Herringbone by Shelby Yarchin
The woods that surrounded the small cabin were never silent. They carried a wonderful song of bull frogs and crickets. If there was the rare and occasional moment of quiet, it created nothing but a frothy unease in Joel. She had grown used to the noise, much different from the city and fully encompassing in a different type of comfort.
It was at the cusp of spring when the old Ford had taken the dirt road scarcely traveled. It’s engine sputtered and disrupted the sounds of the swamp like the quick blade of a knife freshly sharpened. Even within the confines of her home, Joel could hear a difference. She could feel it, smell the gas that the massive truck emitted. She didn’t’ get many visitors up here.
She felt her heart in her chest then, a steady rhythm that rushed past her ears like the blood draining from her cheeks. Joel Reed instinctively reached for the double barrel shot gun that rested by the front door like a fixation. It leaned near the coat rack and the small hook that she slung her own keys onto. There was dust that had built up along its exterior, that scarcely used.
The Ford could only get so far before the oak trees blocked it from reaching the main house. Still, if one looked hard enough past the low hanging Spanish moss and trail signs that had since been destroyed, they would see worn carved markings. She had taken a hunting knife and peeled the bark away as if not to forget her way to the real world.
Joel dared to look out towards the road, pulling back the barest edge of the curtains for a better view. Night was just starting to fall and that was when the swamp would really come alive. It would spring into action and the four deadbolts she had on the door wasn’t enough for the poor souls in the beaten-up Ford.
She should help them. But then again, why risk her own safety? The moon was at its peak tonight, strong enough to illuminate the whole town, the entire ecosystem of moss and rocks, and stagnant water that smelled ever so foul. They knew the myths, everyone did but no one had been dense enough to test their validity in years.
But there was still an orange tint to the sky. It made everything look soft, made Joel feel like the last rays of sun could make up for lost time if she willed it. She could get the unsuspecting travelers to safety, and if they wouldn’t follow, at least she could claim that she tried. It would selfishly ease her own guilty mind.
The door to the cabin was opened before she could give it another thought, her grip tightened against her weapon and her shoulders steadied. She wouldn’t’ look into the trees, into their yellowed and waiting eyes. They tracked her feverishly like they did every night. She despised the sharp scent of the swamp mixing with diesel.
“We’ve been searching for hours. I’m covered in…sludge and the only thing we’ve found out here is Lyme disease.” The voice was muffled by the herringbone path that Joel stood at the edge of. She heard a string of profanities and the dull slap of a hand. “Damn mosquitos.”
Joel fought back a smile but readjusted her hold on the gun. How not to scare them? She didn’t have the faintest idea but figured that the looming dangers within the hewn ivy were a much bigger threat. It felt unnatural, holding such an old weapon that should be mounted above her fireplace instead of heavy against her palms.
“You can’t get Lyme from mosquitos, just ticks. But I’m sure they’re out here too. You should be more concerned about malaria.”
“Thanks, I’ll take that into consideration.”
The banter was lovely. Joel Reed had to admit to herself that she missed the warm voices and the playful nature of things. It had been so long, months? Years? It was hard to tell. She had counted four winters before the days began to bleed and her concern shifted to survival and not accountability.
“Hold on. Is that a cabin?” The second woman’s voice quivered at the discovery.
She had spent too much time reveling in someone else, they had gotten closer. Two more feet and they would come face to face with the edge of her gun. Joel could tell them to put their hands up, or state who they were- what was their business here of all places. Instead, she simply said hello and gave a weak smile.
The taller one screamed, and part of Joel expected that but winced at the sheer volume of it. If the creatures among the trees hadn’t been alerted to their presence before, they were now. She had started patting herself down frantically for some type of weapon, but the only thing she produced from her pocket was a half-eaten meat stick.
“Whoa, relax, I mean no harm.” Joel held her grip on the gun. The short one eyed her, stare hard and cold. “I live in that cabin, up that way. I heard your car.”
“We took a wrong turn. Got a phone we can use?”
The one with the meat stick dropped her defensive stance and gave a jarring look to her friend, who missed it entirely. Joel let the shaft of the gun go and let it hang by her side. A phone, yes, she had a phone. She hadn’t used it in years, but it was still hooked up. So she nodded and gestured for the duo to follow her back up the herringbone path towards the place she called home.
All the while her eyes scanned the tree line, tracking them, tracking the suns progress as it danced across the sky. It had become an angry red, a harsh backdrop to the Spanish moss. Joel’s stomach tightened when she reached the door to the cabin. The girls watched her carefully, neither making a move to enter. She scoffed and walked in first, lazily putting the gun in it’s spot next to the door.
“Nice place you got here.” The tall one said.
“Where’s your phone?”
“Landline is by the microwave.” Joel lifted her chin “it might take a bit for your rescue team to get here. Not many venture out past dark.”
Her stare remained hard, an unmovable force “We saw a town on the way up here.”
“Well, I’m afraid they’re not as friendly as I am.”
Out of habit, Joel moved towards the door and fastened the four locks against its frame. She did it as if it were second nature, hands moving like her heart pumping blood. When she turned, the two girls stared at her, one holding the phone until her knuckles were white, the other frozen in place.
“We’re going to die. Emily, we’re going to die.” Said the tall one.
“No, no. Emily, is it? I live in the middle of the woods and the sun is about to go down. Trust me, anything that’s out there is better off on the other side of this door. Go ahead, make your phone call. I’m not stopping you.”
Instead, the girl replaced the phone on the hook and crossed her arms over her chest. The monotone signal wasn’t filling the silence anymore. Her breath was hollow. “What’s in the woods?”
Joel Reed had never explained it before, the eyes and the teeth and the foul scent of death on their breath. She had been unfortunate before, but once you test your luck the first time, the second isn’t something you ever want to push. So, she hadn’t. She went into town and bought the most industrial locks she could, and a gun from Taylor down at the pawn shop.
“Wildlife,” Joel said simply
Emily challenged her “You need that much enforcement for deer? A bear?”
“Make your phone call. Go on.”
“Mm, I don’t think I have any numbers memorized. Ronnie, do you know the number to the towing company on Washington?”
“Haven’t a clue.”
Joel didn’t’ like the way they stared. It was unhinged. The skies bled a dark blue that was vastly different from the orange, and even the red pulp. Her eyes flicked towards the windows. She had fastened locks to those as well, not taking the chance. They might be cunning, able to peel windows open with their fleshed talons.
She let out a nervous laugh, but silently calculated how long it would take her to reach her gun, if she was faster than Ronnie, if she was overreacting because her only communication was with the slight rustling of leaves and the babbling small talk of a nearby creek.
“What are you two doing out this far anyway? Enjoying the scenery?”
“We’re working on our senior thesis, we’re both English majors. Ever hear of the hide-Behinds?”
Joel frowned. She wasn’t familiar with the term but had a sinking feeling that the two college girls had just given her a name to the creatures that lurked behind every corner. It made her lips taste sour and metallic. She licked them, trying to cure their dryness as she shook her head no.
Emily had wrapped the cord of the phone lazily around her fingers. She studied the off-white color and tested its strength; how easy it would be to rip it from the wall. Her ghostly eyes flicked over to Joel, to Ronnie, and back to the device.
“They’re nocturnal creatures skinny enough to disappear behind trees. They have glowing green eyes, wolfish stares… you’ve never seen one, have you?” She asked.
“I’m afraid not. Just me out here.”
Joel mentally cursed herself. Just me out here, how daft could she be? She felt suddenly like a child, voice trembling as she pushed her front against the door, telling a man on the other side that her parents were just a block away, that she hadn’t ordered a pizza, and that she was going to call the cops.
“My brother was a logger out here.” Ronnie said, dancing her touch across the kitchen island, she eyed the wooden cutting board “One day he never came home. Police declared him a runaway, but then again, they never looked up here on account of the legends. No lawman want’s do fight with the unfightable.”
“You think those… things got your brother?”
Ronnie laughed; the sound brightened up a space for a short undefinable moment before her smile fell. “No, I don’t. That would be crazy. It’s just folklore. Something tangible on the other hand, like a person living in the middle of nowhere. That’s more believable.”
Joel let out a shaky breath. The sky was dark now, black behind Emily’s figure. There was no moon, the clouds were too thick, and the crickets begun to sing their shattering songs. The cord wrapped around Emily’s grip was pulled down in a fluid motion, dislocating from the phone. She wielded the plastic adapter clattered to the floor.
“You have car trouble.” Joel sounded out. She was trying to convince herself. These were nice sensible girls. They had solid heads on their shoulders, solid thoughts and a sound mind. But the look, in Emily’s pear-colored eyes, pale and sharp all at once made her doubt that. “Don’t you?”
“Of course. You’re so kind to offer help. Why don’t we all go back to the truck? I can pop the hood. We can figure it out. No reason to call a towing company.”
Ronnie lifted a sculpted eyebrow “I don’t have roadside assistance.”
“We’re much better off staying inside. These woods aren’t safe at night.” Joel said, mouth dry.
“I’m not worried about the Hide Behinds,” Emily said, “I’m more worried about your carpets.”