By E. A. Black
Lara and her brother Nate are clearing out their father's house following his death. The house is a Victorian eyesore that backs up to Strangeman's Swamp, a five-mile pit of reeking desolation on the island of Caleb's Woe, just off the northeast coast of Massachusetts. The Oily is the wettest, most desolate marsh in Strangeman's Swamp. Animals wandered in there and were never seen again. A child name Scotty Shaw had gone missing and presumably ended up in the Oily. Lara had been babysitting him when he wandered off. She was wracked with guilt over his disappearance, which brings us to this scene. Lara goes to the second floor of her father's house to gather furniture to take home.
Lara climbed the steep staircase until she reached the second floor. Four bedrooms stood on the right side of a narrow hallway. The tapping of her shoes echoed on the wooden floor. She wanted to put as much distance between herself and the second floor as quickly as possible. Clear out that dresser, roll up the rug, and get the hell downstairs as fast as you can.
As she passed her old bedroom, she thought she heard a sigh from behind the closed door.
She stopped dead in her tracks, listening, her heart thumping so hard it hurt.
She heard nothing.
She turned the doorknob and opened the door. The hinges creaked so loudly she jumped as she stepped into the room. Stop being so skittish! There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Believe that if you wish, Lara. You know you have good reason to be afraid.
Dirty lace curtains that had once been white hung from the windows like loose flesh. Sunlight illuminated clouds of dust motes floating about the room. Stale air hung around her, a dirty blanket covering a quaking child. Memories lurked in the shadows, on the walls, and in the floorboards; painful snippets of times past.
Storm clouds roiled in the distance, casting shadows on Strangeman’s Swamp. Wind blew strong and hard, tossing the tree branches that danced a frenzied tango. Gnarled branch arms reached into the afternoon sky, grasping at ravens that steered clear in fear. As the sun hid behind cloud skirts, shadows lurked in the underbrush, off in The Oily. Lara raised the window to let out the stale air and a gush of marsh wind blew into the room, rustling the dirty curtains. Dust billowed around her, making her sneeze.
She leaned against the windowsill and stared out into the dank afternoon, watching Strangeman’s Swamp, as if demons lurked in the bramble far below.
No demons lived in Strangeman’s Swamp, though. No ghosts, either. Only creatures born of rock and wood, sticker bushes, vines choking the life out of trees, mud, water and wild flowering shrubs. Nothing human lived in Strangeman’s Swamp, or The Oily. Whatever lurked there felt nothing for humanity, and only wanted to end mankind’s encroachment in its territory.
Lights flashed in the distance. What were cars doing on the road so close to the swamp? Especially during a thunderstorm?
Then she remembered that no road ran along the swamp’s edge.
Lights blinked on and off like fireflies, but she'd never seen fireflies on Caleb’s Woe. She watched the glowing pinpricks and wondered what they were. Will o’ the wisp? Saint Elmo’s fire? Swamp gas? Phosphorescence?
They migrated from the edges of the swamp to meet in the center, circling each other like ravens fighting over a carcass. They danced and twirled, some only inches above the muddy waters and others high in the trees. They met in the center of the swamp. Once they reached The Oily they stopped moving.
Then they began to creep towards the house.
Lara stood riveted to the window, unable to move. Dread coiled at the base of her spine, whispering to her in a voice harsh with terror. She could only watch the spectacle taking place below, wondering what intelligence moved those lights in en mass like a swarm of angry bees.
The lights floated on the breeze until they disappeared beneath the covered porch. Lara waited until the glow from below crept up the screen. Heart thumping and mouth dry with fear, she froze to her spot, unable to lower the window despite her desperate urge to slam it down. Knowing something horrible was about to happen, eyes wide and unblinking, she stared out the window at the growing glow, waiting. Fetid air hung around her, smelling of low tide and dead fish. The stink clung to her skin, was absorbed into her pores. In disgust, she scratched her arms to scrape it off, but its grip only tightened.
The wizened hand that crept up the screen shriveled in a dirty, tattered sleeve. Fingers crawled along the screen like a gnarled pale spider, seeking entrance. Mesmerized, Lara could only watch as the hand felt along the edges of the window, long ragged nails picking at the wood to break through.
Below the arm was a small body, capped with a head full of matted brown hair. Mud clung to the tresses and caked on the shoulders. The body of the boy gripped the side of the house, clinging like a spider on a wall. Spiders terrified Lara. Those hairy limbs and those eyes…
The boy lifted his head. When Lara saw the face she recoiled in horror, backing up enough so that if it reached that arm through the screen it wouldn't touch her. Scotty Shaw’s skin was shrunken against his skull. A hole gaped where the nose should have been. His mouth was contorted into a gruesome frown devoid of tongue and teeth, a gaping maw of cracked, blue lips. The anguish in that battered face tore at her heart.
‘'m sorry… I’m so sorry I left you alone up here when I was busy downstairs making out with my boyfriend…
Worst of all were his eyes. Where Scotty Shaw’s blue eyes should have been there were only two gaping sockets, seeing nothing yet watching her intently, blaming her for not catching him sneaking out the window on the night he disappeared. Mud tears poured from those sockets, to fall down high jutting cheekbones.
Lara fled from her room, not once looking back as Scotty Shaw picked his way past the window frame and into the room. She ran outside through the hot afternoon haze, not knowing her brother stood in the cellar beneath the house, battling his own nightmare.
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