It all began when our grandfather died.
He had been a solemn man; stoic, dour, he never placed a smile on his face for us, even when we were children. But he had not been mean and he would always bring us candy when he visited. He had dark, piercing eyes, hollowed in a grave, sunken face. We knew he had had a brother but that his brother had mysteriously died when they were both boys. Our mother claimed she didn’t know how he died and told us not to ask our grandfather. My younger brother and I used to tease that he was secretly a monster that devoured his brother and stray children. “He only brings us sweets,” we laughed, “so as to fatten us up and make us taste good!” Mother didn’t like this talk and said that he was simply a lonely man. She had not been close to him.
When he passed, my brother Arthur and I, now young adults, concluded that we wished we had gotten to know him better while he was still alive. We hastily decided to find out more about him or at least pay tribute to him by visiting his old cottage for a weekend, deep within the woods of Pennsylvania. Mother said he had not lived there in a long time but for some reason he would not sell the place nor permit any of his family to make a home of it. The deed was in her name now and she said that it was a great idea for her children to spend quality time together in her father’s old cottage, even if she had rarely visited it herself.
I picked Arthur up from the university when his last class before the weekend had ended. With smooth tan skin, wavy black bangs, a chiseled, sharp face and eyes the color of mahogany, girls were always stealing glances at him, but he never seemed to care. He was a recluse, preferring books to the ladies, unlike me, and of course he ran to the car with an open book in his hands.
“Drop that crap, baby bro!” I teased. “It’s nature time! It’s going to be just you, me, some fishing rods, and the great outdoors. You going to make it without your books, stud?”
His eyes met mine and he grinned. “I am bringing some books. Are you going to make it without your game systems, beefcake?”
“Beefcake? I’d forgotten how weird you can be. And come on, lose the library, worm. We’re supposed to be spending time together. Or are you too grown up for your big brother now?”
“No, I just know you are going to leave me the second you find a hot lady hermit. Might as well bring my books to be prepared.”
“Lady hermit? Hey, I’m not judging your tastes in women, but that scene ain’t for me!” I laughed.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I pretended not to notice.
We drove through forested mountains for what seemed like hours, catching up, retelling our favorite childhood experiences, talking about what we wanted from life and we even partook of a little politics. Eventually, we fell into the subject of grandpa.
“He told me once…about his brother.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “What do you mean, ‘he told you about his brother’?”
“Not everything. He just said that they saw something…in the woods one night. Something… unnatural. It scared them. It scared them really badly. A few days later his brother fell ill. He wouldn’t eat; he wouldn’t sleep. He became gaunt, feverish, delirious. Then he became violent, lashing out at the family. By the time they got a doctor up to the family cottage, it was too late. He had died of a combination of organ failure, internal bleeding, and malnutrition. The doctors said that he probably contracted a parasite in the woods somehow. I don’t know what type it could have been to do that. Personally, I think he had been traumatized from whatever he saw and he just stopped eating.”
“How? How did you get grandpa to tell you?” I asked, shocked.
“I didn’t ask him! He told me on his sickbed in the hospital. I think…I think he knew he was dying…and he wanted someone to know. Alex, there was something strange about it. He seemed frightened when he told me the story.”
“Have you told Mom yet?”
“No. Do you think I should?”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. Sounds fishy. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s just enjoy our trip. ‘K, little bro?”
Arthur paused, as if he were lost in thought.
“’K,’ he said.
The sun was setting as we got closer to the property line, and with it, the woods themselves seemed to change. It was strange: we had grown up living in a patch of woods and I had never feared it, even at night. But there was something sinister about the trees here. Their ashy, twisted bodies and nearly leafless branches that grasped at the road like skeletal fingers had a sinister ambience to them. They felt corrupted. They felt wrong. My palms became clammy and I felt my neck hairs prickle up. But I kept silent. The last thing I wanted to do was spook Arthur and have him complain that he wanted to go back.
The cottage rested upon a steep lone hill, encircled by wet, green grass that was trapped in by the encroaching forest. When I parked the car and looked over, I saw Arthur was sleeping. I screamed. He awoke in a panic which had me rolling with laughter.
“What the HELL is wrong with you, Alex?!”
We grabbed our bags and walked in. It was dark and there was no electricity. I dumped my bags and fidgeted in my pocket for a moment, retrieving a box of matches. I lit one and searched my pack for a battery operated lantern and hung it up.
“I brought a few of these,” I said, “so we can put one in each room or…Arthur?”
He was glancing around the room as if horrified by something that only he could see. When I called his name, he spun around and tried to collect himself.
“Er, yeah. Sounds great.”
“You hungry, worm?” I said, trying to act like he hadn’t just freaked me out.
“No, Alex. No. I think I just want to go to bed.”
“’K. We’ll just get up early tomorrow and catch us some fish for breakfast. Sound good? Arthur? ARTHUR?”
This time he didn’t turn to face me when he answered. He was staring out the nearby window.
“Er, yes. Tomorrow.”
We each grabbed a lantern and our sleeping bags and explored the large cottage. It was plain, made of logs, without furnishing. We climbed the creaking stairs and found what we imagined was a bedroom once, though it was completely empty now. It might have even been grandpa’s room decades ago. We turned off the lights and settled in on the floor. It took me a while to fall asleep and my dreams were laced with dark, twisting images of the woods, the cottage, and of Arthur. I awoke the next morning, drenched in sweat. Arthur was standing next to me, glaring at me.
“Alex, are you alright? You were trembling and you are sweating buckets!”
“I’m fine. Let’s just go and catch some fish, nerd. I’m starving,” I answered.
“Well the shower doesn’t work. Maybe the well is dry. Guess we will be bathing in the lake,” he said.
We grabbed our fishing poles and headed out the door. An early morning mist greeted us and the sky was grey. Between the fog and the low, thick clouds, the sky was impenetrable.
“Where are you going, Alex? Aren’t we taking the car?”
“No bro. We said we were going to do this as naturally as possible. Besides, if I remember correctly, the road to the lake isn’t that long of a walk anyway. Don’t be lazy.”
When we arrived at the lake, we cast our lines and waited. Hours passed without a bite and still the sun didn’t show and the mist didn’t abate. Arthur began to whine like he always did when we were kids.
“Let’s go back, Alex. I don’t feel so well.”
“Hush,” I said. “Look! I think I found boar tracks! I want to hunt it.”
“Leave it alone. Boars are dangerous and you are too stupid to hunt it and what would you even hunt it with? Your lucky Swiss Army knife?”
I stared at the tracks. They looked like they had pools of blood in them.
“Hey, I think there is something wrong with this boar. The tracks are covered in blood.”
“Great,” said Arthur, “even more reason for us not to follow it. Wounded animals are dangerous animals.”
“Relax, worm. I’m not really going to hunt it, I just want to see it, see what’s wrong.”
“Alex, you idiot! That’s absurd. Alex, get back here! I’m not going to follow you! I’m NOT coming!”
But I was not listening to him anymore. I followed the tracks into the forest. After a few minutes, I could no longer here my brother’s incessant nagging. My mind tried to unravel why the boar’s prints had been slick with blood. Had a predator attacked it? Had it got into a fight with another boar? Finally, after roughly half an hour, I heard the beast.
I stopped. Something was very wrong. Its breathing was heavy, labored. I crouched down behind a fallen tree and waited as the giant of a boar slowly lurched its way through the brush and into my view just yards away in a small ditch below and in front of me. He moved erratically, like a drunk person swaying from side to side. Although the boar was very tall and long, it was skeletally thin, with dark bruises all over its back and belly. His huge head swung back and forth revealing broken, amber tusks and a snout caked with dried blood. And its eyes… its eyes made me want to scream. They were sunken into their cavities and glazed with ooze. But they seemed angry, so angry.
That’s when it happened. The big beast collapsed. I knew it was dead when its mean little pig eyes rolled into the back of its head and a last, long, moaning sigh left its body. Yet, it was still moving. Its stomach first, and then its throat, began to heave. Finally, its lower jaw was forced down and the most horrible thing crawled out. I first noticed its legs; like crab legs or spider legs, they were thin, wispy, and broken into segments. They reminded me of long scarlet fingers. Six of them jetted out, collectively stabbing the air like a dagger, before relaxing, curling out into different directions. They pulled themselves out of the boar’s mouth gracefully, until the head appeared. Large, spider-like jaws felt the fresh air, twisting like an ant’s antennae. The spidery head was small and merged easily with the abdomen, having no real separation from the body, and there seemed to be no eyes. Where a tail might have been on a normal creature, there instead were three, long, octopus-like tentacles, complete with oozing suckers. As soon as the monster was free from the animal’s mouth, its tentacles curled up underneath its own body. What they were used for, I need only guess, but the sight was so terrifying that I dared not move. I estimated its total length with tentacles stretched to be about four feet long and although it’s narrow legs were easily three feet long themselves, they only held it’s body just barely off the ground, making it about a foot tall. It…it couldn’t be from this world.
The monster turned towards me as my brother was calling from directly behind me. Eyeless or not, it seemed to stare at me. It knew I was there!
No. I thought. Go away, Arthur. Shut up and go away. Do not come here!
The monster scuttled off into the shrubs behind it. I exhaled for the first time in what must have been an eternity.
“Alex, there you are! I’ve been looking for you for an hour. Let’s go! I want to go back! I’m done with this stupid lake, this stupid forest!”
“Okay,” I croaked faintly, not looking away from the bushes.
“That’s it? Just an okay? Not a stop whining, worm? Jesus, it’s like someone nice snatched your body from you.”
“Let’s… go back to the cabin,” I said, tears welling in my eyes.
I grabbed his arm and spun him around before he had a chance to witness the boar’s corpse. We traveled quickly, gathering our rods without a word, and found ourselves at the cabin as the sun began to set. I went over to the car and thrust the key in only to hear the engine sputter and die. The car was old but it had never had issues before.
“Alex, shouldn’t we get our stuff first?” Arthur joked.
“God damn it! Why won’t it start?” I screamed.
“Alex, it’s fine. We will try again in the morning or else get help. We can’t walk to the nearest town without sunlight.”
“I’m not staying here another God damn night!” I shrieked.
“Alex, what happened to you out there?”
I said nothing. What could I say? With a sigh, I got out of the car and walked into the cabin. Once Arthur followed, I locked the door.
“Why did you do that?” he asked nervously.
“Just help me check the windows. Make sure they are shut, all of them.”
When we finished, I threw myself onto my sleeping bag and turned away from my brother. He stood at the door for quite some time, obviously staring at me, before I finally heard him shuffle over to his own sleeping bag.
“Alex? Alex, I want to tell you something. It’s about me. But you have to promise to not tell mom. Not yet. Please? Alex?”
I pretended to be asleep. I didn’t want to hear this. Not know. Not when the image of that monster was still fresh in my head. I would let him tell me tomorrow when I was rested and my fears had abated and I could be supportive. I don’t know how I found sleep that night, but eventually I was able to shove the thought of that parasite in the woods with its spindly legs, spidery fangs, and dripping tentacles from my mind. But I didn’t stay asleep for long…
I awoke in darkness to the sound of scuttling which ended almost as quickly as it began. No. I imagined it. There’s nothing there. But the noise returned. It’s just a field mouse or a roach. God only knows how long this place has been abandoned. Anything could be living here… anything. I fed myself these explanations, desperately holding on to any rational answer, anything that would keep me from confronting my darkest fears which grasped at the outer reaches of my sanity. But the scuttling grew louder, closer. I could feel goosebumps growing up my spine.
I got up and grabbed my lantern. Arthur was still asleep beside me, breathing slowly. I threw light across the room, into the corners, forcing the shadows to retreat like monsters shying from a holy ward. There was nothing in the room. I waited like that for ages until I realized the noise had been gone for quite some time. It must have been just a mouse or bug. It had to be. I fell back on top of my blankets and immediately my overwhelmed mind turned off.
I awoke in darkness. There was a horrible creaking sound, like bones snapping! And then I heard labored, raspy breathing.
“Arthur?” I whispered.
The breathing grew louder, deeper. I grabbed the lantern and flicked on the light.
What I saw was the fabric of nightmares. Arthur was crouched in the corner in a puddle of blood, his arms shielding his face from the light. But they were bruised, purple and black. A rib was clearly out of place, jutting out, almost ripping through the skin. When I called out to him again, his arms slowly fell away from his face. His face! It was no longer the handsome visage it had always been, no longer the familiar, smiling, loving face of my brother. His lips had burst open as if something had repeatedly slashed at them. His eyes had sunken in and become bloodshot, glazed with a strange goo. They seemed… violent. And when he looked at me I could not see Arthur in them.
“No!” I moaned.
He launched at me. His hands forced themselves around my throat and he begun to choke the life from me. I tried to wrench free but he was too strong. Where did his strength come from? I punched him, kicked him, slashed at his face, but his grip only tightened. I was crying and trying desperately to suck in any air I could. My arms fumbled on the floor, searching for something, anything to hit him with, anything that would… my fingers closed around my pocket knife. I flung it open and slashed at him. His cuts bled down onto my face, stinging my eyes. I stabbed, puncturing his stomach. His grip loosened. I wrenched myself away, gasping. When I looked over, I saw Arthur on the floor, inanimate.
“Arthur!” I cried.
Scarlet legs burst from the wound and out crawled the monster from hell.
“I’ll kill you!” I screamed, but it fled the room and into the hall.
I ran over to Arthur. He wasn’t breathing. I sobbed.
“Arthur, I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.”
I heard the wretched scuttling again and fury overcame my fear. I threw open one of my bags and found a bottle of whiskey. With all my might I threw it at the wall closest to the hall where it shattered. I lit a match.
That was the last thing I remembered from that night. Now, as I face charges of arson and the murder of my brother, my mother begs me to tell the police anything about what happened.
I lean over to whisper in her ear, “I know what happened to grandpa’s brother.”
She stares at me, confused and horrified.
“It came from the woods,” I whispered.
It came from the woods.