Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
Forgive me if I’m curt, but I’ve had a shitty night. And honestly? I don’t see it getting any better. I don’t know where my girlfriend is. My clothes smell like fish guts. There are splinters in my hands leftover from the handle of the axe I have leaning against my desk here. Worst of all I can still hear the sound my dog made when…
Let me start from the beginning. I met my girlfriend Abby when we were going to the same school in the city. A few of our mutual friends introduced us to each other and that was it. I fell hard for her and I guess she did the same for me, because after we graduated, she invited me to move in with her. The catch was it was into a place in her hometown of Darby, about two and a half hours away. She was going to rent a house from her aunt.
She had a job lined up with a small outfit in town there making decent money. My diploma made it easy enough to get a job telecommuting from my home computer. Really, there was no compelling reason not to go. I really love this girl and to be honest, I had grown tired of the noise and the crowds that come with city living. Abby was worth giving country life a try.
We were well into winter by the time both of our leases ran up on our separate apartments. We packed our things into a U-haul and drove it out of the city to our new house.
The house is a nice place. Not big, but not tiny enough to force you to call it cozy. It’s right on the main drag leading into town proper, so it isn’t the bucolic rolling countryside I had imagined. But, being an old colonial fishing town, it was still a far cry from the city.
The winter passed by uneventfully. A sore back from shoveling snow out of the driveway, but nothing more. Spring was much of the same, but Summer was a treat.
There were a few smalltown festivals that gave Darby a bit of color. The festivals were mostly nautical themed with the festivities centered downtown by the old wharf.
The last celebration of the season was held on Labor Day weekend. They call it Ocean Harvest Days. My best guess was it was a way to bring together the local fishing and farming communities. A parade of mismatched floats and marchers came streaming down the main road and by our house on their way into town.
Some were little more than pickup trucks with ribbons tied to the side mirrors and toting signs in their truck beds promoting local business. Others were over the top floats of wood and wire, festooned with flowers and ribbons depicting some scene. A plywood fishing boat on a bed of blue plastic flowers standing in for the sea. A paper machete cow from a nearby dairy farm grazing in Easter grass. And finally, after the high school marching band, the Ocean Harvest Days queen. A teenage girl in a prom dress and sash riding in a throne shaped like a giant clam.
It was all so quaint and folksy that my girlfriend blushed, embarrassed by it all. When I asked why she said, “I just don’t want you to think I’m some kinda hillbilly.”
After some convincing and a little teasing she agreed to walk down with me and check out the festivities which turned out to be even more bonkers than I could ever have hoped for.
We checked out the vendors who had set up shop for the third time that Summer. The same old cheap wares and novelties pedaled at the previous two events. The only thing I noticed which was different was one of the vendor tents run by an elderly local woman was selling some Darby souvenirs. Among the generic nautical trinkets were t-shirts and figurines of what I can only describe as a reverse mermaid. A fat ugly fish head and fins set upon stout human legs.
“What the hell is that?” I said, nudging Abby.
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “The Marwyndoon.”
“What the hell is that?” I repeated, but with a hint of a chuckle.
“Some stupid fairytale somebody made up about the town.”
“You have to go on.”
“Well, the way they taught us was when the first fishing boats hit these waters a sea monster would harass the crews. Then, like, sink them and attack the fisherman while they tried to swim to safety. That was the Marwyndoon.”
Barely stifling my laughter, I urged her to continue.
“After a while, the Marwyndoon started coming ashore and attacking people. Dragging young maidens into the ocean to become his bride. You know, that old gimmick. Anyway, he threatened to destroy the town, but the mayor ended up bargaining with him–“
“The Marwyndoon,” I interrupted.
“Yes, the damn Marwyndoon. The mayor convinced him to let us keep fishing his waters if the farmers dumped some livestock off the wharf once a year.”
“So they threw cows in the ocean to appease the fish man with naked human legs.”
“Yeah, at the start of fishing season. Today. Ocean Harvest Days. They would toss cows and pigs into the bay for The Marwyndoon to eat. They do it symbolically still. Children throw pumpkins into the water.”
“Does the Marwyndoon show up? I’d like to get a picture with him.”
Abby laughed then, shaking her head. “No, the story goes that he grew hungrier every year. Then tried to take over the town with a cult he created with the part human part fish monster offspring he bore with the girls he abducted. Eventually, he messed with some whalers down from a port in the city speared him to death, then they buried him in town somewhere.”
I couldn’t help but burst out laughing then.
“That’s it,” Abby said, “you think we’re all backwater nutjobs now.”
“Pretty much. That story is straight-up bonkers.”
She punched me in the arm playfully and we winded up heading home before the big ceremony and I never got a look at the Marwyndoon.
* * * * * *
Not long after that, we stepped our relationship up to the next level by getting a puppy. A chubby little black lab we named Corky. My girlfriend works all day and I’m glued to the computer at home most days, so I was happy to have Corky around to keep me company.
Over time I began to really settle into life in Darby. But there were a couple of odd things I noticed. The first thing was some of the people seemed a little… off. The older folks especially. Despite mostly being fishermen and farmers, livelihoods earned outdoors, I noticed everyone over the age of 40 had kind of a dusty pallor to them. Most were short and pudgy. Their personalities were dull. What few attempts I made at making conversation were squelched, not by a stand-offishness but just a lack of anything of substance being said, short of remarking on the weather.
“Generations of inbreeding,” I had teased Abby.
She always laughed my mean jokes off. “You have to realize, hun. Before the Internet came along, living here was like living on the Moon.”
Another thing that caught my attention were the missing pet posters. There were ten on my street alone. Ten posters for ten separate cats and dogs, mostly cats. They all looked to be from last year or older. Yellowed scotch tape, peeling and flapping in the breeze. Or rust streaks seeping out from under thumbtacks. The permanent marker the signs were written with were washed out from many rainfalls and baked dry again in the sun. The photocopied pictures of the beloved pets stared out you from the weathered gray paper. Fading away like a childhood memory.
“This is the country, babe. People don’t keep their pets locked inside like they do in the city.”
It made sense. Being a city boy my entire life, I didn’t think much more about it. It was sad, but it’s not like pets didn’t go missing in the city.
People stare here too. In the city, you generally avert eye contact and pretend you’re too busy to take notice of anybody else. Here, when I took Corky for walks some people would stare at us as the drove past like I was an escaped mental patient whose face was plastered all over the local news.
And not just sideways glances, but full-blown rubbernecking. At first I pretended not to notice. Now I stop and stare back. I don’t tell my girlfriend, because I know she’d just shake her head at me. You’re an unfamiliar face in a small town.
* * * * * *
Idiosyncrasies aside, things were relatively mundane for months. Work at the computer. Take Corky for a long walk around town. Girlfriend comes home from her job late into the evening. Repeat.
All good. Until the first cold twists started to roll in on the Autumn wind. The days got shorter, the nights darker.
Not to sound judgmental, but the townsfolk around here don’t seem overly health-conscious. All Spring and Summer I didn’t see so much as a middle-aged woman speed walking. I once watched a fat guy in camo sweatpants waddle out of the Little Caesar’s, crawl back into his F-250 and drive 20 yards down the road to get to the town Walmart.
But once my walks with Corky shifted from daylight to dusk, I started to notice joggers here and there. Never up close, always alone. Dressed all in black. Gym pants, name-brand athletic sweatshirts with the hoods drawn up.
No big deal, right? Maybe some guys started to get tired of staring at a doughy body in the mirror every day after undressing from a hard shift at the fish processing plant. Fine.
As the days wore on more started to appear. A runner darting across the crosswalk then out of sight up at the next intersection. Another running down the sidewalk on the other side of the street while I waited for Corky to finish her business behind a tree.
I felt like I was missing something. I didn’t socialize much. It was possible that a fitness club had started up in town. I’d always meant to ask my girlfriend about it, but it would slip my mind by the time she walked through the door.
* * * * * *
Then last night I was walking Corky down by the waterfront. The sidewalk gave way to a boardwalk down by the restaurants and touristy gift shops that were only open in the summertime. I had my headphones in, listening to a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album from the early 90s.
Something a lot of us don’t consider is when you have your headphones in you’re essentially robbing yourself of one of your most important senses. You’re cutting yourself off to the world around you.
That is why I count myself lucky to have sensed him. A subtle rush of air, a nearly imperceptible wave of motion reflected in a darkened storefront window or it might have been the vibration through the boards beneath my feet. In any case, I was alerted on some level and I turned in time to see him. Wearing black joggers clothes and a hoodie with the hood up. Running up on me like a madman. What really stood out to me was the vacant look on his face. His eyes were lost in the shadows and his mouth hung agape.
He ran up as if he was going to attack, but when I turned to face him he stopped dead. Stopped dead, turned on his heels and sprinted off in the opposite direction.
I took out my headphones and watched dumbfounded, heart thumping, as the jogger fled off into the night. Suddenly very uncomfortable, I led Corky across the road and decided to cut through some of the backstreets to get home faster.
Before long, I could hear footfalls nearby. Without the benefit of streetlights on the main roads, the sounds of running echoed out from the darkness. Languid walking, punctuated by intermittent bouts of sprinting. Never nearing, but never softening with distance. Whoever it was was running back and forth parallel with my path. Following me. I walked faster.
A few streets away from my house, there’s an old church. Tall and gothic, but in a new world sort of way. Instead of a grand stone cathedral, it was pieced together out of clapboard and wood. For two centuries it loomed over a cemetery with headstones dated back to the late 1700s. A black wrought iron fence surrounded the churchyard, every post topped with a sharp point.
An electric light burned a greenish-yellow from somewhere behind the church. Illuminating the back steps or something. Maybe the entrance to an apartment for clergy. It illuminated the churchyard with an eerie light.
I didn’t look too hard at first. I was already spooked enough as it was, so I tried to keep my eyes forward and just listen to the tap, tap, tap of Corky’s paws on the asphalt. But suddenly, much to my chagrin, something caught my eye. Some subtle movement or sound, like before, drew my attention toward the graveyard.
Shadowy figures moved about between the headstones. Three? Four? Outlined against the faint light. Their silhouettes full black, save for the occasional flash of three vertical white stripes. Like the kind that run down the sleeves and pant legs of certain brand-name athletic wear.
Willing myself to look away, I sped up to a jog myself. Just before I made it far enough to consider myself clear there was a terrible sound. A high pitched shriek from deep in the churchyard. Not human, but a small animal… like a house cat being tortured. It carried on for thirty seconds of agonized howls. Then just as quick as it started it abruptly stopped.
That’s when Corky started barking. He was just a little guy still but he had a loud, deep bark on him. I just about managed to tug him around the bend in the road that curves away from the church and back to the main street when I heard the thump of feet against the ground and the crunching of leaves in rapid succession. The shadowy figures were running through the graveyard.
I ran too. Fortunately, Corky followed suit and matched my pace. Being a dog, I didn’t need to explain to him that we were in danger. He saw me running, so he ran along with his giant pink tongue lolling out of his mouth.
We ran and ran until we crunched leaves ourselves, crossing my front lawn. We jumped up the steps and into the house, locking the door and the deadbolt behind us.
Later when Abby got home from her shift, she tossed her keys onto the coffee table and plopped down on the couch with an audible groan. “You’re not going to believe the day I had,” she said. And she proceeded to outline her day. Laid out all her stresses, the few highs and more frequent lows that a continuing care nurse faces. By the time she finished telling me about her problems, I was beginning to scrutinize my own.
I told her about the night jogger running up on me, but omitted the forms in the graveyard, the screeching cat and the accosting footsteps in the night. Fearing her silent judgment, I was embarrassed by the thought of admitting to her that her boyfriend got scared walking the dog at night and had to run home.
“He probably didn’t see you,” Abby said about the night jogger. “I know when I used to go for runs I’d zone out with my earbuds in. Be in my own little world.” She frowned then. “I used to be in such good shape. My job has me run ragged at the end of the day. I don’t have time for that anymore. I really should make time. Ugh.”
I assured her that she was still very fit and just like that the conversation had shifted away from the night joggers. And while I didn’t forget what happened, I pushed it into the back of my mind. And only dredged it back up when I cast a few furtive glances out the window after shutting off the lights and before heading to bed.
* * * * * *
Today I had a hard time focusing while trying to get my work done. My desk sits next to a large picture window on the front side of my house overlooking the street and the sidewalk. My eyes would drift from the computer screen to every passerby. Examining them closely. Retired elderly people shuffling about, young mothers on mat leave pushing strollers. No black-clad runners, just normal townspeople.
Mid-afternoon I worked myself up to take Corky for a walk. We retraced the path we took last night fleeing from the night joggers. When we came to the church, there was nobody in sight. The only things standing among the graves were the bare Autumn trees, shed clean of their leaves and reaching up as if trying to claw at the steel gray sky.
There was a malodorous scent in the air as well. Like seaweed washed up and drying on the sand. This was a town that harbored numerous fishing vessels and two seafood-processing plants, so that in and of itself wasn’t too strange, but if I knew then what I only kinda know now… well, I still don’t know.
I had planned to walk through the churchyard to get a lay of the land, but standing there then, despite the emptiness, I still felt on edge. Ultimately I took Corky and we looped back around and went home.
Later when my work was done and the daylight burned away, we sat back and waited for Abby to come home. It had been an overcast day so when nightfall came it fell hard and impenetrable. A darkness made heavier by an overbearing black night sky.
When the normal time for Corky’s walk came, he began whining at the front door. I shushed him a few times, hoping to wait for Abby to get home so we could walk him together. That way if anything did happen she would at least be there to witness it too.
But Corky whined and whined, then started to scratch at the base of the door. I felt bad for the little guy, so I broke down, snapped the leash on him and took him out to pee.
He did his business in the front yard and I was about to lead him back inside when he cocked his and he growled as viciously as a young black lab pup can. He hopped forward, pulling all slack out of his lead. There, down by the road, I saw what had him so worked up.
A man stood on the sidewalk at the end of the drive, hands buried in the front pocket of his black zip-up hoodie. He stared up at us from under the low hanging brim of the hood.
I willed myself to walk over to the top of my driveway. I glared back at the man. His face was mostly obscured by shadow, but I could see enough to know it was the same night jogger from last night.
“Help you?” I called out to him in a way clearly indicating I was not interested in helping the man at all.
He said nothing, just grinned a wide grin, displaying a mouthful of crooked, widely spaced teeth. Corky yapped and barked at the man, pulling me closer by his leash.
“What is your problem, dude?” I called out.
The night jogger turned suddenly and took off, not in a run, but a slow gait. Fueled by my indignation over being menaced on my own property, I set off down the driveway shouting out more profanity-laced questions after the man.
When I made it to the sidewalk I stopped to watch as he walked away. That’s when someone crashed into my back sending me sprawling out on the pavement. I looked up stunned, only seeing a flash of a swiftly moving shadow and the swish of track pants. Another night jogger had been crouched somewhere out of sight and took advantage of the distraction to hit me. But after he did, he kept on running up past the first night jogger.
What happened next seem to happen in slow motion. Recounting it now my heart wrenches. The night jogger who had goaded me to coming down to the sidewalk ran toward me and in one fluid motion, scooped up Corky in his arms and ran off straight down the sidewalk. Corky howled as the night jogger carried him off. I managed to get to my feet in time to see the night jogger as he ran away in a strange, jerky high knee run that would have looked cartoonish if I hadn’t been so panicked.
I gave chase but the night jogger was too fast. I only made it to the end of the block before he disappeared like an apparition into the night with my poor barking dog cradled in his arms.
“You bastard!” I cried out in impotent rage. After allowing myself a moment of bewilderment, I screamed out again in anger, then ran into the darkness after them.
My gut told me that they’d be heading back to the church graveyard where I’d seen a number of them lingering… and heard the cat’s cries. Fumbling through the dark on the side streets, I could pretty much follow my nose back to the old church. The putrid stink of rancid seafood intensified with every step I took.
Near the church, I cut across somebody’s backyard to take position huddled behind a shrub that provided a clear line of sight to the churchyard. What I saw knotted my stomach and will haunt me till the day I die.
What I had mistaken for an electric light last night proved to be something else entirely. The color had deepened to a sickly green and the intensity had increased threefold at least. It was emanating not from behind the church but from somewhere in the graveyard itself. It was bright enough now that the hundred-year-old headstones cast long shadows across the ground.
Humanoid shapes moved around the gangrenous glow, winking in and out of sight as they emerged from the darkness, crossed the light and rejoined the shadows. The stench now was near unbearable. Like a dumpster behind a seafood restaurant on a hot afternoon.
There was a low hum, it was vague but pervasive. Like it wasn’t a perceptible as a sound at all, only registering by its reverberation in my chest and in my skull. It ebbed and flowed in long draws, in a way I couldn’t help but liken to a respiratory rhythm. The thought made me shudder. Everything about what I was witnessing made me feel sick.
A shadow form broke away from the encroaching blackness and approached the light. There was a high pitched whining sound. Another cat, I thought. The shadowy figure raised its arms, tossing something into the light. And just like last night, I heard a caterwauling feline screech.
Following that there was a harsh raspy chanting from a dozen hushed voices in the graveyard. It was almost like the tribal songs of a south pacific tribe of headhunters, but there were almost no discernable vowel sounds. Just wet consonants and hard stops.
Except for one clear phrase, repeated several times in a row.
Then the worst. A large shape moved somewhere from within the light. A darkness shifting inside the necrotic glow. Lumbering, gigantic and round. At the apex of the swelling form, an angled protrusion shot up straight. Angled with a rippling flap down the long side of the triangular shape. Like a fin. The screeching of the doomed cat intensified for one terrible moment before being silenced sharply and permanently. The hum reverberating inside my head spiked suddenly and sickeningly. It was a crunch. Followed closely after by repeated spikes, softer crunches. Chewing.
I couldn’t take anymore. I recoiled away from the shrub and crept away back to my home. My mind was racing. Every possibility was more grim and hideous than the last.
Feeling drained and horrified, I climbed the steps to my front door. My poor Corky was out there somewhere. I thought about the cat. The crunch. I was going to be sick.
Staggering weakly, I entered my living room expecting to have to explain to my girlfriend what had happened. How could I explain it to her? How could she possibly believe me? It didn’t matter. I had to. We had to leave this godforsaken town. Tonight.
But she wasn’t there. I called out her name. No answer. The house was empty. I patted my pockets, looking for my phone so I could call her, but I could not find it. I went into the kitchen and found it on the table where I had set it down earlier. I didn’t think to grab it when I took Corky outside. On the table next to my phone was a note.
‘Babe,’ the note began. ‘Tried to text, but you forgot your phone. Some friends I haven’t talked to since middle school invited me out. We’re all going for a run together. Maybe I’ll see you and Corky out and about. If not, don’t wait up. -Abby’
My heart sank into my stomach. Something in my head gave way. A barrier between logic and reality that had been pushed so far that it finally snapped. The whole world around me seemed to tilt. Like the house was going to cave in on me. Lost in a kind of shock-induced trance, my feet carried me outside to the shed in our backyard. I swung the door open and reached for what was hanging on the wall. The rusty old wood-splitting axe that had been there when we moved in.
I marched back inside, tightly gripping the splintered handle of the axe. I went into the office and propped the axe against the desk and sat down to type out a lengthy note on my work laptop as fast as my fingers would allow. Just in case Abby returns while I’m out. But deep in my heart, where the vile hum had reverberated, I know this note will go unread.
I’m heading out now. To find my girlfriend. To get my fucking dog back.
Don’t wait up.
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