The radio in the corner of Pap’s Diner carried another chart topper from years gone by out of tune and laced in static. The oldies station could only ever broadcast the melodies of those that had passed years ago. Their four-chord memories of summer nights and red corvettes echoed overhead as the waitress topped off their cups before completing her circuit back to the kitchen. Marty and Sean had been waiting in the corner booth for the past ninety minutes and were ready to call it a day when Dillon finally entered. A shaggy mane of coal black hair sat on top of the same knock-kneed frame that last carried him out of town over twenty years ago.
Marty plugged their hands together and clapped him on the back once he made it to their table. “Good to see you. We were beginning to worry you weren’t going to make it.”
Dillon waved toward the waitress and smiled when she held up a fresh pot of coffee. “Traffic on the 710 coming in. Besides, did you think I was going to pass up an invitation from the likes of you two?
Sean rolled his eyes. “You could have called. Either of us. Ever.”
“That’s not fair. We group texted last Christmas,” Dillon insisted.
“That was the year before.”
Marty steered them from tangents the best he could. Small talk seemed profane in the face of what they were about to breach. “It doesn’t matter, Dillon. Don’t worry about it. Life goes on.”
After high school, Marty went straight into medical school and then joined a practice on the east coast while Dillon headed south saying he had relatives with work for him. Sean was the only one of the three that hadn’t left town after high school. Just like the city of Fairview, not much had changed in the interim. Sean stayed right where he was, right where they left him, steadily pickling his liver. No matter how distant their trajectories had become Marty would drop back into town every couple months and visit. He kept their conversations with Sean light. Both had made a deal to leave the past where it lay. Neither man had seen or heard from Dillon since they all shook hands on their agreement the day after graduation.
Dillon took a sip of his coffee and winced. “Well, we’re all here. What was so important that I had to drive all the way up here, today, all of a sudden?”
The two exchanged an uneasy glance before Marty answered. “It’s back.”
The men fell silent in the moments that followed. It was a matter best left out of mouth and mind. The three had done their best since that night in the woods all those years ago. Who would believe them even if they hadn’t? The weight from carrying such a secret was another matter. They each handled it differently, but ultimately alone. Marty buried himself into his work while Sean just buried himself. There were odd jobs from time to time, but nothing stuck with him. Nothing but Marty.
Dillon cleared his throat. “Are you sure?”
Marty gave him a silent, solemn nod.
“You haven’t been around,” Sean spoke up. “Kids have been going missing; seven just this year. They said a few of them were runaways, but it’s the woods. We all know it is.”
Dillon eyed Marty. “You too?”
He exhaled reluctantly, “Not all of them stayed missing.”
He understood what was left unsaid and frowned into his coffee. “How bad was it?”
“Police said a bear did it, but teenagers found the kid first. They flagged the pictures and pulled them from the internet pretty quickly, but I saw enough. That was no bear.”
Dillon pulled a dollar seventy-five from his pocket and set it underneath the napkin dispenser at the end of the table. He stood to leave, “Don’t take this wrong way, and seriously, any time you guys want to get together I’m in, but I’m sorry. I don’t believe you. I can’t.”
Sean clutched Dillon by the wrist before he could step away. “You know what’s out there. We all do. It’s happening again. It never stopped happening. We have to do something about it.”
Dillon withered at the display. “We did do something. We escaped. Now let go of my arm.”
Sean relented but only for Marty to join. “We’re going to tell the authorities what we know with or without you.”
“Do you hear yourselves? What exactly are you going to tell them?”
“There are kids out there, Dil. Even if we get laughed out of the county wouldn’t it be worth it if there’s a chance it helps even one of them?”
The estranged friend shook his head. “If it is what we saw all those years ago then there are no more children, not anymore. We made a pact. After what happened to Benji- we all did.”
Marty nodded without taking his eyes from him. “And that’s why we’re here. We have to finally do right by Benji.”
He was less convinced. “And what do you think they’re going to say when they find out that we’ve been sitting on this kind of information for the past two decades. If it’s as bad as you say it is right now, how do you think they’re going to react knowing that we knew the whole time? We’re talking crying mothers on the six o’clock news. We’ll get burned at the stake. And you can kiss your medical license goodbye. Not that anyone is going want to be around you after they find out you just stood around and watched while all of this has been happening for years and years.”
Sean cut to the point. “You seem to have all the reasons why not.”
“I have all the reasons how not. It’s too late to fess up and say sorry. Local police wouldn’t know what to do even if you did tell them.” Dillon sank back in his booth seat and called the waitress over for a menu, his day was just getting started. “If you want to do right by those kids, by Benji, then we’re going back.”
“Samantha Marigold? She was two grades above us, and prom queen.”
The trio had built a small bonfire within the north end of the woods and we’re catching up on old times to cut the tension of the silence besetting them. None of them had been back since the night it happened but the path was forever etched into their brains. They did not bring much with them. Experience taught them they would need to remain light on their feet. Flashlight beams would only reveal their location. They would have to enter the woods under the veil of night, moving just as the danger they sought had. There could be no escape tonight. Sean was talked out of bringing his .35 along. In the darkness they were just as liable to strike one of themselves, or worse yet, miss completely. There could be no mistakes tonight.
“I’m not saying we hooked up, or whatever, but yeah, Sami was cool. We both listened to Pavement. We went to a show at the Odeon together.”
“Samantha Marigold? No shit. Whatever happened to her? You stay in touch?”
Sean spit into the fire. “Cancer. About six years ago.”
Sean shrugged as the smiles faded and they remembered the stakes that brought about their reunion. “It’s okay. People die. It’s fine if it happens, as long as it’s not us. Just ask Marty, he’s good at convincing you of that.”
“We were kids. It’s not that easy. What could we have done? None of us thought it would come back. You couldn’t have expected us to know.” Marty pushed back.
“I knew.” Dillon interjected. “We all knew. We didn’t want to, but we knew. Just like we knew tonight was going to happen. That’s the only way we were able to stomach keeping quiet all those years. No matter how much distance I tried to put up I knew it’d be woods in the end. We all did.”
Marty pointed with a stick he was using to stir the fire. “Looks like you took some reminders with you.”
The newer skin that had filled the slash running along Dillon’s forearm glistened against the fire’s glow. A puffed lip of scar tissue formed a topographical boundary around the old wound. He rolled his sleeve back down to the wrist. “Never did heal right.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but after what happened to Benji, you got off lucky.”
“I know. The scar is a reminder of what happened, of who I’ve become as a result.”
Dillon’s focus shifted. His eyes cut to a shadowed clearing several meters away from their campsite. The others followed his sight and a branch snapped in response, and another, then a stone became displaced and scattered the dead leaves in its wake. The men froze. There was something in the darkness, moving. Sean pulled the hatchet from his knapsack and held it against his chest like others would a bible. The trio pushed into the bramble, turning round and over on themselves as they fought for direction. Something was always just ahead of them in the distance. An animal would have frozen in silence and waited for the threat to pass, run or taken flight, even attacked. This was different. Something was waiting for them, leading them in.
“Maybe we should turn back,” Sean suggested. “Just to get our bearings and figure out where we are in case we need to come back.”
Marty ruled the notion out of hand and continued the trek with them to follow behind. “There is no coming back, not after tonight. We’re here to end this. This is what Benji would have wanted. Come on.”
The noise continued to lead them deeper into the thick patch of trees at the center of the woods. Then, as sure as it had been with them it was gone just as suddenly. The three friends found themselves standing in a soggy clearing nestled under a thick canopy. Cords of vine and kudzu draped over the gaps between branches like the curtains of a stage. Marty was still catching his breath, preparing to admit their nerves had gotten the better of them when the first set of eyes glinted in the darkness. It was just a flash and they were gone. Then another lit up, and another, and another, and another. They were all around them; opals shimmering against the blackness they were cast.
Marty could hear Sean’s reedy gasps as he tried not to scream. On his other side, Dillon held his limbs close ready to lash out at anything within reach. Something was approaching, but not the vision they expected. It was a child; quiet and dirty, but a child. The young boy said nothing and made no motion after stepping forward. Not even his chest could be seen to rise. There was more noise from within the brush and another child emerged. Sean recognized her. He helped her parents look for her when she went missing a month ago. The eight year old only missing since last Saturday, the the exchange student who never came back from his hike, the the Jenkins’ boy who had been given up on three years ago, ten year olds, seventeen, six, twelve, they were all here.
“It’s all of them, the kids,” Marty realized. “It’s everyone who’s missing.”
“Not just the ones who are missing. This is everyone who’s ever gone missing. I remember the missing photos.” Before they had the time for doubt, Benjamin Sans was the next to emerge from the shadows. The doughy boy with his father’s cowlick and his mother’s overbite stood in sullen file among the others of his new group.
It had been twenty seven years and one-hundred and forty eight days since he had last seen his childhood friend, the one who first let him sit at their lunch table in elementary school. Sean recognized him the instant a peal of moonlight slipped across his pasty cheek. “Benji! Jesus Christ, guys, it’s Benji.” He rushed toward the throng of silent observers, dropping the hatchet to take Benji in his arms. They had found him at last. It could finally be over. He could finally move on.
“Sean, stop! Something’s wrong.” Marty didn’t yet know how to put the dawning threat into words. The next several instants happened so fast he doubted they would have come out much more than a frantic jumble if he had the moment over. “He’s still a kid.”
The field of pearlescent pupils flickered and cut away, casting the group into darkness once more. After a pregnant heartbeat the eyes returned, but changed. Marty, Dillon and Sean were surrounded by a ring of hardened red pits that blistered through the darkness. They were the eyes of the Beast, the same that they saw burning back at them as children, the same that delivered them back to those woods that very night. The Beast was watching and now he was everywhere.
Sean flinched his hand back but it was too late. The bones in the nearest child’s jaw snapped apart, crackling to pieces as it folded open and expanded. Its mouth hung slack like a busted toy before a row of serrated incisors clamped down on Sean’s shoulder. The arm was still falling as the others started advancing. A ragged juvenile lunged forward. Its limbs bent at impossible angles as it skittered along the ground like a rabid spider. The others bayed like midnight wolves as a pair of blood-red eyes fell upon Marty.
He heard Dillon shout but it was too late and something struck him in his ribs before he could turn. The force sent him crashing against the base of a tree. He could feel where a branch had pierced his side. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. The world went black in the moments that followed but the last thing Marty saw was his old friend Benji standing over him, looking just as he remembered.
When the world returned for Marty its first vision was Dillon. He was spattered in red with tacky streaks smeared across his face and soaking into his clothes. He was wrapping a bandage around Marty’s torso. They were back by the fire. Only the fading embers remained after being hastily snuffed out. Marty made motion to sit up only to fall back from the jolt of pain.
Dillon handed him a bottle of water. “No organs. Did a number on your ribs, though. All things considered, we got off lucky.”
There was a moment of clouded peace before the fog lifted and Marty was able to put the horrific past to order. “Sean, oh god. Those things- we have to go back for Sean.”
Dillon had his back to him. “It’s too late for him. We barely got out ourselves. I’m sorry, but you saw it just like I did. You saw what happened back there.”
“That was it, wasn’t it? All of them, all of those kids.”
“Something like that.” It was all Dillon could offer.
Marty tried drawing sense from what they had found. “I saw Benji, but it couldn’t have been him, not the real Benji. He was still just a kid.”
“It was just like that day all over again.”
“No, it was different this time. No one gets away it, from them. We don’t know much about it, but we know that. There is no compassion, no mercy, no reason or understanding. That thing is death and that’s it. But then here we are.”
Dillon shrugged. “Guess I must be a good luck charm or something.”
“You know- when it happened, when it came for us the first time, I remember I was running with Sean, we were yelling at Benji to keep up but he fell behind. We couldn’t find you; not until afterwards. I never asked what happened when it found you, when you were alone with it.”
Dillon reluctantly held his arm up flashing the toothy scar running up to his elbow. “You already know what happened.”
Marty faltered only for a moment to consider whether he had the strength to put it to words. “A superficial gash that didn’t sever any arteries or cause significant damage.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying they just took Sean’s arm off at the fucking shoulder.”
“You’re upset, scared. We both are. But you need to keep it together, Marty. There are more of the out there. They can’t be far. Just stay still and keep quiet.”
He continued talking all the same. “Like you said, never did heal right.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s like the scar tissue hasn’t aged yet, like it never got a chance, just like those kids out there or whatever is left of them.”
Dillon finally turned to face him. “What would you know about what’s left of them?
The two men watched each other wordlessly in the crisp October night until Marty finally answered with a question of his own. “You’re not really him, are you?”
Dillon smiled gently. “You should lay back, buddy. You must be going into shock.”
“Why’d you come back? You almost got away with. God knows, I was ready to forget about it. We all were.”
“Because you called me, remember? I drove out here from Tempe?”
Marty looked through his old friend Dillon Hargreaves, further into a past far beyond their childhood. “The other you, the one back there, why are you here?”
Dillon struggled for a response before his face hardened and his eyes set deep into the shadow of his brow. “You were going to talk. You were going break the pact. You both were.”
“Kids are dying, Dillon? Why should that matter?”
Dillon’s face twisted into what would otherwise appear as genuine offense. “There is no death for those that believeth. There is no end in those that seek the Father.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
A toothy smile stretched across his face as the hinges to his jaw spilled open and his eyes flicked in the moonlight. “Take solace, child. Soon everything else will be mine. Soon your heart and mind, your life and your soul will be mine.”
Marty did not blink. “He said you’d say something like that. It was when we got separated before you were able to find me and Sean, when we were all just running. I found him first. I saw what they did to him. I thought he was… he should have been, but not quite yet. He told me what happened to him. He told me how he saw you die, that one of those things took the heart from your chest and ate it in front of you as you fell. Then he saw you rise with red flashing eyes and go for him.”
He lingered on his last moments shared with Benji for the first time in a very long while; just long enough for his fingers to work the fuse into the dull brick wrapped in parchment that was taped to his inner thigh. “I didn’t believe what he told me at first. How could I? It sounded impossible. But it didn’t take long. Once you look for something you can see it anywhere, and I saw it in you. I saw it when you talked us into keeping quiet and every day since. I pretended I didn’t, for years I pretended it happened just like you said it did. I thought it would be easier that way. I was wrong.”
Dillon’s face soured but he remained silent.
“I called you back to Fairview, back to these woods.”
An oily smirk pooled across his face. “I could have been gone. I could have stayed gone too. You would have gone right on believing and sending Christmas cards to Tempe.”
Marty refused to look away ever again. “It ends tonight.”
“Oh? It does?” Dillon had grown thoroughly amused at the premise. He outstretched his arms and the woods opened behind him and his children gathered. Benji Sans stepped forward, not a day older than the one they saw him last. Behind him, Sean also returned. His arm had not. Dillon traced a finger around their friend’s stump as he stood mindless beside them. They were as still as they trees that framed them. The Beast’s eyes and those of his children were maddening rubies flaring across the woods. “If I am that which you know to be true, then what hope would a frightened little man with a hole in his side stand against me and my children?”
“Not much, but a promise is a promise.”
The cold laughter returned. “Our pact? I should be thanking you. Without you I would never have been able to grow my legion unnoticed for all these years.”
“Not you.” Marty cast his sight past Dillon until it landed on what remained of his old friend Benji. “Sorry it took a while, buddy.”
The Beast inhabiting Dillon’s corpse shot an uncertain glance at his enthralled proxy but the senseless dupe could offer no answers.
“Can you imagine such a thing, a fourteen year old kid asking a fifteen year old to carry out a dying vow? I guess you could say it was kind of like a pact.”
The Beast shrieked, incensed at the audacity. “You would threaten me? Do you have any idea the centuries I’ve seen, the men and women I’ve worn and discarded like soiled gloves?” His eyes smoldered like embers buried in heart of the sun. “Do have any mind for the worlds I’ve slaughtered, you insignificant whelp?”
The ground shook beneath them and the woods howled in fear as the Beast spoke through his damned choir; a hundred voice bellowing the Beast’s fury. “LOOK UPON MY WORKS AND WEEP. FOR I AM ALPHA AND OMEGA.”
Marty waited for the brimstone pageantry to subside before waving the small gray box in his direction. “I’m sure that’s a great story and all, but you killed my friends, asshole.”
For all the Beast’s machinations he had not anticipated three pounds of primed C4 explosive. The surprise rippled across his face like a crack running through cheap glass; as did the panic, the rage, and the fear that followed. Marty allowed him one last instant to lash out, to flail, to run, to tear the earth in half only to realize none of it was in his control any longer and that he was an animal in a cage the same as all his ruby children. Only then could it end, only then would stolen youth like Benji know vengeance. Marty said a prayer for absent friends and let his thumb fall upon a small red button. A pact fulfilled.