“It all started when the boys went missing.” The stranger at the end of the bar said. He was haggard, white hair poking out at all angles and grizzled stubble on his cheeks. His eyes were hard to look at, I quickly came to realize as he stared directly into mine. “The three of them, they were normal boys. They grew up just like anyone else in Stone Creek.”
“You don’t even remember what Stone Creek is, let alone those missing boys. You used to, but you don’t anymore.” His arms were crossed over the bar and he looked down at them for a moment, “But it needs to be said, what happened. How a town of sixty thousand died.”
In the months that followed, there was plenty of talk about whether the boys were on the level, even before they went missing. Truth is, they were normal ten year old boys, and they were doing what normal ten year old boys do when they live within a mile of the woods, and the summer sun felt nice. Dustin MacKaye, Eric Boucher and Bobby Rollins with their dog, Rockaway, probably going to look for frogs or something; they didn’t even bother to tell their parents what they were doing or where they were going.
It was only after Keith Martin, who lived against the edge of the woods, and who saw them walking together, came forward after word got out of the missing children. By then, it was two days later and totally dark out. Just the same, the boys’ fathers ignored the requests of the local police and ventured into the woods without anything but their flashlights. Which went out five minutes after they broke the tree line, almost exactly.
Benny MacKaye was the first to come out, several miles away from where he went in, which was all the more disconcerting because he hadn’t been more than fifteen minutes inside the woods. Thinking better of going back in, he returned to the point where he entered and waited for his friends to return. The police found him the next morning, still waiting.
Just as the police had worried, earlier urging caution to the parents, they now had five people to find, instead of three. They ventured in with dogs, and after only a half an hour, they found a badly disheveled David Boucher, who was in the middle of constructing a rough lean-to and who looked as if he hadn’t shaved or bathed in months, which is what he told the bewildered officers back at what would become known as ‘base camp’ in the coming weeks.
He told them that he had entered the woods several months ago, he was estimating, and had almost immediately become separated from Benny and Harris when their flashlights went off. He heard them calling to each other for a few minutes, but becoming more and more rapidly distant as time went by. He was grateful for his survival training, which came into practical use for the first time in his life. He was able to make a rough go of it, but he still lost fifty pounds, to say nothing of what was now becoming a situation at a rapid pace.
The media came in as the searches broadened and as strange stories became increasingly common. Some people talking about the voices of relatives calling out, and others claiming to see dilapidated structures standing in the distance, where nothing could possibly be. Others nearly fell off of sudden cliffs, despite there not being any in the near area. After more time-distorted disappearances and reappearances, the searchers tied ropes to each other, as if climbing a mountain, which were tied back to base camp. This strategy was, awkwardly enough, the first thing that the outside press came across.
The townspeople didn’t mind the press, especially as it would probably help with the search effort, but they very firmly warned of the strangeness going on beyond the treeline. The camera crew decided to play along, thinking that they could sneak in after the parties retired for the evening. The cameras fried out after a certain distance, with nothing on them recoverable. I don’t want to think about how they would’ve explained that to their bosses back at whatever station they were from.
Harris Rollins came out after the third week. Or, Harris’ body came back after the third week. His clothes were much the way they were when he went in; they were mostly clean, just as the rest of him was. His eyes, though, were fixed on a distance far away from where anyone could see and he wouldn’t say a word. As far as I know, he’s still sitting in a mental institution in Madison, still in that catatonic state.
The crews packed it up after that. How could they not? The weirdness from before was one thing, but Harris? People, deeply apologetic, that we had all known our entire lives, had to bow out from fear of the woods. No one knew anything that was going on, they just knew that it scared the Jesus out of them, and they didn’t know how to handle it. With the desire to find the boys all but gone, the search was called off and the cases were closed on the boys.
We went back to our lives, sad to say. There was a community memorial at the First Methodist, with Shayla Rollins standing by herself, looking haunted and broken inside. As far as anyone knew, she had no family aside from Harris and Bobby. The poor woman was seen less and less as time went by, until…well, that will come later.
The Bouchers and MacKayes spoke off the cuff at the memorial, thanking the assembled mourners for all that they had done. In the back, Shayla held herself and cried helplessly before she screamed, “They’re still in there! They’re still in there and you know it!” No one could say anything, because we could all understand her grief, her pain. We all felt it to some extent, even if it was at its most profound for Shayla.
A serious sort of anxiety set upon the town after the memorial. Something had broken inside of the town, and no one could quite say it. They would talk about how nothing feels right, or how they couldn’t help but want to get out, despite all the years that they had spent in Stone Creek. The lives that were lived.
And around it all was the silent sentinel of the woods. No one dared to breach the tree line after everything that had happened, especially when there was no sign of the leaves changing all through August and September. It was as if there were a great and powerful monster just beyond the edges of town, slumbering prior to now, but awakened for reasons none could guess. Fear was a new emotion in Stone Creek. One that we would all get to know very well.
The stranger took a drink from his beer, and only then did I realize that a small crowd had formed around his bar-stool. The bartender had turned the volume of the jukebox down, and no one moved to tell him that smoking wasn’t allowed indoors anymore, before he had a Lucky Strike smoldering between his lips. He smoked miserably and looked around at the assembled faces, “Keith was found on the 30th of September, mauled. His body lay on the porch of his house at the edge of the woods, guts splayed out from his stomach. The coroner said that the bite marks were consistent with an enormous domesticated dog.”
He was silent for a time after that, before taking a long drag and sitting back up and fixing his horrible eyes onto another listener, “They came back, you know. The boys, that is. They came back.”
They were back into town on the first of October, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened or was happening. No one had seen them as they got to town’s square, but there they were, just the same.
The Bouchers and MacKayes both eyed their boys with suspicion and fear, huddling close to each other and shakily approaching their children. Shayla, however, ran and grabbed Bobby and held him, sobbing into the boy in that way that only the truly heartbroken can. The MacKayes and Bouchers watched Shayla, before gathering their children and returning home without celebration, as if they were just collecting them after a day’s play.
The boys looked like themselves, but there was something deeply wrong with them as anyone could see. They all looked, as Harris had, as if they hadn’t spent any time at all inside of the woods, except that they were wearing entirely different clothes than what they had on during that fateful day; clothes that their parents hadn’t ever bought them. Rockaway was missing, which also rubbed most wrong (and caused some to speculate about Keith), as did the fact that the boys refused to speak to anyone that wasn’t one another, and at no louder than an inaudible whisper. It was this reason why the town looked at their arrival with more trepidation than anything else, and why no one thought to report this to the media.
The question is, retrospectively, whether the media have been able to arrive if anyone had.
The roads out of town stopped working on October 2nd. By that I mean that someone would drive out of town and end up on the other side of it, still facing the same direction. This, of course, caused panic to spread through the community once again. People who hadn’t been to church since they were confirmed or baptized were now crowding pews while priests, the rabbi of the local synagogue and pastors searched frantically for some answer to this situation in their tomes.
Some dealt with this problem in the way that they knew how, which was to go after it head on. By the time that they had been appeared on the other side of town for the third time, they accepted that, at least for now, they were trapped by forces that they didn’t understand. A sign was placed at the terminus of every road, marking the place in which the displacement would happen.
Over the month to follow, it was if space-time had snapped like a rubber band. The doors inside of houses would lead to different rooms than what was down on the floorplan, while the location of homes themselves seemed to come unglued and unfixed, appearing in different places every few hours or so.
For lack of any other solution, life went on as best as it could. School resumed with the boys socially promoted to the third grade despite not having officially finished second. I wish I could say that they were warmly welcomed by the community, but if their parents were scared, we shouldn’t be too hard on their classmates. We all sort of expected the boys to go back to normal, that they were in shock or had suffered some other trauma which had inexplicably not left any marks or even mussed their hair or clothes.
There was a game that was soon created, where children would dare one another to spend as much time with the boys as possible before being scared off. Just being in their presence was disconcerting, with their teachers not even able to stand any of their attendance for more than a week. With that, they vanished from the public eye, with their families staying in their homes as much as possible. I had known all six of them, back before any of this happened, the Bouchers, MacKayes and Rollins’. It was heart breaking to see all of their lives dwindle and seem to vanish over time.
Things progressed steadily from there, or regressed as it were. Phone calls were made to outside police offices, only to hear strange howling on the other line once it was connected. Newspapers somehow continued to be delivered from outside of town (the deliverer was never seen), all of them featuring nothing but obituaries for every person that lived in Stone Creek. The obituaries were ghastly and horrifying, describing vivisections, beheadings and murder/suicides. The Sunday editions were complete with color pictures that displayed all the gore possible from such ghastly deaths.
A week after the children returned from the forest, overnight and without anyone noticing, all of the leaves fell from the trees inside of its boundaries. This was disconcerting enough, but they were all still as green as they were the day before. The water that ran from faucets and fixtures also became viscous and thick; after running it through a filter, it only got muddier and more disgusting. Just as with Flint on the other side of Lake Michigan, we all had to turn to bottled water, but knew we would run out soon with the roads in their current condition.
The Bouchers, MacKayes and Shayla were all absent this entire time, having never left their houses, even when the town was trying to reintegrate their children. On the ninth of October, Shayla was seen wandering the streets, calling out for Harris as if he were a lost dog. No one knew how to react, especially when she was led back to her house only for her to start screaming and clawing at her face. Police were called to handle the situation, but it only spiraled even further out of control.
Shayla was now no longer making words, or even attempting to. They were just wild, harsh and inhuman noises that came from her mouth. Just out of sheer curiosity, one of the officers on scene advanced on the house and opened the front door, immediately regretting it mere seconds later.
For all the weirdness that was going on inside of people’s homes, no one had seen anything like this; a vast and endless void had replaced the inside of the Rollins’ house. The officer took out his Maglite and shone it into the void, only to see the light stop inches away from its source. He fished around in his pocket for change, and threw a penny into the void then listened for it to drop. Instead, all that issued forth was the sound of children’s laughter.
He closed the door and stumbled backwards, falling off of the porch and nearly breaking his head open when he hit the ground. Even with the door closed, the laughter persisted and grew in volume. Soon, it was even louder than a tornado siren, with everyone in town hearing it loud and horrifyingly clear.
In the midst of the chaos, Shayla had gone missing. She wasn’t seen again, even after the laughter stopped, five minutes later. There wasn’t any effort to search for her, or for Bobby. The police were tasked with much bigger problems, like keeping a rapidly degrading town from spiraling completely into chaos, or justifying why officers should still suit up now that money had no meaning.
To pair with the space distortions plaguing Stone Creek, now time began to be affected with the sun’s march across the sky taking longer than usual to the point where, eventually, it was totally dark out with the sun standing straight in the sky at noon’s position. This was enough to completely stop the police presence, along with anyone else leaving their homes for anything short of an emergency. The sky was broken, how could anyone be expected to show up for even essential work?
Day by day, more went wrong. One day, all perishable food spontaneously spoiled, regardless of it being refrigerated or even frozen. To make matters worse, a certain number of cans were also afflicted by this sudden rot seeping into the town’s food supply. After this, some started voluntarily walking into the forest. They packed their bags, took what they could and ventured into the bare woods, walking over green leaves, figuring that whatever awaited them inside would be worse than what was waiting for them inside. I hope they were right.
You all are probably wondering whether we tried to contact people throughout this ordeal, outside of the attempts to call for outside police assistance. The answer is that we did: the replies just made us stop trying. Some replies acted in confusion, saying that the sender was just seen the day before while others thought it was a (not very funny) joke. Others simply said that no such place as Stone Creek even existed. Bit by bit, we all just gave up on the outside world.
By the twentieth, water stopped flowing out of taps entirely and all non-human life perished and rotted away such that a family dog fed in the morning would be bones by the end of the day and the sun stopped casting light, causing the town’s street and home lights to be on perpetually. This is, unsurprisingly, when the suicides started. Families sealed their windows and flooded their homes with CO2; gunshots rang out in the middle of the night, signaling more lives lost; one person even started shooting random passersby on Main Street, killing five before he was taken down.
By and by, what was left of the town’s population wondering what new madness was going to visit upon them. A sort of morbid curiosity, wanting to hang on and see where things were headed. We all sensed that the end was near when the sun, still at its noon position and when the sky was cast in a shade of black mirroring that of the inside of the Rollins’ home.
The wait ended on, what everyone guessed was, October 31st. And just as they had on the first, the three boys appeared in the middle of town square. They stood in a small circle, not moving, not blinking, not even appearing to breathe. The rest of Stone Creek slowly heard about this (the Bouchers and MacKayes conspicuously missing), and we all made it to see them, to see what was going to happen. Some brought their Bibles, prayer beads and other assorted religious paraphernalia, grasping at anything that might help them.
We all stood, splayed out around the boys under the street lamps as the sun started to glow ominously, appearing as a festering wound in the sky. And so, one by one, the boys opened their mouths and issued forth the most inhuman sound that anyone had heard. The few children left clasped their hands over their ears to try to shut the sound out, screamed and cried, begged their parents to make it all go away.
But we were all powerless. Somehow, none of us moved from where we all stood, not even as the boys’ mouths opened wider and wider, until their cheeks split. Blood poured down their faces from open wounds that stretched farther while the tops of their heads tilted further and further back. Bone crunched and snapped like celery until finally, the tops of theirs heads were parallel with the ground. The sound seemed to be coming from everywhere, wholly without a true source. When it stopped, suddenly, the boys fell into the ground, still in a perfect circle, their bodies slowly turned black as the sky, as if they had fallen through reality itself, leaving small rents in the fabric of space.
The world creaked and groaned around us, as we all headed back to our homes, all of us unsure as to what to do now that it all seemed over and done with.
Little by little, the lights went off in Stone Creek. The darkness encroached further and further until it all vanished, entirely, from the face of the Earth.
Not a soul moved, spoke or made a sound in the bar. All eyes were on the stranger as he disconsolately smoked a Lucky Strike.
“But, what about you? How did you get out?” I began to say, before being silenced when the front door swung open and a harried woman entered the bar, “Has anyone seen Charles? He went in the woods with his friends yesterday and he hasn’t come back!”
The bar’s population stared at her, dumbstruck, before turning back to the barstool, finding it empty.