by Andrew House
Where do you belong if not in the here and now?
The sun had just started to dip behind the thick mess of cypress leaves when Molly realized it: the boys had probably made the whole thing up. Of course there was no path for her to find, of course there was no clubhouse, and of course she was an idiot. If she ever got back home, she’d punch David square in the jaw.
She rolled her jeans up a few inches higher and sloshed through the green-black water, scraping away the thick globs of algae that clung to her legs. A few yards ahead of her, she spotted a half-fallen tree jutting obliquely from the water. When she reached it, she struggled to gain a hold on its slippery bark, then pulled herself onto it and climbed upward. Her heart sank a little more with every inch she ascended. On one side of her stood a forest of cypress, and on the other was a moss-covered lake. Jagged spires of wood shot from the lake’s surface like the fingers of some corpselike hand. No civilization in sight.
Molly glanced over her shoulder, then started to shuffle down the tree. When she had reached the halfway point, she felt her tennis shoes slip on the slimy bark. A helpless cry echoed through the swamp as she fell, her arms reaching madly for anything she could grab to save herself. It was useless – she hit the shallow water face-up, and her back made a sharp smacking noise. She took in a mouthful of fetid water, gagging on the taste of dead plant life. She swam as quickly as she could with her stinging back, flailing through the water and hoping there were no alligators around to notice.
Her legs scraped the bottom as she neared land. As a litany of coughs sputtered from her mouth, she dragged herself onto a small island of thick shrubs. She hacked until her throat stung, then looked at her mud-covered clothes and thought of her father. If playing with the boys was enough to warrant a spanking, this was enough for worse. Much worse. Her body whimpered in anticipation, but she shook it off.
“Hey. Little girl.” Her stomach leaped, and she scrambled to her feet. Only a few feet away, an old man was perched on a stump amidst the thick bushes. A raggedy fedora shaded his face, and Molly had to squint to make out his figure in the darkness. She stared at him for a minute, thinking. On one hand, asking a stranger for help could be dangerous. On the other, being lost in Atchafalaya Swamp was dangerous enough.
“What do you want?” Molly asked. She watched the man warily, from the cover of ferns. He laughed, a wheezy and pathetic noise.
“I want to help you get out of here, of course.” He leaned over and picked up a cane from the ground. It was knotted, with a bulbous tip, and it made a squelching noise as he plunged it into the earth for leverage. He stood, quivering, and took a step toward Molly. She cringed.
“What are you doing here? My daddy’s a cop, and if –” Molly started, but the man waved his hand at her and made a groaning noise.
As he stepped closer, the light of the fresh moon illuminated his face. He was indeed old – almost impossibly so, with no spot on his face free of wrinkles. Lesions dotted his skin – some red and boil-like, others a deep and discolored brown. When he smiled, she saw that his teeth were jagged and smeared with black. But at the same time, there was something soothing in his eyes, something wholly natural, as if the moon itself resided in them.
“Don’t get to worrying,” the man said in his chain-smoker voice. “I’m just here to help you is all.”
“My name’s Molly. Who are you?” Molly asked, inching closer to the strange old man.
“That doesn’t matter much,” he said. “What matters is I’m here. And I’m going to help you out.” He smiled again. “You don’t belong here.”
“I know. David and Mark told me to run through the swamp, so I could find this tree house, but I think they were lying –”
“No, no,” the man said, wagging his finger. “You don’t belong here. Not the swamp. Just here.” Molly stared at him.
“What are you talking about?” she asked. The man stepped closer, and a small voice in Molly’s head whispered for her to turn and run. But she didn’t. The man’s smile held something in it that she couldn’t refuse.
“Look. Just follow me,” the man said, patting her on the shoulder with one of his emaciated hands. He turned slowly, pulling himself along with his twisted cane. The man pushed through weeds and ferns, swatting at branches, and Molly followed. When they reached the edge of the little island, Molly watched as the man waded into the water. From the corner of her eye, she saw a flicker of movement in the shadows. In any other case, she would have feared the worst – alligators – but she saw the man’s confidence and absorbed it.
“Wait up,” she said, splashing into the water beside the old man. His clothes – a disheveled pea coat and hemp fisherman’s pants – were soaking, but a smile still adorned his face.
They trudged through the water for ten minutes before hitting land again: another thick forest of cypress, this one simply flecked with puddles instead of filled with swamp water. While Molly looked around, the man shook the water from his pea coat.
“It’s just ahead. Can you hear it?” His shaking index finger pierced the air, as if he were feeling the wind.
“I don’t hear anything,” Molly said, crossing her arms. She gazed at the man, and thought again that he seemed like a lunatic. If her father knew she was lost in the swamp with this nut –
“Then you aren’t listening right. Just be quiet and listen.” Molly rolled her eyes, but did as she was told. Faintly, as if creeping from the lips of the earth, a sound started to flow to her ears: singing. A symphony of children’s voices floating through the trees, all perfectly harmonized in some forgotten tune. While the man stood smiling, Molly walked in the direction of the sound.
“Hello?” Molly asked. The ghostly voices didn’t answer. They simply continued to sing, their voices building into a never-ending chant. La-la-la-la-LA-la-LA. Curiosity brought Molly’s feet into motion, and the man followed her as she crept through the forest in the direction of the music. The man’s cane tapped against fallen branches as he hummed the melody.
“Just over that hill,” the man said, pointing to a grassy slope that rose from the forest a few feet ahead of them. Molly glanced at him with confused eyes – just who are you, and why is this so beautiful – then began to march up the hill.
I know that voice, Molly thought. The voices, united in song, were indistinguishable from one another, yet somehow they seemed familiar. Her eagerness swelled as she reached the crest of the hill, shaking away the thorns that pierced her legs. The man, weary from the climb, rested his arm on her shoulder again. He had ample time to catch his breath – Molly was frozen.
“What is it?” Molly asked. Her voice was weak, monotone. Before her was a sinkhole – a sloped hill leading to a mossy pit of whitish-green water. The edge was dotted with sagging trees at the threshold of death. The voices, their song now tremendous in volume, seemed to emanate from the pit of water itself.
“It’s where you belong, Molly,” the old man said. The little girl looked at him, and he pointed a finger at the water. “Watch.” A few bubbles popped on the water’s surface, splattering the lumps of moss that sat there. Those few bubbles became many, and soon the sinkhole seemed to be boiling, as if it were all part of some putrid stew. Molly winced as a decaying odor struck her nostrils. She began to back away. The old man’s arm, aged yet firm, held her in place. She watched as things began to rise from the watery pit, then gagged when she realized what they were.
Children. An arm, its flesh peeled and torn, reached from the water on the far side of the pit. The heads of a dozen other children – some of them rotted and gray, some little more than skulls – began to poke out from the depths. The one closest to Molly was a young boy with a tuft of moss hanging from his empty eye socket. The wondrous song came from their lips, or what remained of them. Again the song grew louder, and Molly felt a sense of lightheadedness take hold of her.
“I want to leave,” she moaned. The man smiled.
“I doubt that. This is your place, Molly.”
“This is a place for the lost children.” He made a great sweeping motion with his arm. “Lost. Abandoned. Neglected. Aborted. That’s what they are. And that’s what you are, right?” Molly stared at the clammy-skinned children in the sinkhole; stared at the smiles on their half-withered faces.
“But I don’t –” Molly started. The man’s lips were suddenly by her ear, filling it with a soft voice.
“This is a special place, Molly. For you, it’s this swamp. For the others, maybe it’s a city underpass. An abandoned barn. An old house in the woods. But it’s always there for kids like you.” His hand, warm and comforting in the wet swamp, patted her on the back. “Look at them. Look at their faces.” He pointed again, and Molly listened to their song.
“They’re all so happy,” Molly said. She sounded half asleep, and felt as if her mind were sloughing from her body. Her forehead throbbed, but she found it soothing.
“Yes,” the man said. “Because they don’t have to deal with the mother who hates them. With the friends who don’t understand them. With the father who beats them.” Molly twitched. “You can say you fit in, Molly. But you don’t. No. You belong here.”
The song filled her mind again, and this time she felt it. There was an undercurrent of lament in it, of some sorrow branded forever into the singers – but it was just that, an undercurrent. The song brought a warm sense of connectedness to her, sung through notes of joy. For a moment, her mind lapsed deeper, and she thought she could see those children: a boy left crying in a crack house, a girl who had lived on the streets. But now they were happy.
“Go on,” the man said. Molly began to slide down the slope toward the sinkhole, smearing her legs with mud. She couldn’t care less about the dirt.
Dad won’t complain about it ever again.
She reached the water, then dipped her foot in. It felt chilled, but in a strange way, as if it were so cold that it turned warm. She waded in until the water reached her knees. She watched as the children began swimming toward her, cutting through the bubbling water. Molly turned and looked at the old man, who still stood at the crest of the hill.
“You can go ahead, Molly,” he said. There was a tear running down his wrinkled cheek. “You don’t have to pretend anymore.”
“I understand,” Molly said.
She took another step forward and felt the water soak into her clothes. The faces of the children began to warp into pitiful smiles, and the boy in the front waded closer to Molly. He stumbled through the water until the two of them were only a foot apart, both up to their waists in the flesh-white water. He extended his rotten arm and looked at Molly with a single eye. From his other eye socket, a blob of moss oozed down his cheek.
Come, he seemed to say. Molly held out her hand and touched the gray flesh of his fingertips. All at once, an epiphany exploded in her mind.
That undercurrent of sadness in their song now sounded like a scream, and Molly wondered how she had ever thought it beautiful. She stared at the wooden smile on this boy’s face, and it occurred to her that he wasn’t happy, he was merely dead – not calm because he had found peace, but calm because he had accepted an eternity of hopelessness. That natural, spiritual glint in the old man’s eyes was in the children’s eyes, too – but it was a darker spirit than she had imagined.
“What?” Molly mumbled. Her gaze left the boy’s eyes and wandered around the sinkhole, and the ugliness of the place was apparent.
These kids are not happy. This place is not right. This –
“Come.” The boy actually spoke the words this time, but they were garbled – slurred with pockets of mossy water bubbling in his long-dead throat. His hand jerked forward, clutching Molly’s, and she gasped. She felt it again, that mesmerizing song in her mind. He squeezed her hand with his cold, wet fingers, and images flooded her head.
Her father, rank with drunkenness, shouting at her. The belt. A quick snap of leather, again and again.
You belong with us, the boy said, his aged voice deep in the caves of her mind. Molly’s legs began to shake, and she felt as if she would tumble into the bubbling mess that swirled at her feet. She stumbled, and the boy’s grip loosened. The dizziness left her mind again, and something in the back of her head began to shout in response.
She saw her father, yes, and his twisted idea of discipline. But at the same time, there was her mother, and the words that had become all too common lately: we’ll leave soon. You and me. She wondered if that would ever happen, and it hit her as she stared at the dead boy’s face: wondering would be better than giving up.
She saw David, too – that pest, with his face-wide grin. Anger flared when she remembered his words about the secret clubhouse in the swamp, but that rage subdued when she thought of the little things: the way he looked at her from across the playground, the look in his eyes that he tried to hide when he teased her.
“No,” Molly said. It was a harsh word, dropping into the air of the quiet swamp. She snapped her arm out of the boy’s grip, and there was a wet crackling sound as he tumbled backward, limbs popping. She turned to face the old man, who still stood at the crest of the hill that overlooked the sinkhole. He bit his lip, glaring at her.
“Don’t lie to yourself, Molly. You belong –”
“I belong. Not here. I just belong,” Molly said. She watched the man stare at her until she felt something around her legs – the thick slime of the swamp water had begun to churn, to ripple.
The boy in front of her was the first, but the others followed. Their mouths – or what remained of them – tore open with a strained crunching noise, and they all screamed. It was a sharp noise that turned Molly’s stomach, a howl that spoke one word: death.
Molly’s feet shot into motion, and she scrambled out of the water. She took hold of a tree root that jutted from the muddy slope above her, then pulled herself upward. Her fingernails grasped at clumps of dirt, and she struggled to get leverage with her feet. The sounds from the sinkhole grew louder. She turned, saw that the children had begun to submerge again, then grunted and threw herself over the hill. The old man stood at the top, waiting.
“You made a bad choice, Molly,” he said. She looked at his familiar moon-eyes, and saw that they had changed: no longer were they soothing, but wrathful. Though they still held that sense of being distinctly natural, it was of the wrong sort – the empty stare of a dying animal.
He began to change, to degrade. His cane fell to the ground beside him, and his limbs contorted at inhuman angles. His skin bubbled, as if it were made of some thick liquid, and small streams of blood ran from the corners of his eyes. A rank odor filled the air. His eyes bulged, and Molly saw things in his gaze: piles of corpses burning, men killing one another. As tears began to flow down her face, she turned and ran.
She ran at a breakneck pace, jumping logs and puddles. Thickets of thorn bushes tore at her clothes, but she kept going. With each step, her mind screamed louder.
Do not turn around. Do not look. Please, Molly, whatever you do, do not look at the thing that’s chasing you.
Because she knew it was no longer a man, but some awful and ethereal thing. Something that, if looked in the eye, was liable to drive her mad.
She heard sounds from behind – heavy crashes, as if entire trees were being torn in two by the old man’s pursuit. The ground quivered under her feet.
She ran without direction, cutting through the forest into a shallow bog. She pushed away clumps of weeds, splashing through the water as quickly as she could. Behind her, she heard the water rushing, as if from the wake of a speeding boat. The thing seemed to be gliding through the water, formless yet gigantic. She heard a deep roaring noise, the dying shouts of a thousand men at once.
It is suicide. It is hate. It is every evil thing in the deepest part of your heart –
Molly cried, bawling as she trampled through moss and lily pads. The wilderness stretched on as far as she could see, and her hope was dwindling. She closed her eyes as she ran, and did the only thing she could think to keep calm.
She thought of summer. Of days spent in the park, with friends. Friends like David. She tried to think of her school, of her little house on Birch Street, of anything from the outside world – a place that could never be perfect, but at least it was something. She felt the drops of water roll off her chin, but didn’t open her eyes.
The screeching and growling from the thing behind her grew louder, until it seemed to resonate in her skull. Her eyes squeezed so tight that they stung. She thought of sunlight, of long days.
It doesn’t need to be here, just think it, just cling to something –
“I belong,” she whispered, as if in response to the growls of the thing behind her. She spoke it with trembling lips, knowing that no one could probably even hear it. Her mouth twitched into a smile, and she said it again – but this time, she shouted it.
She splashed out of the bog, eyes still closed, into what felt like an overgrown field. She wanted to open her eyes, but somehow knew that it wasn’t necessary. She shouted again, and her cries seem to drown out the roaring hatred of that shapeless creature.
And she believed it – that no horrible thing in the world could be worse than the shifting darkness closing in on her.
She heard a hissing noise, as if the thing had winced from a wound. She yelled the phrase one more time. Her throat stung, but the creature let out a dying screech. A weight on her heart loosened, and the thing cried out again.
She opened her eyes, and there was a light – a soft glow of yellow. She thought for a moment that it was from the pain of squinting for so long, then thought otherwise. The noises of the old man, or whatever he truly was, died out behind her, and her vision swirled. She stumbled, glancing around, and as the light faded, she could have sworn she saw a farmhouse in the distance. She tumbled over in the field and fainted.
When Molly awoke, she found herself lying on a faded couch and wrapped in a small blanket. She sat up, eyelids fluttering, and looked around the room: spacious and ill furnished, with a wooden floor and salmon wallpaper. A fireplace crackled on the other side of the room, beside a black recliner. A balding and overweight man leaned back in the chair with a mug of coffee in his hand, taking slow sips as he focused on Molly. Molly rubbed her eyes.
“What happened?” she asked. The man set his cup on an end table beside the chair and sighed.
“I was fixing to ask you the same thing,” he said. “Found you running round the field screaming your head off not three hours ago. Took you in and wrapped you up.”
“House here’s right outside Patterson,” the man said. He looked at Molly, and saw that she was staring out the sole window of the room. “Was there anyone else out there with you?”
“No,” Molly said. “No people.”
“The swamp ain’t a good place for children, little lady,” the man said. He glared at her, but Molly only stared – she had seen worse things.
“Well.” He stood up, brushed off his jeans, and walked down a narrow hallway to another part of the house. “Let me get the phone and you can just go right on calling your parents.”
As he lumbered away, Molly turned her eyes to the fireplace. She watched the logs burn, watched chips of bark blacken and crumble in the heat. She trembled. The dancing flames reminded her of his eyes – or its eyes. She turned her gaze to the window, remembering what the old man had said.
For you, it’s this swamp. For the others, maybe it’s a city underpass. An abandoned barn. An old house in the woods. But it’s always there for kids like you.
She clutched the blanket, balling it in her hands. She remembered the words she had spoken as she ran, imbuing them with some kind of magic she could never hope to understand – I belong. And that was certainly true.
But he’ll always be there, she thought. Waiting, in some dark place, for the moment when her faith in that idea would shatter. One day, she knew, he would show up again – a ragged old man standing in her closet, or lying underneath her bed.
And if she had to stare into those eyes one more time, to watch the awful things lingering in them for just a second longer than she had in the swamp, Molly thought she wouldn’t be able to run.
Original Fiction © 2012 Andrew House
(Image Credit: Susulyka, Wikimedia Commons)