The cult in the woods sends you flowers on your birthday and engages in community programs. (They volunteered to pick up all the trash on the highway by mile marker 6, but no one saw anyone out there, no robed figures with strange gaunt faces or anything. The trash was just gone the morning after). The cult in the woods brings plates for the Lions’ Club annual pancake feed to benefit the local children’s hospital, and they are quiet neighbors, so no one can tell when their rituals actually occur. The cult in the woods fixes fences and paints houses and got an award last year from the mayor after their Toys for Tots drive supplied every foster care home in a hundred miles with new bikes, helmets and elbow pads and all. (During the award ceremony, no one showed up on the podium, but a strange breeze wafted in from the woods. The audience could swear they felt eyes on them.) Although there used to be some trouble from the cult in the woods, some talk of copulating with spirits and demons, some talk of impregnating sleeping residents with demonic seed, none of that happens anymore, not for at least the last thirty, twenty, ten years. Or so. They are reformed, they say. They never, they say, sneak into our rooms at night and whisper (son, daughter) and smile from the shadows at the foot of the bed.
It sits on your desk: a bucket, not too big but big enough, filled with tiny, squirming madnesses.
It’s full of spindly-armed things with bulbous eyes; sluggish long things with tapeworm mouths; round little winged things that bite with an unfurled proboscis.
At times, they spill over the edge, tumbling with bumble legs to skitter or slurp across your desk, but you scoop them back up (their little teeth pinch) and dump them back into their bucket. When you press them down, you hear their angry little squeals.
Do they leave the bucket when you’re not looking? You think maybe, yes. They might use the cover of night to sneak under bedsheets, nestle in tennis shoes and ears, but how can you be sure? (In your sleep, you hear chittering, you feel soft barbed toes against your cheek, but those are dreams of course.) They’re always in their bucket the next morning.
You know you should get rid of the bucket (take it to a professional, for instance, or maybe a dumpster), but you’re afraid that would mean trading it in for a larger madness, one that would sit on your lap and yowl to be fed.
So you’ll take your small things; they like their bucket. They’ve never, not once, (okay, maybe a few times) built up the courage to start a good swarm.
After “High Beams,” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Schwartz, p. 66
In the back seat of her car grew a portal, one that spat out serial killers: hitchhikers with switchblades in their sleeves; charming young men with sharp smiles and freezers full of hearts; clowns with homemade costumes and barbed wire balloons; nurses with air-filled syringes in their little white caps; pale people with long limbs and black suits; santas with axes; step parents with strychnine pies; government agents with pockets full of chemicals destined for the river; antivaxxers; four star generals; bad doctors; landlords; cancer in one large lumpy alien spit out from the cosmos; high-fructose corn syrup; and one, dirty-kneed stow away with a fear of the light and an old-fashioned razor blade.
They packed on top of each other. She tightened her grip on the wheel. They poked each other with their blades, spread their blood on the windows. She kept driving all night, the dome light left on, ignoring their grumbling, the are-we-there-yet, ignoring the flash of lights in her rear view mirror.
After “Old Woman Skin and Bone,” Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Schwartz, pg. 18
She was a worm charmer, and she kept her worms to herself. She never competed at county fairs. (Such events had so many people crouched in muddy fields, knocking and stomping at the earth. Making vibrations meant to call the worms out, but who could really gauge their skills in such a noisy place?) When she charmed worms out of the ground, she did so alone, with her wood rattler: a long stick carved with teeth, jammed deep into the earth, scraped so it sang like skeletons clattering. She took her rattler out into pastures and empty lots, undeveloped suburbs and abandoned fields, and she called up the worms: good ones, pretty shiny fat ones.
Her worms lived in tanks along the walls of her trailer: teeming pink-gray-brown behind the glass, glistening, like slippery knitting, crawling in, crawling out. They left cocoons like yellow pearls embedded in the dark, rich soil. She kept the best ones in the largest tanks, big terrariums with moss and mist, and never did she think to sell them as bait. She named them names like Daisy, Gibraltar, Toots. She warmed them with sun lamps, fed them dead things charmed up from the churchyard. She kept rainwater in barrels to sprinkle over them, drumming water drops to call them closer.
The rain reminded her of stormy days as a child, days she cut across the churchyard and watched things wriggle up from the grave dirt, things looking for moisture, following the source of the vibrations, her footsteps. She remembered: the worms crawling in, crawling out. She remembered: her mother saying, that’s what you’ll look like when you’re dead.
These days, she keeps an ear to the ground and listens to see if she hears mother, wriggling up. These days, when she sleeps, she dreams of bones jammed deep in the earth and rattling a skeleton call. The dark, rich soil over her face, teeming. She opens her mouth, she opens her eyes. She lets them crawl.
J– is studying at the kitchen table, pencil scribbling, lamp-lit, while the things slide in from the back yard. They slide out from holes we never noticed before (or maybe we always knew they were there, burrows with milk-gray wrinkled things inside, like overlarge moles, like leftovers we forgot about). J– needs to pass this test because she owes far too much already, and her children sing softly to each other under the covers because the night is too dark. When the things push their noses through the sliding glass door, she clamps down her gaze to her notes, arcane scribbles of magic that might save her, but such talismans can’t stop the barbed yellow teeth that bite through her ankle.
M– is sitting in the park, sipping, his silver flask glinting off the halogen lamps, wondering what to do next now that everything is gone. He hears the things slide up from under the leaves (like skinks or snakes. They’re so large but they only make a slight shushing sound. It must be, he thinks, because of the slime.) He picks at the hole on his right elbow, a twist of thread in his blazer that’s come unraveled, and he thinks of how much it took to get this blazer in the first place, how much he had to give up. The things snake under the bench and needle narrow-tipped fingers through the gaps to poke at his haunches. Their mouths water.
Q– closes the blinds. They avoid the broken slats, not just because they can’t be caught squatting but because the things slide through the streets, a slow tide of sludge, their entangled bodies twisting around each other like a mole rat king. The bloodied parts of meals are dragged along the tide, arms and feet and noses, shreds of clothing, workplace badges, uniforms. Q– tapes up the gaps between the doors and walls, stuffs blankets between the cracks, whatever they can find, and under a tiny lamp they write letters to anyone who may still be left. The letter will be thrown into the air, tossed into the sewer grate whenever they dare venture out again. The shushing sounds move over the door. They do not expect a reply.
Marisol lived upstairs in the house with the others. She never wore shoes. When the others weren’t looking, Marisol broke into the parlor and destroyed the tea services, one piece at a time: cups, pots, saucers, sugar bowls. Each time, she plucked a piece out from the china hutch and dropped it, effortlessly, and smiling as she watched it hit the hardwood floor.
As soon as the others heard the shatter, they chased her out of the parlor, beating her with brooms and rolled up magazines. They wept over the loss of their fine country roses, their Noritake and their gold-trimmed Warwick. They swept up what they couldn’t salvage, but a few shards became embedded in Marisol’s feet as she ran away. She kept those. She plucked the shards out one by one and stashed them in a box under her bedroom floor.
Eventually, after months and months of bleeding soles and plucked shards, she collected enough materials. She stole a bowl of wallpaper paste and Aunt Crinoline’s jar of rubber cement, then she took the shards and glued them together to construct a figure: a three-foot tall hairless Siamese cat, her own feline-shaped gargoyle to loom over her bed.
When the others asked, Marisol promised her cat did not hop down from the bedpost and wander the house at night. That clicking sound was not its claws on the floorboards in the hall. She insisted the cat was just a sculpture, a mosaic of mismatched porcelain, sleek and inert. The dark puddles of liquid around the cat’s heels were not blood, of course, no. Those were just stains from leftover tea.
It sat on the front door stoop: one large, seeping box, addressed to both of us, and we did not remember buying such a thing.
When we opened it up, the stench filled the kitchen: coppery, tangy, rotten. In the box were several shapes: floppy, round, long, glistening, things in purple and blue and yellow. Some we recognized as livers, lungs, intestines, but others were unintelligible. What does a spleen look like? An appendix? We brought the box inside, of course. How could we let anyone know what we’d done? We brought it inside and, after hunting through it, we were relieved to find no hearts, no brains.
We assumed at the start they were animal organs, beef and pork, but who could be sure? Who knew what such things looked like? (We could have checked online, “Beef liver and lungs and intestine,” searched “images,” but we didn’t.) We examined our order history through our account, and there it was: “Box of Organs.” Not “assorted organs,” not “stew meat.” Just organs. No promises for 2 day delivery or refrigeration.
Out of 197 reviews, the box of organs had 3 stars. We skimmed the comments. “Gross,” one said. “Just what I wanted,” said another. “Stained my carpet,” “Does it include spleens?” “I don’t remember buying these.”
We put the box in the deep freezer, of course, and forgot about it. We forgot about it completely when the neighbors went missing, when oxidized-dark stains appeared under their doors, marring the hall carpet. We laid down welcome mats, steam-cleaned furiously to forget. We did a good job forgetting, and we resolved to never drink and shop again, never to drink again, really, and stay vigilant and careful and aware at all times.
The brains and hearts showed up, addressed to us, a week later. It was a much bigger box.
In April, there is the Feast of the Black Finch, where a number of townsfolk are strung up in the trees, their limbs covered in feathers and sweet hazelnut mash, whereupon they are left to dangle until throngs of local songbirds swarm the branches. The songbirds devour the mash so slathered over the townsfolk, and in so doing peck incessantly at the hapless participants with their tiny, dagger-like beaks. The rite has been described as highly uncomfortable.
In November, during the Circus of the White Newt, the most disliked members of the community are draped in red robes with their lips sealed shut with masking tape. The town elders lead a procession of the chosen disliked into a winding maze of catacombs beneath the town, until such time as the morose group arrives at a cavern riddled with blind albino cave salamanders. The blind albino cave salamanders swarm the chosen with their sticky little feet and weird little noses, until such time as the chosen ones are itchy and disturbed and drenched with slime. Then, the procession leaders serve coffee and sweet yam pie, of which the chosen are not allowed to partake. It is tremendously cruel.
In May, the local children build floats for the Parade of the Everlasting Cud, their dioramas comprised entirely of bubble gum wrappers and half-digested alfalfa.
Every forty-third year on the Winter Solstice, there is the Carnival of the Dark Perambulation, during which an effigy of the titan Iapetus is constructed at the edge of town. The titan is comprised of the residents themselves, nervously stacked on each other’s shoulders, bound by dried blackberry brambles and old beeswax, and during the construction the participants sing a cacophony of unholy hymns, a dark ruckus of malicious oratorios, a canticle the likes of which drives sane folk mad, and this song lasts all hours of the day until, just before the onset of night, the titan begins to walk, lumbering with the screams of the townsfolk screeching at its very joints, every movement a crush of tiny limbs and heads within, and the titan trudges into the blood-red sunset, to the edge of the fields where the bones of hundreds of the townsfolk’s ancestors lay littering the soil, those sad remnants shed off where the titans of past Carnivals once walked, as though a massive constrictor shed its scales upon the fields or a dark star rained down in hot particles of unknown cosmic matter. The townsfolk within the titan dance the dance of the untold ancients; then they head back to town and finish up their Christmas shopping.
Ralph and Edna Larned built Maalphegor in 1951, shortly after Ralph got a job teaching 9th grade geometry at Thomas Edison junior high. At the time, Edna had just been promoted to head nurse at the rehab ward of Cowley County Memorial Hospital.
Maalphegor, at first, had three bedrooms, two baths, six walk-in closets, and a fully equipped kitchen with all the modern conveniences. It was built by Ralph’s own hand (although much of the design and decor was handled by Edna) and due to the concrete and ectoplasm construction, it would never fall, never collapse in the event of an earthquake. No disaster could ever loosen the house from its foundations (or, at least, so it whispered to Ralph and Edna at night).
Living there, however, was always a strange crisis. The end of the world was always coming in Maalphegor, at least for the neighbors whose hellhouses weren’t as well built, and Ralph and Edna became convinced that preparation through consumerism was the only way to save off Armageddon. Thankfully, Maalphegor came with it’s own door-to-door salesmen; at the beginning, they looked a little like Bela Lugosi clones, but as the years wore on, the shadows in the salesmen’s faces deepened, a bit like Pazuzu from the Exorcist. Increasingly they began to look like Slender Men once Ralph and Edna’s children came of age.
The salesmen sold the family new appliances and luxurious additions to Maalphegor: delights such as weatherizing strips and desk lamps and a new washer/dryer, a sun room and a study and fifteen guest bedrooms. When the neighbors asked, the family insisted they’d do anything–anything–to halt the advance of apocalypse. For everyone’s sake of course.
By the time Ralph and Edna spent up all their retirement, the neighborhood looked considerably different, as Maalphegor had devoured the entire block, and the neighbors had all moved away. But Ralph still grilled up dinner on the massive back patio every Sunday (using what pigeons and squirrels still remained in the attic as meat) and Edna did her best to keep all the curtains tidy.
You almost don’t see it. One afternoon, as you push through the front door, overladen with your sustainable shopping bags full of produce from the farmer’s market, you nearly step over the tiny card that’s jammed beneath the door. In microscopic script, the card says:
Sorry I missed you.
The card is doll-sized on cream card stock, and the shaky letters are somewhat Dickensian. On the other side is an image: a ferret with a top hat and unbearably sad, moist eyes. Below the portrait, it reads:
You figure it must be something your son picked up at school, maybe something from the book fairs he loves, or an earth science project of your daughter’s. You forget it quickly, but then the next week, you find another card, this one stuck to the door like a UPS sticker:
I will return: Monday, Tuesday, Friday. Blank checkboxes sit beside each day’s name.
On the other side, again, is the impossibly miserable ferret. This time it’s wearing a brown suit coat, complete with a little watch tucked into the breast pocket. You’re reminded of a character from a low-rent Alice in Wonderland.
The card says again: Sorrow.
For a few days after, you wonder about the cards and what sorrow could mean. It’s easy enough to imagine. Since you’ve turned 40, it’s been inescapable: all the ways sadness could creep into your life. Car repairs, lost friends, your children’s grades, species extinctions, global starvation, various cancers. You keep the cards tucked into your bag, behind your cash and ID, and find yourself thinking of them frequently. Eventually you start checking the porch before you enter the house, peering under the juniper bushes or beneath the drought-conscious decorative rock you’ve used to replace the lawn.
Soon, you can’t even go near the house without first spending a half an hour sitting in your Subaru, staring at the door, checking to see if anything’s coming. Anything short and soft footed, or black footed, sneaking morosely around the corner. For weeks, after you think you’ve seen a shadow flicker across the welcome mat, you speed up and drive around the block for an hour. You start parking two blocks down and sneaking into the house through a back window. You start avoiding unnecessary trips outside altogether. Your son and your daughter start riding the bus to school (lower carbon footprint anyway) and you start ordering your groceries online (an unfortunately higher carbon footprint). On weekends, you live under a blanket, huddled on the couch, spying on the neighborhood using a busted slat in the blinds. You spend all day searching for the horrid messenger, that fuzzy prophet of cards.
One day, your eyes drift shut for a moment, and suddenly you hear it: a knock at the door. Soft and light, near the threshold. After a moment, there’s a tiny cough.
You pull the blanket over your head. Don’t let it in, you whisper to yourself, madly. Don’t let it in.
That thing standing behind you
Just wants to say hi
It was stuffed under floorboards for so many years
It just wants a stretch, to uncurl all those legs
And visit, just briefly, with another kind soul
That thing standing behind you
Just wants a big hug
The house was so quiet and dark and alone
There’s so little to eat, the icebox is empty
Is it too much to ask to dine with a friend?
That thing standing behind you
Gets a little bit bigger
Its mandibles stretching as wide as the hall
Such an affectionate gesture, you won’t even feel it.
Won’t you turn, just a little, and give it a smile?
I. Evangelina thought death would be super terrible; then, she died. When they lowered the coffin into the ground, the coffin was a tidy little space, all firm cedar and clean corners, but eventually the coffin walls decayed into soft mounds of rotting mulch, and the soil leaked in and the worms crept in to nestle under her head. She began to think it wasn’t so bad at all, like a cool Sunday morning spent under the covers, dozing in and out of consciousness, particularly when her flesh slid off her bones and decomposed in pale, folded piles of decayed matter like a bundle of linen. She found herself smiling (the teeth on her skull bared clean), as she snuggled deeper into the earth with the beetles tickling her cheeks. The whole thing was made all the better for the fact that, thankfully, she couldn’t smell anything.
II. Tyrone, too, was really nervous about the whole death thing, particularly when they shuttled him into the fire and the automatic door of the crematorium slid shut. The flames weren’t as mean as he’d expected; they were more like the heat from a campfire while nestled under a wool blanket with a hot cocoa full of marshmallows and cream liqueur. He found himself sighing as the warmth tickled his toes and slid up his knee caps, and when his body dissolved into dry particulates, that felt pretty nice, too, a bundled up and folded feeling, safe and protected, like collapsing upon himself in child’s pose during yoga class.
III. Arturo’s body was never found, and that was all well and good because after getting chased around by that chainsaw-wielding maniac, he really could have used a break. After a long tumble down a ravine, his head found a spot to rest by the creek bed, the milkweed and thistles having caught him before he rolled into the water. His arms and legs were somewhere in the bushes; his torso flopped in the mud under a sapling. And, sure, after screaming his soul-guts out for a while, he was soothed by the trickling water over the rocks, the birdsong, the sunshine. It was like all the vacations he’d never gotten around to taking. So he lounged, warmed by the sun and listening to the breeze. He giggled as he felt the feet of ants and beetles tip-toeing over him, their little pincers like kisses. (They took parts of him to live in their colonies, little chunks of flesh to nibble on, which gave him a glimpse of life better than any David Attenborough documentary he’d ever seen.) Small carnivores snacked on him at night, those coyotes with their soft, wet noses and crows with their feathers brushing against his skull. Soon enough, the ivy grew over him and the soil covered the bleached surface of his bones, and he nestled in, the whisper of grubs and worms soothing him to sleep.