by John M. Floyd
Susan Weeks had never seen a monster before.
At the time it happened, she was sitting alone at the kitchen table, eating an afternoon snack of chocolate cookies. Her school gear lay in a pile near her right elbow: a writing tablet, a set of colored pencils, two third-grade textbooks, and a lunchbox. To her left, had she cared to look in that direction, a window offered a view of the vegetable garden that bordered the woods behind the house.
Susan finished her second cookie and licked her fingers. This was a good day, she decided. School was done, her aunt and her sister Darlene had gone shopping, the breeze through the open window was cool and pleasant, and–best of all–Uncle Felix wasn’t home yet.
Susan Weeks hated her uncle Felix. So did her sister. They had good reason: Felix was almost always drunk, and when he was drunk he was a problem. Susan, who was nine, had endured regular beatings during the six months she and Darlene had spent with their aunt and uncle since their mother’s death. Darlene, who was fifteen, had endured a different kind of problem–or at least the threat of it. And though Susan didn’t really understand it all, she was old enough to know there was something odd about the look in Uncle Felix’s eyes whenever Darlene was around.
But right now Felix wasn’t home, and it was a good day, and the spring sunshine was warm and tingling on her left shoulder. Susan popped the last of the chocolate cookies into her mouth and leaned back in her chair.
She could never remember, afterward, what made her turn and look out the window, but when she did she saw a sight that stopped her chewing and froze the blood in her veins.
Something terrible was standing at the edge of the woods.
It was about the height of a tall man–over six feet–but all resemblance ended there. Its head was huge and misshapen, its body hairy, its snout long and pointed like a wolf’s. The face itself reminded Susan of pictures she had seen of mandrills and baboons. Fangs three inches long lined its grinning mouth.
And it was staring at her.
It was standing there in the weeds beyond the garden, completely motionless, its head slightly lowered . . . and it was watching her.
After a moment the creature turned away–a grotesque statue come to life–and shuffled toward the woods. Just before it melted into the shadows, it turned and gave her one last look.
And something about its eyes . . .
Sitting there at the kitchen table, Susan Weeks felt a chill that reached to the core of her soul. Only when the monster had vanished did she realize she’d been holding her breath. Instantly her muscles unlocked; she clapped her hands over her eyes, spat out her half-chewed cookie, and gasped for air like a drowning sailor. Her head began to clear a little, her heart began to slow down. She forced herself to peek out the window again, this time through the trembling spaces between her fingers.
Nothing there. Just the woods and the weed-choked garden, basking peacefully in the sun.
The thing–whatever it had been–was gone.
But the image was there, burned into her brain. The fearsome, grinning face, the teeth, the matted hair, the somehow knowing look in its eyes.
It was the eyes that had kept her from screaming.
Then she heard something move behind her, and this time she did scream, her face contorting as she grabbed the edge of the table and swung around in her chair–
“What the hell’s the matter with you, girl?” Felix Bowman said. He scowled at her, gave the window and the ejected cookie a suspicious glance, and looked at her again. Susan couldn’t tell if he was drunk or not, which usually meant he was. She had often wondered how a kind, sweet woman like Aunt Helen–her own mother’s sister–could have married a slug like Felix.
“Answer me,” he growled. “What mischief are you up to?” As he spoke, his narrow eyes swept the room, searching for evidence. His big fists clenched and unclenched.
Still trembling, Susan opened her mouth to tell him about the monster. But nothing came out.
His eyes narrowed even further. “Ha! Something is going on, ain’t it?” A crooked smile stretched his face. “What’ve you done now, little gal?”
Again she tried to speak, to tell him of the horrible creature she had seen through the window. Again, no words came.
In the blink of an eye Felix’s belt was off, hissing snakelike through the loops of his jeans. He doubled the belt in his fist and slapped it hard across the tabletop, two inches from Susan’s right hand. The sound was like a pistol shot in the small room.
“Tell me!” he bellowed.
Yes, Susan thought, tell him. So she opened her mouth and said, clear as crystal, “She’s in the woods.”
Felix’s coal-black eyebrows drew themselves together. “What?”
Susan just sat there, stunned. The four words she had just spoken were not her own. She had uttered them with her own mouth, her own tongue, but someone else had put them there. She didn’t even know what they meant.
Even Felix, no Rhodes scholar, apparently knew something was amiss. Probably because her voice sounded different. He cocked his head to one side, like some overgrown, evil puppy. “Who’s in the woods?” he asked.
“Darlene,” Susan heard herself say. “She’s taking a bath.”
Felix blinked. “She’s what?”
“There’s no water in the house. Darlene wanted to take a bath after school, and she couldn’t, so she got a bar of soap and went out to the wading pool in the woods.” Susan swallowed. “I’m supposed to watch, make sure nobody goes down the path.”
Just for a moment, as this strange message was being told, Susan saw a gleam in her uncle’s eye. Then his better judgment, what little there was of it, seemed to take over.
“What are you trying to pull?” he said, curling his lip. “There ain’t nothing wrong with the water.”
Susan was well aware of that. She had washed her hands at the kitchen sink fifteen minutes ago. For an instant, all thoughts of the monster and of the strange voice disappeared as she considered the beating she was about to get. Felix hated to be lied to, and Susan and his belt were old acquaintances.
But all she could do now was watch as her uncle marched to the sink and, to prove his point, twisted the handle of the cold-water faucet.
“Well, dern,” he said, and tried the hot tap.
Not a drop.
Susan Weeks didn’t say a word. After the things she had seen and heard over the last few minutes, she was beyond surprise. More than anything else she wanted to cry.
But she didn’t cry. She didn’t even change her expression. Just as the monster’s eyes had a moment ago forced her to keep silent, the odd voice inside her head now told her to do the same. And to try to act naturally.
Ten feet away, Felix Bowman had come to a startling conclusion. “The water _is_ off,” he said, as if to himself.
Slowly he raised his head, and their eyes met. Then he turned to the window, staring hard at the narrow path that led from the garden to the forest. He had a weird smile on his face, and Susan could almost read his mind. She knew he was picturing her sister Darlene, at the wading pool just past the edge of the woods. His eyes were fixed like a laser on the spot where the path melted into the shadows.
Susan looked too. And even though she could see nothing through the dark, leafy foliage, she knew–somehow she _knew_–that the creature was there, crouching near the pool, just out of sight.
Felix turned to face her. The goofy smile was gone. “I got something to do, girl,” he murmured. “You go to your room and stay there.” He held the folded belt up for emphasis.
“Yes, sir.” Without another thought she stood and scooped up her scrap of cookie and her books. It occurred to her, as she fled through the hallway door, that those last two words had been spoken in her own voice. Felix didn’t seem to have noticed. He was still gazing out the window toward the garden.
Once in her room, Susan dumped her things onto her bed, counted to fifty, and hurried back to the kitchen. She arrived just in time to see her uncle creeping like a thief into the shadowy woods. Then he vanished from sight.
Susan eased herself into her chair. For a full minute or more she sat there, watching. She didn’t really know what she was watching for, or waiting for. She saw nothing but the forest.
Then she sensed, rather than heard, movement behind her. For the third time that afternoon Susan felt her heart leap into her throat. She whirled around in her chair.
Her sister was standing in the doorway.
“Darlene,” Susan said, exhaling. With an effort, she resisted the urge to run to her and hug her. “I thought you were shopping with Aunt Helen.”
“I’ve been over at Debbie Olson’s, listening to music.” Cautiously Darlene entered the room, her eyes glancing everywhere at once. “Who were you talking to, a minute ago?”
“Uncle Felix,” Susan said.
“I know that. But who else? I heard another voice.”
Susan hesitated. “It was just me. What . . . what exactly did you hear?”
Darlene studied her sister a moment, then seemed to relax. She crossed the room and took a drinking glass from the overhead cabinet. “Not much. I heard someone–you, I guess–say ‘About ten minutes,’ then I heard Felix say he had something to do, and he told you to go to your room. He sounded a little funny, so I hid in the bathroom for a while.” She gave the door an uneasy look. “Where is he, anyway?”
“He’s gone,” Susan said. She found herself watching with interest as Darlene held her glass under the cold tap and turned the faucet handle. Water jetted into the glass. Somehow this didn’t surprise Susan at all.
Darlene shut off the water and looked at her younger sister, who was still staring at the faucet. “You make it sound like he’s gone for good,” Darlene said.
Their eyes met and held.
“What if he was?” Susan asked.
Darlene’s face darkened. “Then I’d start believing in miracles.”
“And what about Aunt Helen?”
“I think she would, too.”
The kitchen had gone quiet. Darlene stared into her water glass and Susan stared out the window, at the path leading to the forest. Somewhere down the street, a dog barked.
After a minute or so Darlene drained her glass. “I gotta get back to Debbie’s,” she said, patting her shirt pocket. “I just came home to get some CDs.” She paused. “You are okay, aren’t you?”
Susan sighed. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
Darlene started to say something, seemed to think better of it, then nodded and walked to the door.
She stopped in the doorway.
“Who did you think you heard?” Susan asked.
Susan felt strangely calm. “You told me you heard another voice. Who did it sound like?”
A silence passed.
“It sounded like Mother,” Darlene said.
This time it was Susan who nodded. Very slowly, lost in her own thoughts, she turned and looked out the window again. The breeze had died down now, and the shadows were longer.
Nothing stirred at the edge of the woods.
John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 300 different publications, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and three editions of The Best American Mystery Stories. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also an Edgar Award nominee, a four-time Derringer Award winner, a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the 2018 recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement. His ninth book is scheduled for release in late 2020.