PART 4: Corpse Hounds
Bradley and Logan were sitting on the fence when I got back from fetching the basketball. It wasn't a real fence, just part of one that marked the edge of the yard. I didn't climb on it too much because it was made out of split rails and it was full of splinters. Logan was sitting on the top rail facing the swamp, while Bradley was on the side that ran parallel with the horse trail, throwing rocks down into the overgrown canyon below. I could hear the rocks crashing into the underbrush and when a covey of quail was startled into taking flight, I almost jumped out of my skin. I had a feeling anything I noticed moving down in the swamp for the next several weeks would spook me.
"There you are!" Logan exclaimed. "What have you been doing all this time?"
He hopped down from the railing and crossed his arms. He was the oldest of my brothers and therefore thought he was in charge of the rest of us. Logan lifted one eyebrow, doing a perfect imitation of Mom when she wanted answers.
"Who cares!" Bradley whined. "Just give us the basketball already. Mom will be calling us in for dinner any minute."
My other brother jumped down from the fence and came toward me, swiping the ball out of my hands. He could have it. That basketball brought nothing but trouble.
"You coming, Logan?" Bradley asked as he climbed back over the fence.
Logan didn't answer right away. He was looking at me funny.
"Logan!" Bradley barked, making to throw the ball at him.
"Hang on!" Logan bit back, holding up a hand, his eyes still fixed on me.
Did I have dirt on my face? Had I torn my pants or shirt?
I tried not to feel self-conscious, but I failed miserably. Finally, I couldn't take anymore and I dropped my eyes to the dirt below. I shoved my hands into my pockets, wincing a little as the rough fabric rubbed against the scratches on my skin.
"What happened, Aiden?" Logan finally said, concern overriding the haughty tone of his voice. "You've got scratches all over you. And mud. Did you go down to the swamp."
I looked back up at him, his blue eyes serious. Okay. So maybe Logan wasn't all that bad, for a brother. He might be a jerk to me most of the time, but if anyone outside of our family ever tried to make me feel bad, or if I was hurt, he was the first one, besides Mom and Meggy, to make sure I was okay.
Apparently, Bradley couldn't take the delay any longer. Sighing dramatically, he tossed the ball at the hoop and turned back toward us, not even bothering to see if he made the shot. The ball bounced off the rim and fell back to earth, rolling out into the middle of the lawn before coming to a stop. He squeezed between the two rails of the fence, half stumbling down the short slope and coming to a skidding halt on the horse path.
"Dude. Looks like you got dragged through the woods by a pack of coyotes."
I stiffened. Did I really look that bad? At least my ankle had stopped hurting. Both my brothers were staring at me now, so I cast my eyes downward again, pushing around the loose dirt on the ground with my shoe. The scene from the meadow across the shallow part of the swamp kept coming back to me: the ugly ghoulies, the white dog, the stranger in the green army trench coat with the bow and arrows and glowing skin.
Taking a shallow breath and letting it out quickly, I opened my mouth and said simply, "Fell down."
"I'll say," Bradley commented sarcastically. "Fell down the hill and rolled all the way to the bottom."
Logan stepped forward, nudging Bradley out of the way. "Did you fall into a patch of blackberry bushes?"
I nodded. Technically, I hadn't, but agreeing with their assumptions was easier than trying to tell them the truth. There were two things wrong with that. First, they wouldn't believe me even if I could tell them the truth, and secondly, it was physically impossible for me to do that.
"Better get you inside and show Mom," Logan said, taking charge in his big brotherly way.
He draped an arm over my shoulder and started leading me back up to the house, Bradley trailing behind grumbling about missing out on playing basketball. Despite my nervousness about the ghoulies and the strange green man, a warm feeling welled up from somewhere near my heart and spread out to my fingers and toes. Suddenly, I didn't feel so scared anymore because I had a big brother to look out for me. Usually, I only hugged Meggy or Mom or Dad, but as we walked back into the house, I reached out my hand and grabbed onto the hem of Logan's shirt. Okay, it wasn't really a hug, but when I glanced up at my brother's face, it looked like he was smiling just a little. I did my best to return the expression.
The look on Mom's face when we stepped back into the kitchen was one of horror.
"Aiden! What on earth happened to you?"
"The basketball rolled down the horse trail and Aiden went to go get it," Bradley offered, his innocent tone spiced with just a pinch of guilt.
Bradley had mastered the art of appearing angelic when faced with possible punishment.
"By himself?" Mom asked, her voice hardening.
She stood there like an angry hen, her fists pressed against her hips, a dish towel hanging from one of them.
I scowled. Well, I tried to scowl. I couldn't tell if it was actually working. I understood that Mom was extra protective over me because of my autism, but I should be able to go after a stray basketball without someone accompanying me and holding my hand the entire way. And then the images of the ghoulies flashed into my mind and I bit my lip, dropping my eyes. Okay, maybe I shouldn't go wandering down into the swamp by myself, even with my brothers a few dozen yards away.
"He didn't go very far and we were watching him from the fence the whole time," Logan insisted.
That wasn't entirely true. If they had been, they would have seen me fall and would have come after me.
"I don't care," Mom said, straightening back up and reaching out to take my hand. "Who knows what's down there. People used to dump their trash in that culvert all the time before the Land Conservancy got involved and cleaned it up. There might still be some residual toxins in the soil or rusty shards of metal hidden under the bushes."
Mom threw the towel over her shoulder with her free hand and started tugging me down the hallway to the bathroom. She lifted me up onto the counter and ran warm water in the sink, then pulled out some hydrogen peroxide, bandages and antibiotic ointment. She cleaned my cuts with warm water, pouring hydrogen peroxide over them just to be safe, then patted them dry and added the ointment and bandages to the bad ones. There were only a few since most of the scrapes had been shallow ones from the blackberry brambles.
After patching me up and wiping away all the dirt, she took me to my room and helped me change into a clean set of clothes, grumbling the entire time about how I shouldn't wander off by myself or let my older brothers boss me around. I simply stood there in silence as Mom tugged on a clean T-shirt and a fresh pair of sweatpants. It was embarrassing having your mom dress you when you were seven, but dinner would be ready soon and unless I had a half an hour to get through the ordeal by myself, someone had to help me. Pushing buttons into buttonholes and tying shoes were especially hard for me, so most of my pants had elastic bands and my shoes fastened using Velcro.
By the time we returned to the living room, Dad was home and checking on the dinner. When he turned to Mom to ask about it, he took one look at the expression on her face and clamped his mouth shut.
"Dinner will be ready in ten minutes," she snapped. "You can wait that long, or better yet, next time you can be the one to make it for all of us."
Dad backed away with his hands raised. "I was just going to stir the vegetables in the pan. The boys said Aiden had fallen down outside." He cast me a quick look, probably checking for more deadly injuries than the scrapes that were now covered in bandages. "Are you okay, Aiden?"
I nodded my head vigorously. I was fine. If anything was wrong with me at all, it had nothing to do with the physical injuries, but everything to do with the mental ones from all the ghoulie sightings in the past few days.
Once everyone was convinced that I wasn't going to drop dead anytime soon, we started getting the table ready for dinner. Mom sent Logan to tell Meghan dinner was ready, and Dad was getting the twins latched into their high chairs. To my great relief, dinner went on like it always did with Bradley telling us all about school. Apparently, one of the girls in Logan's class had a crush on him and was always following him around the playground. Upon hearing this, Logan turned bright red and tried to jab Bradley with his fork.
Dad quickly diffused the situation and Logan retaliated by informing Bradley that having a girl like him was better than having all the girls in his class avoid him because he still picked his nose, in which case Mom stepped in with a quick lecture about what was appropriate to talk about at the dinner table. Jack and Joey didn't have much to say, considering they were still practically babies, but they laughed and seemed to enjoy everyone else's conversation.
While all this was going on, I slid my eyes in my sister's direction. Meghan was being quiet, more so than usual, only picking at her food and eating very little of it. I felt my stomach clench in unease. Her eyes were distant and her skin wasn't glowing as much as it usually did. Now I would have Meggy to worry about on top of everything else.
After dinner, Dad helped Mom get the twins ready for bed while Bradley and Logan reluctantly started their homework. Meggy disappeared into her room. She probably had to study, too. High school had lots of homework, she had told me once. I decided to head to my room, too. I didn't feel like coloring while my brothers worked at the table and we weren't allowed to have the TV on if anyone was studying. Instead, I curled up in my bed and read one of my chapter books. After a while, I set it aside and turned off my lamp.
It took me a long time to fall asleep that night, what with my own busy thoughts and the garbled, sleeping sounds floating over from my twin brothers' side of the room. Eventually, I drifted off, the undulating shadows cast by Jack and Joey's fish tank filling up the room like dancing demons. When I opened my eyes again, I was lying on my back, the brilliant sunlight filtering through the canopy of bright green leaves above. I squinted, and lifted up a hand to rub at my eyes. To my surprise, I wasn't clumsy or slow about it.
Taking a breath, I rolled over and got up onto my knees, surveying this unfamiliar place I'd found myself in. Tall eucalyptus trees surrounded a meadow carpeted with brown leaves and small patches of poison ivy. To my left was what appeared to be a stream bed, choked with long, lanky stems of reeds and cattails. A cool breeze shifted the silvery green, sickle-shaped leaves above and beyond the snaking river of emerald bog plants was the slope of a hillside covered in oak and more eucalyptus. I swallowed, my mouth dry and tasting like dust. I knew this place. I was in the swamp behind my house. In the very meadow where I'd seen the green man kill the ghoulies.
Suddenly, my skin prickled with anxiety and the faint blue glow to my skin intensified. Were there more ghoulies around? Why was I here? I should have been asleep in bed, safe inside my house.
Before I could contemplate anything more, a low, rattling growl froze the blood in my veins. I stayed absolutely still, my heart galloping like a race horse.
The growl was joined by another one and the snapping of twigs and rustling of brush answered my question. Yes. There were more ghoulies around.
Slowly, I turned my head. I shouldn't have. Three monsters, all close to the size of that white dog I'd seen the other day, emerged from the shadows cast by the brush-clogged edge of the meadow. They were so much bigger and so much more terrifying than the other ghoulies I'd seen before. They were bone-thin, like greyhounds that had starved to death and then been buried for a few weeks. The breeze picked up again, this time blowing in my direction, and their smell hit my nose like a slap: dead animal flesh, mixed with rotting eggs and scorched hair. The ghoulie closest to me peeled back its mud-black lips and snarled. Long, wicked yellow teeth lined its jaws and deep within its throat, a fire burned, like the throat of a dragon I'd seen in a movie once.
I gagged in reaction to their stench and forced down a sob, then stood all the way up, intending to run. But then I realized I couldn't run. I had a hard enough time keeping my feet in front of me while I walked.
One of the rotting hounds threw back its head and bayed, a long, low call that brought to mind images of battle fields and loved ones wailing over mass graves. I cried out and turned, not caring that I wouldn't make it very far. I had to get away from these things, even if the only way to escape meant dying once they tore me to shreds.
To my utter surprise, my feet obeyed my mind and I went tearing across the meadow, intending to head toward the place where I could cross the swamp. I didn't make it very far before one of the ghoulies leapt forward, coming to land to my right. It snapped at me and I screamed, changing directions. Another one was right behind me, and the third somewhere on my left. I ran in the only direction I had left: straight ahead and deeper into the woods. I only hoped that I'd find a tree I could climb as I made my escape.
Cold sweat poured down my back and my lungs burned as I pushed myself, faster, farther, as the three ghoulies chased after me. Their howls sent goose bumps all over my skin and made my heart skip a beat, but I kept running, leaping over fallen logs and sliding down small slopes covered in leaves. At some point, I stumbled out onto another trail. If I turned right, I could head out to the road that dead ended before reaching the crossing point over the swamp. That was my better option. Taking a few deep breaths, I turned in that direction, only to have one of the ghoulies bound up onto the trail, its black claws skidding against the packed dirt.
I cried out again and pulled up short, nearly tripping this time. Never in my life had I been able to run so well or so fast. The monster growled at me, panting. A half-rotten tongue lolled from its mouth and the fire in its throat flared in time with its breathing.
The other two were on the slope above the road, eyeing me carefully. They weren't going to let me go out to the road. Whimpering and trying hard to keep the tears in my eyes from falling, I turned left and started sprinting down the trail. The ghoulies followed, herding me like a sheep. The road curved sharply to the left and then I could see the bottom of the culvert. It was dry this far back, but I could clearly see where the water might run through in the rainy season. I hit the sand, desperately searching around for a new direction to turn.
On the opposite side, the trail picked up and continued to wind through the eucalyptus trees. To my left, the wide, sandy canyon floor continued on, only blocked by the occasional fallen tree or patch of willows. To my right, the walls of the small canyon rose up on either side, the passage blocked by a crisscrossing of dead eucalyptus trees that had fallen into the culvert over the years. It reminded me of a pathway into a haunted mountain in one of my brothers' video games. A cold, unnatural gust of air rolled down the canyon, freezing my sweat-slicked skin. There was no way I was going to go down that way.
Making up my mind to head back toward the place where I started, I turned left. Before I could so much as take a first step, one of the ghoulies jumped in front of me, snarling and flicking its whip-like tail. I tried to dart around it. Maybe I could lose them if I ran off-trail. My attempt at escape failed again when a second monster blocked my way. The third one joined in and they had me cornered. I could either run directly at them, or turn and run up the culvert.
"No!" I rasped, the tears now streaming freely down my face. "No!"
They paced toward me, snapping at me when I didn't move. I took a step back, then another. They sped up. Swallowing my paralyzing fear, I turned and bolted up the canyon.
It's just your fear, Aiden, I told myself as I wove between the eucalyptus trunks. Just your fear. You must overcome it.
The walls of the canyon drew closer together and the angle of the dead trees became more steep. Ahead of me, the dirt path became an eroded wall. I had come to the end. I turned around to face the ghoulies - to face my fate - but something to my right caught my eye. To my utter surprise, there was some sort of cave in the side of the canyon wall, its black throat yawning wide. Tendrils of roots and strips of dead eucalyptus bark dangled from the lip of the cave like gruesome beads hanging from a doorway.
Before I could ponder it much further, another icy gust of air poured from the hole, along with the bone-chilling clack of dry bones striking together and the squirming sound of maggots roiling in rotten meat.
The bile in my stomach rose. Something was coming. Something so terrifying I could feel it on instinct alone. Behind me, the rotten hounds grew restless, their growls turning to yips, but before me the black cavern seemed to yawn wider, drawing back as if it was about to spit something awful from its depths. The hideous sounds grew louder and the air colder. The wind stirred my hair and all I could do was stand there, frozen in fear, with my fists clenched at my sides.
Before I even got a chance to see the hellish thing that was coming to kill me, everything went blank.
Thank you for reading this third installment from Aiden's point of view! Hopefully I'll have the next installment up soon. In the meantime, discover the Otherworld with the first book in the series, Faelorehn. The ebook is free on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Smashwords! The audio book edition is also available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.