Darkness fell like a blanket over the sky. It wasn't one of those slow, steady transitions from day to night, it fell almost instantly, and with it every morning bird, every chattering squirrel fell silent and disappeared. Stars littered the sky, and the night was alive with the chorus of nocturnal creatures. Owls, crickets and frogs sang together, each of their calls separate and yet somehow intertwined. Occasionally a fox would chime in with its horrible scream, to the untrained ear something so simple as a mating call can be mistaken for the sound of a woman being murdered. The moon was full and bright, shining down like a midnight sun, it was a bright night for sure, but the darkness still loomed.
A boy walked aimlessly through a barren cornfield, the frost of the bitter night air coated the ground and clung to the broken stocks causing them to wither and rot. The light from the moon guided his step as he made his way across the land. He walked deeper into the wild and away from the small farmhouse he now called home. He wondered how long it would take before they moved again; he’d moved three times in the last two years since the elderly couple took him in. In the time it took to form any sort of connection with his neighbors, boxes would be packed and they were off again. The boy knew he was to blame for this, a man once told him years ago that making friends was dangerous; to form any sort of connection was a dead man’s gamble. “They are cattle, nothing more.” The arid voice whispered in the back of his mind, making him shiver in a way the cold night air never could.
He was small for his age, which was somewhere between twelve and fifteen, he wasn’t sure exactly, it had been so long since he’d had a birthday. But he didn’t feel twelve, if it was such a thing that could be felt? So when people asked his age, he’d always tell them fifteen and he could always see the doubt in their eyes. “He’s much too small,” they thought. “There’s not an ounce of muscle on him.”
It was true; his body was nothing more than skin and bone. No muscle, no fat… nothing but wiry arms and legs. He hated being treated like a child, the look on people’s faces, watching their eyes soften and their demeanor become kinder and even playful. How degrading! How belittling it was to his character, to his own ego, which was already fragile enough! He wanted to rip their eyes of out their sockets for looking at him like he was nothing more than a child. He had seen too much to be only a child, and yet his soft face and frailness of his body betrayed him every time.
This boy had a name, though it was seldom brought up in conversation; it was Nathan, and if you asked, he was fifteen years old.
It had been a week since he had last eaten something and the hunger pains were rolling like angry rapids through his stomach. If he didn’t fix this soon, those pains would become unbearable.
Nathan continued to walk through the field until he came to the edge of the forest that marked the end of the property line. He disappeared into the woods and immediately was swept into a different reality, where nothing was civilized or manmade, where only primal animals like wolves and bears thrived.
The marks of wild creatures were everywhere, there were claw marks of black bears on a rotted out trees and the prints of white tail deer and their young embedded heavily in the mud. An undeniable reminder to all outsiders that the forest was their domain and all others were intruders, unwanted and unwelcome. Nathan loved the forest, it was the only time the boy felt like he actually belonged to something. The wilderness called out to him in a way that sank deep into his bones. The forest was more than just alive, it was conscious and Nathan could hear it singing to him at night, inviting him to come out and play in the darkness. There was a bond between him and the wilderness that went far deeper than any bond with another human being.
Nathan listened to the chorus of nocturnal creatures as they went about their night. It was a noisy racket, most considered the night to be silent, but most could not hear what Nathan could hear.
He walked through the woods until he came across a road splitting the wilderness in half, like a crack in a fine piece of artwork. The road was a dark, creepy looking thing and by the way grass grew up from the blacktop he could tell it was somewhat unused. Nathan turned and started onto the old road, and it wasn’t too long before the sound of an old vehicle came rattling down the path. He turned and looked at the blaring headlights that came straight for him. He stuck out his thumb and the truck slowed down as it rolled up to him.
The passenger side window slid down and smoke rolled out of the opening like fog, and the first thing Nathan saw was the dim glow of a burning cigar sticking out between yellow teeth. A middle-aged man peered out at Nathan; he eyed the boy curiously as he chewed on the cigar.
“Where you headin’ son?” he asked in a gritty voice that suggested he'd been a long time smoker.
“Anywhere that’s not here,” he answered as he came up to the window.
The man looked him up and down. “I’m going as far as Saegertown.”
“That’s great. I have money if you want. I can pay you.”
“How much you got?”
“Good enough. Hop in.” He pushed the door open and Nathan climbed into the old, beaten truck and shut the door. The man shifted the clutch and the truck was on its way.
“So what you doing out here this time of night? Isn’t it a little late for you to be wandering around? Do you parents know where you are?”
Nathan didn’t answer, his attention was focused on the window, looking out at the passing scenery.
The man continued talking as if Nathan had answered his questions, completely unaware of how disinterested the boy was.
“How old are you anyway? Twelve? Thirteen?”
He sighed at the question that would forever haunt him. “I’m fifteen.”
“Fifteen!” he remarked in amazement, as if he'd never heard anything like it, or that could just be the alcohol, Nathan could smell it as soon as he climbed onto the seat.
“Well shit, you sure as hell don't look fifteen!”
“Yes well, I'm a late bloomer,” he said in a tired voice. This would be so much easier for him if the old man just didn’t say a word. He hated it when they talked, when they tried to find a common interest or engage in any form of socialization. It threw Nathan off, it made him think too much and that could never happen, certainly not on a night like this. He couldn’t afford to think about anything except how hungry he was. Nathan knew that in order to survive some things just had to be done without thought or feeling.
He looked over at the old man and suddenly his stomach growled and Nathan winced, wrapping his arms around his midsection and doubling over.
“Hey? You all right kid?” The man glanced over at Nathan worriedly.
“Yeah, I just need to eat something.” He said once the pains subsided, he leaned back against the seat and let out a sigh, his expression grim as he looked out the window once more. It was now or never.
“Well I have some crackers in the dashboard compartment, you can help yourself.” He motioned toward the small compartment Nathan's knees were resting against.
“No, I need something with a little more sustenance.”
The guy looked over, a puzzled expression on his face that soon melted away at the hollow look in the young boy's eyes, there was something ravenous that dwelled beneath those bright blue orbs. He lashed out, grabbing the man’s head and smashing it against the window, causing the surface to crack and blood smeared across the glass and down his face. The man was either dead or unconscious but that hardly deterred Nathan. He opened his mouth and went straight for the jugular, his dull teeth splitting flesh and sinking into muscle. Blood spilled into his mouth and rushed over his chin, splattering onto his shirt and staining the white fabric red.
The truck veered off the road and into the woods, hitting a ditch and then toppling down a ravine. Smashing into trees and rocks until it finally landed at the bottom, upside down, the tires still spinning. Everything went quiet and the only noise was the sound of the truck, the long drawn out wheezing of a dying creature. The passenger door was kicked off its hinges and Nathan crawled out, covered in blood, a mixture of the man's and his own. His neck was bent and broken at an odd angle until he reached up and snapped it back into place, Nathan cracked his neck for good measure and then pulled the body out next. The man’s neck was a mangled mess, looking like something with teeth and claws had gotten hold of him.
He stared up at the sky with dead eyes, his chest unmoving as blood continued to trickle from the gash on his neck. Nathan sat down on the man's stomach and stared at him with a curious expression, then he reached out and ran a hand over his face, closing the old man’s eyes.
“Sorry you pulled the short straw,” he murmured. “I'm sure you were a good man.” With a sigh he placed his hands on the man's chest and proceeded to tear into his skin. He wrapped a hand around the sternum and ripped it up, blood spilled out, drenching Nathan from head to toe in the warm, sticky liquid. He licked his lips and dug further down until he found what he wanted, the heart.
He pulled the organ from its nesting place, ripping the arteries that struggled to keep it intact. He could still feel it beating in his hand; Nathan brought it to his face and breathed the scent in deep before biting down. The blood squirted into his mouth like the juice from an orange and it slid down his throat with no problem. Like a starving wolf tearing the flesh off a carcass, Nathan ripped the heart apart with his teeth and swallowed the bits of fleshy tissue whole.
Once the heart was completely devoured, Nathan stood up and wiped the blood from his mouth, his dilated pupils returned to normal and the stomach pains ceased to exist. He looked down at the mutilated body of the man who only wanted to do a good thing for a complete stranger. A fleeting feeling of guilt ran through him, but like so many of his emotions it was just an echo, a reflex he had yet to completely stomp out, but the brief twinge of guilt was gone within the second it arrived, and he was numb once more.
The smell of gasoline entered the atmosphere then and Nathan looked over to see the gas pipe leaking, it dripped onto the ground, moving slowly toward him and his leftovers. Nathan saw this opportunity, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a box of matches he'd been playing with earlier and struck one across the grainy surface.
A small flame erupted, growing smaller with every passing second as it ate frantically at the little stick of cardboard that kept it alive. ‘Such a tiny, desperate thing’ he thought as he stared at it, watching it struggle to exist. He dropped the match into the pool of gas and that tiny flame blew up and ran back to the source and into the pipe, exploding a second later. The car was momentarily lifted from the earth by the force of the explosion and then slammed onto the ground again.
Everything went up in flames, including the man himself, it took hours for the flames to completely consume the body, hours that Nathan spent crouching in the dirt. The smell of burnt hair invaded his nose as the fire ate away at the man's head. Nathan stepped back and turned away from the unpleasant scent. He watched the flames dance across the body, eating away his clothes quickly and then starting on his skin. Nathan watched as the flames crawled over the corpse, the skin bubbled and popped and slowly began to peel away, revealing the bone underneath. Soon the body was nothing more than a chard skeleton, and all signs of murder were consumed forever by the flames. As far the police knew, it was just a tragic accident, nothing more.
The boy stripped off his blood soaked clothes and tossed them into the fire, looking on as the flames devoured them. Once he knew for sure that the body was completely burnt to a cinder, he turned and walked back up the ravine until he reached the highway. He retraced his steps and found where he emerged from the woods and returned to the darkness that spat him out.
Mary Williams woke to the sound of roosters crowing, a noise so persistent and grating, she knew once they began their “morning song” they would not rest until everyone within half a mile radius was awake.
Knowing that it was futile, Mary still tried her hardest to block out the incessant crowing. Praying for just ten more minutes of sleep, but after several long moments of trying her hardest, she succumbed to her fate and sat up.
The clock on her bedside table read 6:32 am, entirely too early for a fifteen year old girl. She rose from bed and walked to the window, pulling aside the drapes to reveal a grim looking day.
“Just another bright day in sunny Pennsylvania,” she muttered and then pulled on a pair of jeans and a gray sweatshirt. She pulled the long sleeves down, covering up the cuts that lined her arms, some had healed and were nothing more than faded scars, and others were fresh, as new as the night before. Her fingers traced over the thin cuts, a slight pain rose from the contact and then she dug her nails into her skin and the sting increased, where most would find pain, Mary found relief.
The TV was still on when Mary came into the living room, the Lifetime channel, the same channel the TV had been set to for the past three months. Mary really hated Lifetime, even more than she hated the Hallmark channel, which the TV had been stuck on three months prior to that.
She walked into the living room and found a forty-eight year old woman passed out on the couch. Mary's mother lay face down on the pillows snoring loudly, and a bottle of vodka knocked over at her feet told the familiar story of alcohol abuse. Even from a distance of five feet Mary could smell the vodka and it made her stomach turn; she held her nose shut and walked across the living room, grabbed the bottle and set it upright on the coffee table.
She left her mother on the couch and made her way to the kitchen, she stood over the sink, washing the pan she needed to start her breakfast. Mary glanced out the window in front of her and saw an elderly woman pulling weeds in the garden that sat against her house.
The house across from hers had been vacant for as long as Mary could remember and for good reason, it was a piece of shit. Most of the blue paint had chipped away, revealing the old weathered undercoat, an ugly gray color. The porch was bowed and the steps had long since rotted away, the only thing in their place was a large cement block.
Why anyone would even consider buying that train wreck was beyond her but the neighbors appeared nice, she met them on the day of their move in, about three days ago. The woman in the garden was Sue Hensmen, a retired math teacher and full time painter and knitter, a very friendly woman who was what every sweet grandma should be.
Sue had a husband as well, Mary had seen him but not had the chance to talk or introduce herself, he was too busy carrying boxes into the house. His name was Carl and he used to work for the police department and according to his wife still acts like he's thirty and is constantly lifting things he should not.
There was a grandson that lived with them as well, a boy about Mary’s age, though she had yet to meet him, apparently he was the sickly kind and could not be bothered to help with the moving. Sue said his name was Nathan and that he was looking forward to meeting new people.
Breakfast was cooked and eaten and after the pan was placed back in its original resting place in the sink, Mary headed into the living room where her mother was still snoring loudly. She walked past her without a glance and opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch.
“Good morning Mary!” yelled Sue.
Mary looked over at the old woman and waved. “Morning Mrs. Hensmen,” she shouted back.
“Please, call me Sue.”
Mary stepped off her porch and walked over to her garden, a large pile of dandelion weeds sat the old woman's side.
“I see you’re clearing to make a garden, what sort?”
The old woman smiled and looked back down at the work she'd done and then looked back up at Mary. “Not quite sure, Garlic maybe or perhaps Vervain.”
Though the comment was strange it was not at all surprising, Mary knew that Sue suffered from early stages of Alzheimer’s. She over heard the movers whispering about it several days before.
“Oh, that’s… cool.” She didn't know what to say to that but Sue carried on happily, talking about the nice weather and how excited she was to start teaching. Then she began to call Mary by another name, Hannah.
“Oh Hannah, we haven't talked in ages. How is Norman? Still in the construction business?”
Again she didn't know how to react to that and unease settled in her stomach, she took a step back. “Umm, Mrs. Hensmen it’s me, Mary.”
A frown came to the old woman's lips and she stared at her, a confused expression on her face. “Where am I?”
“You're in your garden Mrs. Hensmen.”
She looked around, even more confused, “but I don't own a garden, and who are you?”
Mary looked around, hoping to spot Mr. Hensmen but he was nowhere in sight, she thought about taking her back into the house, but didn't know how the old woman would react to Mary touching her. The last thing she needed was for Mrs. Hensmen to start screaming.
“Sue? What are you doing?”
At the sound of a third voice Mary looked up and standing in the doorway was a frail looking boy. His complexion was a pasty white, with heavy dark circles under his eyes and a red knitted cap covering his head. He looked like a chemo patient. The boy leaned on a cane and limped onto the front porch, his pale blue eyes regarded Mary suspiciously.
“What are you doing with my grandmother?” His voice was quiet, void of emotion, but there was something in his eyes that made the hair on Mary's neck stand up.
“You're Nathan right? I think your grandmother is having an episode.”
His eyes drifted down to the old woman, watching her with a detached interest.
“Sue, look at me.”
She turned and stared at the boy, a blank expression on her face, “who are you?” she whimpered.
“Your grandson, Nathan.”
“Grandson? But I can't even have children.”
Mary looked up at Nathan, but he paid her no attention and continued to stare down at the woman, his face impassive.
“Come into the house Sue,” he said in a soft tone, but Mary could hear the demand that lined his words.
“I don't want to. You frighten me.”
“I wouldn't hurt you, now please come inside.”
She turned back to Mary. “Will you go in with me?”
Mary heard the boy sigh and looked up, he was looking at her again with tired eyes. “Yes please come in,” he muttered in an anything but welcoming tone. The boy turned and limped back into the house and Sue wrapped a hand around Mary's arm and she led the old woman into her house.
Inside was dark, the lights had not been set up yet and the only daylight filtered in from the cracks in the curtains; Nathan led the old woman to the couch in the living room and Mary helped her sit down. Once Sue was settled in, Mary turned around only to find Nathan all too close for comfort. His icy blue eyes swept over her face before he stepped back, his fingers ran over the silver top of the cane as he continued to stare at her.
She was taller than him, about a good two inches taller. He was far too weak and fragile looking to be any sort of threat, but nonetheless Mary didn't like the way he stared at her. She almost thought he was sizing her up, the way his eyes raked over her was not sexual, it was more curious, like he didn’t know what to think of her.
“You live across the street, don't you?” he asked as he limped into the kitchen and Mary followed somewhat warily.
“Yeah. Is your grandma gonna be all right?” She asked, looking back down the hallway at the old woman who stared blankly at the TV that wasn't even on.
“I suppose,” he said in an indifferent tone. He opened the fridge and reached in and pulled out a can of pop and handed it to her.
“Well don't you think you should call the hospital?” She set the can down on the table and pointed to the cell phone on the counter. Nathan looked at the phone, then at her and finally at the pop can.
“So they can do what? Tell me what I already know? That her mind is continuing to slip and nothing can be done about it.” For someone who lived with his grandparents he seemed surprisingly unattached to them.
“It was nice meeting you Nathan, but I should go. Don't want to be late for school.” She turned and walked toward the door, passing Sue on the way and Mary looked over at her, she was smiling and waved to her.
“Have a nice day, Mary,” she called out in a cheery voice.
Mary looked back at her, astonished to see the woman back to normal with no indication that the episode ever happened. Nathan limped back into the living room and leaned against the door, a can of pop in his hand and his eyes going from Sue to Mary.
“See, everything's fine. It was nice meeting you too Mary.”
Mary ignored Nathan and his somewhat snide comment, though there was not a trace of snark or attitude in his voice she knew he'd made a smart remark. Mary smiled at Sue and without looking back at Nathan walked out of the house, shutting the door behind her.
Sue looked back over at Nathan, a smile still on her face. “I like that young lady. You should really get to know her, Nathan.”
He looked over at Sue who was staring at the door, a soft smile on her face. He limped over to where she sat and placed himself on the coffee table directly across from her. He turned away and pulled out a small knife from his pocket and then reached for the shot glass in his coat. He made a small cut on his hand and squeezed the droplets of blood into the glass, then grabbed the can of pop and poured the soda in the glass. The blood swirled into a fine red mist and then Nathan turned back to Sue and handed her the shot glass.
“Stop talking nonsense and take your medicine.”
She took the shot glass with a kind smile and swallowed the blood without hesitation or the slightest hint of disgust. Sue Hensmen was one of the nicest old women Nathan ever knew, that’s why he felt the tiniest twinge of guilt for what he was doing to her.
Nathan's blood had what some might call mystical properties; it could keep death at bay for the sickest of people. But it was by no means without its consequences, which far outweighed any good the blood did because once it touched human lips, their freewill was no longer theirs. He could tell Sue to get him a soda from the fridge and she would, or he could tell her to run a knife through her husband's chest and she would, without so much as a second thought. This was a secret no one knew, and he intended to keep it that way.
He stood from the table and looked over as the front door banged open and Carl stepped into the house. He was a tall, lanky old man with a long face and not one hair on his head and hard-set eyes that grew harder when they landed on Nathan. He hadn't done anything, Carl always looked at him that way, the effect of knowing he was living with a heartless killer and helping said killer get rid of the bodies.
To say the things Carl has seen in the past two years changed him, would be hitting the nail on the head. The old man had no idea what he was in for when he invited Nathan into his life.
“What are you doing up this time of day?” he asked in a gruff voice as he kicked off his boots and walked over to his wife, placing a hand on her forehead. Nathan didn't quite know why he did this, but she smiled when he did, and she appeared content, these two loved each other.
Nathan looked away, suddenly uncomfortable and answered the older man's question as he walked away. “Giving your wife her medicine.” He opened the door that led into the basement and descended the stairs into his room.