By now, I think the entire country is well informed about the disappearance of the boys in Stone Creek, Wisconsin. The simple fact is that, five months ago, Billy Thompkins, Joel Owens and Marten Monroe went into the woods with Billy’s dog, Rockaway, and didn’t return. What was little reported on was what happened when the search parties went into the woods, which is where the trouble really starts.
For those of you who don’t live in one, it’s important that you’re aware of how small towns operate. Secrets are either known by everyone, or they’re known by one person, but in either case, they do not leave the town’s boundaries. Stone Creek is much the same way with the volunteers in the various search parties.
They started in almost immediately, when the boys didn’t arrive home for dinner. Their fathers went into the woods first, all of them armed and all carrying a flashlight into that long day in May. Samuel Thompkins came out an hour later, his clothes shredded and his hair gone grey. He now sits in a mental health hospital in Madison, still having not said a word to anyone.
Joe Owens was found by the second search party a few days later, less than a mile past the forest’s boundaries, where he had set up a lean-to and was in the middle of skinning a rabbit. He asked the search party how long he’s been out there, especially as his clothes were, while whole, very obviously dirty and worn. He called the man who told him it had been less than a week a liar, and even swung at him, but was soon breathing easy in the back of an ambulance. He swore over and over that he had been in those woods for more than a month, and didn’t understand how it was only days.
Daryl Monroe simply never returned. No trace was ever found of him.
Most mysterious of all was revealed in a bar, several weeks later. Joe was halfway into his third beer when he told the assembled crowd around him that the three of them had basically entered the woods three abreast, and somehow became separated regardless of them all walking in the same direction. Joe, an avid outdoorsman, had even tied flags to branches to keep from being lost, which no one was able to find.
The strangeness of the search continued when the local police department, and then state troopers loaned out to the town, sent their teams and crews in. Their reports back to the people of Stone Creek were even more bizarre than those of the parents, as they all seemed to become separated from each other, no matter how they tried not to. Tethers were snapped, hands slipped from other hands; nothing seemed to keep these teams together. And then there were the stories.
One member of the search crew swore over and over that he had run into his grandmother, dead ten years, inside of those woods. Another said that he was lured deeper in by the sound of laughing children, only to find that the trail ended at a sudden cliff (which wasn’t on any map, despite the forest harboring no secrets prior to this occasion). A third was chased out of the woods by, he swore, an enormous African lion. The police were respectful enough of the town to keep these stories within the community, and to not say a word about them to anyone that wasn’t directly involved.
The forest was ruled off-limits three weeks later, much to the aggravation of the, first local and then national, press. One enterprising news crew attempted to go in anyway, under cover of dark, only to find that their equipment fatally shorted out less than five feet past the tree line. Can’t even imagine how they explained that to their bosses.
Soon, as much as it hurt everyone within Stone Creek to admit, the searches were called off in favor of a tip line. But with whatever was happening inside of the forest, everyone had basically resigned themselves to the notion that Joel, Billy and Marten were all dead within the boundaries of it. Life went on, and people got on with it in that inimitable Midwestern way.
So it was until October the first, and the three boys walked out of that forest, still strangely in verdant green as if it were the middle of summer and not the beginnings of Autumn, and into Stone Creek.
Don’t think that there wasn’t any rejoicing or relief from the townspeople. The reporting covered that quite capably, and to their credit, the press was quite respectful during the entire process (save the team whose equipment was fried, but it wasn’t like they weren’t warned) and didn’t press for interviews aside from handing business cards to the overjoyed parents. There was plenty in the story that they weren’t aware of, or that they didn’t report on,which was only visible to a busybody like myself.
The first was that each of the boys’ hair was still in place and hadn’t shown any growth since they disappeared. Nor were they malnourished, dehydrated or showing any other signs of being stuck out doors for months on end. Most disturbingly was their clothes, in that they were all fresh and clean and explicitly not what they were wearing when they walked into the forest on that day, five months previous.
The boys were all completely silent about what had happened to them inside of the forest. No one could make them crack, and so the parents were at last counseled to not concern themselves with their reluctance overmuch, and that their children would open up and talk when they were ready. Ten year old boys, after all, are not the most prone when it comes to telling adults what was going on in their inner worlds.
One would expect that things would go back to normal in Stone Creek after this, but if anything, they did the exact opposite. The Monday following their return, the boys all returned to Joshua Glover elementary, their teachers were all made aware of the wide berth that the rest of the student body kept from their formerly missing compatriots. There was a student assembly called, about the importance of inclusion, but that was the extent that the administration was able to do. This did nothing to fix circumstances for the boys, but so long as none of them were being physically targeted, which they weren’t, the teachers left the children to their own devices.
So life went on for a few days, until Leslie Merryweather, their teacher, called a private conference with their parents after the school day was completed. Mrs. Merryweather was quick to assure the parents that none of their boys were being harassed, and that none of them were in trouble. What she wanted to talk about was their silence. She asked the parents if any of them talked at home, which resulted in careful thought, followed by the admission that the boys hadn’t talked since they returned. It just had somehow escaped their notice over the past two weeks.
“How have you not noticed this?” Leslie told me that she said to them.
That was when she really looked at their faces, studying them. Their sunken eyes, their waxen skin. Leslie knew that they had been through a major tribulation, but these parents looked like they were drained, appearing to be on the verge of collapse. Leslie realized that whatever was going on went far deeper than sullen ten year olds recovering from being lost in the woods and into a place that made her deeply uncomfortable. She thanked them for their time, and showed them the door.
By now you’ve doubtless noticed that I refer to the boys as a singular unit, rather than as individuals. The reason for this is simply that they weren’t individuals from the moment that they returned from the forest. The only time they weren’t together was at home, and even that was suspect as their parents were not forthcoming with the details of their new home lives.
It was particularly that which disquieted the townspeople and made rumors and suspicion circulate throughout the community. What had, thus far, been ignored and swept under the rug was whispered furtively whenever the boys or their parents appeared in public. These furtive conversations centered in on how they always seemed to be staring off into the distance, how seldom they blinked and their maddening silence. Everyone wanted to ignore the strangeness of the situation in all its myriad ways very desperately. They all wanted to move on with their lives as there was enough to worry about anyway.
These whispers grew into an undercurrent of panic when the forest, overnight, lost all of its foliage the Sunday after their first back in Stone Creek. Dry, desiccated and dead leaves blanketed the floor as if to presage the falling snow that was a little more than a month away. The people were now officially scared, and did not know what to do about this fear. Who could they call? The Department of Natural Resources sent out a couple of people who refused to talk when they emerged, an hour after they went in. They got into their state issued truck and drove off. The DNR would not be sending replacements.
Throw in all the talk about frogs and hot water that you like, the strange occurrences were neither slow nor subtle, and they were coming faster after the incident of the forest and its leaves happened. Over the course of a week, people were finding that the doors inside of their homes led into different rooms than they were supposed to. The gears inside of several cars were completely reversed and one person said that his truck had begun to talk to him (a claim that would normally be laughed out of the bar, but which was now taken with grave seriousness).
People began to pack up to leave Stone Creek, but the boxes were empty the next day with everything back where it was previously. Cars were unable to start if the driver had the intention of leaving town. Airplanes slowly stopped appearing in the sky, and the breeze started to blow as if it blew across an arid desert and not in the greenery of the northern Midwest. Herbert Stevens, who lived a mile or two from the forest was reporting that he heard the growling of a monstrously large dog at night. All of this was as nothing compared to what was ahead, of course.
The sun seemed to slow down in its curve across the sky, no longer keeping pace with the time, or with the sky. It was hard to notice at first, but soon it was impossible to notice that the sun was still in the sky long after it should’ve completely set. Still it sat in an inky black night, somehow both existing simultaneously. No one talked about how strange life was becoming over such a short span of time, and soon they ceased to even leave their homes as if sticking their collective heads in the sand would help a single person.
This wasn’t to say that people tried to contact the outside world. Emails, text messages, phone calls were all sent out and they were returned as if nothing strange was going on. We tried our best to tell someone how dire their situation was, but these were all treated as if they were jokes. Most disturbingly, when I emailed a colleague in Milwaukee about everything that we had been facing during the month, he told me that all of that was ridiculous as he was in Stone Creek and that we had lunch together in Beaver Dam the day before. This was much the case with everyone else that I talked to, everyone being assured by their outside acquaintances, friends and family that everything was perfectly normal and that they didn’t particularly think this joke was funny. The worst of them, though, were the people who insisted that they didn’t know the sender, and that Stone Creek wasn’t a real town in Wisconsin. They sent pictures of maps which bore witness to this fact. Soon enough everyone that received a message from Stone Creek were saying the same thing, as if our town had been erased from the face of the planet.
By this point, completely cut off from the outside world in whatever way that they were, a new sense of community emerged. It would be heartening if the situation wasn’t so dire. Fresh food was no longer available at any story, because deliveries had stopped on the second week of the month and most horrifyingly of all, a random number of canned goods were opened to reveal that the contents had spoiled. Yet, we all hung on to hope, as if we all didn’t know such a thing was futile.
That was, until the last week of the month, when the sun stood stock still in the sky as if it were always noon and the sky stopped changing colors, becoming an inky, depthless black without a single star in it while the sun more and more resembled an open, festering wound. All non-human life began to die at this point, then rotted away at an extraordinary pace so that a family dog who was fed in the morning was a bare skeleton at bedtime.
The suicides began at this point, first in drips and drabs, then in mounting numbers. A family down the street sealed their windows and turned their gas oven on. Herbert walked into the woods that he used to love and never came out. Bradley Granville, five years old, cut his wrists open. Hope, we all conceded, was a lie.
Those who held on all held their breath for what would happen on Halloween. It all seemed to hang on that day, as if everything could be stopped or even reversed on that day or that it would all end on the 31st. The day came, and those who still braved the outside world reported to the rest of the town that all three boys were standing stock still in the middle of town square. They faced each other in a small circle, their hands at their sides and their eyes on each other, unblinking.
Bit by bit, slowly, the remaining citizens of Stone Creek went out to bear witness to what would either be their salvation or their ultimate damnation. Those whose faith wasn’t shattered carried the Bibles, their prayer beads, their rosaries and silently said their prayers over and over. Children hung to their parents as the sun slowly drained of color, becoming black and black and black in a sky the color of tar. The street lamps came on automatically, the electricity in town still somehow working, so that we all could see what happened now, as the world was tossed into the seeming end of this nightmare.
Billy Thompkins was first. His mouth opened and his head tilted back, as an inhuman noise issued forth from his throat. The top of his head craned further and further back, his empty eyes now reflecting the horrible sky. His cheeks split and blood poured down his chin and onto his clothes until the top of his head was, somehow, perpendicular to his jaw. And yet, the abominable sound continued unabated.
Joel and Marten were next, each mimicking Billy perfectly. The sound grew bigger and gained in intensity. People clutched at their ears as they wished they could cover their eyes. Children screamed, begging their parents, begging anyone that would listen for this to all end, for it to please stop. The religious held their sacraments up to the sky, pleading with their gods for a salvation that they all knew in their secret hearts was not coming.
And then, all at once, the sound ended. The boys all collapsed onto the ground in a perfect circle. Their bodies turned as black as the sky in front of all of our eyes, and fell into themselves, somehow, as if they were a rent in reality itself.
That was last week. The sun has not come back. The sky has not come back. Televisions now only broadcast snow, and lights have begun to flicker. The world groans around us, creaking and protesting in pain. As far as I’m aware, I’m the last person in Stone Creek who still lives. The rest of the houses in town are all completely dark and lifeless, with the only sound audible being that which the ground itself made. And so, I do the only thing that I can do. I write this, in the hopes that someone will read it. Someone will know that we were here, that we went through hell without salvation. That we were people, and that we are not people any longer.
I hope this gets out to someone, anyone. A final wish to be heard by someone at long last.
What of me, though? I’m staying around for the end. Scavenging what I can stomach down, and drinking water that comes out viscous as motor oil from the tap. I don’t want to die, but it seems inescapable at this point. Don’t worry or mourn for me. I know that I’m already dead, even if I yet move.
I’m just curious as to what’s going to happen next.