You have 4 free member-only stories remaining for the month. Subscribe now for unlimited access

In The Night That We Look Upon (Chapter Six)

Once she had stepped fully out into the world, Bess breathed in the cold, soft wind. It smelled woody and full, and it filled her with a certain confidence.

I will find her. I will find her and Jacob, and I’ll bring them safely back home.

The library wasn’t far—just up on Oak Street. She turned right at the mailbox and relished the sound of her boots slapping against the pavement.

She passed mercifully few Mariners as she began her walk down the street. It was easy to tell, she realized, who knew about what had happened to Tess and who did not. The ones who did not would give her the same suspicious expressions and give her an almost comically wide berth. The ones who did know would flash their eyes and purse their lips sympathetically, but still make sure to stay out of her way.

They, of course, did not want to be painted with the brush of loss.

Bess ignored everyone. She was focused on only two people and, of those, Tess loomed larger in her mind. She cared for Jacob, and she hoped to find him as well—after all, he was a child, and deserved no harm—but nothing could surpass the familial bond she had with her sister.

As she walked, she examined the ground for clues. The police, of course, wouldn’t be looking here. And after they searched their one street, they would give up any pretense of looking.

But in a twisted way, Bess was beginning to think that this may have been a good thing. Officer Marsh would not be able to discourage her by pretending to have searched the whole town in earnest, or to use such a falsity to force her to accept his pre-chosen narratives. If she found something, she could figure out what had truly happened.

She thought that, despite her decision to visit the library first, it would not hurt to look around while she walked. Maybe, in spite of everything that had happened, she could still get lucky.

By the time she was a half-mile from the library, she had begun scanning the ground in earnest. If there was a pile of leaves, she scattered them to the wind in order to search the earth below. If there was a bush that stuck out over the concrete, she looked to see if there were traces of blood or of hair.

The thought of Tess’s blood being spattered on a bush jolted her. A sudden chill ran down her spine, and she closed her eyes, willing Tess and Jacob to still be alive.

Then she opened them, and began her search once more.

She found nothing for quite a while. A couple passersby stared at her incredulously, their faces a mixture of curiosity and fear.

“You! What are you doing?” an older man called. His voice was brittle and hoarse, but his eyes revealed a grim suspicion.

“I think I lost my necklace around here earlier!” Bess called back. She strived to make her voice sound friendly and light. “You haven’t seen it, have you?”

“No,” the man replied, his voice still rough. He picked up his pace, and Bess could tell that he was not planning on being roped into finding a lost necklace.

“You be careful,” he called back over his shoulder. “A lost necklace isn’t worth going missing yourself!”

“Thanks for the advice!” Bess called back, allowing a hint of sarcasm to creep into her voice. “I’ll keep it in mind!”

If the man heard it in her tone, he didn’t show it. He continued to walk along the side of the street, and Bess had turned her attention back to the task at hand.

Her little search was turning out to be a disappointment. Bess tried to lift her spirits as she crossed over onto Belo Boulevard, the final lane before she reached Oak Street.

Belo Boulevard was far less developed than its flashier sister, and Bess thought that, if she were going to abduct someone, this was probably where she was going to try to do it. There were only a couple of tiny, ramshackle houses almost a mile down on one side of the street, and the space that was left was filled with dense, dark groups of trees. It would be possible for someone to be dragged off of the street, into the trees and—if they were still alive—forced to travel to pretty much anywhere in Mariner.

She found nothing, and a hot kernel of disappointment began to expand in her chest. This had been where she’d hoped to find something.

She toyed with the idea of walking further up and knocking on the tiny houses’ doors and asking if anyone had heard or seen anything on Friday night. But she stopped herself. Knocking on suspicious strangers’ doors was a good way to get herself reported to the police—or worse. Besides, she might find better leads at the library.

The disappointment flowed into her stomach. She had already spent over half an hour walking and searching. In a slightly desperately move, she crouched and began to re-examine both sides of the street.

They were clean. Brittle twigs and torn leaves caught in her gloves and pricked at her fingers, but her efforts yielded no curled red hair, no footprints, and no blood except for that on her own stinging hands.

She looked at her map again. Oak Street and Belo Boulevard sat a little ways to the right of her house and ballooned out into the center of town and beyond. To the left, other, even smaller roads cut through them and spread out into the sprawl of the woods. The surrounding areas were vast and shadowed, and she wondered if it was fruitless to look for her sister.

Now do you see why you’re not cut out for it? The jeering voice in her head echoed out from her ears and into the vastness of the empty street. Now do you see why this is a foolish idea?

But the memory of Tess—kind in her superiority, helping her to clean herself up in the bathroom—shone at the back of her mind, and she pushed back against the hateful voice.

Nobody else can do this. Nobody else will do this. And, if I fail, at least I will have tried.

It was the thought of failure that caused her tears to spill over the edges of her eyes, onto her cheeks, and down into her hair. Looking for her sister, she knew, would not be a waste of time, regardless of the outcome. Then, she really would have done all she could do.

But the thought that her efforts might not be enough, that the streets on the other side of town might be just as bare and dead as the one she knelt upon now, gave her a moment’s pause. She gathered herself.

It doesn’t matter—it only matters if your efforts are enough. It’s time to go. You have to keep going.

She stood up, dusted herself off, and began walking down the long length of the street. She would just make sure, and then she would go to the library. Even if she didn’t find anything, she knew she would be on the right path.

***

She had searched almost halfway up the length of Belo Boulevard. Tears were beginning to encroach at the corners of her eyes once more.

She forced her feet to keep moving up the deserted street. She was tired. Her feet ached, and they shot aching pains up her legs each time she took a step.

She wondered if her mother was looking for her. She knew that it shouldn’t take more than a half hour for milk to be purchased and brought back from the store, and she hadn’t even visited the library or the grocer. She would have to think of a good excuse when she returned home.

She cast her eyes to both sides of the street as her boots ground heavily against the cement. There were only the things she had already seen far too much of—leaves, sticks, bushes. There was nothing that suggested that Tess had been here.

The trunks of the trees began to blur together, and she nearly turned back. But, as her eyes swept the road in front of her, something caught her eye.

There were small, rust-colored streaks a few feet away from the edge of the road. Something silver gleamed against them. She picked it up, and a gasp of both terror and relief caught in her throat.

It was Tess’s earring. She tried to tell herself that anybody could have dropped a small, silver hoop, but the quiet, increasingly hopeful voice in her head told her that she was right.

She was here. Whatever had happened, she had been here.

The aching in her legs faded instantly. With a burst of hope, she frantically searched the ground around where the earring had lay.

There was nothing else to tell her what exactly had happened to Tess, but the rusty lines on the ground caught her attention. They were dark, and they were nearly the same color of Tess’s hair. But they weren’t hair—instead, they were unmistakably liquid.

Blood. A wave of nausea hit her, and she forced it down.

She moved closer, and she noticed that there were other streaks, too. Not so many as to suggest that Tess had been seriously injured or killed on the spot, but enough to suggest that there had been a struggle.

A struggle. Bess moved quickly into the bushes, looking for signs of where Tess had moved—or, perhaps more accurately, where she had been moved.

There were large, shallow indentations on the forest floor, as if something large and human had been dragged through the thick soil. Bess followed them for several yards, and it was there that she saw something curious.

Next to where the indentations ended, there stood a large tree. The tree’s bark was thick, but it had several large scratches that cut deeply into its surface.

Bess thought it looked like claw marks.

Something cold came over her. It was a deep feeling, a subconscious understanding that she was peering over the edge of an abyss that she knew nothing of. A feeling that she had stumbled upon something that no one else—no one else alive—had had the chance to discover.

The dark eyes burned in her mind.

She ran through animals, known creatures, in her head. What lived in Mariner and had claws? She knew, then, that whatever had taken Bess was not a wolf. The claw marks were too high. Bess would have been able to outrun one, or hide from it. And, even if the wolf had gotten her, it would not have waited to make a meal of her. It would not have dragged her away, nor would it have had the strength to.

The thing that had attacked her sister had been something smarter, something that would understand the importance of spiriting her away before someone else saw it.

Monster. The word was loud and insistent.

Her heart beat faster. Not a wolf. Not a dog. Not a fish or a bird or a snake or anything else that she would have expected to see in town. Something else. The thing she had seen before.

Maybe it was a wolf. The thought came to her mind, desperate and almost pleading. Maybe it really was. Tess had that bit of fur she found.

But the fur had been fake. She had known it then, and she knew it now.

Tess had known, later on, that the attacks could not have been made by a wolf. But her belief—that the thing that stalked at night was one of their neighbors—had been too narrow, too naïve, and that had contributed to her disappearance.

Bess would not make the same mistake.

Her tears fell again.

***

She was tired, and she decided to postpone her planned library trip. When she got back to her house, her mother had fallen asleep. Bess realized that she had forgotten to get milk on the way home. She would make up an excuse later.

She went upstairs and sank onto Tess’s bed. It smelled like her perfume. She pulled the covers up to her chin, looked out of the window, and began thinking about what she was going to do next.

What, exactly, had been the thing that took Tess? Bess had heard scary stories when she was younger about the man with the hook hand and the scorned bride who haunted the woods, calling for her lost lover. But those, she knew, were urban legends, slips of stories about monsters who merely wanted to haunt and terrify.

Whatever was in Mariner was something rougher and more physical—the thing with night-filled eyes. It would have no vengeance to seek, no wrong to make right, nothing that could humanize it. She knew, as thoughts of mangled corpses filled her mind, than it would not and could not be reasoned with like one of those legends. It was singular in its presence, and she would be singular in her opposition.

She found that her mind could not handle the presence of the truth. She could not fight something like that, could not even conceive of how to fight it. Instead, she tried to seize on other alternatives.

She needed something she knew of, something that was familiar. She could not understand the motives or the habits of a dark, sinister figure that had abducted her sister, and she wanted something rational. The thing with dark eyes would follow no well-laid plan, would have no documented weaknesses, and she could not reconcile it.

Her mind filled with images of her clumsily storming the thing’s lair. Even if she found the hiding place, even if she found her sister and Jacob, she would be unable to fight the thing that held them.

Bess pictured herself trying to use her small, pathetic pocketknife against the creature. Its skin had looked rough and impenetrable, and its claws were probably sharper than her knife had ever been. She would not be able to hide from it, or take it by surprise, and it would be on her in nearly an instant.

In her twisted fantasy, she saw the knife break off in her hands. Saw the monster advance. Felt its claws rake across her face and neck. Smelled the hot blood the poured down her torso as the world began to fade. Heard Tess and Jacob’s desperate cries as they realized that their rescuer had failed, and that their deaths were closer than ever.

No, it could not be that.

It has to be something else, her mind pleaded. There is something else that is doing this, and you are going to figure it out.

Monster, the voice insisted, but she refused to listen.

A thought came to her. What about a bear? It had been quite a while since one had been glimpsed near Mariner. Bess was fairly certain that one had never even been seen within the town’s limits. But a bear was real, understandable. Not monstrous.

She seized upon the thought and warmed to it quickly. Yes, it must have been a bear. It was large enough to strike and scar the tree with its claws, and it would have been strong enough to drag Tess away even if she struggled. The dragging marks she had seen had stopped next to the tree, but a bear would be strong enough to pull her along the rest of the way.

The eyes could have even been those of a bear, filtered through her fear and the drinks she had had.

Did bears normally drag prey, especially human prey? A doubtful voice in her head made its presence known. She pushed it away.

The bear must have taken Bess, somehow. Never mind the claw marks and the eyes. There could be no other explanation, and there was no other explanation that she would entertain.

She heard her mother’s voice from downstairs, sleep-heavy and soft. “Bess? Are you home?”

She mussed her hair and closed her eyes halfway so that she would look like she had just woken up from a nap. As she went to respond to her mother’s voice, she twisted her shirt in her hands to wrinkle it.

“Yes?” She dragged a hand through her hair for good measure. Her mother stood in front of the fridge with an expression of confusion.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to wake you—I’ve been sleeping for the past couple of hours myself. But I thought you were going to get milk.” She looked at Bess expectantly. “Where did you put it?”

“Oh,” Bess faltered, casting through her mind for an explanation. “They…they were out.”

“Oh,” her mother parroted back, the confusion not entirely gone from her eyes. “That’s strange. I can’t remember the last time they ran out of something like that.”

Bess shrugged. “I understand. I mean, if everyone’s staying put inside their houses as much as possible, they’re obviously trying to stock up on essentials. They were out of bread, too.” She was stretching the lie and she knew it, but she needed more details to support her lie.

“Okay.” Her mother pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I just thought that maybe we could have cold cereal for dinner. I don’t want to cook.”

“It’s okay. We still have some, see?” Bess pulled out the half-full milk carton that she and Tess had purchased a couple days before. Their grocery trip seemed to have taken place many years before.

Her mother looked at it.

“I just wanted to get more in case we needed it,” Bess explained. Her lie was becoming precarious. “And I honestly just kind of wanted to get a chance to get out of the house.”

Her mother nodded. “I understand. Maybe tomorrow we can go to the store together and see if they’ve re-stocked.” She put the carton of milk back into the fridge and closed it tightly. She turned to Bess.

“I’m sorry if you think that I’ve been so preoccupied with Tess. I just want her to come home safely.” Her voice trembled at the end of her sentence, and she looked into Bess’s eyes. “I just don’t want you to think that we don’t care about you.”

Bess had the wild urge to laugh. One of her mother’s daughters was missing, and she wanted to make sure that the other was getting enough attention. But, of course, she herself had thought about it earlier. She choked back the laugh and moved in to hug her mother.

“I understand, Mom. If I were you, I would be doing the same thing.” Her mother reached for her hand, and something small and hard within Bess knew that, with Tess gone, her mother would reach for her hand first. It was the only one left.

After a moment, Sarah stepped away.

“I think I’m going to call Officer Marsh,” she said. “He might have some new information for us.”

Bess chose to not remind her mother that Officer Marsh had said that he’d contact them with updates. She chose not to remind her that he had insulted her father. She chose not to remind her that it had been less than three days since he’d begun his too-small search, and she chose not to remind her that it had been more than three days since Tess’s disappearance.

She could not bear to listen to her mother’s call. It would only end in frustration and too-red eyes, and, though she felt selfish thinking it, she knew that she could not bear the burden of both her mother’s pain and her own.

“That sounds fine, Mom,” she said simply. “Let me know if he tells you anything new.”

She raced back upstairs as her mother punched in the numbers on the keypad. She did not want to hear a word, not want to hear the desperation and hope in her mother’s voice turn to heartbreak.

What she wanted to do was make a plan.

She closed her door shut against her mother’s conversation and took out the now slightly wrinkled map. Tomorrow she would go to the library and find out if bears were common in New Hampshire. She would find out where they usually lived, and she would search all of Mariner until she found Tess.

But she could not stop a voice in her head from whispering, its volume growing with every assertion.

Not a bear.

Wrong.

Other.

And, as she placed the worn map under her bed, she could not close her mind to the loudest word of all.

Monster.

***

The next day, she was more readily prepared. As she turned right at the mailbox, she allowed herself a small smile.

I’m going the right way. I’m on the right track.

The library was small and dim, and there were no other customers there. Miss Reilly seemed surprised and cautious when she walked through the door. Bess supposed that not many people were out looking for either leisurely reading materials or socialization.

“Hello, Bess.” Her surprise turned to sympathy, and some of the caution in her voice faded, and Bess understood that she knew. Most people probably did by now.

“Hello, Miss Reilly.” She had known the librarian for years. She had been coming to the library since she was old enough to pick up a book, and she had taken comfort in the woman’s soft voice and seemingly endless knowledge of all the titles on display.

The caution faded completely as Miss Reilly’s desire for gossip took over. “Coming to pick up something to take your mind off of…you know?” Her voice was still kind, but searching. “I have several new romance novels that just came in.”

The last thing Bess needed was a romance novel, but she smiled politely.

“Actually, Miss Reilly, what I was really looking for was something about bears. Like, the types of bears that live here in New Hampshire.”

Miss Reilly raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know that the university assigned homework over the break.”

“They don’t,” replied Bess, straining the limits of her politeness. “It’s just for…personal reading. I was just curious.”

Miss Reilly’s eyebrows disappeared beneath her bangs.

“There haven’t been bears in this area since…well, since as long as I can remember.” A look of realization crossed her face, and she leaned forward. Bess looked at her.

“Yes?”

“Well, I was just thinking. Perhaps you’d like a book about wolves.” Her voice was low and conspiratorial. “Or maybe a book about serial killers, if that’s what you’re after.” Her voice dropped even lower on the words serial killer, and Bess felt her polite smile stretch into a kind of rictus grin.

“No, Miss Reilly, ma’am. A book about bears will be just fine.”

The librarian looked at her for a moment, and then she shrugged her shoulders.

“None of my business, I suppose. And books about bears will be in section Q.”

“Right on the first count, Miss Reilly, and probably on the second one, too.” Bess nodded at her and then made her way over to section Q. She wondered how the library sections were split up—wouldn’t bears normally go under “B”?

She pulled the first book she saw off of the shelf. It was a children’s book—one of those wide hardcover books that had more pictures than words and pitched everything at a second-grade reading level.

The librarian was watching her. Feeling more than a little silly, Bess thumbed through the pages. As far as she could tell, bears were uncommon in this part of New Hampshire. She ignored it and kept reading. It was the only reasonable explanation, and her mind would accept nothing less.

One section struck her. It told the reader, in very simple and matter-of-fact terms, that bears would attack humans very rarely. In fact, the book said with its odd blend of cheeriness and formality, bears normally only attacked humans in self-defense, or when they were feeling threatened.

Monster.

Bess tried to clear her head. Even on the off chance that Tess had stumbled upon a bear in the woods, she would have attempted to slip past it quietly. She certainly would not have tried to harm or provoke it.

Monster.

Her bear theory was unravelling neatly. Even if Bess had seen a bear, even if she had provoked it, it would not have pushed her to the ground and dragged her off. It would have attacked her straight on, not knowing or caring about who else might be around, or who might try to come to her defense.

Monster.

She did not know what had happened to Tess, and she did.

She returned to Miss Reilly’s desk.

“Um, excuse me?” She stepped forward as if to get Miss Reilly’s attention, pretending that the librarian had not been watching her out of the corner of her eye the entire time.

“Yes?” Miss Reilly looked up from her handful of cards.

“Do you happen to have any books on New Hampshire myths and legends?” It sounded silly even in Bess’s own head.

Miss Reilly gave her a perplexed look.

“Well, we have a couple of books on famous men and women from New Hampshire. Legendary people, you might say.”

“No, I mean…” Bess gathered her thoughts. “I mean books about monsters. You know, people seeing giant creatures in the woods, and things like that.”

Miss Reilly laughed. “I think the Loch Ness Monster is all the way over in Scotland, Bess. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fairies are probably there with her.”

Bess physically bit back her tongue to hold back a cold remark, and Miss Reilly softened a bit when she saw her face.

“I’m sorry, Bess. I didn’t mean to make fun of you. But what on earth are you doing with books about bears and urban legends?”

“Just trying to take my mind off of everything.” Bess didn’t volunteer any further information. The last thing she needed was for word to get around town that she thought her sister’s abduction had been at the hands of paper cut-out fairies.

Miss Reilly made a show of pursing her lips and thinking hard. Bess knew that she was trying to make her feel better, but she just wanted to get the inevitable over with.

“Hmmm…I don’t think we have anything like that. I can’t even remember hearing stories about monsters living around here.”

Bess had expected as much, but a sharp prick of disappointment spread through her.

“Wait a minute. There was one that I remembered….” The woman pursed her lips further.

There came a sudden sound from behind them, and Bess flinched. She turned to see Jack gently shutting the door behind him.

“Oh, hi, Jack!” She strained to seem casual, and her voice sounded strange and high. Miss Reilly gave her an amused sort of expression.

“Hi, Bess. Hello, Miss Reilly.”

“Hi, Jack. What are you doing here?”

Jack sighed. “Just looking for some escapism, I guess. Something light.”

“Well,” said Miss Reilly conspiratorially, “it’s not exactly light, per se, but I was just about to tell Bess here an interesting legend from Mariner history. She was asking about myths and legends.”

Jack shot Bess a quizzical look, one that furrowed his brow and suddenly made him appear ten years older. Bess flushed.

“I just…wanted to hear a story. Something other than a romance novel, you know?”

“I have a great romance novel in section Z, now that you mention it!” Miss Reilly chirped. “It’s about a young woman who falls in love with a brooding, mysterious police officer.”

Jack’s ears turned pink, and he chuckled. “Brooding and mysterious, huh? What about young and awkward?”

Bess flushed more deeply, and decided to get the conversation back on track.

“I think I want to hear about the thing your grandfather told you about…what was it?”

“A monster with big, dark eyes…” Miss Reilly muttered, and she caught the look of renewed interest on Bess’s face. “Is that the sort of thing you’re looking for?”

“Yes!” The word exited Bess’s mouth too loudly, and both Jack and Miss Reilly gave her an odd look. She lowered her voice.

“Sorry, yes. What do you know about it?”

“Not too much, unfortunately.” Miss Reilly shrugged. “It was a story I heard from my grandfather. I think he heard it from his grandfather.”

Bess waited, and Miss Reilly began to speak in hesitant, half-remembered sentences.

“Many decades ago, when Mariner was even smaller than it was now, there was a snowstorm. It blanketed the town in nearly four feet of snow, and everyone was having trouble getting enough food to last them through, and making sure their friends and family were okay.”

She gave Bess a small smile. “They didn’t have phones like we do today.”

Bess smiled and nodded, willing her to continue.

“Anyway, there was one man who was less fortunate than most. When the storm hit, he had been a few miles outside of town, trying to gather wood for a fire. He had very little warning that the storm was coming, and he was forced to take shelter in a cave. He thought he would journey back into town once it had passed but, when he was finally able to look out, he had no idea where to go. There was too much snow, and he had no way of getting anyone to come look for him.

“The man was hungry. After all, he’d spent nearly two days waiting inside a cave with very little food. Although he didn’t know how to get back to Mariner, he decided to go out and at least take care of his hunger. He thought that, when the snow melted, he’d be able to find his way back.”

She laughed a little self-consciously. “This is where it gets a little bit unbelievable. It is an old story, after all.”

“Trust me, I’d believe anything at this point,” Bess said, truthfully. Miss Reilly gave her another odd look, but she kept talking.

“The winter that year was long and cold, and the snow refused to melt. More snow and cold joined it. The man was forced to scavenge for food during the day, and take shelter in the cave at night. After a time, he began to get used to his way of life. After a little more time, he began to change.

“My grandfather said that the man had begun to adapt to his primitive way of life. Over time, he skin grew rougher and thinner, and it took on the colors of fallen leaves—brown and faded green. His hands and feet became larger and swifter, and they developed claws that would help him catch his prey.”

Bess hung on her every word, and she saw that Jack was listening closely, too.

“They said his mind changed, too. It adjusted to his simple lifestyle by dulling, growing less complex. His memories began to fade, and, because he no longer needed it, he lost the ability to speak. Before long, he was completely in service to his hunger.”

She paused, remembering.

“Several months later, the snow had melted enough for the people of Mariner to venture out beyond the town’s borders. And by this time, of course, they knew the man was missing. A search party was sent out to find him, but they expected only to recover a body.

“My grandfather’s grandfather—or something to that effect—was part of that search party. They began to scour the woods for clues as to where he may have ended up. One day, just as they were about to give up, they heard a sort of rustling noise.”

Bess was completely still. She felt as though she had left the quiet peace of the library and entered that snow-dotted forest.

“When they moved to investigate, they saw the man. Of course, he was no longer anything near the friend they had known.

“My grandfather’s grandfather saw his skin and his claws, but he said two things struck him the most. One was the mouth. It had widened to become a sort of dark, jagged slash, and there were dozens of teeth that filled the gap. He said that they looked sharp enough to cut him at a distance.

“But the most striking thing was the man’s eyes. He said that that was how they knew it was him—they recognized his eyes. But they only just recognized them.”

“What had happened to them?” Bess felt a stab of embarrassment at her investment in the story, but the thought of those eyes pushed it away.

“They were black around the rims,” said Miss Reilly quietly. “The black was bleeding across the whites of his eyes, and his eyes and pupils were crossed with these dark, thick lines. And when those eyes fell upon them, they saw without recognition. The man—or thing, now—attacked them.”

“Were they okay?”

“Yes—a couple of them had rifles with them, and they fired a few warning shots. They knew that what they were firing at was no longer their friend, but they couldn’t bear to kill it outright. The thing fled into the woods, and they returned to Mariner.”

She laughed, and her voice returned to its normal volume as she finished her story.

“Of course, nobody believed them when they tried to spread the story throughout town. I certainly wouldn’t have. The prevailing theory was that they had uncovered the man’s body but, because they were so overcome with shock and grief, they were unable to process his death. That, combined with the cold and the difficulty of the search, made them perceive and believe a tale that would allow their friend to live on—even as a monster.”

She shook her head.

“I suppose that strong feelings can alter the way we see reality. My grandfather said that his grandfather had insisted the tale was true until the day he died. My grandfather was rather ambivalent about it, himself, but he thought it made a good scary story. He used to tell me that the thing would sneak in through my window and steal me away if I misbehaved.”

Miss Reilly laughed again, but her laugh died suddenly.

“I’m sorry, Bess. I don’t mean to make light of…you know.”

Bess knew she didn’t. A thought came to her mind.

“Miss Reilly? Did your grandfather say anything about what had happened to the monster? Did it leave Mariner, or attempt to attack any of the men?”

Miss Reilly shook her head.

“As far as I’m aware, none of them claimed to have seen it in town. Another party went back out a couple months later, but they came back with no new information besides the fact that the thing’s eyes had turned completely black.

My grandfather seemed to have embellished the tale a little bit. He claimed that his grandfather went out, by himself, one last time. Although he searched, he could not find the thing again. His theory was that, after finally sating its hunger, the last of its memories had faded and it had fallen into a long, deep sleep. According to him, it will wake up, someday, when its hunger strikes anew. Then, it will begin a new hunt, and all of Mariner will know it by its eyes and its teeth.”

Bess forced herself to smile. “Your grandfather must have had a pretty good imagination.”

“He really did,” Miss Reilly smiled back, a genuine smile. She gestured toward the shelves.

“Is there anything else you’re looking for?”

“There wouldn’t happen to be anything about that monster in any books around here, would there? It seems pretty interesting.” Bess kept her voice casual.

Miss Reilly frowned. “I’m afraid not. It may have been mentioned once or twice in one of the weekly newspapers when the men came home. But, since nobody gave it much serious thought, I don’t think that it received a lot of attention after a few weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s only a handful of people in town who have even heard of it.”

“Oh, that’s fine.” Bess kept her tone light, but her mind was clothed in a dark cloud.

There’s nothing else about it, she thought. It really is up to me.

“We do have some collections of fairy tales,” Miss Reilly offered, pointing toward section Y. “They’re quite good for escapism. And there are several with bears in them.”

Bess smiled politely once more. “No, thank you. Maybe I’ll come back a little later. Thanks for your help.” She began walking toward the door.

“I’ll try to put an order in for a myths and legends book,” the librarian called out after her. “Have a good day, Bess! And you too, Jack!”

Bess merely nodded and pushed the door open. She had forgotten that Jack had shown up, and she wanted to slip away quietly before he could get any more information that could make its way back to Marsh.

Unfortunately, Jack was right on her heels, and he fell into step beside her.

“Some story, huh? Imagine going into the woods and finding that thing.” He shuddered dramatically, and Bess couldn’t help but crack a smile.

“Yeah, I think it would be pretty crazy.”

“To think that something like that could be real…” He took a sidelong glance at her. “What do you think?”

“Do I think it’s real?”

“Yeah.”

Bess paused to consider her answer. “Maybe.”

“I think it’d be pretty hard to find it…or find proof that it even existed.” His glance became significant.

Bess shrugged noncommittally. “Yeah.”

“And someone who tried to find it might end up getting into, I don’t know, wolf trouble or something.”

Bess laughed. “What do you think I’m going to do, Jack? Go on a monster hunt?”

Jack mimicked her earlier shrug. “Maybe.”

She laughed again, and he did too, for a moment.

Then his face turned serious, older again. “I just don’t want you to get hurt, Bess. Nobody knows what’s happening.”

“You know that’s not going to stop me, right?”

He smiled again, softly. “Well, I guess Peter does always say to follow every possible lead.”

“And that’s exactly what I’m doing.” She stopped and looked at him.

“Jack, could you not tell Marsh what I’m doing? Let me indulge myself. I don’t need him lurking around trying to discredit me.”

Jack thought for a moment. “Sure. But, I have to say, I don’t think you’re going to find what you’re looking for. And, if you do find something that puts you in danger, I’m going to tell.”

“You’re going to tattle on me?” Bess asked playfully.

Jack grinned broadly. “Worse than Tess when you stole her toys.”

The mention of Tess sent a quiet chill through her, and she dropped her smile. Jack, sensing her discomfort, shifted awkwardly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s okay.” She felt tears gathering behind her eyes, and she pushed them back down.

There was a pause.

“We’re going to find her, Bess.”

“Okay. I trust you.” She forced a smile to her lips. “Just as long as you don’t tattle on me.”

“I won’t.” Jack crossed his heart. Bess smiled more broadly.

“This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “Friendship?”

She blushed again, and he looked pleased.

“Bye, Jack.”

“Bye.” He took a step back in the other direction. “I still need my escapism.”

She nodded, and he nodded back.

“Go get something good. Good luck.”

“Thanks.” They exchanged a wave, and Bess continued on her way alone.

The street was quiet. The temperatures had fallen further, and the snow on the sidewalk and in the gutters had hardened into stiff clumps. The roads were periodically dotted with thin sheets of ice.

Bess leaned against a tree and tried to think. She did not know where to begin. She was certain the monster was real, now, but she had no idea where it might be, or where it might have taken Tess and Jacob. She had visited the spot where Tess had disappeared, but she had found very little confirming the exact home or hiding place of her abductor.

Tess had been caught on Belo Boulevard. It was a little ways away from the center of town, and fairly close to the thick of the woods. But where had the police said Jacob had been last seen? Where had the monster found him? What was the common thread?

She let her thoughts fall into place like pieces in a puzzle. Tess had disappeared not far from the Merrill, and, when he’d disappeared, Jacob had been playing on…its banks.

The river. The thought came to her in a flash, and she quickened her pace as she hopped over a chunk of snow and headed toward the waterfront.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Horror

Responses