S arah Coleman caught the sharp whiff of a rotten egg smell, and rubbed her nose. The stink crept stealthily underneath the sweet odor of wet pines, moss and dead logs, and it tried to make you think you imagined it. Yep, the swamp was sneaky. It liked to trick idiots. Of course, she never went near it. Not ever. And she wasn’t about to do it today, either. Stupid, stupid Tomas. He knew nothing.
Once the sun dried the forest, it would be easier. Her dad told her, “Rain in the early morning is a blessing in summer.” But Sarah hated the moisture. It made everything damp and sticky in the heat, and right now she’d rather be at Woodson’s creek where clear water flowed into a natural swimming hole. At the old man’s farm, she could jump into the sparkling pond without fear. She could swim all day.
There wasn’t anything like that at her home. A quarter of her parent’s land was covered with swamp. Curious algae bubbled on the surface, hissed with stinky nature-farts and congealed into a scummy mass of putrid dull green. Her dad had taken her there exactly one time and told her the swamp was always hungry and would eat her alive. Sarah shuddered at the memory.
Unfortunately, dummy Tomas was visiting from the city. She tried to coax her cousin out of exploring the tangled paths of sixty-two acres she lived on. Missing a swimming day at Woodson’s, particularly in the heat of summer, was unheard of. Tate, Jessy and Barf-man Ralph would all be there. She was sure of it. But stupid Tomas didn’t even seem to care. He took off to the forest faster than a horsefly found shit, which was pretty fast.
“We can’t go that way.” Sarah tugged at her cousin’s arm. He was walking in the wrong direction.
He’s acting like he knows everything, but he don’t know nothing.
Her cousin lived in the capitol, where the President lived. She’d assumed he’d be smart. But he didn’t know about digging sassafras, or where to find ripe musket-balls, or anything else important. How could a boy, who came from a city with big schools and computers, know so little?
God, he’s so ignorant.
“Why? What’s over there?” Tomas stared at her with curiosity, wrinkled his brow and tapped his foot. She could tell he didn’t like being told what to do by someone younger, not to mention a girl. Sarah gathered his stubbornness was due to his red hair. Her mother said that was why Uncle Rob was so… what was the word she’d used? Obstinate. From the way her mother uttered the words, she guessed it meant hardheaded . . . that he liked to get his own way.
Sarah tugged his shirt, gathering the fabric in her dirty fingers. “C’mon Tomas. It’s getting dark. We need to leave. Don’t be so obstinate.”
Tomas guffawed so hard she could have sworn the leaves on the trees shook.
“Where’d you learn a word like that? Bet you don’t even know what it means.” Sarah envied his white teeth and flawless smile. Her front tooth was broken, and her Mom promised to get it fixed before she went back to school, but she’d probably never have straight Hollywood teeth like Tomas.
“Do not. Country hicks don’t know anything.”
Sarah’s cheeks burned like the red embers and she pushed her golden-brown hair from her face. How can I get him to turn around and go home? Then she got an idea.
“Do too! And I know lots other things. Bet I can beat you home.” That piqued his interest.
“Back door. First one to touch wins.” The route was a mile, easy. It included snaking paths through the forest, down one hill and up another. She’d make sure not to get too far ahead, or better yet stay behind him and let him think he was winning. At least, until the end.
“What do I win?”
“You get there first, you can have my dessert.”
Tomas scratched his head, and wiped sweat from his freckled face.
“What’d your mom make?
“Brownies. Double chocolate.” She suspected she had him at that. It was his favorite.
“Done!” He grinned and before she was ready, he was off running. Sarah was pleased. Boys were dumber than peanut butter.
Easier than picking blackberries and making cobbler. He’d never guess she ran these trails most every morning. She knew every fallen log, every dip and stumbling point.
A few minutes went by before he bothered to look over his shoulder. She was a few paces behind and tried to make it look like she was struggling to breathe. Tomas laughed before he ducked behind a cluster of old oaks, and then she heard him yell. “Owww. Shit. Oh shit!”
Sarah sprinted around the trees and saw Tomas squatting on the path holding his leg.
He pointed to his foot. “Twisted it I think. Shit, it’s swelling up!”
“Don’t swear,” Sarah admonished him. He was twelve, but he was acting like a little baby. He’d better not have sprained it. Her uncle was staying at their house for two weeks, and she couldn’t imagine being stuck with Tomas that long. Her mom would insist she play with him all the time.
“Well, we’re almost there. Let me help you up.” Sarah started to untangle his foot from between a split of tree roots.
“I got it. Let go.” Tomas jerked his foot away from her. He pushed himself up to his feet, pulled a cell phone from his pocket and stared at its face in dismay. “Damn! You don’t get cell phone service here?”
“We don’t need to call anyone. We’ll make it back. No worries.” She might only be ten, almost eleven since her birthday was in August, but she knew a sprained ankle when she saw one. He’d probably have a little bruise, but he was fine. Sarah looked at the bright light of his Star Trek device, and wished she had a cell phone. Her mom told her maybe when she turned sixteen. Her dad said she wouldn’t get one until she could pay for it on her own. Either way, both goals seemed too high to reach.
People will be using telepathy before I get a cell.
Tomas put some weight on his foot and winced. Sarah smiled at his pain and didn’t let up.
“Double chocolate brownies. Mmm. I can taste yours now!” A fire lit up in his eyes when she goaded him, and before she knew it, he was off running again. His gallop was slower and he suffered a limp, but managed fine. They threaded their way through the rest of the forest, and raced across a meadow where her dilapidated white house stood in the center. Sarah made sure to let Tomas touch the screen door first. She didn’t really like brownies much anyway.
It was an hour before they sat down to supper. Sarah’s Mom insisted they get checked for ticks. Uncle Rob chuckled as he entered the bathroom with Tomas. “Those things get everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Your auntie and I played in those woods when we were young. Believe me I know.”
Tomas had several ticks, including one on his back. Her uncle said it was burrowing into his skin and smeared a thick glob of Vaseline over it. After a few moments, the icky thing came right out.
“They breathe with their bodies. Vaseline suffocates them,” Tomas told her later with a superior tone. He said it like she was stupid. She endured his know-it-all statement just like she’d learned to endure everything else in her world.
Sarah’s mom found only one tick, clinging to her hair. A tiny little thing, but the small ones were the worst. “Make sure you shower good, young lady. We’ll check you again tomorrow. With all the time you spend running around those woods it’s a wonder you haven’t got Lyme disease.”
Dinner was a feast. Not their usual fare. Her mother pulled out all Grandma’s old recipes and she’d cooked the summer traditional foods. Spoon bread, cooked greens, fried chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes with gravy, fresh corn on the cob and homemade biscuits. The smells were so concentrated in their tiny kitchen that Sarah got a headache. She helped bring the food out to the dining table. The air from the stand-up electric fan felt heavenly. It was going to be one of those nights when her skin stuck to the sheets, she could tell.
Sarah wondered which one of the chickens died this time. It was her job to gather eggs in the early morning, and she’d named all the critters. She hoped it was Ursula, and not Henrietta. Ursula deserved execution, the way she pecked at Sarah’s hands, drawing blood when she attacked her in the chicken house. Henrietta was kind and gentle, and never pecked. But she was older than Ursula and hadn’t produced many eggs this year. There was only one rooster, and he was still young. Sarah peered inside the trashcan before sitting down in her chair. Golden feathers, not black. She tried not to cry.
Her dad pulled up a chair, and they held hands while he said grace. “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts . . . ”
Dear Lord, please take care of sweet Henrietta.
They were halfway done eating, when amidst grownup conversation, Tomas interrupted. “What’s over that way?” He pointed in the direction Sarah had steered him away from earlier. Her mother and father gave the boy an anxious look, and Uncle Rob dropped his gaze for just a second before he lifted it and stared at his son.
“Boy, haven’t I told you not to interrupt when we’re talking?” Tomas’s eyes widened, as if he was surprised his dad would say something like that to him.
Undaunted, Tomas pressed further. “Sarah seems afraid of going that way. What’s over there? Aliens?” He raised his hands at the same time, putting his index fingers on his head. Sarah wished he would quit it. She nudged her foot against his. He was going to get them into a wallop of trouble.
Instead of answering his question, Tomas’s father grabbed a napkin and wiped his mouth. “Have I told you guys what we have planned tomorrow?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Tomorrow we’re going to show you where sausage comes from. The neighbors are comin’ over and we’re gonna butcher a hog!”
Sarah tried hard not to make a face. Her dad hated whenever she did that. But Tomas’s nose scrunched up and the corners of his mouth turned down making ugly creases in his cheeks. “What’s great about that? You’re gonna kill a pig?”
Her uncle glared at Tomas, and his voice reminded Sarah of bestial growls from the two-hundred-pound pit bulls that lived down the road. “It’s high time you learned where your food comes from, Tomas. You’ll get up in the morning and help Sarah with chores.”
“And what time is that?”
Sarah practically giggled, but stopped herself. Tomas had a look of mortal dread cross his face.
“But, Dad! It’s summer. I want to sleep in.” Her uncle rolled his eyes, and glanced at her mother in what seemed like an apology. Sarah liked how her uncle’s city accent was fading. She felt more comfortable around him when he talked normal.
Her mother pushed back her chair and padded softly to the kitchen while Tomas’s dad started in on him. “You listen now, boy. You’re here to visit family, and while you’re here you’ll do what the family does. Like it and learn.” Enter her mom with a plate of dessert, saving the day. Or so Sarah thought.
“Double chocolate brownies! Who wants one?”
Tomas perked up, reached over and grabbed two large chunks. Uncle Rob frowned. “Tomas! Where’s your manners, son?”
“Sarah said I could have hers.” Tomas’s voice was defensive as he jerked his head toward her, and Sarah nodded emphatically.
Her mother, father and uncle looked around at each other. A piece of plaster fell from the ceiling. Sarah ignored it and glanced over to where the wallpaper curled away from the paint-chipped window. A large wasp lazily bumped against the screen, its wings buzzing with the lethargy of mid-July heat. “It’s okay,” she added. “I don’t like brownies much anyhow.” The grown ups shrugged and let Tomas have his prize. He gulped down one brownie eagerly, and then inhaled the second. Sarah could tell he was still hungry afterward. He ate like a young bull.
Moments later, her mother announced it was time for bed. “You’ll have a busy day tomorrow.”
Tomas leaned over and whispered into her ear. “You got an Xbox?” Sarah shook her head. “PS3? Something?” Sarah shook her head again.
“It’s time for bed. Best just go to sleep.” Tomas looked dejected and gave her a baleful stare before he headed for the guest room.
Sarah was glad to finally be alone. She rested on top of her sheets, her skin glistening from sweat. It was always hotter upstairs at night, and she’d given Tomas her window fan. Luckily her bed was next to the window. She watched the stars in the sky twinkle above her after she placed her pillow in the window, and rested her head on it. “Wonder which hog?” she murmured. “God bless all the hogs.” Then she fell asleep.
If she’d still been in her bed, Tomas’s whining and his father’s yelling would have surely woke her. But as usual Sarah awakened at five-thirty sharp, was dressed and downstairs, already sipping hot coffee. She’d made it milky sweet. Her dad teased her saying she liked a drop of coffee with her milk and sugar. He liked his coffee black. She’d tried it that way once, and shuddered at the memory. So bitter! Still, maybe one day, she’d like it that way.
“I said get up! Get dressed. We’ve got work to do.” Her Uncle Rob thumped down the steps and joined them in the kitchen. Minutes later Tomas came in, the tips of his red hair running askew. He pulled a beanie over his head to mash down the mess. When he sat down at the table, Sarah’s father walked by and plucked the cap from his skull. “We don’t wear hats in the house.” Her dad put the beanie on a table by the door. “Great,” Tomas muttered.
Unfortunately, Uncle Rob heard his grumbling. “You got a problem with that?”
“No.” Tomas stared sullenly at the table, but he perked up when Sarah’s mother set a large plate before him. Scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits slathered with jam.
His father took the plate away. “No, what?”
Tomas sighed. It was obvious he wasn’t used to this kind of life. “No, sir.” And suddenly the plate was before him, ready to eat. The boy wolfed his food down like a goose swallowing soft bread. Sarah wondered where her cousin managed to put it all. He finished another plate and ate her leftovers.
Soon they were outside. Tomas wore his beanie, and the summer sun was coming up over the trees.
Her father had already tied the pig. Ropes were wrapped around his back feet, to haul him up quickly after they shot him. Sarah recognized the hog. The only one with Dalmatian spots.
Albert. Dear Albert. God bless Albert.
“You want to shoot him, or shall I?” Her dad offered the rifle to Uncle Rob.
Her uncle shook his head. “You best do it. I’ve never done this part before.”
“No better time to learn than the present!” Her dad helped Uncle Rob hold the rifle steady. Together they put it to Albert’s head, and her uncle pulled the trigger.
The pig went down, then wiggled and struggled to get up again. “One more time ought to do it.” Her dad held her uncle’s hands as they trembled, then respectfully took the rifle, lined it up and fired the gun once more.
“Quick, string him up! He won’t be unconscious long.”
“Isn’t he dead?” Tomas looked like he would puke. His eyes were wide like a zit getting ready to pop. Sarah felt a pang of pity for him.
“Pig’s skull is thick. You gotta bleed them anyway, so the meat won’t taint.” She wanted to pat him, tell him it would be okay. Tell him to say a prayer for good ol’ Albert. God listens to prayers. Her mom said so. But God didn’t always do things the way you wanted. Praying had to do some kind of good, or else why would people do it?
It took four grown men to hoist Albert up with his rear legs high in the air. His head hung down and Sarah’s mother pushed a big plastic tub underneath him. Her father unsheathed a long sharp knife and quickly cut Albert’s throat along each side, from shoulder to chin. His neck gushed waves of crimson and his body convulsed. Each dark red spurt pulsed like heavy hard squirts from the garden hose. Sarah noticed Tomas was the quietest he’d ever been.
“Come here, son.” Uncle Rob grabbed her cousin by the shoulder, pulled him forward and put the knife in his hand. He showed Tomas how to cut from bottom to top. Her mother removed the bucket of blood and replaced it with another large plastic tub. Albert’s intestines spilled out and hung down in the open air. Tomas backed away, but his father pushed him forward again and helped him remove the liver, stomach and lungs. Her father finished up by removing the pig’s butt-hole. “Keeps it sanitary,” he emphasized as he rinsed his knife.
Her mother’s friends turned on the garden hose and placed Albert’s innards on a long foldout table. They rinsed off the organs and squirted water at each other under the hot summer sun while swatting away the flies drawn to the stink of the blood.
Sarah’s mother set up one of two meat grinders. The women cleaned the inside of Albert’s intestines over and over again, then stuffed them with a mix of ground up pig meat, liver, heart and lungs, along with several fresh-picked herbs and spices. Her father said he wanted grilled ribs for dinner, and the adults hooted and hollered in celebration and worked hard to finish the job.
Tomas returned to her side when he was finished cutting, his shirt and arms caked with the Albert’s dried body fluids. Sarah snuck a look at his face. It was pinched and shrunken like a grape left too long in the sun.
“Let’s get you washed off and into some clean clothes,” she suggested. It was the first time she’d ever seen a genuine smile from him. It was a little one, but in it she was sure she saw a flicker of gratitude.
Long minutes ticked by before Tomas came out of the bathroom, and Sarah was bursting to pee. She’d contemplated using a bush outside. She could hide, squat and relieve herself, but the last time she’d done that her mother beat her backside.
“We don’t behave like animals!” Each syllable her mother yelled was emphasized with a strategic strike from the new hairbrush. She feared the hairbrush more than peeing herself, and it perturbed her that Tomas took so long. Her family respected the fact that they had only one bathroom, and each person did their business quickly so no one had to wait.
When she got back into the kitchen, Tomas was leaning against a wall staring out the window at the meat-grinding party. He looked over at her. “I’ve never done anything like that before. How do you stand it?”
Sarah shrugged. “It’s just the way things are.” It was the standard answer she’d learned to give because trying to explain things, or to ask adults questions, only led to trouble.
“Like the place you don’t ever go? That’s the way things are?” Sarah nodded.
Tomas changed his voice to a wheedling tone. “It’s daytime. They’ve already killed the pig. Let’s go for a walk.” He was obviously desperate to get away, and she imagined how it must be for him to participate in something so alien, so violent.
City kids always got their food from the grocery store, her dad said. Despite how annoying Tomas could be, something inside her felt sorry for the boy. Together, they slipped out the back door, and Tomas pushed forward across the field toward the forest trails. Sarah followed. Soon she realized exactly where he was headed.
“We can’t go there, Tomas. Seriously.” Sarah tugged at his t-shirt. It was already damp with perspiration.
“Why not?” Tomas sounded exasperated. “We can’t do this, we can’t do that. All you do here is kill things and eat them. You work all the time. Don’t you get to cut loose? Don’t you ever get to play? Let’s go exploring. Or haven’t you ever wanted to see what’s over there?”
Sarah shook her head. “People disappear.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“They go into the swamp. They never come back.”
“Swamp, eh?” Sarah wished she hadn’t said anything. “A swamp sounds cool.”
“Not really,” she said. “Stinky. Full of mosquitoes. Slimy. Smells like farts.” She hoped she was convincing. They had no business there, and if they didn’t die from whatever inhabited the place, then her parents would surely kill her later. Tomas didn’t listen. He struck out for the dense trees, and down the hill where the ground was moist. Gnats flew lazily around their heads in black-speckled clouds. The insects didn’t seem to bother him. The scent of honeysuckle filled the air.
“Mom will likely have fresh blackberry cobbler for dessert. Let’s go back now.” She looked up at the sky. It was later than Sarah realized. They’d missed lunch during the sausage making process, and the sun was starting to sink on the other end of the forest.
“Not until I see this ‘forbidden’ place.”
Sarah’s lips tightened. Obstinate. Stupid!
Up ahead, they heard voices. “I thought you said no one ever comes here!” Tomas walked faster.
“No Tomas, don’t.”
“No Tomas, don’t,” he mocked. “Little Sarah, what are you? Six?”
No! You can’t! It’s the Moody boys. They’ll have us for sure if they catch us!”
“Yeah right. It’s just a couple of guys. What can they do?”
“You don’t underst . . . ”
“Hey guys!” Tomas raised his voice toward a couple of teens that came into view. They’d just finished crossing a meadow in front of them. “Wait up!”
The Moody boys both turned to regard them. There was no sign of friendship in their eyes. There never had been as far as she knew.
The boys ran toward them. Sarah backed away, wishing she could hide . . . hide anywhere . . . be anyplace but in this spot. Both of them stopped in front of Tomas.
“Well what do we have here? And look back there, it’s Sarah!” One of the brothers with angry pimples all over his face sniggered. “Sarah with a boy. In the woods. I’m gonna tell your ma.”
“He’s my cousin,” she yelled back. “Come all the way from D.C. You stay away from him!”
“Oh yeah?” The younger and fatter of the boys stooped and pulled out a knife from his boot. They were well worn. Scuffed. Leathery, like old Army boots, but with no shine. It was the knife that caught Sarah’s attention most. The blade was long and silvery. A good four inches, with a thick plastic handle. It was just the kind of knife her father had used to gut the pig.
“Bet he don’t know how to throw a knife.” The teen gazed hotly at Tomas. “Do you city kid? You don’t know nuthin’ bout nuthin’.”
Tomas tried to be friendly, and Sarah wanted to tell him to quit it. But it was too late now. “Hey guys, I’m just trying to . . . ,
“Shut up,” said the older Moody boy. His nickname was Beak, on account he had a really big nose. He strode up to Tomas’s face and then pushed him to the ground. “This is our place. We’re the bosses here. And we won’t take nuthin’ from no city kid.”
“Technically, it’s my dad’s land.” Sarah regretted the words the moment she said them. The Moody boys didn’t care whose land it was. They only cared that any kid who entered past the tree line, knew they were in charge.
Beak jerked Tomas back up to his feet by his t-shirt. Sarah heard the threads in it tear. “Let’s take ‘em to the swamp. Tie ‘em up for a while. What do you think Flaps?” His brother, in addition to his pimply face, had really thick lips.
“Hey, that’s a great idea.” Both brothers knew how terrified Sarah was of the swamp. It wasn’t called Dismal for nothing
“Please don’t do this,” she said. But Tomas cut in. “That’s okay by me. I wanted to see the place anyway.” The brothers looked at each other and grinned. “Well then,” Flaps motioned with his knife, “…let’s start walking.” Sarah wanted to run. To make for the trees back from where they’d come. She knew the terrain well enough that she’d most certainly lose them. More than anything, she wanted to get away, but she couldn’t leave Tomas by himself. She’d never find him again.
I’m gonna die today. Sarah pictured her parents waiting up for her. Mom and dad will never know where we went. Uncle Rob will never find us.
Beak pulled Sarah in front of him. “Go,” he said. Flaps just chuckled as they entered the woods on the other side of the meadow. Darkness closed in on them. An owl hooted in the distance. It’s an omen. Her mother always said hooting owls at dusk were extremely bad luck. And the sun sank further into the trees.
The ground grew softer. Sarah saw spots where green waters covered the tree roots. Rotten bark, stagnant water and death scented the air. There were almost imperceptible paths that threaded through the damp earth, but their feet still sank slightly into the ground making a sucking sound with every step. To the right of her, a round golden glow illuminated the forest for a just a second.
But did lightning bugs come here? Usually they preferred the open meadows and places with flowers.
The group trudged on and Sarah dragged her feet. She had the horrible feeling they were being watched. “Stop lollygagging.” Flaps flashed his knife. “Keep moving.” Sarah stared at the trees with their huge swollen roots.
Some kind of cypress. A kind I’ve never seen before. They stopped just in front of a large expanse of water. A greenish algae covered the murky surface.
“What-da-ya-say, Beak? Tie them here for the night?” Flaps gave Sarah an evil grin.
Beak let out a whoop. “Yeah! Yeah, that’d be good. If ya’ll survive till mornin’ we’ll let you go.”
“You can’t do this!” Sarah worked hard to keep her lips from quivering. It would only give them satisfaction. Thomas gazed at the swamp in wonder. He obviously didn’t believe their captors would leave them. Sarah guessed he thought it was all a prank. But the Moody boys didn’t play pranks. Not ever.
Beak pulled out some fishing line from his back pocket. “Reckon this will do.” He pushed Tomas up against a smaller tree by the water. “Maybe the mosquitoes won’t suck you dry, or maybe swamp critters won’t chew on you. We’ll see, right?”
Tomas looked at him wide-eyed. “You’re not serious. My dad . . . ”
“My dad, my dad . . . ” Flaps mocked. He wrapped Sarah’s wrists in the fishing line and tied her, with the makeshift binding, to the tree. They had a lot of fishing line and used several layers of it to tie them both. “Even if you get loose, by the time you do, it’ll be dark. You don’t want to be wandering around these parts when it’s dark.” Both the boys laughed, whooped and hollered for a minute, and then Beak flicked on a flashlight and they disappeared into the trees. Tomas and Sarah listened to the boys laughing until their voices faded, and the only sounds left were the rumbles of bullfrogs and the whisper of gentle breezes sifting through the trees.
“They’re coming back, right? They’re not going to leave us here?” Tomas’s voice had an incredulous ring to it.
Stupid, stupid boy. We wouldn’t be here if you’d listened to me in the first place.
“No. They’re not coming back. Knowing them, never.” A scuttling noise passed near them.
“What’s that? Jesus!” Tomas was already in a frenzy. How was she going to make it through the night with a terrified twelve-year-old?
Sarah raised her eyes to the sky. God bless Tomas, and God bless me. “It’s just a raccoon. See over there?” She jerked her head to the side. The full moon had risen over the water, and its reflective light was bright enough for them to barely see. The raccoon waddled along the waters edge, stopped to wash its paws, then ambled away again.
She heard Tomas’s breathing relax until they heard something else. The sound was strange. Like something large being dragged. Sarah looked toward the trees. Maybe the Moody boys were coming back. And if they did, then she dreaded what they might do to them next. Through the gaps in the trees, she couldn’t make out a thing at first, and then she saw a tall dark form moving between the cypress trunks. Two horizontal lumps trailed behind it.
As it got closer, Sarah made out the shapes of Beak and Flaps. The thing dragging them was huge, shadowy and shapeless. It lumbered through the watery parts of the ground as the Moody boys struggled, splashed and thrashed. She looked over at Tomas. His mouth was open with surprise and quite probably fear.
The huge formless lump passed by them, the Moody boys in tow, and it stopped at the shore of the algae infested water. Fear knotted in Sarah’s stomach as the formless being shifted toward them and seemed to regard them intently. Sarah looked at the two bodies on the ground. She could see Beak and Flaps’ open mouths. They were stuffed with a dark green substance that kept rolling out of their lips and into their nostrils. Flaps coughed and choked.
Green algae. They’re gagging on algae.
“What’s that thing doing to them?” Tomas’s voice wavered.
“Shush.” Sarah couldn’t help the flash of anger that rose in her chest. She swore the city boy was determined to get them killed. “Be quiet.”
The massive form pushed its bulk over Beak and Flaps as they struggled. It enveloped them in a giant liquid mound, then waded into the green water and disappeared with their bodies. Only once did a hand break through to the surface, fingers stretched out to the sky in one pale silent scream and then the flesh slowly sank back into the brackish water. Bubbles rose to the surface, making little popping sounds, but soon the popping stopped. Long minutes passed until the surface of the water rippled and slowly the huge thing took form and moved toward them, to the bank of the swampy pond.
“Sarah!” Tomas cried out. “We’ve got to get loose.”
Sarah remained still. “Shush, Tomas. Shut up.”
“But it drowned Beaks and Flaps! What if it’s hungry? What if it kills for fun?” Tomas struggled against the fishing line and Sarah knew all he’d achieve was to have the binding bite further into his skin.
The thing slithered toward them. She could see the surface of it now, a dark mossy green that constantly roiled in various swirls and lumps like thousands of maggots feasting on desiccated flesh. Tomas struggled again.
“Stop it, Tomas. Quit moving! You’ll kill us both.” Sarah tried not to betray the terror she felt too.
The thing stopped in front of her, then stretched out a thin tendril toward her face. It felt slimy. Cold. And it stunk of sulfur, putrid mud and fleshy decay. Sarah closed her eyes. The tendril curled against her cheek, then covered her eyes, her nose, her mouth. It swallowed her head and then her body. Sarah held her breath as the wet mass pressed around her, pushed against her, then moved away from her nose, away from her mouth and thankfully she could breathe in the precious night air. She tried not to gasp. It wrapped itself around her and she thought for a moment she could feel its life force pulsing against her. Then it seemed to pulse from deep inside her. The formless mound left her and moved toward Tomas.
“Stay calm,” she said. “I think it’s just curious.”
Tomas stopped struggling. She couldn’t tell if it was because he was listening to her or because he couldn’t breathe. After a few long moments, the thing retreated from their bodies, slid toward the surface of the water and with a gurgle, it disappeared. Sarah suddenly realized she could move her hands. She and Tomas were no longer bound to the tree. Tomas dropped to his knees.
Sarah moved away from the tree and as she did, her foot hit something hard that rolled toward the edge of the water. She bent to pick it up.
Her finger fumbled for the switch, and flipped it on. A strong beam of light cut its way through the trees. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Right behind you,” Tomas said. His breath was heavy.
The memory of the hand disappearing in the green of the swampy slime haunted her, despite how she tried to shake the image off. City boys might be ignorant, but country teen boys were stupid. Maybe that’s why there were so few of them around these parts.
A look of respect crossed Tomas’s face. “I take it back. You’re not just a country hick. You really do know a lot.”
With that, they headed back to the farmhouse, hand in hand, headless of poison ivy and unconcerned about ticks. They were breathing air, and leaving the green waters behind them. Both of them swore never to speak of it again.
A green tinge of watery slime remained stuck to Sarah’s body as the youths walked through the forest and neared the house. It rolled against her skin, spread out along the surface and then seeped into the small cracks of her flesh. The warmth of her epidermis, the blood coursing through her arteries, was soothing. The beat of her heart was like the song of the earth.
This girl’s bright energy was resilient and strong, and the green water no longer felt lonely. There was something inside this peaceful human that it had been missing. And for the first time in eons, it felt happy. For the first time in its life, the green water had finally found a place to call home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Querus Abuttu or “Q” enjoys writing horror, bizarre tales and dark science fiction, under her branded genre of “speculative bio-horror.” Her work has been published in the online magazine, “69 Flavors of Paranoia,” the magazine “Pantheon,” and in an anthology titled, “Hazard Yet Forward.” She has worked as a Certified Nurse Midwife and Forensic Nurse for the Indian Health Services and United States Navy for over thirty years. Q lives in Ventura, California with her most understanding husband Jim, two resilient teenagers (Kira and Sean), her dog, Paris and her cat, Nyha. When she’s not writing, she’s surfing the wild Pacific waves or dabbling in a little local ghost hunting which has yet to result in locating real ghosts. Despite her failure at tracking the paranormal, she still hopes to capture the phantoms one day and make their stories her own.