Below is the first chapter of Hollow, to be published by Unsolicited Press in June 2022. Preorder Hollow here!
Chapter 1 - Smoke Like the Devil's Tail
It was a still afternoon in late October and the woods had begun to growl.
This being northern Wisconsin, the gray chill of winter had arrived before November, long before the winter solstice marked the onset of the season. Already, red-orange leaves had fallen flailing from the trees in desperate flurries. The days were becoming shorter, the long nights smothered by the eerie dim glow of the moon. And the forests, once so lush and inviting, now turned barren and dark.
It was in one such forest on this late October day that a noise could be heard, a metal beast awakening with a roar. Its rumblings spread through the muddy hills, the skeletal trees, trying to find somewhere hospitable to alight. Futile.
The sound came from the heart of the forest, and any passerby might have guessed that the earth itself was emitting this howl. But its source was, in fact, manmade, as sources of unthinkable evil often are; and at the heart of the forest you could stumble upon the machine that roared so woefully—an electric generator, the size of a wheelbarrow and corroded with a sick blood-colored rust.
The generator stood next to a tiny, withering cabin, the size of a single cramped room. It was patched together with rotting wood, putrid mud, and what looked upon closer analysis to be matted animal pelts. A crooked pipe of jagged steel extended from the roof; a thick, fetid smog currently billowed from it, spreading an awful odor through an acre of land, the reeking smell of carrion and bubbling sulfur.
Inside the cabin, the bellow of the generator became, at once, muffled and pervasive, as though the sound came from inside your own head. Four electric lanterns hung from the ceiling. There was a locked freezer standing in the corner, its contents unknown. Directly below a gaping wound in the ceiling, a trail of fumes could be traced to a stone cauldron suspended by hooks over a spitting fire. In the cauldron, a thick, black ooze bubbled and reeked, a horrid mixture of herbs and dismembered animal parts better left unmentioned. The rim of the cauldron was dotted with blood. The smoke curled upwards, writhing like the devil’s tail.
A narrow cot stood against the western wall, covered with a frayed blanket. A bare pillow (yellow, pungent) was balled up at the head. Some unfortunate soul had been staying here; the blanket was tousled, indicating at least one sleepless night.
There was no wood to line the floor—only the dirt and grass of the forest, turned muddy by the dankness of the cabin. It was into this ground that a circular pit had been dug. It was lined with polished stones and contained a fine, mysterious ash, gray and almost silky to the touch. A chicken clucked at the perimeter, aimlessly, unsure of how it got here in the first place.
Close to the pit stood an ugly, staunch table, sagging and splintered yet seemingly immovable. There were a few objects here: a strange sculpture made of hardened clay, with naked, squirming figures bowing to an immense lizard whose tongue ascended upwards, coming to a razor-sharp point; and a small, empty bowl with a wooden spoon next to it.
There was a hand next to the spoon. A young hand; the skin had become clammy and pale over the last few days.
It belonged to a boy, nine years old, who sat on a rough wooden chair. The hand was outstretched, palm faced down, fingertips embedded with painful splinters. The boy, somehow, could do nothing to remove them, couldn’t squeeze at the flesh until the shrapnel was expunged. He could, in fact, do nothing at all but stare in abject terror. His wide eyes darted around the cabin, frantic beneath a swath of hair matted to his forehead, sweat and brackish mud glistening.
Something was there in the cabin. Some sinister presence, seizing the boy in a paralytic trance—and he knew it, even if the phantom hid itself away in the shadows.
Until, at last: peering into the corners of the room, he saw something move. Only slightly, a twitch and a stumble. Then a single step forward. At first, the figure was merely a black shape, hunched over at a pathetic angle. Then, as it shuffled into the spotlight of a lantern, its features became clear. It appeared to be an old woman, not merely aged but ancient, her cloudy eyes glinting beneath a wild shock of white hair. Her gaunt, narrow face was engraved with wrinkles. She wore a black, mud-stained dress covered with a ragged cloak and shawl, draped over a skeletal body. Now and then, at random intervals, her mouth opened in a fishlike oval; a revolting clack escaped from somewhere deep inside her throat.
The witch (for that seems the best way to describe her) slithered across the cabin, her left foot dragging through the mud, leaving a sloppy trail in its wake. The boy watched her. He whimpered twice—long, desperate squeals—but only stared ahead. With great difficulty, she bent her spine at a ninety-degree angle; the vertebrae scraped against each other, she merely winced through the pain.
At last her eyes, speckled and milky like a distant galaxy, were directly in front of the boy’s, a brittle eyelash away. He could feel the sticky heat of her breath cling to his skin. She felt his fear, breathed it in, and grudgingly thanked God for such innocent creatures and their frail corruptibility.
With greater speed than the boy thought possible, she reached out a clawed hand and clutched his jaw. Her skin was leathery gauze over sharp and icy bone. Her grip tightened, his mouth contorted. She stared into the back of his throat, eyes squinting; then she let out three cackling rasps and released her grip.
Shuffling behind him, she made her way to the cauldron suspended over the fire. Unable to crane his neck, he could only listen and wince as her limping feet cut through the dirt. He trembled as she returned to his side, her musty shawl billowing against his shoulder, but she merely retrieved the empty bowl and disappeared from sight once more.
The liquid in the cauldron had become a bubbling soup, thickened to a black tar; the odor, somehow, had grown more awful. Satisfied by its revolting state, she grabbed a ladle made of knotty wood and dipped it in the brew. She heaped two spoonfuls into the bowl, barely noticing when it splashed against her skin, scalding. With onerous sighs, she set the stone bowl on the table with a thud.
Something inside the boy loosened its grip—like an elastic band stretched nearly to its breaking point, snapping back to a relaxed state. His legs remained immense stone pillars fixing his body in place, but his arms twitched to life. As the sickening liquid sat before him, the witch’s expectation was obvious. But now that he had the slightest control over his own body, he chose to defy her through inaction, stubbornly (unconvincingly) demonstrating his resolve.
In response, an angular hand shot towards the boy. She clutched his matted blond hair and jerked his head back; a blaze of pain shot through him. She grabbed the jagged spoon and shoved it into the boy’s clenched fist. She leaned closer, desiccated lips hovering next to his ear, and intoned, in an otherworldly sigh, the only word he had yet heard her utter:
And he did. The potion boiled and steamed but felt cold entering his body, sliding down his esophagus and spreading a chill through his barren stomach. A violent tremor shook him. A river of blood halted in his veins.
Nearby, the chicken witnessed this bizarre torture, head cocked, only to resume its imbecilic clucking.
Outside, the generator roared, violent and incessant. Leaves continued to fall.
Four miles away, school bells were ringing. The town of Grange had less than four hundred residents, but its elementary school, small as it was, displayed a pomposity befitting the finest academy in some nearby metropolis. A handsome two-story building on a lonely stretch of land, it was made of limestone and brick and resembled a modest cathedral more than a typical school building. A bell tower even protruded into the sky, forcing the groundskeeper to climb three flights of stairs after every class period and send the bell’s resounding knell past the village limits.
As it was half past three, the school was preparing for the onslaught that greeted the end of each day. Dilapidated yellow buses lined the curbs, rumbling expectantly. Watchful parents idled in rusty sedans. A pair of crossing guards oversaw a crawl of traffic that never surpassed ten miles an hour. Even the obligatory American flag in the courtyard waved with particular majesty today, unable to contain its jittery excitement.
Grange was a sleepy, peculiar place, its area encompassing barely more than a dozen square blocks, and it was usually defined by a languid calm that suited its dreary beauty. Each day when school let out, Grange typically saw its greatest bustle of activity—though as soon as the school’s halls were vacated, the town would yawn and stretch and resume its quiet lethargy.
The bells rang for a second time (the groundskeeper, an ailing Vietnam vet named Wallace, wheezed as he pulled the immense rope towards him). A tiny flock of birds, disturbed by the pealing din, flew elsewhere. Twittering voices could be heard inside.
There was a man standing in the schoolyard. Only twenty feet from the front doors, near the base of the flagpole. Beside him, the lawn was empty, awaiting several hundred trampling footsteps. Nearly forty and balding, with the coarse shadow of an unshaved beard, Nathan Amherst looked at least a decade older than he was. He stood rigidly, his fists clenched and sweaty in the pockets of his unwashed jeans. He rocked slightly on the balls of his feet. He squinted at the large oak doors, refusing to blink or breathe until someone exited through them.
At last, with the release of a thunderclap, the front doors burst open. Two young girls, both blond, fall jackets slung over their arms, skipped through them, leaping down the short flight of stairs that led to the schoolyard.
Nathan took a half step forward, eyes widening at the sudden burst of activity—then stopped where he was. He ran his right hand through his wispy hair, then returned it to his pocket.
The girls walked past him, barely casting him a glance (they were too busy deciding which bridge to bike to). He should have been an anomalous sight, standing restively in a schoolyard as students marched past. But the parents and bus drivers nearby assumed (if they even noticed him) that Nathan was merely another attentive father in a community that prided itself on its familial Old World values.
A few seconds later, another group of schoolchildren exploded from Grange Elementary, one of whom—a ruddy ten-year-old with a piggish snout—flew down the staircase in an irrepressible burst. He was followed by a massing stream of kids, their avid conversation and chirping laughter piercing the air. They dispersed in every direction, enlivened by their newfound freedom. Had Mr. Amherst paid them any more attention, he likely would have been shattered by their display of carefree youth—a bliss he had not known for several decades, which slipped through his grasp when he least noticed it and which seemed so alien to him now. But he was not concerned with this. He was still waiting, watching, eyes peeled. He stepped against the children scurrying his way, lifting his feet as though they were enmeshed in tar.
Soon a handful of teachers began exiting alongside their students, though they exhibited considerably less zeal. They had their own imminent pleasures to entice them away: quiet nights reading by the fire, long jogs through frost-coated trails, too many pints downed at a dimly-lit dive bar, the warmth of the ones they love. Grange had its share of beauty, to be sure. Or maybe they were thinking, instead, of its horrors.
At last, a man by the name of John Linden stepped through the doors—a diminutive yet elegant figure, draped in a tweed jacket and heavy black scarf, with long gray hair and darting eyes that could burn a hole in their target. You could guess from looking at him that he was a schoolteacher; you could probably even guess that he taught fifth-grade English with an ardor that disconcerted his students. In his right fist he gripped a leather satchel, which was currently filled with a stack of three-page papers on Something Wicked This Way Comes.
A convulsive jolt went through Nathan upon seeing John Linden; this, clearly, was the man he had been waiting for. And the moment’s pause given by Linden on the front steps, as he readjusted his scarf and returned Nathan’s gaze, made it clear that he recognized him too.
But the display of recognition was fleeting. Unwilling to entrap himself in conversation, Linden jerked his head away, skipped down the last four steps, and scurried along the building towards the parking lot. Nervously brushing off Linden’s indifference, Nathan lurched into pursuit, jogging against the wave of students coming his way. He had cut the distance in half by the time John rounded the corner of the building.
“Mr. Linden!” shouted Nathan at the man whose piercing stare encouraged even his peers to address him as Mister. “John! Please, wait a second.”
By this point, Linden was only a few feet from his car, a red hatchback missing three hubcaps. Seeing that evasion was impossible, Linden halted on the sidewalk, drooped his shoulders, and offered a beleaguered sigh. Then he turned to await his persistent follower.
“Thanks,” Nathan said as he offered his hand to Linden. He shook it curtly and nodded his head once. When it suited him, Linden could deliver the small-talk of a master salesman, but tactful conversation was currently the last thing on his mind. “Good to see you, John.”
“What can I do for you, Nathan? I’m kind of in a hurry…”
“I was hoping we could talk for a minute, just a minute. I don’t want to take up your time.” He spoke the way he acted, in sharp, spasmodic bursts, as though he was never sure of the correct behavior and wanted to get it all over with as quickly as possible.
Linden held out his hand suggestively, inviting Nathan to broach the conversation.
“Somewhere…a little more private?” Nathan suggested.
Again, Linden let out a sigh but finally relented. “My car’s just over here,” he said over his shoulder, sauntering to the nearby hatchback.
The front seat was cramped and stuffy; there seemed to be much less space inside the car than appeared from the outside. Nathan’s knees were crooked up painfully as he searched for somewhere to rest his fidgeting arms. A trio of schoolchildren bounded past, laughing. Linden eyed them coolly, now immune to the joys of childhood. Nathan failed to notice, consumed by one overwhelming concern.
“Well, John…you know, it’s about business, I guess.”
“What do you want to know, exactly?”
“Is everything still…working out? You know, coming along smoothly?”
“There have been no problems.”
“Okay. Okay.” Nathan nodded, trying to appease himself. “John, I’m starting to have…not regrets, exactly, but certain doubts. Worries. Things are taking longer than expected.”
Linden shrugged. “These things take time, Nathan. It’s not something you can rush.”
Nathan laughed without mirth, his eyes flitting. “Yes, I know, but John…well look, we had a deal, and I kept up my end of the bargain. But still, I’ve received—I don’t want to sound, you know, out of line or anything, but I’ve received nothing on my end. For my troubles.”
Linden’s response had the dry decorum of a business transaction, as though his words were carefully mandated by corporate policy: “We will not renege on our obligations, Mr. Amherst. We have a contract, and we will satisfy that contract.”
At this reasonable question, Linden’s façade of cool professionalism morphed into something wickeder. “When?” he repeated.
“Yeah, you know, I’m sorry John, but…if I had a timeframe, an estimate when I might be—what’s the word?--compensated, it might come as less of a shock.”
“Again, these things don’t follow a schedule, Nathan. There are difficulties to take into account. Certain third parties are…unpredictable, and their demands must be satisfied before the operation can go ahead. But things are, in your words, coming along. You may expect compensation as early as tonight, maybe. Is that satisfactory?”
Nathan said nothing. His leg jittered. He glanced in alarm at a corpulent fourth-grader who stormed past the car, guffawing.
“You know, this is a business transaction, and we want to make sure you’re happy. Customer satisfaction is foremost among our concerns, Mr. Amherst.”
Linden waited for a response, but all Nathan could do was gaze vacantly at the packs of schoolchildren. He had seemed to age another year over the last five minutes. Impervious to Nathan’s agony, Linden sighed and turned the key in the ignition, satisfied with his halfhearted attempt at reassurance. He saw himself as nothing more than a facilitator, an expedient middleman whose job responsibilities did not include compassion. A sugary pop song blared on the radio, accompanied by the throb of the car’s engine.
“I just wanted to ask if he’s okay. For the time being, I mean.”
There was a long pause as Linden buckled his seatbelt, adjusted the collar of his jacket, and turned to stare down Nathan. “No. He’s not. That’s what you agreed to.”
Up to this point, Nathan had done an admirable job concealing his grief, his torment and self-loathing, despite the nervous discontent that was his permanent characteristic. Now, though, after swallowing hard with a throat made of sandpaper, Nathan could not hold back two violent sobs. He bit his lip and stared into eyes void of sympathy.
“Any other questions?”
Silently, slowly, Nathan clutched the door handle to his right, pulled it towardss him, stepped out of the hatchback, and dragged his feet along the pavement, directionless. Linden peeled away almost immediately, though he had to stop after a mere thirty feet in order to yield to the last remaining school bus.
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