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.
The homeowners were, for the most part, grateful the ghost only made tinkling musack, inoffensive easy listening tunes, and did not wail or howl at all hours of the night. It didn’t even weep ceaselessly. The ghost didn’t throw knives or stomp or bang on the walls. No one’s toes were nibbled. There were no figures in the mirrors, standing right behind them, over their shoulder, glaring a death’s glare (or worse, a grin!). There was just the sound of C sharp, B minor, the occasional chord plunking away right in their ear wherever they turned. They never woke up to scratches (maybe some headaches), and the songs the ghost played were never morose or doomful (although it was clear, from the occasional off-note, the slips, that the fucker needed to practice, didn’t it?). It only played repetitive, uncomplicated modern compositions, (how much Philip Glass can one ghost take at a time?). And while the ghost did help for parties, its origins were quite the conversation starter, at some point they stopped caring whether it was the spirit of a murdered cut rate musician, or a musically frustrated housewife turned to suicide, or if the piano itself was possessed with some poltergeist of bad taste, or if perhaps it was just a curse (they were pretty sure it was a curse, though).Yes, they would say, (before they stopped saying anything at all), the ghost only plays piano. And no: it isn’t very good. And no: it never, ever stops.
Lynette’s antique percolator summoned vast, unknowable cosmic horrors who brought her cinnamon crumb cake and platters of scones. They clasped the baked goods their many unfathomable limbs and asked where should we put these? The spoke without words, in a mind-voice piped directly into Lynette’s brain that, at once, sent tiny aneurysms dancing amongst her neurons.
Lynette retrieved extra chairs to make room for them around the kitchen table. She asked them how they took their coffee they garbled in their eldritch tongue, yes, most definitely two sugars, and thank you. Their abyssal mouths opened, and from out of those mouths reached long, shimmering proboscises that blew on the surface of their coffees before taking a sip.
Afterwards, when they subsumed Lynette, absorbing her in their infinite stomachs full of space dust and bones, she thought how nice it was to have visitors for once. And what a steal that antique percolator had been! At the old professor’s garage sale, she’d gotten it for just sixty six cents.