Todd stumbled across the body on the side of the old barn early one morning. It was lying on its back, a stark look of disbelief forever etched on its bloodless face. Leaning in as close as he dared, Todd studied the corpse.
He recognized the man, it was Joe Carter Smith, one of the helping hands over at the Stringer Estate.
The body was soiled from both dirt and residual traces of blood. A stringy material was wrapped around its neck, wound tight in parallel strands. A layer of earth and blood covered the substance.
Todd snatched a long twig from the ground, and used it to poke at the body, particularly the neck area and the strange thing that was wrapped around it.
He felt his stomach knot up when the branch nudged up against the rope thing. It was malleable, and yet firm. A disgusting odor, in conjunction with the stench from the body, drifted up from it. He wondered if it was the sole cause of poor Joe’s death. The rest of the body was in pretty rough shape, even considering how long it had probably been there. Todd took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed the sheriff's office. He knew the number by heart; he’d had to bail out his dad more than once.
"Yeah, this is Todd Aetor. I wanna report a dead body. I think it’s Joe Smith from the Stringer Estate."
* * * *
Julie Stringer sat in front of her vanity mirror. She ran a soft-bristle, silver-plated brush through her golden hair, convinced that each stroke was vital to her overall health. Her reflection in the mirror revealed a care-worn but beautiful young woman.
Julie stared hard at herself. She saw a shallow girl who was completely self- absorbed with her own appearance. At times, she felt as if the world was nothing but a glowing reflection of her own beauty in her bedroom mirror. However, these shortcomings did not bother her. They never had, for she was young and pretty and wealthy; all of the necessary attributes a girl needed in life.
* * * *
Sheriff Ben Jansen arrived at the crime scene. Dust choked the clean country air as his patrol car skidded to a noisy halt. He dislodged himself from the vehicle with pained effort, and sauntered over to where the body was.
Yeah, that’s Joe Carter Smith all right. Looks like he was strangled." He ran a wrinkled hand through his thinning hair. "But now who would want to take a good, hard-working kid like Joe out?"Straightening himself upright, Ben winced in relief at the cracks and pops his spine made as it adjusted itself. He looked over at Todd. "I assume you’re the one who found him?"
Todd took his hands out of his pockets and stepped forward.
"Fine. I’ll need you to come down to the station to answer a couple of..."
"Something the matter, Sheriff?"
"No, just my imagination, I guess. I thought I saw that rope around his neck move a little."
Todd looked down at the corpse. Suddenly, he wished someone would have covered it. Or at least its face. He hadn’t known Joe Smith all that well, but it was still very unsettling to see him lying dead on the ground.
Ben rubbed his stubbled chin. He was feeling every bit of his age lately, and now he could add hallucinations to his maladies.
"Anyway, as I was saying, I’ll need you to come down to the station for some questions."
"Sure thing, Sheriff, "Todd replied.
Ben walked back to his patrol car and tossed his hat onto the front seat. He looked up into the sky. The weird feeling he was having about what he thought he saw just wouldn’t go away. It clung to the chance that it was legitimate, refusing to leave his mind.
He spun around when he heard the noise.
"You have got to be kidding."
The corpse was lumbering away, heading out into the neighboring cornfields. Todd had apparently gotten in its way, and had been thrown aside, hitting his head on a rock as he fell. He was out cold.
Ben didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t let the Smith boy, dead or not, leave, but he also had to check on Todd.
Todd came to when Ben waved smelling salts under his nose.
"You’ll be fine. Stay here. I’ll get help right away."
Surprising himself at his agility under pressure, Ben unclipped his firearm from his belt and leveled it at the corpse. He shouted out for it to stop.
Predictably, his commands were ignored.
Deciding to follow it, Ben still held his gun in his hand. If the boy was indeed dead it wouldn’t be of any use, but it still gave him a jolt of courage.
The corpse stumbled through the dense cornstalks, shoving them aside as it plowed along. Its face was being subjected to all kinds of torture: the branches and lumps of ripening ears smacking it full force, but it didn’t seem to care.
After a few more attempts to get it to stop, Ben decided to simply follow the body to see where it was going. It seemed to be steadfast in its trajectory, oblivious to everyone and everything around it.
When he neared the corpse, Ben had to keep from throwing up. It was a ghastly shade of blue; its face was smeared with blackened blood; its nose was torn completely off; a jagged piece of cornstalk jutted out from a clouded-over eyeball. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The sinewy tendrils winding down its neck, along its torso, and into each leg, were.
Ben took one look at the body of Joe Carter Smith and knew what was making him move were the rope-like things trailing down his body. They were somehow manipulating, uncaring as to the damage they were causing on his cold body. He was not a zombie, he was a marionette, a puppet with God only knew what pulling the strings.
Ben followed the corpse at a safe distance. He darted between stalks of corn as quietly as his old body would allow, never once taking his eyes off his frightening adversary.
After thirty minutes of chasing the corpse, Ben was nearing the end of his strength. His body was getting ready to shut down. His heart felt like it was going to explode in his chest. But he couldn’t stop now; he had already come too far. If he gave up the chase the corpse would vanish into the fields and he’d still have to get back to his patrol car, and then after calling it in, set out again to try to find it.
Slowing to a stagger, Ben could see the corpse pulling away from him. He thought about putting a few bullets into it, but realized that would be useless.
He stopped running when he saw the winding stone driveway leading up to the Stringer Estate.
With a renewed sense of purpose, Ben pushed himself upright and started toward the mansion. Fear clouded his thoughts, but he forced himself to press on. He simply couldn’t let the unnatural horror he’d been chasing escape.
A sudden noise split the scene. It was the sound of a door slamming shut and it came from the house. Ben slipped his gun from its holster, and stepped onto the pathway to the mansion.
"Sheriff, do you need any help?" a nervous voice called out from behind him.
It was Todd. He had followed the trail the corpse made as it smashed through the cornstalks.
Without even turning around, Ben nodded. He knew it would be useless to order the boy away. They had both come too far and seen too much for that.
"Fine, but stay close."
The two unlikely companions crouched down near the edge of the field. The Stringer house loomed before them at the end of the expansive, winding driveway, sitting there like a watchdog waiting for trespassers.
"Did you see where Joe went?" Todd asked, feeling a bit weird about calling the corpse by its name.
Ben nodded. "Yeah. It went into the house. Someone opened the front door for it too. Couldn’t see who it was though."
Todd grunted. "How could he just get up and run away? He was dead; we both saw him."
"He still is dead. Those ropes around his neck are what’s pushing him along, like a puppet on strings. I saw it myself when I was chasing him."
"Well, are we gonna just sit here or go check it out?" Excitement crept into Todd's voice. He always loved reading mystery books, and now he might get to live one.
Ben fondled his gun. "Come on, let’s go."
The house was huge; seemingly growing larger as the two men drew nearer to it. There was no movement inside as far as they could tell, and although this puzzled them, they were actually relieved by it. But they also knew that someone was in the house.
Squatting down in a dense row of bushes, they waited for a chance to act.
"Are we gonna sneak into the house or just knock on the front door?"
Ben looked at his young companion."I’m still the sheriff. I have to obey the law."
"But the guy was dead! We followed a corpse here!"
"I know that, but we have to be smart about this. My radio is back in my car, and there’s a good chance that the Stringers are a part of this."
Tom rolled his eyes. "Ya think?"
* * * *
Ben felt uneasy about breaking and entering. It was a viable crime and he was committing it with premeditated determination, but what choice did he have?
Todd stayed hidden in the bushes.
The window was unlocked so it was easy for Ben to slip inside the house. And when he’d done so, he motioned for Todd to join him.
"Now what?" Todd whispered with a hand over his mouth.
"Now we find out where our dead friend went."
The house was large, a gaudy display of space for only two people to be living in, and amply showcased the owner's impeccable style and taste. All was still except for the rhythmic monotony of a grandfather clock standing in a corner. A weak light streamed in everywhere it could, and a fine coating of dust hid in missed nooks and crannies.
Ben inched forward, with Todd so close behind him they were practically touching.
Todd was looking around the room. "I’ve seen this place from the outside, but never inside."
"Quiet," Ben whispered. "I see a light coming from upstairs." He pointed with the barrel of his gun. The fact that he, the sheriff, illegally entered a house, and with his firearm drawn no less, was not lost on him. His gut churned from the implications.
A winding staircase creaked under their weight. Each man leaned forward in a futile effort to muffle his steps, but in a house of silence even the breath of a mouse sounded like fireworks.
Ben said nothing as he crept up the stairs. They’d passed the point of conversation, and both men knew it. They were apparently nearing Ground Zero and any unnecessary noises could prove fatal.
A thin beam of pale light framed the ornate door at the end of the hallway. Ben and Todd hugged the wall opposite each other, Ben vainly trying to steady his gun, Todd wishing he had one. Whatever was behind the door wasn’t making a sound, which made their attempt at stealth that much more difficult.
And then both heard it.
It was a girl’s voice: soft, delicate, and enticing in its beauty, humming a gentle lullaby.
Ben stood still, too afraid and confused to move. His years of experience urged him to investigate further, but his instinct to survive told him to run. With his gun held ready, he reached the door, and after a few seconds reevaluating his life, nudged it open.
At first, he saw nothing but movement. A vast army of snake-like things pulsating in a mindless dance, either not noticing or not caring that they were seen. The beasts made little sound other than the constant slithering as they threaded every possible way. And this is what made the horrific sight even more disturbing. The lack of sound gave them an alien quality, adding to the impossibility of their existence.
But they did not attack, and for this reason alone, Ben was able to stand at the threshold to the room, taking in the nightmare before him.
Todd pressed himself against the wall, trying to become one with it. He too, contemplated running away, but curiosity ruled over his frenzied mind, so much so that he stood there in the hallway gazing at the spectacle.
The gentle lullaby continued to drone on and on, hidden by the swarming mass, but just as relevant.
"Hush, hush, my sweet, know not defeat..."
Ben looked back at Todd. "Stay put," he mouthed. "I’m going to try to talk to it."
Todd stared at him and pushed himself against the wall even more.
"Hello? This is Sheriff Jansen."
"When times are strife with hardship and fear..."
"I need you to tell me if you’re okay. Hello?"
"Then come unto me, my precious, precious dear."
Ben felt frustrated. Whoever was singing must have heard him. Why weren’t they answering?
The tentacles congealed into a dense formation and parted down the middle to reveal a narrow pathway into the room. At the end of that pathway sat a lone figure, feminine in nature and utterly familiar.
"Julie? Julie Stringer?"
The girl was brushing her hair as she continued to hum to herself.
"This is Sheriff Jansen. I need you to turn slowly and walk toward me." His words seemed to be swallowed by the tentacles.
The girl turned around and smiled at him. An evil glow shone on her pretty face, but one that was also tempered by motherly love.
"I heard you," she said, "but I’m afraid that my babies are hungry, so you and your friend cannot leave."
A sharp chill shot down Ben’s spine as he processed the implications of what she was saying.
Julie gestured to her left. A pair of legs lay prostrate on the floor next to her vanity.
"You see, Joe Carter Smith here was just an appetizer. One of my children brought him back here for us." A long, stringy rope coiled around her outstretched hand. She caressed it. "But now, enough of the monologue."
Ben didn’t hesitate. He raised his gun and fired three quick shots off in rapid succession, but the bullets were instantly neutralized by a series of flailing tentacles. They did the beasts no harm.
Julie laughed and kicked aside the feet of the corpse. She began to advance toward the sheriff, a thick wall of squirming arms all around her.
"Todd!" Ben cried. "Get out of here now!"
Todd didn’t need to be told twice. He began to move away, his back still pressed against the wall.
Ben emptied his remaining bullets into the tentacles. He didn’t want to hit Julie, but had no choice. She was somehow connected to those things, possibly literally, and he couldn’t take any chances.
The figure suddenly appeared in the hallway, standing firm and strong behind Todd.
"Quickly," it commanded. "Get away. I shall block the path."
Ben turned to see a tall, well-built man sporting a substantial beard and brandishing a small-caliber pistol. Following the man's orders, Ben retreated down the hallway with Todd.
When they reached the stairway, Ben looked back. The man was entangled in the squirming mass of tentacles, but they were not hurting him. Instead, they were merely securing him in place, holding him face-to-face with his daughter. His gun was on the floor in the hallway.
"I never should have let you live," the man choked.
"Oh, but you did, Father. And now I’m tired of being caged."Julie's face was tightened into a confident grimace, but one laced with remorse as well."I don’t want to hurt you, Father. We can still be together."
The man struggled with his bonds. "No! You have killed, and will kill more if given the chance. This must end." He managed to free his right hand enough to withdraw a small, curved blade from his breast pocket." I love you, Julie, and I always will." With those words, he plunged the knife into his shocked daughter’s chest. "Your mother and I loved you, but it was a mistake."
Julie's eyes bulged as the blade, the sole thing in the world that could destroy her, penetrated her flesh. She opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. The tentacles writhed in obvious agony, and strained to reach their sanctuary: Julie's body, but their safe haven was dying. Only a few of the appendages managed to burrow their way into her before they began to wither.
"What’s happening?" Todd asked. He was halfway down the stairs and couldn’t see past Ben.
"He killed her, Julie's father killed her."
Ben ushered Todd down the stairs. Fear was directing his actions, even overruling his duty to the badge. The two men bolted out the front door and into the fields. Neither spoke, wanting only to escape, and only after they both collapsed far from the house did they acknowledge what they had seen.
"Do you think it’s dead?" Todd asked between gasps for breath.
Ben looked at him. "Yeah, it sure seemed like it was."
"But what if there are more of those snake things?"
"Then we’d better watch our backs."
Todd laughed. "I was planning on doing that."
Ben laughed as well. He had stopped fighting the strange feeling that was overcoming him. When he was in the house, he felt something, something odd, but pleasant. It was like a tingling sensation, but with a rush of strength mixed in. And while he was escaping, the feeling overtook him, replacing any weaknesses with power and absolute confidence.
A pencil-thin tentacle pushed its way up out of the back of Ben’s neck. It wavered in the air for a few seconds, and then slipped back under the skin.
"Yeah," Ben replied with a slippery grin. "Me too." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Me too."