((In an effort to move away from the scattered parchments piled up high on the desk of Roberick Litte's office-bedroom for once, I've attempted to get into the spirit of Samhain-Saints-Oween Eve. Of course I'm garbage at writing actual horror, so my goal for this piece is closer to instilling a temporary sense of vague discomfort.))
The quick, damp slaps of bare little feet through the mud broke the uncharacteristic silence of the mangrove forest. The fog had killed the stars and moon hours ago, and the frantic patter of feet halted frequently as their owner slipped upon the spongy earth or fell between the overlapping snarls of roots which formed little islands in the swamp.
The girl with the scorched and tattered dress was small and quick, but the sounds she made as she thrashed through the water and trees drew them ever closer. Her shins were scraped by the ground and her cheeks slashed at by passing branches, splashing her brown skin with a raw and bloody red in places. But still, she ran on. She had to.
She had to get away from them.
The ones who reeked of earth and death. Gaunt old things, with lolling heads and a lurching gait. They shambled on two legs or crawled on all fours, but they never seemed to tire, unlike her. Again and again, the swamp turned her around or snagged her, and there they were again- gangling limbs stretched out toward her and gnarled claws groping blindly. There may only have been three, but there may as well have been three dozen. She'd lost track of how many hours it had been already. Shouldn't the sun have already risen?
Did she even remember the last time she had seen the sun?
Skidding to a halt at the edge of a river, the girl craned her neck and twisted it around, looking up and down the length of both banks. The curtain of grey hid the far side from her, but the sounds which touched her ears from that direction were enough to turn her away. Another one had gotten caught in the mangrove roots, she thought, and it was breaking through either wood or bone in order to free itself. One had cornered her minutes or ages ago, only to become trapped amid the slimy old husks, and she had kicked it so hard in her escape that its jaw had unhinged on one side.
Now, as before, the guttural, half-choked groans reminded her of a dog being strangled. It always went on for too long, but this time it was without end.
Revulsion filled her and made a shiver wrack her body as she thought she heard some deeper familiarity in those noises. But the rasp of long-fingered branches behind her wrenched her attention away from it. She'd stayed still too long.
Its distended paunch looked bloated and hard, but the rest of it was loathsomely thin, so that it looked like little more than grey-mottled skin stretched tight over bone. The dull ambient light reflected off of the almost glossy clot of dark, blackish blood which anointed its caved-in temple, and a break somewhere along its spine ensured that this horrific side profile was always tilted and aimed at her. No matter how violent their first deaths may have been, nothing seemed to stop them. One listless, milky eye swiveled in its socket until it settled on the youth, and then its mouth opened wide- unnaturally so.
A dry hiss came first, stopping and starting as it gave a glottal stop to voiceless words. But then the death rattle rose up from its throat and echoed high throughout the dripping canopy, eliciting cries in response from elsewhere in the darkness. They were much closer than even she had feared, and coming from every direction. She hadn't been escaping. She'd only been hedging herself in deeper from the start.
It didn't dawn on her as she stood there, transfixed by the dead thing's gaze, that it had stopped in its tracks as well, so that not even its exposed knee joint clicked and ground as it audibly had before. All she knew was the stab of terrified instinct at the base of her skull, and it screamed at her to move.
So her feet pounded upon the earth, root, and stone again, and in response the thing's screech was cut short with a sound of alarm. She dove into the trees through a space too narrow for them to pass through, but now the cracking and yielding of roots was at the back of her neck. A sob passed her lips as she scrambled forward from the convergence of tattered things blindly.
Up ahead was another tree. It was massive, towering above the mangroves all around it. It was an ancient thing, broad-trunked even before the rivers had swelled and flooded the deltas. Its roots dug deep rather than lacing across the surface. It was also dying, slowly poisoned by the land to which it no longer belonged. But it was still standing, and that was enough for her.
Dress hiked up about her knees, she clamored up against the giant and reached out for a handhold. The rotted bark gave way before her fingertips, but in a moment she'd found purchase elsewhere. She pulled herself up, higher and higher, legs propelling her desperately upward with barely enough time for her hands to hang on. The thump of bodies against the base of the tree came as they reached her, but she only felt the dead air shifting and billowing slightly below her toes as their flailing arms reached in vain.
Inch by inch, she savaged the side of the tree with broken little nails until the light of a hundred glinting stars exploded behind her eyes. To her dismay, they were not the stars in the sky. The torn bits of scalp and curly black hair upon the crown of her head told her that she had struck the underside of a bough. She grabbed a hold of it, and pulled herself upward.
Seated upon the branch, she could see them in the mists down below faintly. But by their motionlessness, she knew that they could see her perfectly. Her eyes tore away from the awful shapes and looked to the edges of the clearing, seeking any way out of this self-made prison. The limbs and roots of trees all melded together to create a twisting latticework of mud and weeping canopies, save for the ugly gash where the shambling things had forced their way in. It existed only for a moment under her view, before it too was filled up by something.
It was bent and narrow, but walked with far more control and purpose than the dead. It had a liveliness that made her breath catch in her throat. Could it be? No, of course not. She didn't even have time to think the words. The glimmer of desperate hope became stillborn as the things of rot down below turned to behold the newcomer, only to regard it with more mindless moaning before returning their gaze to the girl. The figure halted, seeming content to do nothing.
She hid her face away. It might still be a dream. If the sun came out and she opened her eyes, they would be gone, and this would all be over. She clutched at the blackened, ashy patches on the hem of her dress and wished she hadn't gotten lost. She wished for a lot of things. She wished that she didn't hear the groaning of the wood underneath her, or the thunderous crack as the bough suddenly gave way.
The gangling limbs and rattling cries rose up to meet her, as she plunged back down into the fog without a word.
Click here for Ekundayo 2/3.