Where The Dead Things Go
“Daddy, where do all the dead things go?” I asked my father that question when I was very small. We'd come across a dead bird lying on the sidewalk, and I had frozen in place, staring down at it with a mixture of fascination and disgust. I was a precocious child, so I already knew that everything that lives on this Earth has to die, and I also knew that the world had been turning for a very long time. It seemed to me that the world ought to be more or less full up with the dead things, by now.
I didn't understand the answer my father gave me at the time, and it faded from my memory over the years. Recently something happened to me that brought it back from the depths of my subconscious, and made me wish I could have remembered his words sooner.
It happened not long after I left home. I was one of the lucky few who actually gets a job after college - nothing spectacular, but it's work I enjoy. The one problem I had was that housing prices are through the roof where I live, and while I hope I've got a promising career ahead of me, the entry level wages in my field are not the best. I didn't want to do the roommate thing, having had enough of that in school.
So I shopped around, first the mid-range rental offerings of property management companies, then whatever I could find listed online. I found a lot of nice apartments, but nothing in my budget. It was only when I resorted to The Mountain Trader – a weekly tabloid that's all classified ads, it was my town's printed craigslist before the internet and is still going strong today – that I found something I could afford.
FOR RENT: Cabin, 1 BR, 1 bath. $350 a month. Normally that kind of a deal would give me pause, as it's way below the average for these parts, but the address printed below the ad partially explained it for me: It was near the edge of town by the old railroad tracks, and that area was a patchwork of old trailers and small one-story houses once used by lumber workers before new regulations and cheaper Canadian softwoods shut most of the mills down for good. These places were often of dubious quality, but on the other hand many had been remodeled over the years and looked a lot nicer inside than they did from the street. I called the number for the listing, and found the landlord eager to rent the place out, as his last tenant had departed in a hurry.
That revelation made me even more dubious about the condition of the cabin, but I agreed to meet the owner there for a viewing anyway, since I didn't have any other real prospects. As I had expected, the outside was less than impressive – it was small as I had imagined it would, crudely painted beige with pale green trim. (I'm no expert, but even I know you're supposed to remove the old peeling paint before applying the new.) The inside though, was another story entirely. The front door opened into the main area of the house, which was divided between new linoleum in the compact kitchen and equally recent carpeting in the living room. The tiny bathroom contained just a shower and toilet, but I didn't mind washing my hands in the kitchen sink. The bedroom was barely big enough for a double bed, but it had a little closet with one of those combination washer-dryer units stuffed into it.
I gotta admit, I was finding myself pretty enamored of the cabin. I've always kind of liked cozy little spaces – call me a claustro-philiac, I guess? So, I didn't give any more thought to why the last tenant left in such a hurry, and I told the landlord I'd take it. He didn't even ask for a deposit, just first and last month's rent, which I came up with easily since I'd been budgeting for something twice as expensive.
I moved in the following Monday, and for a while everything went well. I was doing great at my new job, and enjoying the newfound independence of living in my own little domicile. I even made in a friend in my neighbor, Tom, a middle-aged retiree who lived next door in an almost identical house, one of three in a row including mine. One night I set up my charcoal grill on the little patch of grass that served as a front yard for all three of the old cabins, and invited Tom over to share in my bounty of burgers, brats, and beers. Mostly we just engaged in companionable bullshitting about anything and everything, but after a while it occurred to me to ask if Tom had any idea why my predecessor in the cabin had run off so abruptly, when it seemed like such a good deal. Tom laughed, and turned his head towards the nearby bushes to eject a gobbet of tobacco spit before answering.
“Why, cause your cabin's haunted, o'course!” he replied, jovially.
I laughed. “Come on though, seriously.”
“I am serious, son,” Tom insisted, his genial manner slowly fading into a look of concern. “Everybody knows about the thing in that cabin. Hell, I assumed you knew.”
I glanced back at my quiet little abode, slightly unsettled. The cabin was old, but you didn't think of little places like that being haunted or whatever – maybe because there's so little space for anything to hide in. Even though I've never really believed in ghosts, I found the idea very disturbing. Then I looked back at Tom and caught the twinkle in his eye, despite his grim expression.
“Oh right. Yeah, funny stuff, you old bastard,” I said, with a mostly feigned scowl.
“I had ya there for a second!” he crowed, barking out a raspy laugh. “Naw, hell if I know why the other guy left, he kept to himself. I didn't even realize he was gone until the landlord came by to take his stuff to storage and put a 'For Rent' sign in the window.”
I let the matter rest, and we moved on to other topics. I finally bid Tom goodnight and turned in after a few hours and a few too many beers, and was rewarded with a mild hangover the next morning. It wasn't until I was about to leave for work that I got the first sign that all was not well in my new home.
As I reached for the doorknob, I froze in shock. There, in the middle of the door was what I could only describe as an oversized human eye. I stared at it in utter disbelief for a moment, wondering if I had somehow overlooked a quirky decoration that had come with the cabin. And then it blinked.
I backpedaled so fast that I slipped on the slick new linoleum and smacked my head on a kitchen cabinet. I winced in pain as I rubbed the back of my head and collected my wits. Mind reeling, I struggled up to a sitting position, but when the stars cleared from my vision there was no sign of the eye, or any blemish at all on the plain white door. I touched the door, verifying its smooth, clean feel with my fingertips, and let out a long, slow breath. Seeing and feeling no sign of the apparition, I chocked it up to my hangover, or maybe Tom's stupid joke bouncing around in my subconscious.
When I returned from work, I found Tom as I often did, seated on the front step of his cabin with beer in hand. He raised his can of Bud Light in salute, and I thought about berating him over the joke again, but instead I found myself asking a question.
“Hey, Tom – remember what you said last night about the cabin? Do you think something like that might've scared the last guy off?” I asked, then quickly amended, “The story of it, I mean. Are there, like, old wives tales about this place?”
Tom scratched his stubble thoughtfully. “Huh, I dunno. Why do you ask?”
“Just curious about the local history, I guess,” I lied.
“Well,” Tom began, after taking sip. “As to that, I remember from when I was kid that there used to be about a dozen old cabins here that were supposed to have been company housing for mill workers way back when. Over the years they were all torn down except for these last three, which have been restored and remodeled a few times to keep 'em livable.”
“And are there stories about...?” I pressed, hoping he wouldn't make me say it.
“Ghosts?” he said, grinning slightly and raising his eyebrows. “Hell, son, I wouldn'ta said that shit if I thought you'd really get spooked. Come on now, you seem like you got your head screwed on straight, what do you think?”
“I'm not spooked,” I protested. “Just curious, like I said.”
Tom eyed me dubiously, but continued. “Well, any time you got rough folk working a rough trade, and all of 'em crowded together in one place, bad stuff tends to happen. I figure that's where most ghost stories come from, and I heard a few. A worker lost an arm at the mill and bled out, and his ghost wanders his old stompin' grounds, bawling for his missing limb. A woman thought her logger husband was unfaithful to her when he'd be gone working the forest for long stretches of time, and one day he came home to find she'd smothered their infant son and then cut her own wrists. They say she's still there in the house where she killed her baby and herself, taking out all that misplaced anger on anyone unlucky enough to spend the night there. Some stories are even older than the mills – my grandpa, he was a Blackfoot, and he never would come into town to work the lumber, even when times were hard on the reservation. He said this land was cursed, and that there were old spirits that walked these lands that were not to be trifled with.”
I'm not superstitious, but as Tom recounted the stories I began to feel genuinely uneasy.
“Now, do you know what all of these tales have in common?” he said, leaning in close.
I swallowed, finding my mouth had become rather dry. “What?”
Tom smiled, but this time in a friendly, rather than a mocking way. “They ain't true. Oh, I didn't make 'em up. I really heard folks tell 'em, and I know some people think they're true, but I been around a while now and I ain't seen nothin' to make me believe in that kind of crap. Think about it, son. Bad shit has been happening to people since time began, and if even a small percentage of all those poor sons of bitches got to stick around and take it out on the living after they die, then you wouldn't just hear a few stories about ghosts. Ghosts would be stacked up like cordwood everywhere, and everyone would know about them because there'd be too damn many to miss! Same goes for hoary old pagan gods and Native spirits like my grandpa believed in – lots of people have lots of stories about a lot of weird and spooky shit, but if a tenth of those things were really around you couldn't swing a dead cat without smacking some kind of bugaboo upside the head.”
I blinked and nodded silently, as Tom turned his head and spit out a stream of tobacco. By the time he turned back, a half smile had crept on to my face. I actually felt better. What Tom said made sense, and it also tickled at something in my memory, something I still had yet to remember about a dead bird on the sidewalk and my father's gentle voice telling me something important. Before the memory could coalesce fully, it slipped away as I heard Tom rise.
“Welp,” the old man said, stretching creakily as he rose. “I'm gonna turn in. Sleep tight.”
As he went inside I just nodded mutely again, still digesting his words of wisdom. Soon after I went into my own cabin, feeling much relieved and in need of sleep. After a quick shower, I got into bed and drifted off to sleep. It didn't feel like I'd been asleep that long when I awoke to a strange sound. I rolled over and screwed my eyes shut in annoyance, trying to place the sound. It was kind of a rushing sound, like white noise, and I thought of cars passing on the nearby road. I waited for it to stop, but it only grew louder. Why would so many cars be passing this late, and so close? As I listened to the sound, my heart began to beat faster.
It wasn't white noise, or the rush of traffic. It was a voice.
It wasn't any language I could understand, it was just like syllables being hissed out by a gale force wind
It repeated these sounds, the volume growing louder, and then began to repeat them a third time. The voice sounded closer, and I rolled onto my back, opening my eyes. I screamed. All around me, on the ceiling, the walls, my bedroom door...there were hundreds, maybe thousands of eyes staring at me with a piercing, lambent gaze. The voice grew to an almost painful howl, drowning out my own cries. I could understand it, now.
I was going mad. I was already mad. This thing was going to get me, it was going to tear me apart, there was nothing I could do.
My screams turned to wailing sobs that ravaged my throat even though they were all but silent next to the voice ringing in my ears and burning through my sanity. I felt like I was being obliterated, like my mind was being blasted into oblivion by this sound, if you could even call it a sound. I hadn't known what terror was until I experienced this. As the last syllable died away and it began to pronounce another baleful utterance, I mercifully blacked out.
I awoke with a start, morning light peeking in through the closed blinds in my bedroom. No eyes. No voice. Obviously, it had been a nightmare. That's what I tried to tell myself. I got up and went to work, but I was a wreck, and I only managed to stumble my way through half the work day before my boss pulled me aside and told me – in an HR-appropriate manner – to go home and get my shit together.
I drove around aimlessly for a while, not knowing what else to do, but I definitely didn't feel like going home. In the end I drove to a nearby park, and sat down in the gazebo. It felt like a safe place, for some reason – weird scary shit doesn't happen in the middle of the day with a kids' soccer game going on nearby, right?
I spent an hour or two there, and began to calm down. All the litanies of my rational mind began to soothe my frazzled nerves: It was your imagination. It was a dream. There's no such thing as ghosts. Monsters aren't real. I shook my head and chuckled softly, as I looked down at the picnic table in the gazebo where I sat.
“Dumbass,” I muttered to myself, beginning to feel embarassed at my lapse in common sense, picking nervously at the peeling paint on the picnic table. I sighed heavily and began to rise, but I was startled by the feel of the wood beneath my fingertips suddenly changing from rough to smooth and slick. I glanced down sharply, and then recoiled in horror as I saw a huge round eye embedded in the tabletop, staring up at me.
I screamed and leapt to my feet, barely stopping myself from tumbling over backwards. As I did so, dozens more eyes sprang open on the tabletop and looked towards me. People looked around at me in surprise as I reeled back from the table and yelled, but the confused looks on their faces told me they didn't see what I saw.
Ignoring all inquiries and protests from park patrons and startled soccer moms, I fled back to my car and sped away, the awful realization sinking into my guy like a stone. It wasn't my cabin. It was me. Whatever this thing was, it was following me. It seemed like it didn't matter where I went, so with few options I went home. I knocked on Tom's door, but for once he wasn't there. At this point, I didn't think it would matter. Either I had gone completely insane, or whatever was after me could come for me even if I was surrounded by other people.
I went inside, but even with my increasing fatalism and despair, I didn't feel like going back in my bedroom. I slid down onto the kitchen floor, my back resting against the cold hard surface of the refrigerator door. I was afraid, out of my mind with terror. Even though I had scant hope of escaping whatever this thing planned to do to me, my eyes darted everywhere, and my body was one big ball of readied tension. I don't know how long I sat there like that, on the edge of sanity. I don't know how I could have fallen asleep in that condition. But the next thing I knew, I was waking up...to the sound of footsteps on the kitchen floor.
It was dark in the kitchen, but the moonlight through the windows was enough to see by. I slowly lifted my eyes, and saw a vision out of nightmare. A dark, twisted feminine figure stood before me. She looked like a day-old corpse, clad in shredded rags, with fresh blood dripping from her hands. As I took in the horrific sight, it was compounded tenfold as on the door and wall behind her, dozens of the terrible lambent eyes opened. She took a jerky step towards me, and I pressed myself back hard against the fridge, too paralyzed with fear to do more to flee this creature and her mind-rending gaze.
“You did this...” she rasped in a voice that froze my blood, extending her livid arms to display her still bleeding wrists. As she turned her rotten face to me, the many eyes swept over the room.
“No,” I whimpered, remembering Tom's story of the spurned wife who killed herself. Had it been here? “Not me, that wasn't me!”
“You made me kill our baby!” she shrieked, her mouth opening impossibly wide as she howled her accusation. The eyes on the wall all focused on me.
“No!” I screamed. “God, the eyes! Your eyes-”
The voice cut me off mid-sentence. Not the rasping, wailing the corpse woman had used a moment before, but the voice from the previous night that wracked my soul and split my head in two.
I doubled over in agony at the sound as the cadaverous woman loomed over me, and then raised her head suddenly.
Her decayed maw opened wide again, splitting her desiccated lips, but even through my horror and confusion I realized something. Her mouth was not in sync with the shattering force of the syllables...it was not coming from her.
The ragged woman whirled around to face the wall of eyes, and took an abrupt step back, as if startled.
Then it was as if the wall split in two, eyes and all, and...something pushed its way through into my house. My eyes were burning, but I could not blink against the brightness of that terrible being, nor could I understand its form. It was as though it was many things at once. From moment to moment I saw something like a human face, then a muzzle full of fangs, blurring rending claws, slashing talons, goring horns, human feet, clawed limbs, hooves, wings...and eyes, so many eyes.
I could not see the truth of what it was, but I could see the full, terrible reality of what it did. It tore the ragged woman apart as she screamed, clawing uselessly at the ever-changing mass of light with the thousandfold gaze. Looking upon its savage work burned away my vision to a featureless white void...and that was when I began to remember.
I looked down sadly at the little bird that lay on the sidewalk.
“Daddy, where do all the dead things go?” I asked.
My father smiled comfortingly, and knelt down beside me. “We've talked about that. You know when a living thing has had its time on this Earth, its body stops working...it dies. And its spirit...well, that goes back where it came from.”
As he spoke carefully, mindful that he was explaining heavy concepts to a young child, he absently fingered the tarnished silver cross that hung around his neck. My dad had always been a man of faith, but I'd drifted away from it as I got older. Maybe that was why I'd forgotten his words for so long.
“But I mean, the dead bodies...all the...” I wrinkled my nose. “Rotten stuff, the stuff that's left over when something dies. I know people like gramma and grampa get buried, but what about all the animals and things that have nobody to bury 'em? There have to have been a lot of little birds, right? How come there aren't like a billion of them all over the place, all rotted and skeletony and stuff?” Dad chuckled. “Well...here, look.”
Dad picked up a stick from the ground, and gently lifted the dead bird's wing. I gasped and stepped closer to him, grabbing at his jacket. Beneath the raised wing, I saw tiny, white forms crawling in the decaying flesh.
“It can be scary, I know,” he said comfortingly, putting an arm around my shoulder. “But even though they're kind of gross and a little scary, those little guys are an important part of the world. Dead things, rotten things, those can hurt you – make you sick, I mean. And you're right, if nothing got rid of them they'd be everywhere because there are a lot of things that live and die over time. But there's a plan for that, just like there is for everything on God's earth. These little worm guys? They and other things like them, big and small, gobble up and clear away the dead and rotten things in the world. Understand?”
I smiled, not really certain, but I nodded anyway, comforted more by my father's arm than his words at that young age.
When my vision cleared, I was back in my kitchen, soaked in sweat and shaken to my core. But I was alone. Tears streamed down my face as I remembered not only my father's words of wisdom, but the message the voice had given me the night before, that last part of which had previously been submerged by my fear and lack of understanding of a thing so terribly and terrifyingly...pure.
Like I said, I wish could have remembered my father's words sooner. I wouldn't have had to be so afraid.