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I Now Know Why They Are Called Weeping Willows
Let me go back a little bit first.
I first met my ex-girlfriend at the start of our sophomore year in high school. She had just moved to the area and, presumably, done a private and last minute audition. It was the first day of band camp, over thirty-eight degrees Celsius with heat index, and not a single cloud in the sky to offer even a moment of peace from the blazing sun. We were just doing movement rehearsals outside when the drum major stopped us and our director told us to take a quick ten in the shade on the nearby trail. That was the first time the drumline was near the flute section and the first time I met Helen.
Even with sweat plastering her bangs to her forehead, leaving thick trails across her summer camp shirt with the sleeves cut off, and rolling across her bare skin I was enamored. The gleam of her gray eyes rattled something deep inside of me. From the first moment I saw her, she held my complete and undivided attention. That continued through our first date, one year anniversary, and every other milestone we shared. Since that first day of band camp at the end of summer our sophomore year we were inseparable.
I mean, truly inseparable. Like, make our friends gag type of inseparable. Names carved in a heart into the thick bark of a tree in my backyard and gave our virginities to each other the night before junior prom type of inseparable. Now, the cliché is to have sex for the first time on prom night, and that was the plan. However, the night before we were teasing one another so much about it that one thing lead to another and it happened.
Anyway, as hard as we tried, we eventually accepted that we were not going to the same college. My college didn’t have a chemical engineering program. My grades weren’t getting a spot in her university. So, for the first time in over three years Helen and I would be separated for more than a week.
But, like most headstrong, lovesick, high school sweethearts we were convinced we could make long distance work. It wasn’t real long distance after all. Just a little over an hour away from one another. Easy.
I should have taken the hints. During the last couple of weeks before going to school, Helen started making comments about how hard long distance was and all the tragic stories she had heard. I just continued to remind her that all of those other couples were not us. It almost seemed like a stroke of fate when I got notice that my college had decided to go virtual for this semester due to the pandemic. I thought this is it, this is how we stay together a little while longer and figure it all out. That glimmer of hope splintered quickly as she told me her university was doing a hybrid of in-class and online programs, so she still had to go to campus.
Now we were going to be just under three hours apart.
On Thursday night I went over to Helen’s house to have a “going away” dinner with her and her family. We played games and talked. Eventually, after everyone else had gone to bed, Helen and I went out to the backyard where we just laid together, awake, until sunrise. That Friday morning, I helped her pack the last few things in her car, reminded her that we were going to make it work and how much I loved her, laid a deep kiss on her lips, and watched her drive away. It was one of only a handful of times Helen had ever seen me cry. That was the last time I saw her in person.
We talked every morning, texted throughout the day, and video called every night before bed. It wasn’t the same, and it sure as Hell was not enough, but it was all we had at the time. I attended my classes online and hung around with my friends from high school who were also denied access to their campuses of higher education they worked so hard to get into over the last few years. Helen told me about her lectures, labs, new people she was meeting, and old acquaintances she was reconnecting with. A girl from our high school was assigned as her roommate, so that should have given her a little touch of home.
Slowly, over the first few weeks of the semester it began fading away. Our morning calls got shorter. Texts were fewer and farther between. Video calls were cut short or sometimes missed all together. I was concerned about her mental health and wellbeing. Was the stress of her schedule too much for Helen? Was she missing home that badly? Had something happened that she didn’t tell me about?
I came to learn the truth by way of a random text. The other girl we had gone to high school with that Helen was rooming with reached out to me. I will never forget that night. My parents had taken my little sister on a trip for the weekend and left the house to me. Sitting on my porch with a few friends, we watched a summer lightning storm. It was the kind with heavy sheets of rain, but only a little thunder. The kind that lights the entire sky up in stark flashes and streaks. That’s when I got a paragraph-long text.
At first, I plainly did not believe her and just shrugging it off like some sick joke. Then I grew angry that she could even think of something like that. Finally, I gave in and listened to her story. As it turns out, Helen began cheating on me and did not know how to tell me. She had hit it off with some older guy acting as a host at a “Social Distancing Welcome Party.”
Not knowing what to do or how to process it all, I quickly sent everyone away. Standing in the yard alone, I watched the lightning and fought the urge to either scream or cry. I tried calling Helen to no answer. I texted to no response. I paced the yard like an animal, the lightning in the sky paralleling the cracking inside of me.
Then, a bolt of lightning crashed too close for comfort. The flash was enough to make me stumble back and as I regained my composure, my attention was drawn to flickering reds and yellows. They were small at first, but quickly growing. The old green and gray weeping willow tree Helen and I had carved our names and a little heart into years ago was going up in flames before my very eyes.
My first instinct was to salvage it. I wouldn’t want this landmark of our endless love to be gone when Helen and I worked through this, after all. I grabbed the first semi-practical thing within reach and ran to the tree. With a damp sheet left out on the porch, pulsing in the pouring rain, I whipped at the flame trying my damnedest to smother it. At first I was calm, but gradually grew more and more frantic. Before I knew it, I wasn’t trying to extinguish the fire as much as I was attacking the tree itself.
A sudden and unexpected calm fell over me. I stared at the flames reaching higher and deeper into the willow’s trunk. For a brief moment, I was able to see a feminine face. It was Helen. It had to be Helen. She was taunting me. She was mocking me for not heeding her warnings or catching her signs. She knew this was going to happen. She may have even planned on it happening. I was just the fool that stood by and watched it.
My body regained control and went into autopilot. Stomping through the mud and water gathering in the yard, I went to the shed and snatched an old wooden-handled axe. Returning to the tree, I began ferociously chopping at its aged and weathered trunk. With each strike of the blade more of the wood splintered away. With each flicker of the flame I saw the carving and the face laughing at me together.
I swung that axe until the rough handle tore into my hands, leaving them little more than bloodied and blistered appendages growing numb from the rain and work. Then, I swung some more. I kept going until the handle gave in to the constant and repetitive burst, fracturing in my hands. All I could do then was fall to the ground and watch the tree burn in the storm.
Eventually, all that stood was the charred husk of a once mighty monument. Only then was I able to pull myself away and go inside for the night.
That night, I slept like a corpse.
I don’t remember dreaming, changing my clothes, or even getting into bed. Regardless, I woke up feeling beaten and worn. Of course, I was still heartbroken, but this was something deeper than that. Maybe chopping at that tree and watching it burn wasn’t as cathartic as my slightly intoxicated brain thought. Maybe I was in some walking state of conscious denial and just wasn’t ready to process everything yet and it was wearing me down from the inside.
Rolling over in bed, I checked my phone. I had a handful of texts from the friends I sent away the night before and a couple of consoling messages from the bearer of bad news. There was one single missed call from Helen from just after three in the morning.
As I placed my feet on the hardwood floor I felt a quick and cold sensation. I stepped into a small puddle with a splat. Please tell me I didn’t throw up everywhere I thought to myself. I can deal with most things pretty well, but vomit always got me. All I could do was sit there for a moment, praying internally that I wasn’t standing in some form of late night, blackout regurgitation.
Imagine my surprise and joy when I found that it was only water that I had stepped in. Just water. I took a deep, steadying breath before finally standing up. After a long and much needed morning stretch to awaken all of my joints and muscles, I started to make my way out of the room. Only, I felt more cold and heard another splash.
Clearly I tracked water through the house when I came in from the rain. A little rain water is nothing to worry about and could easily be wiped up after a cup of coffee. I walked through more water, disregarding it as just a problem for later. It wasn’t until I got to the steps that the idea occurred to me: maybe I should make sure not to splash it around and make more of a mess for myself.
At the steps I watched my footing carefully as to not disturb the water. Three or four steps down I noticed a few things. The little puddles were much smaller than my feet. But, some of the water probably already dried up, so that wasn’t too much of a surprise. They were in little patterns: an oval of the foot with smaller circles where the toes would be. Simple enough, but I could have sworn I saw the boots I was wearing by my bedroom door. Based on the patterns, the prints would have had a sixth toe on the outside of the foot roughly the same size as the big toe. Last time I checked I still only had five toes per foot. Finally, there were two sets of prints: one going up the stairs and another coming down.
Those last two realizations made my blood pump just a little bit faster. Who the Hell could have been in here? A small part of me, just the tiniest sliver in the back of my head, imagined for a fleeting moment that they were Helen’s. Maybe she heard about me finding out and she drove through the night to see me. She was just in the bathroom or something. I hoped that was the case until I remembered the sixth toe.
About that time I started to smell coffee wafting from downstairs. Someone had to be home. If it wasn’t Helen, perhaps my family was back early or a friend stopped by to check on me. The sixth toe part of things was more than likely just an effect of some water splashing or me misreading things in my waking state.
I followed the smell of coffee to the kitchen. Reaching the counter bar, just across from the coffee pot, I closed my eyes and took a long, deep inhale. Immediately, I started to gag.
A foul, putrid smell filled me out of nowhere. Rushing to the sink in case I did finally throw up, I tripped over something. With a heavy thud, I crashed to the floor, bending my wrist a little too far back and catching my chin on the top of a step stool my mom and sister use to reach the top shelf of the cabinets.
Rolling on to my back, I rubbed my face. I used my right hand at first, but the rush of pain was almost too much. Now, my focus was on massaging my injured wrist with my other hand. As my nervous system began to calm down, I propped myself up on my elbows. That’s when I saw it.
In the middle of the kitchen lay an already rotting and decay corpse of a young woman. Her skin was already gray and patchy while her hair was as lively red as a freshly formed flame. There were no eyes in their sockets and her jaw was pulled well passed as far as it should have been able to extend. A bulge protruding from just above her right shoulder looked as if her neck had been snapped.
The most high pitched and feminine scream I had ever conjured tore from my throat. Jumping to my feet I watched the body as if it was going to start moving, shambling without warning like some kind of cheesy jump scare. As I slowly crept around, still flooded with the irrational fear of the dead reanimating, a loud, screeching wail filled the room.
The alarm started going off as I noticed the source of the coffee smell. The pot itself was not brewing, but instead an old, cast iron pan I had never seen before was bellowing smoke as a pile of coffee grounds burnt on its hot, black surface.
I turned off the burner, removed the pan from the still hot burner, and covered it in baking powder before sprinting out the front door. Standing on the porch, already soaking wet from a mixture of sweat and morning humidity, I called the police. The operator started asking me questions like how the body looked and stuff like that. I told them about the wet prints, but wasn’t able to answer a few of the specifics on the body. Cautiously, I moved back into the house to try and get the information they needed.
“Sir, please stay on the line,” the woman on the other side of the line instructed me.
“Dispatch is on their way. Now, can you tell me, approximately, how tall the woman is?”
I fell silent.
“Sir, are you still there?”
I couldn’t answer.
“Please respond and stay on the line until dispatch arrives.”
Without a word, I hung up the phone and stood there just staring at the kitchen.
The smoke alarm had stopped. The pan and the corpse were gone. No trace of anything that had just happened remained.
When the police finally arrived I explained the situation to them. They took pictures of the house, including the wet prints that apparently lead from the back door, up the stairs, into my bedroom, and then back out the way they came.
“You know it is a major offense to file a false police report, right, son?”
“Yes, sir. It was here. I promise you that.”
“I’m sure it was. How about you take this.” He slipped a business card into my hand. “And, ah, make sure there is actually a crime before calling us out here next time.”
“At the very least someone broke into my house last night!”
“I hardly consider some drunk fool forgettin’ he stumbled about the rain a crime. Now, you have a nice day. Ya hear?”
Before I could say anything else, the officers left my house. Walking to their car, they signaled for the other first responders that it was a false alarm with a wave of their hands. I looked at the card he had given me. It was for a drug and toxicology testing facility the next town over.
I finally got my cup of coffee and took a few minutes to recollect myself on the back porch. After a lengthy internal debate I decided to not tell my family about what happened for two reasons. First, I didn’t want to worry them in case I really had just blacked out and was slightly losing my mind. Second, I didn’t want to ruin my little sister’s weekend.
For most of the day I just lounged around the house and avoided the mountain of work that was already piling up from online classes. I played some video games and watched some purely stupid videos online. As badly as I wanted to, I avoided calling Helen again.
Late into the evening I heard a heavy wind start howling outside. The branches and needles of evergreen pines danced through the pale light of a crescent moon. It was still warm enough to warrant a tank top, but cool enough to call for jeans. The perfect seasonal cusp of weather.
Sitting outside and enjoying a smoke, I looked out to the willow tree for the first time that day. At least that was still battered and scorched. As far as I could tell, that hadn’t been some strange hallucination. I worked up the courage to go examine the remains of the tree up close.
As I reached out to touch the charred bark, I realized I was instinctively reaching to where Helen and I had carved our names all those years ago. I felt a single tear roll down my cheek. Then, as my fingertips grazed the burnt bark, a flash of scenes flipped in the front of my mind like a distorted montage. The footprints, the burning tree, the corpse in the kitchen, the face in the flame, and the coffee on the stove. All of it.
I came to, laying on the ground once again.
At this time the need to try and calm myself from the events of the last twenty-four hours faded as the need to figure out what was going on rushed in.
Getting to my feet, I ran back to the house. About halfway there, a strange noise echoed from the woods behind the house. The only way I can describe it is as if a wolf’s howl was broken and segmented like an older woman’s cackle.
I still can’t explain why, but I kicked it into double speed to get back in the house as soon as possible.
Once inside, I stood at the window just watching the woods beyond the yard. Waiting for something to emerge from the tree line, I never thought to ask myself what I would do if something did, in fact, come out. After a few minutes, only hearing the sound a couple more times, I gave up and retreated to my computer in the living room.
Hours must have passed while I sat there searching every combination of words that I could think of in failed attempt after failed attempt to find the right search engine optimized set. It wasn’t until I cut my searches down did I finally find something. I learned that burning coffee is an old trick for masking the smell of dead bodies used by homicide investigators and murders for a little over a century. It wasn’t much, but a start is a start.
“Faces in flames” just gave me a lot of angsty image results. “Seeing corpses” lead to a lot of fiction stories and helplines for potential psychological breakdowns. “Water prints” mostly offered different types of shoes to order for aquatic athletics and water color paintings.
I heard a gentle creaking noise from the kitchen. Looking over, I could see nothing but deep shadows cast across the walls from the thin moonlight. Most of the kitchen was encased in this darkness from the cabinets, refrigerator, and all sorts of other odds and ends hanging in the way. One patch of dim light had traces of the branches’ shadow dancing through it from just outside the window.
Albeit a little unsettling given the things that happened earlier, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Rooms get darker without a light on and shadows abound. All of this is normal. But, since I was still feeling a little off, I needed to check it out further. Retrieving my phone from my pocket, I slowly brought it up and extended it in front of me. I can’t say for certain if I was going slowly to avoid making noise that would either startle whatever may be there or risk drawing more attention to myself or if I was just too scared to move at full speed. Regardless, before I could turn the flashlight on, I heard another creak.
Or, more specifically, a series of creaks. Gentle and rhythmic as if something were rocking in place. Back and forth. Back and forth. A slow, almost methodical tempo. Why I didn’t choose to approach the kitchen and just turn the damn light on is still beyond me. The most likely reason goes back to me being too afraid to move, but that is still a hard thing for me to admit, even to myself.
My thumbs slid around the screen and eventually got to where I could flip the flashlight on. Just then, the creaking stopped. I hung in that moment of thick silence before taking a deep breath. My thumb pressed against the little icon. I took another breath. My thumb released from the icon.
A flurry of noise assaulted me as the howling cackle flooded the room. Dead center in the soft light from the phone, I caught a glimpse of a figure. Feminine and lean with a protruding belly. Her skin was painfully white and marked all over with dark smudges. Wiry hair extended from her eyeless head in matted angles littered with leaves and twigs.
Her flowing, brown poncho clung to her form as she rushed towards me, cackling and howling all the way. She made her way from the kitchen, across the dining room area, and to where I stood at the invisible, but understood edge between the latter and the living room. My body tightened and coiled inward. I couldn’t see a weapon in her possession and it didn’t appear that she was going to reach out and claw me or anything. She kept straight and true, more like she was going to run into me. Maybe a tackle at most.
Bracing for impact, I felt a waft of heat. Starting as a warm breeze you may feel coming off the ocean late at night, it quickly grew into the harsh, dry burst of heat you may feel when opening the door in the afternoon of a heat advisory.
I stood there for a few moments and, as my breathing evened out, I opened my eyes to find nothing in the house. At least, as far as I could see. Maybe I am just going crazy. An internal debate waged on as I began to question my own sanity. I was conscious of myself enough to know that Helen’s actions had shaken me to a deep and foundational level, but had it been enough to actually make me lose my mind?
All of these concerns were washed away when I noticed the wet foot prints leading from the back door, through the kitchen, and then at me, disappearing just a step or two ahead of where I stood.
The idea hit me out of nowhere, much like how I expected the woman to. Rushing back to my computer, I searched two words. Cackle Howl. It took a few seconds for the page to load any results, most of which were stock audio recordings, information about some video game add-on, or links to this honestly terrible garage punk band out of Europe. It wasn’t until halfway down page four of the results that I finally find something useful.
Cackle howl, also referred to as the Late Laugh or Carolina Hyena Call, is a sound often used in Gullah folklore. The Cackle Howl is said to be the noise made by the spirit of a tormented woman, most commonly manifested as a Willow Witch, Weeping Witch, or any combination of those three words.
It is believed by many groups in the southeastern United States that some women turned evil who die before their natural time have their spirits trapped inside a weeping willow tree. This is used to explain why weeping willows tend to have shorter life expectancies (an average of 50 years) than other species as the evil spirit poisons them. If, however, a weeping willow is desecrated before the spirit has experienced their full cycle, the spirit has been released. The spirit cannot harm you or interact in any way unless summoned.
The details of summoning a Willow Witch vary by geographic region, but the call tends to be more or less similar. The oldest recorded document of the Willow Witches’ Prayer dates back to 1812 from a Carolina Plantation library.
The spirit, I do call, from the moss that fetters
The willow, she weeps so still
The witch that I seek, betrayer false matters
The weeping, more than tears, it spills
Please guide off to what I seek and teach me of your strength
For the Willow Witch knows, with noose in toe, the always proper length
The spirit, I do call, from the moss that binds
The willow, she weeps to none
The witch that I seek, she blurs the lines
The weeping has yet to begun
History of Willow Witches explains that often times individuals, most commonly women, call or summon a Willow Witch for guidance in matters of evil and acts of violence. A Willow witch must be freed from a desecrated Weeping Willow tree before summoned.
Later, the call was repurposed as a nursery rhyme, of sorts, to deter children from pursuing evil deeds by citing the last line to mean that it is them who are left weeping, not what they focus their deeds towards. The prayer not only calls a witch to you, but grants them access to interacting with you as well as the target of your bad intentions. Parents rectify saying this to children as there are no bad intentions or targets for evil in them reciting it.
I sat on the couch, leaning over to get my face as close as possible to the computer screen without smudging it with the tip of my nose. For the first time in nearly twenty-four hours, I felt like laughing. And not just a little chuckle, but bursting out into a fit of knee slapping laughter. The only thing that really stopped me was fear that someone nearby may hear it and support the idea I was going insane. But, seriously, witches is the best the entirety of the internet had for me?
In all honesty, that was probably the best thing for me to have read. It was so ridiculous that I felt at ease and was able to just close my computer and go about my night.
A few hours later, as I finally made my way to bed, I lay there just thinking about the story of the Willow Witches. The legend bounced around in my head, made me laugh once more, and I started to drift off to sleep.
Then I heard the floor boards creak. Slow and rhythmic, just like it had been in the kitchen. Back and forth. Back and forth. Surely, this was all part of a dream. It’s my fault for filling my head with this nonsense just before bed. Creak and creak. Back and forth.
Years ago I had read little tricks for waking yourself up when you realized you were in a dream. It was part of a lengthy game of what if Helen and I were playing at the time. What would you do if you figured out you were trapped in a nightmare and had to escape? A quick flash of light or making a loud noise within the dreamscape often did, supposedly. There was also the option of pinching yourself. Just, whatever you did, avoid peeing in the dream world because… well… I’m sure you get the idea.
With the bravery of existing within my subconscious, I rolled over and flipped the lamp on my nightstand on in one, fluid motion. The room burst into the dull hue of an energy efficient light bulb shielded by a thin shade. Nonetheless, it was enough. In the far corner of the room crouched the woman. This time, she stood in the light as if she were studying me for a moment. She grinned widely showing her jagged teeth filled with dirt and mud, and licked her lips.
We stared at one another for a moment before she burst into action. She nearly leapt across the room and landed next to me on the bed. I tried to get up, to run away, to grab something to fight the woman off. It was no use. She grabbed about my wrists and held me still with an unexpected strength.
Tossing and turning, I tried my best to get her off of me, but it was no use. Slowly, the adrenaline coursing through me began to fade and my body gradually went limp and gave in to her hold. Leaning in closely, so close that I could smell the rot and decay of low tide wafting on her breath, she looked deep into my eyes. At least, if felt like she did as she still bore empty sockets in her face. Her face grew serious. After a few more seconds, she nodded, kissed my forehead, and scurried out of the room.
The first thing that ran through my mind was that this was all an elaborate dream. That was, until I realized that my arms were sore and my wrist hurt from where she held me. I couldn’t feel pain if this was a dream, could I? The next thing I needed to check is if there was any evidence. Sure enough, wet prints lead through the house, across my room, and a thin puddle sat where she had been crouched in the corner. Running to the bathroom, I checked the mirror and sure enough, black and brown smudged lip prints marked my forehead.
I searched the house and could not find the strange woman anywhere. Her prints appeared to lead out the back door and dents in the still soft and damp grass told me she went to the burnt willow tree. From there, it was a mystery.
As hard as I tried, I could not fall back to sleep. I told myself again and again that it was all some strange dream. I wasn’t losing my mind, I was just a little stressed with everything going on. It would be fine. I would be fine. Everything was fine.
I wish I could say I believed any of that.
Since I could not sleep, I figured the only logical thing to do was torment myself even more. I thought about how the woman touched me and it hurt. The words from the article on Gullah folklore ran through my mind over and over again. However, the spirit cannot harm you or interact in any way unless summoned. I hadn’t summoned it in any way. I hadn’t read the prayer allowed or had any ill-will in my heart even if I had.
A little more digging online brought me some more answers a lot quicker this time. Apparently some circles of spiritualists and occultists believe in a thing called cerebral manifestation of will. The short explanation of this is that not all prayers, summons, spells, or incantations have to be read aloud. In fact, some groups argue that it is often better to do it internally so you can focus more on the words and their meanings than projecting them.
Was just reading the Willow Witch Prayer enough to summon her to me?
What ill-will did I possess to reach out to her?
And then my phone rang. It was a little before three in the morning when our old high school acquaintance called me. What else could she possibly have to tell me? If Helen want’s to apologize she was going to have to wait until I was ready to hear her voice again, then we could work on it. But, don’t have your friends start calling me. I declined the call. Almost immediately, she called again.
“Hello,” I answered in a growl.
“No it isn’t. What are you talking about?”
“I’m not saying it’s Helen on the phone. Helen is the problem.”
“That became clear when she cheated…”
“Listen, Helen is missing.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We had a couple people hanging out in our dorm. I ran to the bathroom and they went to grab something from their room. When we all got back, Helen was nowhere to be found.”
“I’m assuming she went for a walk. Or maybe over to her new guy’s place.”
“We already tried there! There is no trace of her.”
“Well, what the Hell are you calling me for?”
“Maybe you know something.”
“Are you accusing me of something here?”
“That isn’t what I said!”
“Then make it a little clearer.”
“Just, was she a good swimmer?”
“Was Helen a good swimmer?”
“Pretty good.” What an odd question. “Why do you ask?”
“There is just water all over the place and we were wondering if she maybe went out to jump in the pond, came back to change, then went back out… I don’t know. I’m a little frantic right now!”
There is just so much water.
Those words rang in my head as I slowly put the phone down and hung up.
There is just so much water.
The cackling howl echoed from outside again. I rushed to the back door in time to see the faint outline of something fade into the burnt willow tree dragging something along with it. I opened the door and felt a light crunch and squish as I stepped out. A small box-like shape woven of Spanish Moss lay on the ground.
As I picked it up, I felt something warm drip from between the strings. Peeling the top layer back I found what looked like two white blobs with oddly familiar stunningly gray spots on them.
Without warning, I suddenly felt at ease.
How to Survive Camping: my mother's memory
If you’re new here, you should really start at the beginning and if you’re totally lost, this might help.
I tried an experiment. I went outside and sat on my front porch and waited for Beau to show up. No cup, no booze. Just me. Waiting. After about an hour, I saw someone emerge from the woods. He wore a hoodie with the hood pulled up and carried a cup before him in both hands.
It’s not the alcohol. It’s me. I’m the one summoning him.
I still went inside and got a couple glasses and some vodka to make Moscow mules with before he reached the porch. It was the polite thing to do.
“What do you think of your name?” I asked as he sat down and pulled his glass over to him.
“I don’t have a name,” he answered, so quickly that I felt it was on reflex.
He lifted an eyebrow but refused to confirm anything.
“We’re working on it,” I continued. “Do you at least like it better than ‘Sippy Cup Bae’?”
“I don’t care.”
“I literally do not have an opinion,” he snapped, raising his head to stare me directly in the eyes. “A preference would mean I am ascribing a name to myself, if only for a moment, and that is not an option for me. If it were, we wouldn’t be sitting here together like this.”
He’d be trying to kill me like everything else on the campground. Because there was nothing I could offer him in exchange for my life. Uneasily, I backed off from that line of conversation.
“Sorry,” I muttered. “I just thought… are we friends now?”
“No. I don’t make friends with my food.”
“But you don’t always kill people. It’s not like making friends with a cow. It’s more like… we’re apple trees. You can be fond of plants.”
He didn’t reply, just sipped silently at his drink.
“Is it because I’m an asshole?” I sighed.
Cool. This was off to a great start. At least we were being honest with each other. I told him that I’d taken his suggestion to heart, that I could cull the campground of the more murderous inhabitants. I showed him my list. He glanced it over without comment, which I admit was disappointing. I’d been hoping that since he saved my life a couple times and then I saved his life by giving him a new cup we’d have something more of a partnership here. However, he seemed utterly disinterested in the creatures I’d deemed incompatible with human occupancy. Shit, I don’t think he’d even looked at it long enough to ascertain whether or not he was on there.
“So,” I said tentatively. “I want to kill the harvesters.”
“That’s… not a good idea.”
“Last time you said that it was because you were trying to warn me that the lady with extra eyes was out to kill me. Could you try being less subtle?”
“Fine. It’s not a good idea because the harvesters will - at minimum - dismember you and use your bones as toothpicks. How about you start with something easier? Like an irate squirrel?”
I was offended. I took a deep breath to tell him off, to remind him that I’ve taken on the master of the vanishing house, the man with no shadow, the lady in chains, AND the lady with extra eyes - which almost killed him, I might add. But before I could say anything, he just set a knife on the table between us.
My knife. The one made of bone.
“You shouldn’t lose your weapon so easily,” he said quietly. “Also, you don’t actually know how to wield it.”
“You were watching,” I accused. He nodded softly.
I drank about half of my mule in awkward silence, made even more uncomfortable by the growing realization that Beau had no intention to break said silence. We’d finish our drinks without speaking another word and he’d be just fine with that.
“Can I have my knife back?” I finally sighed, if only to get the conversation going again.
“It’s not mine; why would I keep it?”
“I’m not really certain what I’m doing here. None of my family has tried to hunt down the more dangerous creatures. We only go after the weak ones. This is uncharted territory for me.”
“Then figure it out, camp manager.”
My title was a sneer. I clenched my hand into a fist under the table and while I didn’t act on my anger - I said nothing - I am certain he saw it, for he smiled slightly and lowered his gaze to the drink before him.
I exhaled slowly. Inhaled. Held it. Exhaled. Slowly, that knot of anger in my chest unwound.
It is difficult being confronted with arrogance. It is even more difficult knowing that the arrogance is earned and there is little you can do to even the balance of power between you.
“Could you be a little more forthcoming?” I finally said. “I’m trying to ask for your help here.”
He sighed, lifted his drink, downed it, and then slammed the empty cup onto the table. I winced. It’s good that I was using copper mugs because I think he would have broken a glass one.
“I can’t,” he hissed. “I am acting contrary to my nature already. It hurts. Would you try to hug a sea urchin? Your species weren’t meant to interact. Neither are ours.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, staring down at the table. “You look human so it’s easy to forget, I guess.”
“I’ll do this much,” he said. He stood, pushing my knife towards me as he did. “I’ll teach you how to wield it. Look for me in the morning.”
So this is a thing now. Knife-fighting lessons with Beau. As of writing this I’ve had a couple already. It’s… not easy. He doesn’t really do much teaching, it’s more just me flailing at him until he gets bored or annoyed and slaps the knife out of my hand and leaves. I think I’m supposed to figure it out for myself and then get in practice with him.
At least I’ve got the internet to help.
In the meantime, I’ve been focusing on ending the camping season with a minimum of incidents. We’re getting our fall surge as people come out to enjoy the cooler weather. There’s more day-trippers and fewer overnight campers, which is easier in that some of our monsters only come out at night, but harder in that the day-trippers like to take hikes down through the deep woods. They also don’t like when their quiet stroll through the wood is interrupted by an engine, so my staff are patrolling on foot. Bryan’s dogs are also spending their time in the deep woods. No one minds coming across a big fluffy friendly dog, right?
Meanwhile I get to spend the day getting a spike of adrenaline every time a dog barks. At least Bryan’s dogs have a distinctive voice, once you know what to listen to. It’s a deep, reverberating bark that carries easily across the campground. There’s a specific cadence to it, when something is wrong and they’re not merely barking at a squirrel. Evenly spaced, but a sense of urgency in the short pauses between barks.
I wish I could say I was surprised to hear it, when one of them sounded the alarm, but this is a bad year. The worst year, perhaps. I merely felt resigned. Of course. Of course.
So I hopped on my four-wheeler (back from the shop with only some cosmetic dents left that aren’t worth fixing) and got on my radio to ask my staff to help pinpoint where the dog was located. Edge of the deep woods, they approximated. I dispatched Bryan and another senior staffer in the hopes that they were closer than I was.
Bryan was, at least. He was already surveying the scene when I rolled up. His dog sat nearby, leaning its head against his side, tail thumping against the ground.
“Look,” Bryan said, pointing at two trees.
Both were encircled with ratchet straps. Caught between the bark and the strap were the torn remains of ropes. Hammock ropes. Something had torn the hammock off the tree.
The hammock monster hunts by daylight. It targets people in hammocks. I said all this to Bryan and he nodded thoughtfully. But the hammock monster controls people after they fall asleep. This thing tore the hammock off and dragged it - and potentially its occupant as well - into the woods.
“Maybe it got impatient?” Bryan suggested.
“Or maybe it’s not the hammock monster,” I muttered.
I wasn’t terribly convinced. This was too specific of a target. With the way things were changing this year… it was very possible the hammock monster had also changed its hunting habits. At least this would be an easy rescue, I thought. The hammock monster had avoided confrontation in the past. We just had to find the victim before too much of its mind was taken. I directed Bryan to let his dog take the lead, I would go next, and he could take the rear.
Bryan normally didn’t do a lot of hunting. He controlled the dogs but tended to stand back and do only that, leaving the rest of the work to us. I’ve never pressured him to do more.
The dog led us down into the deep woods. We went off trail and even I could pick the direction the monster had gone from the broken branches and crushed leaves. Usually the only creatures that leave such an obvious trail are the ones that are big enough or powerful enough to not rely on stealth or ambushes to hunt with. I began to grow uneasy, even with the reassuring feel of my shotgun in my hands.
The dog halted. It raised its head and stared intently towards some large trees that blocked our view. The normal noises of the forest surrounded us but when I stopped and listened intently, I could hear a faint slurping noise coming from behind the trees. Like something was drinking.
Something new, perhaps? There are plenty of vampiric creatures recorded but the “burns up in daylight” problem was also pretty firmly established and I couldn’t recall which - if any - didn’t have to hunt at night.
I gestured for Bryan to stay back. His dog stayed by his side because apparently I rank lower in the hierarchy of people to protect, which I get, but at the same time I was also the one going straight into danger… so a little backup would have been appreciated.
I swung wide, giving myself plenty of distance in which to fire if I needed to. Or run away. Running away is always an option that’s on the table. I first saw a pair of thin ankles and bony feet. The flesh dangled from them like drapes. I edged further forwards, bringing more of the monster into view. A bony body, the spine clearly visible beneath slate skin that hung off its underbelly in swaying folds.
The hammock monster. It had altered its hunting methods.
The camper lay in her hammock, the fabric twisted around her, pinning her arms and legs together. Only her head was visible… or at least, what was left of it.
The top of the woman’s head had been neatly carved off. The hammock monster crouched over the exposed skull, noisily sucking up brain matter.
At least I didn’t have to worry about hitting the victim now, I thought with resignation. I raised the shotgun and fired.
The shell punched a ragged hole into its back, angling just downwards of the spine. It pitched sideways, opening its mouth in a silent screech that I heard in my mind alone. It lanced through my brain like a knife and I doubled over, gasping for breath as for a moment, all thought was shattered into pieces at the sound. Like something had shaken my mind, scattering the fragments like a snowglobe, until they settled once more.
I caught a glimpse of something charging towards me. Its stomach sloshed back and forth, taut like it’d swallowed a basketball. Empty eye sockets with branches growing out, crooked and sparse, a handful of green leaves clustered around the eyeballs that stared fixedly at me. The sclera was bloodshot. This stood out in my mind.
Then there was a palm in front of my face and the creases in the skin shone like silver thread.
And the next I knew was I was walking through the woods with my mother. We walked through ashen mud. It came up to our knees. She held my hand. This was an early childhood memory. Only bits and pieces were vivid - I remembered the shape of a stick and the feel as it broke when I stepped on it, and this seemed odd because we were walking through mud. I didn’t remember my mother’s face, nor any other details about her, but rather I remembered her as a strange, abstract concept of my mother.
“Kate,” she said. “You need to know this land is special.”
My attention was focused on the mud. It seemed wrong that it’d be there. I looked to the trees, to see how they were faring in this strange flood, and they loomed out at us as dead, dry things with matted branches. One of them brushed my face, catching at my hair, and I slapped it away. They were closing in on both sides of us now, scratching at my arms and my cheeks and I wondered why my mother seemed unbothered by them.
“I’ll have to tell you when you’re older,” she said thoughtfully. “It’s too much for a child.”
She said something else, about ‘after she was gone’. I turned to her, not understanding what she meant. And I saw that the branches around us were turning into hands, the twigs curling like fingers, and they latched hold of my mother. They pulled at her and pieces floated off, like ripping off chunks of cotton candy. She kept walking, as if nothing was wrong, even as the branches tore away her hair, her arm, her face.
They were taking my mother.
“No!” I screamed. “NO!”
I let go of her hand. I shoved past her, throwing myself at the trees. My fingers clutched around the branches, crushing them beneath my fingers. I tore at them, wildly ripping and snapping them apart, screaming all the while. This was my mother they were taking. My MOTHER.
And I would not let them. They would not take her from me, as she’d been taken all those years ago.
Sunlight filled my eyes. The haze vanished, the branches and the mud retreated like the ocean tide. And I was screaming in rage, my hands closing around a thin neck, and I slammed my forehead forwards.
The snap of branches echoed in my ears. I felt something sharp gouge my brow and then I reeled back, my skull having connected with something unyielding. Dazed, I stumbled backwards, feeling blood flowing down the side of my face. In front of me the hammock monster howled in pain, fingers clutched around its eyes. One of the branches was snapped in two, the eyeball lying on the ground like a split grape. The other dangled from only a few fibers, bobbing wildly back and forth as the creature thrashed.
From off to my left I heard Bryan approaching, calling my name in fear. His dog crashed through the underbrush, barking madly, and at the sound of its cries the hammock monster turned and fled. Its long legs propelled it forwards in bounds and it quickly vanished out of sight, hands outstretched to feel its way through the trees as it went.
Breathless, Bryan appeared from around the trees and took in the scene. The dead camper. My bloodied face and the cut on my brow from where the hammock monster’s eye branch had gouged it.
“Well that solved one dilemma for me,” I gasped. “Hammock monster just made it to the top of my list.”
I still have the memory of my mother, but it has been tarnished. I no longer remember the original scene, what else my mother might have said to me in that moment when it was just the two of us. I remember instead what the hammock monster tried to take from me, of my mother’s body coming apart like a cloud in the wind. I will not forgive it for taking this from me.
This morning I asked Beau, during “training”, what he thought about going after the hammock monster.
“It has become more aggressive lately,” he replied thoughtfully. “I, for one, would be happy to see it go away before it impinges on my own prey.”
I feinted towards his head and then rotated my forearm and wrist to stab at his side. His own knife was already there to block it, having anticipated my redirection. Not fast enough. I wasn’t fast enough yet.
“I have no doubt that you are physically strong enough to kill it. It’s your will that is weak.”
“Bullshit,” I snarled, lunging for him.
He merely stepped around the thrust from my knife, seized my wrist, punched me in the solar plexus, and walked off while I was doubled over on the ground wheezing for air.
I’m a campground manager. I’ve given Beau’s warning some more thought. He said my will was weak and initially I thought that he had to be wrong. That it was just another taunt. Yet… perhaps I am weaker than I believe. It was anger that pulled me out of that place the hammock monster had sent me to, anger that has carried me forwards when I needed to fight. But without that anger, what am I?
With it, I commit atrocities.
Without it, I cannot even pull the trigger on my mortal enemy.
I am the product of both of my parents, but I am their extremes. The gentleness of my father turned into cowardice and the fury of my mother turned into unthinking cruelty.
I’m not seeing a therapist. There’s one in town and while the staff get free or discounted therapy sessions with her as part of the benefits package, I’m not so sure she’s all that effective. And I sure as hell am not finding someone outside of town. I think I’m on my own for figuring myself out and I don’t really have the time to go on a retreat and discover my inner child or whatever the heck it is you do to work through anger issues.
I’ve got a monster to kill.
So… fuck it, we’ll do it live.[x]
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