With every step the young boy took, the dying light of the vast marshland seemed to close in around him. The setting sun cast dull orange beams past hanging moss and gnarled branches. The boy had his thoughts and despair to keep him company, but he was not alone. Amongst the shadows of the sparse oaks and cottonwoods, strange things slithered and peeked behind every shadow – black, shimmering things that he struggled to ignore.
The boy had attempted this same journey close to a year ago now, and the cruel parting words of his neighbors as he had set out at dawn ensured he would not forget those failings. “The medicine woman will only speak with you, Dalton. You’re the only family she has left. But you must hurry. You let your mother die and you better not let your sister die too.”
The boy sniveled as he prodded at the thick mud ahead of him with a stick to gauge its depth. Rotting earthen fumes bubbled up from the shin-deep muck that consumed his hide boots with every step. His progress through the misty swamp had come to a crawl and Dalton knew the things in the shadows welcomed the hinderance.
Everyone’s right, though, Dalton thought as he trudged on, stabbing at the mud, fighting his anger and fear. Maybe they shouldn’t have come looking for me. Maybe they should have left me to freeze and die. If I hadn’t gotten lost in the swamp I could have gotten to Aunt Morta’s in time. I could have gotten the leeches that would have gotten rid of Momma’s sick blood and saved her from her bad thoughts. But I didn’t. The villagers had come looking for him that evening and found him curled up, frozen and alone the border of the swamp. By then it was too late for his mother.
Dalton was never alone again after his mother died. Her voice was always whispering cruel words in his head now, and things that seethed and lurked in the shadows watched him always, though never showed themselves completely.
The boy wiped at misty eyes as he took a breath to calm himself. His mother said she’d forgive him if he could save his sister from the curse in her mind. I’ll get the leeches this time, Momma. I’ll be brave and I’ll get the leeches so she can live and you can leave me alone.
Dalton’s thoughts halted as he noticed the ground beneath his poking stick harden. The thick mire was giving way to solid earth. Up ahead through a blanketing haze, trees and dried bramble began to envelope the barren mudflats. The boy breathed a sigh of relief. The old bramble thicket meant Aunt Morta’s was close. Soon he’d have the leeches so Momma and her creatures could finally leave him alone.
The things in the shadows were eager for solid ground, too. There amongst the thick woodland gloom, their grotesque and wriggling forms crept through the underbrush and further into the boy’s mind. As Dalton’s pace quickened over the newfound earth, their crashing and slinking in the dark filled his ears and made his skin crawl. These sounds were familiar to Dalton. He had grown accustomed to them since his mother had died. But instead of feeling like a distant dream, they were louder and sharper and more real than ever before.
Dalton hurried on, his heart pounding and legs weary as he pushed bramble and bush aside in hopes that he’d find Aunt Morta’s hovel. The gliding forms of the dark twisting beasts appeared on either side of him, moving quickly through the thicket and keeping pace, surrounding him more closely with his every step. He kept his eyes fixed on the path ahead as his body began to fail him, knowing he would not be able to handle the sight of his eager pursuers.
The shapes crashing through the heavy bramble drowned the sound of Dalton’s footsteps as he broke through the last of the briars. His mud-caked boots suddenly found deep, moist earth and he stumbled to the ground. Finally free from the web of burrs, he struggled with labored breath to stand up. He could see the old medicine woman’s weathered shanty, close enough he could hit it with a stone. But sinuous, glistening forms emerged, blocking the path to the hut. The mucus from their black flesh trailed on the earth as they slithered and closed in around him. Dalton would have screamed if he could, but his heart stopped before he had a chance.
It was sunup before the woman saw the boy’s body in the moorlands just outside her window. She drew back a torn and tattered curtain, revealing his pale, lifeless form in the morning light. No sign of a struggle for the boy’s final moments could be seen. “Another feeble mind, sick just like his mother and sister,” she whispered to herself as she eyed the bowl of blood-filled leeches in her hands. But the minds in my family betray us all sooner or later. Her gaze turned to the dark, undulating shape in the corner of the room. And soon mine will too.
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