Travis D. Roberson
No one knew how the bridge came to be. The inhabitants of the region offered no theories. Most speculated it had always been there, a fixture of the woods as eternal as the trees and the wind that shook them.
Every family carried a story of the bridge. They held an unspoken fear of it, and when they did speak of it it was done in hushed whispers, grandmothers telling grandchildren gathered at their feet to stay away from it.
These warnings were passed down from one generation to the next. Avoid the bridge come nightfall. Stay away from the woods and the things that call them home.
Still there were those that did not heed these admonitions. Those that sought the bridge and the power it possessed. Such was the trespasser on this night.
He came from the road, face hidden by the upturned collar of a heavy coat. A meager figure among the colossal trees.
Come nightfall the bridge was indecipherable from the dark. Black, gnarled wood that blended seamlessly with the shadows.
But the trespasser was not fooled. He knew this place. He knew the bridge.
The wind howled like the mournful voices of old ghosts bellowing their final warnings to this deluded stranger. Branches rattled. Their leaves swirled around the sky.
The trespasser slipped his hand inside his coat pocket and from it drew a knife. He stepped onto the bridge and the trees raged. A strange noise came from them, louder than their creaking. The cry of no common animal. Something else.
The trespasser halted a moment, expecting the noise again but it did not come. From the other side of the bridge a new figure emerged from the woods.
The watcher observed the trespasser as he knelt and took his knife to the bridge, carving slowly.
When the trespasser finished a name was left ingrained in the wood, carved there among countless other names. Names that cycled back centuries before.
The watcher turned and disappeared back into the trees.
The trespasser closed the knife and returned it to his pocket. He stood and surveyed the night.
The strange cry blistered from the woods again. The trespasser bolted back the way he came, struck with the same unending fear that held over this place.
There was a heaviness to the sky, like at any moment it would come splitting open and snow would spill out and smother everything. Lloyd didn’t like snow. They got a little every now and then down in Alabama, where he was from, but not like the snow here in Illinois. The snow here was vengeful, like it was trying to punish you for something.
He was hoping he could finish his business here before it got any colder. Even inside the truck his breath took form against the air. He reached over and turned the knob for more heat. He placed his hand in front of the vent and cursed the truck for being so old.
He passed a sign declaring the town and its population of 498 and hoped it wasn’t about to decline.
The road was bordered on both sides by rows of withered crops. Power poles leaned in toward the blacktop like old crucifixes left to rot under the cadaverous sky. Crows sat amassed on the wires, their tiny black heads turning curiously as they prophesied further prospects of food and warmer places.
Eventually the road thinned and the blacktop turned to dirt and gravel that rattled through the truck’s undercarriage. The country station Lloyd had going from the radio crackled and faded. Brown leaves whipped across the windshield until he came upon the old farmhouse, a monument to a long line of people that had worked this land into their livelihood.
Rows of cornstalks surrounded the house and the barn that stood a little ways from it, most of the corn harvested now and the stalks beginning to lose their green.
Lloyd shut the truck off and got out. He closed the door behind him as Becker came out of the house and strode onto the porch with his hands in his pockets. He looked older from the last time Lloyd had seen him, walking with a hunch, a kind of weariness in his face.
Lloyd nodded to him as he came up the porch steps. “Clyde,” he said.
Becker held out his hand. “Hey there.”
Becker’s skin was cold, and as Lloyd shook his hand he could see it was starting to blue against the air.
“Why don’t we go inside?” he said. “Where it ain’t so cold?”
Becker nodded and turned toward the door. Lloyd followed him into the kitchen. He sat down at the table, its surface piled with albums and loose photos of Becker’s boy. The eyes of a baby just born, a handsome teenager in a football uniform, all the moments in between.
“I got coffee,” Becker said. “You want coffee?”
Lloyd opened one of the albums and leafed through the images. “I’ll take a cup. Black.”
Becker opened a cabinet and got a mug down. “I didn’t expect you here so fast.”
“It’s about twelve hours if you don’t stop.”
Becker set the coffee down in front of Lloyd. He moved with an ache that accompanies a devastated parent. Lloyd studied his face. It looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He didn’t want to waste any more of his time.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
Becker sighed. “God. I guess today makes a week.”
Lloyd sipped the coffee. “Why’d you call me?”
“The cops aren’t doing anything. They think Alex just ran off. They don’t get it. They all like to pretend a parent doesn’t know his child.”
“Think they’re going to make it federal?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Becker said. “Federal or not, these people don’t know what they’re dealing with. They don’t want to believe it. But I know you’ll believe me. You believed me about that thing that was hiding in my cornfields. Puk– what was it?”
“A pukwudgie,” Lloyd said.
Becker nodded, thinking back a moment. When he looked up at Lloyd his eyes were wide and starting to brim with tears. “Something bad has him.”
“What?” Lloyd said.
Becker shook his head. “This place has a secret.”
They took Becker’s truck and drove in relative silence, Lloyd sitting in the passenger seat and watching the woods thicken outside the window as they went.
“Where’s your girl?” Lloyd said.
“Jillian?” Becker grimaced. “She might as well be missing too. Ever since Alex didn’t come home she’s barely been around. Stays out late. Acts like she doesn’t even want to talk to me.”
“Probably ain’t easy for her. Losing her mama when she was just a little girl. Now her brother’s missing. Everybody’s got their own way of dealing with things like this.”
Becker cut the truck’s engine and got out. Lloyd followed. The dirt road led to a bridge bordered on all sides by thick trees that were beginning to lose their leaves.
The bridge was constructed from a type of black wood that made it look like the victim of some terrible blaze, all twisted and gnarled like thousands of interlocked tongues stretched across a dry gulch where a stream had flown a lifetime ago.
Lloyd looked back at Becker. The old man hovered near his truck.
“Go a little closer,” he said.
Lloyd walked slowly. His boots thumped against the bridge. The wind picked up and whipped around him, stirring up dirt and dead leaves.
He thought he heard whispers in the wind, sibilant chitterings in a language he couldn’t understand. He had the feeling of being watched by someone that wasn’t Becker, but when he looked around he saw nothing but the trees.
There were etchings in the wood. He leaned in closer and realized they were names. He read over them, following them across the bridge like they were lines on a map leading him toward answers. He came to a spot where a name had been scratched out and ran his fingers over the slashes, attempting to discern the letters beneath, but it was useless.
He kept reading until he came to a name he knew.
The wind grew stronger. He looked to the other side of the bridge. He thought he saw something move through the trees but he wasn’t sure. He watched for a moment. Nothing stirred.
He turned around and walked back to Becker.
“What is all this?” he said.
“Get in the truck,” Becker told him. “We shouldn’t be here this long.”
They sat at the bar with cigarettes burning above their glasses of whiskey. The bar was dark. The only traceable sources of light came from the opalescent glow of a juke box and a neon sign proclaiming cold beer.
Becker brought his glass to his lips and sipped. He didn’t look at Lloyd when he spoke.
“The stories have always been around. As long as I can remember. As long as that bridge has been there, I guess. Everyone always said if you wanted someone gone, put their name down on the bridge. Then the grayskins would take them away.”
Becker shrugged. “That’s the story. People in the woods. Cannibals. Satanists. It changes depending on who you ask. All I know is bad things happen around those woods at night.”
“You ever seen ’em?”
“These grayskins you’re talking about.”
Becker shook his head. “No. But a lot of people have.”
Lloyd sat for a moment with his glass raised, thinking on everything. “Those names on the bridge,” he said. “You know anybody else with their name on there that’s disappeared?”
“Most of the names are old, carved way before I was even born. People try to not go around there anymore. Too many bad things have happened. And now they have Alex.”
Lloyd watched a tear run down Becker’s face and splash against the bar. He knocked the rest of his whiskey back, wincing a little as it went down, and signaled to the bartender for another.
“Can you take it back?”
Becker wiped his eyes. “What?”
“You want somebody gone and you carve their name into the bridge. What happens if you go down there and scratch it out?”
Becker gave him a confused look. “It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “At least I don’t think.”
“I was just wondering.”
“I just don’t get who would carve his name. He’s one of those kids that’s friends with everybody, you know? I don’t think there was a single person around here that didn’t like him.”
“He get along with his sister?”
Becker slammed his glass down. It made a loud noise that caused the bartender’s head to turn.
“You leave Jillian out of this. She loves Alex.”
The bartender set Lloyd’s whiskey down and eyed him and Becker curiously before turning away.
“I’m just asking questions,” Lloyd said. “I got to understand all this.”
Becker sighed and ran his hands though his hair, pulling on the gray stalks a little. “I know. I know. I’m sorry. All this– I just don’t know what to do if I lose him too. Not after losing Cassandra. Jillian, she’s all I got left. What if I can’t protect her either?”
He buried his face in his palms and his body shook with silent tears. Lloyd nursed the whiskey. Through the cracks in his fingers Becker looked at Lloyd with a wet eye.
“Do you think he’s dead?”
Lloyd set his glass down. “I don’t know,” he said.
Becker offered Lloyd Alex’s room but Lloyd turned it down. It didn’t feel right, sleeping in the bed of a boy that might not be coming back. Becker had invested too much hope in Lloyd and Lloyd didn’t know if he had any hope to offer. He didn’t know what had become of the boy, but he didn’t feel good about it.
He took a sleeping bag out of his truck and spread it down in the barn. He wanted to stay out of the house, give Becker the space he deserved.
The barn was empty save for tools. There was a lingering stench of the animals that had once been stabled here. Lloyd did his best to ignore it. He’d been in worse.
Cold air seeped in through the walls. He figured the sleeping bag and his cigarettes would keep him warm enough. He wasn’t planning on much sleep anyway.
He stepped outside for a smoke and was lighting up when a car pulled into the yard and cut its headlights. A girl got out of the passenger side and mumbled something to the driver before she shut the door. The car pulled away and the girl started for the house.
Lloyd exhaled a cloud of smoke and moved across the yard. The girl was on the first porch step when Lloyd called her name.
She stopped and looked at him, her face in focus now, pale and spotted with freckles, framed by a shock of red hair that looked bright even in the night. She favored a mother Lloyd had seen only in photographs.
“I remember you,” she said. Lloyd could smell beer on her breath. “You got rid of that thing that was in the cornfields.”
Lloyd held out his hand. “Lloyd Barnes.”
She didn’t shake it but she pointed at the cigarette hanging from his mouth. “Can I have one of those?”
He lowered his hand. “How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” she said.
He laughed a little, smoke leaking out from his mouth in little gusts. “Only if I can talk to you for a minute.”
He saw her eyes go wide, her throat bob nervously. He nodded.
“Okay,” she said. “But can we go somewhere else? I don’t want my dad to wake up.”
They climbed a ladder to the top floor of the barn and sat cross-legged and smoking, staring out a dusty window at a sky just as obscured.
“You see that?” she said, angling the tip of her cigarette toward a faint gradation of light seeping up from the edge of the earth where miles of darkened cornfields ended. “All that light? That’s Chicago. When I was a little girl I always imagined living there. The city. Now I don’t know if I’ll ever leave.”
“You’re still a kid,” Lloyd said. “You got a lot a time before you get trapped in a place.”
She blew a stream of smoke toward the ceiling. “That’s what everybody keeps telling me.”
“When’s the last time you saw your brother?” he said.
She turned her face from him. Her voice had a weaker quality to it when she spoke. “Last week. He’d just come home from school. I faked sick just so I could watch Luke and Laura get married on General Hospital. Can you believe that? It seemed so important then. Now–”
She didn’t say anything else.
“What do you know about that bridge?” Lloyd said.
Her head snapped toward him. There were tears in her eyes that reflected the orange flare of the cigarette. “You think its them? Those gray people?”
“I don’t know. But I aim to find out.”
“Do you know who carved his name?”
Lloyd shook his head. “Not yet.”
“I used to think all that was just stuff people told their kids so they wouldn’t drink in the woods. But then you showed up a few years back and killed that thing in the cornfields. Now I never know what to believe.”
“Yeah,” Lloyd said, “I sort of got a good way of doing that to people.”
He stood and dropped his cigarette and ground it out with his boot.
“Are you going there– to the woods? Tonight?”
He started toward the ladder. “I ain’t got much of a choice.”
“It’s not safe.”
He kept going.
When Lloyd cut the headlights the bridge vanished like a shadow absorbed back into the night. He reached into his jacket pocket and slipped a cigarette from the pack and lit it.
He sat for a while, smoking and watching the trees as the wind weaved through them. He felt it again, someone watching him.
He reached down and felt under the seat and found the shotgun where it was strapped. He unlatched the bindings and brought the weapon into his hands. He opened the glove box and pulled out a box of shells and loaded twelve into the gun’s chamber. He took his keys from the ignition and got out, pumping the shotgun as he walked.
He moved onto the bridge and stood in the center of it amongst all the carved names, watching the trees carefully.
“All right,” he called. “Here I am.”
His words echoed across the night but nothing changed. The woods were silent.
“I know you’re watching me,” he called again.
He walked across the bridge to the other side. The wind picked up and the trees began shaking. He tightened his grip on the shotgun and walked into the forest.
A darkness unlike anything he’d experienced closed in around him. He blinked a few times, trying to get his eyes to adjust, but nothing helped. He walked cautiously, listening to the woods as he went, ignoring the sounds of his own feet breaking twigs and leaves.
The woods had gone quiet again, as if all the trees and creatures of the night had halted their ritual stirrings to watch him on this fruitless investigation into things he didn’t rightly understand.
He heard the ground shift from a place nearby and stopped. He waited. He turned his head slowly in the direction the noise had come from. He could see nothing but skinny trees arranged in perfect rows like black columns leading to an even greater darkness.
Leaves moved again. A branch snapped. Behind him.
He turned, swinging the shotgun with him and aiming it at a vacant part of the woods. A firefly piloted in front of the gun’s barrel and illuminated, casting a faint yellow light across the ground. A dozen more slipped from the shadows and started blinking like tiny stars on the verge of collapse.
Lloyd heard the rustling again and whipped around. Footsteps thundered against the earth, fast and moving toward him. He slipped his finger over the trigger. The fireflies went dark.
The footsteps swarmed from every direction. Sweat broke across his forehead. The fireflies ignited again. Against their gold light Lloyd saw the abomination rushing for him.
It was naked, its flesh sickly and pale. It possessed a similar anatomy to a man’s, elongated limbs accentuated by an emaciated frame. It reared its ugly head and let out a noise somewhere between a shriek and a roar, its long tongue lashing against sharp and uneven teeth.
The creature leapt and Lloyd fired. He fell backward as the creature smashed against him, its claws digging at his flesh.
He struggled under the weight of the thing, pawing the ground for the shotgun while the creature tore at him and continued to let out its mournful cry.
Other cries responded somewhere deeper in the woods.
Lloyd’s fingers grazed the shotgun and he pulled it closer. He grunted as the creature’s claws shaved through his clothes and drove lacerations across his skin. He raised the shotgun with one hand and swung it like a club.
The creature howled when the gun collided with its skull and it leapt from Lloyd. Lloyd rolled and clambered to his feet. He turned the barrel on the creature. It stood there, watching passively.
Another emerged from the trees behind Lloyd and clamped its mammoth hands over his throat. He choked on the night’s cold air, struggling for breath against the creature’s long and constricting fingers while the other watched.
His hands went slack as he coughed and sputtered. The shotgun slipped from his grasp and the world began to blur, a strange kind of optic fog edging out around the corners of his vision.
More grayskins emerged from the trees and stood and watched. A vicious parliament presiding over the manner of his death.
The fireflies ignited again and he saw their light reflected in a scythe blade that came arcing through the dark. Lloyd tensed in preparation.
The blade stopped short of his chest and the grayskins started howling at a beam of amber light that came rocketing through the trees. The one choking Lloyd released him and together the grayskins bounded through the woods the way they had come, shrieking as they went. The beam of light chased after them.
Lloyd steadied himself against a tree and gasped for air, rubbing the soreness from his throat. The fireflies were all around him, extending further into the woods to places his eyes could not see.
He saw the shotgun laying in a pile of leaves and bent down and picked it up. When he returned to full height the beam of light came streaking back. It stopped before him and wavered above the earth like a lightning bolt frozen in place. Slowly it took the shape of a fox.
Lloyd could see through the creature, a mist that would roll away at any moment, its luminous tail flicking back and forth against the dark. Fireflies assembled above it.
The fox gave no indication of speech but it’s voice hummed all around Lloyd, as if produced by the trees themselves.
I know you. You are a hunter of the dark. I see the things you have vanquished. But I see your own darkness. This pursuit– it will destroy you.
“Yeah. Well. I ain’t quitting anytime soon,” Lloyd said, panting still. “You mind explaining what exactly them things were?”
There was silence a moment before the fox spoke again.
Creatures that were once men, turned feral by a dark power they chose to worship.
“The devil?” Lloyd said.
No devil you know.
“What is it then?”
A demon that feeds on the blood of men. It came to these woods long before you.
Constructed from the demon. A place of sacrifice.
“Is there any way of stopping it?”
The demon is not immortal. But it hides in a plane unreachable by foot.
“Any idea on how I could get there?”
The bridge is the only way.
Lloyd sighed. “It can’t ever be easy, can it?”
You came here, the fox said. For what reason?
“I’m looking for someone.”
“That’s right. There ain’t any chance he’s still alive, is there?”
That I cannot answer.
“I figured as much.”
Lloyd looked behind him to where the fireflies were still lighting the way. “Mind if I ask you one more thing?”
The fox said nothing, but it did not leave.
“The boy I’m looking for. Any idea who carved his name?”
There is a name on the bridge that was scratched out several years ago. It is the name of the boy’s mother.
Lloyd nodded, understanding now. “I better get on then. There’s somebody I need to talk to.”
If you hunt the demon you will do it alone. I will not save you again.
The fox dispersed into trails of ectoplasm that lingered a moment before fading to nothing. The fireflies winked out and floated off through the branches.
Lloyd looked up. The sky was beginning to lighten. He could hear birds singing. He felt cold again.
Lloyd pulled up to the house and saw a light on in the window. He marched across the yard with his hands stuffed in his pockets, cold air finding his skin through the tears in his clothes. He went up the porch steps and hammered on the door.
The door opened and Becker peeked out. His face darkened when he saw Lloyd. His lips quivered as he spoke. “Did you find him?”
“Can I come in?” Lloyd said.
Becker opened the door wider and stepped aside. Lloyd walked past him, into the kitchen, and sat down at the table. Becker came in behind him and started tinkering at the stove.
“I was just about to make coffee,” he said. “Give me a few minutes.”
Lloyd could tell by the way Becker was moving that he was nervous.
“You look like you’ve been up all night. Are they– are they gone? Did you find Alex?”
Lloyd ignored the questions. “You sure you ain’t seen ’em?” he said. “Those grayskins?”
Becker shook his head. “I told you, no.”
“You sure about that?”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to get at.”
“Clyde, tell me something. Your wife–”
Lloyd nodded. “You mind telling me how she died?”
The coffee maker started hissing. Becker’s eyes cut away from Lloyd.
“I don’t know what that’s got to do with anything.”
Lloyd shrugged. “I was just thinking about it is all. The last time I come up here you talked about her a lot, showed me photos. I didn’t want to ask then. I hardly knew you. You never did say how she died, though. And I guess now I’m just a little curious.”
“It was a car accident,” he whispered.
“So if I was to go around and ask any of your neighbors, they’d tell me the same thing? You think they’d remember that?”
Becker turned his back to Lloyd and reached for the coffee pot. Lloyd slid his hands under the table and kept them hidden there.
“I– I don’t know.”
“I don’t think that’s how you lost her, Clyde.”
Becker spun and threw the coffee pot. Lloyd flipped the table and launched it forward. He heard glass shatter against the wood. Hot liquid spilled across the floor.
Lloyd flung the table aside and leapt on Becker. He drove him down to the floor and raised a fist and brought it down on Becker’s face. Becker yelped and struggled underneath him. He went still with another punch.
Lloyd got to his feet and leaned against the counter, catching his breath. Becker lay on the floor whimpering and bleeding, tears forming in his eyes, more pathetic than Lloyd thought he could ever be.
“That day you took me to the bridge,” Lloyd said, “there was a name carved into the wood that had been scratched out. That was her name, wasn’t it?”
Becker rolled over and buried his face in his arm and started squalling. Lloyd bent down and grabbed a wad of Becker’s hair and yanked his head back so he was staring him in the eyes.
“I caught her cheating, okay?” Becker whined. “Jillian and Alex– they were just kids. I didn’t know what to do. I was mad. I got drunk. My head was filled with all these stories people told. I didn’t think any of it was true. I carved her name there because I was pissed off. I swear to god, I didn’t think anything would come of it.”
Lloyd pulled Becker’s head back further and slammed his face into the floor.
“What about Alex then, huh? Why’d you put his name down?”
Becker rolled over slowly. Streams of blood leaked out from his nostrils and congealed with the blood pumping from his lip.
“It came to me,” he said. “That thing in the woods. It said I owed a debt. It told me it needed a sacrifice, somebody that shared Cassandra’s blood. I tried to give it Jillian. But it wanted Alex.”
Becker covered his eyes and started weeping again. “You were supposed to stop them. That’s why I called you. I thought you could save him.”
“It was your job to save him,” Lloyd said. “This is your fault. You brought this on your family.”
Becker lowered his hands and looked up at Lloyd with wet eyes. Lloyd spit in his face. “It should have been you,” he said.
He looked up and saw Jillian standing there in her pajamas, a pained look on her face. Lloyd didn’t say anything to her. He turned and stormed out of the house.
He broke across the yard and got in the truck. He cranked the engine and stomped the gas pedal and didn’t let off until he made it all the way to the bridge.
He threw the truck in park and yanked open the glove box and took out a small pocket knife and got out.
The wind started to howl. Dead leaves whipped around him. From a place deep in the woods he heard the pained cry of the grayskins.
“That’s right,” he screamed as he moved across the bridge, “I’m here!”
He opened the knife’s blade and knelt down and took it to the wood, carving an L, followed by another. He didn’t stop until he had carved his entire name.
“There,” he called. “It’s done.”
He closed the blade and started back toward the truck but stopped when he saw a deer standing on the other side of the bridge. It watched him with dark, calculative eyes, its hooves fixed into the earth and ready to bolt at any moment.
The tree limbs creaked. The wind whistled in Lloyd’s ear. He saw himself reflected in the deer’s eyes, and something else. Something coming from behind him.
When he turned the deer ran, its feet beating thunderously against the earth. A gray hand reached through the air and closed around his neck. He fought for a brief moment before darkness closed in around him.
He woke and was moving, giant arms hooked beneath each of his own, pulling him across the earth with his legs curled behind him. He tilted his head up and saw the gray faces of his captors, their dark eyes hidden by night’s pitch.
They cleared the trees and emerged on a giant field, the grass turned black and curled close to the dirt not by winter, but by some other unnameable contagion.
Strange vines ran across the earth, fat and wrinkled like bloated worms and encumbered with cystic growths, traces of red fluid showing from somewhere deep within them.
The vines converged on a huge pit in the field’s center, where the other grayskins stood arranged in a circle at the pit’s edge, all of them naked and all of them male. Lloyd counted twelve in total, including the two holding him.
They stood with their heads bowed before a tree growing from the pit’s center, its black limbs stretching up toward a sky the color of blood. The moon held over all of this, grand and yellow and larger than Lloyd had ever seen it, its craters and scars visible in vivid detail to the naked eye, contained in a radiated halo of its own design.
Lloyd’s captors threw him forward and he hit the ground and grunted. Colorless feet came toward him. He looked up the gaunt body of a grayskin and into the black eyes of a deer, the severed head place atop the grayskin’s own, blood seeping from the hollowed skull and streaking down the grayskin’s pale chest like dark trails of molasses.
The grayskin reached down and grabbed Lloyd by the face, long fingers wrapping all the way around Lloyd’s skull. He dragged Lloyd to the edge of the pit and forced him to look down in it.
A mass grave lay in ossified testament to every named carved into the bridge. The cavernous eyeholes of skulls glared back at him, mouths of shattered teeth hung agape– indiscernible if these people had died in pain or laughter. Femurs lay trapped in ribcages. Crumbling hands reached upward for the empyreal kingdom they’d been denied.
Hair still clung to some skulls like withered strips of moss, stained with dirt and blood. From these bones rose the tree. The vines Lloyd had seen along the ground extended from it.
The tree was black as if it had been coated in ash, its bare limbs adorned with the chattel of the victims below: necklaces and watches, dresses, suit jackets, shoes strung by their laces. A child’s stuffed bear with white fuzz burrowing out from a place where a marble eye used to be. A torn varsity jacket that Lloyd knew belonged to Becker’s boy.
In the tree’s center the bark opened and exposed a network of organs, muscles, veins, and nerves, all coated in a luminous kind of blood. Lloyd saw a pair of lungs rising and falling, a heart flapping tediously.
These things along the ground were not vines, he thought. They were intestines.
He tried to look away but a scythe blade moved across his neck and kept him there.
A heavy sound came from the tree and echoed across the field, returning distorted and broken.
The grayskins’ heads raised in response. The scythe blade left Lloyd’s neck and the grayskin wearing the deer head stepped in front of him, his long fingers tightening around the scythe’s handle in preparation to swing.
Lloyd closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and lunged forward.
His hands fell on the scythe just below the blade. The grayskin swung and Lloyd went swinging with it, spiraling across the ground in a stir of dirt. The other grayskins broke from their formation and advanced upon him. Fingers pulled at his collar. Hands closed around his shoulders and head. Sharp nails tore at his skin.
He felt the scythe pull from the grayskin. He closed his hands around the handle and twisted from his attackers and swung.
The grayskins halted their assault and stepped back from Lloyd, amassed in a long and imposing line. The one wearing the deer head lumbered forward. The deer’s neck had been torn open and from the hole bubbled a dark stream of blood.
The grayskin fell forward and toppled into the pit where the bones swallowed him. The intestines running along the ground retracted back into the pit and advanced along the bones until they found the grayskin’s body. They peeled open and latched to the corpse, filling slowly with the grayskin’s blood.
The others began howling, their heads tilted upward like wolves supplicating the moon. Their black eyes fell on Lloyd and they came rushing toward him, screeching and crying. He clambered to his feet and swung the scythe again and caught a grayskin in the skull.
He kept swinging to keep them back. They attempted to form a circle around him, some of them moving on their hands and knees like the feral things they’d become.
A low moan came from the tree and the ground started to tremble. Lloyd followed the gaze of the grayskins and watched as the tree grew taller, rising out of the pit, bones shifting beneath it, its branches extending across the red sky. The organs in its center continued to pump furiously.
The ground broke away in massive chunks as roots and intestines came up from the dirt like primeval serpents awakened from a long hibernation. The tree continued to grow, eclipsing across the moon, bark breaking open to reveal more veins and ligaments as the tree took the shape of some woodland Goliath, animated again after all these years and bound together by sinew and intestines.
Moss hung from a wooden head that had taken the shape of a giant bird skull, long branches protruding from it like antlers, decorated with the old possessions of the demon’s victims.
The demon climbed from the pit and moved forward on its massive limbs. The grayskins scattered beneath their master’s step, shrieking as they went. Lloyd turned and ran for the trees.
He was snatched backward as roots curled around his ankles. He swung at them with the scythe but another root shot through the air and knocked the weapon from his hand and closed around his wrist.
The roots dragged him across the earth. His mouth filled with dirt. He felt his legs leave the ground first and the rest of his body followed, the roots pulling him through the air and closer to the demon.
Lloyd could hear its massive heart beating, enlarged now to match the demon’s enormous size, echoing over the field like a freight train descending from heaven. Intestines rose to meet him as he drew closer, wrapping around his waist and advancing up his neck. He felt them open and latch to his skin. He screamed as they siphoned the blood from his body.
A wooden ribcage creaked open, sinew peeling away to form an opening that the roots and intestines shuttled Lloyd toward.
He screamed again, against the pain of the blood-sucking and for the horror awaiting him.
The demon’s innards swallowed his feet. The rest of his body followed slowly. He saw a small branch hanging from the demon’s ribs and reached for it. The root binding his wrist pulled tighter but he fought it. His fingers scraped the branch and he pulled. He felt it snap and closed his hand around it as entrails and tendons absorbed him.
Vision left him, consumed by darkness in this glutinous and contracting world. The roots released him but the intestines continued their robbery of his blood. He was pressed against walls of muscle that shifted as the demon moved. He could feel blood and other fluids slathering his skin and clothes. He heard nothing but the beating of the demon’s heart, loud and thunderous somewhere above him.
It was hard to breathe. Air was escaping him. He knew he didn’t have much time to act. He tightened his grip on the branch and climbed, his other hand grabbing lumps of shapeless and slimy things he could not identify, his feet slipping as he moved.
The intestines pulled against his face and the pain grew worse but he ignored it and continued to follow the sound of the heartbeat.
The demon’s insides narrowed as he climbed. Tissue closed in around him and squeezed his body into an asphyxiating contortion. He wheezed for air. The intestine around his neck pulled tighter. He felt this visceral world leaving him, his body growing lighter and his head filling with a kind of cloudiness that demanded sleep.
The heartbeat grew distant but continuous. He followed it weakly as the demon’s body protested, strands of sinew closing around his ankles, intestines strangling him and depleting him of his blood.
He felt a rattle of breath escape his lungs and knew it would be his last. His chest filled a burning weight. Despite the darkness he still closed his eyes.
The beating came louder than ever. He reached with a trembling hand and directly above him he felt something soft and muculent rising and falling with great heaves.
Sensation was vacating his limbs but still he could feel the branch clenched between his weakening fingers.
He thrust upward and felt the branch’s nimble limbs puncture the heart. The organ trembled once and went still. He heard a scream from somewhere beyond where he was. The intestines and sinew binding him slackened and now he was sliding.
He fell from the demon like a piece of excrement, hurtling toward the earth in a shower of viscera and wood. The demon stumbled above him, disassembling with every movement.
He felt his bones shatter as he hit the ground. The impact left him with no air to scream. Pikes of black wood rocketed down from the sky and stuck in the earth like javelins.
A grayskin ran past him, shrieking as its skin turned black and tore open, peeling away to reveal a wooden skeleton that slowly crumbled and disintegrated to dust.
Lloyd watched the remains swirl around him, joining with clouds of others where they dispersed across the red sky.
He turned his head and saw the moon hanging over him. He smiled at its welcoming light, imagining himself walking along its razed and battered surface, knowing he was fading from this world.
He blinked. Dancing now before the moon was a group of fireflies.
He closed his eyes.
When he woke again morning was upon him, the sky a soft blend of blue and gray. He sat up. He felt sore, but alive. His clothes and hair had dried stiffly with the demon’s fluids. He felt his face. It was sticky with blood.
He looked down at his hand and saw a bug crawling across it. The creature’s body ignited and it took to the air, going to a place where other fireflies hovered, a place where the bridge had been.
There was no sign it had ever been there. An emptiness left in its place.
He stood. On the other side he saw the fox watching near the trees.
“I thought you said you weren’t going to help me no more,” Lloyd called.
The fox turned and vanished into the woods, and with it went the fireflies.
When he pulled up in the yard Jillian was dragging a big duffel bag onto the porch. He shut the truck off and got out.
“You going somewhere?” he said as he came up the porch steps.
Her eyes cut away. “You know he’s gone? My dad. He told me everything before he left. Everything he did. I guess he’s not coming back, is he?”
Lloyd couldn’t answer that.
Jillian swallowed and brushed some hair from her face and turned away from Lloyd. “Did you find Alex?”
When she turned around tears were streaking her face.
“I knew he was dead. But it makes it worse knowing for sure.”
She collapsed against him and started sobbing. He stayed still and let her cry, her body heaving against his.
“I don’t know where to go,” she said.
“Somewhere far,” he told her. “Some place completely different– that don’t remind you of anything here. Some place warm.”
“I don’t have anybody left.”
He didn’t have a response for that.
He looked out across the yard.
Snow was beginning to fall and settle in the withered cornfields. Come spring they would grow again, strong and shining against the sun. But first they would have to endure the cold and all the devastation it can bring.
Travis D. Roberson grew up in Central Florida. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Dark Ink Magazine, the horror anthologies Decay and Dark Monsters, and a few other places. In 2011 he was the third place recipient in the non-fiction category of the Porter Fleming Literary Competition. He currently resides in New York.