Chapter 1 – Slaughtering Day
Monday, November 20th, 2023
Father says that being thankless is a sin–the worst sin, but I haven’t found much to be thankful for this past week and I’m trying really, really hard. I promise I have been and I’ve been praying too. Zygomar is usually the loudest so I started by invoking him–this all started in his name after all–and when that didn’t work I even prayed to the lesser gods Yogtroth, Trula and Vaneshka for help or guidance. For bravery, retribution or wisdom anything at all they might bless me with too, but I haven’t heard a single one of them since all of this started.
I even lowered myself and called out to Vorgrath. I begged him to smite me for turning my back to him, to strike the old farmhouse with his bolts until it burned to the ground with all of us inside it. He wouldn’t even punish me for what I’ve done in defiance of his gift. I think maybe none of them can hear me now or we’ve fallen so far from their favor that they’ve all gone quiet–or if they are replying, I just can’t hear them anymore–not over the sound of everyone else whispering from the other side of the attic door.
The sound of Father’s murmurs at the cracks as he promises forgiveness for everything I’ve done and Mother’s quiet laments that I’ve turned my back on my family but if I just let them in it will all be alright again. Caleb, Josiah, Leah and the twins, Rebekah and Tabitha are all saying things out there in hushed voices too. Everything they say crushes me just a bit smaller and cracks away another small piece of my heart, but I still don’t let them come in. I can’t let them come in.
When they aren’t begging and pleading they’re just whispering my name in unison, all nine of their voices at once in a chilling sing-song way that sounds almost like a prayer: “Gabriel, Oh Gaaaaabriel, my Gabriel, oh Gabrieeel, sweet Gabriel”
Forever and ever, Amen.
It isn’t often that they stop whispering but when they do I hear the sound of their fingers most clearly. It’s a sound that’s always there and never seems to stop even when their voices grow quiet on the stairs. They’ve been trying to claw their way through the door since they found me hiding here last night. It’s thick, solid, wood but it’s over 100 years old and there’s no way to tell how long it might hold or how soon it might give out. I’m trying to hold onto hope that it’s sturdy enough to keep me safe, but I’m also 14, and that’s nearly a grown man so I’m being realistic too. Just like hope, it won’t last forever. It just can’t.
It’s locked and barred and I moved a heavy armoire that was stored and forgotten up here against it. It doesn’t matter what they whisper. They can try to scare me, to hurt me with harsh words, or promise me everything my heart desires; it’s all lies. All of it. I watched them all change one-by-one and I won’t be fooled.
I won’t open the door. I won’t let them through. The only truth I know is that they want to give my eyes the Midnight Stare too.
Every Thanksgiving, the entire Thompson clan celebrates the harvest cycle. We gather together here on Thompson Heritage Ranch in Holybrook, Kansas to give thanks and we do it the same way that Father’s grandfather and his grandfather’s grandfather always did for generations and generations. Our ranch has been passed down through the hands of countless Thompsons for more than 200 years and inheriting the land is a big responsibility. My brothers are both older, but neither Caleb nor Josiah were born with the mark and Father says the ranch can only be the birthright of the one born with the mark so that’s why the land and our traditions will one day be passed down to me. So, each year in November, until I come of age, take a wife and start a family of my own, every Thompson must return to the ranch where they were born to conduct the Feast of Eternal Abundance the way that their father’s father’s father’s and so on and so forth have always done. That meant that this week both Caleb and Josiah came home.
Josiah is 25 now and I was younger then but I can still remember when he finally came of age. Every farmer in town that had a daughter of eligible age came to the ranch with their girls dressed in their very best at their sides. He might be a Markless Thompson, but he was still a Thompson and also quite handsome so there were quite a few young women whose hand he might ask for in Holybrook–one of the girls was as old as 27!–but in the end he did what we all expected and chose Leah Marshall because not only was the dowry that came with her the largest (don’t ask because it’s uncouth to discuss such matters) but she was also the prettiest choice by far. He’s very busy now with the general store and a sizable home downtown as well, but he and his family still come to the ranch every Sunday for family supper, so we see him a lot.
When Caleb turned 19, he quickly announced that he meant to take the cloth, much to the dismay of those same farmers who had failed to marry their daughters off to Josiah the year before. He joined The Order of The Zygomarian Sect shortly after and lives a pious life on the grounds of the Temple of the Order on the opposite side of town from the ranch. Because of his vows, he is only permitted to return to the ranch to conduct rituals with us on High Feast Days so we only see him twice a year now. He doesn’t say much of his life at The Temple when he’s here, and although Mother speaks about how terribly she misses him often and to anyone who might listen, Father says he seems happy and fulfilled and that’s the best a Markless Thompson might hope to ask for.
My sisters Rebekah and Tabitha still live here on the ranch with us because Tabitha is just four years older than me and she won’t be betrothed until she turns 19 like Rebekah is now. When Rebekah turned 19 this spring she began courting Samuel Markson and she made me promise not to tell Father when I saw that he put bruises on her arms. I kept that promise, but she did not make me promise not to wish for him to die, so I did that too. I prayed to Yogtroth, the god of Vengeance and Retribution loudly and often whenever I found myself alone enough to do it without being overheard and after many nights of blood rights and several burnt offerings of crows I’d killed in the fields with my slingshot, Yogtroth whispered back. He did it in the quiet and endlessly echoing way that all the gods do when they whisper from the space between your ears. He told me that in return for my devotion Samuel would be punished for his sins and the very next morning he was trampled by a mule and died, maimed and broken in a muddy wagon wheel rut…so that courtship did not last long. I never told Rebekah it was because of me, but I think she suspected something because she asked my opinion of Jacob Hammond before she began courting him and she never asks my opinions about anything or anyone.
Because I’m finally 14 this year, last Wednesday, Father takes me with him just before sunrise to the slaughtering barn to help with the sacrifices for the first time. I’ve been in the barn before of course for the Swineblood Rune Renewal many springs now and naturally I’ve always hated everything about this building since I’ve been allowed to come here. It’s far from the main house, on the edge of the ranch so it takes forever to get to and I hate that because Father refuses to use the modern machines that we use around the ranch to get there. He says if we take the tractor it might spoil the rituals and my feet always hurt by the time we’ve walked the mile out to it. We can’t have it any closer to the main house on account of how bad it smells inside–and the flies. Sometimes even the distance doesn’t matter if the wind gets to blowing just right and Mother will have to close up all the windows in the main house to keep out the stink. The grossest part about the slaughtering barn is how quickly you get used to the smell once you’re inside and how bad you smell after being in there all day. It takes several showers across several days to fully wash away.
“Alright Gabriel, The Feast of Eternal Abundance, and the sacrificial offering I’m about to teach you, is a great importance on the Zygomarian Calendar. He gots two important feast holidays–each lasts a week and you’ve been helping with the one in spring since you were 10, but you’ll be a man yourself soon, so you pay attention now and learn this–and learn it well–all of it.” Father says, pausing to study my face to be sure I’m taking this all in…
“Quit holding your nose. The more you ignore the smell, the less it’ll stink. Now, thanking Zygomar, our god of Fertility and The Harvest, for all the crops grown during growing season in all of Holybrook will fall to you one day. If you don’t do it right, the whole town is marked as thankless and it’s the worst sin to be thankless. Zygomar and Yogtroth’ll work together. Make the next year’s crops wither and die on their stalks and that’ll piss off everyone. Hasn’t happened since ’42 and it ain’t happening this year neither so pay attention.” He scratches at a spot on his overweight belly and I know what he’s about to say next but I don’t roll my eyes even though I want to.
“You’re my son with The Mark. That makes you and this ritual important.” He lifts his shirt as he says this to show me the birthmark on the left side of his stomach. It’s an oval shaped patch of brown with a raised curving line of fine hairs that cross through its center. I don’t know why he does this whenever he mentions The Mark of Zygomar. I’ve seen his many times, in fact, most of the town has also seen his many times and I’ve seen my own as well. It’s unnecessary and for as long as I can remember, he has been constant and flagrant with his reminders to the many denizens of Holybrook about his importance. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll do the same when I’m older, and as I rub my right buttox to feel the rise of the line that curves across my own Thompson Mark through my jeans, and decide I’ll probably be more modest about such things.
“The autumn holiday is the more important and therefore the more complicated of the two, but it’s also more fun once everything is done.” Father says as we stand before our three largest steers in the small holding pens. They shift uncomfortably from foot to foot and whether that’s from the smell or from their own survival instincts I couldn’t say.
I think about the tedious Swineblood Rune Renewal in the spring and give the thought a shudder while glancing around at the large runes painted on the walls inside the barn. They don’t have to be perfect, and they mostly aren’t because the pig’s blood is smeary and tends to drip everywhere no matter how careful you are. Besides, nothing that’s been re-traced over and over again hundreds of times throughout our family’s history could look as perfect as it did the first or second or even the thirtieth time. It’s the act of renewal that’s important, not the result and although they fade quickly and considerably to ugly brown splotches as they dry, they must be redone each spring if we expect Zygomar to bless the rains and help the seeds sprout.
The protests of the steers increase as father covers their heads with the leather hoods that were sent over from the tanners this morning. They’re giving him plenty of trouble, constantly shifting away from him in objection, but finding there’s nowhere to go, and mooing nervously. After lacing the seams shut, he hands me a leather apron from the wall and takes one for himself. Then he makes his way over to the two sledgehammers that lean against the railing of the holding pens and hands me one of those as well. He hefts the second one over his shoulder, holding it in a ready position and I watch the head of it waver unsteadily from the steel’s considerable weight as he holds it aloft behind his back.
“You only have to do the last one. Watch me do the first two and after you’ve seen, you’ll do it next. Strike hard and strike true. I try to do it on the first swing or the noise this one’s gonna make’s gonna spook the other’uns…plus you don’t want ’em to suffer much, just wanna get it done.” Father says this with his eyes fixed on the steer in the first pen the whole time.
Then he looks at me and adds: “It’s your first time and it ain’t going down on your first swing. I’ll tell ya that now, alright? These sumbitches are heavy and you’re probably gonna hesitate and that’s fine…”
“…but you’re a Thompson with The Mark so don’t you dare let me see you fuckin cry…”
And with that said, he swings.
That’s really the hardest part of the whole ritual, before I even swung my hammer I said a quiet prayer to Vaneshka, god of Bravery and Strength, Protector of the Meek, so I wouldn’t cry and I didn’t…not until I was alone in my bedroom hours later where Father couldn’t see.
Since I’m sure you’re curious, I don’t know how many times I had to swing the sledgehammer because I lost count after seven. I wanted so badly for it to stop suffering that I kept swinging and swinging until my muscles burned and I was covered in a gory mix of blood and sweat and Father had to put his hand on my shoulder to stop me and tell me it was finished. He looks at me more proudly than I’d ever seen him look at me in his whole life and that makes me feel a sort of heat move through my whole body. Feeling warmth from that look is awkward because the killing part made me feel detached and cold and dead inside.
The next part is gross but Father lets me pick the music we play on the barn’s radio so I don’t mind slicing the steers open across their stomachs from groin to sternum with the gutting knife as much as I probably would have if he’d made us listen to his stuff while we did it.
“I know you thought it smelled bad in here before but this part just makes it worse so If you need to throw up from it, that’s fine, just run to the corner when you do. Getting puke in Zygomar’s entrails ain’t gonna ruin the ritual but it also ain’t gonna make you seem very thankful neither.” He says to me as he reaches his arm up past the elbow into one of the bovine stomachs. When he reaches back out he’s pulling a fistful of intestines in his massive hands and dumps them messily into one of a dozen waiting, empty buckets that he’s gathered haphazardly around the killing room floor.
Collecting the entrails in the buckets takes a long time but rendering the fat into tallow takes hours and hours longer.
“You’ve gotta cut the fat into small pieces. No bigger than an inch,” Father says as he hacks away at the beef flanks with a practiced art that he assures me will come to me with time. It’s arduous and messy work and there is blood everywhere in the barn. I guess there’s always blood everywhere in the barn actually, it’s just usually not so vibrant and red.
We take the fat to the rendering stove in the corner. Father lit the fire hours ago when we first got to the barn and now the coals are smoldering and the stove radiates with a low heat that’s filled the entire barn. The humidity in the barn is awful and it somehow gets ten times worse as we approach the big brick fireplace with its iron grill set into the bricks above the coals. On the grill is a massive cast iron pot that we dump the chunks of fat into and father shows me how he measures the water he adds from the bucket hanging from the nearby hand pump with a ladle until the amount is just right. Once the fat is simmering we go outside to sit on some logs at the side of the barn that have been in this spot long enough that they’re practically rotting away, back into the ground they came from.
Father tells me we have to stir the pot every twenty minutes or so and that we’ll be out here doing this well past sundown. He checks his watch noting that Mother will be along soon with some lemonade and sandwiches to serve us for a late lunch and there’ll be steak and potatoes for dinner. He tells me that once the fat renders down there’ll be some solid, crispy pieces we have to skim off the top of the liquid and I ask him how the crispy bits will taste, remembering how delicious the crispy bits of pork are from the top of the liquid when he renders the pig fat down into lard.
“The ones from the pigs are good, but the ones from the steers taste like earwax if you ask me.” He says. He tells me I can try it if I like when the tallow is ready to skim and I don’t remember having ever tasted earwax before so I stick my finger into one of my ears and then into my mouth and Father laughs long and hard at the face I make.
Overall, Slaughtering Day is a good day.
I didn’t know it would be the last good day.
Chapter 2 – Ritual Night
Tuesday, November 21st, 2023
I’ve been locked in here for a day and two full nights now and the only thing I can think is if I don’t die in here from starvation, listening to the endless rumbling from my empty belly, then I’ll surely go insane listening to the endless quiet babbles of these things that replaced my family. Those dark, shapeless forms that I saw in my vision as they came up from the ground on the night when Vorgrath, the god of Mystic Visions and Thunder blessed me with his kiss and sent the whole ritual spiraling out of control.
Everything had gone so well until that point. According to plan as it did last year and the year before that and the year before that. I’m still unsure of what I’ve done to deserve this. I don’t know why they’re still out there on the stairs, scratching on the other side of the old attic door.
Why has no one come out to inspect the ranch’s lack of lanterns yet? Have they not noticed the lack of light on this, the third consecutive dark, lanternless night? And If someone does come to see what’s gone awry will they save me or will they simply die? Will those haunting shadows-come-to-life pry apart their jaws and jitter down inside? Will they climb behind their eyes and take control? Swallow themselves down and down their throat, creeping in without a sound to smother out their soul? To add another whisper? Can I even take another whisper? Can I listen to much more? Can I stand the sound of yet another finger scratching at the attic door? Will they save me up here? Can they find some way? Why has no one come out here to either find their death or save me from this fate? Have the townsfolk lost their faith?
How much longer can I take it? How much longer shall I hide behind this ancient door before I finally lose my mind and throw it open wide and let the Feast of Midnight Stares finally eat its way inside?
The next morning is Thursday and we spend all morning making scarecrows. Yesterday it’s just me and Father at the slaughtering barn, but this morning it’s the entire Thompson clan except for Leah and the twins. This is a Thompson only tradition and Leah is still a Marshall deep down. I overhear as she assures her son and daughter, handing them each a basket and leading them away from the main house and down to the berry patches, that picking berries is more of a fun time than making a scarecrow.
They’re only five and they’ve never made a scarecrow before so they don’t know any better when their mother lies to them like this. I made my first scarecrow with everyone when I was four, so I would have known this for the lie that it was.
That was the year that Uncle Gideon was crushed to death. The old grain mill that stood at the crest of the Holybrook Falls for almost 95 years decided to suddenly throw a gear on its worn water wheel and the 15-ton stone building collapsed on top of him. When they finally found what was left of him beneath the rubble his body was so pulverized that Father declared, much to Gideon’s wife Seraphina’s dismay, there wasn’t enough left of him to warrant purchasing a casket to bury it and she’d have to cover the cost of the funeral herself if she wanted to have one. Although as the Patron of the Thompson Heritage Ranch, Father could have easily covered the cost of burial a dozen times over, he said he’d rather not because the whole thing was a waste of time and money.
To say that this created a rift between the two branches of the family would be an understatement. The ritual requires seven Thompsons to complete and Gideon was the last of Father’s brothers still alive. When it came time for Seraphina to participate in Gideon’s stead as a Thompson wife is expected to do upon the death of her husband during the Feast of Eternal Abundance…well, that year she declined.
This was a grave mistake and this was something she learned very soon after. The whole of Holybrook needs for The Feast to happen or the whole of Holybrook is seen as thankless by Zygomar and thanklessness is the worst sin of all because everyone is punished for it. So in her refusal to be thankful, Seraphina became the second Thompson to die beneath a pile of stones that year. They didn’t come from a building that collapsed around her, like those that killed her husband…they were thrown at her head in Holybrook’s town square by a mob of angry Holybrook residents.
Although I was still very young, younger than any participant our family has ever recorded, Father convinced Mother that I was old enough and the only thing stopping me was my height, so that year was the first year that I painted my first silly face on my first sheet of burlap. Mother quickly sewed the burlap into the proper shape as she did for everyone, and she still does every year and after that, I stuffed it full of hay. It was the first year that I tucked a brand new plaid shirt into a pair of new store-bought overalls, and tied the sleeves and pant legs on the scarecrow shut with twine. It was the first year that I stuffed those limbs with more hay and the first time I filled the rest of my scarecrow’s torso with handful after sloppy handful from a bucket of entrails collected from one of Father’s slaughtered steers. The sloppy buckets full of sacrificial guts stink to high heaven the day after Slaughtering Day so we always do this on the grass in the yard out front of the main house. I stopped doing silly faces on mine when I was eight, opting instead to mimic the sinister or maniacal looks that my brothers always chose for theirs. The girls always do theirs the same, trying their best to make their burlap faces look like oversized Raggedy Anne dolls.
It’s messy and smelly and fun and has been one of my favorite activities every year for as long as I can remember. I never really thought about where the entrails came from before yesterday if I might be entirely honest about that…and it’s still one of my favorite activities even after yesterday if I might be entirely honest about that too.
Once the scarecrows are stuffed they are each taken to one of seven points throughout the ranch in a pattern that forms a giant seven-pointed star. Then they are mounted in place and a lantern is hung from each of their left hands. These lanterns are filled with tallow instead of lamp oil–the fat rendered down from the sacrificial steer–and starting the night we stuff them and put them in their places each wick is lit in succession once the moon peeks just above the tallest stalks of corn in the sky of the north field. Father lights his first. Then Mother. Then Josiah. Then Caleb…and so on.
We do this every night for the seven nights that lead up to Thanksgiving when the moon reaches the right position overhead. Then later, in the dead of night, the lanterns are snuffed with the ceremonial lantern snuffer by the last Thompson awake. They walk from lantern to lantern, snuffing the fires out in the order they were ignited. The walk takes roughly an hour to complete. Usually Father takes on this responsibility himself because he’s ultimately the party responsible for the successful execution of each step in the ritual of The Feast, but he’s let Josiah do it once and Caleb has done it on at least five different nights in the years since he took to the cloth. That’s why this year, I’m hopeful since he’s taken me through the steps of Slaughtering Day he’ll leave the extinguishing duty up to me…at least for one night this week. It would be such an honor to be trusted with such an important task.
That first year, my brothers and sisters were all each tall enough to light their lanterns on their own but I was two feet shy of the lantern I’d need to light, plus I was only four and Mother insisted I couldn’t light the flame unsupervised. Father eventually convinced her to let me join them because he had a plan and once he explained it to her she’d finally agreed. He told her that anyone in town whom he invited to fulfill the task of lifting me high enough to light my wick would not only thank them for the opportunity, but that man or woman would gladly pay for such an honor also…that’s why for the first three years I participated in the Lighting of the Lanterns for the Feast of Eternal Abundance the job of lifting me high enough to reach my lantern was auctioned off to the highest bidder. The way Father explained it to Mother, since they didn’t exactly need the money, it was just another blessing they could be thankful for.
Everything goes as planned on Thursday night. The scarecrows are mounted on their pikes throughout the ranch and we light the lanterns one by one when the moon hits its mark. Father first, Mother, Josiah, Caleb, Rebekah, then Tabitha and finally me. The Feast of Eternal Abundance has begun! Though it’s meant to be a private affair only for the descendants of Ezekiel Thompson who not only founded Holybrook but brought with him prosperity, faith and religion to this godless land in the heart of Kansas, there’s usually a small crowd of looky-loos. They watch anxiously from the highest point in the road on the hill that winds its way down to the ranch’s valley. What they might do if something went wrong from that distance–if the entrails spilled out of a poorly sewn scarecrow or a lantern didn’t light–I couldn’t tell you. It’s not really much to see, but they come to see it and then they leave. I asked once and Father says they’re never still up there when he puts the lanterns out for the night. Every night from Slaughtering Day to the night before Thanksgiving our dinners are large, extravagant affairs consisting of beef in the main house.
Friday night is the same. First the moon hits its mark, then Father, Mother, Josiah, Caleb, Rebekah, Tabitha and lastly me.
Saturday is the night that everything changes. In my mind, when I replay it in my memory, everything happens in slow motion but I know it actually happened in just the blink of an eye. The moon seems to take forever to move across the clear, cloudless sky, but once father sees that it’s risen high enough, he lifts the glass of his lantern and flicks a strike-anywhere match to life across the rough-spun fabric of his scarecrow’s dirty coat near its crusted, blood-stained belly. Mother’s scarecrow is to father’s left and she lights her lantern next, opting to use a long-stemmed candle lighter rather than a match. As she carefully lowers the glass of her lantern around the flame, Josiah who uses the same matches as Father uses takes his turn next. His wife Leah stands nearby watching him with a look of pride and the faces of his children, Micah and Hannah, are painted with a mix of genuine curiosity and solemn wonder. Next is Caleb who holds a metal rod shaped like a Shepherd’s Crook. Dangling from the end of it by a chain is an ornate glass candle holder that already glows with candlelight inside. He lights the end of a stick of incense from the candle that’s already burning and touches the incense to the wick of his lantern and then blows on the stick until the flaming end goes out and the incense smolders and delivers an endless exhale of slowly rising white smoke. He kneels before his scarecrow in prayer, sticking the incense into the ground so it can continue to burn. He is very devout and will remain in this position long after the smoldering end of the incense has grown cold. Rebekah and Tabitha each use a candle lighter with a long stem like Mother’s to start theirs…
Then it comes to me. I take my Zippo from my pocket. It’s my preferred method of lantern-lighting because it’s windproof and works in the rain as long as the wick and striker don’t get too wet. Tonight there’s no wind and the weather has been dry for weeks so there shouldn’t have been any problem. That’s what made this so strange, you see? There was no indication of what was about to happen. I flick my lighter to life and the the fire that ignites from the Zippo’s wick burns blue at the base and a small amount of oily black smoke wisps into the air above the flame. The moment I touch the flame of my lighter to the wick of my lantern, every hair on my body seems to grow rigid and stand on-end. Less than a moment passes and I feel every muscle in my body contract. My entire view of the dusk-blanketed ranch turns a blinding white as my feet leave the ground and I’m thrown backwards, away from my scarecrow. Thunder rings in my ears and the world fades away, the blinding white replaced by and endless void of black.
I feel my soul float quickly up and away from my body until the motion comes to rest with an abrupt stop, hovering 15 feet above where the lightning struck and where my body lay crumpled on the ground. A perfect ring of fire circles the scarecrow in a ten foot radius, but my body is several feet beyond its reach so the circle’s flames don’t touch me. The fire is vibrantly hot and the circle burns blue as the tongues of the flames lick the stalks of corn that surround the scarecrow until they wither and turn black.
My body is singed and my clothes are smoking from the event but I can see from here that I’m simply unconscious, not dead.
Yesss child, you yet live, Vorgrath’s voice echoes quietly through the darkness and untethered from my body it doesn’t come from the space between my ears but it surges forth from the center of my soul itself, You are unharmed. Now open your eyesss in this darknessss that you may truly see.
I inspect my injuries from above and his voice speaks the truth. They appear superficial and no permanent damage seems to have been done to me. I watch my chest rise and fall with rapid breaths. I hear Mother screaming and everyone is running toward me except for Leah who is doing her best to calm her wailing children, dealing with an overload of her own panic and dread as she does it. Even Caleb has gotten to his feet and he’s sprinting across the fields faster than any of the others.
I watch all of this as I watch my rapid breathing as I watch my eyes roll wildly behind their eyelids as I watch the blue fire burn as I watch everyone run from every corner of the seven-pointed star to rescue me from the flames. None of them can tell if I’m alive or dead but they’re all running toward me just the same. I watch as one of the Looky-loos dials 911 on his cellphone from the front seat of his car parked far up on the hill. Now I watch as the dirt around the scarecrow begins fissure and crack into massive chunks. Pieces of earth that fall away into a void of nothingness as though a great mouth has opened wide so that its throat can swallow the ground down into the darkness from far below. I don’t see the creatures that claw their way up from the hole and spring across the ground in their dark, evil way through the blue of the flames at first but I can sense their presence there because I can sense everything and everyone from where I float.
More than a dozen of these dark shapeless things climb up out of the hole. Jittering across the ground, their giant dark forms shift through the flames and into the unburnt crops with disconcerting precision. Their inky black skin, reminiscent of crystalline shards, is hard and refractive against the purple moonlight glittering in defiance of the shadows where they seek to hide. As my family grows ever closer, closing the distance to my body, they extend and retract themselves with jagged, sharp pseudopodia, moving past my body and into the darkness of the rows beyond with calculated and rigid geometric precision. Within moments they’ve moved away so quickly from the hole that they dragged themselves up from that were I not floating, disembodied and in position to watch it all, nobody would have even known they were there. The only trace of their presence left behind is an intricate lattice of geometric imprints in the dirt from where their heavily mineralized and craggy skin made contact with the ground as they jerked rapidly away into the obscure gloom of the night.
Before anyone reaches me in defiance of logic, gravity and physics, the hole around my scarecrow fills itself back in as if it were never there at all, the ground rising back into place from where it fell away. The blue flames of the circle extinguish themselves in little puffs as if turning off the gas on a cooking range, blinking out of existence when the fuel that lit them was suddenly pulled away and shut off by a switch. The soil is black with the ashes of the stalks that burned and grows blacker still as the ashes pushed skyward by the flames begin to rain back down to the ground around my body.
I feel myself falling then, pulled back to the earth and into my body with such speed and force that when my soul reconnects itself inside the space where it belongs, I sit suddenly upright and my eyes fly open. I breathe in a long extended gasp of air and double over onto my side in a fit of coughs.
Caleb reaches me first. He falls to his knees and begins to sob in a mix of relief and horror and ardent joy.
“It’s a miracle! A bonified miracle right before our eyes! My own brother! A Thompson doubly blessed by our gods! Born bearing The Mark of Zygomar and now blessed with the kiss of Vorgrath! The kiss has killed men twice his size and yet he lives! He lives! He will receive more and more gifts from our gods as time goes forth! He has received Vorgrath’s kissed unscathed and he lives!” Caleb declares.
“I certainly don’t feel unscathed,” I complain, “in fact I feel very, very scathed.” I raise my hand to my singed hair and a clump of it crumbles and falls away at my touch.
Mother kneels to clutch my body against hers ignoring my protests about every inch of my skin searing with pain.
When the ambulance called by the looky-loo on the hill arrives, they are sent away at my insistence. I’m burned, yes, and while in a few places my skin blisters with 2nd degree level injury, those spots are sparce and far between. the majority of me is simply red and no more sensitive to the touch than a severe sunburn.
That night before bed, Mother shaves away what is left of my hair until I’m as bald as an Acolyte of The Order of The Zygomarian Sect. Until I’m as bald as Caleb. She rubs a soothing salve into my skin and promises to burn an offering–a whole chicken–to Trula, the Goddess of Health and Vitality, in my name to speed up my recovery, that the burns on my skin might heal faster. She promises to use the small furnace set before the alter next to the chicken coop to burn the chicken while it’s still alive and I thank her with tears in my eyes. Mother is too kind-hearted and has more than once told me that live offerings are against her nature. She reminds me that torturing an animal to death hurts her very soul but she promises to do this in my name right away and sends me to bed.
As I lay in my room, staring up as my ceiling fan spins around and around endlessly in the dark, I begin to softly and tunelessly hum from the back of my throat. I’ve never been good at opening my mind to the gods with The Humming Trance but tonight I try with all the might I can muster from my soul. I never thought to ask Vorgrath what the creatures from my vision were. They defied nature with their very form and being and I needed to know what they meant.
I can feel my mind open to the gods so quickly with The Humming Trance this time that I wonder if maybe Caleb was right…maybe I shall receive more and more gifts from our gods as time goes on?
Chapter 3 – Unholy Children
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2023
The gods have abandoned me. I’m convinced of it now. Even Zygomar doesn’t help me although he should because we Thompsons are the ones that founded this holy land in his name. My forefather Ezekiel brought his worship here to Holybrook. He first showed the united tribes the promise of this land and sowed the first seeds in the surrounding earth. I don’t understand at all.
How could the Great One abandon me? Where are you Zygomar? I bear your mark upon my skin! I have worn it on my very ass from the moment of my birth! Are you truly weakened to the point that you don’t have the power to hear me and help me? Do you defend yourself? How can you forsake me now when I need your intervention most? The others don’t answer my prayers either and I fear the cause is two-fold: because they are sleeping and they have also grown afraid of choosing a side. It’s clear to me now who will win this war for power. I believed in you. I was always faithful and you’ve just given up.
My phone will die soon and I fear that I am slowly dying too. My hunger is endless now, clouding my thoughts and in the small world of this attic where I’ve confined myself, the shapes of things in the darkness are growing undefined. The sharp edges of everything have become relentlessly dull no matter how hard I try to focus my eyes in the dimness here.
And they’re all still out there–just beyond the door whispering their whispers…
And their fingers still continue to scratch.
I open my eyes in a dark place and find myself suspended–floating in a void that’s filled with stars and swirling galaxies that appear clearly and far off but are actually close enough to reach out and swirl around with my touch; I do so now, watching the world around me ring with ripples like a pool of water that reflects the night sky. This place exists light-years away from my physical body. My spirit has projected itself here astrally and I exist in this impossible place as a nonmaterial being. This is what it’s like to enter The Humming Trance–it’s a secondary dimension that exists deep inside the subconscious minds of the believers. This is a place I’ve visited a handful of times before, although the journey is usually not quite this effortless. It usually takes hours of concentration but something is different tonight and it only takes a moment.
We use this place to connect with our gods. We know they are there because we can speak to them directly but they don’t exactly exist here. It’s more like appearing within a telephone signal or a radio wave. We can hear them if we listen closely but they speak from someplace else unseen–this time is different because the god I seek an audience with reveals himself in his corporeal form right before me. I know this is anomalous. Something few have experienced before and I’m shocked and horrified by how he appears. His physical form is an abominable writhing mass of tentacles that seem to undulate slowly in the darkness, gliding as though swimming, treading the pool of black–treading the nothingness. At the center of his multiple swaying limbs is a head with an oblong shape. I’m struck with silence seeing him because he is nothing short of terrible. Yet, I am unafraid of what he is or the unspoken danger facing him might mean for me in this dark place.
When he speaks to me, his mouth (or what I presume to be his mouth) doesn’t move and his voice resonates to me from inside my mind, the way that the old gods have always chosen to speak to us. I hear him from the quiet space between my ears where my soul resides.
You seek anssswersss, child Vorgrath’s voice echoes like the hissing of a snake through the darkness where I float half dreaming, half awake, and answersss I can give…
Answersss to questionsss you don’t even asssk. You seek to know about the thingsss your ssspirit sssaw after you received the blessing of my kissss.
He falls silent and I feel a surge of knowledge pass through me. It happens in seconds: thoughts, images, concepts and complete histories…things so old they predate writing become known to me and somehow the entirety of this knowledge is relayed to me without a single word from Vorgrath.
What I learn in these moments is this–the entire history of the gods and world I knew and how it came to be:
The old gods that we worship in Holybrook have existed since the cosmos burst forth from nothingness. They have existed since the stars were young. They are ancient and everlasting. At first they held no extraordinary power. They were simply advanced consciousnesses without physical forms set adrift through space. There were hundreds of these beings flying slowly through many galaxies and exploring the many corners of the universe. Some watched certain sectors more closely, fueled by their own curiosities and drawn to specific places throughout the vastness by the emergence of sentience like themselves. Some wanted it to develop and flourish. A larger number of these omnipotent celestial beings were uninterested by such things and found contentment to aimlessly wander. Of this type, there remain countless multitudes throughout the cosmos that float through the dark with no destinations in mind nor drive to search out anything specific. They are content with their existence as things are and find no need to change the course of what they’ve always done and they will continue on in this way for eternity.
Our gods were of the first more type and more ambitious, driven to explore the young planets like our own. Volcanic and evolving places experiencing tectonic shifts, changing and morphing as they formed atmospheres and evolved. Eventually these worlds began realizing the hidden potential that drew these gods to them in the first place and the spark of life spread quickly across their surfaces.
When our gods first arrived on this planet and chose to enter this plane to observe, they were content to watch formlessly and unseen but the longer they observed and life began to flourish across the Earth, they found that their exposure to our world began to cause transformations in themselves. Their immaterial, incorporeal presences began to manifest physical forms of their own. A number of these beings found such changes in themselves undesirable and returned to the stars when their energies began to shift as mankind evolved from the mud. More of them vacated in greater numbers still when we began to walk upright and develop further.
Eventually only five remained.
These five vied for power to wield over the life on this planet. They made themselves known to man and over time, presented themselves as powerful gods, and the people formed five tribes–one for each of them. Each tribe was separate and divided by the deity that ruled over them. Death and destruction followed each of these gods as their tribes began to fight for the same resources and the right to settle the same lands.
Then after centuries of this, there came an age where the leaders of each of their peoples grew tired of the endless war and violence and death. The chieftains from each clan sent their soothsayers and shamans to a neutral place to negotiate and find a path to peace. It was in this age of reason and knowledge that the tribes began to work together, building a tentative peace between them despite the warring nature of their ancient gods.
During this establishment of communication between the tribes grew cooperation and eventually from that, prosperity. With the channels of dialogue finally open, the highest priests from each religion began to whisper of the prophecies they kept secret in the ages prior. Foretellings of the comings of their futures revealed to them in many ways: in visions, trances and dreams; in divination, astrology and tea leaves; whispered from the lips of beasts and read in the fortune telling bones used by certain oracles. These prophecies came to the holy men of every tribe throughout their histories and when they began to share among themselves they realized that each prophecy was the same:
A prophet would be born. A messiah that would rework the threads of their existences and weave them into something new. He would devote the first third of his life to learning the prayers and traditions of each of the five tribes. He would learn to speak to each god in their native tongue and he would learn to invoke them each in time, by calling out to them by their secret names. The second third of his life would be spent uniting the tribes as one. One nation, one people. All of them sharing one religion created from the fabric of them all. The final third of his life would be spent taking the new united tribe from the darkness of the caves and deserts where their civilizations was born and he would lead them to The Fields of Nectar and Plenty and that place, when they found it, would be called Holybrook. And this prophet would be called Ezekiel.
And the people, at the end of their migration, would still keep each of the five elder gods in their new, unified way, but they would choose one from among them to be the leader of the others. Once that leader was chosen, the other four would drift to sleep in the endless way that lasted eons to dream for eternity in the immaterial land of slumber. This great sleep would signify the end of their history of strife and war forever.
Occasionally one god might grow restless when a devotee called out to them by name in a way that was persistent and insistent enough to warrant their arousal. They would judge this adherent, determine whether to reward their insistent prayers or consider them unworthy and smite them for disturbing their slumber. Once these calls were satisfied, they would return to their default incorporeal quiet state of sleep.
But while Zygomar ruled and the others dreamed for endless scores of time, Vorgrath slept with one eye open, biding his moment and waiting for Zygomar to grow ambivalent or weary of Holybrook’s devotion.
Vorgrath told me that one day he was delighted as he watched as Zygomar too drifted off to sleep. As he slept in the unseen ethereal place where the gods are kept, Vorgrath watched and waited for Zygomar’s arousal–we, his devoted people, had no way to know he could no longer watch over or hear us, so the traditions we kept continued on the way they always had–his name was still spoken daily, devotions and feast days were kept and offerings were sacrificed to him frequently but despite this, he continued to sleep. Still has he slept now for over a decade. Seeing that time was ripe to seize power, Vorgrath opened his eyes fully and chose tonight for the specific moment to bless me with his kiss and set the things I witnessed loose from the earth.
Vorgrath named these abominations his “Dark Children” and their soul purpose is to convert Zygomar’s followers to himself, ensuring that he would become chosen the new supreme god of Holybrook making Zygomar one of the lesser gods in endless dreaming with the others on the incorporeal plane.
He believed if he could convert the Thompson clan first, the descendants of Ezekiel, the rest of Holybrook would follow the doctrine set forth for them as they always had. He said he blessed me with his kiss during the lantern lighting, and endowed me with the gift of visions in the hopes that the first of the Thompsons he converted might be me.
When I absorb this story from him, I take the briefest of moments to contemplate the offer before firmly telling him my refusal. I refused to name him the leader of them all because he was attempting to take this title by deception and force. I told him the people of Holybrook would never accept the supreme leadership of a god so dishonest and cruel. Zygomar was chosen by the pioneers, the original settlers of Holybrook not only for his great power but for his endless patience for sinners who had lost their way and his benevolence and love.
At this declaration he welcomed me to try to stop him and hurtled me from of my Humming Trance and back to face the ceiling fan as it spun in the darkness of my bedroom.
Prior to my face-to-face interaction with Vorgrath, I hadn’t told my family what I’d seen in my vision. I was hesitant, considering the possibility of that the sights of my out-of-body experience were a simple hallucination–the result of my proximity to death. Now, however, I sat up in bed with the resolve to do so. The necessity of doing so flowing through me, imbuing me with a sense of urgency. Although moving made the agony of my raw skin flare anew, warning my family that something unholy was afoot overrode the importance of my discomfort and I climbed from bed with swift, but cautious speed.
As I make it to the stairs at the end of the hallway, something strange and inexplicable comes over me. It starts with a slight tremor; my extremities loosening and contracting against my will and beyond my control. Next the incoordination begins to set in, an extreme numbness that spreads involuntarily through my limbs. Losing coordination entirely, eventually this paralyzation grows further and before I am aware, my limbs become like gelatin. I’m completely unable to support my weight and fall in the hallway where I stand. Thankfully I am already using the wall to support myself and when I finally lose the strength to hold myself up, I’m slumping into a convenient sitting position with my back against the wall.
The lights in the hallway flicker, or perhaps they don’t flicker at all. Perhaps it’s my vision itself that begins to flicker. I blink as the hallway alternates from fully lit to darkness. The power surge along with my swoon is disorienting so I blink against the constant change of light a few times…
I close my eyes on the hallway one last time…
…and I find myself outside. I’m kneeling at the altar outside the chicken coop. The furnace set before it is raging with bright flames and a living fowl, a fully conscious chicken is being sacrificed. It beats its wings against the doors, trying to escape from the flames. My heart is breaking as I watch this, but somehow I know it is being done for a greater good. Still, my eyes begin to water and raising my hands, I wipe the tears away.
It takes me several moments to process what I’m seeing and I realize that the eyes I am using to look out at the night sky over the ranch…the eyes that are fixated on the helpless chicken as it struggles…the eyes that have begun to cry…are eyes that do not belong to me.
I’m looking at the world through the eyes of my mother.
In the darkness, something moves through the field. It stretches itself in geometrically straight lines–movement that defies the natural order of things–it creeps through the tall grasses that surround the chicken coop. I am not afraid. I know that I am protected from harm by not just our supreme god Zygomar but by the other four gods as well. I wasn’t born a Thompson, but I am the mother of five of them so I am protected from all evil things that lurk in the dark just the same as my husband and children are protected. I watch as this thing stretches a sharp appendage through the grass and moves closer…
Its skin is unsettlingly black. The type of black that absorbs all light into itself so that it can remain unseen–a shadow come to life…but I can see it just the same as it moves slowly toward me in the shadows of the overgrowth. As it emerges from the weeds, I see that the skin isn’t black and devoid of color at all. Its skin is covered in dark crystalline geodes that appear to shine through the darkness like a formation of small, craggy obsidian rocks. The moonlight reflects across it from every angle, as though it shines like the lights of a thousand stars.
I hear myself gasp at the unnatural sight of it. It moves like an amoeba, only not…the movement is all wrong as it pulls its rocky form across the ground towards me.
It stops suddenly after emerging from its hiding place. Whether I’ve startled it or its attempting to remain unseen, I can’t tell and I stare at it for a long moment, contemplating it curiously. I decide that it makes me uneasy, but that’s probably due to its anomalous nature. I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t think a thing like this should exist.
Watching it move slowly in my direction, I realize how unsettling it is–the way it extends its sharp appendages lengthily outward from its body in order to drag itself across the dirt through the dark, the strange pattern it leaves on the ground, and the way its overall form keeps shifting into perfectly undeviatingly angular and congruent lines–the seemingly impenetrable texture of its skin, a sort of armor reminiscent of a living crystal…
Though it appears to be eyeless, I realize that it seems to be watching me back.
It advances suddenly and with a speed that is nearly imperceptible, so quickly I’m helpless to react to it when it lunges in my direction. It lands heavily on me, crushing itself against my face. I try to pull it away but it’s covering my eyes and I can’t see anything except for the sharp darkness of its underside. Its acuminous legs are wrapping themselves around the back of my head and I can feel its sharp protuberances multiply, numbering in the dozens now. Each time I pull one away, another grows out from the center of the thing to take its place.
Until this moment, I haven’t screamed, but now the instinct to cry out in terror takes over and I realize too late that this was a mistake. I begin to feel the thing reach out half a dozen of its protuberances and press themselves into my mouth and sharply down my throat. The strange armor covering its skin feels like swallowing a thousand shards of glass and I can feel each of them digging against my insides as it moves itself down.
The vision ends and my eyes spring open. I find myself back in the hall where the vision began. My hand is covering my mouth and I don’t remember putting it there but I did it to stifle myself from screaming.
At first, I don’t react to what I’ve seen, but I can’t just sit here in the hallway. I have to do something. I have to protect the others and my mind races through the inventory of weapons available. Without knowing the weaknesses of Vorgrath’s minions, how do I take them face-to-face? I do know that Father has multiple guns but he also keeps them locked in a safe. If I only had one of them, I think. “I am a pretty good shot.* But would a gun even work? The more I consider the way those things looked and moved climbing up from the depths of the ground, I don’t even know how effective bullets would be against them. Their skin seems to be made of crystal or stone–what if it’s an adaptation? Some armor to protect them from harm? What if it’s as hard and impenetrable as stone?
I decide I have to find Father, wherever he is, and tell him everything I know. He would know what to do. If I can find Father and tell him what is happening, he will arm us both…but what if he doesn’t believe me? Worse–what if he does and we arm ourselves, but using firearms on them ends up more dangerous than finding another way? How hard are the geodes they are composed of? What if it turns out their skin makes them impenetrable and the bullets ricochet right back in my direction? This isn’t something I can figure out on my own. Father might be nearby–inside of the house–if not he might be putting out the lanterns. I want to look for him immediately but I know the smartest thing for me to do is to find something I can use to defend myself first.
With renewed resolve, I return quickly to my room–the burns that tormented my skin now nearly forgotten thanks to adrenaline and urgency. I collect my hunting knife from its place on the dresser. I decide that this is good, but I need something else. I can’t explain my logic, but I want my slingshot also. I’m good with it and use it to kill crows all the time. It’s not a toy. I look for it for several moments before remembering where to look…
I loaned it to my nephew Micah earlier in the day. I did it with his mother’s blessing of course when he saw me using it and expressed interest in trying it out. I knew it wouldn’t do much against Vorgrath’s children, but having it would make me feel better, regardless. I have no delusions about what it is…it’s a placebo at best…a glorified security blanket. It’s better than nothing.
Leaving my bedroom, I head down the hallway to the guest room where Micah and Hannah, Josiah’s twins, sleep while they stay here for the seven nights celebrating the Feast of Eternal Abundance with everyone.
This room is upstairs as well–at the other end of the hallway. I enter quietly, inching the door open slowly, avoiding the creak of the rusted hinges. The door only protests if you’re careless. If opened slowly and methodically, it doesn’t make a sound. I stop when the gap is large enough for me to fit inside. I don’t want to draw any attention to myself and if the twins are asleep, I don’t want it screaming out into the darkness and waking them. It’s nearly 11:00pm, making it well past their bedtime. The room is dark and I can barely see them when I enter. They’re definitely already in their beds.
The slingshot is easy to locate. The curtains of the guest room window are tied open and it rests on the windowsill, illuminated by the moonlight almost as if it stands on stage below a spotlight. When I first enter the room it was draped entirely in shadow but now as my eyes adjust, as the shapes grow clearer the muted light from the night outside enhances things further.
Vorgrath and his creatures intend to convert every Thompson. He told me that himself. He won’t discriminate or deviate from this plan. I stand framed by the window staring at the faint shadow that I cast onto the carpet and consider this more deeply. The twins are definitely targets as well–just as my mother was targeted and how my Father will be too–my brothers and sisters, Josiah’s entire family–they’ll all be targeted. Not a single one of us will be overlooked. Bringing the twins with me isn’t really a decision, but more of an instinct…I am the only one who knows everything about what’s happening. The responsibility to keep everyone safe falls to me alone–I’m especially responsible for the children who are completely innocent and defenseless in this. They are the weakest of us alI.
Part of me wants to run from all of this. Get as far away from the ranch as I can get and hope for the best for everyone I leave behind–but that would be wrong. It would be weak. I have to wake the two of them and take them with me while I search for Father and everyone else. Their parents will likely be somewhere in the main house. It’s less likely they would be outside somewhere on the grounds so late, but not impossible. I can’t leave these kids behind with the hope that someone else will come to their rescue. It has to be me. I can keep them safe as I look for everyone else. Not taking them with me puts them at risk that The Dark Children may find them here first, where they lay hopelessly asleep.
With the window at my back, I am facing the door. I turn right toward the guest beds. I’m about to wake them but just before I do, I have to stifle myself from gasping in shock.
Two twin beds occupy the room and each child lays in one. Immediately something about their posture strikes me as wrong. Unnatural. Their forms are barely outlined in the moonlight. The square of light cast by the window is too far from them to be much help, my eyes are fully adjusted to the darkness, but I can’t be sure if what I am seeing is true. It may be a trick of the shadows but it appears that they each lay on their backs with their arms laced across their chests. It’s the posture a mortician might use for an open-casket viewing. It isn’t their posture that seems most strange to me…I can tell something is wrong but I’m having trouble identifying what it is…and then it hits me: neither of them are in pajamas. They are still fully clothed wearing the same outfits they wore earlier in the day. Instead of being tucked beneath their covers, they’re on top of them. These things are strange but there’s something else I don’t like–they lay motionlessly, breathlessly, as if they are already dead. I can’t even hear them breathing–not even faintly. I hold my own breath just to be sure.
As if I weren’t unsettled enough, as I am taking all of this in, deciding what I should do, they both turn their heads to face me where I stare at them from the window at the same moment. Their eyes are wide and unblinking and I think that something more about the two of them might be wrong, but I have to move closer to be sure.
Moving cautiously, my heart starts to jump from my chest and into my throat over and over again as I take each slow step across the room and toward the beds. When I am halfway across the room, I’m finally sure of what I see. The eyes they stare at me with are not their own.
They’ve turned fully black–the whites are gone–the usual shade of blue is gone as well. The eyes are too round and too large and everything between their eyelids has been replaced by a void of nothingness. Pitch black like the darkness of space that seems to sparkle like the sky at midnight. I’m still several feet away from them but I can see the reflection of my silhouette clearly in their stares, outlined by the moon as it watches the three of us through the window behind me.
Instantly, my desire to safeguard them dissipates. I’m too late. It’s too late for them. They’re already gone.
I run from the room and down the hallway toward the stairs. I don’t know how to save anyone but myself right now.
I take the stairs two at a time and when I reach the landing of the first floor, I feel the onset of the same tremors that I felt earlier. The ones that happened before the vision I had of my mother. My muscles begin to loosen and contract against my will. Another vision is coming and I don’t know how to stop it from happening, but I can’t have it here–out in the open–at the bottom of the stairs. Once it begins, I won’t be able to defend myself…I’ll be helpless. Incapacitated.
I look around quickly, desperately, for a place to hide. The numbness begins to spread through me again–and then I see it–the coat closet beneath the staircase. Using the wall to steady myself I make my way to it and reach it just as my coordination begins to fail. I reach for the handle and watch my arm swing at it impotently, my fingers won’t move at all. I’m panicking now–how will I get inside? I try for the handle again, swinging both arms this time and manage to squeeze it between my wrists but the attempt seems futile. Just as I’m about to give up, accept my fate, and allow myself to collapse where I stand, I manage to turn it enough to unlatch and swing the door open. With no hope of closing the door behind me, I stumble into the closet and press myself between the thick layers of coats hanging there, pushing myself behind them and against the wall. Unable to support my weight, I lean forward and as my vision begins to flicker in and out, the last thought I have is the hope that I’ve made it deep enough into the coat closet that if anyone passes by the open door, I’m far enough between the winter clothes to be unseen.
Unable to move into the closet any further, my eyes begin to close against my will…
…when I open them again, I am running through one of the cornfields. There is someone in the next row over, to my right. I can’t see clearly who it is, but every now and then I see the shape of them through slight gaps in the line of crops. Even when I can’t see them, I hear their rapid footfalls as they run as well. They’re running fast and I can’t be certain, but I don’t think they’re chasing me. If they were chasing me, they’d pass through the stalks and run along the same row as I do. We might be running away from something together. Someone might be chasing us through the dark–or maybe we’re not running from someone, but something.
”HELP! SOMEBODY HELP ME!”
The screaming voice belongs to a woman. She’s ahead of me and she’s nearby and her screaming doesn’t matter out here. The nearest neighbor is more than four miles away. Nobody is close enough to the ranch to hear her, and even if they were, there’d be nothing they could do that would help her.
The running footsteps in the row adjacent are falling behind now. They’re moving fast, but I’m moving faster and they’re unable to keep up with me. It isn’t possible for them to keep up with me. It never has been.
The woman screams for help again and it sounds even closer than it did before. I’m gaining. Then a second voice, one coming from the same general area, is screaming for help as well.
This voice I recognize. This second person is easily frightened. I grew up listening to this voice do its share of screaming and and equal share of crying as well. Right now she’s doing both.
Nobody is chasing me.
I’m the one who’s chasing.
It’s Caleb. I’m looking through the eyes of Caleb and he’s fast. Much faster than the person in the next row. If I had to hazard a guess, the partner he’s outrunning must be Josiah. He’s never been as fast as Caleb. Nobody I’ve ever met is faster than Caleb. They’re both chasing Leah somewhere deep in one of the fields. I’ve never heard Leah scream in my life. Never. But somehow, something makes me sure the first voice I hear calling for help is hers.
The second voice, the one I recognize, belongs to Rebekah. Rebekah, who I’ve made scream a lot. I always did it because she’s fun to scare. It’s so easy to do and she screams so loudly. She also cries a lot and I recognize the sound of that too. Rebekah who cries if she mistakenly causes a loaf of bread she’s baking to burn. Who loudly cried herself to sleep every night for a month when Samuel, who gave her armfuls and armfuls of bruises was trampled to death in the mud by his own mule because I prayed and prayed for him to be punished…yes I’ve heard those screams. I’d know the sound of those tears.
This is more frightened than she’s ever sounded in her entire life.
Still running; never slowing–not when I’m so very close. Their screaming is giving them away. I’m getting closer and closer to them. Moving to the left, to the next row, I slip between two towering stalks of corn. They’re not in this row but I’m getting closer. I slip left again to the next row, and again to the next and I see them. They’re not 20 feet in front of me now.
I hear rustling through the stalks behind me and still running, I glance back over my shoulder to see Josiah pushing his way into this row as well. We make eye contact and I gesture at him to pick up the pace because he’s fallen so far behind. His wide midnight eyes grow even wider when he sees how close we are to them and his speed increases with renewed vigor.
I face forward and Leah is just ahead. The gap between us is less than 12 feet now. Rebekah is further up and faster, but not by much, ahead of Leah by just 4 or 5 feet more.
Leah is 10 feet now.
I reach Leah easily, but instead of leaping onto her back, I pass her. Rebekah is more of a challenge which excites me more. Josiah can catch his wife himself.
When she’s less than a foot ahead of me, I leap mid-run and land square on Rebekah’s back; wrapping my legs around her torso and pulling her to the ground and both women begin to scream.
*I turn her forcefully onto her back and straddle her stomach. Using one hand to hold her neck against the ground, with my free hand, I shove my fingers between her lips and then between her teeth and force her jaw as widely as I can get it to open. Then I open my own mouth now and something dark and sharp begins reaching out from it, ripping its way up from deep inside my stomach. It drags itself out from within my insides with one of its sharp pseudopodia, a long black arm covered with jagged obsidian stones that shift and move as if they’ve come to life. Both of our mouths open, holding her jaw, I press my face to hers and feed her some of the thing that’s been hiding inside of me for hours now.
I feed it to her like Tabitha fed it to me. Like I fed it to Josiah after. Like Josiah fed it to Micah and Hannah. Like he’ll soon feed it to his wife who runs past me while I feed Rebekah. As she passes, Leah stumbles over a rock in the path and land on her hands and knees in the dirt. Josiah’s just a few feet away from her now and almost on top of her…
Chapter 4 – Old Farmhouse
Thursday, November 23rd, 2023
I’m still here. I have been locked in here for four nights and three days. I locked myself in this attic Sunday night to hide from them. I wasn’t thinking things the full way through. If I’d only just ran and never stopped. The sounds they’re making are endless and awful. I’ve been awake this entire time but I can feel myself fading. I’m trapped and starving and I feel the walls literally closing in. This place is so old that a few of them are physically crumbling down around me. I can tell that there was once a whole second room up here, but it’s just a tumbledown wall that’s left–fallen over. What remains is half a wall and a pile of broken bricks.
This is what the end feels like for me.
I hope it doesn’t end this way for you. Or for anyone. It’s awful.
Last night, driven solely by starvation, I killed one of the rats trapped in this dark space with me. Restlessness and hunger is where the shadows come alive and their whispers torment me endlessly coming through so clearly from nearby; from behind the barrier of the attic door. I’ve never felt this sort of weakness in my life. Not physically or mentally. Then I saw it looking at me from the corner. I was desperate to have anything in my stomach and this thing was the fattest rat I’ve ever seen, so I had to have it. Hunger drove me to it. I found a large piece of broken brick and hit it in one try, right through the eye with my slingshot. The same way I used to collect crows to burn for offerings. I couldn’t believe I didn’t miss it. I ate it raw but I couldn’t keep it down. I threw up and made myself weaker than I was to start with.
I regain consciousness in the closet and for a moment I’m too stunned to move. Those things have taken everyone. My entire family. Even Father? I can’t be sure. Even if they haven’t found him yet, I know that they will eventually. Nobody can save me. I have to save myself.
I have to get out of here. I have to find somewhere to hide.
I stumble to my feet and leave the closet. Turning the corner to the living room, I head to the front door, which has been left wide open. Running now, I pass the rocking chairs on the porch and quickly down the wooden steps.
Somewhere to the right in the dark, someplace distant beneath the moonlight, Leah is still screaming. It’s echoing across the entire valley and sounds like it might go on forever until it stops abruptly–suddenly. The quiet that follows is deafening and rings in my ears. I have to make my way to the road that leads up the hill.
I’m about to take a shortcut through one of the fields to the left when I see Father up ahead. He’s near one of the scarecrows. I’m about to sprint to him when I notice that he’s slowly walking toward it through the tall stalks and I realize he must have already been taken as well. Is he putting the lantern out? With Leah screaming and all of the commotion off to his right? He reaches up and as though he might be about to extinguish the lamp but instead he places both of his hands against the crossbar of the scarecrow’s arms and roughly pushes it over. The lantern smashes on the ground and I can tell from here that the lantern hasn’t gone out and he doesn’t seem to be concerned with putting it out either. Glancing around to the fields where the other scarecrows stand I can see that three lanterns are still burning. The rest of them have been pushed over and small fires are starting everywhere.
I can’t go left and make it to the road unseen. I’d have to go right past him and it’s too much of a risk. Caleb and Josiah are somewhere to my right. The chicken coop is that direction as well and I don’t have any idea where mother might have gone after the unholy thing roughly grated its way inside her throat and possessed her, but this place is huge. It’s a fully functional farm and ranch. There are crop fields and ten different pens and barns for the livestock where I could hide until and wait this out. Wait until they’ve left the ranch and moved on to Holybrook. Surely when they can’t find me they’ll think I’ve made my way to town and leave this place behind.
I’m not sure which way to go. I wish I had more time to think, but I can’t stand here in the open in the yard of the main farmhouse trying to make up my mind.
Quickly, I cut through the side yard and around to the back, moving between bushes and between my brother’s trucks as quietly and low to the ground as I can manage. Just past where the trucks are is the garage where the rest of the vehicles are parked. It’s the stand-alone type just behind the main farmhouse and I don’t want to move too close to it because there’s a loud banging sound coming from inside of the building and every light is on inside.
Zygomar please wake up and help me! Tell me which way to go? I was chosen to bear your mark on my skin and I’ve been true and faithful to you and you abandon me after all of my devotion? How many of my offerings have gone unnoticed while you slept? Twice a month I sent you sacrifices! Yes, they were small ones, but how many of your followers are burning offerings every fortnight while you’ve been asleep for over ten years? You’ve been asleep the entire time I’ve been doing this yearly fucking ritual? I’ve done so much to gain your favor and it was all for nothing!
I cut through the nearest field. I want to sprint away from the main buildings but those things are not just inside of my family, are they? They could be anywhere out here. I have to keep quiet and low to the ground.
Do I go to the slaughtering barn? Should I hide there? Will they check there? Can I really hide there with that awful smell? I don’t think I could stand it for very long if I did. I’m not even going the right direction to make it to that building anyway. I’d have to double back and risk passing by one of the remaining scarecrows to do it. I can’t do that. Not while Father is wandering around in the dark fields somewhere pushing them down with the lanterns still burning.
Half of this place will be on fire by morning.
When I see the dark shape of the building at the edge of the property I know it’s my only option. Nobody ever goes there. It doesn’t even have power anymore. They’ll never think to look for me there. We’ve always called it “The Old Farmhouse,” not because it’s the original building–this place is very old and that’s been gone for a long, long time–it’s because there are two houses. The main farmhouse and the one that’s slowly falling down. The only reason it hasn’t been raised to the ground yet is because Father is too sentimental. It used to be the only farmhouse on the property when he was young. His grandfather grew up in that house, and then his father, and he did until he was about my age and they built the main farmhouse and left the old one behind. It’s been abandoned my entire life.
I make my way to the building. It’s a long way from the buildings that are in use and it seems to take forever to make it there moving quietly and slowly toward it. When I reach it, I find that the door won’t open. It’s warped in its frame and doesn’t want to budge. I use my shoulder against it until the part of the rotten wood that holds the latching mechanism cracks and it finally swings open. It hangs like a loose tooth, swaying in the breeze on rusted hinges then. I realize when I’m standing in this doorway that I’ve looked at this old place for my entire life and not once in that time have I ever been inside it. Not even just to explore. I’ve just been watching it as the shutters hang a bit looser every year and the building itself seems to sag more and more as if the whole thing is slowly sinking into the ground–as though someday if it’s patient, the ground will eventually swallow the entire building whole…it just has to wait and it has plenty of time to wait.
The inside of the house is dark. There’s dust everywhere and the smell of rotten wood invades my nose so I breathe in through my mouth. In doing that, I find that the mold in the air is so thick it coats my tongue and I can taste it. I imagine I can feel it taking root inside me and new growths are already beginning to flourish in my lungs. The house is even smaller on the inside than it looks from the outside. They left a few pieces of furniture behind–a rug and an armchair in the front room. It looks like there’s a large table in one of the rooms just beyond that, but otherwise the entire place seems mostly empty. I look around in the dark to find someplace quiet and hidden where I won’t be seen right away if they decide to hunt me down. They might check this building after all.
I close the door behind me but it doesn’t want to stay that way so I drag the armchair over to it, and shove it into place so that it stays closed. Once the door is shut, the house is suddenly very dark. Not much light finds its way through the grimy windows. Feeling my way along the wall, I find my way into another room. I feel the shape of a rusty antique refrigerator and just past that is definitely a sink by the feel of it. Walking around the room slowly with my hand pressed against the wall of what used to be a kitchen, I find a staircase leading up.
There’s more light in the attic because there’s a giant hole in the ceiling and there’s more furniture here upstairs than was left downstairs. The door is almost three inches thick and has an old fashioned crossbar with iron arms drilled directly into the bricks on either side of it to hold the plank of wood that’s meant to brace the door in place once it’s barred. I see the armoire right away and when I decide to move it against the door as well, it takes me a very long time to get it into place because it is very, very heavy.
I don’t sleep because I’m still afraid, but for the first time in hours I feel safe…
They don’t find me here right away.
If being reduced to trying to eat an entire rat raw wasn’t enough to break whatever spirit I had left, they’ve finally stopped whispering because they’ve accomplished what they’ve been working at with their fingers day and night and now they’re using all of their energy to scratch the thick door to splinters. It must be 100 years old like the rest of this old farmhouse and it took much longer than I expected. Someone, one of the twins I think, was the first to scratch their way through. They did it last night. Now their little finger keeps prodding its way inside from the crack of the hole it’s made along the frame and the fingernails are broken from slowly chipping the wood away. A larger finger will fit through soon. Then an arm. Then they’ll push the piece of furniture away and come inside.
There’s nothing left to do but wait and pray Zygomar might bear my soul to keep, should he at some point decide to wake…
Maybe when my family finally climbs down my throat, feeding me the crystal skin of the things inside that I can’t see, but know are there–when they’re finally reaching their black crystal tongues into my mouth and down so I no longer breathe and claim the space behind my eyes like some nightmare fueled dream…maybe then I’ll finally find relief. Maybe then I’ll finally get some sleep?
If you’re reading this, don’t send help. It’s far too late for that.
I hope whatever rituals you keep today didn’t end up becoming such a mess and your family isn’t just outside waiting to kill you…
Happy Thanksgiving, I guess…