What I tell you now, I only tell because my time is coming. Do you understand? If I had another twenty or thirty years, I wouldn't tell this now. But I'm old and going soon, and if I'm gone, someone else has to know. Someone else has to carry it. That was part of the deal.
That was part of the trade.
* * *
I was twelve years old and all I wanted was to enjoy the simple silence of Soldier Creek, the green serenity that seemed to emanate from within the very water of the stream. I wanted to let go, embrace the sound of nothingness, save for a few restless birds flitting about the forest canopy. I wanted tranquility.
What I got was anything but tranquil.
"You lost it?" Justin asked, his voice flat and insignificant.
Derrick only nodded, his eyes dancing from Justin's to mine. I only shrugged.
"You lost it?" Justin asked again, "The one thing I asked you to look after? You lost my dad's compass?"
Derrick said, "I'm sorry, Justin! I really am! It must have fallen out of my pocket somewhere! I can find it, I know I can."
"You're worthless. I knew I couldn't trust you."
"Justin, please, I didn't mean to."
I stepped in because it was hard to listen to Derrick’s voice. He was one of my best friends and I couldn't stand to hear him beg for Justin's forgiveness.
"We can go looking for it," I said, "It won't take that long. We walk back along the creek, we check around the bikes. If it's not there, it has to be between here and the house."
Hope shimmered in Derrick’s eyes. His grimace trembled into something like a smile.
"Yeah," he said, "Yeah, we can go back and look for it. What time is it? Not much after ten, right? We can look until lunch, then go back to the house!"
"We're not going back to the house, tubby," Justin said, "I told you, we have to do this before we go back!"
"Well, we can look for the compass along the stream and if it's not there, maybe it's by our bikes, like Harlan said."
"If we don't find it," Justin said through clenched teeth, "I'll break your arm."
So we looked. It was ridiculous, of course. Three boys crawling along the edge of a knee-high creek in search of something the size of a walnut. It had been Justin's idea to come out to Soldier Creek in the first place. He’d heard one of the high school kids at Sam's General Store talking about ghosts that walked beside the stream. The high school kid, someone named Taylor, had claimed if you have a compass and you're walking beside Soldier Creek, the compass will go crazy. And if it goes crazy, you'll probably find yourself face to face with a spirit. Claimed he’d seen it happen.
I didn't believe him, and neither did Derrick. But Justin had his reasons. We understood and we played along, hoping it would help him deal with whatever it was that he felt.
His father had drowned in this stream four years earlier. It was during a flash flood and he had been trying to help a girl about our age. People around town said the water swept them under and they disappeared. No one ever found the bodies.
I suspected Justin knew why he had taken us here, but he never told us outright. He only told us it was like an adventure, that we were exploring the unknown.
But I knew the truth.
He wanted to get his dad back.
"You see anything?" Justin yelled.
I crawled up the bank and stood at the edge of the woods and the pasture. There was no glint of sunlight, no sign of the compass anywhere on the ground. Justin ground his teeth in silent rage.
Derrick was on the opposite side of the creek, kicking through leaves and upending rocks.
"It's not over there," Justin said, "We never even went over there."
"You never know," Derrick said, "It's worth looking."
"No," Justin said, "It's worth kicking you in the face for losing my dad's compass!"
Justin's dad had been named a local hero and there was a portrait of him posted at the Mason's Post court house. Below the picture was the inscription, "Beloved husband, devoted father." People still talked about how Officer Michael Duncan had given his life trying to save Esther Barnett, even though her family left town a few weeks after it all happened.
Justin picked up a rock and threw it at Derrick.
"My arm!" Derrick cried.
"Guys!" I yelled, "Stop it! We're never going to find this thing if you keep arguing."
My voice echoed through the woods, scaring a handful of crows into the sky.
"Fine," Justin said. He suddenly sounded defeated, "Let's just go. Forget the compass. Let's just keep going."
Derrick stayed on the other side of the creek, "I'm sorry, Justin. Really."
We walked in silence for five minutes. Each footstep was an explosion of crumpled leaves and grinding stones.
Derrick broke the silence, "I hope we find your dad."
Justin stopped walking, "What did you say?"
Derrick’s eyes were wide and he said, "I mean, if what that kid at the grocery store said is true , maybe we'll run into your dad. Wouldn't that be neat?"
"You're an idiot," Justin said, "We're not going to find him. So just shut up."
"Seriously," Derrick said. I tried to gesture to him so he would stop talking, but he didn't notice or didn't care. "What if we found him? What would you say? Would you give him a hug or something?"
"Derrick," I finally said, "Stop talking."
"I'm just saying if there are ghosts here, wouldn't it make sense that his dad was one of them?"
"He's not dead!" Justin screamed, leaping across the stream towards Derrick. They collided and fell to the ground. Justin threw several punches at Derrick's midsection.
"Get off me!" Derrick yelled, "Harlan, get him off me!"
I made no effort to jump across the water. I simply waded through it and pulled Justin away from Derrick’s body. He swung his fists at me a few times and I noticed the tears streaming down the sides of his face. He pushed me away and then ran, following the stream for a while before darting towards the woods and disappearing over a hill.
"Get up," I told Derrick, "We need to catch him."
Before Derrick was on his feet, I was already chasing after Justin.
"Hey!" I screamed, "Justin, don't run too far! We don't know the way!"
Derrick and I scrambled up the hill, which flattened at the top. Forty or fifty feet further, it dropped off like a miniature cliff. A few trees clung to the earth, but leaned out over the precipice and threatened to fall given enough time and weather. Beyond the edge was a great clearing encircled by another stream. We found a tree that hung far enough that we could climb down its trunk and then fall into the clearing. Landing unevenly on my feet, I saw Justin moving in the underbrush. He was still running.
We followed. He led us deep into the woods and I was already beginning to lose my sense of direction. Derrick did his best to follow behind me.
Finally, the underbrush cleared and we found Justin sitting at the edge of another clearing. He was on his hands and knees, sobbing and gasping for air. As we approached, he looked over his shoulder and put a finger to his lips to silence us. He then pointed ahead. There was a grand tree, thick and knotted and reaching to the heavens with countless twisted and naked branches. Beside this tree was a doe. But it was only half of a doe. It appeared to be stuck in some kind of mud puddle, its hind quarters completely submerged.
"I scared it," Justin gasped, "It jumped and fell in. But what is that stuff?"
The doe grunted, whined, and then screeched as the mud appeared to actually reach up the creature's body in liquid tendrils and pull the animal down into the depths of the puddle.
In only a moment, the doe was gone and the puddle was still.
We watched the hole. The doe never tried to come back. Or it was unable to come back.
"What was that?" Derrick asked.
I shook my head, "Mud hole or something."
"No way," Derrick said, "That stuff reached up and grabbed it!"
Justin stood up, wiped tears from his face. It was smeared with dirt and small pieces of dead leaves.
He said, "It was my fault. I scared it."
"No," I said, "It just happened. Don't worry about it."
Then I saw the smile, the curls at the corners of his mouth. He wasn't worried at all.
He was happy.
"Come on," he said, walking towards the hole. He kept a good distance between it and himself.
"Get away from it," Derrick panted, "Who knows what's in there?"
"It's like he said," Justin was grinning, "It's a sinkhole. Just some old mud in the ground."
The surface was still and it looked like oil. Despite a breeze that had begun to kick through the forest, the surface was like glass. Motionless, dead.
"Give me a stick or something," Justin said. I only stared at the surface. If there was something underneath, it was laying absolutely still. I hoped that maybe we were right, maybe it was just some old mud.
Derrick grunted and said, "Get it yourself, man."
"Fine," Justin said. He snapped a branch off of a half-dead sapling and walked towards the puddle. The obsidian surface shimmered.
"Don't," I heard myself say as Justin reached forward. The stick was only inches away from the puddle.
The black mud erupted and Justin stumbled backward, tossing the stick as he fell to the ground. The frantic chorus of our voices filled the forest.
"What is that?" Derrick screamed. He pointed at the puddle, and I realized in one horrible moment that it was no puddle at all. It was a hole. It had to be a hole, because what was coming out of the black liquid was too big to have hidden in a mere puddle.
What came out of the hole was almost human.
The black mud didn't cover the shape like water or oil. It slid off the figure like a shroud, like something retreating. The large object tumbled onto the ground and lay still. It was pale, the color of cooked cabbage. And it squirmed.
"Make it stop," Derrick screamed, "Guys, make it stop moving!"
"Shut up!" Justin said, "It's a kid, just be quiet!"
He was almost right. It looked vaguely like a little girl. It had hair, slick and matted to her head, though thin in places. She was wrapped in some glistening shawl that looked like plastic. She writhed and her eyes sprang open. There was no color in the pupils.
"It's okay," I managed to say, "We won't hurt you."
Her ears looked unformed, pasted to the sides of her head; then I realized they had been cut or torn off and there were now only mounds of scars where they had been. Her lips were thin and pinkish. Fingers groped from beneath the shawl, skeletal and uncoordinated.
"Just calm down," I said, "Calm down, please."
"Make her stop," Derrick yelled, "God, she looks dead!"
She spoke. The sound was a whisper.
"What?" I asked.
She looked at me with enormous white eyes and said, "Esther."
She arched her neck for emphasis and muttered, "We give you Esther."
The sun had gone dim and the forest was filling with a darkness that seemed somehow wrong, as if it wasn’t just a result of the sun’s passing; it felt as if a shroud had been placed over the entire forest.
Derrick pointed at the girl and said, "What's she talking about?"
Tears streaked the sides of his face.
"We give you Esther," the girl said. She seemed a half-made human writhing on the forest floor.
"Look at her," Justin said. He was still on the ground and tears had welled in his eyes, as well. He gazed at the girl and said, "She looks unfinished."
"We give you Esther," the girl said again, "She came to us. Long. Long ago."
These few sentence fragments seemed a chore for the girl to speak.
"We are furnished," she said, "Finished. We are finished. With her."
"Who?" I asked, "Who's Esther?"
The girl only stared at me with almond-shaped eyes like milk.
"It's her," Justin said, "She's Esther."
"What?" Derrick asked, "What are you talking about? She's a zombie or something!"
"Shut up," Justin said.
He crawled closer to the girl. Her head jerked from side to side, her mouth gasped for breath. It was like she was choking on the air that should have sustained her.
"Are you Esther?" he asked.
She looked at him with empty eyes, her mouth drawn open an inch or two. In a blur, her hands grasped the sides of Justin's head and she pressed her own forehead against his. First they were silent, then Justin began to sob. His whole body convulsed. The girl's pallid lips wriggled as she whispered something, either to Justin or under her breath.
"Lord," Derrick screamed, "Help me! She's hurting him!"
He charged forward and kicked the girl, but she didn't seem to notice.
"Get off him!" He clutched at her shoulders, but the skin seemed to peel away beneath his grasp. Beneath the cream-white flesh was something slick and purple and pulsating.
As Derrick stared at the flesh he had just torn off with his bare hands, I found the branch Justin had intended to dip into the puddle earlier. It wasn't exactly a club, but it would do. I closed my eyes as the branch fell at an angle and caught the girl on the side of the head. The sound, to this day, is something I cannot forget. Worse was the sudden ceasing of movement in my hands as the branch struck its destination. I dropped the weapon and opened my eyes.
The girl lay sprawled on the ground, more of that unnatural purple color exposed on the side of her head. It glistened in the dying dull light.
“Thank,” she said. The sound was hardly audible. Her eyes wandered in their sockets and locked on mine. She whispered, “Thank you.”
Justin pressed palms to his eyes and sobbed incoherently.
"It's horrible," he cried, "It's her. It's impossible, but it's her."
"Who?" Derrick asked, "Justin, what's wrong?"
Justin removed his hands from his face. My stomach knotted.
"She was with my dad," he said, "She was with him during the flood. It's her. It’s all her fault."
I could care less about the girl.
Black tears trickled down Justin's face. His eyes were pools of oil, two small ponds churning midnight.
"She died with my dad," he said, "God help us, we just brought her back!"
I couldn't look at Justin, couldn't make eye contact with one of my best friends.
His eyes were black. Liquid charcoal. Some thick fluid trickled down his cheeks like tears.
"What are you talking about?" Derrick asked, "Justin, what's happening?"
I looked at the girl, saw the slick purple surface below her flesh. She was motionless and seemed smaller.
"She showed me, made me feel it all when she grabbed my head," Justin said, "She was out here by herself, so long ago, and she saw the hole. Saw something else, too. My dad found her, but then-”
His voice trailed as he stumbled backwards. He stared at the hole, “It takes and it gives."
Derrick stared at me and asked, "What's he talking about?"
"I don't know," I heard the words drift into the forest. They sounded far away, unfamiliar.
"The deer," Justin said, "Don't you see? It took the deer, and it gave the girl. It gave us Esther."
When he looked at us again, his face had stretched to fit an enormous smile. It seemed like he had too many teeth. The black tears had begun to soak the collar of his shirt.
"We could bring him back," Justin whispered, "We brought her back, so we could bring my dad back. We could do it."
He approached the girl's body. I gasped when I saw it had literally begun dissolving into the ground. There was only a vague discolored shape where the girl had been. As Justin stood over the remains, we watched the shape liquefy into the the very same blackish fluid from the hole. It writhed like it was alive, and it moved across the ground to join the puddle from where the girl had been vomited.
As the liquids rejoined, Justin gazed at us with that maniac's smile, "It's like Hammurabi, you know? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
He paused again, this time chuckling to himself, "Only they deal in souls."
"Who?" I asked, "Who are you talking about?"
"Ancient things," Justin said, "So old you'd go crazy if you tried to figure it out."
I had a feeling he had already tried to figure it out. That sick grin was a dead giveaway.
"Come on. Let's quit this. Let's just go home."
"I don't think so," he said, "I think we have to make a choice. You see, my dad might be over there somewhere. And we could bring him back. We just have to make one decision."
"What?" Derrick asked.
Justin's smile vanished and he glared, "Which one of you goes into the black water?"
I'm not sure how the decision was made. I'm not sure if there was ever a real choice. It just happened, a blur of moments that I can't seem to rationalize after all this time.
I understand, though. I understand how he yearned to see his father. It had been so long and his own dad had been taken away by some unknown force. And now that he knew, at least partly, where his father had gone and that there might be a way to bring him back... well, Justin wanted to take advantage of that knowledge.
So there was a trade.
A soul for a soul.
I've seen things. I saw the surface of that entrancing black water, saw the reflection of the sky behind my head as I peered into the dark. And just below the surface, I could discern hundreds of eyes staring back up at me, ghost-like and shifting.
What came out of the hole might have been Justin's father. It might have been the deer Justin had accidentally scared only moments earlier. It could have been something much worse. What came out of the hole is unknown to me.
I was on the other side by then, swallowed and forgetting about the sharp pain in the back of my head where Justin had struck me with a stone. I was sinking, losing myself and becoming one of them.
Who are they?
They are the ancients, nameless and eternal, waiting between worlds for the poor souls who happen to slip through. They are not gods, nor are they demons. They are in service to a greater master, who himself is enslaved to a nameless fiend. This is the nature of chaos; one master begets another. I sat at their sides for a time before you found the very same hole I faced.
And I should tell you, it's not exactly a hole.
It's a doorway. And on the other side, where those shapeless beings sit in waiting with bloated bellies and spiraling cavernous throats, it's dark and cold.
It's good to be here again, but the sun hurts my skin. I imagine there's not much time before someone puts an end to me like we did to Esther all those years ago. Fear is only fuel for violence.
I suppose I should get to the point, sitting here and holding your head to mine.
Here are the details of the trade.
We have taken your companion.
We give you Harlan.