I’ve never been hurt by the fact that my stepfather loved my sister more than me. For me, it’s just that- a fact.
I don’t remember my real dad at all, really. He passed away when I was around two or three years old. I remember meeting Dale for the first time, although even that’s getting pretty fuzzy. I remember the giant of a man kneeling down to my level, stone faced and solemn.
Then he reached forward and gave my hand a shake. “You like spaghetti?” He asked. I only nodded, too shy to speak. He just grunted and headed to the kitchen to start throwing dinner together. Dale can make a killer spaghetti. And I didn’t even like spaghetti until then.
I’m not saying he doesn’t love me. He definitely does, back then he did his best to connect with a shy kid that’d rather color than talk to people. He had also been married before, married and divorced with a son that was much older than I was. Max was already seventeen when I was only six. And it was at six years old that my mom and Dale had my sister, Harmony-Rose. Just Harmony for short, of course.
The moment that tiny baby was handed to Dale I knew he’d completely fallen in love. I was little, but I could tell he was doing his best to hold back tears. An effort that was wasted, as a tear trickled down his cheek as he sat down and rocked her back and forth.
Dale took a pay cut to be able to work from home for the first few years of Harmony’s life. Mom once said he got up for more midnight feedings and diaper changes than she did. Maybe back then I got a little jealous now and then, but I’d only need to look at Harmony’s sweet face to realize why he loved her so much. She was perfect. An easy going baby who laughed and cooed with everyone but daddy’s girl all the way, I couldn’t be mad at her. I love Harmony too.
She’s never stopped being an amazing little sister either. From a sweet baby to a well mannered toddler, all the way up till spring of this year, she has always been just the best. I did get closer to Max as the years went by, when I stopped being a little kid and became a teenager you could actually have a conversation with, but Harmony was just always there.
I’m not saying she stopped being the best. I’m just saying that’s when… well… she got sick.
I’d just turned eighteen, Harmony now a go getting twelve year old. She was a part of her school’s gymnastics team, had all the friends, but she always gave me a tackle hug when she came home. She told me about all the boys she thought were cute, and the ones that weren’t so much. I’d promise to stomp in the faces of any that made her cry, and Harmony would make a point of poking my bicep and raising an eyebrow. No words needed. I’m a wimp.
Mom and Dale just thought it was just a flu bug that wouldn’t go away. I did too. And Harmony, well, what else would she think it was? She always had bruises from gymnastics practice, the fact they weren’t going away didn’t occur to any of us that there was a further problem.
By the time we went to the doctor, the damage had already been done.
Leukemia. Fucking leukemia. How could Harmony have leukemia? It doesn’t run in our family and up until then she’d rarely even gotten a cold. Leukemia diagnoses happens to other families, other kids. Not Harmony. It couldn’t happen to Harmony.
My mom told me that when the doctor broke the news, Dale fell to his knees. Both her and the doctor thought he was about to pass out, his face was white with shock. Dale doted on Harmony, was always in her corner when she needed back up, and she was one of the few people he’d drop the stern outer shell for to show his soft heart. And now there was something he couldn’t fight for her, no matter how hard he tried.
Harmony tried to be positive at first. ‘I’m a tough kid’, she’d said, mock flexing and reassuring her dad that she’d beat this. She went into chemo treatments with a smile on her face, and as her hair fell out she’d had me help shave her head, cracking jokes about how she now looked like season one Eleven from Stranger Things.
I think even then she was putting on a brave face. The doctors hadn’t lied, her form of leukemia was particularly aggressive. Maybe if we’d caught it sooner, we’d be better off, but that just wasn’t how the cards played out.
Harmony was dying. We all knew she was dying. The spunky girl with the energy of a lighting strike faded away rapidly, turning into a pale child with sunken dull eyes and barely a smile. She was always tired, and as the months passed with no real improvement, her sense of humor waned and I’d often catch her lost in thought.
Two months ago she called me to her bedroom, asking if she could talk with me alone. Dale actually quit his job so he could be with her 24/7, caring for her every need. It was hard for us to get sibling time, just the two of us hanging out together.
Harmony was staring out her window as I slipped into her bedroom, clearly a lot on her mind. On her lap was a folded over piece of notebook paper. She didn’t say anything, just handed me the paper and calmly waited as I unfolded it and began to read it.
It hit me like a fucking truck when I realized what it was.
“… A will?” I asked quietly.
Harmony shuddered and nodded, dropping all pretenses of false bravado. “You can donate my books for me, right? Or give some to Max, I think Jayce would love them when he gets old enough.”
I wanted to say she wasn’t going to die. I wanted to tell her she could still beat this. But I think she knew better than the rest of us that we weren’t going to get lucky. I read through this little girl’s will carefully, having to reread every line as my vision was blurring with tears. “I can do that. Don’t think this is legally binding though,” I tried to joke.
Harmony smiled, just for a second. “Well, tough, lawyers aren’t cheap.” Taking another deep breath, her gaze returned out the window. “This isn’t fair,” She murmured.
I nodded, folding her will back up. “No, it isn’t,” I agreed.
Harmony sighed with relief, flopping forward and burying her face in her hands. “Why did I have to get sick? It’s bullshit, I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m healthier than all of you, or I was, I just… this is bullshit,” She said, talking so fast I could barely make it out.
I reached forward and patted her head. “It is complete bullshit. If I could swap places with you, I would.” I meant it too.
“Don’t even put that out there, you dumb fuck.”
I laughed, I couldn’t help it. “Don’t let Dale hear you say that. He’ll never recover knowing that his baby girl knows the word ‘fuck’,” I said.
She looked back up, shaking her head but she was smiling. She was… at peace. I could just see the burden lifted off her shoulders. “Thank you, Joel. Keep that will somewhere safe for me,” She said.
I pulled her into a tight hug. I knew that this will meant the end was near and that Harmony was fully aware of that. The Grim Reaper was around the corner and she wanted to be ready for him.
When I left her bedroom, I saw that Dale’s office door was cracked open, but didn’t think much of it, and didn’t bother to check if he was in there. Dale was usually in bed by then anyway.
I don’t think he was. I think he heard every word that passed between me and Harmony that night. That his baby girl had made a will for all her belongings, from her treasured stuffed animals to her collection of colorful rocks she’d bought from various museums and zoos over the years. I had every intention of following that will as closely as possible when she did pass.
But that broke Dale. So that’s why he did what he did. That’s the difference between me and him, really. I’d be willing to give up anything, even my life, to save Harmony-Rose… but he was willing to set the world on fire and let it burn, all for her.
My bedroom window faces into the back yard, right into the forest that stretches around our property for miles. I was having trouble going to sleep that night, that day in particular had been especially bad for Harmony. It had been a week after I’d been given her handwritten will and it was clear she’d finally given up the fight. I was afraid if I went to sleep, I’d wake up and she’d be gone.
I was finally starting to doze off when I saw Dale in the backyard, cradling Harmony in his arms. He’d not been able to really carry her these last few years, but she’d shrunk so much she looked like a skeleton in his arms. For a second, I thought she might be dead, but I saw her shift in his arms. She was just asleep, too tired to even stir.
Dale’s face was completely blank and devoid of any emotion. He’d spent the last few days like that, almost completely oblivious to the world around him. He hugged her tight, looked into the woods, and started walking. I watched him until he vanished into the trees.
I fell asleep after that. I didn’t even know how to even remotely process what I’d just seen, and when I woke up the next morning I’d thought it was just a dream.
I went to Harmony’s room after I’d gotten dressed, expecting to walk in and see her still asleep.
Instead, I saw a glimpse of the girl she’d been all before this diagnosis. She was still bald, but the color had returned to her face and she was up and out of bed, looking just as puzzled as I felt. She looked up at me.
“Joel, I feel… I feel okay. And I feel hungry. Can you ask Dad for pancakes?”
For a girl who’d not had an appetite in months, this was mind blowing. She ended up having a whole stack of blueberry pancakes, all the while Dale looked on, pleased as could be. He took her to the doctor’s right after breakfast, and for once I tagged along since Mom had to go to work. I didn’t really like hospitals and no one ever made me go anyway, but this time I wanted to see if this was just a ‘good day’.
Instead, we were given the best news we could ever imagine. Suddenly, after months of radiation and chemotherapy doing jack shit, Harmony’s leukemia had finally gone into remission. A complete and total 180 from her last appointment. The only explanation the doctors could give?
‘It’s a miracle. It really is a miracle.’
And well, it kinda was. Just not one that came without cost.
It started right when we were heading home. Harmony and Dale were over the moon, already planning to order out for Hawaiian pizza while I openly judged them for wanting to ruin a perfectly good pizza with pineapple. We turned the corner and saw two police cars in front of our neighbor’s driveway.
Like I said before, we’re surrounded by woods, but there’s a few other families in the immediate area. It’s the kind of place where everyone has a driveway at least a quarter of a mile long, if you’ve lived in a place like that you know what I’m talking about. The family closest to us and the one with the police presence was the Fosters. They have a son that’s close to my age but he’s an asshole, so I tend to avoid him, but his parents are all right.
I saw Dale grip the steering wheel a little tighter but he didn’t attempt to even slow down to see what was going on. Harmony frowned. “Shouldn’t we go make sure Mr. and Mrs. Foster are okay?” She asked.
“After the cops leave, we don’t want to get in their way,” He said in a tone I wasn’t used to hearing- the kind of sound a person has in their voice when they lie. Harmony hadn’t missed it either, but she just changed the subject back to Hawaiian pizza and what to do for dessert afterwards.
Once we got back, I dropped my stuff off in my room and immediately beelined for the back door. I just barely stepped out the back door when I heard someone clear their throat. I looked behind me to see that Harmony was waiting for me, her arms crossed and giving me an ‘are you kidding me?’ look.
“What, did you really think you were gonna check out what happened to the Fosters on your own?”
I did attempt to come up with an excuse as to why Harmony should hold back on this one, but instead I just sighed and started walking, my little sister hot on my heels. I imagine she was suffering from a bit of cabin fever, it’s hard going out and doing shit when you’re on death’s door.
I might not have cared much for Daniel Foster, but since he was on the back porch having a smoke from his watermelon vape, I figured he was the best line for questioning.
Daniel gave us both a stink eye as we emerged from the woods, blowing a mouthful of sickly sweet smoke in our direction. Harmony plopped down on the swingset that was still in the Foster’s backyard despite the fact it hadn’t been used since Daniel was younger than she was. I walked up to the porch. “Saw the cop cars at the mouth of your driveway. We’re just here to check in if you’re okay,” I said.
After glaring for a second more, Daniel sighed and hopped off the porch, jamming his hands in his jeans pockets. “Something broke in last night, attacked the dogs, trashed the house. Dad’s out of town and you know how shit cellphone signal’s out here. We couldn’t connect to 911 so mom and I just barricaded ourselves in her room,” He said.
Harmony cocked her head to the side. “Something?” She asked.
Daniel gestured for us to follow him. “It definitely wasn’t a person. It was probably a bear, its claw marks are everywhere,” He said as we walked to the other side of the house.
My skin crawled as I saw the large score marks under the bedroom window that was still blocked by a wardrobe. Harmony reached forward and brushed her fingers against the decimated siding. “Wow,” She said in her shock.
“Did you see it? The bear, I mean,” I asked.
Daniel shook his head. “Nah. Didn’t want to. Had the gun ready just in case it got into the room, but it didn’t. It scratched up Bella and Griffin real good, they’re both at the vet now getting patched up.”
Bella and Griffin were a pair of large rottweilers, big babies really, they were the main upside to come visit the Fosters. “Will they be okay?” I asked.
“Should be.” Daniel took a deep breath and shuddered. “I- I think my mom was really scared. She kept saying it didn’t move like a bear, but all she got was a glimpse before we hid. Bears… bears make roaring sounds, right? Like a lion or a tiger?”
Harmony frowned and straightened up, glancing at me for the answer that she was pretty certain about herself. The description enough definitely puzzled me. “Honestly, bears tend to be pretty quiet. When they’re freaked out, they’re more likely to make huffing or grunting sounds, and they definitely don’t sound like wildcats,” I said.
“Fucking weirdo,” Daniel turned away, jamming his shaking hands into his pockets, probably hoping I couldn’t see them. “What do you do, just go out and watch bears on the weekend?”
“Hey, you asked, dumbass. Come on, Harmony,” I gestured for my little sister to follow along, not at all in the mood to deal with Daniel’s shittiness.
“Wait. So you know what bear prints look like too then?”
I paused. “Are there prints?” I asked.
Daniel walked over to the treeline and motioned us over. Hesitantly, I followed.
The print that was there was sure as hell not a bear’s print, and I think Daniel knew that too. The mud captured the print perfectly, long spindly fingers carving deep scratches into the mud with smaller palms. It was like a person had dragged their hand through the mud, but it wasn’t quite right.
I snapped a picture of it with my phone. “Yeah, I… I don’t think that’s a bear print,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. Something about it set the hair on my neck standing straight up.
“Then what is it?” Daniel asked.
I sent the picture to Dale with the message ‘found this near the Foster’s, what made this track’. “I have no freaking clue,” I admitted.
Harmony bent down next to it. “It’s so weird,” She muttered.
I didn’t expect my phone to immediately buzz, Dale was god awful at responding to texts at a decent time. I turned my phone back on to an even more shocking response.
‘Come home right now. I don’t want you back in the woods now.’
“Dale doesn’t know either, and he’s telling us to come home ASAP,” I gave Harmony’s shoulder a tap and that got her attention. “Let’s go, sis. See you, Daniel. Stay safe, man.”
He just grunted in response and jogged back into his house.
Once we got back, Dale explained his for his curt demand was that he was worried about that bear that came after the Fosters. Apparently he’d called Mrs. Foster the moment we got back and got the story from her. If it was so bold to break into a person’s house, god knows what it’d do to me wandering out alone out there… and I especially shouldn’t bring Harmony-Rose out there.
I did hear Harmony mutter something along the lines of ‘screw that’ as we got ready to go pick up the pizza for dinner. Not that I blamed her, since she was finally feeling better to go out and about. But that track still made me super curious. So the next day, I went to the other person who might know a thing about animal tracks- my older stepbrother, Max.
The visit was first pretty normal, just light chatter about the warm weather and how things have been going at Max’s work. I got to play with Jayce, who was ecstatic to see his ‘Uncle Joel’ and of course Max’s wife Lisa popped in to ask how I was doing and if I was seeing anyone (girls or boys, she always makes sure to specify), and then she had to bustle right back out because she had to run errands.
After we got all the small talk out of the way, Max set his coffee mug down and brought up the biggest news to date.
“So, Harmony. She’s better?” He asked.
I shrugged. “Cancer’s suddenly beating a hasty retreat. Doctors say be cautious but hopeful. Said it’s a real miracle,” I said.
“Hmm. That’s… interesting,” Max’s brow knitted in concern, “And she’s going back for more tests? Just to be sure? I mean, any false hope will actually kill Dad.”
“Yeah, she should be going back for more tests by the end of the week. But you should see her, it really is a complete 180 with how she’s acting,” I shook my head, “I barely believe it. But she had like six slices of pizza last night, and she’d eaten breakfast that morning, a stack of Dale’s pancakes. And she didn’t throw up.”
Max’s concerned expression didn’t vanish as he went for another sip, “Maybe, just keep an eye on her- oh fuck that!”
I barely dodged the surge of coffee spilling in my direction as Max literally threw the contents across the table. I was about to ask what the hell was wrong with him when I saw it.
A centipede, two of them actually, squirming and writhing in the pooling dark liquid. Max quietly gagged before heading to the sink. “Didn’t even see those little bastards crawl in there. Really hope I wasn’t drinking centipede coffee this whole time.” He turned on the tap and looked back at me. “You want something to drink? I promise, it won’t have a bug infestation.”
I opened my mouth to say a glass of water wouldn’t be so bad when I looked at the flow coming from the faucet and the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth.
It wasn’t like it was just red or rusty colored water. Water and blood have different consistencies, and the thick scarlet liquid now overflowing Max’s mug and dripping down his hand was sure as hell not water. Max looked confused at my likely shocked face and was probably about to ask what was up when we both smelled it. The smell that always shows up when you have a bloody nose, except a thousand times more potent and bittersweet, like it was rotting.
Max stared at his sink now filling up with blood, and I bolted for his bathroom to throw up. I’m not good around blood. I barely made it to the sink before I puked my breakfast and the chocolate shake I’d picked up at the corner store before I hit up Max’s place.
After coughing a bit, I made the mistake of trying to wash down the puke down the drain. Thankfully it only took one crimson drop from the faucet for me to turn it back off. I sunk to the floor, my world going topsy turvy as I did my best to keep breathing so I wouldn’t pass out. I barely succeeded. Max had to help me get out of the bathroom and put me up in his guest room while he went to figure out just what the hell was up with their plumbing. I was just about as useful as wet noodle so he let me be while Jayce showed me all his dinosaur toys to make me feel better. Obviously, any intention of showing him the strange tracks went out the window as I was struggling just to be a living person.
It wasn’t just Max’s house having ‘plumbing issues’. While I lived in the middle of the woods, he had settled down in a nice neighborhood that was just missing white picket fences to complete the perfect vibe. All up and down the street people were turning on the water to have blood come squirting out of their faucets. One poor person had gone in for a late shower and had an actual to god panic attack as they were coated in disgusting red fluid. The ambulance showed up and everything to make sure they were all right.
I felt like absolute garbage until I got home, driven there by Max. But when I walked through the door and saw Harmony dancing along to some song on the radio, I felt like a million bucks seeing her like this. Bright. Vibrant. Pain free. A complete and total turn around. I did tell her about the blood spewing out of our brother’s sink and she was naturally quite horrified by that turn of events, but we came to the conclusion it wasn’t actually blood. I mean, it couldn’t be blood. A lot of things would have to be dead to have every faucet bleeding on my brother’s street.
Harmony made leaps and strides in terms of recovery in the matter of a week. Every test came back with confirmation the disease that was going to cut her short life off was retreating at unnatural speeds. I encouraged her to start practicing her gymnastic moves, knowing if she kept bouncing back like this she’d want to rejoin her team. With Harmony getting better, the house seemed generally so much happier. My mom only cried with joy whenever she saw Harmony practically skipping around the house and Dale… man, Dale. Truly the happiest about this all was Dale.
Plans began taking form. Trips to Disney, a vacation out west to go visit all the national parks, the future that we’d originally thought might have been robbed from us was suddenly now in our grasp again. I was just as excited as my parents to be honest. I love Harmony, so much. I wanted to just focus on her now.
But as our house began to gain life, everyone else’s began to… fall apart. Rot from the corners and collapse.
Even if I was focused mostly on my little sister, I couldn’t help but notice that things were different. More bloody plumbing began popping up all over town, to the point where a notice was put out about not drinking any tap water until they find the source of this. Apparently some professional talking out their ass said it was more than likely some kind of infestation of mold, and all they needed to do was find the source and all would be okay again.
Thing is, they couldn’t find a source. I don’t know how much time was spent or how much money the town poured into to tear open water mains or go through every centimeter of the treatment plant, but it was turning up squat.
Dale was still not letting us out in the woods. If I so much as looked at the back door he was the first to ask me to ‘do the dishes’ or ‘run an errand into town’ for him. Not until they found the bear, which I still didn’t feel was right. Bears didn’t leave prints like that. Bears just… weren’t like that.
Then I got that call from Daniel.
I had given my number to Daniel freaking ages ago. My parents made me because they wanted us to be friends. Yeah, no, I’d rather not be friends with the jackass who insulted me literally every other sentence. Around three AM I heard my phone start to ring and I had to scramble to get it. I nearly missed the call and didn’t even check the caller ID before I answered it I was in such a rush. I couldn’t even ask who it was before Daniel scream-whispered into my ear,
“Something’s wrong with the dogs!”
I wiped the sleep from my eyes. “The fuck?” I managed to get out, my voice slurring with sleep.
“They… they were just so quiet…” I heard Daniel swear quietly and the sound of someone checking the lock on a door. “When they came back, they looked fine and were patched up, but they were just so fucking quiet. I didn’t give a shit, but I just got home from a night out, and- oh my god, there’s so much blood?” Daniel sniffled and I realized he was starting to cry.
“I can’t find my dad, my mom’s… she’s passed out, she got bit real bad. I got her wrapped up real good but there’s not much else I can do. The dogs, Christ, Joel… the dogs. They’re so fucked up. They tried to get me too but I’m hiding in my parent’s room. Called 911, I’m freaking the fuck out, I don’t know when they’re going to get here, and fuck knows if they’ll get to the right house. Please, man, you gotta help me. I don’t want…” Daniel’s voice cracked, my neighbor now starting to sob. “I don’t want my mom to die, man.”
Maybe I’m not friends with Daniel, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to leave him in a jam like that. I assumed rabies, because you know, that’s the closest thing to a rational explanation I could come to.
I woke Dale up and told him what Daniel told me. I didn’t want to go over there alone, and although Dale had been acting a bit off, I expected he’d help me at least get Mrs. Foster and Daniel out of the house.
He did follow me over. But he also grabbed his hunting knife, and he made sure his rifle was loaded before he swung it over his back.
Dale really didn’t hunt often, only going when his buddies asking him to tag along. I thought Dale was a lousy shot, since he never brought anything home he killed himself. I figured it was just an excuse to go out and drink beer.
We entered the Foster house and it was just as Daniel said- the living room covered in blood. I barely managed to swallow my vertigo as I followed Dale, the silence so much it felt like it was going to swallow me. It was only quiet for a few seconds though, then I heard the unsettling sound- the jingling of a dog’s tags.
One of the rottweilers ambled into the living room and even with how dark it was, my initial assumptions of the dogs being rabid was immediately put out of my mind. Rabies doesn’t give you large tumorous growths sprouting from under your bandages that oozed a reddish pus. The dog cocked its head to the side for just a moment before its lips curled back, a thin rusty colored film covering its teeth and tongue. It tensed up, ready to pounce… and Dale fired a shot right into its skull.
It dropped with not even a whimper, a perfect kill shot. The other rottweiler skidded in after its friend and I nearly vomited at the sight of even more tumors growing from its neck and back. This dog also had a tail. Yes, I know, rotties are known for those little stumpy tails, but I swear to god, this dog now had a tail sprouting from its backside, arched over its body like a scorpion’s tail. I didn’t get a better look until Dale downed that dog too. Despite having to swallow down the urge to puke again, I walked up to the second dog’s body. The name reflecting back from its tag read ‘Griffin’.
This wasn’t the Griffin I knew. The ‘tail’ hadn’t sprouted from its actual tail, it had come from in front of it. A closer look at Bella’s body and I saw that skin and fur had rotted away from some of her side, revealing putrid decaying flesh stretched over cracked ribs that had were turning black.
I ended up having to collapse on the couch to avoid passing out on the disgusting floor, leaving Dale alone to stride back into the bedrooms to find Daniel and his mom.
When the ambulances finally arrived, Mrs. Foster was dead. Mr. Foster’s body was found in the kitchen, practically ripped limb from limb. Daniel was catatonic, his eyes glazed over as he was wrapped in a shock blanket, and leaving Dale to explain that by the time he’d gotten in there Mrs. Foster had already passed, the bite must have severed her brachial artery. Her body was covered when it was wheeled out, but I caught a glimpse of her bitten arm, and how it was already growing bulbous tumors like that was on the dogs.
I also noticed that Dale’s hunting knife was now conspicuously missing.
When we got home, he pulled me aside and quietly told me one thing:
“Don’t tell your mother. Or your sister.”
I didn’t need to ask what he didn’t want me to tell. I kept my mouth shut. Maybe if I didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t real. The mutant rottweilers from hell, the fact that Mrs. Foster was now dead and how I had this gut feeling that something really bad had gone down in that room when Dale went in there.
There were more attacks. Reports of shadowy, long legged beasts roaming around our neck of the woods, that moved too quickly for anyone to get a good look, and pets would vanish only to turn up torn to pieces. Probably a better fate than what happened to the Foster’s rottweilers.
Only one person was directly attacked other than the Fosters. Mr. Green was taking his garbage out when he was pounced by what his wife described as ‘two thin beasts with overly long legs’. They literally ate his face off, god, it makes me sick to even say that. She managed to get them away and call 911, but with her signal going in and out it took them forever to get there. They took the somehow still living Mr. Green to the hospital, but he didn’t last. He developed a fever that went far beyond the livable temperatures, and even if he did live I imagined it would be kind of a shitty life, since his face was entirely gone.
I didn’t get to hear if there were any more tumors, since I had to listen in on this conversation between Mrs. Green and my mom. Poor widow was clearly traumatized by what she saw.
In town wasn’t much better though, as I’d find out when I went to go visit Max. The start of the most fucked up day.
“Lisa’s taking time off work. She doesn’t want Jayce at daycare.”
Max looked, well, a mess. The water still hadn’t been fixed, and it looked like he hadn’t had a decent shave or a bath in days, probably since this all started.
“He’s been such a fussy kid lately,” Max flopped back on his position on the couch with a loud sigh. “Same with all the other kids who go to that daycare.”
“Think it’s the bad water?” I asked, nodding to the absolute mountain of water bottles by the front door, barely contained in their garbage bags.
Max shrugged, running his hands through his hair. “I just… I don’t know. His eczema is acting up again too, but that might just be because of the heat. We’ve been using bottled water for almost everything, including baths. I feel like I need a long shower, but every time we turn on the pipes it’s just,” he shuddered, “Well, you know.”
I patted my brother’s back. “Maybe you can come over and stay at our house for a bit? I doubt Dale will mind.”
Max was quiet, shifting uncomfortably and staring at his clasped hands before he spoke up.
“Joel, did Dad- did Dale do anything weird, leading up to Harmony’s recovery? Was he acting quiet, or did… did he go out to the woods late at night?”
I remembered what happened the night before Harmony’s miracle. Up till then, I’d made myself believe it was really some kind of dream. I swallowed. “Why?” I responded, trying to keep my voice level.
It didn’t work. Max’s eyes narrowed and I could tell he knew I knew something. “When did he go out there, Joel?” He said, his voice quiet and icy cold.
“Why does it matter?” I asked, still trying to avoid answering the question.
Max chewed on his lip, a small speck of blood forming when he ripped off a piece of dried skin. “It matters, Joel. You’re not his blood, so I don’t blame him for not telling you, but… there’s something you do need to know about those woods. About the far back, past the lake, through the wet cave, there’s a patch of trees-”
Max was cut off by a loud crash from the kitchen. I just about jumped out of my skin and Max was up, bolting for the source of the sound.
“Lisa!? Lisa! What’s wrong?”
I got up and followed behind Max, nearly bumping into him as he stood frozen in the doorway.
Lisa was on all fours, groping wildly at the floor and murmuring something to herself that I couldn’t quite make out. My heart hammering in my chest, I pushed past Max and slowly walked into the kitchen. “Lisa? You all right?” I asked.
I nearly stepped on it, since it mostly blended into the white linoleum floor. But at the last second I saw the red stumps protruding from the back of the small white orbs. I nudged one with my foot and I actually pissed my pants a little when I saw the light brown irises of Lisa’s eyes staring back at me.
“My… my eyes…”
The hair on my neck stood right up as I looked towards Lisa, who’s head lifted up in my direction, likely hearing my panicked breathing.
“H-help me find my eyes?”
I stared into the black sockets of Lisa’s skull, her face pale as her hands continued to blindly grope along the kitchen floor. A maggot crawled out of her left eye, squirming onto her cheek before dropping onto the floor.
I screamed. I ran. I ran right into the front door and knocked myself out. Not exactly a thing to be proud of, but fuck it. I saw a woman searching for her fallen out eyes. When I came to, the ambulance was there, rushing Lisa to the hospital while another EMT was making sure I didn’t accidentally give myself a concussion in my panic to get away. I didn’t, but it didn’t matter. Max had already headed to the hospital with Jayce and I was left in their home alone, unable to get the image of Lisa’s eyeless face out of my mind.
I had Dale pick me up, but I was too scared to ask him about the wet cave and the patch of woods behind it.
There was one other person I could ask what went down that night though. I could ask my sister, Harmony-Rose.
I found her in her bedroom that night, sitting at the foot of her bed and staring into her mirror. In her hands was clutched the light pink handkerchief she’d used to cover her head once the chemo took her hair away.
I sat on the bed behind her, waiting for her to come out of whatever thought she was in. We sat in silence for a few minutes before she turned around.
“Joel? I think something’s wrong with me.”
My stomach turned. I was about to ask if she was feeling sick again when I looked at her… I mean, really looked at her.
Sure, she had been bouncing back, but she looked almost entirely back to normal now. The weight had been put back on in a matter of days, and her hair was already regrowing, reaching to cover her ears… but it wasn’t really her hair, either.
Harmony-Rose had our mother’s hair, dark brown, sleek and smooth. And I had heard about how when a chemo patient’s hair grows back, sometimes it looks a bit different. The texture’s changed, the color’s lightened or darkened.
The texture had changed, now it was much curlier, but the color was what got me. Parts were the same, but other locks had grown in a shocking shade of silver. I reached forward to give her hair a tussle and was surprised by how thick it had become. “Do you feel different?” I asked.
Harmony shook her head. “I feel… fine. Too fine. Recovery shouldn’t- it just doesn’t go like this. I shouldn’t be building back muscle so fast, I shouldn’t be,” She ran her hands through her new grown hair, “my hair should be taking its time, and it’s almost normal now, except for the… color…” She shuddered. “Joel, what’s happening to me?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. But I have a theory.”
I told her about what I saw the night before her recovery began. When I finished, Harmony had gone white as a sheet, but her eyes lit up with the return of some memories of that night.
“I thought I was asleep,” Harmony tugged at the strands of her hair, “And just had some really whacked out dreams.”
“What happened?” I urged her to say.
Harmony took a deep breath to clear her thoughts.
“I remember Dad carrying me out back. Like when I was little and I’d fall asleep on the couch during a movie. I knew I could feel I was outside, because it was windy, but I was too tired to really do anything except lay still. Dad carried me for a long time, I remember hearing the leaves crunching under his feet. Then we walked through someplace… maybe underground? His footsteps echoed off the walls. And then when we left that he set me down on my feet. Told me to walk alongside him. There was wet needles under my feet and the place smelled like bad breath and something sickly sweet. We were surrounded by pine trees. I didn’t really open my eyes, I was so tired, but when I did, I saw… things. Eyes looking out from between the branches. Big, yellow eyes. I couldn’t even make out what they belonged to, dad just hurried me along and told me I couldn’t stop.
“We came to this large… rock. I think. There was someone sitting on top, with very long legs and arms. Like twice the size they should’ve been. Dad helped me lie down in the dirt in front of the rock and told me to go back to sleep. I tried, but his voice kept me awake. I think he was talking to the person on the rock, told them he had the key, and was willing to make an exchange,” Harmony reached up, touching the locks of hair that were now colorless, “And something wet and slimy touched my head… I was too scared to reopen my eyes. And I heard… I heard someone else say that it would be done. Suddenly I was just so cold, I couldn’t stop shivering, and it feels like there’s hundreds of bugs crawling all over me… the next thing I know I’m waking up in bed, and I’m hungry, and I don’t feel like a pile of garbage.
I glanced out back to the forest that had surrounded my home. The very thought that something was actually dangerous in there was, well, it felt stupid. I played back there almost every day as a kid and saw nothing more than squirrels and birds, maybe the occasional garter snake or deer. But nothing like what she described.
“I’m going to go see.”
I don’t know why I felt like it was so important for me to go check it out, but I had to be sure for myself.
I was barely out the back door when I heard a click and saw the beam of a flashlight. I turned to see Harmony right behind me, wearing a coat that finally fit her again instead of making her look like she was drowning in cloth. I originally opened my mouth to object to her coming along, but I shut it just as quickly and started walking.
The far back of the woods. Past the lake and the wet cave. Harmony and I walked in almost complete silence, only hearing the croaking of frogs and chirping crickets that hung heavily on the night air. I’d been back here so often I knew what Max was talking about. I’d only gone in the cave once, but since it was so gross I only poked my head in and never went back. When I walked through it this time, I felt Harmony’s hand in mine, I felt it shake.
When we exited into the forest behind the cave, we were officially in a place I had never been before. Even the trees looked different, the flashlight casting long shadows along the pebbles that looked like claws. While my steps got more uncertain on the stone path, Harmony’s pace picked up.
“I remember… this. I remember this.”
Harmony breathed in slowly, her gaze flicking back and forth. “Whatever you do, Joel, don’t look to the sides. They’ll eat you alive,” She said.
I knew better than to ask how the hell she knew that. “Why won’t they eat you?” I asked, the hair on my neck standing up. Back here not even the crickets were making a racket, the only sounds were my breathing and the occasional snap of a twig past the treeline, just enough to let me know that we weren’t alone.
“Because whatever my dad did to me, it made me a part of them.”
Harmony and I kept walking until we reached the clearing, where the heavy silence was finally broken by something else. Arguing.
It took me longer than normal to recognize Max’s voice, his words were colliding and slurring together so they were barely recognizable. Harmony’s grip on my hand turned so tight it nearly cut off circulation, and we both ducked behind a tree before peering around to see Max.
He was so drunk he was barely standing up straight, his cheeks bright red and his hair sticking up with sweat. At the very back of the small clearing was something I recognized as an obelisk, made of a black flecked gray stone and carved with letters I couldn’t recognize. And by the obelisk was Dale.
“So all those years… every fuckin’ year you told me that it was the most important fuckin’ responsibility,” Max swayed back and forth, barely catching himself from just falling to the ground, “You were just talking out of your ass? Because the moment you need something, you c-come back here and let them out?!”
Dale was quiet, his face expressionless. “… We were out of-”
“Don’t. Don’t fucking give me that shit, dad!” Max burst into messy sobs, tears rolling down his cheeks and snot dribbling from his nose. “Lisa’s dead! So many people are dead, because you took the key and let them out to save Harmony!”
“She’s your sister-”
“So what about other people’s sisters?!” Max pointed an accusatory finger at Dale, spittle flying from his mouth as he began to scream at his father. “What about other people’s wives?! Other people’s s-s-sooonns….” Max trailed off before he threw his head back and screamed into the sky.
Dale finally showed something other than apathy, blinking a few times in shock before he looked concerned. “What happened to Jayce?” He asked softly.
“I don’t fucking know, how about you ask your fucking monsters?!” Max pointed up and I finally noticed there was someone sitting on top of the obelisk.
It was just as Harmony recounted for me earlier, a man with limbs twice as long as they should’ve been, but his face… the gray skin was stretched so tightly over his skull, his lips parted in a painful looking smile as his yellow eyes stared down at the arguing pair.
Dale glanced up at that… that thing. “What happened to Jayce, then, Balem?”
Balem yawned, revealing rows upon rows of needle teeth in his mouth that stretched back down his throat and covered his pointed tongue that was dripping in a thick white saliva. When he spoke, his mouth moved a moment slower than the words leaving him, like he was lipsyncing along to his speech. “What happened to the rest of the children at that Greenhill daycare. The carpet cleaner was diluted with water- tap water. They were infested.” Balem’s manic grin returned.
Dale’s face went white as a sheet. He stammered for a few moments, trying to come up with a response. “I’m so sorry, Max, I didn’t mean for this-”
“And you still did it!” Max cackled, his eyes rolling into his head to only show their whites as he continued to laugh without sounding a least bit amused. When he finally stopped, his face twisted in such a way I could barely recognize him as my stepbrother anymore. “You fucking hypocrite. You traded everyone’s lives for Harmony, the same thing you told me not to do for anyone- not even mom.”
Dale stared at his shoes. I think he knew he was in the wrong here, but there was really no coming back from what he’d done. “… It’ll only be for a bit more, Max, a week or two more and Harmony will be completely healed,” He said.
“And what’ll happen during those two weeks!?” Max shook his head. “Unbelievable. So, what’s the deal? As long as she’s alive and recovering in town, these freaks get full run of the place? I can think of a good way to end that.”
My heart almost stopped at the implication. Dale looked ready to be sick. “No, no, you can’t! If you hurt her, then all of this would be for nothing!”
“It already was!” Max began winding his way through the clearing. “You’re responsible for everyone who’s getting hurt and killed! You did! You might as well have put a gun to their head! At least when I kill Harmony, it’ll be peaceful, and she’ll never know her life was paid for with her nephew’s blood-”
It happened so fast. Max took a step too close to Dale and Dale grabbed Max by the head, slamming his son into the obelisk so hard his skull cracking sounded like a gunshot.
Max slid to the ground, his smashed head leaving a streak of blood on the stone. A shrieking laugh echoed through the clearing and I looked up to see this ‘Balem’ clapping, rocking back and forth on his obelisk. I now saw there was a chain wrapped around his neck, with a padlock hanging open from one of the links.
“Too good! Too good, Dale!” Balem’s chattering his jaw, his teeth making a disturbing clattering sound. “The drama has been made perfect with the audience!” Balem’s gaze landed right where we were and he pointed one of his long fingers towards us.
Dale slowly turned, the blood of his son dripping down his hands from where he bashed Max’s head into the stone. Harmony shoved me down into the ground before she stepped out from behind the tree, muttering ‘stay still’ as she walked into plain view of Balem and Dale.
“Dad?” Harmony looked at Max’s body before back to their father. “You killed Max?”
Dale began to shake, the once imposing man turning into a shadow of his former self. He dropped to his knees, burying his face in his hands as he began to sob, sputtering out half apologies and weak explanations about this being the only choice.
“I couldn’t lose you, Harmony Rose. I’d sacrifice the world for you,” were the only words that were really clear, since the rest was slurred out by his sobbing and crying.
Harmony just shook her head before glancing up the obelisk. Silently she approached it, where Balem leaned down, actually managing to get down to her level. “Aren’t you going to thank me?” The monster said, cocking his head to the side, his ever grinning face looking downright smug.
Harmony took a deep breath. “As long as the lock’s open,” She pointed to the padlock, “you and… everything else can go wherever you want?”
Balem nodded. “And your blood cancer will continue to fade. Once it’s gone, you’ll live to a hundred and two, thanks to my interference,” He said.
For several long seconds, Harmony just stood there, still as a statue. Then she reached up and clicked the padlock shut.
Nothing monumental happened- Balem didn’t start melting into goo, and I didn’t hear the screams of several monsters being forced back into their forest prison. Balem didn’t even stop smiling, only reaching up to pat Harmony gently on the head. “You still stand a chance to beat it, since I healed it enough to where treatment might actually make a difference. You’re welcome, and you’re such a good girl, so I hope to see you again. I haven’t made a bargain with your family for years. It was great fun. Now go home, girl, and take your half brother with you. I think you’ll both want to miss the final act of this drama.”
Nodding, Harmony backed away from Balem before turning around and sprinting back to the treeline, yanking me back up to my feet. We bolted down the path, together. I took a single look back to see Dale, still on his knees, while swarms of long legged pure black creatures began to swarm him.
It’s been a month. Max’s body was found, but there was no mention of an obelisk, and Dale was just gone. Harmony’s recovery is starting to slide, but where it is now, it is far more likely she’ll beat it. She’s been quiet, running her fingers through the still silvery curls on her head. She hasn’t said it, but we both hope if her hair falls out this time, it’ll grow back the way it used to be. Mom’s been a wreck, losing Dale, Max, Lisa and Jayce has really fucked her up. But we’ll make it through this.
I found something though. Last night, after both Harmony and my mom went to bed, I heard someone knock at the door and opened it to find a small leather pouch on the porch. I dumped the contents into my hand and I felt sick.
It’s a key. A key made of the same material the obelisk was, just the right size for the padlock attached to the chain on Balem’s neck.