Chop the Willow :
“I ask him why above he crawls,
scratching apart my bedroom walls.
And he looks down through white eyes peeping,
I’m not crawling, I’m simply creeping.”
– Music & lyrics by Billie-Joe Kimble.
The job of a mortician is to belittle the profound horror and loss of death, while simultaneously profiting off of the misery of others. No one in the industry aside from myself has the balls to say it, but the simple fact is that it’s true. We take the deceased and pretty them up; dress up their hair, throw them in some nice clothes and drop them under six feet of dirt. But the dead don’t really care do they? Well, we don’t do it for the dead. No, we do it for the grieving friends and family. We make it easier to say goodbye, like an emotional crutch if you will. We let them cry and come to terms with the fact that their friend or mother or son is gone for good, all while collecting a fat paycheck. The reason is of course because of fear. People fear death, and when someone close dies, it forces them to accept their own mortality. Animals don’t have this problem. A few moments of fear and pain will be a squirrel’s only awareness of the impending void. Humans though, we live our whole lives knowing that it could all end without reason or warning, so of course we make up these little rituals to get us through it. And of course, somebody has to facilitate this entire process. Squirrels don’t have this process. Squirrels don’t need booze money.
I only say any of this because as upsetting as it is, dying is at least a natural thing. You can see that it happens, that it is concrete and constant. You can understand it. But there are some things, dark and squirming things that crawl into our world. Things that don’t make sense, things that are just plain wrong.
I was staring at a clock when she called. It was just after 3 a.m. I’d been having trouble sleeping for some time now, and when I can’t sleep I have a tendency to obsess over minor dilemmas. Take this instance for example. I was trying to cut out a newspaper article on this type of black mold that can apparently wiggle its way into a brain and release trace amounts of bio toxins to alter the behavior of mammals, when the ticking of the clock above my dresser distracted me. I stared at it without moving, and I started to think about how the rhythmic ticks were my only connection to a linear time line. In a room without motion, a static environment, time could be moving at whatever pace it wanted and I would have no way of knowing. Without the clock, I could be sitting still for what could be years and I wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise. I was lost in a trance until the phone rang. I picked up. It was Billie.
“Hey, Stephan, you’re awake. That’s awesome. So guess what? We have a problem,” She said over the phone.
“It’s Harris, and can it wait? I’m conducting some rather important business here.” I lied.
“No, not really,” She said. “We need to deal with this now. That hitchhiker at the Broken Window apparently stumbled upon some polyps down on Christian Light Road. The chuckle fucks tried to get him to eat some.”
“So? Get Terry to go with you.”
“No good,” Billie argued. “Terry’s watching the hitcher. Gotta put him in quarantine right? We can’t have some teenage blonde boy runaway spreading this shit. You said so yourself.”
“Alright damn it, but you have to pick me up, I think I’m still legally drunk.” I sighed. She was right. This couldn’t spread past the town limits. Why I cared is beyond me.
Hold on; let me back up a bit. A few months ago I moved Charlottesville, N.C. when a new embalming position opened up. I took the job and things went well for a few weeks. That was until I discovered a mysterious jar with an even more mysterious thing inside. It was labeled, ‘Harlequin No.7.’ I learned not long after that there were more of these worm-like things, as I found out the day after a botched attempt to study the freaky little bugger while embalming a man who died that same night. From what I could gather, they apparently live inside of people’s heads, doing whatever it is that they do until they decide to kill the host and corkscrew out of their brainstem. After a bit of research on the town death records and old newspapers, I came to the conclusion that these Harlequin things have something to do with a paper mill fire twenty something years back. As it would turn out, Mr. Havenbrook (the man whose head burst open on my embalming table) was a survivor of said mill fire. So were some of the others. By “others,” I mean the first batch of crazies that came through my mortuary, all within the same week. It was the same story with each one of them; Someone starts acting weird and paranoid, seemingly due to dementia, before eventually having a seizure and dropping dead. They would end up undergoing an autopsy at the morgue, at which point the declared cause of death would be, “cerebral aneurysm.” Even with x-rays, toxicology screening, and in several cases invasive surgery, no one ever discovered the parasites. It wouldn’t be until I pumped their bodies full of formalin that the little bastards would make themselves known, in the most volatile way at that.
So far, I have seen six of these things. The first one, the one I found in the basement of Burnswick Funeral, got blown to bits by my friend, the lovely Miss Billie-Joe Kimble. Three through five I managed to capture. By the time I got to them I had grown accustomed to the tell-tale signs of Harlequin infection. The lights flicker, the air shimmers, and occasionally if you’re near a radio tuned to an FM station you’ll start picking up some disturbing sounding feedback. Following that, the cadaver partially reanimates and the Harlequin explodes out of the back of the head (or in one case, the eye socket). So, like I said, I captured Harlequins No.6, No.5, No.4, and No.3 in mayonnaise jars filled with formaldehyde (I’m under the assumption that CH2O kills them) before fixing up the deceased in such a way to hide the evidence. No.2, the one from Havenbrook, slithered down the mortuary floor drain. That probably explains where all of the other weird shit that’s been happening came from.
Okay, I just want to say that none of this is my fault. Well, actually, most of it is, considering that I opened the initial can of worms (no pun intended), but I had no idea what an escaped alien brain parasite would entail. They don’t teach you this sort of thing in college. Where was I? Oh right, Lucid Marsh.
Lucid Marsh is the boggy wet land just south of Charlottesville and east of Christian Light Road. The place has a reputation of being quite easy to get lost in, as well as a couple of old legends about a certain “moonlight fairy,” that supposedly leads the more disoriented folks into sinkholes. I doubt any of those rumors are true, but regardless the marsh is home to glowing swamp gas and a particular breed of giant moth that showed up seventy years back. It’s also where most of the town’s drainage ends up.
So here’s what happened; almost a month after I thought the whole Harlequin thing was over and done with, this outdoorsy guy came into the Broken Window bitching about how the Sheriff is a lazy prick and tried to round up a pose to help find his friend. Terry, being an outgoing and generally empathetic man went ahead and asked him what happened. As the guy apparently told Terry, he and his buddy “Bud” Huston were out “catfisting” in the marsh, when Bud, while reaching his arm down into a murky hole, suddenly started screaming before being dragged under the shallow water, only to reemerge fifty or so feet away. When Jake (the outdoorsy guy in the bar) finally got over to him to help him up, he saw that Buds ears and nose were both bleeding. Bud, mumbling to himself incoherently, tried to bite Jake before running franticly away into the deeper part of Lucid Marsh.
Billie and I later went out to the marsh with Jake to see what we could find. We came home empty handed. A waste of an afternoon and a good pair of shoes in my opinion.
It wasn’t long after that that other people started to disappear. Not a whole lot mind you, maybe two or three, but it was enough to get the town talking again about those weird lights in the sky and the unexplained aneurysms. Oh right, the lights… yeah, it sounds cool but the truth is that it will scare the absolute piss out of you. They didn’t show up all that much, or for all that long either, maybe once every couple of weeks for a second or two, but never more. However, I have personally seen them twice. The first time was… unexpected to say the least, but the second time was something else entirely. Walking home one starless night after work, I started to get this feeling that something was sneaking up behind me. When I turned around though, the feeling didn’t go away. It was like no matter which way I was facing there was always something just behind me, ducking out of sight the moment I changed direction. It was about when I started to get dizzy from spinning around so many times that I heard this low rumbling coming from above. It wasn’t a thunderclap so much as it was a foghorn, so deep and low that I didn’t hear it so much as felt it. I looked up, and the sky blazed in a yellow-green flash of a dozen or so orbs, pulsating and circling around each other, disappearing and reappearing into and out of the clouds. Then they were gone. I remember standing there in the middle of the street, covered in sweat and shaking. It had to have been at least ninety degrees that night, but I can’t think of any other instance where I felt so cold.
There have been other things going on besides lights and missing persons. I’ve heard around town that cows and horses have been found in the early hours of the morning without heads. Just ripped right off at the base of the neck is what a couple of farmers have been saying. One farmer said that he stayed awake through an entire night waiting to shoot whatever had been decapitating his livestock. I heard later that he sold his land on the first bid and moved to Alaska or something. “Somewhere where they ain’t got no damn snakes.” He said.
This is of course just some of the stuff that people have been talking about. Who knows what kind of Mulder and Scully tag team action would be fired up my ass if people knew about the five jars in my fridge. Speaking of which, I put some of what I could cut off of No.5 under a microscope to see if I could learn anything. I figured out two things: first, Harlequin cells bare a striking resemblance to cancer cells, and second, if you dump Harlequin parts into the trash along with uneaten food, that shit will grow into one hell of a science project. By that I mean, rancid chicken plus alien tissue sample equals alien mushroom babies. It didn’t work with banana peels or onions though. I guess they’re carnivores. Lucky me. The point is, these things reproduce by budding from decaying flesh. You see where I’m going with this right? How the Harlequin kills its host but goes apeshit when exposed to chemicals that actively prevent the process of decomposition? This was how Billie and I came to the conclusion that the buds or “polyps” would eventually hatch and grow into more Harlequin. We never tested this theory, for obvious reasons, but the assumption seems valid enough. Especially when some hitchhiker manages to come into contact with a group of psycho pod people trying to get him to eat a certain type of raw meatball that just so happens to match the description of our previously mentioned Harlequin babies. Which brings me back to present.
Before Billie arrived, I grabbed a flashlight and another pack of cigarettes. Also, just to be safe, I nabbed a gas can full of kerosene from my shed and a pair of leather gloves. I had just finished collecting my supplies when I heard the knock at the door. I answered.
“Hey there Ste- Harris, ready to go on an adventure?” Billie asked, still standing on my porch. I saw that she had brought along her bass guitar case. I doubted that there was any actual musical instrument in there. She may be a skinny little thing covered in silly tattoos, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she wrestles bears in her free time. She’s dangerous is what I’m saying.
“I’m ready I guess. Wait, did you walk here?”
“Um… Yeah about that, we’re taking your car. Hope you’re cool with that.” I wasn’t, but I was too tired to argue about it, even though Billie drives like a retarded cheetah on crack and a ’69 Dodge Charger isn’t a cheap restoration even in the best economy.
I tossed Billie my keys after we loaded up the trunk. She started up the engine, I lit another cigarette, and then we took off into the hazy February night, driving east through town. I’ve always hated Charlottesville, but sometimes, at the right time of night and season, I kind of like it. The way the orange streetlights illuminate the fog, the way the power lines crisscross above the narrow alleyways of the downtown and how the rusty old water tower hovers ominously in the sky, it just gives me a warm feeling of stoic reserve that somehow complements my natural interest in the macabre. Maybe it’s because on a night like this you start to forget about all meth labs and dirty looks, the racism and bible thumpers and trailer parks. One day I’ll get sick of Charlottesville and probably move to Asheville or something, somewhere kind of artsy and forward thinking, maybe persuade Terry and Billie to leave too. It can’t be easy for them to live in a place like this. Terry is one of a handful of black people and Billie is just, well, she’s Billie. But for now I guess we’ll call this shithole home. I lit another cigarette as we passed the Trinity Baptist Church. The lights were on.
“What the hell?” I asked Billie. What the hell indeed. It wasn’t even Sunday.
“Who knows,” She said back, “Maybe a late night prayer group or something? That place started going off the deep end ever since that first bout of lights. It’s been nothing but ‘End of the world this,’ and ‘Repent for your sins,’ that. I can’t even pretend to understand them or Rev. Proust anymore.” A few minutes later we weren’t even thinking about the church. We had just pulled onto Christian Light Road and were now looking for the farm house Billie had been telling me about. The problem was that there were quite a few farms that had gone bankrupt over the last two decades, each one indistinguishable from the last.
“I have an idea,” I told Billie. I turned on my car radio and tuned it to an FM radio station. Some oldies channel playing The Kinks “Village Green.” It wasn’t long after that that Ray Davies nostalgic harmony was suddenly replaced by the low hum of garbled static and high pitched clicking. This happened just as we approached a particularly destitute house with a single sagging willow tree in the front yard. “This is the one!” Billie screamed. She then in her own method of rational thinking decided that the best way to approach the house would be to shut of the headlights, drive past the house for about fifty or so feet, barrel turn into the opposite lane, drive back towards the house, jerk the car right off of the road, and park my goddamn ’69 pine green Dodge Charger behind a corn silo. As we got out of the car, I told Billie how she’s one of my closet mentally challenged friends.
“Suck my dick.” She giggled as she popped the trunk.
“You can’t afford it. Anyway what’s the plan?” I pulled the gas can from the trunk. “Are we going to knock on the door like asshole scouts trying to sell asshole flavored cookies, or are we just going to throw eggs until old man Jenkins chases us off with the hose?” Billie opened up her guitar case.
“Um, I was thinking more along the lines of murder by death.” From her case, Billie pulled out what I assume to be an intentional disregard for standard Geneva Convention protocols. “This,” Said Billie while loading a couple of shells, “is a Franchi SPAS-12, ten rounds, mounted flashlight, and an industrial grade suppressor. It’s probably the best tactile shotgun ever manufactured in Italy. They stopped making them a few years ago because the U.S. banned it from import. Don’t ask me how I got this one, but let’s just say I didn’t follow the two week waiting period.”
“Dandy,” I said.
We moved quickly towards the house, crouching low to the ground as we snaked through the tall weeds. It may have been dark, and the fog was still coming in thick, but we left nothing to chance. Between the two of us, we’ve seen enough horror movies to know better. When we finally reached the side of the house Billie pressed herself up against the cracked siding and motioned for me to look in through one of the windows. I gave her the universal gesture for anal fisting, which to us was code for, “something spooky is going to pop out and bite my face off.” Billie then gave her shotgun a pump, signaling that she did indeed have a shotgun. With that sound logic in mind, I carefully pressed my hands against the sweating glass, peering into darkness. I could just barely make out the vague shapes of furniture, but nothing much else. Scraps of paper and trash seemed to litter what I could see of the floor, and there appeared to be a sofa of some sort, and absolutely no movement what so ever. A static environment if I ever saw one. I lowered myself from the window, giving Billie the thumbs up before picking up the kerosene. Billie moved up to me, and in a low voice whispered that the hitchhiker apparently smashed through a window during his escape, and we should look for a welcome mat to bypass the broken glass. “Cool,” I whispered back. “But shouldn’t we try the front door first?”
We did, and as luck would have it, it was unlocked. I eased open the door doing my best to keep it from creaking, Billie standing behind looking down her iron sights into the shadows of the house. Nothing jumped out at us from that still darkness, yet we expected it to occur at any moment. Just jitters I told myself as we moved in. I shut the door, locking it from the inside just as Billie flicked on her flashlight, I did the same. Instantly the room was illuminated by the white cones of light, revealing the living room set up. There was indeed furniture in there, all of it covered in plastic blue tarps. Interestingly enough, besides the tarps and random bit and pieces of trash that scattered the floor, the place actually looked pretty well lived in, except for the terrible smell that is. Kind of like roadkill and patchouli oil it seemed like. We did our best to ignore it as I wandered the room while Billie searched every corner. I held onto the kerosene as I perused the bookshelves along the back wall. I was just tucking away a dusty copy of the complete works of Alistair Crowley when Billie tiptoed to my shoulder.
“Besides that damn stink wafting around, I think this room is fine,” I whispered. “So I guess that leaves everywhere else.”
“How about over there?” She asked, nodding her head towards her right. I followed her gaze to a door at the end of the center hallway, a door with several deadbolt locks and covered in smudged handprints of varying sizes. I had never been here before, but I could just sense that this door in question led to something awful. “Somewhere besides that.” I said back. Billie nodded in agreement.
We moved quietly down the hall and followed an archway into what I presumed to be a dining room. I say dining room because of the tasteful china cabinet, the large rectangular wooden table, the well placed chairs, and the two people sitting at either end of said table. Two people sitting perfectly still, absolutely motionless in the dark. Our flashlights landed on the one in the back first. It was a man wearing a brown sweater vest, and he was smiling. I stopped walking mid stride with one foot still hanging in the air. Instantly my mouth went dry, and I could feel my blood rush deep into my muscles. My stomach cramped up, sweat rolled down my forehead. It’s called a fear response, and it only happens when your limbic system knows that some serious shit is about to go down. Billie’s brain took a different approach, in the form of two shots fired off in rapid succession. One in the chest of the dark shape on the far side, another through the wooden backrest of the close one, each round muffled down to a demons whisper. She then walked around the table to get a better look at her handy work. I followed suit, feeling that it was safe, but nervous. Neither one had made so much as a peep.
“Oh shit, Stephan, come look at this.” She said, pointing her gun at the female stranger. I did look, and I gotta say that it was a weird sight to behold. The woman wearing a blue dress (also smiling despite having been shot through the sternum) had these, growths I guess, coming out of her exit wound. Upon closer inspection I realized that they were polyps, but not like the kind I’ve seen so far. These ones had tiny little tendrils that seemed to be wiggling around lazily, almost as if they were being pushed by a gentle breeze. Weirder still, her skin was a shade of pale blue normally reserved for the recently deceased. I walked over to the man at the end of the table. He had the same thing going on. Billie noticed my expression.
“What do you think this is?” She asked, never lowering her gun.
“First of all, these people were already dead before you shot them, I’d say for at least six hours, based on their stiffness. As for those things,” I pointed at the wriggling little maggot hairs, “are probably what happens when the polyps are left to their own devices, which I’m going to assume is a bad thing.”
Billie wasn’t saying anything. Actually, she was looking around the room some more, with a worried look on her face. “So my suggestion is that we torch this place now before anyone else comes snooping around.” I popped the cap of off the kerosene can and started pouring it around the table, making sure to splash a little on the smiling corpses. “Um, Billie, what’s wrong?”
“The hitchhiker mentioned two kids.” She said to me, her voice uncommonly serious.
It was probably just a coincidence that we heard the noises at just that moment, but fate still decided that the next sequence of events should not go in our benefit.
It started out as just a murmur coming from upstairs. Billie and I heard it at the same time, and we promptly shut off our flashlights as we moved into a corner. We didn’t want to draw any more attention to ourselves then we already had. We had to be very, very quiet. I shouldn’t have to explain why. The noises from upstairs seemed to be that of laughter, children’s laughter specifically, followed by the pitter patter of small bare feet scampering across a hardwood floor. Billie and I in that corner, crouched in near total darkness, we followed the sounds across the length of the ceiling. They seemed to be moving towards the staircase. I thought the time seemed right get the hell out of there; maybe dip out through the kitchen or something. I was just about to follow through with that plan when Billie pushed me back with her left arm.
“Stay here near the kitchen door.” She whispered with her hand cupped over my ear. “I’ll move to the other side. That way we can ambush them.” I was about to point out how stupid that sounded when I heard the clicking little giggles move into the living room. Yeah, clicking little chirps and giggles, a very unnatural vocalization that in even the best of circumstances, unsettling. It was about the same moment that I realized how truly unarmed I was that I saw them.
From what little moonlight fell into the room, I could tell that they appeared at first to be children, small children. But the rest was anything but a normal child. Spindly little things they were, pale gaunt things with long lanky arms outstretched from their tiny bodies, the joints bent at odd angles as they probed the dining room chairs and walls. The whole time making that terrible childish laughing noise intertwined with unearthly clicking. I held my breath. I felt like vomiting.
One of them jumped onto the table top, its long fingers prodding at one of the worm filled corpses. The other was sniffing at the air. I wondered what Billie waiting for…
What happened next was somewhat of a blur. Even now I have trouble remembering what the exact orders of events were exactly, but I do remember with distinct clarity that it all started with a cell phone. Mine, to be precise. It started ringing in my coat pocket, immediately drawing the attention of both of the freaky little bastards. I remember Billie flicking her flashlight to life, and how the one standing on the table spat blood into my glasses, followed by Billie pumping another round into her chamber. I remember the high pitched screeching they made, and how one tried to tackle me as I fell over fallen chair. I remember cracking the bulb of my flashlight across its wide open jaw, and pushing it into the glass case of the china cabinet. I remember Billie firing off two more rounds into the taller of the two, despite how it barely seemed to notice the gaping wounds it was sustaining. I seem to recall that I kicked the rest of the kerosene across the room into the short hallway before setting one of my Burnswick Funeral business cards on fire. I remember heat, and light, and the screaming, and the sound of something large and angry slamming itself against the basement door, the door with the locks and handprints. I vaguely remember Billie yelling to me over the madness as she dragged me into the kitchen and trying to slam the door shut onto something thin and pale, an arm. Although everything that happened in the span of those few seconds seemed to melt into one single moment of absolute carnage, one thing I will never forget were the long white tentacles snaking into the inferno of the dining room, following us all the way up until the door finally closed. I threw a dirty microwave through the kitchen window.
We ran from the blaze as fast as we could, the cool wet air a well appreciated relief from the heat and smoke. It wasn’t dark anymore. The tall grass reflected the orange fires from behind, everything tinted in the colors of violence. We got into my car just we heard the roaring. The drive back into town was quiet for the first few minutes. When Billie finally caught her breath, she spoke up.
“We didn’t learn a damn thing tonight did we?”
“I would say not.” I said, still choking. The beard stubble on the left side of my face had been burnt away. The skin felt hot.
“Thanks for setting everything on fire before we could look around for anything useful.” Billie mentioned a few moments later.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “After my phone went off I just sort of panicked.” My words reminded me to see who was trying to call me at five in the morning. I pulled it from my pocket, scrolling through the recent call list. It was Terry.
We got to Billie’s house a few minutes later. When we got inside, we saw that Terry was standing still, breathing heavily. He was holding a bloody hammer in his right hand, as he stared at the dead man lying still on the floor, the hitchhiker. Leading from the back of his neck was a trail of bloody mucus that ended at a small fleshy thing flatted into the hardwood.
“What the hell happened here?” Billie asked in exasperation.
“I don’t know. He just started freaking out and chased me around the house with a box cutter. I didn’t see much of a choice.” Terry mumbled out. “Then that thing popped out.”
I looked at the little crushed worm into the floorboards.
“I thought you said he didn’t eat any polyps.” I directed towards Billie.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I guessed he lied. So much for the kindness of strangers.”
I checked my wristwatch. It would be dawn soon. As I glanced from Billie to Terry and back to Billie, I thought back on everything that happened tonight, trying itemizing a list for the sake of context; Public intoxication, reckless driving, breaking and entering, possession of unregistered firearms, arson… would one more crime really make a difference?
I walked into Terry’s kitchen to put on a pot of coffee just as he asked me what I thought we should do next. I took my time coming up with the right words.
“Terry, I’m going to need you to move the blonde kid into your bathtub.” I dictated while measuring out the coffee grounds. “Billie, look around for some trash bags and maybe a jug of ammonia. Oh, and Terry, would you mind telling me where you keep your hacksaw?” Billie and Terry gave each other a nervous glance before getting to work. I followed them into the bathroom a few minutes later, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a sharp serrated saw blade in the other, the whole time trying to think up a good excuse for my boss as to why I will have come into work so early to run the cremator.
I just kept telling myself that death was a natural thing.