Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
It took the police 7 minutes to arrive. I counted. Starbursts of blue and red light scattered over the dense greenery as I sat next to my dad and tried not to look at my mom. My dad kept passing in and out of consciousness, mostly because the pain in his arm would wake him and the ensuing shock would send him back to sleep. At this point little fazed me. I tightened the sheets around his arm while he was passed out and ignored the snap of several bones shifting about.
When the police crashed through our front door and pounded up the stairs, I greeted them with the same blank stare. Wilkes and Dempsey were there and I searched half-heartedly for the gun. This was their fault. They’d promised me we would be protected. That there would be a squad car out front. But that didn’t matter now.
Instead I allowed myself to be whisked out of the house and down to an ambulance parked in the street. A paramedic placed a blanket around my shoulders even though I wasn’t could and checked my body for any signs of damage.
My father was carried out on a stretcher next. Two paramedics managed him while Wilkes followed closely behind, grimacing. They left my mom where she was. For forensics, I guess. I could still see her limp on the floor of her bedroom; skull cracked ever so slightly, her eyes empty.
I’m not sure when exhaustion overcame me, but the last thing I remembered was watching the lights flicker off the bottoms of the trees above me and then nothing. The next morning I awoke in a neat room filled with plastic chairs, plush toys, kiddie books, and an old TV. I felt something hard shift in my right pocket and bought out the hunting knife Wilkes had given me.
I opened the blade and stared at the polished steel, trying to come to terms with what happened the night before. Brief flashes of the nightmarish scene played out in my mind, shifting to the next in a blur of rotting, green colors. The memories were vivid—my dog smashing apart against the window, the screams of my parents, my dad being thrown and my mom being…slammed into the floor. I would never rid myself of that horrendous sound. That small, ear-grinding crack before her eyes rolled back and she went limp.
The blade reflected my ashen features, showing the blood drained from my face. Kids were not built for this caliber of loss. A dog could be grieved for with time, a mother over a longer period, but when a monstrosity ripped all of that away simply for a childish indulgence…it made your very existence questionable. The only reason I looked up when I saw Wilkes’ form slip into the room in the blade was because of my dad.
I still had him. I prayed to God the monster hadn’t sliced his arteries. As I looked up, I caught a glint of guilt in Wilkes’ eyes, and remembered the final peculiarity of the night before: no patrol car. I folded the knife closed as Wilkes took a seat opposite me.
“Where was the car?” I asked. “You promised me protection.”
“Yes…about that,” Wilkes stroked his mustache furiously. “Aidan, what happened to your parents was tragic. The brutality of a home invasion can wreak havoc on a child’s mind.”
“Home invasion?” I couldn’t help laughing thinly, imagining the gruesome visage of that atrocity breaking in. “A monster attacked us! It broke through our window, it killed my dog!”
Wilkes was fidgeting again, sweating. He took out his notepad and read over something. “Yes…that’s what you told us last night. But you were also catatonic, son. We’re having forensics look over the scene now, and…well the front door was tampered with. And there was dirt on the stairs.” I recalled the scratching. “Someone broke in, someone who probably staked out your home.”
I felt my throat close up. They didn’t believe me…or refused to believe me. “The patrol car. Why wasn’t there one?”
“W-we couldn’t…spare the m-manpower.”
Hot tears began to blur my vision. I shuddered, feeling my accusatory façade weaken. “You promised…my mom. She’s gone and my dad. You could’ve stopped it.”
Wilkes broke. “No one can stop it,” he almost shouted. “You think anyone wants to play with it? Anyone can stand against it.”
I stared at him, stunned. He knew. He must have seen it, encountered it somewhere. Then I remembered the day he’d gone to look for Dyson down the ravine. He and Dempsey had come back, finding nothing. Obviously they knew more than they let on. I took out the knife—a small, insignificant token from Wilkes, and dug the blade into the table between us.
“I stood against it,” I muttered. Wilkes just stared back, watching his reflection in the knife. “I shot it with a .410 revolver. Blew holes in its ugly face.” I looked up at Wilkes, suddenly feeling much older than my eleven-years. “So what now?”
Wilkes seemed to sag under my gaze. “W-We’re gonna put you up in a motel for a couple weeks with an officer.”
“Not you I hope.”
He winced at that, but continued. “You’ll stay there until your father is capable of taking care of you again.”
I felt guilt squeeze my chest. I’d forgotten about his injury. “How is my dad?”
“Stable.” Wilkes looked relieved to deliver some less brutal news. “He received forty-two stitches and a liter of blood, but the damage was reparable to a certain degree. We’re not sure if he’ll be able to fully use his hand again, but he’ll certainly live.”
I nodded, feeling the pressure in my chest lessen. “When will he wake up?”
“Three to four days.”
“And in the meantime, I’m just gonna hole up in a motel?”
Everything passed in a blur after that. The officer they assigned to me was someone new to the force, but friendly and comforting. I spent a lot of time watching TV and reading Goosebumps—a way of defusing my situation, I guess. Campy horror to dilute true horror. Whatever worked.
They made a mistake with my mother’s body. Cremated her in some bizarre mix up after analyzing her for evidence. Concussive force to the head caused by a blunt object was the official cause of death. The news of her cremation hit me hard. I’d been hoping to say good-bye in the way my parents often talked about: open-casket, condolences, comfort, and peace.
As difficult as those couple of days were for me though, my dad had it worse. He spent four days getting his hand stitched, probed, and bound back together. It had been a messy injury, with the creature’s claws hooking the muscle in his left arm and sliding it almost entirely free of the bone. And when he finally came around, sentient enough to recall the horror, he encountered precisely what I had from the day Dyson died: disbelief and pity.
No one believed him. They bought up shock, meds, pain, tragedy, loss, adrenaline, love, and pretty much every other logical diagnosis to filter his ravings of a tree-monster attacking him and his wife. He only went quite when the somber details of her cremation were reported.
When he knocked on my hotel door, he looked worn out, both mentally and physically. But he still remained strong enough to take my running hug in stride, holding be close as he laughed in a mixture of pain and relief. Only when we sat down together and the officer who’d been staying with me left to get groceries did he finally break.
I sat by, crying out my own grief while my father, reduced to a near-infantile state, absorbed the helplessness of his situation. He was never one for tears, but he sobbed in that apartment. Fractures of the monster, of his arm, and, most of all, of his wife—my mother—broke free. I found myself at a bizarre crossroads as I comforted him in mutual loss.
We’d switched places through brutal tragedy, all because some cretin wanted to play with us. A cretin powerful enough to intimidate law enforcement, I had to remind myself. No one would ever believe my dad or I about this. And, between the two of us, I feared I might be the only one who’d be able to move on.
More time passed. The investigation conducted on our home took a week due to the law checking up on the surrounding environment. I wondered if the creature would make another appearance, eager to play or to otherwise intimidate. In either case, I shuddered to think about that ungodly ravine. It was too deep to be natural, to contain such evil.
By the time the investigation wrapped up a week and a half after the initial incident, my dad seemed to be making a recovery. His hand, though far off from recovery, seemed to be giving him less pain, and we’d been able to spread our mother’s ashes in a nearby river.
When Wilkes came to us the day after, telling us we could move back into the house, I almost laughed. My dad held me back. “We need to get our stuff out of there,” he explained to me. “Your mother’s belongings, yours and mine, all of it. We’ll move far away.” I swore he glanced at Wilkes when he said that, but the officer only looked away guiltily. “One night,” he promised.
Fighting back a shudder, I nodded. “One night. Then we go.”
Some part of me knew this was lunacy, but my dad seemed as though he might benefit from closure. To take a piece of my mom away from that house himself. As though he could rescue her.
We went that afternoon, with Dempsey and the officer who’d looked after me. I’d insisted Wilkes not come. He hadn’t protested.
The officers helped us shift some smaller items into a U-Haul. When asked what to do about the larger stuff—beds, couches, furniture, my dad told them to get rid of it.
That night, I slept with my dad in his room. The officers were down the hall in the guest room. We pretended mom was there too, and that we’d grudgingly allowed Dyson to climb up as well. It felt hollow to me, but my dad seemed to find it therapeutic. As if some sense of normalcy had returned. Sleep came quickly for him, but slowly for me.
I stayed up a little longer, watching shadows dance along the ceiling.
I’m not sure which woke me. The scratching or the draft of air. Either way, I knew something was wrong. I was alone for one thing, the covers where my dad had been flipped up. More scratching came from the door, so eerily similar to Dyson trying to get in. It didn’t fool me for a second.
I dug into my PJ bottoms and took out the knife. Having the small weapon in hand offered some measure of comfort. The scratching continued, burrowing into my mind. I stalked over and yanked the door open…to find nothing. Just as I suspected. Then I felt a pull from the hall, sucking at my PJs and swirling toward the staircase.
Cautiously, I moved down the hallway, and stopped at the guest room first. No one there. My heart thudded and my grip tightened on the knife as I slipped toward the staircase and began to descend. The air continued to pull me along, like a great inhalation.
At the end of it, I found my dad sitting at our kitchen table, unmoving. I slowly crept around him, brandishing the knife for any sign of danger. There were none to be had.
“Dad?” I whispered, “Are you all right?”
My father turned to me and smiled, sad and pained. “I’m not sure, Aidan. I thought I was for awhile, but…I don’t know anymore.”
I stepped up to the counter and jolted when I saw why he remained so still. His arms lay palms up on the granite surface, one a patchwork of purple and yellow, the other still slightly red from when he’d spilt coffee on it. And in between, lay the .410 revolver.
My mind reeled from its appearance. The police would have locked it up as a piece of evidence…but then someone like Wilkes could have just as easily removed it.
“Don’t worry,” my dad rotated his arms softly in the light. The fresh stitches in his left glinted black, his skin appearing translucent. “I’m finally at peace. I know what I am now—for your mother, for you. These are the perfect metaphor.” He wiggled his right hand, but his left remained limp. “Completely. Fucking. Useless.”
I winced at the curse. “Dad…please. You’re not. I need you, okay? We can get through this.”
My father shook his head sadly. “No one believes us. No one will ever avenge your mother.” He was crying again, a faint smile gracing his lips as he looked up to me. His right fingers wrapped around the revolver and suddenly the barrel was under his chin. “Go play, Aidan. Go play.”
I jolted. My father’s face ruptured in a miasma of gore and he flopped against the table. I gaped at him, hearing the shrill wheezes of his shattered jaw struggling to suck in one more breath. “Goooo-uhhhh….plaaaaay.”
Tears prickled my eyes as I marched past him, past the refrigerator where the hole in the door still resided. Through the garage, across the driveway, to the edge of the ravine. An emerald crevice yawned before me, and suddenly his face loomed out from the night. Ugly and patchy as ever, with pus dripping from open orifices, and scabby leaves peeling from his misshapen head. He hovered over me with a rotting grin. “Play?” he asked.
I nodded, the knife trembling in my grasp as I stepped into the void. “Yes,” I croaked hoarsely, slipping down the slope toward the sewer. “We’ll play.”
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