looking through the window on that last night. After it killed the overseers, it never left the kitchen. Most animals like the freedom to move around. This monster, however, lingers in one place like a fungus, staying with its victims at all times” Johnson said with disgust. “I can only tell you that the monster is huge.”

Johnson shifted in his chair and sighed. “Since the master freed the slaves me and my boy are the only ones still alive here, his strength gives me strength. Children are odd, they fear the dark when there is nothing to fear, but somehow when faced with a real threat they seem to forget it’s there.”

“Is the creature still here?” Trevelyan asked.

“I don’t think so, I heard trampling in the woods early this morning. I suspect the creature was leaving here, moving on to its next victim. Its appetite for man’s flesh seems to have dulled and plainly it doesn’t think a one-legged man and his twelve year old son will make good providers, so it has spared us.”

“Thank you for your help, Johnson,” I said.

As I turned to leave, Johnson called out to me “Sir, there is one other thing you should know. The monster is a very perceptive creature. It probably sensed you that day you came to return the two runaways. It knows of your existence.”

That was the worst thing Johnson could have said to my terrified mind at that moment.

Trevelyan and I walked to the front door of the mansion. I knocked, hoping that someone would answer, telling me that this was all just some joke. There was no answer, but the door creaked open. We entered. Inside there was some smashed china, but most of the furniture seemed to be in place. We walked down to the kitchen. Opening the door fully, I immediately turned my head away. What I saw there was a picture I simply could not bear to look at and can’t bear to describe to you now. The smell of rotting flesh was again in the air. Trevelyan stood there, his eyes wide with fear at the sight. Tugging on his sleeve I led him away from the kitchen towards the parlor.

“I think I know where the creature is going next, if such a creature exists,” I said to Trevelyan as we reached the parlor.

“I do too,” he responded. “The Mason house.”

Strange as it may seem, my fear gave me an inexhaustible urge to go to the Mason House. I hoped desperately that the creature wasn’t real, and I longed to prove it. In addition, it was getting late in the day. I dared not go back to the inn without knowing whether the creature existed or not, for I did not want to be alone for even a moment at this point. I could not even imagine going back to my home closer to town. All had to be settled here and now. I told Trevelyan to go to the rifle house and grab as many pistols as he could find. Perhaps with enough fire power the creature, if it was real, could be slain.

The two of us started on our way towards the Mason house. As we walked along the road every tree looked menacing. Every bush hid the creature, ready to pounce on us. Trevelyan, I could tell, was just as scared. The autumn sun was lowering in the sky, darkening South Carolina as we reached the Mason property. I could not enter the main mansion without either Mr. Mason’s permission or a search warrant. The nearest magistrate was a hundred miles away and I doubt I could have convinced him to grant me one for this. I decided to check the slave quarters to see if the slaves would confirm our suspicions. As sheriff, I needed no one’s permission to enter the slave quarters to search for weapons or contraband. If they did confirm our fears, I intended to move on the house warrant or not.

As we entered, the slaves looked startled and terrified for a moment, but then they relaxed slightly when they saw we were not the creature. They were all staring out a window which faced the Mason House. The house was barely visible from here, but they seemed intent on seeing anything which approached from it. The look of pure horror on their faces was the greatest confirmation I had that we had come to the right place. I addressed them, asking if any of them wanted to help us get rid of the creature. We managed to get five men among them to volunteer. Trevelyan passed out pistols to them. As Sheriff, for me to arm slaves verged on an act of rebellion against the crown. Right now, however, the hangman’s noose wasn’t any concern to me at all. Men, I think, fear fates they cannot understand far more than fates that they do.

Our pistols cocked and at the ready, the seven of us walked towards the house. I asked one of the slaves and he told me where the window of the kitchen was. As we approached I heard what sounded like loud gargling. When we looked inside I saw a spectacle that was beyond any nightmare I have ever had.

Kneeling, prostate, in a corner was Mr. Mason a look of horror on his face. He seemed frozen in his spot unable even to breathe. Then looking a little to the right in the dimness of the twilight I saw the monster. It stood on all fours, but even then it was almost as tall as a man. Its entire body was covered with black fur. The creature was long too, longer than a horse. The head was round, its small ears shaped like squares extended directly outward from its head. Its eyes were the brightest shade of blue I had ever seen, they were nothing less than glittering gemstones in their brightness. No nose was apparent on the creature’s fur covered face. The paws it possessed were shaped like those of a lion, extending from which were the sharpest set of claws I have ever seen. They were not curved like most animals rather they extended straight out. In all ways they resembled vertical knives. The creature used them to cut the carcass. Below its claws lay the remains of the small wolf Mason had hunted earlier that day. I could see it was nearly finished.

Besides cutting the meat the creature used its claws like forks, skewering portions of the meal and lifting them to its mouth. When its mouth opened I expected to see a horrible set of teeth to match its claws. Instead I saw nothing. The creature’s mouth was a wide gaping hole with no teeth at all. It must have broken down its food completely with its claws, leaving its mouth ready to swallow. This method, however, was not foolproof, for I could see the creature drool its meat a great deal.

We stared at the scene unable to move for a few minutes. Every so often the creature would flick scraps at Mason’s wife and daughter who cowered in the corner. When there was nothing left of the wolf carcass but bones the creature’s mouth curled in to what I am certain was a grin. Then in that disgusting voice which sounded like buzzing and hissing at the same time it asked “Any more of this wolf’s meat on hand?”

Mason did not respond, he simply remained on his knees eyes half closed. The creature licked its lips with a black tongue and turned its head slightly. We were on the right side of the window so it is possible the creature did not see us at that moment, nevertheless we all lost our wits.

The slaves quickly moved to get a good aim and then fired. Trevelyan and I did the same. I do not believe a single shot missed the creature. It reeled in pain from the force of the bullets, but did not fall. The creature’s hide was so thick that the bullets failed to injure its anatomy. It let out a roar more of anger than of pain and came for us. The creature was too large to get through the window so it knocked Mason aside and rushed out the door heading for the main entrance so it could come around to us. We fled in all directions. I followed in the same direction as Trevelyan, while all the slaves went their own way. Mason had a small apple orchard near his home, and we both headed towards it. Since the creature could not smell, I hoped we could hide behind a thick apple tree and not be detected.

The monster was fast. We had only made it a few paces when it was already out the door. Fortunately for Trevelyan and myself the creature pursued the slaves first. We made it to the orchard where we both crotched down behind trees within sight of each other. I could not see anything but I heard the slaves’ cries of pain as the creature caught them one by one. When it was finished with them it galloped toward the orchard. Stopping at the entrance it looked for any sign of us. I was too scared to move, but Trevelyan reached out and picked up a rock. The creature I fear, noticed his hand and it rushed towards him. As the monster neared my deputy’s hiding space he jumped up, the rock in his right hand. With it he moved to strike what looked like the one vulnerable place on the creature’s body; its blue eyes. The creature however, knew of Trevelyan’s presence and was too quick for him. It held up one of its paws and skewered him with one of those terrible claws. From my vantage point I saw my deputy’s blood and bodily matter seep from his chest. He fell to the ground stone cold dead. Now I was certain the creature would soon find me and I would meet my fate, all was lost for me.

For about thirty seconds, the creature resumed looking around; for me, no doubt. All of a sudden however, the creature threw up. The contents of its vomit I will never describe to you. It vomited a second time, after which, resigned, it walked weakly and sickly out of the orchard and back towards the woods. No doubt it wanted the comfort of its own nest somewhere in those deep woods to recover from its sudden illness. I remained in my position, unable to move, petrified with my fear for the entire night. I was terrified that the creature would soon come back for me. Laying on the ground I wept a few tears for Trevelyan. He was my best deputy, and also, I would say, my friend. In a world with such dangers as I had just encountered good friends are priceless.
Dawn was beginning to break, when I felt a gentle nudge on my leg. I looked up to see Mr. Mason his blunderbuss in hand staring down at me.

“You still alive?” he asked.

I chuckled and nodded. Mason looked a little bruised but surprisingly quite healthy considering the way the creature had thrown him about. He asked me to return to his house for tea. As a slave prepared some for us, he explained my sudden good fortune with the creature.

“I poisoned the wolf. While I was out hunting for it I found some white berries. I had previously been told not to eat or even touch berries of that color. I could not poison the meat too strongly or the creature likely would have tasted it.” He sighed and looked down. “If only I had found more wolves than maybe I could have killed the thing.”

“Do you think it will return?” I asked him as I sipped my brew. “I don’t know. I only hope that this experience has taught the creature to look for easier prey than man,” he said, in a bold voice. The thought occurred to me that this creature might not be one of a kind, perhaps there was an entire species of these monsters living out in the endless American wilderness. Perhaps this one had simply drifted too far east. I kept this fear to myself.

I no longer live in Saint James. I bribed a respected physician to write a letter to the governor’s office on my behalf, saying that my health required a change in climate. I managed to receive a reassignment to a post in Florida, recently captured from the Spanish. My fears tell me that I have not moved far enough away. Perhaps this creature possesses not only an ability for man’s speech, but also a hunger for one of his vices; revenge. I wonder whether the creature will come for me, even here.

From that day to this I have had trouble sleeping at night. At home I have even considered asking one of my servants to sleep at my bedside for the company. Such an arrangement was quite common in the past. Since our people discovered the New World however, we have become much more independent. Servants have their own quarters now, and my pride does not permit me to change that arrangement. This incident, however, has made me wonder whether we Christian men have entered a world we are not prepared for. Perhaps we simply should have stayed on our side of the ocean. That dark wilderness contains things we cannot learn to endure.


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What Lived in the Holler


Tennessee cat-and-mouse tale of a man versus a creature from an old legend. But there’s nothing to worry about…is there? Written by Bill Arbuckle.

“Don’t you be crossing the holler tonight, Jefferson Boone,” Orville Minton said to the scruffy man standing on the other side of the bar. “You know what they say about that thing what lives there.”

“Don’t scare me none,” Jefferson Boone replied.

“I heard tell from the Preacher that it’s an evil something what rips your liver out and eats it in front of you,” Junior Wofford chimed in.

“Since when did you start listening t’ preachers?” Orville Minton stared at his friend, then took a swig of cheap beer from his glass. “But I’m in agreement. It’s an awful creature been known t’ attack the lone traveler who crosses Egypt Holler on dark, moonless nights.”

“Hogwash,” Jefferson Boone said.

“‘Tis your life, Jeff Boone. But if’n I was you, I’d go ask Old Widow Doyle if ya could sleep on the straw in her barn. Maybe offer t’ do some chores in exchange.”

“Now that’s a clever idea, friend,” Junior Wofford said. “And I concur. The Widow lives on the edge of the Holler’n she knows the stories. Won’t be no shame in askin’ for help. Besides, she’s knowed you since you was a young ‘un. Knowed most of us since we was young enough t’ walk an’ talk. She’ll let you stay safe in her barn tonight.”

Jefferson Boone shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t need no protection from old wives tales.” He bent down to check that the laces of his brogans were tied tight, then stood up, buttoned his coat and headed to the door. “Hogwash.” He gripped the door handle, turned it, and tugged the door open. “Ain’t nothin’ but hogwash and old wives tales.” He stepped across the threshold of Orville Minton’s establishment and into the chilly Tennessee night. “Ain’t no spooks but the ones runnin’ round in your empty heads.” He pulled the door closed, leaving the two men inside to wonder over his fate.

“That’s a strange man, for sure.” Junior Wofford spoke up. “I’d a told him more about that creature. Heard tell many times that Spearfinger’s its name. Old Cherokee legend. Hunts like an animal an’ feeds on the bodies of th’ living. Says she lulls folks into believin’ she’s somethin’ she ain’t, and once they let their guard down, she uses her long fingernail t’ skewer ’em. That’s how she gets her name.”

“You talk too much, you know that?” Orville Minton shook his head. “Besides, it’s closin’ time, so get outta here an’ go home.”

“How ’bout one more for the road?”

The bar owner raised an eyebrow. “You said that two beers ago.”

Junior Wofford was undeterred. “Then hows about one for Jeff Boone?”

Orville Minton thought for a moment. “Guess I’ll drink to that.” He filled two glasses from the tap – one for himself and one for his customer. “Here’s to Jefferson Boone and his crossin’ the holler tonight.”


(Photo By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Jefferson Boone picked his way through the underbrush until he came to the small footpath that led through the hollow. The sky was dark and moonless. Only the faint starlight guided his cautious steps, but even that faded away as the forest grew dense. In just a few short steps, it would be near impossible to see the trail. Certainly the long walk home could wait until morning. And what if there was something running loose in these woods? For a moment he considered turning back and seeking shelter in the Widow Doyle’s barn. No one would blame him for exercising caution. Besides, there was no one waiting for him at home. No sense risking unnecessary danger. He hesitated and felt afraid. But the realization angered him. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. He stared into the darkness. He knew the trail. Over Butcher Creek. Up a few steps to the hilltop where he could see the roof of the Layne’s house, where it stood in the valley. Down into the deep forest. He’d walked this path a thousand times before with never a worry. But all those excursions had happened during the day. Here on the unlit trail with Minton’s and Wofford’s tall tales ringing in his ears, the fears seemed all too real. But not real enough to stop a man like Jefferson Boone. “Hogwash!” He said aloud. Then stepped on to the path and began his journey.

The man settled into a steady pace as he walked. The only sound was the thud of his shoes against the hard dirt. Jefferson Boone traveled nearly a half mile before he realized something was amiss. He stopped to listen to the forest and then realized what it was that was bothering him. No crickets were chirping. No owls hooting. Not even the sound of tree branches swaying and creaking. Just nothing. The silence unnerved him, but he had come too far down the trail to give in to fear, so he tugged his coat tighter, squared his shoulders, and resumed his walk.

Jefferson Boone had gone only a few steps before a heavy gust of wind sent branches swaying and leaves rustling. Here and there, twigs snapped and fell to the ground. The wind nearly knocked the man over, but he managed to lean against a large tree until the fury blew itself out. He stayed there for quite some time, listening as the trees creaked and groaned. From time to time, Jefferson Boone could hear a soft thud as an acorn or pine cone hit the ground. And then he heard a new sound – a sharp crack – as if someone or something had stepped on a fallen twig. Then all was quiet.

Jefferson Boone stiffened against the tree. He wasn’t alone in these woods. Every dark story he’d ever heard about the forest and the hollow flashed through his mind. Tales of dark creatures. Old Indian spirits looking to share their sorrows. Headless soldiers from the War Between the States looking for vengeance. Stories of being followed by an invisible something. Men hunted by the Devil himself. And he had been foolish enough to think that by sheer stubbornness he would be the exception to the rule. He shuddered, then forced himself to stand still and listen to the forest. The trees had ceased their swaying and no longer dropped branches and pine cones. The woods had dropped back into the silence Jefferson Boone had encountered when he first stepped on the trail. But the man was not convinced all was well. Whatever – or whoever – had stepped on the twig was still somewhere nearby. Like the forest, it too was silent.

Boone considered his options. Following the trail home meant a two-mile trek through the dense woods. A two-mile trek with something following him. The other alternative was to head back to the tiny mountain town and seek shelter until daybreak. It was a half mile to the trailhead. A far shorter distance to travel. Of course, heading back to town meant swallowing his pride. The other fellas – Junior Wofford and Orville Minton – would never let him forget that he had turned back out of fear. They’d bring it up every time he stopped in for a drink. “Seen any monsters tonight, Jeff Boone?” That’d be the joke that never died. No one in their right mind would want to face that kind of ridicule. That settled the question. The man-made up his mind in an instant. “Hogwash,” he said. “I’m going home.”

He stepped away from the tree and back out on the trail. But Jefferson Boone had no sooner taken a single step when he heard a slight rustle – as if someone nearby was walking through the underbrush. The sound shook him to the core. There was no longer any doubt. Something in the forest was stalking him. The man wanted to run back to the safety of his friends in the small mountain village, but again, he forced himself to stand still. Jefferson Boone knew better than to run. Running might turn the whole thing into a cat and mouse type of contest. The mouse gets scared and starts to run back to its nest, but the cat’s been waiting for that moment, because there’s nothing a cat likes better than chasing and playing with the mouse before finishing it off.

At this very moment, Jefferson Boone felt very much like a mouse cornered by a very big cat. And there were cats in these woods. Mountain folk talked often about losing chickens and smaller animals to bobcats. Every now and then someone would catch sight of one and out came the hunting rifles. Not every bobcat wound up stuffed and hung above the fireplace, but there were enough stories to lend credence of predators hiding in the thick forest. And maybe, just maybe, Jefferson Boone thought, that’s what was following him on this chilly, moonless night. He almost laughed at himself as he realized he had been scared out of his wits by a cat. Sure, bobcats were no laughing matter. They could kill a man. But Jeff Boone knew that the best way to chase a big cat away was to make enough noise to scare it.

“Hey!” He called out into they night. “I ain’t afraid of you! Shoo, cat! Shoo!” He knelt down, grabbed a stick, and threw it against a tree. “Can’t scare me none! Run away! Run away!” Boone stomped the ground and kicked at the dirt. “You ain’t nothin’! Get away now! You’re just a great big kitty cat…not some old wives’ tale! Now, get! Be gone! You ain’t nothin’ but hogwash, y’ hear me? Hogwash…hogwash…hogwash!” He stamped the ground for good measure, then leaned back against the tree to catch his breath. “Reckon that ought to scare away any big cats.” He said aloud. The man chuckled at his own cleverness. “If’n I’d thought of that half a mile ago, I’d almost be halfway home instead a’ being here shiverin’ at nothin’.” He started for the trail once again, but couldn’t resist looking over his shoulder and laughing at whatever animal had followed him in the darkness. “Spooked you good, didn’t I?”

He turned back to the trail, but before he even set foot on the packed dirt, a hoarse whisper came from behind the tree he’d leaned on. “Hogwashhhhhh…” The voice said. Then came a cracking and snapping sound as if something large was stepping on twigs and fallen branches. The footsteps were coming towards Jefferson Boone.

The man’s feet were already moving before he even had time to get his bearings. Boone guessed at the trail’s location and followed what looked like a narrow footpath. Once on the path, Jefferson Boone ran for his life. Behind him ran a dark shape. It hissed and snarled. The sounds seemed to be gaining on him…each was one step closer than the last. The man ran faster, but no matter his pace, the creature kept at his heels.

Jefferson Boone could barely see the path. The forest seemed to grow darker the faster he ran. He stumbled on a tree root that crossed the trail, but quickly recovered. In that split second, however, the predator gained enough ground that the man felt the creature just a few steps behind. Jefferson Boone pushed himself to run faster, but his strength was fading. He would have to find another way to escape his pursuer. Boone strained his eyes, hoping to see the edge of the forest. There was nothing but more trees. While looking out into the forest, he failed to see a rock in the middle of the path. His foot caught the rock, causing his ankle to twist and snap. Boone fell face down on to the hard ground. He lay stunned and gasping for breath, but his mind told him to get up and move. He rolled over to get back to his feet. A sharp pain shot up his leg. Boone looked down to see his left foot twisted backwards. He tried to straighten it, but it hurt too badly. He cried out and pounded his fists into the dirt until the pain subsided.

It was a full minute before Jefferson Boone caught his breath. He tried to remember why he was running through the forest in the dark of night. Before he could piece it all together, he heard a slight rustle in the pine needles and fallen leaves that lined the sides of the trail. The noise – ever so faint – was enough to cut through the shock and pain. He recalled the chase. The terror that comes from being the hunted, not the hunter. His body trembled with fear and a new wave of pain washed over him. “Who’s there?” He called.

Another rustling noise.

“Who’s out there?” He said again.

A footstep on the trail. Not more than ten feet away. Now nine. Eight. Seven. The footsteps stopped.

Boone trembled. “Who are you? Why are you following me?”

One step. Another.

“What do you want?” Boone stared into the darkness.

A figure came into view. Five feet tall, give or take an inch. Thin, but with rounded hips and shoulders. The figure circled the fallen man, then knelt down beside him.

Jefferson Boone stared into the soft features and breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re a girl,” he said. “I got scared and chased by a girl.” He tried to laugh. A fresh wave of pain washed over him and his laugh turned into a moan.

The girl reached over and clasped his hand. She stroked his arm as Boone struggled to control the pain. When at last his body stopped shaking, he looked at the girl. “I broke my leg. It’s pretty bad. All twisted ’round. Ain’t no way I’m walkin’ out of here. You’ll have to go and get me some help. The folks in the village’ll know what t’ do. You go get ’em now, OK?”

The girl shifted to a sitting position and gently lifted the man’s head into her lap. She stroked his forehead and ran her fingers through his hair. Boone was puzzled by her actions.

“You go now, y’ hear?” He said. “It’s gettin’ colder out here an’ I’m shiverin’ bad.”

The girl continued stroking his face. “Please, girl,” Jefferson Boone pleaded. “Go an’ get a doctor for me.” The girl said nothing. The man grew agitated. “Can you hear me, girl? I’m hurt bad an’ I need some help.”

The girl sat still. Boone breathed a sigh of relief. She was listening. “Go an’ tell ’em I was in th’ woods and tripped. Just don’t tell ’em that I was runnin’ from a girl. They’ll mock me for the rest of my days an’ they’ll always say somethin’ like, ‘Didja think she was that Spearfinger creature we was telling you about?’ I think they was making up tales – Orville ‘n Junior – they do that. Even said that the Spearfinger disguises itself so’s it can stab ya in the side an’ pull out your liver. Eats it, they said. Some friends, huh? Whatcha think about that?”

The girl was quiet for a moment, then leaned her head down so that she could whisper an answer in his ear. Her answer was a single word that set Jefferson Boone shaking with fear. “Hogwashhh…”

“No…” he whimpered. “No…you’re not real. You can’t be. Please don’t…” He looked up at the girl just in time to watch her face transform into the face of an old, haggard crone. “No…” His body tensed as he felt a sharp stabbing pain in his side followed by a hard tug like someone was pulling his insides out. “No…You’re not real…” He said again. Then his world went dark.

Riley Layne removed his hat as he entered the bar. He walked slowly to a stool and sat down. Orville Minton had never seen him look so pale. “Evenin’, Sheriff.”

The man nodded. “Whiskey. Just a shot before I head home.”

The bartender filled a shot glass and slid it over to the lawman. Sheriff Layne grimaced as he downed the liquid. “It never gets any easier.” He said after a moment.

“You OK?” Orville Minton asked. “You look a little shook up.”

“Couple a’ college boys from down the way came t’ the station this morning. Pretty shook up. Said they’s hiking here along the Egypt Holler trail ‘n found a body. Took me an’ Tommy White down t’ see it. Y’know Tommy? Been on the force ’bout six weeks. Rock-solid deputy. He like t’ passed out when we seen it. It musta been there a good two weeks, judging from the decay. Animals got to it too, so it was pretty mangled up. But…uh…” He paused. When he spoke again, he sounded like his mind was far away, trying to forget the scene. “Pretty sure we made an identification.”

Junior Wofford was seated two stools away. He leaned over and asked, “Anybody we know?”

Sheriff Layne nodded. “Yeah. ‘Fraid so. We’re about ninety-nine percent certain it’s Jefferson Boone.”

Orville Minton choked up. “Jeff Boone?”

“Best we could tell he’d fallen and broke his leg. Pretty bad. He’d a probably died from exposure, falling in the woods with nobody to help him out…but that ain’t what killed him. When the coroner came up, he noticed right away that it looked like Boone had been stabbed in the side. Deep. Killer musta been a real sicko too, cause th’ coroner got to looking and discovered that the same knife was used t’ cut out Boone’s liver. What kind a’ person does that?” He stood up to leave. “I hate to do it, but I’m gonna have to call the state investigators from Nashville t’ drive down ‘n look into this.” He walked to the door and pulled it open. “Might want t’ be extra careful leavin’ to tonight.” He stepped outside and closed the door, leaving Junior Wofford and Orville Minton alone in the empty bar.

Junior Wofford looked at his friend. “Spearfinger. We warned him. Jeff Boone’s as stubborn as a mule. Wouldn’t listen.”

Orville Minton filled two glasses with beer and slid one over to Wofford. “I’m gonna miss that hard-headed old cuss.”

Junior Wofford raised his glass. “To Jefferson Boone.”

Orville Minton nodded. “To Jefferson Boone.”

Outside the bar, a gentle fall breeze flung a pile of dried leaves across the parking lot. Not content with its petty vandalism, the wind picked up strength until it battered the building and shook branches off of nearby trees. Then as suddenly as it blew in, it stopped, leaving everything still and quiet. Too quiet. Not even the crickets were chirping.


From the Author: I grew up in southeast Tennessee, and imagined it near that area. The name “Egypt Holler” is an actual location in Sequatchie Valley, TN, and it was reportedly haunted. At least my friends told me “The Booger Man” lived there…

Thanks again. I had fun writing this! My dad was a minister, and we traveled all over southeast Tennessee, so I got to hear a lot of weird stories as I grew up. Some of them were even true!

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First Contact: North Carolina Alien Story


From North Carolina, a coming-of-age story of a group of friends – and the alien they’re trying to keep alive in the treehouse. Written by Harris Tobias.

When the last alien died, we all cried. We put his poor tiny body in a shoe box and buried it in the field behind the treehouse with the others. At one time there were five of them. We found them in the ruins of their ship in that very North Carolina field. I remember how we were roused from our summer torpor at the sound of the crash. The smoke and fire brought us running.

Billy Jordan was the first to spot the wreckage and the scattered crew. Whatever the alien ship looked like originally was impossible to tell. By the time we saw it, it looked like so much rubble; like one of those crushed cars down at the junkyard and just about the same size. One by one we found the bodies of the ship’s crew. They were not much bigger than my sister’s rag doll except their skin color was a gray/blue and their heads were overly large for their small bodies. We gathered them together and knelt over them with wonder and apprehension. I remember we were squeamish about handling them. “They could have alien cooties,” Alan said.

This got us to step back from the bodies for a while. Finally Charlie, whose father was a doctor and fancied himself one too, stepped forward and lifted one tiny arm. “What are you doing?” Billy Jordan asked.

“Feeling for a pulse,” Charlie said. One by one Charlie performed the same routine on each body. When he lifted the last little arm he said, “This one’s still warm.”

“What the heck does that mean? Is it still alive? Why isn’t it moving? Should we get help?” We all blurted out these questions at once but who we were asking no one could say.

“He’s alive but probably in shock,” Charlie said and no one doubted him since his father was Dr. Lawrence who took care of us all our lives. “We’re going to need to keep him warm. We’ll need a blanket and something to keep him in.

“What about these others?” I asked gesturing toward the four dead aliens. I went home and got a spade from the garage. Alan found an old blanket and Billy brought the shoe box. Then we dug a shallow ditch and laid the dead aliens in it. Alan said a few words like a preacher which made us all giggle as we all bowed our heads. We filled in the hole and marked it with a cross Billy made from a couple of sticks and some string. “You think they’re Christian,” I asked.

We wrapped the surviving alien in the blanket and placed him gently in the box. Then we carried him up the rope ladder and into the treehouse. We sat around waiting to see what would happen. We waited for almost half an hour and soon got bored. The alien was breathing but still unconscious.

After a while the conversation drifted around to school. Fifth grade was going to start in a week and we were secretly excited and relieved. It had been a long summer and we were pretty bored with the long hot days with nothing to do. Billy made a crack about Charlie being excited to see Alice Kelly and made kissing sounds until Charlie couldn’t take it anymore and launched himself at Charlie. As they rolled around wrestling one of them kicked over the alien’s bed and he rolled out onto the floor. He might have rolled through the trap door and fallen the 20 feet to the ground below if Alan hadn’t caught him.

The alien groaned when we put him back in his bed. “He’s in pain. He could have a broken bone somewhere,” Charlie said. Charlie began to poke and prod the alien who groaned periodically. Eventually he opened his eyes and peered at us. He had curious eyes, pale yellow with vertical pupils like a goat’s. He appeared dazed and frightened. The alien looked around and studied us much as we studied him. After a few minutes he fell back and appeared to sleep, his chest rising and falling rhythmically.

We spent the rest of the afternoon planning what to do with the visitor as we started calling him. First we all agreed that the visitor was to be our secret and ours alone under pain of death, double pinky swear. Next we all agreed that we should keep watch to make sure he didn’t escape or, even worse, get carried off by a raccoon or something during the night.

By SeppVei (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The treehouse was to our minds an impregnable fortress. It was high off the ground with a trap door and a rope ladder providing the only entrance and exit. The trap door had a lock on the inside and with the ladder pulled up we considered ourself totally girl proof.

There were four of us and since we often slept over in the treehouse, doing it again was no big deal as long as we told our folks. We agreed to split the guard duty, two on and two off. Billy and Charlie went home to get their sleeping bags. I waited with Alan until they returned. When they arrived, Alan and I took off for home as it was getting late and I didn’t want to get grounded.

I had a hard time sleeping that first night I was so excited. My god, a real live alien, a crashed spaceship it was every ten year old’s wet dream. What a perfect end to the summer. What a story we had. Would anyone believe us?

In the morning I bolted down my corn flakes and ran all the way to the treehouse. When I got there I gave the secret call and Billy lowered the ladder. “How’s our visitor?” I asked.

“He’s resting comfortably,” Doctor Charlie said. I went over to look at him. He was conscious and looked better at least to my eyes. The visitor was speaking in a language we couldn’t hope to understand. “He’s been going on like that all morning,” Charlie reported.

“He must be trying to tell us something,” I said.

“Well, duh,” said Billy. “The question is what?”

“Maybe he’s hungry,” Alan said. “Anybody bring any food?” We scrounged up some crackers and a piece of an old apple and Charlie offered it to the visitor. We watched him examine the food, smell it and drop it on the floor untasted. We tried again later with a piece of Alan’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich and, after I ran home for lunch, a piece of my tuna salad on rye. The results were the same, the visitor didn’t recognize it as food.

By the second day we began to worry. The visitor hadn’t eaten or drunk anything. Billy brought a turkey baster from home and we tried squirting some cherry Kool-Aid into his mouth. He choked, sputtered and spit it out. We tried Coca Cola, Mountain Dew and orange juice but the visitor rejected them all. He was a sticky mess after that so we threw some water on him and wiped him down with Alan’s hanky. The poor little guy looked miserable.

By the third day it looked obvious that the visitor was dying. He’d stopped babbling and his weird goat’s eyes looked glassy. Charlie who had borrowed his dad’s stethoscope said our patient was in serious trouble and was definitely going to die unless we intervened and did something drastic. “Like what?” Alan asked.

“We need to get food into him. I heard my dad talk about putting food directly into a patient. It’s called inter-vee-nious or something.” Charlie had obviously been giving this some thought because he pulled a big hypodermic syringe from his pocket. We were very impressed. We all wanted to save our dying alien and watched fascinated as Charlie ground some of the stale crackers and bits of sandwich into a jar with some orange juice. We took turns shaking the mixture until it resembled a muddy sludge. Charlie let it settle and sucked some of the liquid into the syringe and turned his attention to the alien.

“We need to find a vein,” Charlie said.

“Do aliens even have veins?” asked Billy but no one had an answer for that. The visitor was still breathing but his breaths were noticeably faster and shallower. We examined his little doll’s arms for a vein. Billy found a faint line running down the back of one arm and Charlie said that was it.

“Here goes,” Charlie said and he stuck the needle in and pressed the plunger. Almost immediately the alien began thrashing around. He emitted a high pitched scream flailed around some more until finally he lay still.

“I think we killed it,” I said.

“My God we’re murderers,” said Alan.

“Is it murder if you kill an alien?” asked Billy. We had no answer for that, but just in case, we huddled together and agreed to bury the alien next to his companions and never ever mention the episode to anyone ever. We all took a solemn oath and carried the poor dead thing outside. We were all crying by then but I couldn’t explain exactly why.

A day or two later, school started and the lazy days of Summer faded into memory. Word of our experience with the visitor was never mentioned both out of fear of how the adult world would react and the realization that no one would believe us anyway.

That was sixty years ago this Summer. The field where we buried the aliens is long gone. It is a suburban housing development now. The old treehouse is gone as well as are those boyhood chums I shared it with. I am the last witness of humankind’s first contact and the tragic fiasco that followed. Looking back on how things played out, I have to say it doesn’t bode well for the future of our spacefaring race. If there is one lesson to be learned from this sad story it would be to hope that none of our brave astronauts encounter any ten year old boys or their alien equivalent.


Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of The Greer Agency , A Felony of Birds and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and many other publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at:

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Toby and Lilly Forever : Alabama Ghost Dog Story


Alabama ghost dog story (or is it?) written by Keith Gregory.

Toby’s farmhouse was just as beautiful as the rest of the “new rich” houses that had moved into the area in the past decade. His family had been handing the property down to generations of his kin since the 1800’s. There had been plenty of offers in recent years from the “new rich” to purchase his land, but Toby was a stubborn man, a proud man. This was his farm and he wasn’t giving it up to no one. He figured the reason they kept coming around was because he had no one, as of yet, to hand it down to.

Toby Matheson was still single and in his late forties. He was a simple man and this, combined with his stubbornness, had been a large, contributing factor to his bachelorhood. The Matheson farm, which had run fallow over time, was a place of sanctuary for him. He maintained the property enough to enjoy a somewhat solitary life with his best friend Lily, a Golden Labrador. In Toby’s mind Lilly was the only affection he needed. Her loyalty was his company. He didn’t have many friends and he liked it that way, and his “friends” were mostly acquaintances anyway. He was also grateful that the farm was a considerable distance away from the nearest neighbor. The property was large enough that he and Lilly could live their lives the way they wanted to without outsider distractions.

Summers in the valley region of northwest Alabama could get hot despite the idea that the cold season stubbornly hung on for as long as it could. In August it was downright hot and humid during the day and still and warm at night. Toby loved dusk in August on Matheson Farm. He would sit outside on his porch with Lilly and watch the sun go down, beer in hand, listening to the sound of the woods bordering the northern end of the front yard. Some nights the trees would sway in a gentle summer night’s breeze or just before a storm. The leaves would dance on their stems, flickering back and forth against the branches. It was a nightly ritual Toby held quite dear.

Tonight was one of the still nights, the woods ahead a silent fortress wall. Toby sat in his porch chair taking in the evening, sipping his lager. The farmer’s simplicity came to a peak during these moments as he stared out into the growing dark with just about nothing on his mind, watching, listening to his world. Them “new rich” folk would probably call this “Zen” or “meditation.” To Toby, it was just a nightcap. His eyes soon fell to his, almost, empty bottle and he let out a long, emotionally exhausted sigh. It sure was quiet tonight. Save for the crickets’ song, the stillness was impacting.

There was a small rustling in the woods and a scattering of forest floor. Toby watched as a fox ran along the edge of the border of trees and back into the folds of the woods. That’s when he heard the bark. He knew that bark. His head shot up and he strained his eyes. It had come form just outside his vision on the far northern end. That was Lilly. It had to be. It sounded just like her. He carefully put down his beer and leaned forward in his chair.

“Lilly?” He asked the night. “Lilly, is that you?”

He was about to get out of his chair and stopped in mid ascent. He sighed, again, and sat back in the seat feeling a little stupid. It was impossible, of course. Lilly was dead. His best friend had passed on last fall. She was old, and time had had its way with her. She was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, and the arthritis eventually had spread so bad he had had to put her to sleep. She was living in pain everyday and Toby had had enough of the grief, seeing her limp around. He had decided he was keeping her alive for his own benefit and it was time to let go. As he sat back in his chair, he looked down to where she used to sit during their nightly ritual, and felt a low tightening in his stomach, tears threatening to escape his eyes.


“Just stop it Toby.” He said to himself. “She’s gone and that’s that.”

He took the last slug of his beer and considered going and grabbing another, when he heard the bark again. It was clear in the still, night air. The sound was far off at the northern edge of the woods but close enough to make Toby wonder if a stray had wandered onto his property. But the bark was so familiar. He had heard it every day for the past thirteen years.

For a moment he didn’t really know what to do. It sounded like Lilly, so it must be a Lab and they weren’t much of a threat. Then again, they weren’t the kind to go off wandering on their own either. He heard another rustling in the woods. No bark. Toby leaned towards the yard in his chair, mouth slightly open, eyes, squinting into the, now dark, distance of the northern edge, concentrating. The night just hung there, silent save for the sounds of crickets. Continuing to stare at the trees and beyond, he slowly sat back in his chair and decided to dismiss the whole thing and wondered if he really needed another cold one. Then the barking came again, this time a little more frantic. Toby was up right, instantly. It wasn’t the barking of a dog in pain or danger. It was the sound of a Lab on the hunt. A dog alerting her master that she had found the fowl. Come over here, that barking said, it fell over here. Toby stood and walked to the edge of the porch.

“Lilly,” he said out loud and caught himself. The name had escaped his lips without him even thinking. Lilly was dead, he knew that, but it had just come out. The dog barked a few more times and sounded as if it was running back and forth trying to get someone’s attention. Whoever would listen, it seemed. Well, Toby was listening and the rustling he had heard in the woods was not coming from the north end of the woods where he heard the barking, it was more towards his position but deeper in the trees. The barking stopped again.

Toby resolved to go and take a look. Since he couldn’t hear the dog rustling when it barked maybe it was in some sort of trap. No, Toby thought, that’s just ridiculous. He had no traps laid out on his property. He heard the rustling deep in the woods again and it sounded like the scrambling of not one, but a couple of, what he assumed to be, foxes. He had just seen one not five minutes ago.

He walked across the porch and went into the house. Toby realized how fast he was walking and his heartbeat quickened, slight mists of fear matching his pace.

“Gotta calm down there a bit, Toby. Just a wandering Lab, is all,” he told himself as he walked through the kitchen and into the washroom. He didn’t turn the light on, just stared at the gun cabinet. He didn’t need the rifle, did he? He stepped closer and felt for the keys in his pocket: house key, truck key, gun key. He rubbed the gun key between his thumb and forefinger in a momentary state of indecision. It was probably just a lost Lab, he thought. No more a threat than Lilly ever was. He rubbed the key once more, looked to the right of the cabinet and saw his walking stick. He had whittled it himself years ago out of a branch ripped from its trunk by lightening. The tip was charred black and he had lacquered it to preserve nature’s quiet remnant of fury. The stick would do. If he startled the dog he would be able to use it to calm him, or her, down or defend himself if he had too. A gun would just be too much. He grabbed the walking stick and stood there in the darkness for a moment. He thought of Lilly and a pang of loss washed over him. He got himself together and headed back towards to porch.

As he crossed the living room he heard the barking again. It was coming from the same place, muffled by the walls of the house, but still as frantic as before. What was it doing out there? And damn if it didn’t sound exactly like Lilly. He paused in front of his couch, listening. There was an excited tone in the dog’s rant now, almost a yelp. He couldn’t take it anymore and just about stormed out the front door onto the porch.

“Lilly, settle down! I’m coming!” Toby caught himself again, in a jolt of confusion. What was he saying? He actually didn’t even know he was going to call for his best friend, since passed, and hadn’t realized what he had said until it was out of his mouth. Maybe he would have a couple more beers after he figured this whole thing out.

As he stepped out onto the porch, the rustle in the woods happened again. It was louder than the last, and this time it wasn’t on the ground. The tops of the trees were swaying just outside his vision in the still August night. Despite the growing weirdness of this situation Toby tried to keep a level head. “Must’ve been a night owl,” he said out loud – fully aware, in that pool of reason, deep down in the bowels of his mind, that the way the branches were scrapping, it would have to be three or more of the night hunters.

Lilly the Lab, the dog, or whatever, was barking at a steady pace now and the nostalgia of that sound was slowly forming a swell of tears on the corner of his conscious. But, mixed with that was a dash of fear and not a small amount of annoyance. Whatever was going on over there it must be taken care of if he was going to get any sleep tonight. Toby took slow steps off the porch and began to creep north past the barn into the once silent darkness. The trees swayed again just to the south of the commotion. It was a lumbering rasp with a considerable amount of weight scraping and cracking sticks along the way. How the branches would hold something as heavy as this animal (animal?) sounded was beyond Toby. Whatever it was, it was riding the treetops, creeping towards his Lilly.

He crossed the yard and was approaching the right side of the barn when the yelping ceased once more and something jumped into the woods from just outside the border, behind the barn. Something was messing around in the woods and he wanted it to stop. What worried him was, he wasn’t sure what it might be. He had lived here all his life and Lilly had never acted up like this.

“It’s not Lilly,” he told himself, teeth clenched. His brain kept allowing him to say things like that, and it was starting to really piss him off. He knew better. He had mourned and tried to move on. The old girl was gone and all he had was his farm. And whatever it was back there, in the pitch black of nature, he was going to make sure it didn’t threaten all he had left.

Night was fully upon the farm and the August moon crept along, half-hidden by the trees as Toby moved slowly along the border of his yard. Something rolled along the tree line in the darkness, just up ahead, cracking the stillness of the night. The snap and slap of the high branches echoed in the air, the sound quickly ricocheting and disappearing into the forest beyond. The sound was crisp and amplified, hypnotic. He thought about the gun in the washroom. What about the gun? Had something just occurred to him? Maybe he needed the rifle and not the stick. He felt the night wrap itself around him, comforting him. He couldn’t move. He needed to get the gun.

Toby forced himself to widen his eyes, blink and focus as if trying to stay awake. Something was gripping his conscious and squeezing the rational thought right out of it. He had only had one beer, but he felt the same as if he was on his sixth and the glaze of inebriation was forming over his eyes. It was the thing in the trees. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, staring at the ground trying to concentrate, stick held in white knuckled fists, but he did. He also came to realize, in this momentary lapse of reason, that this, something, was luring him against his will. He felt unhinged from himself, like a door not quite centered on its frame, askew, allowing slivers of light in odd angles. That was not Lilly’s bark. It was something else, and if he did not concentrate and try to mentally break free it was going to get him. How, he wasn’t sure yet, but his fight or flight alarms were sounding on the flight side and he could not move. He was in some sort of mind trance yet lucid as ever.

He really needed his gun. And then the barking came again. As hard as Toby tried to fight it, his eyes widened with concern for his best friend and he yelled, “Lilly!” He ran north toward her. Somewhere back in his mind he was screaming to himself that it wasn’t her. Somewhere, back there, he was also telling himself to run. Run and get the rifle, goddamn it. But the Lilly barking was a siren, pulling him in, using his affection for his lost companion. He lumbered, walking stick in a baseball bat grip, like a drunken pursuer towards the sound of his beloved girl. He felt a crash of anxiety and fear from somewhere deep inside him, slamming down from above. He looked up and saw a large black form riding the top of the tree line. Lilly was a good girl but, like any dog, she was stubborn. If this thing got too close to her before he could save her it might hurt her. Hell, it might even kill her.

“I’m coming girl! I’ve got a weapon!” Toby was too far back in his own mind now; too far to communicate with reason. He was a man trapped behind a mirror watching the event unfold and having no control over it. Despite this, he screamed. There was no Lilly, just as there was no breeze. Something was hungry. Something needed strength. Toby was the fuel. He was closer now, “Lilly!” he stopped, panting, stick still in hand. This is where he had heard her. Lilly barked. She was off in the distance. She was running away, away from him. Him? No, that couldn’t be. Toby just, stood there. He was on the verge of tears. She would never run away from his voice. Deep inside, far back in the corner of his mind, looking from the other side of that mental mirror, the real Toby cried. He was going to die.

As the last in the line of the Matheson farm caretakers looked further north into the woods, as tears ran down a face twisted with sadness and confusion, the tops of the trees rustled once more. In the distance the sound of barking faded. The dark mass from above emitted a clicking, crunching sound, like insects being crushed under foot. From this mass something squirmed out of nothing, the delicate, wet sound of birth. A trunk-like tentacle lowered from the branches with a glistening film, fluid like fresh okra juice. The crushing, clicking sound came again, along with a slight moan not unlike a baby calf just out of the womb. Three claws emerged from the tip of the tentacle all the while lowering and lowering towards its prey.

Toby stood in a trance, still staring off into the distance. His lips moved slightly trying to form words as the creature slowly, gently clamped its three claws around the front and sides of his neck. There was a moment of quiet. A moment of peace, as the farmer opened and closed his mouth, just so, to form the last word of his life.

He exhaled in the stillness, “Li…Lil…Lilly”, and with ferocious speed, the thing snatched the human up, and into its grip. With a crunch, blood spilled through the branches of the trees catching, on the leaves, one by one and running down the trunks like the seasons first sap.


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