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The Salted Earth

the salted earth
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Estimated reading time — 16 minutes

“I’ll see you at Kevin’s.”

Those were words that used to be followed by a wide grin at school or a gleeful affirmative over the phone. There were either old memories to rediscover or new adventures to be had. The four of them had spent so many days exploring the Husker Woods, the dark, forsaken woods on the edge of Campsong. They’d spent so many nights sleeping on the living room floor of Kevin’s house. The place had been a second home for all of them. It had been less than a year since they were all there, but it felt like a decade. The memory felt like a flower that had slipped away down the river in the woods and vanished over the horizon. Still, one last time, they came.

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Barry was the first to arrive, with the sun lowering in the sky, his twenty-year-old pickup puttering up the driveway before parking beside Kevin’s four-door sedan with a final puff of smoke emanating from the tailpipe. The tall, broad-shouldered farmboy got out and hauled his sleeping bag out of the truckbed. Hefting it onto one shoulder, he started up the drive towards the two-story beige colonial. It looked the same as it ever was, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees. He wasn’t sure what to expect from his old friend. Halfway through their last year in high school, there had been a falling out between the four of them. It hadn’t been violent or well-defined. There were no harsh words or emotional outpourings, but they’d all felt it. Kevin opened the door before Barry had even reached it, a genuine-seeming smile on his face.

“Long time, no see, man,” said Barry. Kevin greeted him with a firm handshake.

“Don’t I know it?” said Kevin. “That’s all you brought?”

“That’s all I need.” They both walked into the warmly-lit house and made their way to the family room in the back. Barry threw his bag on the floor and looked out the window. It was more nostalgic than he thought it would be looking out into the woods, seeing the spring foliage just coming in. His own house, at the edge of the small, Iowa town, had nothing but fields around it. The fading light shining through the trees made shadows dance through the forest. A chill ran down Barry’s back just like it used to. Not many people willingly went into the Husker Woods, named after the ancient Indian legend of a skin-stealing creature. Barry shuddered as he thought of the old stories of people being “husked”.

“Do you know when the girls are coming?” asked Kevin, interrupting Barry’s silent reverie.

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“Should be anytime now,” he replied. “Susanna was driving them both.”

“So if they’re not here soon, it means she totaled another car.” The two of them broke into a fit of laughter at that. Susanna, the polar opposite of Katharine, was not known for her driving skills. She’d once wrecked a car three days after getting it. Kevin could almost see Kat’s knuckles turning white gripping her seat.

“So where are your parents?” asked Barry. “I was kind of looking forward to seeing them again.”

“They’re staying the night out in Cedar Rapids,” said Kevin. “Dad had a teacher’s convention up there and I think they’re probably taking in the night life.”

“So they’ll be hungover when they get back?”

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“Probably, but that means we get the entire place to ourselves one last time.”

The two of them sat silent for a moment after hearing “one last time”. Up until then, it had been implied, but now it seemed certain. Barry was about to say something when they heard the roar of a car heading up the road outside. The two smirked at each other, knowing who it was instantly.

They stepped outside just in time to see Susanna’s bright red convertible swing into the driveway and screech to a stop beside the other vehicles. Before it had even come to a full stop, the passenger door flew open and a tall, curvy brunette evacuated the car. Adjusting her glasses, Katherine leaned against Barry’s truck, attempting to look unbothered by the trip.

Across from her, Susanna burst out of the car and sauntered up the driveway, her lithe form looking as perfect as always. Kevin didn’t know much about fashion, but he would have been shocked if everything she was wearing wasn’t some trendy name brand. She must have picked up some fashion advice out on the east coast.

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“One of you two going to go grab our stuff?” she asked as she reached the front door and disappeared inside. Kevin and Barry gave each other a questioning glance. She’d always been a little conceited, but that was harsh, even for her. Turning back to the drive, they saw Kat lugging both Susanna’s and her sleeping bags up the drive.

“Hey guys,” she said, a shy smile on her lips.

“Hi, Kat,” said Kevin as Barry gave a smile and a curt nod and headed back inside. “I’ll take hers.”

“And throw it somewhere she can’t find it?”

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“Would I do that?” asked Kevin. The two of them tried to hold straight faces, but couldn’t. They’d always been the closest out of the four, almost like a brother and sister. They’d been the level-headed ones that broke it up when Barry and Susanna started arguing. That was why it had surprised him so much that they’d fallen out of touch so quickly. “Come on in.”

After pitching Susanna’s bag into the closet, they made their way into the living room where the other two were waiting. Standing around the room, everyone seemed to be waiting for everyone else to say something. There was a lot to catch up on.

“Good to see everyone again,” said Kevin. “Anyone hungry?”

“I could eat,” said Barry.

“You always say that,” said Susanna.

“It’s always true,” said Kat. Everyone laughed at that. It was the kind of laugh that spreads through a room; that had been heard in that room so many times it was beyond counting. They were still snickering as Kevin led them out the door and onto the red brick patio out back, where the fire pit was already lit.

“You know the drill,” he said, directing them towards the row of skewers and table full of hot dogs and cheap buns. Kat and Barry grinned, hurried over, and started packing hot dogs onto the long metal rods.

“You really couldn’t have gotten anything better?” asked Susanna, scowling at Kevin. Kevin just glared back. It only took a moment before the girl broke, grinning and letting out a snort. “I get three,” she said in feigned defiance, rushing off to join the others. Kevin relaxed a little bit, glad to see that, just maybe, she hadn’t changed as much as it had seemed.

“You get two like everyone else!” yelled Barry.

“The hell I do!”

For the next hour or so, as the sun set, everyone told stories about their first years at college. They had stories about their favorite teachers, horrible roommates, and exciting events on campus. As the stories unfolded, though, it became apparent how different their lives had become in such a short time.

Kevin had stayed in the region and gone to Arbormill College, a small, historic, somewhat boring place that was within a teacher’s son’s price range. At one time, when they were younger, they had promised each other they would all go there. They were young, naïve, and had been connected by their mutual love of Aldona County’s mysterious and haunted past, the specialty of the local college. Sometimes it seemed like that was all they had in common as they explored the ancient woods behind the house, hoping to uncover Indian relics or ruined temples.

That had changed when Kat got a scholarship to John Barons University, a prestigious institution in a Chicago suburb. It was bigger, better, and more exciting than Arbormill by a mile. She had pretended to struggle with the decision, but there was no question where she was going.

Not even two weeks later, Barry, who had always been hopelessly smitten with Katherine, announced that he was going to be following her to John Barons. This wouldn’t have surprised Kevin quite as much if Barry hadn’t let slip that Iowa State was willing to give him a full athletic scholarship. The one thing the Chicago university did not have was athletic programs.

Susanna, meanwhile, seeing that the band was already broken up, got her parents to use their money and connections to get her into Harvard. While the others remained in the Midwest, she was living it up with the other blue bloods on the east coast.

As the sun began to set, Susanna’s phone chirped in her pocket.

“Whoops,” she said, checking the caller ID. “I really need to go take this.” She got up out of her deck chair and walked off towards the woods, excitedly talking to someone on the other line about their plans for when they got back to Cambridge.

“Speaking of calls, I told Vi I’d call her tonight,” said Kat. She took out her phone and walked to the shadows at the other corner of the yard.

Kevin and Barry sat around the fire pit in the darkness, staring into the fire and waiting for the others to return. After several minutes of sitting around, Barry got up, clearly agitated, and began pacing back and forth between the fire and the house. He paused for a moment in front of the flower bed next to the back wall of the house. Beneath the window into the living room, there was a bare spot of earth in the garden. He smirked at the memory of that patch. Kevin’s mother had tried everything to grow flowers there, but it was like the earth had been salted. Glancing at his three friends behind him, he wondered if that same thing wasn’t happening to them.

“Yeah, I’m over here at their stupid ‘last party’ being bored as hell,” said Susanna to her friend. “Believe me, I will be back east as soon as I can, then we can get onto a real spring break.” As the girl on the line launched into a list of all the things they were going to do, Susanna zoned out and looked off into the woods spreading out from the house, listening to the owls hooting and the crickets chirping. She really had loved those woods. When she was younger, she had never been into the high-class stuff her parents were. Going out into those woods with the others were the best memories she had. They always thought there was going to be a lost city behind the next tree or a monster hiding in the next cave. She always picked up a stick and swore that when they found a monster, she’d beat it up herself and show them all she was the best. Her parents were furious every time she came home covered in dirt. But, try as she might, she refused to stay in those woods after dark. Not in the Husker Woods.

“I can survive three days without you, Vi,” said Kat. “No, he hasn’t done anything creepy! Give him a little credit. He’s still my friend. Yeah, I’ll see you soon.” She ended the call and pulled out a vape, taking a long draw off of it. Looking over at Barry pacing, she couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. She knew damn well he’d gone to John Barons just to follow her. In fact, his crush on her their senior year was half the reason the group began splintering apart. When she’d started dating Vi and he realized she wasn’t into guys, he’d lost it just a little bit. He hadn’t done anything to her, but that was when his drinking started. She could tell earlier that he wasn’t entirely sober.

Kat watched the cloud of vapor float up into the air. Suddenly, it was blown apart by a gust of air through the trees and, for a moment, the sounds from the forest stopped. As she watched it dissipate, she couldn’t help but feel like it was a breath out of the trees. It was almost definitely just the wind. Although, looking over at the fire, the air was completely still. Those woods made you think about strange things at night; strange, old things that hid in the darkness.

As both of the girls ended their calls and walked back to the fire pit, the group all sat down again, taking in the heat of the fire. For the next hour, they made some more small talk, asked Kevin what was new around the town, whether Campsong had beaten Odella in the last homecoming game, etcetera. Eventually, when they couldn’t take any more strained conversation, Kevin suggested they just go inside and go to sleep.

As soon as the words had left his mouth, something changed. The owls stopped hooting. The crickets died out. The sound of fleeing wings echoed out of the woods. For a moment, none of them even breathed, and there was dead silence. And then hell broke loose.

None of them could ever be sure where it came from, whether it was from the woods or from right above them, but a clump of matter landed directly on the fire pit, smothering it and casting shadows across the yard. At the same time, the light above the door went out, breaking with a loud crack. The patio fell into a mass of shadows, flashes of light barely slipping out from beneath the mass covering the fire. Somebody screamed. Kevin tried telling everyone to stay calm, but his voice broke as the light fell on something spraying deep crimson. A warm wetness sprayed from somewhere and then all of them began screaming.

Finally, summoning nerve from somewhere, Kevin dug his fingers into whatever was on top of the fire (it felt like a bunch of mud and wet leaves) and pried it away, leaving the barely burning fire uncovered at last. With the patio finally illuminated once more, the screaming stopped briefly. Then, as the fire picked up a bit, the screaming began again, louder.

The first thing they noticed was that every one of them was covered in blood. It had sprayed over everyone from head to foot. The second thing they noticed was the source of the blood. Splayed out on the back of the patio, a few yards away, there was a mass of blood, bones, and flesh.

“What the hell is that?!” screamed Susanna.

“Who the hell is that?” said Kat, her voice only a stunned whisper.

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“Who’s missing??” said Kevin, looking around the fire. Everyone’s gaze circled the patio. With a sense of relief, they saw that all four of them were still there. Then, as realization dawned, it as quickly replaced with a sense of pure terror. They all looked back at the flayed body on the ground, the blood already running down the lines between the bricks, flowing towards them like rivers shimmering in the firelight.

“The Husker,” said Barry with growing dread. “It’s real.”

“It’s one of us,” said Kat, strangely subdued. It wasn’t like they hadn’t talked about this over the years of going into the woods. There were entire nights where they talked about what they’d do if the Husker got them. Maybe, in the back of their minds, they’d always believed it would happen.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Susanna. “We’ve got to get help!” She was about to run towards the house when Kevin grabbed her and held tight to her arm.

“We can’t leave,” he said.

“Why not?!”

“He’s right,” said Kat. “We don’t know which one of us isn’t us. If we don’t figure it out now, this thing could be running loose in Campsong.”

“I vote we forget this happened,” said Barry. “We can all get the hell out of Dodge and this thing can do whatever it wants!”

“That sounds like something the Husker would say,” said Susanna, glaring at him.

“Shut up and sit down,” said Kevin. “Everybody!” Grudgingly, everyone grabbed a deck chair and spread around the fire pit, Susanna shakily sitting down in the chair nearest the mass of blood and flesh. “Now, in every myth about this thing, they figure it out because the Husker doesn’t know things the person knows. We used to hear those stories all the time! So all we have to do is ask each other questions only we’d know the answers to.”

“Yeah,” said Susanna. “But what do we do then?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Alright,” said Barry, his voice quivering. “Who’s first?”

“Susanna,” said Kat.

“What?? Why me??”

“Because you were the closest to the woods when it happened,” she replied. Susanna started to argue, but froze, shut her mouth, and nodded. She leaned forward in her chair, noticing the blood on the bricks flowing underneath her shoes. She looked directly across the fire at Kat. Her eyes looked black in the flickering shadows from the darkened flames.

“You had a crush on that one guy in 8th grade,” said Kat. “What was his name?”

“Billy Jackson,” said Susanna with a menacing sneer. “And then he started dating that skinny bitch from Arbormill.”

“Great,” said Kevin. “You’re safe for now, so go get some more firewood.” As she quickly got up and threw another log on the fire, Kevin stared down Barry, the rivers of blood reaching the bricks beneath the two of them. “What school offered you that athletic scholarship and why did you turn it down?” Barry glared at him.

“You said you would never mention that again,” he said, scowling. “It was Iowa State and you know damn well I went to Chicago because I was into her like a moron.” He pointed guiltily at Katherine, his hand shaking and falling back to his side. Her gaze broke off and she stared at the log in the fire beginning to splinter and crack.

“You next, then,” said Barry to Kevin, pointing back at Kat again. “You and her were as close as anyone here. You had to know she was a…you know.” He caught himself before saying something he would have regretted. “Why the hell did you let me turn down that scholarship and go all the way to John Barons?” All eyes turned on Kevin, more than two of them with an accusing look.

“You want to know why?” asked Kevin. “Because you were the only one left. They were both going away. You were going to be the only one that stuck by me here in Aldona County and then you leave me here for the stupidest reason imaginable!”

At the last word, Barry bolted upright, hands curling into fists. Kevin, not backing down, stood up to meet his gaze, ready to defend himself.

“Sit down!” screamed Kat. “Both of you!” The two boys slowly sat back into the blood crusted chairs, staring each other down.

“Alright, little Miss Perfect,” said Susanna. “You got a bad grade on a test one time and cried all week. What grade and what class?” The blood spilling over the bricks finally reached Katherine, forming a circle around the fire.

“It was a C-minus and it was Geometry,” said Kat. “I messed up a formula and didn’t have time to go back and fix it.”

“And why did you go to John Barons?” asked Barry. “For a history degree, Arbormill is almost as good.” Kat stalled, looking into the fire. Barry and Kevin tensed, ready to jump her if she didn’t answer. She finally gave a deep sigh.

“Too many people knew me at Arbormill,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the nerdy girl anymore. I wanted somewhere that I could reinvent myself. I wanted to be the cool one for once in my life. That’s why I hated it so much when you followed me there. You knew me.” Silence settled in around the fire once again, the light flickering off the drying blood.

“Susanna,” said Kat. “Why Harvard? You never cared about school that much. I always thought you’d go to a party school.” Kevin eyed Susanna suspiciously while Barry kept his gaze on Kat, a hint of tears visible in his eyes. The rich girl put a hand over her mouth and looked back at Kat.

“I guess I was done disappointing my parents,” she said. “For years they told me I should act like I had some class. Nothing was ever good enough. I think I just wanted to do something important.” Another pause followed before Kevin spoke, his voice heavy.

“None of you even tried meeting up over winter break,” he said. “It was like pulling teeth to get you to come over here tonight. Why?” A long silence followed the question that Kevin had obviously wanted to ask all night, monster or not. Eventually it was Barry that broke the silence.

“Because I didn’t want to answer questions like these,” he muttered. The girls just nodded in surrender. “Who’s next?”

As the night wore on, the game continued, everyone asking more and more obscure questions that everyone else but the Husker would know. It went on for what seemed like forever. Eventually, as the morning crept closer, Kat thought of the only time she had communicated to the two outside of Chicago.

“Susanna,” she started. “Remember two months ago when I texted you and asked for some fancy place I could take Vi for our two month anniversary? Where did you tell me to go?” The other girl looked like she was about to answer when, suddenly, a strange look came into her eyes. She spun around and looked towards the east. There was red on the horizon. The light began to creep over the trees and into the backyard, making the bloodied patio beneath them shimmer. The woods around them, which had been silent for hours, suddenly erupted with the sounds of the morning.
Susanna turned back with an odd smile on her face. It was look that contained sorrow, nostalgia, and something not quite human. There was something about the bizarre look that made Kevin and Barry inch their chairs slightly towards Kat.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a sigh. “But I don’t know.” When she spoke next, it was like she had two voices. They could hear Susanna’s voice, but there was another one talking beneath it, almost mockingly. It had a high pitch and an airy, ethereal quality, as if it was being carried on the wind. “It’s almost dawn. I have to go back into the darkness soon. But I wish this night could last forever.” The two guys leapt from their chairs and huddled behind Kat’s, staring intently across the flames.

“Why are you doing this?” asked Kevin, interrupting the reflection with a faltering voice. The Susanna-thing’s mouth widened into a broad smile. As they watched, its eyes faded into a milky white, like something that had been dead for a long time, but with a terrifying spark behind them.

“Because you’re all my friends,” the Husker said. Beneath the skin it was wearing, they could see something unnatural move. “You don’t even know it, but you are.”

“I don’t even know what the hell you are,” said Barry, his hand searching for anything that could be used to defend himself.

“I’m me,” said the thing. “I was born in a gray clearing beneath a blood moon. I don’t think things like me actually have parents. We just, sort of…are. I don’t even know if there are others like me. I hope not, actually.”

“How can we be your friends?” asked Kevin, his voice a whisper as the game of questions went on, heedless of the shifting dynamic.

“I used to take people all the time and walk around town, but everyone seemed so…boring. But you four; you came out into my woods by yourselves. You were so fun to watch, so I followed you.” If there had been any color left in anyone’s face, it drained instantly after hearing that. “I listened to you for so long. It was like I knew all of you. I knew all of your hopes, your dreams, your secrets. It was like I was one of you, but I knew I never would be. Not really.”

“Why tonight?” asked Kat. A more somber look came onto the Husker’s face.

“Because I knew it would be the last time you would all be out here,” it said. “All I wanted, all I’ve ever wanted, was to talk to you all face to face. I wanted to see you up close, talk to you, and become real friends. And, yes, I know tonight wasn’t all of you at your best, but it was the best I was ever going to get.”

“Why Susanna?” asked Kevin. The Husker’s face grew darker and the three of them tensed as they stared into its pale eyes. The movement beneath its skin became faster, more violent.

“She was saying mean things about you on the phone earlier,” it said. “I never liked her as much as the rest of you. She thought she was better than you. She made you leave the woods at night, when I could have come closer. I just wanted to be closer!” There was a hideous ripping sound as some part of the skin it was wearing gave way. The hair on its head began to fall out in clumps. Whatever twisted force had been holding it together was almost exhausted.

“But, it’s time for me to go now. I’ll never forget you. Thanks for the memories.”

Something happened then that they would all try to forget for years to come. The thing in Susanna’s skin burst out of it, coming into full view in the light of the fire. Spindly legs and razor sharp claws skittered beneath a cadaverous form that shone with blood and rotting flesh. It turned and looked at them with white, milky eyes and flashed a rictus grin before creeping away into the darkness.

The three of them sat there, staring at the retreating shadow, as the sun rose across the woods. For a long time, none of them spoke. They barely moved. Kat stared into the woods, expecting to see something and praying she wouldn’t. Barry stared into the ashes of the fire as the embers faded to nothing. Eventually, Kevin got up and called the police, not even knowing what they would tell them when they arrived. The fire was dead and gone as they heard sirens in the driveway.

They finally stood and went back into the house to greet the authorities. Kat and Kevin finally began to speak as they entered, quietly trying to come up with any way to explain the bizarre scene. Barry was the last to reach the door. He paused and looked to his side, at the bare earth in the flower patch beneath the window where, he finally realized, something unnatural had laid many, many times.

Credit : Alex Taylor

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