I knew that if I didn’t get out of dodge soon, I’d collapse beneath the titanic weight of my own neuroses.
The city was an omnipresent cocktail of sights, sounds, and stressors, distractions that festered in the air like an untreated wound. The streets reeked of beckoning sin; of demands and deadlines, disappointed agents, and pitying, far more successful colleagues.
I was two months behind on a novel, rising each morning at 7 o’clock sharp to face a glaring document on my laptop. I’d nurse a coffee mug in one hand while the other massaged my temple. Once in a while, a few feeble sentences would claw together before me, only to be deleted and rewritten and deleted once more.
On and on this went, the cacophony beyond the walls of my apartment growing louder and more insistent by the day. Every blare of a car horn was an assault on my senses. Every trumpeting pulse of a stereo was agonizing. Every siren that wailed filled me with rage. And then the hellish cycle would repeat itself when my alarm clock rang out at 7 the next morning.
It was a heated discussion with my publisher one day that prompted me to act. I sat on the floor of my apartment, dizzy with exhaustion. I listened while she barked into the phone, livid over the state of my progress—or rather, lack thereof.
“Yes,” I’d respond where it was needed. “You’re right,” I’d say. “I understand.”
I imagined her in a finely-tailored suit, checking a gleaming watch that cost more than my rent in vexation, kicking her heels up on an oak wood desk in an office overlooking the skyline. I surveyed the confluences of disasters that made up my own space: there were takeout boxes stacked in the corners, clothes were strewn about wildly, and bottles of gin were littering the floor, their contents wearing thin.
At that moment, unquestionably, I knew I had to get out.
I spent a week reviewing my options, trying to settle on the perfect place to hunker down and focus on my writing. How would I get there? How soon should I leave? Which town would offer me the most significant reprieve from the chaos of the city?
I toyed and swiveled ideas in my head until the answer dawned on me with sudden, searing clarity. It shook me, as if awakening me from some starry, listless dream. Its mere attendance in my mind sent anxiety prickling through my nerves.
It was a town smack-dab in Bumfuck, Nowhere, full of diners and gas stations and bordered by an enormous, sprawling forest. My grandfather had lived there when I was a child. I spent several summers at his place—fishing with him in the lake, choosing which tools he should buy at the hardware store, the two of us drinking lemonade while the sun cascaded through the porch screen in kaleidoscopic pearls of light.
Once or twice, we’d gone hunting for turkeys together through the dense forest. Grandpa would show me how to track and shoot, his Benelli Nova booming through the eerily-quiet woodland. The thickets would shiver, and the prey would fall. But in the ensuing seconds, the forest seemed oddly undisturbed—freakishly still, like we were standing in the center of a photograph.
The woods felt remarkably separate from the town that housed them, right down to the shifting temperatures that would seize the air when you set foot on woodland soil. The sweltering summer heat never reached the forest. It was always alarmingly cold, so much so that Grandpa even brought jackets for us during our hunts.
He spoke of the woods like they were an entity all their own, alive and shuddering with malice. He declared that I couldn’t venture through them unless he was present. And I wasn’t allowed beyond his line of sight under any circumstances.
“Ghasmire is built on a pile of bones,” he used to say. “And sometimes, those bones like to claw up from the mud and try to pull you back down with ’em.”
He never expanded on the adage, and I asked no further questions. My grandfather was a reclusive drinker, and an eccentric one at that. For that, my parents used to assure me, I should pay his cryptic warnings no mind.
So when I’d traipse through the groves with him, listening to the inexplicable moans and yowls that would frequently erupt nearby, ignoring the feeling of unseen eyes watching me from the thickets, I believed them.
I tried to shake away the memories and push down all my apprehensions surrounding a return to Ghasmire. I wrote it all off as the lingering fears of a child’s mind. I was an adult now. I had tangible duties that needed tending to. There was no time to entertain delusions.
So I rented a car. I filled a backpack with essentials for a week-long trip, including my laptop, a blank journal, and four pens. I gave word to my exasperated publisher and left my cell phone behind, removing the potential for distraction. I stumbled across an Airbnb listing for a quaint cabin in the dead-center of the Ghasmire woods. The cost of a 7-day stay was an unequivocal steal, and the location made it all the more desirable. I figured the solitude could only improve my chances of getting some legitimate work done.
Still, my grandfather’s weary visage plumed through my mind, his pleas for me to stay away from the area ringing in my ears like the barrel of his shotgun.
Ghasmire is built on a pile of bones...
I forced the memories down to a place where I couldn’t reach them. The time for conjecture would come after my book was finished, I told myself. As for now, I had to stay focused. I had to work.
I had to get out.
And the following morning, I was on the road.
I decided to take the drive in a straight shot to save time. There were moments when I struggled to keep my eyes open, so long and grueling this method of travel was proving to be. I’d jolt into a waking state at the sound of a blasting horn, finding myself coasting near the edge of a lane. I’d pull over and try to rest for a few minutes, but the efforts were useless. Sleep was just as evasive on the fringes of a bustling freeway as it was in my apartment.
I’d take to the highway again, bleary-eyed and listless. My mind yoyoed between peaks and valleys of anxiety, my body aching and pulsing with fatigue.
Eventually, the thruway became a one-way lane, which thus became a dirt road, encircled by a steadily-mounting smattering of shrubbery. The bushes and greenery bled out onto the graveled pavement, like gnarled, outstretched hands—witches’ fingers beckoning me in. My heart pummeled faster with each eclipsed mile, with each shuddering, gasping whine of the car’s engine, signifying that I was closing in on my destination.
I debated turning around and heading back a handful of times. The closer and closer I got, my grandfather’s indiscernible warning kept creeping back into my psyche.
Ghasmire is built on a pile of bones.
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, hidden beneath curtains of enervation and dissonance, a voice was crying out in desperation:
Stop. Go back. You know better.
But I ignored it.
I pressed on.
I kept going, even as I felt my muscles wilting with weariness, even as my brain grew so foggy that I could hardly make sense of what was two feet in front of me.
I kept driving.
I drove even when the siren’s song of sleep called to me from some dark, hidden realm, twisting me up in its fragrant lilt and rocking me to numbness. My eyes were so heavy that there might have been lead behind them. My head began to dip as my lashes fluttered quickly, then gently, then finally closed shut.
It was just for a moment.
It was only supposed to be for one brief, blissful moment.
But the spell was shattered into violent, jagged pieces just as soon as it had formed. And all at once, I heard a loud, terminal shriek, followed by a massive thud as the car bounced and wobbled, its tires squealing as it swerved left and right.
My eyes flew open.
With a gasp, I slammed on the brakes.
A rusted-over sign loomed before me at the mouth of Ghasmire County. It glared beneath the smoldering moon that hiked up the starless sky, puncturing the clouds. ‘Welcome to Ghasmire! We’re Happy to See You!’ it read.
Behind me, the darkened road was illuminated by the car’s brake lights, exhaust from the engine rising into the air.
There was stillness all around me. Silence. But a sick, swelling feeling began solidifying in the pit of my stomach, and with tremoring hands, I turned off the car.
The road behind me went dark.
Wind howled through the blackened treetops, sending their leaves hissing like vipers, their bark and branches creaking and groaning.
I opened the driver’s side door. The car alarm pinged softly against the blustery air. Slowly, I stepped out, forcing my gaze over my shoulder.
My heart throbbed unevenly at what I saw.
There, on the road—lying twisted up and sprawled out not but a few feet away—was a dark, misshapen lump.
An eternity might have slipped by as I stared at it, struggling to breathe, absently wary of how the encompassing stillness was raising goosebumps on my skin. The earth beneath me was like quicksand as I willed myself to move, to do something beyond just standing there, slack-jawed and shivering.
I inched closer to it. Torrents of nausea threatened to swallow me up, but I kept moving. My hands clenched at my sides. My ears began to ring. The crunch of twigs and gravel beneath my shoes echoed through the air.
The figure grew broader and more pronounced as I neared it, smoothing over and brightening with detail, taking the shape of something dream-like and vile. My eyes widened as I drank it in, gasping, stumbling back.
It was a boy.
A young boy, likely no older than ten.
In the dark, he was mangled. Bloodied. Bruised. His limbs were bent at ungodly angles. His blood was darkening the dirt road. As I looked, I could vaguely discern the sullied scrape of tire marks on his clothes, and a strangled, helpless cry tore from my throat.
I fell to my knees.
“Hey—” I whispered, desperately, “hey, kid. Can you hear me? Hey!”
With weak, careful hands, I turned him over.
His wide, glassy eyes gazed back at me. Unblinking. Unseeing. Just two empty orbs of blue, like a doll’s.
I shook my head. I placed two frantic fingers against him, prodding, pleading, checking for a pulse. I felt none.
I tried to bring him back.
I breathed air into his lungs and pumped my hands against his chest. Over and over and over again, to no avail.
I tried once.
I cried out for God.
I sobbed and shuddered in the black night, while the trees and wind wailed above me. And I tried, I tried like hell to bring him back.
But it wasn’t enough.
He lied sprawled out before me, quiet as the crypt.
Still as stone, with those blank, glossy eyes, gazing into a hell I could only tearfully imagine.
Christ above, I thought, with breathless, mind-numbing horror. The moon shone down on me like a spotlight, illuminating my disbelief for all the world to see. I clawed at my skull. I choked down a scream. I fell to pieces, right there in the dust and dirt and grime.
What have I done...?
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