The Cherry Tree - Chap 1
I stood alone in my new room, shrewdly looking over the blank walls, painted an unusual peachy color. It was definitely a color meant for spring, but I was still accepting the fact that my days of enjoying the natural warmth of the outside were gone now. My family had just moved from the sunny Southwest up to the chilly quiet of the state of Washington. We were in yet another country house, somewhere small with an endless backyard. Normally I might’ve taken advantage in the summer months, but I could already feel the cold pervading the walls of this little house. I hated the cold.
My mother was downstairs with the only heater we had, unpacking boxes still with my little sister, Alice. She was “helping”, being only six years old, doing her best to dig out her own possessions without making any more of a mess. My father had been outside all morning, surveying the plot of land and exploring the woods behind our house. I think it was just an excuse to escape the clutter of my mother’s unpacking efforts.
Once I had lost the inner conflict of convincing myself to clean up and unpack my own boxes, I made my way downstairs to survey the damage. It was worse than I expected: appliances were strewn about, clothes littered the floor, books and movie cases were stacked haphazardly against the walls..
“Claire!” My mom sprung up from a makeshift fort of paraphernalia and sorting, behind which I noticed Alice stationed at a desk of cardboard and tape. I was waved over to aid in the effort, but found myself inching closer to the door, saying I was going out to help dad. I slipped out while I still had the chance, drawing in a breath of fresh air and rubbing my hands together. As much as the change in climate pained me, I had to admit the view out into endless woods was something impressive, even as it stood, half dead in the descending autumn. I took in the peace while I could, before shivering and crossing back into the inside. I had decided to help out after all, it was the least I could do to try and make this whole thing go a little more smoothly. I just hoped that school would be tolerable. I knew my parents had moved here to give Alice a better experience, they had said the community here was exceptional. However, being 17 and moving into my senior year of high school, transitioning would be much harder. Who knew if I’d make any friends, and even then, kids would be going off to college before long.
Dinner that night was filled with talk of new beginnings, how everyone liked the house, what we had planned for the first year here. I was quiet that evening, trying to keep the less pleasant thoughts from my mind. Why were the neighbors so far? Why was this place so desolate? It felt like our home was on an isolated island, not another building in sight. The agent had said that other families lived just a little deeper into the woods, but I had yet to see a single sign of life.
Within the next couple weeks I had done my best to settle in, and actually done a fair job of it. The boxes in my room had been entirely unpacked. We managed to get a space heater for each person too, although mine made some kind of weird ticking sound. I had even made a friend at school! Which was the honest highlight of the whole endeavor. Going to class the first day, I had been genuinely afraid of spending a year on my own, no one to fill this place’s void of life, or copy notes off of before a test. That was the day I met Julia. She was on her own when I approached her during the lunch period. We ended up sitting together, and were soon laughing over each other’s sense of humor and perspective, we just clicked.
That night over the phone Julia admitted to me that she had moved to the area only a year ago with her parents, who had come for the community, just as mine had. She had spent the last year anxiously making it through school on her own, and was worried this year would be the same, before she met me. I assured her that we’d stick together through whatever this place had to throw at us, and so it was sealed in the blossoming friendship between us.
It turned out that Julia lived close enough to my house to walk down the dirt road leading up to it, but the walk wasn’t a short one, so the night of our first sleepover her mom dropped her off. It had been a few days since we met, but we had bonded fast, coming to know more about each other than one might expect of a new friend. We connected over our loneliness, and our disdain for the cold, although Julia claimed you got over it after a while.
She settled in quickly, helped by my mom going out of her way to make our first guest as comfortable as possible. It was early in the evening and we had plenty to talk about, even if there wasn’t much around to do. Even the last town I had lived in was bigger than this one. Julia told me Clowerfield would grow on me, just like the cold would get less awful. I wasn’t so sure.
“I knew you were out in the country, but I didn’t know you were in THIS house” Julia said as we got up to my room, bouncing up onto my bed.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I laughed, landing in the chair behind my desk and spinning to face her as she leaned back.
“Means your parents are braver than mine”
“No really, what are you talking about?”
“Well, you know, right? You know how long this house went without a buyer? This is one of the places my family looked at when we got here, but the stories scared my mom.”
“Hold on, I know it went unsold for a long time, that’s half the reason my parents could get it so affordably and move here in the first place. What are you talking about though – stories?” I leaned forward, giving Julia a suspicious glare, to which she threw up her hands.
“What.. did they not tell you when they showed you the house? Claire, two kids have gone missing from this house. I thought they were required to say whenever they showed it to a buyer or whatever.”
I immediately stood from my chair, taking a breath before looking back at Julia. She seemed surprised by my visceral reaction, but how else was I supposed to take that kind of bombshell? I leaned forward closer, “Tell me what happened”.
“Aw I don’t really wanna talk about it y’know, this place is probably fine!”
“Alright, chill. I’ll tell you what I know at least, but you probably should try not to scare your family with any of this”
“Okay, technically only one person has gone missing. It was a girl that lived here like, 30 years ago maybe. I dunno her name, but I’ve heard older people talk about it after.. recent events out here. They said she went out to explore the woods and just never came back. Her family, the whole town even, searched for weeks, but never found a trace. Soon after the snow came, and they said if she was still lost out there she was most likely dead. So, that was remembered by people here I guess, because bad things don’t usually happen in Clowerfield. But four years ago, it happened again.
A kid named Keith moved here, to this same house. His family was said to be really nice, always too good for what happened to them. Keith was a young kid, like 12 or 13 when he went out to explore the woods. I guess he didn’t come back either because his parents freaked out. Everyone searched again, and this time managed to find him. He was catatonic and laying on the ground, shaking like something had taken over his body. I don’t know how true this is, but the rumors were that blood was dripping from his mouth, and that his skin had turned this strange dark color. I guess he got taken to the hospital, where they said he was trapped in a coma. No one knew how it could have happened, and each day he was there his skin grew darker and darker, as if something was taking over his body, and swallowing it up bit by bit, through and through. Eventually the parents went to check on him less, and I guess he never woke up. Or, if he did, I never heard about it from anyone.” Julia stated, looking down towards the end and shaking her head.
I was stricken speechless, what could I say? Even though I had never known those people, I felt pity for them, having something so precious be taken away, I couldn’t imagine the pain. Part of me wanted to run downstairs and tell my parents every detail, that this place wasn’t normal, but Julia reached out to grab my hand, snapping me from my trance. I came to my senses quickly enough, realizing it’d be inappropriate to tell them now, and that surely such things could be a coincidence, two abnormal things happening to good people who had lived in the same house.
“Hey, are you alright?” Julia asked sweetly.
“I’m alright, I need some air though” I told her, leaving the room to jog downstairs and out the back door as quick as I could. Almost as soon as I was outside standing on the grass I regretted it. It was even colder now! The sun would be setting soon, lowering into the dense brush of the forest behind our home. The forest that managed to take two different people from their lives, how? As I thought on the subject I heard the door open and close behind me, before Julia put a hand on my shoulder. I turned and smiled, taking the hug she offered me.
“Geez it’s cold out here” She murmured as she pulled away, I laughed.
“Yea dude, you know it better than I do!”
“It’s not normally THIS cold though, what’d you do out here?”
“Ahaha, now this is my fault??”
Julia just laughed at me, “Let’s go for a walk, it’ll clear your head”
“A walk out there? In the killer woods!?”
“Oh stop, it’s just normal woods. We have each other, we won’t even go out of view of the house.”
I really didn’t want to stand outside any longer, but a walk did sound nice. It would only get colder tonight anyways, and throughout the season for that matter. I agreed begrudgingly, not wanting to stay out past dark either. Julia nodded and we began taking steps through the yard, into the trees. My dad had been out here on his own a few days already, and the more I thought about it, the less dangerous things out here seemed. As we walked, I felt a strange sensation tug at my mind, almost like a trail of something I hadn’t recognized before. I turned and began to wander deeper into the woods. Julia was caught off guard by the change and had to jog to keep up, joining by my side.
“Hey, where are we going all of a sudden? We might lose track of the house out here”
“Yea but we won’t be that far, and.. I don’t know honestly, I just.. got this instinct. There’s something out here to see, something I’ve never seen before, I can tell! I just know it in my mind.”
“Well, alright then, let’s find something new!” Julia cheered. I knew Julia was like me, we may be growing up soon, but at heart could never give up our inner child’s sense of wonder and adventure. I had never felt this way before, something in my mind coming into focus as I got closer. I knew when we were almost there, and whatever it was, it was dark. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I could feel it clearly now, sprinting ahead and then… nothing. The feeling disappeared, and I was left blind in the woods. I hadn’t even been looking where I was going, now beginning to worry I’d gotten lost when Julia came bounding over the hill after me, panting. I quickly reached out for her, breathing a sigh of relief. I had hardly acknowledged her when she raised a finger, pointing behind me.
“Look at that!” She cried, brushing past to get a closer look. I had missed it entirely, but now turning around my eyes focused on a large, spindly shrub sprouting from the ground. It was the only thing around, aside from the deep aqua evergreens, that had any trace of green left on its branches. Its leaves were a brighter shade, hanging from thin, reaching arms that were gnarled and twisted. Almost totally concealed beneath the natural curtains of the leaves were large, shining black berries hanging in plump groups of pairs. Julia ran around the plant to look under its branches, gawking.
“Dude, do you know what this is?”
“Uh yea! You have a cherry tree growing in your backyard!” Julia exclaimed. I looked around, not even sure this could be called my yard anymore. The shadows of the trees still pointed back to the house though, so I wasn’t too concerned anymore. I stepped closer to the small tree, curious to get a look at the fruit with Julia when I stumbled over something poking up from the ground. I cursed as I fell, pulling my leg back from around a dark shape. At the base of the tree were several protrusions that I could see now, points and nubs sticking up, exposed from beneath the dirt. I reached out to feel the one I’d tripped over. It was a long, black shape, jutting out horizontally over a dip in the ground. The shape was oddly smooth, like stone, and towards one end curved inwards into a bulbous growth.
“Huh, I’ve never seen tree knees on a cherry tree,” Julia said, breaking the silence of my own curiosity. I stood and brushed myself off, glaring at the strange roots as I went over to Julia’s side. Here the ground was flat at least.
“I’ve never seen one with bark this dark either” she commented. We both giggled at the unintentional rhyme, on the same wavelength. The fruits of the tree looked extremely ripe, especially for late fall. The cherries hardly showed any hints of red, their skins instead a very dark, shiny shade near onyx. Without thinking, I reached up and picked one of the fruits from a cluster, grasping it gently in my fingers and rolling it back and forth. Its fat, slightly ovular shape made the light curve and curl over the contour of its skin, but there wasn’t a single blemish.
“What are you doing?” Julia asked, looking down at the fruit in my hand.
“I dunno.. I’m sure now this is what I was meant to find. ..Do you think they’re edible?”
“Uh, probably? I didn’t know cherries could be in season this late, but I don’t think there’s like, poisonous cherries?”
Without thinking about it any longer, I raised the black cherry to my mouth and took a bite. It was small, only tearing away a bit of the flesh around the pit. As soon as I had pierced the skin with my teeth, an incredibly sour taste seeped into my mouth, one that I couldn’t spit out fast enough. Julia stepped closer to check on me, but I could tell she was smiling at my impulsive decision. I couldn’t help myself, something about the sensation that led me out to this place had beckoned me to taste the fruit, like an urge in the back of my mind.
In the seconds after, I began to realize something was different, something was wrong. The air seemed to change, growing bitter as I stepped back from the tree and Julia. Or so I thought, but Julia wasn’t beside me anymore. I frantically began to turn and search the trees for her, spinning in circles to try and scan the area. I spoke her name before crying out for her, but I quickly realized my efforts were in vain. The sky was darker than it had been before, and the forest had taken on a bluish hue.
The more I looked around, the more I realized things had changed. Strange, flaking particles drifted through the air, falling from the trees. The trees themselves seemed to have withered, their barren trunks twisting up to a canopy of skeleton branches. I turned back to the cherry tree, still standing just the way it was, lively green leaves hanging down over its black fruit. I couldn’t process what was happening, was I somewhere different? How had everything changed quicker than I could have perceived it? Something thick dripped from a branch above, landing in the dead grass with a heavy **splop** sound a few feet away. I looked up for fear of seeing something above me, but the branches were empty.
I decided I’d had enough of this nightmare, running back to the house as fast as my legs could carry me. The shadows of the trees were faint, and more jagged than I remembered. After a minute I emerged from the clearing, pushing past sickly shrubs and saplings to the open space of my backyard. The house, to my relief, looked the same. I was still worried about Julia though, was she already inside? That had to be it, and I had simply gotten caught up in some weird daydream in the woods.
As I opened the sliding glass doors, it donned on me that none of the lights were turned on. It wasn’t that late, was it? I still couldn’t shake the feeling of something being terribly wrong. I looked back at the woods, I couldn’t ignore the signs, they were not the same woods that I had entered that night. I heard a whisper over my shoulder, whipping around expecting to find Julia, or maybe Alice, but no one was there. I walked into the kitchen, grabbing a glass off the counter. I needed some water. I went to the faucet and raised the handle, but the familiar splash never came. Nothing came out, no water. I waited a beat, praying for nothing else to go wrong on this bizarre evening. I needed something normal. Before I could set the handle back something sprayed out the faucet, and it was *not* water.
I screamed as a black sludge gushed from the faucet. It came with enough pressurized force to splash up out of the sink, spraying the kitchen windows and cabinets in the viscous slime. It sprayed up onto my arms and wet my shirt before I could reach the handle again. It seemed stuck in place, fighting as I tried to set it back, but finally it snapped back into the off position. The mess coming from the faucet began to slow, gradually turning to a drip, but not quite all the way stopped. I groaned and did my best to scrape the heavy fluid from myself, flinging it off in ropy clumps that stuck to the floor. My shirt was ruined, but at this point I figured that wasn’t the most pressing concern.
That was the last straw. This was not my home, if even my own plane of existence. This was somewhere else, twisted and changed. My mind went back to the cherry bush and I knew I had to get back to it. I knew no one was here so I didn’t worry about flinging open the back door and bolting out of the house. I made my way back to the treeline, and sure enough the sensation returned. I wasn’t sure if I should feel relieved or unnerved by the foreign influence in my head, but it led me where I needed to go.
Soon I was back to a circle of stripped, leafless trees, centered around the cherry tree. I ran up to it before stopping myself, remembering the last time when I had fallen. I surveyed the ground for any sign of the roots, but nothing was there. There were no strange dark protrusions or shapes, which was odd considering the cherry tree seemed to be the only thing that *hadn’t* changed. I shook my head, probably thinking too hard about this whole nonsensical mess. Without waiting another moment, I plucked a cherry from the tree. I stared into it deeply, examining its surface. It was perfect, just like the first. Something else dripped down from above and splattered near my feet, speckling my boots with black droplets like the goo from the sink. Making up my mind after that, I took a deep breath and bit into the flesh of the fruit.
I sputtered, spitting the fruit again from my mouth. It tasted just how I remembered, and yet was still too sickeningly sour to bear. At least it seemed to work as I had hoped. I looked around and found the forest had returned to its normal state. The strange bluish light that seemed to cover everything was no longer present. Excitedly, I began to call out Julia’s name, turning in circles again. I got no response, she wasn’t out here. However, I didn’t know how long I had been out for. It seemed unlike her to leave me alone out here, even as short a time we had known each other, we cared for one another. I looked down at my clothes, not ruined. This had to be right.
Turning towards the shadows of the trees, I made my way back to the house. The hard winter soil seemed to have softened a bit, maybe there was a creek near here or something. I didn’t wonder too much about it, since the lights of my house came into view. Eagerly, I ran up to the glass door and stepped inside. I was greeted with a start by my mom, popping up from the diminishing piles in the living room once more. She seemed happy to see me, and I was happier to see her. My dad walked over from the stove, giving me a “Hey kiddo,” before getting back to work. He was making dinner in his usual flowery apron.
“Have you guys seen Julia?” I asked as I took a seat at the table, it was obvious by the warm smells of food that we’d be served soon. Alice jumped into the chair across from mine, and my mom sat to my side a second later.
“Julia? Is that a friend of yours?” My father asked from the kitchen, pulling plates from the cabinet. It looked like stir-fry, I couldn’t wait to eat again, even if Julia’s disappearance was weighing on my mind.
“Yes dear, we know Julia.” My mom called back to my dad, giving her head a little shake and turning to me. “She went home a while ago hun, I’m surprised she didn’t tell you,”
I felt my heart sink a little, but nodded. Maybe I didn’t know her as well as I had thought. My dad gallivanted to the dining room table, balancing plates on his arms, and my smile returned. I was starving, and gladly I accepted a utensil. It felt a bit greasy in my fingers, but I paid no mind as I looked at the heap of fried rice and vegetables before me. The smell was heavenly. Just as I was prepared to take my first bite, something caught my eye. I raised my head to see my sister, pulling her fork from her mouth, blood dribbling messily from her lips. I gasped and my parents looked up at me with a spark of shock. My mother followed my gaze to Alice and simply chuckled, raising a napkin to her face and wiping away the red smears.
“Now Alice, you know not to be so messy at dinner” My mother chided.
“What’s the matter kiddo? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” My dad looked me in the eyes innocently. I stared back at him in disbelief, and then shook my head, looking back down at my plate. Cautiously, I sunk the tongs of my fork into a piece of broccoli, of which, tiny bubbles of red blood began to leak from. I dropped the fork and stood from the table. Everyone seemed to look at me in confusion, but I couldn’t look back, instead running from my place at the table and pushing myself out the back door.
I could hear my parents calling my name, but I had already ran past the treeline, following any shred of intuition I had left to find the cherry tree. This couldn’t be happening, why was the food bleeding? Where was Julia?
As if answering my inner, starving sense of last hope, I heard her voice. I stumbled to a stop, turning and seeing her standing to my left. She was deeper in the forest, at least 50 feet away from me. I began to walk towards her when I heard another voice.
I whipped around to see a boy standing behind me, arms outstretched. He looked about my age, maybe a little younger, and was rather scrawny. There was peach fuzz stubble on his face, under a long mess of ratty, clumped hair. His clothes were torn, and patched in places with what looked like some kind of grey leather. This kid looked like he’d been living in the wilderness his whole life, and I’d never seen him before. I took a cautious step back, leaning away from him as he approached.
“Who a-are you?!” was all I could think to ask.
“My name is Keith, and I’m trying to help, I swear. That thing over there is not your friend,”
I turned back to look for Julia, but she wasn’t standing there anymore. She wasn’t anywhere anymore, she’d vanished. “What the…”
“C’mon, that’s our cue to leave, it looks like it won’t try hunting when you’re not alone,” I heard Keith say. I wanted desperately to ask what was happening, but the kid was already moving into the trees at a quick pace. I figured I didn’t have a choice but to follow at this point, nervously looking behind me as I ran to catch up with him. Eventually he slowed down, and after a long walk in silence, when I felt just about ready to burst, he spoke.
“Here we are, this is home”
I looked down to see a small shelter, embedded into the ground. Part of it seemed like a natural ridge, and part of it.. was woven from some horrifying arrangement of bone.
“What is this?!” I shrieked, stumbling back away from the cave.
“Keep your voice down, alright, this is the safest place out here and I suggest you get inside” Keith answered from the dark of the curtain of bone. I really, truly did not want to go anywhere near that cave, but it was getting dark outside, and I knew it couldn’t be safe to be alone. Begrudgingly, I walked around the boney little overhang connecting to the ground and ducked under the ridge. Crawling into a strange, pinkish corridor I stepped down along a ledge until my boots dropped onto flat ground. The cave was surprisingly large inside, an entire room completely in the ground, just big enough for us both and a small fire. The entire space also seemed to be lined with something. I wasn’t sure how the smoke was escaping, or how one person could make something like this. The walls were pink as well, with creepy, vein-like cracks of darker red running around them.
“What is this place?” I asked, my eyes crawling all over the dark room.
“Some kind of cavity, I’m not sure honestly, just lucky I found it” Keith answered, picking up a long, sharpened bone and attaching some kind of meat to it to hold over the fire. I shuddered.
“Cavity? That’s kind of an odd word”
“You don’t get it yet, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re lucky I found you. What’s your name?”
“Well Claire, this place, this world isn’t like ours. It-”
“Oh my god! Are you the Keith kid that disappeared? What happened!” He seemed taken aback by my interjection. I had been wondering it all along, but this talk of worlds and changes made me believe it.
“Y-yea, that’s uh, that’s me” He said, seeming to choke up at the words. I moved to his side and he began to sniffle, but refused to cry. “A long time ago, I found the same cherry tree that I know you did. I took a bite of the fruit, ugh, I’ll never forget that awful, sour taste in my mouth. After that, I had somehow been transported to someplace else, an entirely different dimension, without people or any signs of life. There, the world had become darker, it wasn’t like anything I had ever seen. Eventually going back to the cherry tree, I tried the fruit again.
When I got to this place, whatever it may be, I too thought it was home. Like you probably did. But I quickly realized my parents acting strange, and that everything felt wrong in a way. I felt it in my mind, but also literally, the walls of my house and the glass on the windows. Everything stretched, moved, *breathed*. In this place, everything is the same, and is alive. The trees, the grass, even the earth itself are all different creatures of the same nature, they just look different. Their insides are all the same, but the people are different beyond appearances. At the time, I was too afraid to go back to the cherry tree, trying to reason with my parents about the changes all around us. I did everything to try and show them that our house, and the furniture inside, had somehow come alive! They never listened. Eventually, they grew aggressive, responding to my pleas for them to notice with barks, and inhuman sounds, almost like they were hissing.”
Keith began to sob at last, talking about how his parents had changed into some kind of monsters. “They finally proved they could change their shape by growing claws and fangs that filled their mouths. They crawled like animals and lunged like predators. In the end, I ended up fighting for my life against them, but I managed to kill them both, the monsters, before they killed me. Honestly I can hardly remember it, just flashes of screaming and crying. There was so much blood. I’ve never been so scared in my life. That day changed me.
There are others too, other ‘people’ like the ones that pretended to be my parents. They always take the shape of someone you know, to lure you in. That’s why I called you away from your friend. It was hunting you. The other ones here, the trees and buildings, are the same kind of creature I think. Alive, but able to change their shape to look like something else. Or maybe, they never change, always disguised as whatever takes their place in our dimension. I’ve only seen the ‘people’ transform. Everything else is still, except for the breathing. They’re docile, easy food. The only food, really. I don’t understand how the trees here grow, but everything in this place defies logic and sense. Everything is alive, everything breathes, but not like you and I. That’s how I knew you weren’t one of them. You looked natural, normal. I haven’t seen a person like you in… years now,” Keith finished, finally looking up at me through red, teary eyes.
I stood, looking around the cave and holding my breath. Slowly, nervously, I touched the wall. It was warm, and ever so slightly, moved beneath my fingers. I withdrew my hand quickly. Keith picked up a chunk of a branch stored in the corner, raising it in his hands to show as proof. The ends were dark stumps, hard to see by the light of the fire, but I could clearly make out the bark on the branch as he gripped a flake of it. Gradually at first, and then when a grunt, he ripped away the piece of bark that sagged in his fingers, exposing the flesh of the branch, which began to bleed excessively. I couldn’t believe my eyes, gritting my teeth at the sight.
“We have to get back to the cherry tree, this place is wrong, we have to leave!”
“I can’t,” Keith said flatly.
“What are you talking about, don’t you want to go back?”
“Well, I can, but I won’t. There is no going back, Claire. Isn’t it obvious how this works? That thing never takes you home, only somewhere else, somewhere random. Here I can survive, I have what I need. In another dimension, I don’t know! What happens when you end up somewhere without a cherry tree huh? What happens when it only gets worse the deeper you go?”
“You really think you have that thing figured out?”
“No, I never said that, but I have figured out enough to know it’s evil. I don’t wanna know anything else about it.”
“You know they found your body, back home? I wasn’t there but I heard you’re in a coma. You didn’t really leave.”
“Okay, well… I didn’t know that, but it’s not like it matters. Are you going to stand there, in front of me, and tell me you aren’t really here!?” Keith shouted, clearly upset thinking of home.
“I don’t know, man. Maybe I am, it feels like I am, but one way or another I’m still gonna get home, and that cherry tree is my last hope!” I shouted back, sticking to my cause, refusing to accept I was somehow lost forever out here. I opened my mouth to speak again, but Keith silenced me, standing up with me now. There was sound outside, a branch snapping.
I could feel my heart in my chest, and everything seemed to fall quiet. I wanted to kick out the fire, but knew then we’d be blind in a hole, still trapped. Another twig broke, and with it, I heard it squelch beneath something’s foot. It was right at the entrance of the cave. It knew we were here. Step by step, it padded down the canal before I saw it appear from behind a flap of pink. It wore Julia’s skin like ill-fitting clothes, but I knew it wasn’t her, half-shed from its disguise. The rest of it was grey, where her flesh split and stretched. Its eyes were set back deeper in its skull, bony ridges raised around the sockets set with black, beady orbs. The top of its mouth split, Julia’s lips torn away to show long, jagged sets of teeth. The curved blades of bone and enamel went back in rows, and came forward in the front, spilling out from over the ledge of its gums. Its skull stretched back farther as well, the light of the fire briefly showing the hanging remains of Julia’s skin draped over gnarled horns and the hinge of its snout-like jawbone. Its back was arched in under its strained neck, and its appendages wore dangling sleeves of flesh, broken like cocoons by its angular, overgrown limbs. Sickly, blackened claws dangled from its hands, draped from its poised arms before itself.
The sight of my friend, of a human, twisted so over the body of such a horrid creature made me want to retch. Still, I was frozen as it entered the cave, and could just make out Keith reaching for something. I guess the monster saw it as well, hissing and lunging suddenly towards him before noticing me. It moved alarmingly fast, but Keith was faster, meeting its advance with the swing of a large club of bone. Keith managed to brain the creature with a solid **thwach**, sending it sprawling against the wall, where it finally seemed to notice me. The monster turned its head at a crooked, unnatural angle, locking eyes with me. Part of its face had been cleaved open by the edge of the club, the top of its head split, blood and brain sloughing down the back of its neck. The monster seemed dazed only briefly, before clambering for its footing and tackling Keith before he was able to swat it again. By the flickering firelight I saw him turn to me, jabbing the sharp end of the club through the creature’s jaw.
“Go!!” he screamed, “The others will be coming for you too!”
I wanted to help, to do anything to make the horror of the night stop, but he screamed again as he struggled to fight back the monster. I had no choice. Turning and pushing the sounds of tearing flesh from my mind, I clambered out of the hole and began running back through the woods. It was painfully dark, but the light of the moon illuminated some of the forest floor with an eerie white. Part of me wondered if the moon was alive here too, but was silenced by a voice cutting through the night.
“Claire! Where are you!?” My father called distantly, except it wasn’t him. I knew better now, he was one of them. I heard my mother too, closer. Her voice was more garbled, less human. I tried to push away the distractions with all my willpower, focusing only on the cherry tree. It was close, just a little farther and I’d be able to see it. I ran as hard as I could now, panting. Something dashed out of a bush behind me, something fast. The motion was a blur behind me, low to the ground, small. I saw the curls of my little sister’s hair in the moonlight and my stomach sank. I was so close, I could see the green of its leaves now, just a few more feet.
I yelped as my leg was swept out from under me, exploding with the pain of being filled with knives. She had bit my calf, her rows of gleaming teeth digging into my flesh and dragging me down. I landed hard on my side, twisting and screaming as I felt its claws on my body. Kicking blindly, I felt my heel connect with something. The thing was torn from my leg, taking away a deep strip of my flesh with it, clamped tight in its maw still. I took the chance to stagger forward, my leg screaming in pain. I couldn’t walk, but I reached the cherry tree, miraculously, collapsing into its branches. I hurriedly plucked a fruit from the branch above me when I felt it on my back. It clambered up behind me, digging its claws into my shoulders. I put the cherry between my teeth, biting through the flesh moments before I felt the bite into my neck. Blood was pouring from my body, and the monster pulled me apart as I sensed the world darkening around me.