Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
We called them fallen angels. They were strung up by their ankles and suspended from trees. There was always barbed wire. Wrapped all around the body. Sliced the skin and ripped the tissue, and it was worse if they struggled. Ideally, they would die of dehydration. But this mercy was extended to only a very fortunate few. Most of the time, they would dangle from the branches for hours as the barbs tore their flesh and the pressure built in their heads. When upright, the heart doesn’t have to pump blood that hard to circulate through the brain. Gravity does most of the work to get it back down. Consequently, the blood vessels up there are smaller and thinner than in the rest of the body.
I’d rather be hung, personally. I would much prefer the struggling for breath and kicking the air and the white hot agony of my vertebrae coming apart than waiting for the blood to pool in my head, clot, and eventually burst the veins and feel the warm, sticky liquid drip out of my eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. A noose would be kinder, and suffocation gentler.
“There’s somethin’ in there,” my brother would tell me from the porch, pointing his cigarette toward the trees. “It watches people. Then strings up the ones it doesn’t like.”
As paranoid as he was, I agreed with him. He spent a lot of time on that porch. I don’t let him smoke in the house. He sat out there, cigarette in one hand, gun in the other, just watching the woods and waiting for something to come out. One night, I heard him yelling, frantically trying to get my attention. Gunshot after gunshot exploded through the air and intermingled with his crazed screaming.
I ran out onto the porch to find my brother in a panic that was slowly turning to rage. “Guns don’t do shit.”
“I saw them. Their eyes were just peering out from the trees, fuckin’ watching me. They almost glowed,” he emphatically pointed to the woods behind our house, trying to show me the eyes that weren’t there.
“That’s no reason to wake up the whole neighborhood.” My brother had this habit of keeping his cigarette between his teeth when he talked. It didn’t matter how important what he said was. I could only see the glowing end of the cigarette bobbing up and down as the words fell out. It was fucking infuriating, and it was one of those trivial things that finds its way under your skin and stays there, tapping at the inside of your skull. I had expressed my displeasure several times, but he didn’t seem to care much. I must have been giving him a look this time, because he yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and let it limply dangle in his fingers.
“I will not be strung up in those woods,” he spit his final words at me before stomping out his remaining half cigarette and storming inside.
I wasn’t worried that the neighbors would call the police. They knew my brother, and they knew the woods. It was amazing, the things you could get away with in this town. Everybody here was afraid, but more than that, they were constantly on edge, as if their whole body seethed with anticipation. The paranoia that was so ingrained into these people could only be borne out of desperation. It seemed that they had tried everything, guns, knives, brute force –shit, one time somebody tried to light the whole forest on fire.
The kids played in the street or, preferably, if they had friends from the next subdivision, in the backyards the next neighborhood over. When they grabbed their flashlights in the middle of the night, they would tell stories about the woods. They never talked about Bloody Mary or Slenderman because in Fairdale, the real horror lived ten feet behind their homes.
I don’t think anyone in that town had seen the creatures in the woods, but we all knew what they looked like. The descriptions were spread in passing whispers and hushed voices, out of fear that they were listening. All the children spoke softly but emphatically about their gray skin, six inch fingers, and hollow, infinite sockets carved deep into their skull. They seemed almost human, and maybe they once were.
Once, that I can remember, a kid went into the forest. A bunch of others dared him to. They waited in the shadows between houses, hearts pounding even though they weren’t the ones going in. In silence, they watched him glance back, hoping they would call the whole thing off, and reluctantly submerge himself into the trees. There was the snapping of twigs and then, abruptly, stillness. The group did not take their eyes of the woods, yet they could see the fear among their friends. They waited for a minute surprisingly before cautiously taking a few steps backward, then turning and sprinting away.
The boy was gone. The very next day, a group of police officers, most of whom resigned that same day, were sent in after him. Let me tell you, he struggled. The wire tore through the skin of his abdomen, leaving his internal organs to spill out and hang from his body. After that day, no children went into the woods. They didn’t even have to be told not to.
After the paper ran that story, Fairdale lost its mind. Sure, bodies turned up every other week, but it was never a child. That kind of death was somehow more than murder. It was a disaster, a tragedy.
I lived right on the edge of the woods, and that incident stuck with me. It somehow made the whole thing real. These things were here, right behind my house.
My last night in Fairdale was hopefully the worst of my life. My brother was outside smoking, and I was on the couch, mostly asleep. I’m not a heavy sleeper, so I was glad when the small noises around me seemed to quiet down, but just as I was about to drift off, my brother fired that goddamn gun about three thousand times, ran inside, and slammed the door behind him, his fucking cigarette, still lit, clamped fiercely between his teeth.
I shot up, dazed and unsure of what was happening. Hands trembling, my brother ran to all the doors and windows, making sure they were locked.
“What the fuck, man?” I rubbed my eyes, wishing that I was sleeping.
He sat on the coffee table inches away from me, voice raspy and frightened, “I saw them. They came out.” His eyes were crazed. As his mouth was running faster than his head, he inadvertently blew smoke from his lips with every rushed word and forced breath. “I didn’t even know you could see them.”
My mouth opened, but before I could speak, I heard something tapping on the sliding glass door. My jaw hung ajar, and my brother and I froze instinctively. It was too soft to be a knock, but too hard to be the wind. A moment later, it came again.
“They’re comin’ to get me,” my brother whispered. His eyes were wild, darting across the room as if he was afraid to leave them in one place for too long. “They don’t like me.”
“You sure you saw them?” my voice was barely audible. Somehow, I knew that they could hear me anyway.
“I first noticed them in the corner of my eye, just one at first, but more came.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“Tall, my god they were tall. Until they started moving, I thought they were trees. They’re arms hang at their sides and are as gangly as branches. What gave them away was the skin. Looked just like ash.”
Tap. Tap. Tap. While the sounds did not increase in volume, they came to new places. I heard them still from the door, but now they were also at the windows, sides of the house, and most disturbingly, the roof.
“They don’t have faces. I mean, they’ve got eyes, but not really. They’ve just got these holes,” my brother made circles with his pointer finger and thumb and held them up over his own eyes. “And the holes have this black shit comin’ out of them, just dripping down their heads.”
“I think they could have been human, if they wanted to be.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
My palms were clammy, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I could picture their long, bony fingers rapping on the house, their not-eyes inches from the window, waiting for us to draw back the curtain and meet their gaze. Until that moment, I don’t think I have ever been truly afraid.
Tap. Tap. Tap. It echoed all around us.
We knew we couldn’t leave, and even if we called someone, what good would it do? I didn’t think that anything could save us. Our only option was to wait and hope that we had not received a death sentence.
Tap. Tap. Tap. I now could hear it coming from beneath the house. These things were everywhere. It scared me that they didn’t just burst in, that they were waiting for something, and it scared me more that I didn’t know what. I couldn’t do anything but wait. This isn’t how I wanted to die. My brother and I sat on the floor between the couch and coffee table and hoped it would end.
“What do you think they are?” I asked. We had all heard the stories, but these creatures had no name. They simply existed. They were always here, and we did everything we could to leave them alone, to live without them, and for the most part, they let us. They took some people, I supposed, to make an example. It was a constant reminder of the fear, and maybe it kept this town in line.
My brother’s head was bowed, and his eyes would not meet mine. He lit his fourth cigarette of the night, taking a long drag and holding it deep in his lungs before releasing it. With his eyes still fixed at the floor, he said the only words that have ever struck real fear into my core. “Jimmy, I think they’re God.”
I could only hear the tapping and feel them staring into me from all directions. Despite the emptiness of the house, we knew that they were, in some way, both inside and outside. I forced my eyes shut, and in the darkness, I was only able to picture their elongated limbs hanging at their sides, their shoulders hunched to fit under our low ceilings. God, I could feel the inky ooze dripping onto my hair. I refused to open my eyes because if I did, they might have been there. If they remained closed, it was easier to pretend.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
My brother promised me that he would stay awake all night. He swore. Grabbing a pillow from the couch, he handed it to me and insisted that I slept. I argued, but I was so tired. Eventually, I did fall asleep, albeit against my will.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
It had to be noon when I awoke. I was alone. I checked the whole house, and even mustered up the nerve to step onto the porch, but I was alone.
Dead or alive, I had to find my brother. I went into the woods. I think that was the biggest fuck up of my entire life. After a deep breath, I stepped into the tree line. The sun was high in the afternoon sky, but it was impossibly dark inside that forest and even more unbelievably silent. I was the only thing that disturbed the stillness.
I’ll be honest here and say that I didn’t have a plan. I had no idea where to look for my brother, and I didn’t know how I would react if I found him in the branches. When I stopped in a small clearing to look around, the blurs at the corners of my vision began to move. I knew what it was. I froze, and I think that even my heart stopped beating. Maybe they wouldn’t see me. Maybe they’d leave. Maybe I was losing my mind.
They got closer to me, close enough to see. If they didn’t move, they could be the trees, but if they did, they were something that shouldn’t have been allowed to exist. I shut my eyes and ran blindly through the forest, running into trees and scraping my arms on low-hanging branches. Miraculously, I made it out. I didn’t stop running until I threw myself in my car. I sped down the highway and checked into a motel.
Though it took me an extra hour to fall asleep that night, I kept the TV turned up, just in case they came tapping.
I never saw my brother or Fairdale again. I am no genius, but I knew when to get the fuck out of that town. I moved to a new state, this time making sure I lived in the city, away from the woods.
Even though years and miles have passed since that night, every so often I hear the tapping again. With the knowledge that I can never escape my hometown, I am left with nothing else to do but wait until it’s my turn and hope I dehydrate.
Credit: K. Brown