Joe turned off the highway onto a small back road, he kept his brights off, trusting in his muscle memory and instincts as much as the headlights of his car to keep him from ramming into any trees. Even with his knowledge of these back roads, there was only so far you could get driving, and it wasn’t long before Joe left the truck behind on his trek north towards the creek.
At night, the woods were forbidding, towering pines stretching up towards a bright moon, it felt claustrophobic and agoraphobic all at once. Joe walked carefully, watching his steps in the light of a headlamp, terrible for hunting perhaps, he wasn’t hunting, and he certainly didn’t want to startle anything out here. Grim-faced Joe continued, listening to the sound of insects and owls, if they went silent, he would know he had ventured into the territory of the Pleasant Folk. Of course, the Texas wilderness housed more than supernatural threats, coyote, bobcats, snakes and even boar could prove fatal to someone who was careless.
After what felt like hours trekking over roots and pines Joe was about ready to take a break. He sat at the base of a tree, leaning his head back against the bark while his hands searched for the pocket with trail mix. When he opened his eyes again, he saw a pair of shapely smooth legs in the beam of his headlamp. Standing with a start Joe moved the light up the woman’s figure to her face. She was classically beautiful, pouty lips, pert nose, freckles and a mess of blond hair, combined with her body, she could easily lure lunks like Earl past the point of safe return. He stared at her face for a moment, taking in the wide, friendly smile plastered on her face before he sat back down heavily and started searching for his snacks again.
“What’re you doin’ out this way Cassie?” The smile dropped to form a pout before she plopped down beside him. The rags cloth that she had sewn together into a makeshift dress rustled a little, now that she wasn’t bothering to hide her presence. “And how long you been followin’ me?”
“You ain’t hard to follow Joe, no ranger blood in you, the possum could see you and the deaf bear could hear you miles off.” She stretched looking at her arms in the artificial light, as though the hue was a new and exciting experience. “You venturing farther than you should Joe, just cuz you got our blessing, don’t mean we can do nothing to protect you further out.” She glanced at him now, real concern on her face. “This about Earl?”
“You know it Cassie, I treated it as best as I could, but what they did, it isn’t part of the natural way of things, it ain’t gonna heal with Memaw’s magic and herbs, I figure I can talk to them, maybe get them to break the curse.” Cassie laid her head on Joe’s shoulder, staring into the woods, letting out a sigh, she knew better than most that arguing with Joe was a worthless endeavor. “You ain’t answered why you’re here.”
“Granny wanted to check on you.”
“But not herself?” Joe didn’t mean to snap so quickly, but it was out there now.
“That ain’t fair Joe, she loves you, she jus, she jus can’t accept that you ain’t followin’ in the family tradition.”
“Cassie, that there is bullshit, how am I not followin’ in tradition?” Cassie smirked, picking up her head to kiss him on the cheek.
“You may be followin’ the path Joe Jack, but you ain’t doin’ it traditional.” Joe sighed and nodded watching her get up and grin from ear to ear. “I’ll tell Granny you’re fine. But, if you keep goin, I can’t keep you that way, unerstand?” Joe nodded, he didn’t need his baby sister’s protection, not from the woods anyway, but he did need to get moving, once the sun crested the trees, the Pleasant Folk would be impossible to find.
It was another half a mile before he came to the creek that divided the what was considered out of bounds from the rest of the Pine Woods. A simple creek that any kid might go crawdad fishing in, shallow enough that all you would need to do is roll up your pant legs. But it never dried up. Joe stood on the edge of the creek, staring further into the woods. Here the insects and animals were silent, silence was never a good sign, not out here. Joe swallowed the fear that was bubbling up from his gut, threatening to make him vomit everything he had eaten for the last few days.
The Pleasant Folk looked mostly human, years ago, generations ago, maybe they had been human, but years of living in the deep woods, of inbreeding, and breeding with things that Joe didn’t want to think about, had made them something else. Occasionally Joe or one of the hunters from Sour Lake would come by and drop off meat and supplies, occasionally a girl, usually one from Beaumont would disappear into the woods. Joe didn’t like it, but that’s the way it was, the way it had always been.
Joe took a few moments to collect himself and make sure his rifle was loaded. There were things in the world, and in the woods, that couldn’t be put down by a simple slug from a rifle, but Joe had yet to meet a critter that wouldn’t be given pause by one to the chest. Finished stalling, Joe stepped across the creek, stepping on stones as he moved. The first step was the hardest, he half expected to be attacked as soon as his foot stepped on the moss on the wrong bank of the creek. Joe took the second step, and then a third before pausing. No warning shouts, no will-o-wisps moving through the trees, just silence.
He continued walking through the silent woods, every step he took done so with bated breath, he remembered the first time he was brought this way by his grandmother when he was still a child. They hadn’t ventured this far, of course, they had stopped just short of the creek to bring tribute to the Pleasant Folk. That night he remembered the trees had seemed to twist and squirm, blocking the moonlight from touching the shadows that moved under them on the other side of the water. He remembered seeing their eyes, glowing like a cats’ might. They hadn’t spoken with words like a person might, but with strangled bleats and yelps. After only a few moments, his grandmother had grabbed his hand and yanked him back, he had started walking towards the mind-bending shadows, unknowingly drawn to their wrongness.
A wet sound snapped him out of his reverie, a glance down confirmed that he had stepped in something dead, it looked like it had been torn apart by coyotes. But there were no coyotes out here. Steeling himself, Joe looked down again, this time taking his time to see the limbs and torso that jutted from the bloody mess. The hand had too many fingers, each one ending in a twisted filthy talon when Joe found the thing’s face, his stomach lurched hard enough to make him stumble. It was stretched in a way no human face could stretch, the jaw so far extended that it would be a miracle if it had been able to eat normally, it’s ears were misshapen, unmatched, and long enough to droop, horns of bone curled from the thing’s head, broken and bloody. The eyes were completely inhuman, sporting hourglass pupil like some bipedal goat, even though the face was as far removed from human as could be, Joe recognized the look of horror on its face.
His grandmother had taught him that the Pleasant Folk like all children of the Great Old Ones, were effectively immortal, and could only find their way to death through great violence. But what could do this kind of violence? Joe had seen bears do less damage than this, and then, what could cause so much fear in a creature as horrifying as the Pleasant Folk? Joe stepped back and had to stifle a yelp as the light from his headlamp played across the clearing. Scattered everywhere were the corpses of the Pleasant Folk, some places the bodies were piled high, in others there were only a few scattered limbs. Now that he was looking he could see the huts and cottages through the trees. This is where they lived, used to live, deeper in their village he could see some sort of light. Joe, trembling so hard that the rifle on his back rattled, stepped forward, determined to find out what had happened.
Joe walked through the clearing of death, the reek of animal violence, blood and . . . something like fungus was thick enough in the air to make it hard to breathe. Nothing moved, the corpses, the trees everything was silent and still, his light played across scene after scene of the massacre. He stopped at the edge of the village, there in the middle of even more piles of bloody corpses, was a tear in reality. It showed like a beacon, weeping sickly light through into the night, everywhere the light touched a yellow moss grew, on trees, homes, even on corpses. Around the edges of the tear something that Joe couldn’t quite focus on writhed. The light of the tear and smell of the fungus made Joe’s head spin, and within moments he found himself running, without any control, through the forest full tilt.
He ran, for hours, not stopping for even a breath. heedless of scratches and the sounds of animals, every time he stumbled he picked himself and continued to flee. Only when he reached his truck did he stop running, gasping for breath he clutched at the truck, he had pissed himself at some point, tears were still streaming down his face. Joe rested his head against the car door, he needed to sleep, he needed to recover, not just physically but emotionally as well. He needed to get back to the diner.
Hours later, Joe was showered, cleaned up, he still felt shaky, like there was something just beyond his sight, and he would have sworn that he could see a sickly light just out of the corner of his eye. He was in the kitchen, looking at pancakes cooking on the grill top, the batter poured messily, his hands still trembling. Nancy watched him with something bordering concern.
“What happened out there, Joe?” He didn’t answer her, he wasn’t ready to speak of the wrong light, of the mold that whispered to him, of the slaughter, it was still playing over, and over again in his mind. “You goin’ to fix it?” Joe laughed suddenly, realizing he was starting to cry again. He had to get a grip.
“No, Nance, this shit is above my pay grade, but uh, I’ll see what I can do.”