A short story by Shaina Read | Horror | Storyletter Original
There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion.
- Edgar Allen Poe, Ligeia
Andi knew she was in a basement. She couldn’t see, but she could smell mildew and feel the cold cement against her naked feet. The world had gone black since the woman who called herself Agnes pulled thick fabric over her eyes and tied it tightly behind her head. The band of muscle that ran from her eyes to the nape of her neck ached from it. She could still hear. There was the rap of blood rushing to her temples, like clock hands ticking against the bone there. Jason was whimpering, his cries soft and muffled, the sound insulated by what she assumed was wadded cloth, balled and stuffed in his mouth to shut him up. And there was the steady rhythm of metal on wood.
A knife against a chopping block? A hatchet against a log? No. It was metal against bone. The sound of a butcher hacking meat. Expertly piercing and tearing at the joints to separate soft tissue from bone.
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Those were the sounds she could hear. What she couldn’t hear was worse. Kurt was gone. The sound of his heavy breathing, silenced since the night before. He had gotten out of his restraints and tried to set her and Jason free. When he couldn’t untie their hands and feet, he promised to find help and fled the cellar, his footfalls vanishing into the night.
“There’s got to be someone out here,” Kurt had whispered. “I’ll come back for you guys.”
With that he blinked out, a hole left in the soundscape of her new existence. All of her attention was tuned now to the sound of something outside the cellar window being chopped and prepared. Only moments before it had been alive. She hoped it was an animal. A pig or a goat. If it was she hadn’t heard it, not a bleat or an oink since Agnes had brought them here two days earlier.
There was something to these woods that made Andi squirm inside. As soon as they stepped out of the car she felt it, the wrongness of the place. Kurt and Jason did a bag check, made sure they had enough food, water for the hike, and a filtered pump for the stream. It was the last trip of the summer, the longest by far. Five miles on foot and a week in the woods, a last hurrah before college.
Everyone was leaving town except for her. Well, her and the dopehead who tried to sell Fentanyl at school and got expelled. It turned out not to be drugs after all, just Motrin pills he had carefully shaved until they were white. She didn’t have the grades or the money for a university. Community college was an option, but she knew where that had gotten her parents. They worked near minimum wage jobs in a logging town on its way to nowhere fast.
The whole scenario was depressing. But the entire magical summer had been anything but. She spent it in the woods with her two best friends. They had saved for equipment, borrowed what they didn’t have, poured over location reviews, and downloaded trail maps on their phones. They even trained, doing long evening hikes after school.
And here they were at the grand finale.
“The last time we’ll be together like this,” she said, smiling past the boys and towards the woods.
She was trying to play it off, but they caught the little something in her voice.
“Come on, we’ll be back. We’ll still see each other.”
Kurt ruffled her hair a little when he said it.
She nodded and started forward, passing off the nervous pang in her stomach for the rock of emotion that settled there when she broached the topic they had all been avoiding. The end of their time together. Everyone went through it. That’s what her mother told her. You moved on after high school, found new people, started jobs and families. You became someone else entirely.
Her peers were doing just that. Getting out of dodge to avoid the fallout of a failing town with a slowly aging population. Half of the people had left for bigger and better things over the last ten years. The rest were either working at the prison twenty or so miles up the highway, or taking care of the old and the dying at Red Oaks Nursing Home. Both of Andi’s parents fit that description.
But she was dug in, stuck somehow in a way she couldn’t explain, frozen in that little town. Kurt shuffled past her and ran ahead.
“I looked at the map before we got here. I’m going to lead the way if that’s okay.”
She had been wandering absentmindedly. A professional scatterbrain, as her dad called her. A daydreamer at heart. And Kurt was her watchdog. Attentive, caring, and always aiming to save the day. That was what bugged her most about him. She didn’t want to be saved, but he was always stepping in and trying to do it anyway.
“Be my guest,” she said, hand splayed out towards the trail.
He was already trudging ahead, eyeing pine trees and taking mental notes, accounting for where he was.
“He did look at the map.”
Andi jumped, surprised to find Jason so close behind her.
“I’m sure he did.”
They looked at each other and laughed.
“Hey Kurt! Wait up!” Jason called out.
Kurt didn’t slow down. They hooked their fingers into their backpack straps and jogged to catch up. They all walked in silence for a few miles. Every once in a while Andi would kneel down to examine something. A bit of moss, a tiny pinecone. When she found a white moth, dead with its wings spread wide, she tucked it carefully into a Ziploc bag and put it in her backpack.
It wasn’t until they reached a fork in the trail that they finally spoke. Jason held his phone out and tapped his finger on the hiking trails app. He had downloaded maps for offline use in case Kurt couldn’t remember which way to go.
“I know for a fact that it’s to the left, Jason.”
Jason didn’t look up. He waited patiently, his eyes never leaving the phone.
“I know that. I just want to make sure.”
Andi wandered up the trail, looking for flora and fauna, any little thing she could take with her to draw in the coming days.
Kurt’s foot was shifting back and forth. In motion he was alright, but as soon as he had to stop, he was buzzing. Electric. Jason took it in stride.
“I don’t know. I guess it didn’t download.”
Andi looked up at that.
“What? What do you mean?”
Jason glanced her way.
“I mean, I thought it did, but it’s not loading.”
Andi walked back to them and looked at Kurt’s screen. There was a green overlay indicating forest, and a red line that cut through the middle which was highway. But the yellow lines, the ones that signified trails, were non-existent.
“Did you refresh it?”
He rolled his eyes.
“I know. I just have to ask. Rule out all possibilities.”
“Guys? Did you hear anything I said?” Kurt was standing in the same place, his eyebrows lifted while he waited for them to answer. When no one did, he continued. “This is precisely why I always study the map. You can’t count on technology to do all the heavy lifting for you.”
“Do you really know the way, or should we turn back?”
Kurt looked at Andi in disbelief. He was hurt.
“I one hundred percent know that this is the way, Andi. Come on.”
He turned around and followed the path left. Andi and Jason trailed behind. After a few minutes, the forest distracted Andi again, and her nervousness at traveling deeper into the woods evaporated. She picked flowers, broke twigs in her hands absentmindedly, and listened to Jason and Kirk argue over M. Night Shyamalan movies. She looked up at the towering trees and took in the sound of leaves rattling in the wind.
There’s the beauty. Now where’s the strange?
She smiled as she thought it, Poe’s line echoing in these woods from worlds away.
The gas station they stopped at on the way in should have been all the omen they needed to abandon the trip altogether. In most small towns, people are friendly to visitors. They smile and say hello, find out where you came from and where you’re going. But in this one, something strange was going on. A string of disappearances had haunted the country highway that ran alongside public land for the last three years. The townspeople had turned inward, searching for answers in every strange passerby that ventured in. They knew better than to believe it was all coincidence.
When the three friends walked in to pay for the gas in cash as the cardboard sign on the pump had demanded, there were only three customers and a cashier in the store. They all stopped what they were doing and stared. Not one of them smiled. Instead, they noted the height and weight, the color of clothing, approximate age, and other features. They would watch the news in the coming days, and recognize the missing teen. In humble houses, they would shake their heads and mutter about the monster, human or otherwise, that lived in those woods.
Kurt was right about knowing the way. He always was. Left at the fork and two more miles had taken them to a beautiful rocky outcropping overlooking the Smoky Mountains. The land at the campsite was flat. A small gathering of stones against an ash smudged boulder meant that someone had been there before. The evening was exceptionally still, and they spent it mostly in silence, tired from the day’s hike, and pondering, each in their own way, the ending of the season. They went to bed separately, a one man tent each, and slept well until the cool blue of dawn started to break across the overlook.
Andi lay there, head tucked deep into the sleeping bag, her eyes closed. When she heard the first zip from Kurt’s tent, she got up and pulled on a sweatshirt. It was summer, but the mornings were wet and dew-soaked. When she stepped out, Kurt was already hunched over the fire pit, stacking kindling in the center.
She knew the routine and went to grab ground coffee from a food bag they placed downwind from the campsite. There weren’t many predators out here, but it was always best to keep them away from your tent. The bag wasn’t far, maybe thirty feet down a sloping hill. They had placed it next to a large rock, an easy landmark through the dense deciduous forest. She could see the gray edge of it just down the way, but the food bag was out of sight.
She got closer but still couldn’t see it. Something heavy formed in the pit of her stomach. Maybe she had misremembered. They had carried it here in semi-darkness. It could be further than she thought, or around the other side of the boulder. Then something bright caught her eye. It was orange and instantly recognizable, a bag of Dunkin Donuts coffee scattered next to some silverware in the brown mulch near the rock.
She picked up the pace, cursing softly under her breath at the thought of no coffee for nearly a week. It wasn’t the end of the world, but there were small comforts in the wilderness, and coffee after a night of wary sleep in the woods was one of them. There was something else next to it, a little figure of some kind, white with a sharp tip jutting out of the ground.
Andi couldn’t remember packing anything like that. She leaned down and picked it up. It fit the width of her hand perfectly, the wing tips of a moth spread from palm to fingertip. It was carved and heavy from some type of white stone, the edges rounded beautifully. Just like the one that she had picked up in the woods.
A shiver went up her spine, and she turned in a circle, staring between each tree to make sure she was alone. There was nothing there in the darkness. She picked up the bag of coffee and ran back to the campsite, like a child running up the stairs to escape some invisible monster. When she arrived at the top of the mound, Jason was looking directly at her.
“Yeah. It’s just, something got into the food last night.”
“Really?” Kurt asked from his place at the fire.
He was kneeling next to it, concentrating as he placed a log before blowing expertly on the little flames below. They licked the sides of the kindling, but didn’t catch the bigger pieces.
“Yeah, really. And there’s something else.”
She held out the white moth figurine to have Jason examine it. He looked at it through squinted eyes, then smiled.
“Wow. That’s a good find. Where was it?”
“By the food bag. The coffee was thrown out, and I found it just lying there.”
“It looks like it’s made out of bone, or something,” Kurt said, coming alongside Jason to take a peek before returning to the fire.
“You don’t think it’s weird?” Andi asked.
“Nah,” Kurt said. “Probably just some hunter that got bored in a tree stand around here.”
The notion made her feel better. She tucked the moth trinket into her pocket and got to work fetching water. There was a little stream just down the way on the other side of the trail they had come in on. It was part of the reason they had chosen the spot. Well, that and the rave reviews. Jason followed her down.
When they got there he washed his face, cupping his hands together to collect cool water and splashing it on his skin. Once he finished, he held out a hand for one of the canteens she had brought down. She handed it to him and watched him fill it out of the corner of her eye as she filled her own. His movements were graceful and quiet. He was a sharp contrast to Kurt, flexible and unbothered, quiet in his solutions. She loved them both deeply, but his steady nature was what she would miss most.
They made their way up slowly, making morning small talk as they went. When the two of them returned, the fire was roaring. Kurt was dumping the grounds of coffee into a french press, his eyebrows bent in concentration. Andi poured water into a pot and placed it on the grill that Kurt had readied for breakfast, then pulled her sketch journal out of her bag.
Yellow and orange outlined shadowed peaks that went on and on, fading into one another before erupting upward in some other place along the horizon. The sun rays had begun to crest overtop them, and with the morning songbirds chirping, Andi was just starting to appreciate the journey, warming up to the idea that she was glad she had come after all. But that moment didn’t last for long.
A shadow in the trees caught her eye. She stiffened, her whole body suddenly aware and tingling. The sound of leaves crunching got Kurt and Jason’s attention before she could warn them. A man and a woman were making their way through the woods, coming up from the direction of the creek.
“Mornin’,” the woman said, waving a hand emphatically.
Her arms were thin, and too long for her body. Her hair hung in stringy clumps pasted to either side of her face. She was smiling with no teeth, the lips pulled back over soft, pink gums. The man was six and a half feet tall at least, and, unlike the woman, he didn’t smile. He wore a dumpy hat, misshapen and dirty from what looked like decades of use. Their clothes were worn and dirt-stained. Andi held her finger just below her nostrils, a discrete attempt to avoid the smell wafting from their direction.
“What can we do for you?” Kurt asked. His tone was short. He wanted them to say what they needed and then get on their way.
“We ain’t seen folks out here fer a while. Thought we’d come and see what yer doin’ here.” Her accent was the thick drawl of Tennessee backwoods. Mountain talk.
Kurt looked around. From where they stood, there was nothing but trees and mountains for miles. No houses. No cabins. Just raw land. If they lived here, then they did it without anyone knowing.
“You all live out here or something?”
“Not here. But close by.”
The woman waited for one of them to respond, and when they didn’t, she dropped the smiling routine altogether. The lines in her face deepened around her mouth, the look of a life and a half of tobacco use drawn there.
“We seen the smoke from yer fire last night. Got curious.”
Kurt nodded, but didn’t smile. “Well, it’s a free country right? National Forest is public land.”
“Yup. You’re right ‘bout that. Just, we ain’t used to visitors is all.”
Kurt pivoted toward them and his brow furrowed again. “We aren’t on private property, so technically we aren’t visiting.”
She nodded. “How long you think you’ll stay?”
Kurt opened his mouth to say something, but Jason jumped in. “Not long. We’re leaving tonight.”
Kurt gave him a hard look, but Jason didn’t return the glance, keeping his eyes focused on the man and the woman. The woman nodded and turned to go, curiosity apparently satisfied. The man followed close behind. He walked with a serious limp so severe that Andi guessed one leg must be shorter than the other. They slowed to a stop.
The woman spoke without turning around. “Word ta the wise? Get goin’ soon. Woods aren’t safe after dark.”
After coffee, Kurt and Jason argued about leaving.
“Forget those hillbillies. They can’t do anything to us.”
“They obviously followed us here. They think we’re intruding. They called us visitors.”
“Well, we’re not! We have just as much right to be here as any other person. This is our last trip. Don’t let them ruin it.”
After ten minutes of bickering about the likelihood of the man and woman being ax murderers, they finally turned to Andi. She was the tie-breaker. She cradled the little moth sculpture in her hand, staring at the expert craftsmanship, the little lines like fine hair in the antennae, small scales carved into the wings. It looked so close to the real thing, an exact likeness of the little one she had found the day before.
“I think we stay—”
“Yes!” Kurt yelled.
“—for a little while longer. This afternoon we pack up and leave.”
“You can’t be serious,” Kurt said.
She shrugged her shoulders. “They were watching us, Kurt. It’s weird.”
He didn’t respond, but his head and shoulders were hunched, his arms crossed, his eyes on the ground.
“And I think they left this here.” She held up the moth. Kurt and Jason both stared at it for a minute.
“I had one like it yesterday. A real one that I found on the side of the trail.”
“So?” Kurt said.
“So, I don’t have it anymore. It’s not in my backpack. I looked.”
Kurt and Jason both stared at her. Jason’s mouth opened a little, but he stayed quiet.
“You think they—”
“Took it.” She finished for him. “They must have carved this one last night while we slept.”
Kurt didn’t have anything to add after that. They stayed through the afternoon despite the woman’s warning, but they were on edge. Every sound was met with a hush, a glance into the woods surrounding them. Andi drew in her sketchbook, but not the moth like she had planned. She sketched the skyline, the edge of trees around the clearing, the jutting rock where they had laid the food bag. By the time they left, the sun was well below the mountains, and it was dark enough that they needed headlamps to see the path ahead.
“You got ta eat somethin’. Starvin’ yerself won’t do no good.”
Andi shook her head. Whatever it was smelled good and she was hungry. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“Alright then. Suit yerself.”
Agnes stuffed the cloth back into her mouth and tied it gently into place.
“I know yer scared, but trust me. This’ll all be over soon.”
Jason started to laugh when he heard that. It echoed against the cold, hard walls. He kept on even after the gag was in place, the cackling muffled by the cloth stuffed in his mouth.
“Settle down or you’ll choke.”
Agnes made her way back up the stairs and closed the door.
A cricket chorus echoed across the hills, broken only by the quiet crunch of footfalls on long dead leaves.
“Da da dang dum dang dum dang dum dang,” Kurt sang out, in the mock sound of “Dueling Banjos.”
“Stop it,” Andi said. “It’s creepy.”
Kurt wouldn’t let up. “Come on. You saw those people. We were almost stars in Deliverance, the sequel.”
Jason smirked. “What was wrong with the guy? Didn’t utter a word.”
“Probably doesn’t know how to talk.” Kurt laughed. “They’re just ignorant, you know? They don’t understand anything but this tiny place they’ve lived in their whole lives. Most of ‘em can’t read.”
“How would you even know that?” Andi asked.
“My mom. She was a social worker for the school district for a while. Had to go out and do home visits with some of the kids who live way up here. Some didn’t even have running water in the house. They were still hauling from a well.”
They thought on that quietly as they moved through darkness, their headlamps the only light other than the stars for miles. The path started to curve to the left. Kurt stopped and looked around. He did a full circle slowly, looking up and then down, trying to orient himself.
“This isn’t right,” he said.
Andi’s stomach started to knot. “What do you mean?”
“I mean exactly what I said. The path shouldn’t go this way. We went left on the way in. This should veer to the right and take us home.”
They each turned in circles to see where they might have gone wrong. They backtracked half a mile, but found nothing. No fork in the road. No deer path they could have mistakenly wandered down in the dark.
“What do we do?” Jason asked.
Kurt didn’t answer. His silence put them all on edge. Even when he didn’t know what to do, he would act like he did. His sudden loss of confidence was a bad sign.
“Why don’t we just follow it down? Maybe it is the right path,” said Andi.
The guys looked around, then at her, and nodded in agreement. They kept going, even as the path curved further left. They made small talk about fall plans and future trips, anything to avoid the sinking feeling that they were heading deeper into the wild. In each of their minds, they were tracking time, knowing that within an hour the landscape would change. The trees would thin and the path would grow wider.
When the hour came, and the path in front of them had vanished, they knew they were lost. They pulled out sleeping bags and turned off their headlamps, preparing for a night in the woods beneath a star-speckled canopy. That’s where they were when Agnes and the man found them.
Andi woke up, her muscles tight and aching from days tied to a chair. She was laid out on a mattress, her blindfold removed. The dim light hurt her eyes. She squinted and tried to orient herself. The room came into focus in blurred orbs of gray and concrete. She was alone in the room.
She sat up slowly. Her head pounded with the effort. She looked around for anything familiar, her backpack or sleeping bag, the headlamp she had tucked into her jacket pocket before Agnes and the man had come. But her jacket was gone. The whole room was empty aside from a shelf filled with jars. Through the glass she saw flitting moth wings, a frenzy of white against dark cellar walls.
People were moving around upstairs. She could hear the quiet shuffle of shoes against wood. Agnes started talking. Andi listened hard, but couldn’t make out more than a murmur. Then another voice spoke, male and assertive. It must have been the man that was always with her.
He hadn’t spoken the entire time, not even when Andi had kicked him hard as he dragged her down the basement steps. The air had gone out of him, but he finished tying her to the chair without so much as a stutter. She had assumed he was mute. It was the only way she could account for his constant staring silence.
The door opened, and she heard someone coming down the stairs. Andi laid down in a fetal position and watched the last step to see who it was. A worn, leather boot came into view, a wool sock pulled high to the mid-shin hiding all but a singular strip of white flesh that disappeared under the whoosh of a long skirt.
“Brought ya breakfast.”
Andi sat up on her elbows. Agnes held a plate in her hands. It was piled with what looked like scrambled eggs. Two pink slices of meat hung near the edge. The smell of it churned Andi’s stomach. She thought of the chopping sounds, and turned her head away even though she hadn’t eaten in days.
“Come on girl. I know yer hungry.”
Her head was pounding. She sat up and waited for Agnes to bring it to her.
“Where’s Jason?” she asked.
“Upstairs. Been up fer a few hours.” Agnes smiled.
“Told ya we weren’t gonna hurt ya. Jus’ wrong place wrong time is all. Had to try and git you three outta dodge.”
“That was fer yer own good. Keep ‘im happy.”
“Don’ worry about it jus’ now. Go on an’ eat. You need strength before we leave.”
Agnes set the plate down in front of her and waited. Andi picked up a piece of toast and started to eat.
When Kurt emerged from the forest, his feet felt worn to the bone, but in spite of this he kept walking. After his escape, there had been a path leading away from the little cabin in the clearing, but he’d been forced to dart into the heavy brush to avoid being seen. Even without knowing exactly where he was, he knew that the highway cut through the forest. They had entered with the sunrise to their backs. That meant if he traveled east and followed the sunrise, he would eventually find it. He was right.
The pavement stood in stark contrast to the wild lands to either side of the road. Kurt was thankful for it. It felt like civilization itself. The trees cast long shadows across the two lane road, nearly covering it completely. He heard nothing but the sound of his breath and the wind in the trees. Not many drivers ventured this far into the countryside unless they lived there. He wanted to keep going, to try to meet some day hiker halfway, to feel like he was moving towards help, but he couldn’t.
Instead, he sat in the grass and waited for a car to come. Tears welled up in his eyes. How long had it taken to get here? Twelve hours at least. He had left at twilight, promising his friends he’d find help, but not realizing the distance he’d have to travel. He hung his head between his knees and cried. What had become of Jason and Andi? They might be dead, strung up like a deer after a hunt.
He wiped his nose on his sleeve just in time to see the glow of headlights on the road in the distance. The breath went out of him. He stood up and raised his arms. The car was moving fast. The sunlight had all but vanished. It would be easy to miss him on the side of the road.
He yelled and waved his arms up and down, moving onto the slim shoulder of asphalt. The car began to slow. It was silver, an Audi. Something too nice to be out this far. Kurt could see the driver through the windshield as he pulled over. It was a man driving alone, his dark hair made darker by the pale blue of his button down shirt. A suit jacket hung in the back, wrapped in plastic like it had just been picked up from the dry cleaner. The man smiled, white teeth gleaming. Relief washed over Kurt.
“Please, you’ve got to help me! My friends are in there!” He pointed to the forest, his own words not making sense to him. The man looked concerned.
“Alright buddy. Slow down.”
Kurt was hysterical now. “Those hillbillies took them! They're tied up in the cellar! Please! We have to call the police!”
“Okay, okay. You get in and we’ll call together, alright?”
Kurt nodded and opened the door. His legs felt gritty against the soft, black leather. The man reached back and handed him a bottled water.
“How long have you been out here?”
Kurt shook his head. “I don’t know. Three days? I’ve been walking since this morning. Didn’t think I’d find the road.”
He opened the bottle and chugged, drinking the whole thing in one go. The man looked at his phone, then at Kurt, his eyes apologetic.
He flashed the screen Kurt’s way. In place of the bars was a small, white X.
“I’m going to drive down here a little ways and see if we get something.”
Kurt closed his eyes tightly and nodded. It was the best they could do.
“Now, where did you say this cabin was?”
“In the middle of the national forest man. These two people, they live out there. I don’t know if they’re brother and sister, or what. But they’re off, man. Like, Deliverance off, you know what I mean?”
The man nodded. “Real backwoods types huh?” he asked.
“Oh man. Like straight out of a horror movie.”
“How long did you walk from there?”
“I’m not sure. But at least twelve hours. They’re pretty far in.”
“Would have to be,” the man said, and there was something in his voice that prickled the hairs on Kurt’s neck.
The man smiled and punched on the seat warmer. His phone lay in his lap, the screen black.
“You want me to watch and see if we get service?” Kurt sounded desperate, but the man smiled.
“We won’t. Not up here.”
Kurt guessed he was in his mid-forties by the slight crease of crow’s feet that showed every time the man grinned. His nails were neatly trimmed, and the skin of his hands soft on the steering wheel. His car was spotless and empty. Too empty for a guy on a road trip. Everything looked like it had just been cleaned.
“What brings you out here?” Kurt asked.
The man nodded.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a doctor.”
“A doctor? What kind?”
“Surgeon. I specialize in organ transplants.”
Kurt glanced at the phone again. The man wasn’t slowing. His eyes were fixed on the road.
“If we go too far I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell the police where to go.”
The guy smiled again and handed him the phone.
“You can try, but I’m telling you, you’re not going to get anything. No one ever can.”
“You come out here often?”
“Just when I need to pick something up.”
A strong smell hit Kurt’s nostrils, some chemical, like ammonia. The man glanced over. He must have smelled it too. Kurt tried to keep his face neutral, an alarm bell ringing somewhere deep inside.
“Actually, I think I’m good. Pull over?” he asked. He started to feel lightheaded.
The man grinned that million dollar smile. Before Kurt could react a needle was in his neck, Ketamine working its way into muscle, paralyzing him. His fear melted away. His vision blurred, the world around him fading into white.
“You ever heard the phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover?’ Well, if there was ever a time to listen, it was today.”
Kurt’s limbs were weightless. He was suspended, floating somewhere outside of his body.
“I hired those pieces of shit to grab people for me. Not many. A couple a year. The younger the better. After all, my clients only get the best. But those inbreds got soft on me. Started giving me animal organs.” He laughed. “Like I wouldn’t know the difference.”
Kurt reached his hand out blindly, and the man took it in his own.
“Don’t worry, kid. I need you alive while I do the surgery. I’ve got a ways to go, but thanks to the pharmaceutical companies, you won’t feel a thing.”
They walked carefully, the way slowed by their blindfolds, a protective measure to keep them from leading anyone to their home. Agnes held Andi’s arm, and Ernie held Jason’s. They led them gently over rocks and down hills. From what she said, her and Ernie were raised there. They had never gone to school. Never been out of the woods and into town. The forest was all they knew. When they reached the soft ground of the path, they stopped.
“Take their blindfolds off, Ernie.”
He worked each one gently, untying the knot and removing the fabric, careful not to catch their hair. Agnes had made good on her promise. She’d led Jason and Andi back to the path they came in on. Andi looked them over, their dirty clothes and sallow faces stained by a lifetime of poverty and isolation. She hadn’t caught it before when she first met them in the woods, but their eyes were kind. Had she taken the time to examine the softness there, she might have listened when they told her the woods were dangerous.
“Kurt?” she asked, but Agnes just shook her head.
“Ain’t seen a one escape ‘im.”
“Maybe he did. He’s smart, you know?” Agnes smiled a little, but in her eyes, Andi could see what she knew.
Agnes held out her hand. Andi opened hers, and Agnes pressed something hard into it. When she took her hand back, she saw it was the little moth figurine, pure white and expertly carved. Strange, yet beautiful. Agnes nodded and turned. Her and Ernie disappeared into foliage, the dense green swallowing them like any deer or fox, hidden in the vast wilderness of the Smoky Mountains.
Enjoyed this! Just the right amount of foreboding and creepy suspense while managing to subvert my expectations. Well done :-)
This one ended opposite of what I expected with the one who got away, really didn’t. Remind me to stay out of the woods. lol 😆