Two sailors, heading north for some well deserved shore leave, pass through Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a rustic countryside stippled with quaint little farm towns, and the childhood home for one of the sailors. Cruising down the lonely roads at twilight, the local recalls The Gunnymen, something of childhood bogeymen for the area. The Gunnymen, thick, ugly men in white rubber boots and shiny steel hooks that stalk the streets for people when they haven’t caught enough fish in their nets. But are these merely bogeymen, the result of wild imaginings from children as about local fishermen? Or is it possible that they’re real? When the sailors check in to a hotel for the night, they may just find out. Written by K.E. Moore.
Beware beware the Gunnymen,
The smell of ocean and rot,
And pray pray the Gunnymen,
Are pleased with what they’ve caught.
They march along in their white rubber boots,
Streaked with blood and guts
Searching for the Landfish,
When the seas have been a bust.
Big sharp hooks, all made of steel,
Pulled from fish’s gill,
And if their nets be empty,
You may be their next kill.
Beware, beware the Gunnymen
The smell of ocean and rot,
And pray pray the Gunnymen
Are pleased with what they’ve caught.
“What the hell was that?” Kevin asked, unnerved.
He turned to look at his companion. The glow of the dashboard cast the young man’s face in a pale greenish hue, the shadows of his glasses arching high and etched in deep black, looking like a wicked brow.
“I don’t know,” Dave answered in hushed tones. “Just something from my childhood, I guess.”
“What the hell kind of childhood did you have?” Kevin probed.
“A pretty quiet one,” Dave shrugged. One arm was draped over the wheel of the old Ford sedan while his free hand idly rested on a Mountain Dew bottle in the arm rest cup holder. Outside of the car, the world had been blanketed in twilight, the sky rendered in dark blues, lifeless oranges, and at the very horizon, a layer of red the consistency of blood. The pale headlights bathed the ever-flowing asphalt in feeble white-yellow as the pavement rushed beneath them in a constant whisper.
Kevin looked around, looked at the landscape that had, less than an hour ago, been filled with lush green foliage interrupted sporadically by small towns barely large enough to warrant welcome signs. When there were buildings, they were all eroded by time, faded paint peeling away to reveal gray, rotted timber. Ancient churches leaned and slouched while gas stations coated in rust sported hand-painted signs promising cheap cigarettes and the best fireworks on the Eastern Shore.
On the radio, a DJ with a raspy voice introduced “The Midnight Special,” with the kind of smooth flair that reminded Kevin of Wolfman Jack.
“That’s right,” Kevin said, returning his attention to his friend. “You grew up around here, didn’t you?”
Dave turned to look at Kevin, the shadows from his glasses sliding over his features, cutting deep gashes across his face. “Yeah. I mean, probably half an hour inland I guess. But if you’re raised on the Eastern Shore, you hop from one town to the next when you get your first car.”
“Dude, if you want we can stop off by your home. Let you catch up with some friends and family,” Kevin said with a tinge of guilt in his voice.
“Nah,” Dave shook his head as he turned his attention back to the road. “You know my parents passed on a while ago, and…” He trailed off.
Kevin knew his best friend long enough to know when to let the native Virginian be, and when to prod a little further. “But?” he prodded.
“When you grow up in a place like this,” Dave started to explain. “You join the Navy to get out, not so you can come back. Just sayin’.”
Kevin nodded. He looked out the window at the shadows as they slipped by while on the radio CCR were singing about what the sheriff does to those that gamble. “So who… what… are the Gunnymen?”
Dave let out a soft chuckle. “Bogeymen.”
Propping the steering wheel on his knee, Dave unscrewed the cap to his soda bottle and spit out a thick ribbon of tobacco juice before explaining. “Not really bogeymen. The Gunnymen are water people. Fishers, crabbers, that kind of thing. But growing up as kids, they were kind of scary, you know?”
“Not really. What’s so scary about a fisherman?” Kevin asked. He thought of the jolly man in yellow slickers that adorned the pack of fish-sticks he kept in the freezer. Being afraid of a fisherman was like being afraid of the Jolly Green Giant, as far as Kevin understood.
Dave’s head leaned over to the side just slightly, and Kevin noticed his face soften a little, almost as though he were digging deep into the memories of childhood. “They could look scary, sometimes. The Gunnymen were big men, covered in blood from gutting fish all day. And the boots, they had…”
“White rubber boots,” Kevin finished for Dave.
“Yeah,” Dave nodded. “Big men covered in blood and wearing white rubber boots. They talked funny, too, you know? Had this weird accent, I ain’t never heard it nowhere else.”
“Dave,” Kevin chuckled. “You have a weird accent I ain’t never heard nowhere else.”
Dave clicked his tongue. “How you gonna do me like that, homie?” he said in his best impression of an urban accent.
“Just stop,” Kevin shook his head. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”
“Okay. But did you ever think maybe you got a strong accent too?”
“Me?” Kevin scoffed. “I’m from California. We don’t have accents in California.”
The two friends slipped into the kind of banter from which their friendship was forged. Around them, the last slivers of light from the dying sun had finally evaporated, leaving the Ford that carried them along the lonely stretch of highway in a darkness that was only interrupted by a few feeble, hazy stars, and the odd street lamp here and there.
“We can grab a hotel, you know?” Kevin mentioned when he looked over and saw that it was nine o’clock by the car’s dashboard.
“I was kind of planning on driving through,” Dave said.
“Why?” Kevin responded. “We’ve got two days to be in New Hampshire. The rehearsal dinner isn’t even until Saturday, and while yes, I would love to see if there is someone single and smokin’ hot in the bridal party that I can escort to the main event, I’m pretty sure no one will even notice if we are a little bit late.”
Kevin hadn’t even known that there was a rich branch to his family tree until after he had joined the Navy. His parents retired well, left California for New England, and reconnected with some cousins that were so wealthy that they had things like yachts and hired staff and a “home in the Hamptons.”
It just so happened that one of these cousins, a debutante by the name of Claire, was marrying someone nearly as rich as she was and Kevin had been invited with a plus one. As Kevin was currently between train-wreck relationships, he decided to bring along his best friend and most trusted wing-man for what had to be one of the best parties this year.
The only thing that stood between the two young sailors and a bevy of young, rich, sorority co-eds was the drive up the East coast from where they were stationed in Southern Virginia.
This was, in Kevin’s estimation, the single best week of leave he could have ever imagined since joining the Navy.
Dave looked down at the dashboard. “I think we got a town up ahead in about fifteen minutes, we’ll see about stopping there, all right?”
Kevin didn’t even catch the name of the town when the empty, black, countryside was replaced with shabby single story houses and weather-beaten country stores. In fact, the only way he knew for sure that they were in an official town at all were the street lamps, orange and dull, their cones of light casting long shadows like black tears down the faces of the buildings that huddled against the road.
“Should be somewhere around here,” Dave muttered as he brought the Ford to a slow crawl.
“Well, whatever this place is, at least it has a nightlife,” Kevin said as he pointed out his window. A blue neon sign glowed atop a low wide building, declaring it to be “The Waterin’ Hole.” Outside a middle-aged couple were groping and smoking cigarettes. “Ew,” Kevin whispered to himself as he watched the man’s leathery, baseball-mitt-like hand slither over his companion’s dimpled thighs. He was about to crack some joke about how old people shouldn’t be allowed to have sex when the light caught the woman’s face.
Kevin only saw it for an instant, and what he saw was probably more illusion than reality, the product of the dim street lamps and muzzy shadows, but her face looked caked in make-up, like a clown, but with features that were cracked and jagged. Where those cracks drew insane lines across her painted face, there was an inky, ugly, blackness beneath, almost like liquid, like beneath her skin she was nothing but sickly black fluid, thick and suffocating.
“Yeah buddy,” Dave whooped. “We’ll go find us somewhere to crash for the night and hit that place up.”
“Or we could turn in early,” Kevin said, trying not to sound too upset by the face he had just seen.
“You vaggin’ out on me K-nuts?” Dave teased. “I’ll have to remember this moment when we get back to the ship. Everyone will want to hear the story about how K-nuts, the great and powerful, turned into a dripping vagina right before my very eyes.”
Kevin aimed a middle finger at Dave. “Don’t turn your head, pay attention to the road. I don’t want you to wreck just because I’m flipping you the bird.”
Dave laughed. “After all this time, you still gotta learn how to relax man.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kevin groaned.
The Ford crawled into a gravel parking lot beneath a faded sign declaring that they have just reached the “Eastern Shore Royal Suites.” With one look, Kevin could tell the sign was lying. It wasn’t even a good liar, the letters looking warped from all of the chipped paint and missing light bulbs underneath, while the “vacancy” sign barely flickered alive with its ghostly red neon glow.
There wasn’t even a pool, just a single row of units stacked two high with bland tan bricks and green paint peeling off the weather-beaten doors. Kevin scoffed.
“It’ll be fine,” Dave tried to convince him. “Besides, probably the only place in this town.”
“And what town is that, exactly?” Kevin asked as his eyes continued to drink in his lodgings for the night. The rooms all faced the kind of church you would expect to see in Smalltown Hicksville, USA. White paint, black roof tiles, and a steeple complete with cross and bell at the top. There were only two other cars in the parking lot, and Kevin couldn’t help but ask himself what those poor souls did to end up in a shit hole like this.
Dave frowned. “I… You know, I’m not sure. Come on, let’s go.”
Even before entering the fish-bowl lobby of the motel, Kevin imagined the clerk behind the counter to be some scrawny redneck with wiry gray whiskers and three teeth. He’d be wearing a wife beater and a ball cap with a tractor logo on it.
That is, if the clerk didn’t end up to be Anthony Perkins anyway.
And Kevin was almost right. He scored on the attire and the whiskers and even the teeth, only the desk jockey was about two hundred pounds heavier than what Kevin had imagined. Still, he was thinking he was close enough for a win.
“We need a room,” Dave said. Kevin noticed his friend had let his voice slip into a deeper accent, but that was nothing new. Dave was the kind of guy that fit in anywhere, he knew how to blend.
The man behind the counter, who Kevin thought looked a little more like Jabba the Hut than Anthony Perkins, grunted, scratched at a ragged hole in his wife beater, and replied, “Two beds?”
There was a sense of warning in his tone, something dangerous and disapproving in the way he strung out the vowels, and turned the word “beds” into a multi-syllabic affair. Dave and Kevin looked at each other and commenced the “Of course we aren’t gay,” dance—chuckling in embarrassment and scoffing until one of them finally had the composure to say, “Yeah, of course.”
The clerk grunted and nodded before turning to the cork-board full of keys behind him.
“Be more homophobic, South,” Kevin huffed on the way to their room.
“Dude, relax,” Dave said.
“Just sayin’,” Kevin mumbled. “Not like two separate beds would keep us from getting’ it on if we were gay.”
Dave opened the door to their room, revealing something that had come straight out of the 1970’s, wood paneling, shag carpet, and all. “We are not going to get it on,” Dave insisted.
Kevin clicked his tongue. “I know,” he snapped. “Look, let’s just get settled in and go. I think I’m ready for that drink now.”
The two men hauled their suitcases in from the trunk of the car. Dave was about to see if there was anything in his luggage he needed for the night when, bewildered, he asked, “What in the hell are you doing?”
“Bible and remote,” Kevin explained.
“Come on, we’ve shared rooms before. You didn’t know this?” Kevin said as he quickly opened and shut the doors of the particle board dresser upon which stood the ancient looking television. “I have to find the remote and the bible every time I stay in a hotel.”
“But you don’t watch TV and you don’t believe in God,” Dave pointed out.
Kevin stood and stared at Dave as though he had just tried to explain how two plus two really adds up to forty-five. “So?”
“You know how I never asked why you got the nickname K-nuts?” Dave said as Kevin went back to his search.
Kevin plucked a small green bible from one of the drawers, thumbed the pages rapidly, and put the book back where he found it. “Yeah.”
“This is one of the reasons why,” Dave finished.
Kevin found the TV remote in the night stand. The TV popped and hummed to life, and just as the picture on the screen started to make sense, it fell dead again, all of that life, all of those faces, crashing back into a single white-hot glowing point in a field of black emptiness. “Oh,” Kevin said. “Cool. I’m ready, are you?”
Dave just shook his head and marched out of the motel room with Kevin in tow.
There are thousands of bars just like the Watering Hole. Christmas lights were strewn about all year-long and any normal light bulb was dimmed or turned completely off around sunset time—the goal being to allow people to see each other, but not so well that beer goggles couldn’t take care of the rest. Country music played loud enough to make one raise their voice, but not so loud that you had to shout. And it was always new country too, more like rock and roll with a cowboy hat on, sometimes even dipping into hip hop, all for the sake of attracting younger crowds. The idea was that if you wanted to get sauced while listening to Hank Williams Sr., or Patsy Cline, that’s what they made living rooms for. Pool tables were illuminated by hanging lamps with beer ad shades, and the girl behind the bar was way too hot to be interested in anyone trying to pick her up, but interested in anything else that might net a decent tip.
Kevin was just glad the lady with the creepy face had gone.
“I can’t believe you like this shit,” Kevin growled over the glass of his beer as Dave bobbed beside him as he sang about how he had friends in low places.
Dave clapped Kevin on the shoulder hard. “C’mon man! This is real Virginia son, not Norfolk!” Dave hoisted his beer in the air and hooted. Elsewhere in the dim din of the bar, someone appreciatively hooted back. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” Dave grinned.
“You know Garth Brooks isn’t from Virginia, right?”
“Man, shut up and drink your beer,” Dave growled back good-naturedly.
The two friends drank only as sailors could drink—hard and heavy like it was a competitive sport. Beers were followed by shots which were followed by more beer. By the time Dave pointed out the two girls at the other end of the bar, Kevin was already way passed the buzz-zone and was now officially drunk.
“Nuts!” Dave said, his bloodshot eyes swimming towards Kevin’s general direction as he grabbed for his friend’s arm. “I said K-nuts?”
“What man?” Kevin frowned, secretly pleased with Dave using his nickname. Kevin pretended to hate when people called him K-nuts, but he had never had a nickname as a kid and always wanted one. To sell his false displeasure, Kevin yanked his arm from Dave’s grip.
“Check them out over there!” Dave said, at once whispering and shouting at the same time. “I mean day-umn, right?”
Kevin appraised the girls in question, attempting an aloof, casual glance. There was just enough sobriety left in Kevin for him to, on some subconscious level, realize he was leering, but screw it. Who cared? By lunch time tomorrow he and Dave would be halfway through Maryland, if not all the way up to Delaware. “They all right,” Kevin nodded.
“All right…” Dave shook his head. “You, my friend, are hard to please. Let’s buy ’em drinks.”
Dave was already whispering to the bartender when Kevin started trying to shake his head.
Another beer, another shot, and Kevin wasn’t exactly sure how he came to be seated next to a simple but pretty brunette named Kim. Apparently they at one point in the evening thought it was funny that their names both started with the same letter, and whenever either one of them started to lull in the conversation they would return back to that fun fact like a swimmer striking for the safety of the pool wall.
“Well, Kim with a K,” Kevin chortled. “I gotta admit, meeting you makes me a little sad.”
She giggled in a way that triggered a warm tingling sensation within Kevin that he was almost positive was not associated with the alcohol. “And why is that, Kevin with a K?”
“I’m here for one night only babe. My companion here, whose name I should point out does not begin with a K, and I are on our East Coast Tour.”
“Like rock stars?” she asked.
“Almost exactly like rock stars,” Kevin nodded.
“However will I go on?” Kim smirked at him.
Kevin draped an arm around her shoulder and placed his free hand on his chest. “I’m sure you will power through. Besides, if you are a very good girl, we’ll be coming back through here on our way back home in a few days.”
“Lucky me,” she said. Kim tried to make it seem sarcastic, but as drunk as he was, Kevin could tell that there was a genuine spark between them. “What has you and your friend traveling?”
“I got a super rich cousin getting married in The Hamptons,” Kevin explained. “Taking Dave up in the hopes he can get laid. Poor guy, he’s hopeless with the fairer sex.”
“Clearly,” Kim scoffed, her eyes focused just over Kevin’s shoulder. Kevin turned to see Dave lip-locked with the unnamed blond girl who came to the bar with Kim.
“Fluke of nature,” Kevin waved off.
A few hours later, Kevin and Dave stumbled out of the bar, hunched over and laughing. Dave tried to lean against Kevin for support, but when Kevin swayed so hard he almost collided with the concrete, Dave pitched forward and slammed into the roof of the Ford. This sent the friends into a fresh wave of laughter.
Dave’s boots crushed against the gravel of the parking lot as he fished around in his pockets. He was still chuckling while Kevin leaned against a brick pillar and grabbing at his stomach. “Duuuude,” Kevin moaned, “I’m pretty sure I need to make a call.”
“Earl?” Dave chuckled.
“How did you…” Kevin began before his cheeks inflated like a puffer fish and he dashed off into the shadows. As the air-filled with the sound of Kevin retching and a wet slapping sound like someone pouring out a bucket of pig offal onto the ground, Dave’s hands went from one pocket to the next.
“What the hell?” Dave mumbled. His accent was thicker now than ever—thicker than Kevin had ever heard before.
Wiping a globule of vomit from his chin, Kevin grunted, “What’s wrong?”
Dave leaned a hip against the car. “My keys. I don’t know where…”
Kevin’s head started to clear. He was still buzzed, but after the puke session he could think again. Hell he could even walk again almost in a straight line. “Bartender bro. She took ’em.”
“Ah,” Dave nodded and rested his head against the roof of the car.
“Come on, brother,” Kevin said. He pulled Dave off of the car and ducked his head under Dave’s shoulder to help him walk. “The motel is only a few blocks from here. We can walk it.”
“Like old times,” Dave muttered with a grin on his face.
Kevin grinned. He couldn’t begin to count the number of nights where one of the pair was half-carrying the other back to the ship or the barracks, hoping to make it before curfew. A single memory popped in Kevin’s mind, clear and bright. In a gruff voice, Kevin barked, “K-nuts! If you don’t hurry your fat ass up, you and your mother are fucked!”
Dave screamed with laughter. “What’s your mom gotta do with it dude!” he replied. The memory was buried in the past by now, wrapped in cotton and mothballs. But on the first port they visited in the Navy, Dave and Kevin went out with a senior petty officer to a bar. The trio got extremely drunk, and with only twenty minutes left to go until curfew, someone finally checked a clock. The petty officer in question, neither Dave nor Kevin could remember his name at the moment, started yelling at the duo to pick up their pace or they weren’t going to make it to back to the ship before curfew. This sparked one of the most infamous events of the entire cruise when the petty officer shouted the potential repercussion to both Kevin and his mom if he didn’t make it back on time.
Dave, who had never been good at keeping quiet when he ought, instantly snapped back, “what’s his mom got to do with it, dude?” Dave and Kevin tortured the petty officer with this at virtually every port call since.
“I think,” Dave squeezed out in an uncomfortable, high-pitched, voice, “that I’ve got to give Earl a call too.”
“There’s a tree over there brother,” Kevin pointed. A few seconds later Dave was spewing sick at the trees roots, each time dramatically growling, “Eaaaaaarrrrrrrllll!”
“Everything come out okay?” Kevin teased.
“You should quit the Navy and be a comedian, douche,” Dave snapped back.
Kevin nodded. He placed a hand on Dave’s shoulder and smiled, “You know what? I’m glad you dragged me out tonight.”
“I know,” Dave smiled back. He looked like he was about to say something else, but after casual glance down the street, Dave instantly froze. His hand, resting on Kevin’s shoulder, clenched. Searing jolts of pain pierced through the gentle alcohol-induced haze. “Ow!” Kevin hissed. “Dude!”
“Run,” Dave whispered.
“Ru… What?” Kevin responded, confused.
Dave looked Kevin in the eyes and said, more confidently this time, “Run!”
Kevin turned to look down the same street at which Dave was looking a moment before. Steam wafted off of the grass in ethereal swirls, turned gray and orange in the glow of the arc-sodium street lamps. Weather worn business fronts cowered in the darkness, cut in stark shapes of dull orange and black, and the road that separated them carried on, straight, lighting bolt cracks crawling along the paved surface. The road carried on into blackness.
Kevin was about to make some comment about how drunk Dave must still be when he finally saw it. Poking out of the black night, he saw at first a face, mist caressing its hard edges like a deadly lover. It was squat, inhuman, a wide, flat nose and a brow that hung so low the eyes looked like nothing but dark, empty pits.
Just as Kevin was coming to grips with this thing that stared at him from the distance, there was movement, and another face stared at him. This face had a large, jutting jaw and teeth that extended up over the top lip like a bull-dog. Its eyes hung low and wide, pale in the orange glow of the street lamp. This faced huffed, catching the chill of the night air and sending faint streams of steam floating off into the sky.
Another face after another appeared until Kevin was staring at five horrific faces all in a row. He opened and closed his mouth, desperately searching for some words that fit the scene before him, that conveyed the terror that suffocated him with the shadows that managed to escape the glow of the streetlights. Nothing came out.
He looked back at Dave for an instant, at his friend’s features, a mask of fear, his blue eyes wide and stupid behind his glasses, his mouth contorted in a strange grimace. Then a small spear of light caught Kevin’s attention, and he looked back at those faces and the single hook, sharp and curved to a cruel point, that materialized from the darkness.
The first face, took a step forward and Kevin could see the full figure of the thing, a bloated stomach peeking out beneath a stained wife-beater shirt, and ruffled work pants stuffed into a pair of large, white, rubber boots streaked with something foul and wet and black in the dull light.
“Run,” Dave whispered again.
Before Kevin made the first move, his heart was already racing, his mouth dry as though made of cotton. He didn’t speak, he didn’t yell. All Kevin could do was put those hideous faces behind him and pump his legs as hard as they would go.
The night became a shaky blur as the store fronts quaked by, the whole world jumping and lurching with each forced step. Kevin could hear the hollow thuds of Dave’s feet smacking against the pavement out of time with his own, his labored breaths loud and hoarse, muffled by the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. Underneath it all, Kevin could hear them, whatever they were, speaking in some strange, alien tongue, their voices the sound of gravel crushed against more gravel.
He couldn’t understand the words they called after him, it was nonsense, gobbledygook. Gobbledygook—wasn’t that the language of goblins? Where had he heard that? Were they goblins? Bent, twisted creatures come to stalk them, hunt them, rip the flesh from their bones and feast on the raw meat even as his heart continued to pump blood into the open night air? Even as he ran, Kevin couldn’t stop at least a small part of his brain from trying to make out what the ghastly creatures were saying. “Lamfish,” and “Guh’em,” cackled after the duo, the words taking on a crazy physical essence of their own with long arms wrapped in thick wood-like muscle and fingers bony and as sharp as the steel hook that glinted in the night.
They ran, not daring to look back, searching for sanctuary in a night that had gone from being friendly and filled with the pleasant torpor of booze, to being dangerous and intelligent. Kevin could feel eyes all around them, hunting them.
“Down here!” Dave called, and Kevin followed as they hooked a left down a residential street. Lined with large trees beginning to shed their leaves for the impending autumn, the houses down this lane were already asleep, all of the windows dark like emptied eye sockets, no lights except the occasional porch light, the small glowing pools doing little more than to etch their own little territories against creeping shadows that stared at the two as they fled.
Kevin had always been a stronger runner than Dave, but not by much. When he felt the acidic sting in his thighs and the ache in his lungs like a punch to the chest, he knew his friend had to be doing worse. He spared a glance over his shoulder and saw Dave’s eyes glazed over, sweat streaking down his face as he gulped for air that refused to fill his lungs.
Kevin slowed, and Dave, his whole body exuding an air of gratitude, shuddered to a stop behind them. Both men bent over, hands pressed against their knees as they sucked in air. “Holy shit,” Kevin wheezed. “Either… Either we just ran from your… grade school bogeyman, or just… a bunch of fishermen working a late shift. I’m… I’m not sure which is funnier,” Kevin remarked, gasping for air.
He looked over at Dave who looked like he might die any breath now, and laughed. Dave scowled at Kevin, but the scowl turned into an embarrassed grin, and Dave sat down hard on the ground, the grin collapsing into quiet chuckles.
“What did you call them again?” Kevin asked. They were in the parking lot of a gas station across the street from a drug store. It was a testament to how small the town was that the gas station was closed and the pumps were turned off, casting Kevin and Dave into shadows that hid them from the glare of the streetlights.
“Gunnymen,” Dave answered. “Just fishermen, like I said. They got the white boots and they talk funny, but they’re just fishermen.”
“Yeah,” Kevin nodded. “Scary fishermen.”
Dave laughed again. Finally, after Dave was sure he had caught his breath, he climbed back onto his feet and looked around. “Where the hell are we?”
“Man, I don’t know. I still don’t even know what the name of this town is. Sucks, I bet I could have got with that girl on the way back, too.”
“Yeah, right. I bet you don’t even remember her name,” Dave scoffed.
“Kim with a K,” Kevin responded with indignation.
“Whatever,” Dave waved him off. “We need to find the motel.”
“It’d be nice if there was anything open in this backwater hell-hole,” Kevin muttered.
Dave nodded. “Yeah, well, there ain’t so we better get going.”
They stood at a three-way intersection and looked around. In the direction where no road led, there was nothing but trees and darkness that glared back at them, expectant, almost asking them to come, get lost in the shadows and gnarled tree trunks that promised to swallow them whole. Down one of the roads tall, ancient buildings of brick and broken glass stood over the street like shadow covered sentries nearly as imposing as the blackened forest.
Both Dave and Kevin looked back the way they came and though they both knew it was silly to be afraid of a few fishermen getting home in the middle of the night, neither wanted to admit out loud that they were still too spooked to go back down that road.
That left only one road. At least there were street lamps and store fronts down that way, even if they were carved into sharp shards of orange and black, and the shadows did strange things when they moved. Without having to talk, Kevin and Dave both knew that this was the only option.
They pressed on into the lonely street. They traded stories, none of them new; they had served together long enough that they had heard all of the stories. They both were in most of them. It didn’t matter. They told the same old stories and same old jokes for no other reason than to fight back the fear that had flooded their veins only moments before.
It worked, for the most part. After two blocks, the adrenaline had mostly drained from Kevin’s system, and Dave was breathing and speaking normally again. Kevin suspected that this, too, would end up being one of their stories, one they would tell when they got back to the ship in a week, the one where they got drunk off their ass, puked, and ran from some old, fat fishermen. Kevin grinned at the thought, and looked up and over at Dave as he recounted the story of the “shot of death,” when he saw something just past Dave that stopped him fast, the words dying in his throat.
Dave stopped after a few more steps and looked at Kevin quizzically until his gaze followed Kevin’s eyes to the alley just to the right of Dave.
There, cloaked in shadow, stood the bulky mass of one of the Gunnymen. His eyes, swallowed by blackness, were hollow, and his large steel hook hung at his side. He grinned, a rivulet of spittle descending from his lips like a spider on a thread. Slowly, the Gunnyman raised the hook up to his cheek, the tip pressing in, giving that wretched face a dimple. Blood beaded up before falling down in a hot, slick ribbon, and soaking into his wife-beater shirt.
“Oi lamfish,” it grunted as it drew the point of the hook down along its face, drawing a violent black-red line to his chin. It started to laugh as it slowly stepped out of the shadow of the alley.
“Sweet holy Jesus, run!” Kevin cried, but Dave didn’t wait to be told. Both men tore off down the road while behind them they heard the cackle of the Gunnyman oozing after them.
They made it another few blocks when a shadow emerged ahead of them, tall and hulking, the hook dangling from its hand a nightmare curved to a deadly point. Dave yanked at Kevin’s shirt to turn left, but as they made to run down the side street, they nearly ran headlong into another one of the Gunnymen. This one was short and bulky with large, ugly muscles piled up on top of another. It grinned wide, showing only a handful of rotted teeth as it raised its hook and swiped at them.
Kevin let out a squeal as he watched the deadly point slice the air less than a foot from his face. Again he felt Dave tug on his shirt, and Kevin propelled himself backward, almost stumbling over his own feet as he tried to turn around.
The only way left was draped in darkness, the tall brick buildings looming over the street and glaring down. Kevin could almost feel the dark lane grabbing him, pulling him inside, swallowing him as jagged, sharp, teeth-like bricks closed down upon him.
But they ran, lungs screaming for more air, legs feeling like they were on the verge of shattering into pieces. “Come on, Nuts!” Dave screamed. Behind them, he could hear the Gunnymen shuffling and chuckling, and babbling in that strange tongue of theirs.
The street lamps had all gone now and Kevin’s eyes were straining to make out the shapes that closed in on them from all sides. His body yelled at him to give up, to quit, that whatever horror waited for him at the end of the Gunnymen’s hooks couldn’t be as bad as the agony that tore at his muscles and shredded his bones.
“I… I can’t… Stop… Dave…” Kevin gasped. Dave tugged at him once more, but Kevin resisted. He had to resist. If he ran one more step he was sure his shins were going to snap in two.
Wheezing, Dave halted and turned to Kevin. He reached up with one hand and cupped the back of Kevin’s neck and pulled him close. Instantly Kevin was transported to earlier days. Dave had always been the strong one, the one that kept his head when it felt like the world was going to fall apart. When Kevin thought he was going to fail his first physical fitness test in the Navy, this is what Dave did. Dave had grabbed Kevin by the back of the neck just like this on the day before their ship was to be deployed for six months, and the day Kevin found out their chief was looking to send him up to the Captain for screwing around on watch.
And every time Dave said the same thing, the same words he said again in the darkness with the Gunnymen stalking them, threatening to rip them open with the sharp hooks. “We’re gonna get through this, all right?”
Even in the low light, Kevin could see Dave’s eyes, calm, focused. No matter how high-strung Kevin got, Dave knew how to bring him down and keep him tethered to reality. “We’re gonna get through this,” Kevin nodded.
“But we got to run, okay?” Dave said. “We got to run and we don’t stop until we find the motel or a sheriff’s office or something. We can stop when we get safe, you got it?”
“I got it,” Kevin said.
“Say it,” Dave said, his voice adopting a stern, paternal tone.
“We can stop when we’re safe,” Kevin dutifully responded.
Even in the midst of all this craziness, Dave found a way to smile. “There we g—,” he started to say, but there was a quick flash of light, and the voice died in Dave’s throat.
At first, Kevin wasn’t able to comprehend what the hell happened. His friend was talking, encouraging him to press on, and then there was light, and everything froze. Only after a breath did Kevin realize the glint of light came from the hook now deeply embedded in Dave’s chest. A black flower of blood blossomed on his shirt and Dave finally screamed.
Kevin screamed also as he watched as the Gunnyman materialized behind Dave. This was the first one, the one with hollow, empty eyes and squashed facial features. Up close he was even more terrifying, his shaggy black hair draping down along his neck in oily black curls, and his flat, lifeless lips bent into a rubbery smile.
He smelled like dead fish.
“Run!” Dave yelled through his pain drenched screams.
Kevin ran. He ran for the light, fighting off the shadows of the oppressive red brick buildings, trying to find his way back to the orange street lamps. He turned first left, then right, twisting his way through the black labyrinth until he found himself staring at water. Docks stretched out over the oozing, oily black water while sail boats bobbed lifelessly on its surface. It felt dead here, like Kevin had just stumbled upon a watery cemetery.
“Oi! Lamfish!” came the gurgling cry of one of the Gunnymen, and Kevin yelped as he again pushed himself into a sprint, heading in a direction he hoped would take him back to the light. Behind him he could hear the clomping of rubber soles on pavement. The whispered mutterings of the Gunnymen in their foul language swept in between the buildings, riding on the night breeze, promising a slow painful death at the end of a hook.
When he saw the first pool of orange light, Kevin almost thought it was a trick on his eyes, but soon he was able to make out the gas station, dark and dead, that place where he and Dave first realized that the men they fled from weren’t just kindly old fishermen, but the bogeymen of Dave’s childhood.
Ahead and to the right. Kevin knew he just had to keep going forward and to the right. That would take him back to the bar, back to the hotel. When he finally escaped the oppressive shadows of the tall brick buildings, it felt almost like diving into a pool of cool water, invigorating his muscles with new-found hope.
Kevin spared a quick look over his shoulder and saw, buried in the shadows, tiny orange specks of light, the telltale reflections from the Gunnymen’s hooks like angry, deadly stars closing in on him. This only prodded him to run harder, up the well-lit street, looking for the first intersection that would keep him in the light and take him back to the motel.
The whole time he heard them, the Gunnymen, cackling and stomping, the smell of rotting fish filling his nostrils. At every intersection he could feel them, waiting patiently for him to take a wrong turn, to come sprinting into their pointy hooks so they could open him up. As he ran, Kevin could envision watching his intestines slip from the gaping hole they would slice into his gut, blood gushing over his legs in a hot, sticky torrent.
And yet, he didn’t actually see them anymore. He could hear them. He could smell them. Kevin could easily convince himself they waited for him around the next turn, but just as he knew he was about to impale himself on their steel, they were nowhere to be seen.
Finally, he saw something that made him nearly weep with joy. The old Ford sedan, parked alone in front of the Watering Hole. No keys. They were with the hot bartender, probably on her dresser as she slept unaware that one of her customers had already been murdered while another was running for his life. Despite the car being useless, though, it meant he was close to the motel. Up the street a little, a left, and a quick right and he would be safe.
A clanking thud ripped through the night, and Kevin watched in horror as a Gunnyman hopped onto the hood of the car. This one had a long face and wire hair that jutted out at all angles. It scowled at Kevin with teeth sharpened down into points. It scowled as it drew the tip of its hook across the roof of the car sending metallic squeals piercing through the night in a song of agony.
Kevin veered to the other side of the street, his eyes wide as he continued to gape at the Gunnyman. It took the hook and drew a deep red line across its belly, small runners of blood slowly crawling down his groin as he declared, “Wanme suh’ lamfish!”
The Gunnyman jumped off of the car just as Kevin drew even with it and Kevin screamed as the demonic figure clomped after him in his blood-streaked white rubber boots.
“I’m gonna get through this. I’m gonna get through this,” Kevin repeated as his legs pounded against the concrete. He let Dave’s words become his mantra as he fought furiously to hold onto just enough sanity to get him to safety.
“Lamfish!” the Gunnyman cried again, and to Kevin’s relief the voice was further back now. He could do it, he could outrun the Gunnymen.
Kevin made the left at the next major intersection only to see two Gunnymen waiting for him. He didn’t have time to change direction. He was going to die. He wasn’t going to get through this.
He kept running right at them, his eyes unable to look at anything but the hooks waiting to rip him apart. Their smiles opened impossibly wide revealing brown and yellow teeth and long, lolling tongues beneath dead eyes. They raised their hooks high in the air.
And just as they swung down Kevin hopped to the right, the steel passing so close he could hear the low whooshing sound of them cutting through the air. As he sped past them, he could hear them howl in contempt followed by their white rubber boots punishing the ground as they trampled after him.
Another right and he could see the glow of the motel sign. Despite the pain flowing through his body like blood, Kevin ran faster, faster than he had ever run in his life as the sound of the Gunnymen in pursuit faded away. Goddammit, he was going to get through this.
Kevin crashed through the lobby, nearly tearing the door off of its hinges. “Call 911!” he screamed, jolting the night clerk out of a deep sleep so hard the plump old man fell to the floor.
“What in the great screamin’ blue Jesus?!” the man hollered.
“Call 911!” Kevin ordered, his hands pressed against the counter. “Call them now!”
“Now hold on, son. What in the hell are you fussin’ about?”
“Gunnymen,” Kevin panted, his body finally realizing it could recover from all of the running. Kevin’s muscles ticked and popped and his lungs involuntarily gulped at the air.
“Them’s just fisherman, boy. The hell’s wrong with you?”
“Those… fishermen,” Kevin spat, “killed my friend, and they’re coming for me.”
“Killed?” the night clerk asked.
Kevin took a deep breath and hissed. Since watching Dave die, it was the first time he allowed himself to even think about it. They’d been best friends for how many years now? And now Dave was gone. An empty pit opened up inside of Kevin as he began to consider all the things they would never do together, the wife he would never marry, the kids he would never have.
When Kevin spoke again, his voice was thick and traced in tears. “They killed him. And they’re coming to kill me too.”
“All right, son, just… you relax. You get to your room, lock the door, and I’ll call the sheriff. We’ll get this sorted,” the night man said.
Through his tears, Kevin nodded, and stumbled out of the lobby. It felt almost as though he had to pull himself to their room. No, it wasn’t their room anymore, it was his. Dave wasn’t here to share it with anymore.
Without thinking, Kevin looked behind him and saw the silhouette of a hulking figure beneath the glow of the vacancy sign. The shadow held in its hand a large, sharp, hook.
Kevin darted for the door to his room, his hand jammed in his pocket, trying to find the key. He yanked it out of his pocket with such force he could hear the change of his pocket rain down on the cement walkway. Almost there. Almost there.
Behind him he heard the crunching of the Gunnyman’s feet on the gravel lot. He smelled the rotting fish on the air. In his hands, the key shook and lurched as he tried to force it in the lock.
“Wanme suh’ lamfish,” he heard in a croaky whisper. The voice was practically over his shoulder now.
The key slid home and with a violent twist, Kevin yanked open the door. He Slammed the door shut behind him and listened with dread as something scraped down along the wood.
Kevin turned the door lock and fumbled with the bolt until it was securely in place before he reached for the light switch and flicked it on.
Before he turned around, Kevin could smell it, the stench of rotted fish and pungent sweat. Slowly he pivoted around to find the motel room full of Gunnymen, all of them thick in yellowing wife-beaters and blood coated white rubber boots. They grinned at him all at once, those leathery faces shifting and pulling back to reveal their vile, putrid teeth.
“Don’t. Please. Don’t kill me,” Kevin pleaded. “Please don’t.”
Tears rolled freely down his cheeks as the Gunnymen laughed at him. The Gunnyman with the hollow eyes lowered his gaze on Kevin and his voice oozed from his lips like tar, “We ain’t gon’ killya.” He shook his head, his greasy hair flapping about his temples. “Tha’s fo’ Dabey.”
As if on instruction, the Gunnymen parted, and the door to the bathroom creaked open. Dave stepped out wearing a fresh white wife-beater and clean white rubber boots. Beneath the shirt, Kevin could see a faint red smear where there should have been a large, gaping hole.
“Dave?” Kevin wined. “Is this some sort of prank? Because if it is, not fucking funny man.”
Dave smiled. It was that smile that he always wore when he was amused at Kevin fretting over something stupid. He wore that smile as he crossed the room and cupped the back of Kevin’s neck and pulled him close.
“Not a joke, brother,” Dave said. “See, this is a… it’s a right of passage. If you’re gonna be part of the Gunnymen, you have to catch a landfish.”
“Landfish?” Kevin asked stupidly, but even as the word left his lips, it all made sense. The whole night, that is what they were saying. “Wanme suh lamfish,” really meant, “Want me some landfish.”
“You’re getting it,” Dave smiled in approval. “Landfish. People. Just like a regular fish, to get a landfish, you got to bait the hook, and reel in slow. If you pull it up too fast, it’ll come off the line and swim away, but if you get the fight just right, it’ll follow you all the way into the basket.”
“Dude, you’re my best friend!” Kevin spat. He tried to tug his way out of Dave’s grip, but the comforting hand behind his neck clamped down and held him firm.
“This a gud’un, Dabey,” one of the Gunnymen grunted.
“I know,” Dave said to Kevin. “Best friends, and I couldn’t do this without you. I…” Dave stammered and looked away for a moment. “Thank you. You don’t know what this means.”
“Dave,” Kevin hissed through tears. “Come on, man.”
“It’ll be over quick, I promise,” Dave said.
And there was pain. Hot pain, pain unlike anything Kevin could have imagined followed by a hot wet sensation that spilled all down the front of his pants. In a strange region of Kevin’s quickly fading mind, he wondered how much of the wet was from his own blood, and how much was from urine.
There was a thick, heavy, slapping noise on the ground, and as Kevin drifted away into darkness, he heard Dave whisper, “We’re gonna get through this.”
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