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WARNING: This story contains graphic violence.
One night outside Longfield, Massachusetts was all it took to never feel peace again. The little town is not too far from Thoreau’s famed Walden, and curiosity drove me and some like-minded friends to make the trek one hot summer. It’s a little place, and so secluded that you won’t find it on most maps. We thought exposure to such pristine nature would prove enlightening. Simon, Will, and I checked into a cozy Longfield bed and breakfast that Sunday afternoon. Now – almost a decade later – Will is long-since dead and Simon is comatose in a mental ward somewhere out in Connecticut. I’m the only one intact enough now to say what happened that warm, foggy evening.
We stopped by a quaint bar at around five, to taste the local drafts. We took our time flirting with the girls and singing the familiar songs that came on the jukebox, and when we were done, we decided to see what the nearby woods had to show us. We paid our tab, gathered our things, and made for the trees in the distance.
Once in the thick of nature, we could feel the peacefulness all around us. The smell and the sound of pure, unmolested life everywhere was intoxicating. We hiked until it was dark. Then, we dug our flashlights out from our backpacks and pressed on a little more. The woods at night are magical, and we found ourselves grinning earnestly at each other as we walked.
It was perhaps ten in the evening when we decided we wanted to head back. Still not satisfied with our experience, however, we took a different route home. It wasn’t long before we found a clearing that we must have missed on our first pass through the trees. It seemed unnaturally hewn from the surrounding forest, and we stopped to rest on the apparently man-made seats that were there.
Simon was the first to see the strange man who emerged from the clearing. He had a large, bushy beard and wore the apparel of a man intimately familiar with nature. His eyes were sharp, and knowledgeable. He stood silently, and only said “Hello,” once we had all become aware of his presence.
“Hey,” said Will. We all flashed each other a nervous look. The strange man exuded cunning, and a measured calmness. These were unpleasant qualities to find in someone apparently wandering through the deep, dark woods.
“Do you believe in God?” the strange man asked with a pleasant smile. We all remained silent, so the man replied, “Of course you do.”
“Look, we’ve got to go,” I said, beginning to stand and collect my things. I wanted to get away, and I felt the sentiment was shared by Simon and Will.
“Surely then,” the man continued, without acknowledging my words, “you believe that everything God makes is beautiful!” He approached the three of us with an excited stride as he said these things. He put his hands on my shoulders, and pressed until I was forced to sit again. Will, Simon and I looked to each other furtively, silently deliberating on whether to attack this man – to knock him down and run away. But, the man had not done anything to warrant such aggression. At least, not yet. So, we stayed.
The man continued speaking. “I’d like to share some of God’s beauty with you all,” he said. Then, from his coat, he produced a tin drinking flask. We all smiled with relief. Surely, this strange man was just a friendly drunkard. He offered me the flask, and after looking to Will and Simon for encouragement, I drank. We passed it around, and the strange man simply smiled with good-natured glee. He seemed so pleased, in fact, just to be sharing with us.
When we were done, the man took back his flask and returned it to his coat pocket. Then, he clapped his hand together noisily, as a child does when it cannot contain its excitement, and said with an enthused smile, “Now we’re ready.”
“For what?” I asked. My cheeks were flushing with the warmth of the drink we had shared. Indeed, as I looked around, Simon and Will’s faces were already quite pink. We didn’t drink that much, I thought to myself. Why did we all seem so affected?
The strange man cleared his throat, and said, “We’re ready, of course, to witness the beauty of God!” He raised his voice until it was loud enough to produce a soft echo as he said it. With that, we became aware of a rustling in the nearby trees. What emerged were two bearded, scruffy men, not dissimilar in stance or dress from our stranger. In tow, they dragged a bound woman.
The sudden horror struck the three of us in different ways. Simon stood as if preparing to fight, while Will seemed ready to sprint away into the woods. I simply cried, “What the hell is this?”
The strange man smiled as the woman was brought closer. She wept pitifully, and we could hear her even through the cloth that was stuffed in her mouth. Again, the strange man cleared his throat. “Everything God makes is beautiful. Humans, made in his image, are the most beautiful of all. Tonight, we witness the beauty of his creation.” The woman looked up at our shocked faces. She was pleading for help. My instincts told me to take action, but I found my vision suddenly foggy, and my other senses increasingly dulled.
“What did we drink?” asked Simon. The strange man just smiled. The strength began to leave my muscles, and I sat back down. The bound girl gasped in desperation as she realized that we had been drugged. We were all utterly powerless to stop whatever was about to happen. Simon collapsed back into his seat, as I had. Will stayed standing, wavering on his feet and looking down at the bound woman.
I suddenly became aware that I recognized the girl’s face. She was in the bar earlier. I had sent a beer to her table, and she had smiled and waved at me when it arrived. She looked so lovely just a few hours ago. Now, she just looked frightened. As the panic began to take root in my mind, I had to close my eyes to keep from vomiting.
It was when the strange man drew a knife from his coat that Will tried to run for help. He did his best to sprint away, but his legs wobbled and he fell before reaching the trees that marked the boundaries of the clearing. The strange man approached his collapsed form at a leisurely pace, and I watched him kneel over Will’s body in the grass.
The strange man pulled Will’s face off of the ground, and drew the knife across his neck with terrible indifference. He returned with the same slow gait as before, stopping only to wipe the blade on the grass. The girl didn’t see Will die; her eyes were closed as she worked to control her panicked breaths. Simon and I, however, did see it. I began to weep, and Simon only stared for a minute or two before vomiting into his lap.
“We won’t hurt you, if you don’t try to escape,” the strange man said to the two of us with a kind smile. “You two will survive, if you cooperate.” The girl and I kept crying, but when I looked over to Simon, he was expressionless. Looking back, I’m not sure if that wasn’t the moment his mind began to break.
All this time, the two associates of the strange man remained standing like statues. Now, they hoisted the girl to her knees. The strange man kneeled to look directly into her scared face, and said, “There is so much complexity in you. You are the greatest work of art there is.” Then, he drove his knife into her belly. Simon vomited again, and I squeezed my eyes tightly closed.
I could hear the woman gasping in pain through the gag, and her crying between screams was heart-wrenching in its helplessness. After perhaps a minute, one of the strange man’s associates saw that I was closing my eyes, and came over to where I sat. I felt him strike me across the face with his half-closed fist. When I still refused to witness the slaughter, I felt his hand close around my throat. “Watch, or we’ll cut you up next,” he said. So, I opened my eyes.
By now the girl was almost dead. I can’t be sure, but I think she was watching my face when she finally bled out. The way her expression softened as her focus finally came to rest on me will never leave my memory. I looked over at Simon, who still seemed to just be staring at something far, far away. His mind was gone by this point, I’m sure. I almost envy him.
“Look!” said the strange man. He was pulling her insides out, and holding them up for his associates and us to see. When he held her entrails close to my face, I could smell her viscera all around me. Finally, I puked. The strange man frowned, and offered the pile of guts to Simon. Simon just continued to stare, which seemed at least to sate the strange man’s desire for a participating audience.
“I trust you two have learned a lesson about the beauty that God has put in everything!” he said loudly, with just a hint of disappointment. The tone was like that of a teacher speaking to hopelessly disinterested students. “Now, it’s time for the final step.” It was then I noticed that the two associates of the strange man were building a fire. “There is nothing more offensive to God than wasting the gifts he gives us,” the strange man said. “The drug you’ve been given might be making you feel drowsy at this point. But, rest assured, we will make sure you participate whether you’re awake or not.”
My last memory before passing out was watching the men hoist the girl’s form onto a roaring fire. The way they moved her was unceremonious, and rough. Simon fell asleep before I did, and when we awoke at dawn there was no trace of the men at all. There were only the ashes of a large fire, and the two of us. The men had taken Will’s body, and anything that was left of the girl. They left us, I presume, to learn our lesson about God and beauty. I hoisted Simon over my shoulder, and brought him back into town. It was hard going through the trees, but my adrenaline helped. An ambulance was immediately called for Simon, who was still a silent rag doll. I’ve visited him once or twice in his hospital room since then. He only stares wordlessly at the far wall from his bed, day after day. Sometimes, he just starts crying.
I tried to go to the police, but they were incredulous. No one ever reported the girl from the bar missing. Or, if someone did, it never reached Longfield. I guess she was from out of town, like us. I even brought the police back out to the woods where it all happened, but there was nothing there to indicate that my story was true.
The cops all thought that Simon and I were just two druggies who had suffered a bad trip out in the woods. When I told them about Will, they formed a “missing person” search effort that lasted two weeks. Ultimately, everyone gave up. They told his grieving parents that he must have gotten lost in the woods. From there, they said, he probably became disoriented and injured himself fatally. No body was ever recovered.
I’d like to tell myself it was all a fevered dream. I’d like to think that the strange man just drugged us with something that gave Simon and me awful hallucinations. Maybe Will really did wander out into the woods, and got lost in some crevasse or ravine. I want to believe these things more than anything in the world. But, I can’t. I can’t for one very specific reason.
That morning when Simon and I awoke to find the strange man and his associates gone, I was sober. I’m sure of that. I was totally sober that horrible morning, and that sobriety means one thing: when I woke up and smacked my lips together for the first time, I wasn’t imagining the taste of fresh, human gore in my mouth.
I’ve lived for years now with a pain in my stomach, which I thought was stress related. I figured it was some kind of ulcer brought on by the trauma of what happened. It was only years later that an x-ray found the bit of human bone wedged in my digestive tract.
CREDIT: David Feuling
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