Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I’m going to tell you about a town—a town you should never go to. For your protection, I won’t tell you the name or location. But I’ll tell you this: if you ever think you might be in this town, get the hell out of there and don’t look back.
It happened some years ago. I was on my way to visit an uncle I’d never met—meandering around, trying to read a rather confusing map—when I ran out of gas. Stupid, I know, but I can never make heads or tails of those damned things. The dangers of hitchhiking were disconcerting though there wasn’t much choice, so I didn’t bother fussing about it and started up the road.
The midday sun was oppressive. My forehead ached from all the squinting and my clothes were soaking up a gallon of sweat. My tired arm hung lower and lower, as did my hope of hitching a ride. But in the distance came into view a red pickup truck. “Please stop. Please stop,” I repeated, sticking my thumb out as far as it would go. As the truck grew closer, I waved my arms around until it eventually slowed down and stopped in the road.
“That your car back there?” asked the friendly old coot from behind the wheel.
“Yes, sir. Ran out of gas.”
“Hop in. We’ll get you some at the next stop.”
Cappy—what a nice guy he was. He sure liked to talk about his family, but they were entertaining stories. His son was fighting overseas and I could tell his kindness was inspired by the admiration he felt for my generation. Heroes, he called us. You wouldn’t catch me on the front lines though—always been one to shy away from danger. I didn’t tell Cappy that—didn’t want to disappoint him.
After some time, I started to wonder when this town would show up and I expressed my concern that it might be too far away. It didn’t seem to bother Cappy. I guess he had nothing better to do—still never found out where he was headed. The road was getting bumpy, then turned into two brown strips with grass down the middle. I could finally see a town peeking over the wild fields.
Pitiful yet quaint, it was textbook small-town America: faded blue houses with white trim, a few brick and mortar businesses with hand-painted signs, town square, big red barn, white chapel on a hill. Cars were parked here and there, some without tires; though I didn’t see any people around. It wasn’t surprising for such a remote hamlet, but what did surprise me was that, despite the barn, I didn’t see any animals.
There was no official fueling station but we found an old garage with a gas pump out front. Cappy kept apologizing for lending his gas can to a neighbor while we searched through the cluttered garage. A rancid odor would come and go, making me sicker each time. “I’d better go find someone,” I said, “and tell them what we’re doing so they don’t think we’re robbing the place.” Really, I just wanted to get away from that smell.
“Look for a gas can in case I don’t find one.”
The town seemed deserted but I could hear voices echoing from somewhere, so I followed them. Two children appeared from the tall grass, chasing each other down the road. In the distance was an apple orchard with kids running to and fro, tossing apples at each other—some of them on all fours. As I approached, laughter and playful screams came from all sides. It seemed like normal child behavior, but then I noticed they were all wearing dog masks.
There were a few children sitting at a pint-sized picnic table playing with something that looked like cake—smooshing it in their hands and smearing it on their clothes. I assumed from the cake, the masks, and the occasional party favors that there was a birthday party going on. Trying to seem as non-threatening as possible, I strolled on over and attempted to question them.
“I’m sure someone baked that cake to be eaten, not played with,” I said, trying to sound like an authoritative parent. The children stopped what they were doing and looked up at me. I got the shivers—the way they all turned their heads at the exact same moment, all wearing those dog masks. And these weren’t cute cartoon dog masks. The attempt at realism lent them a disturbing quality.
“I’m sorry, but could you nice children take off those masks for a minute?” The kids looked at each other, then back at me. I started to feel embarrassed. “So who’s birthday is it?” One of the children made a little yipping noise. “Oh, it’s you?” Another child mimicked the other. “Then it’s you? Hmm? Is it your birthday?” A third child joined in. “Maybe it’s all your birthdays?” They didn’t seem to be listening and continued to imitate puppies.
Finally, I got a little testy. All that walking in the heat had already worn me down, and now these kids were poking at a beehive. “You listen here. What would your parents say if they saw you being so rude? Why don’t you take off those masks and act like children, not dogs.” The kids started to yip louder, then transitioned to woofs, followed by short barks. “Stop that. Where are your parents? I have car trouble and I need an adult right away!” The children didn’t heed my requests and instead threw cake in my face; it tasted horrible. In hindsight, I don’t think it was cake.
“Fine then. But when I find your parents they’re going to hear all about this.” It was like they didn’t even know what I was saying. I turned to leave but all the children that had been frolicking were now standing side by side, blocking my way. Instead of telling them to move, I simply walked to the left in an attempt to go around them. But as I went one way, so did they. And as I went the other way, so did they.
“Cut it out!” I didn’t want to push them; they were just kids. “I’ll give you brats to the count of three to move or I’m going to walk right through you!” The children stood there and said nothing; there must have been more than a dozen. Gaping at them all in those masks; it was surreal. No two masks were alike—each one a different breed of dog, with expressions ranging from docile to enraged. As I started counting, “Three…” a few of the children began making faint, low grumbling noises. I continued to count down, “Two…” and more children joined in with nasty growls. I gave a heavy sigh, knowing they weren’t going to move.
“Alright then… One!” All at once, the children began barking loudly. I was startled by how ferocious and angry they sounded. “Stop that!” I commanded, but they only barked louder. One of them chucked a rotten apple at me—it hurt. The other kids followed suit and soon I fell victim to the spoiled fruit version of an old fashioned stoning. I started to yell, “Wait till I find your parents!” but took an apple to the face before I could finish. A few kids pushed me while I was distracted and I lost my balance. They all rushed me, kicking and scratching.
“That does it!” I was done fooling around. “What the hell is wrong with you kids?!” I yelled, shoving them one by one to the ground. But they remained unfazed, continuing to kick and scratch and make those irritating noises. The cacophonous howling and fierce barks made my blood boil. I started striking the children, not caring about their safety or what their parents would do in retaliation. After realizing what I had done, I ran off to find Cappy.
The children chased me into town. They were just kids but I was spooked as all hell. The masks, the noises—they didn’t even stop when I hit them. I caught sight of Cappy’s truck but I didn’t see him. The children were gaining on me as I tripped and fell. Again, I was surrounded by those violent brats. I tried to get up but there were too many kids on me, and my cries for help brought no assistance.
“Take off those goddamned masks!” I hollered, attempting to pull one off; it was tied on tight. The barking turned to laughter, and I feared there might be other adults watching—mocking me instead of shooing away their insane offspring. My anger was just reaching its threshold when the children suddenly stopped attacking. They all turned their heads in the same direction and ran off together, howling and cheering joyfully. I stumbled to my feet, inspecting myself for scrapes and bruises.
“Cappy!” I shouted, looking all around. My voice echoed for miles. The children were out of sight so I ran back towards the truck hoping to find him still searching the garage. I stopped at the general store first to see if anyone could help us, but no one was inside. They didn’t seem to be in business—shelves were mostly empty and caked with dust. I checked in the back—nobody there. Then I heard some kind of uproar coming from outside.
I peered out the window but didn’t see anyone, so I opened the door a little and turned my ear. I was sure something was going on with those kids. The only noise in the whole town was coming from that one direction. Part of me knew I should go back to the garage but I wanted to see if the children were being scolded for their behavior. I followed the echoes until I clearly heard a guttural, anguished scream.
The screaming continued as I banged on the nearest front door. “Hey! Is anybody home?! Please!” I jiggled the knob aggressively—locked. There was another house about thirty yards away so I banged on their door as well. Still, no one home; or they just weren’t answering. I circled the house, pounding on the windows, but it was no use. I had to make a decision. What would a hero do? I asked myself, and hurried towards uncertainty.
The commotion was coming from a farmhouse at the bottom of a hill near the orchard. I ran so fast I nearly fell head over heels, though I hesitated when I got to the house. The door was wide open and there were dog masks on the ground. I needed to know what was happening but wasn’t prepared to find out. I thought about yelling for help again, or for Cappy, but I couldn’t make a sound anyhow. When the screaming died down a little, I crept up the porch steps and peeked in—but didn’t see anyone inside. Masks littered the floor.
God help me, I couldn’t just leave. Where would I have gone without a vehicle? It’s not like I could have hot-wired Cappy’s truck. I had to go in. My footsteps made the boards creak but I knew they wouldn’t drown out the ruckus. A trail of masks led me closer to the disgusting sounds and through the dilapidated house to an open door leading down into the basement. A stench beyond foul almost knocked me over.
Listening closely, I tried to identify what was happening. It was those kids for sure—growling, barking, whimpering, slobbering. Now and then a gurgly, desperate moan of agony would come through. I didn’t want to go down there but I had to see it with my own eyes.
Crouching a bit, I crept from one wet, sticky step to another. A single light bulb illuminated most of the room but didn’t quite reach the stairs, so I knew I’d be hidden in the darkness. The floor was covered in muck that sloshed around as a few of the children scampered through it, tossing handfuls of it at each other. Most were gathered in the center underneath the light. It seemed like they were eating something—or feeding, rather.
I watched in disgust as the children tore at the meat—blood dripping down their chins and squirting on their faces. And oh God, their faces! How can you have an underbite and an overbite at the same time?! The turned-up noses and far apart eyes—it was hideous! Beyond that, they all had various facial deformities of which I’m not equipped to describe. The laughter was almost more horrifying than anything because it meant they were having fun. I say this because I knew what they were eating; I just knew. I couldn’t see what was left of his face, and his clothes were ripped to shreds, but I knew. I knew they were eating Cappy.
I covered my mouth and tried not to scream or wretch; gagged a few times but I didn’t draw attention. My body tensed up so bad I could hardly move, but I willed it to inch backwards up the stairs. Through the kitchen and the front room, I prayed to God those kids wouldn’t follow. I assumed I was free once I reached the door, but the most gruesome fellow was standing there at the bottom of the porch steps. He wore a ghastly beard and a toothless, shit-eating grin. His frame was massive and I could smell him from nine yards away. At first we just glared at each other; I swear he had a wooden eye. I expected him to lunge at me. Instead, he pulled a small whistle from the front pocket of his overalls. He pressed it to his lips and seemed to blow into it, but there was no sound.
Sobbing and stumbling, I ran from house to house banging on every door. The joyful roars of the children were drawing closer so I took refuge in the store. They raced all around like it was a game of hide and seek while I barricaded myself in the back room, waiting for those monsters to give up the search. The front door rattled a few times and I suddenly realized I was a sitting duck in there if that big guy broke in. I still don’t know why he never came after me. Eventually, the voices and footsteps faded away and the town fell silent once more.
Night came and the children could be heard howling in the distance. I wondered if they knew where I was and were simply waiting until I came out to terrorize me. I thought of poor Cappy and how delighted he was to help a total stranger. He didn’t deserve to die in such a grisly manner. I wanted to find that gas can now more than ever. Not so I could escape, but so I could burn that house down. Hell, I wanted to burn the whole damned town.
The howling had passed so I snuck out the back door and crawled on my belly to the woods, planning to wait for sunup and then hike to a main road. There were no lights on in town as I spied from the trees. I worried the children might go wandering at night but I’d never find my way in the dark. A single silhouette could just barely be seen coming closer and I could hear the rustling of the weeds; it was one of those savages. I hesitated to run, fearing they’d hear me and alert the others. There were a few rocks of substantial weight near my feet so I picked one up and held it tight.
I listened as the child snatched up an animal that leapt from the brush. As they gnawed at the poor creature, I moved in. They snarled and growled as they ate, masking the crinkle of dead leaves beneath my feet. I held my breath, stepping within arm’s length while slowly lifting the rock over my head. Over and over, I bashed that child’s head beyond recognition. I never thought I could do that to a child, especially with such abandon. But I didn’t do it so much for my own safety as I did it for Cappy.
The sun began to rise and I observed the boy’s body. When I saw him laying all limp on the ground—head caved in and bloody—I regretted what I’d done. Sure I wasn’t a damned cannibal, but I felt like I’d stooped to their level. I murdered a child and I can never take that back. Bits of laughter echoed from the town. Startled, I ran off in the wrong direction.
Tired and hungry, I trudged through fields and over hillsides until the sun was directly overhead. Now and then, I’d hear the faint sound of an engine, though I couldn’t find a road. The weight of everything that had happened made it difficult to go on, but that weight lifted a bit when a ranch came into view on the horizon. As I approached, the unwelcome sound of children playing echoed across the meadow. A few were galloping here and there, making strange noises. It seemed like normal child behavior, but then I noticed they were all wearing horse masks.
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