She didn’t know where Charlie was, but she could see where he had gone. The snow was thick, and it betrayed Charlie in an instant. Jena followed the tracks with her eyes and her flashlight away from the house, and up and over the hill.
She hesitated. She knew exactly where Charlie had snuck off to yet again, and that gave her pause. Jena knew her older brother well. They were never apart, except for when he went there. When he went to the Marsh House across the creek. That’s where he was now. Over the hill, across the creek, and he was watching it again. Trying to see what was inside.
How could he? He had left her there. By herself. Outside. The thought that she was alone at night finally came to her. She turned, monsters suddenly behind her, but reality blew her nightmares away. There was only darkness there, dotted with specks of late snow. They floated in no particular direction, carefree and unconcerned which way they took. Beyond them, a solid wall of night. So thick that it could drown her if she lowered her flashlight. Silence her.
She could face it, chase it back, and walk into the house. She could leave Charlie to his own foolish decisions. She didn’t. She couldn’t leave Charlie alone. Not there. Not tonight. Tonight she could finally catch him.
She allowed the darkness to follow as she ran up the hill.
Trudging through the snow that swallowed her ankles, she kicked and pushed to get over the incline, and she struggled to stay upright as gravity pulled her down the other side. With darkness keeping pace, she knew she couldn’t stop. She didn’t want to. She only wanted Charlie.
The wind whispered in her ear, and she shook its sharp tongue from her face. Bushes rose out of the night. Where they grew thinnest she slipped between them, and she dropped down to the creek bed below. The water was shallowest here, narrow, and she leapt across it with ease. Scampering up the other bank, the cold stabbed at her exhausted lungs like daggers, but she didn’t yield. She found Charlie’s footprints again, and she chased him.
She could have called, but she was across the creek now. This wasn’t home anymore. The barren land here was hard beneath the snow. Home was further and further away every second, and her father had told her many times about this place. He warned her that the land over the creek is the Marsh’s land. She wasn’t allowed to play on it. Neither was Charlie. The difference was that Charlie didn’t care.
“The Marshes are dead,” he had told her. “I heard about it at school. Everyone knows they’re dead. It’s the thing that lives in the house that you gotta watch out for.”
She never believed him. Their mom said it was nonsense. A tall-tale. It wasn’t real for Jen, but it was for Charlie. She knew that’s why he snuck out at night. In the dark. Isn’t that where the monsters live?
Though the footprints guided her to Charlie, she felt a warmth leak from her eyes as she imagined the darkness behind her growing corporeal. She could feel it scraping her back with claws, nudging her arms as she ran, and breathing down her tiny neck. She could feel every labored breath coming in sync with hers. Just as fast. Just as strong. Just as overwhelming. Jena wiped away the tear. Charlie was strong. She could be, too.
Jena was worried. She knew the house was getting near. The snow fell harder now, and with her vision reduced to nothing but black and white, she started to hate Charlie. Truly she hated him in the way siblings do. How dare he make her run out here, alone, after him? She was going to beat him when she found him.
If you find him, the night whispered.
The tracks went on, but it wasn’t right. Charlie should have stopped by now. He never got too close to the Marsh House. Never. Not even he and his friends dared when they tried, and Jena had watched. They barely went further than the creek, not even halfway to the place. None of them had the guts to go closer. Not Charlie. Certainly not alone. Why had Charlie continued? What did he want? They never saw anything of interest at the Marsh House. There was no monster. It wasn’t real. So why had he come so close? What had he seen?
Then, as a shape rose from the dark, Jena realized that she was there. It stood, just at the edge of sight, like a ghost. A legend born from shadow. The home was gray and rotted, and it seemed to stare at her with a stoic face. The windows looked like eyes, and the shutters made it look cross. The old Marsh house. It was here that Charlie’s footsteps stopped.
Jena stared at the prints, heartbroken that she hadn’t found Charlie, and terrified that he had brought her so close. She felt betrayed. She couldn’t look away. She watched it move. The door was ajar, and it swung in with each and every gust. It was like the house was breathing; the air for each breath raced past her ears and up its stairs, and into its dark jaws.
She wondered if something watched from within. It was angry. The house was angry, and she felt shame. So she looked down.
The footsteps at her feet hadn’t ended, instead they had turned. Charlie had turned from the house, and he had left. He’d headed back towards the creek. He’d turned his back on the place, and she would have to as well. But how? It was far too terrible to ignore.
So she fell away, slowly, following her brother’s backtracks. The house started to slip out of existence once more. It still stared at her as she glanced back to it, and it seemed to change with the light upon it. It looked like it had been betrayed by her departure. Enraged. It looked to Jena like it could, that it would, spring up at any moment and follow her. She shuddered and, turning the flashlight away from it, allowed the evil place to drown itself in the night. She whimpered.
Charlie’s footsteps were different than they had been before. Before, she could almost match his strides. Now, she had to leap from foot to foot if she wished to do the same. He was taking bigger steps. Huge steps. Jena shook her head. No, he was running. From what? The thought of the house charging from beyond like some great, ravenous beast forced her to stop in her tracks and turn. Nothing followed her, and nothing had followed Charlie either. The only other tracks in the snow were hers. Even though the thought that it was only her and Charlie out there, in the Marsh’s land, should have comforted her, it didn’t. Her breath shook. She trembled, and she could no longer stop the tears from flowing free.
Nor could she stop from running.
Like her brother before, Jena ran into the night. The creek would come soon, she knew that for sure. Charlie had to be on the other side. He was just ahead. He would be just across the creek, waiting for her. He’d be smiling like an idiot. She knew she’d find him, and everything would be ok.
The footprints moved across her sight like cars down a highway. She counted each one as it passed. Soon, very soon, they would turn to feet. Turn into Charlie. Charlie would be there. She would cry. She would scream. She would hug him, and they would never go back to that place. Ever.
Never again. They would…the tracks stopped.
She gasped as she came to a halt.
It wasn’t possible.
It hadn’t been like before, when Charlie had turned. No, there was nowhere left to go. The tracks stopped. Dead. There were two prints, side-by-side in the snow, but then no more. No more prints, and no Charlie. The snow in each direction except for back was still. Unmarred and fresh. The end of the trail was here, but her brother had been plucked from the face of the Earth.
Charlie was gone.
Her face contorting with overwhelming sadness, fear, and confusion, Jena fell to her knees.
She finally cried.
“Charlie,” she yelled to the sky, “Charlie, I need you! Where are you Charlie? Oh, Charlie come back!”
She wailed. Kneeling in the snow that late night, Jena had no idea that Charlie could hear her. In fact, he was forced to watch as she cried out for him. Struggle as he might, there was nothing he could do but watch from above her in the trees. Tears rolled down his face too, and he watched as one rolled down the motley, rotted hand of his captor. The same hand that silenced his own screams of terror. The creature that held him trembled at the sight of his sister. Its breath, like fetid flesh, burned hot inside Charlie’s nose.
It shifted, and Charlie knew that soon it would swoop down from the tree, like it had before, and hoist Jena up with him. It could do it easily. Both of them, captured, one under each of its’ hideous arms. Its white eyes were wide, and shaking in anticipation. Its black tongue licked its scaly lips. Charlie shook as the evil thing smiled.
There was only one chance. Charlie watched the tear roll down the beast’s fingers. It had gathered into a droplet there, on the creature’s pinky finger. A single drop that was ready to fall as the beast spread its bat-like wings behind them. The droplet trembled. Charlie readied himself, for he knew now what to do. He hoped, he prayed, that if he could struggle at just the right moment, that tear would fall. It would fall onto his beloved sister’s face, and she would look up.
Maybe then, just maybe, would she have enough time to react. To run. It was too late for Charlie, but his sister wouldn’t suffer like he would. She could go home. She shouldn’t have come here, but she did it for the right reasons. Charlie loved her. He hoped, in the confusion to come, he would be able to tell her.
The beast loosened its grip, for just a moment, and Charlie pushed.
The teardrop fell.
Credited to Ryan Brennaman