The Storytellers by Josh Bugosh

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Narrated by Bob Eccles

It was only two months ago that I felt true horror. Not terror or panic. Real horror. And all the dread and sorrow that come together to define that word. Yep, I lived it. That’s what’s got me set on my little quest up there on Willow’s Trail. You know, past Route 50.

Need a light? Here.

Yeah, I was in jail for a while. There’s nothin’ on me and never will be, that’s what I wanna tell you. Fred? I know the fucker. He’s the one I blame. The one and only.

No, I don’t have any proof. But listen, damn it. I’ll tell you. Fred owns most of the land on Willow’s Trail. You know that, right? Well he says he does, anyway. Son of a bitch makes up a new boundary every day. I used to hunt up there a lot. Always bumped elbows with old Freddy. He would come out and shoot his gun up in the air to scare away the deer. Old fucker.

What? Yeah, his land’s cursed, that’s what I was gettin’ at. A few months ago I wouldn’t have believed it myself. But now . . .

Shit, talkin’ about this guy has me all shaken up. He’s got a reputation, for sure. Ever hear the story about how he was seen walkin’ side-by-side one night out on the highway with some homeless-lookin’ guy? Yeah, some guy that nobody’s ever seen before. Friends? Fred doesn’t have any friends, c’mon. He’s one wicked snake. I think he’s got some voodoo connections or somethin’. Someone said a while back that he’s got a whole brothel of witches up at his place. Naw, I buy it. There’s somethin’ wrong with that guy. He’s been around these parts for decades, but does he have any connections in the town? None that I know of. No, he’s no regular hermit. Somethin’s wrong with him, I said.

I’m gonna rip his goddamn head off.

Hell yeah, I’m scared. I’m not goin’ into the trail by myself, though. Not anymore. I hate to say it, but I’m not man enough to do this alone. It’s hard to admit. That’s why I need some help.

Fuck you, listen. You’re scared of Fred, too. You may think the rumors are true, but I know it. Lemme tell ya, here’s what happened.

Bob, get me another drink. Thanks.

Okay, so like I said, it was about two months ago. October. I was gettin’ ready for an evenin’ hunt. Had my bow waxed up. My old Mathews. Kissed Jane, and was off for the trail. It’s less than a mile away, and it’s not even on any property line that Fred says he has. Not that the fucker hadn’t bugged me about it, though. Just the week before, I was huntin’ near that spot and he comes outta nowhere and walks right up to me, in my face, and tells me to get off his land.

“This ain’t your property,” I told him. “The line ends way before here.”

He was so firm, I had no choice but to leave. Hunt was over anyway. But I told him I’d be back. And I was.

So anyway . . . Oh, thanks Bob. . . .

So anyway, back to what I was gettin’ at. I parked my truck on the side of the road at Coyote Creek Trail, that old dirt road off 50, and I hiked a path into the woods, where I set up in the same spot from before.

My gut was tellin’ me Fred would show up right away, but I waited it out. It was nice and peaceful. I rattled in a buck, actually, but missed the shot. Arrow went sailin’ over his back and he ran off. The mood wasn’t spoiled, though. It was relaxin’ out there.

The evenin’ went on uneventful, and when it was dark enough for me to begin thinkin’ about headin’ back, the shots rang out.

One, two, three. One after another. There was no mistakin’ the sound of Fred’s pistol. At the time, I thought it was strange that he’d try to ruin my hunt so late in the day. I figured he didn’t care. He just wanted to let me know he was there.

Then he hollered. His words were all slurred and he was definitely drunk. The shadows made it hard to see where he was, or maybe he was just hunkered down. I leaned forward to try and catch all of what he was sayin’. He kept repeatin’ this one phrase over and over. It was, “You’ll pay your debt, you’ll pay your debt,” though I wasn’t sure if that’s what he was sayin’. I know now, but then, he might of well have screamed “Go to the vet,” ‘cause like I said, he sounded pretty hammered.

After listenin’ for a bit, I started to pack my stuff up. Put my broadhead back in the quiver, slung my bow over my shoulder. At that moment the shootin’ and hollerin’ stopped, and I figured Fred spent all of his anger. But there was still this creepin’ feeling on the back of my neck. I probably should have paid more attention to that, but it wouldn’t have made a difference.

I started trompin’ down the path, back to my truck. It was already pretty dark, and the trail was hard to see.

Just as I was close to Coyote Creek Trail, there was this rustlin’ in the brush behind me, some twenty yards back.

Bastard’s followin’ me, I thought. Tryin’ to scare me. It crossed my mind that I should nock an arrow and sling it down the trail, give him a scare, maybe kill him if I’m lucky. I turned around and waited, stared straight ahead, not seein’ anything. A full minute passed by. Figured it may have been a raccoon, since I didn‘t hear Fred slinkin‘ off. My grip on the bow relaxed and I kept on goin’.

You follow me? Need another light? Sure, no problem. What I saw when I got back out onto Coyote jumpstarted my heart.

My fuckin’ truck was all smashed to hell. Roof was caved in like Paul Bunyan had stepped on it. Tires all blown. Right then, my breathin‘ started gettin’ real heavy. Sweat trickled down my forehead, even though it was October. No way Fred could’ve pulled that off, I thought.

My fuckin’ truck! Before I saw that, I was only a little bit scared, you know? The kind of fear you laugh about later. But not now. Now I was really startin’ to feel like a lost little kid. One of the sideview mirrors was layin’ on the gravel, pointed up at me, and I was glad there wasn’t enough light to see my reflection, ‘cause I didn’t want to see how scared I looked.

Some more thrashin’ back on the trail snapped me out of it, and I got back to movin’ again. House wasn’t more than a mile away, like I said, so I hoofed it. Shortest way on foot was along a four-wheeler path through the woods, and I didn’t like that. But I was thinkin’ more about gettin’ home fast. Besides, it was gonna be hard to avoid the dark no matter what way I took. That thought didn’t comfort me much.

My fuckin’ truck.

So, headin’ out on foot, bow in hand, the road was barely visible. All I could make out was shadows and more shadows. That little kid inside of me started seein’ all sorts of monsters in them. Big werewolves and slimy goblins with red eyes, all waitin’ in there, waitin’ to pounce at me as I passed by, like a goddamn funhouse. My pace kept goin’ from cautious to crazy, back and forth, until my nerves could barely take it.

It was hard to push away my imagination with the racket behind me. Somethin’ was followin’ me, and it wouldn’t go away. For about a full minute I went at a half sprint and then stopped to listen, and wouldn’t you know, I could still hear heavy-ass footsteps poundin’ the dirt. More constant now, like it was through with sneakin’ and decided to head straight for me, didn’t care if I knew it.

That’s right, I said “it.” I didn’t believe that was old Fred chasin’ me. That fear drivin’ me wild was so damn weird, like no person’s made me feel, especially Fred. Never was scared of him.

But I was pissin’ my pants right about now, and I turned around and hauled ass. There was only about a quarter of a mile to go. I still had to cross Becker Bridge and cut through a big field, and then my street would be right there, outta the woods. And you know what? I’ve been in those woods all my life. Hunted a good bit there, like I said. But on that evenin’, I never felt more vulnerable in them.

So yeah, Becker Bridge. It’s a little swingin’ thing, crossin’ Coyote Creek. ‘Bout thirty yards across, fifteen feet up in the air. Not a biggie. As I got close to it, I could hear the water tricklin’ below, and I finally felt some relief ‘cause I knew home was pretty close. The fear was startin’ to weaken, thank God. Then I reached the edge, and what I saw made me choke.

The damn bridge was collapsed. No, not collapsed, smashed flat, just like my truck. Like some dumb giant tried to cross it and didn’t know it couldn’t support his weight. It was a wonder I was still holdin’ on to that bow because my arm was shakin’ so bad. Christ! I’m even shakin’ right now! Anyway, then I heard the leaves kickin’ up on the trail again. I didn’t relish the thought of trippin’ down the embankment like a piss-scared little boy, so I spun around and drew an arrow. The path was so damn black. A million ghost images swarmed around.

I nocked my arrow and waited. Nothin’. It was hard to pull the bow back ‘cause I was shakin’ so much, but I managed to get to full draw. Whatever it was, it probably knew what I was doin’, ‘cause it didn’t make a sound. Not a peep. My arms started tremblin’ bad after a while. My shootin’ hand was about to buckle and snap back to hit me in the face.

At last it was too much to bear, so I just let the arrow fly straight down the path. A prayer came out of my mouth right then; first time that happened in a while. The arrow may have struck it, or it may have just been pissed, but right then a sound like a fallin’ oak tree filled the whole trail. I swore I saw leaves kickin’ up in the shadows.

That was when I lost it. I turned tail and ran, just like I didn’t want to let myself do. Slid down the embankment. Lost my bow. Who cares at this point, right? By the time I splashed down in the bottom, my clothes were all wet and muddy, weighin’ me down. I got rid of my quiver and started scramblin’ up the other side. I didn’t hear shit. Maybe I actually hit it, I thought, or maybe it was just observin’ me, I didn’t know.

It was a helluva struggle makin’ it to the top. Just about every rock or root I grabbed onto gave way, and I was terrified of slidin’ all the way to the bottom. The horror hadn’t set in yet. No. At that moment, all I had was panic, and luckily that motivated me. No matter how many times I lost my grip, I just kept clawin’ at the mud like mad until I made it over the edge. I didn’t even think about catchin’ a breath. I lost so much ground by this point. So I got up and ran, ran like hell, blind in the woods, gettin’ my face all scratched up by branches. Then I heard the thing thrashin’ in the brush behind me again. It was like it simply leaped across the freakin’ gap or somethin’.

There was no way I was gonna put enough ground behind me, so I bolted ahead like a track runner for about thirty yards, then veered off to the side. Fuckin’ tripped right over a giant log, and I cursed myself, but it was a blessin’ in disguise, I guess. I hunkered up behind it and peeked my head over the edge. It was as hard as ever to see, but I could make out the shapes of trees up ahead. Home was pretty close, damn close. All I had to do was keep truckin’, but somethin’ told me I needed to stay right there for the moment.

I could hear it. It was kickin’ up branches like it didn’t give a shit, like it wanted me to know it was comin’. Finally I saw it, a big shadowy figure comin’ off the trail. It knew I ran off to hide, damn it. It knew. My breathin’ became shallow and I couldn’t stop, like a giant hand was constantly squeezin’ the air out of me. I tried my hardest to keep from bein’ heard.

All I could see was this big shadow swaggerin’ closer and closer. Had to be about eight feet tall. Definitely not Fred, I was sure of that. As it got closer, I still couldn’t make out any details. All except for one: As it turned its gaze left and right, its eyes shined red. There wasn’t enough light to make a reflection; that light was comin’ from within. It was just like the goblins in my imagination. I half-thought that I had willed this thing into existence with my crazy imagination.

It was surveyin’ the area, tryin’ to find me. It may have been some sort of supernatural creature, but it sure wasn’t all-knowin’, and I was glad for that. It was amazin’ that it couldn’t pinpoint me from the sound of my heart, ‘cause it was racin’ off the tracks.

Suddenly this thing froze, starin’ straight ahead at me. It had to see me, I was sure. The two burnin’ eyes hovered motionless in the dark. If its eyes could glow, it could probably see in the dark. No doubt it could see my own scared eyes peekin’ up from behind that log. I almost choked as a terrible stench washed over me. It was like a combination of rottin’ steak and vomit. The giant hand tightened its grip on me.

Amazingly, it turned completely around and kept searchin’. I jumped up, spun around, and ran for my life, not carin’ how much noise I made. The trail was to my back, but I was still clear-headed enough to know that it curved around to where I could get back onto it again. Vines kept grabbin’ at my legs, and I must have tripped about a dozen times. At one point I fell face-flat against a big rock, bashed my mouth all up and saw a front tooth fall out on the dirt. I got up without a pause and continued runnin’, the taste of blood in my mouth.

The damned thing didn’t follow. I made it all the way to the open clearing and didn’t hear it once behind me. Course, I was makin’ a lot of noise myself, so maybe it was on my heels the whole time. Who knows?

Anyway, so I got to the clearing, and on the other side was a break in the trees where the road to my house is. The fact that I had to cross it made my knees buckle, ‘cause by this point the moon was gettin’ higher and the whole field was just lit up. It was like I came all this way, only to have to give myself to that thing. I just said screw it, and rushed across as fast as I could. I’m talkin’ break-neck. Those goblin eyes were still in my head, and I didn’t want to have to look at them again, God no.

I guess the light was kind of a blessin’, too, ‘cause I could see well enough that I didn’t trip on anything. Didn’t take long to cross the field and break through the trees. Got on the road, finally seein’ some streetlights. Sprintin’ hard, losin’ my breath, I finally see it, my freakin’ house, the lights on inside lookin’ so friendly. It was the best sight in the whole damn world. The front door was wide open. Jane stood right there waitin’ for me, and she looked just as scared as I probably did. Her eyes welled up when I reached the porch and as I stood there catchin’ my breath, she just hugged me. I knew somethin’ was wrong, though, when she didn’t ask about the truck. When she let me go, I hurried her inside and shut the door. Damn it felt good to put a door behind me. There was no questionin’ as I locked the deadbolt; she knew somethin’ was up. As I turned to her I could see panic twistin’ her face.

That’s when she told me about the phone calls.

The first one came around seven, which would have been right around when I heard Fred’s gun. Some ugly-soundin’ man with this gritty voice was on the other line, and simply said, “The debt collector will be by tonight,” and hung up. Man, if this didn’t freeze my blood. That’s when I knew I heard Fred right earlier, and his words came back to me. You’ll pay your debt. I didn’t tell Jane this, but I think she saw the recognition in my eyes.

Apparently the guy called back two more times, remindin’ her of the upcomin’ “appointment.” It definitely wasn’t Fred, she insisted. Fear may have gotten the better of Jane, just like it did for me, but she said the guy’s voice sounded weird, like it was comin’ through a scrambler. It wasn’t static, she said. It was just . . . distorted, for lack of a better word. But hell, that’s the word she used.

On the last call, which came in just fifteen minutes before I was runnin’ up the road, the man said, “The debt collector will be by when your husband arrives.”

And I mean goddamn, now my blood was solid ice!

I asked Jane to help me slide one of the bookcases in front of the door, and she didn’t bother askin’ why. With the door a little bit more secure, I walked to the right side of the living room where my gun cabinet was. I got out a shotgun and some shells from the lower shelf.

Jane watched me as I loaded the gun. When I finished, we walked through the livin’ room to the kitchen. I sat her down at one of the chairs by the bar and then went to the sink. She finally noticed the blood in my mouth and my missin’ tooth, and she must’ve realized that I had my own story to tell. She waited while I propped the gun against the counter and got a paper towel. I wetted it and cleaned my face.

The lights in the kitchen were warm, but they weren’t comfortin’. Before we continued, I walked over to the back door and made sure the deadbolt was locked, then peered out at the yard. I grabbed a chair and propped it under the doorknob for good measure.

As Jane sat there, her eyes baggy with worry, I began to tell her what had happened to me. I didn’t even get to the good part. I was explainin’ how I found my truck destroyed when there was this solid thump from the front porch. Jane shot straight out of her chair, and I stood there in the kitchen, lookin’ across the livin’ room at the picture window. Yep, I was stupid enough to barricade the door without thinkin’ of the eight feet of glass offerin’ easy entry into the house.

A full minute of silence passed. I was sure then that it was just a dog or somethin’. Jane eventually let out a breath, and so did I.

And then two red eyes appeared in the picture window.

Jane screamed, backed up and knocked over a chair. I think I shouted. Not in fear, but in rage. I was mad. It was bad enough that I had one encounter with this thing; how dare it invade my home. Grabbin’ the shotgun, I approached the livin’ room. Through the window, the thing shuffled to the side, like it was tryin’ to get a better view, and I could see the bulky outline of its shoulders. It was leanin’ in, peerin’ at me like a trick-or-treater.

“I’m calling the cops,” Jane said from the kitchen, and I could hear her pick up the receiver and start dialin’. The thing drifted away from sight. I stepped up to the window for a better look. Moonlight gleamed off the wooden porch, and beyond that, the driveway led out to the street, which was draped in shadows.

“Don’t get so close,” Jane said, all panicky. Then, “Hello? 911? Hello!”

The streetlamp in front of the house cast cold light against the blacktop. Beyond that was the tree line. A fine mist drifted through the lamplight and amongst the trees. A shadow shambled in the woods. A man, definitely. With purpose, as if it were on its way somewhere.

“There’s someone out there,” I said to Jane, and I propped the shotgun against the wall and pried my fingers behind the bookcase so I could pull it out far enough to let me through. Jane hollered at me, then apologized to the operator on the phone line. As she did her best to call for help, I looked at her and mouthed, wait here.

I turned back to the bookcase and gave it another tug, but I placed my hands too high and the whole thing came topplin’ down.

“Jesus!” Jane screamed, and I could hear the operator’s fuzzy voice askin’ if everybody was alright. Grabbin’ the gun again, I stepped outside. The porch was cold and lonely, and the wind whistled through the trees and blew some leaves across the boards. With the leaves came that horrible stench of regurgitated flesh, just like I had smelled before. Jane was stammerin’ out her story to the operator, and her panicked voice echoed through the house and out the front door.

I walked down the porch steps and stood at the base of the driveway. No monster. Turnin’ around, I looked at the corners of the house, expectin’ those eyes to be peekin’ around at me. Then the roof. Hell, why wouldn’t it be on the roof? Nothin’. I turned away from the house and looked out towards the street.

Someone was standin’ directly under one of the streetlamps. Not the creature. Shorter. More hunched. It was Fred. I could make out his face in the light. His head was pointed down and he was lookin’ at me from under his brow, like he was afraid to stare me head-on. Or like he was ashamed.

Jane screamed like she was bein’ skinned alive, it was so shrill. I spun around and there was the door, still wide open. What an idiot I was. There was a loud, earth-shakin’ crash, and I bolted for the house, cursin’ myself.

The back door was smashed open from the inside. It lay on the back patio, off its hinges. A cold breeze blew through the kitchen and sent leaves driftin’ over the linoleum. I rushed through the kitchen and out the splintered door frame.

There was nothin’ out there. Then I heard Jane scream again, and it was comin’ from above. As I looked up, she was danglin’ from the clutches of that thing, and it was climbin’ up in the sky on wings as big as boat sails. They sounded like a giant kite when they flapped, and I actually felt a downward draft against my face.

I shouted out for Jane, but damn it, what was I gonna do? I could see the thing better in the moonlight; its skin was grey, and it looked almost furry-like, but it was hard to tell, ‘cause pretty soon it was so high that I couldn’t see any more details. Just a silhouette of a winged man and Jane hangin’ below it. It’s weird, but it reminded me of those old paintings of angels comin’ down to take away the departed. That’s when the true horror set in. Right then, my heart sank and I knew Jane was gone for good. And I didn’t even know what the hell took her. All I knew was Fred, that scum, finally found a way to make me listen. And I’ll be damned if I wasn’t terrified of him then.

Jane . . . all I did was hunt on this guy’s land and what’s he do in return? He takes my one and only. Too much time’s gone by already. I was prime suspect, you bet. Spent a while in jail while the investigation went down, but of course they didn’t find anythin’. Except for some muddy tracks in the front yard. Looked like they were left by a moccasin. No treads at all. Hasn’t helped them find what took her, and it never will.

No, I didn’t tell them about Fred. They’d lock me up and say I killed Jane in a fit of insanity. I knew better. But now I’m here, in this stinkin’ bar, with nothin’ else to live for, man. I can’t even pretend that havin’ Jane taken doesn’t phase me, ‘cause I can’t find pleasure in anythin’ no more. Definitely can’t go huntin’ to clear my mind. Doesn’t matter if it’s Fred’s godforsaken land or somewhere else, I’m not comfortable in any wilderness by myself anymore.

What am I gonna do, you ask? I told you, I’m gonna rip his head off. What’s that? Not you, him. You, yeah. You’ve crossed paths with Fred before? I knew I wasn’t the first one! See, we need to all band together. Fuck hidin’ behind our doors and bein’ scared. We need to raid his cabin, take back our security. What’s your name? George? Nice to meet you. Your friend here doesn’t buy this. Fuck you. Me and George here know what’s really goin’ down. No, I haven’t had too much to drink. Tell him, Bob. What? George ain’t drunk, look at him!

Forget them. You and me, George, we’re the first two in a platoon. There’s more of us in this town. We’re gonna make a stand. Soon. You and me and everybody else that’s too afraid to talk. The first step is get them to come out. Everybody needs to tell their story.

Everybody has a story.

 

BIO: Josh Bugosh is an Atlanta graphic artist with a passion for prose. After studying
journalism for over three years, Josh delved into the world of fiction. He writes short stories in a variety of genres, from the thrilling to the comic. So far, Josh has completed over a dozen short stories. He has been previously published in Death Head Grin and Fictitious Magazine, and also writes short film screenplays for Lobsterdance Productions www.vimeo.com/lobsterdance