November 19, 1989
Chester Laughton paid no attention to the smell.
It was there, and it wasn’t as though he couldn’t smell it, it was simply not registering in his mind as odd. It should have been registering, though. It was a subtle kind of awful. Underneath the smell of the rotting leaves and damp earth. The carcasses of innumerable insects and small animals. Even the trees themselves seemed to be more rotten here than the rest of the woods.
Sure, you could always find dead trees in the woods. You didn’t even have to look that hard. They’d be scattered about, here and there, limbs broken off and hanging at forty-five degree angles from the splintered joint, the fingers of branches in a frozen, eternal grip of the dirt.
But here it was different. Almost all of the trees, dead. Or at least dying. Well on their way to joining their wooded brethren in stoic afterlife.
Chester glanced around. He still wasn’t paying any attention to that smell. Beneath the surface of the rest, but only just.
After assuring himself his buddy Mike wasn’t around, he produced a small stainless steel flask out of the inside pocket of his hunting vest. He twisted the top and flipped it over on its hinge. He glanced once more all around to see if Mike had wandered back into his area.
Chester grinned to himself, an involuntary reaction to the excitement of ingesting whiskey. He turned the flask up and arched his back as he guzzled down two big gulps of the amber drink. His eyes watered slightly as the evening sun pierced through the treetops and landed on his gaze. Also from the whiskey.
It was stout stuff.
He brought his head back down after the gulps and issued a satisfied sigh, replete with smacking lips and a weathered tongue that lapped any excess alcohol off his shaggy gray facial hair.
He recapped his flask and replaced it in his pocket. He gave his vest a pat over the area the flask rested, like thanking an old friend for being there for you when you really needed someone to listen. Then he pulled his rifle off of his shoulder and swung it around to a more ready position. Muzzle down. Loose grip. Safety on.
Chester was fifty years old. He stood at five feet and ten inches, and the girth of his ever-expanding belly rounded him out to appear to make that measurement seem almost spherical. His beard, which hung from his face in a scattered, mad-scientist abandon, hung from his chin to just above his ample male bosom. He was wearing camouflage overalls and an orange hunting vest and cap. He was carrying his favorite hunting rifle that day, the Winchester .30-.30, with a large, black Bushnell scope mounted to the top.
He and Mike had risen early that morning and spent the pre-dawn hours making their way into the woods. It was only about two miles outside of their little town of Winnsboro, Texas. But the hunting was typically damn good here. Deer and rabbits especially seemed to like to call the place home. They’d parked their trucks on the side of an old dirt-top road, half in the ditch, half out, and made their way into the darkened forest.
They’d made out OK, too, that morning. Mike had bagged a six-point buck, and Chester had shot a couple of rabbits. The .30-.30 was way overkill for the rabbits, so he had aimed for the head. The first one he’d hit a little below the target and turned what could have been a nice stew into nothing more than a pink mist and a furry red spot. The second had been on target, though. Head gone, body intact.
On the first rabbit, his hands had been shaking. He hadn’t had a drink yet that day to really get him going. He remedied that promptly, his hands steadied off, and his aim had become more true.
They’d cleaned their morning kills back at Mike’s house and packed the meat into a couple of large coolers with ice. Then they’d headed back out after a few afternoon beers before the evening hunt. Chester hadn’t called his wife to let her know where he was or when to expect him. There was no reason to. He was the man of the house. And he’d had to remind her and their boy of that again the night before.
He had put about eighteen beers in his gut after three heavy glasses of Kentucky Deluxe whiskey. It was cheap stuff, but it was strong and it got the job done. His wife was watching some shit on the television in their single-wide trailer home that he’d cared nothing about. He had wanted to watch the evening football scores. He had a few bets down with the guys at The Whet Whistle, the bar on the edge of town. She hadn’t wanted to change the channel. She’d been very interested in the show she had on. Some cooking nonsense with fancy spices and some faggot in a white hat with a sissy voice.
“Can’t you check them tomorrow in the paper?” Cheryl Laughton had asked him. “I don’t wanna miss this.”
“I’ll check it tonight on the TV,” Chester barked at her as he snatched the remote off the arm of the couch where she was sitting. “Nobody gives a shit about these faggot dinners.”
Cheryl frowned and looked to the floor in deep frustration.
“They ain’t faggot dinners, Chester, they’re fine meals,” she said, her Southern drawl flattening out her I’s and further simplifying her contractions. “I bet you’d like them if you try them sometime!”
“Bet you’d like my cock in your asshole if you tried it sometime, but you ain’t doing that neither, so shut the fuck up.”
Cheryl stood from her position on the couch. Her teeth were clenched. “You’re such a bastard, Chester Laughton!” she yelled at him. “I can’t never do nothing I want!”
Chester grinned. His chest rose and fell in quick succession as he quietly chuckled, never looking at her. He was staring at the television.
“Can’t never my ass,” he said as the laugh died off. He was still staring at the TV. “Can’t never make a real dinner ‘round here, neither. Can’t never pick up the goddamn clothes. Can’t never pick my whiskey up at the store. Just what in the hell do you do around here all day, anyhow?”
He still hadn’t been looking at her.
She shook her head and clenched her fists closed and opened them again and again.
“You go fuck yourself, Chester. You sure as shit ain’t fuckin’ me tonight, you fat drunk!”
She’d moved to go around him and back into the kitchen. He still wasn’t looking at her. Wasn’t even seeming to acknowledge her.
As she’d gone past him, she knocked the beer in his hand out of his grasp and it tumbled to the floor. Foam and piss-colored liquid splashed out onto the carpet.
Her eyes went wide suddenly.
“I’m sorry, Chester!” she’d said quickly. “I’ll clean it up!”
Now Chester was looking at her.
“You damn right you will, you bitch!” he screamed. “You’re gonna clean it up, alright!”
He’d grabbed her at the base of her neck, squeezing tightly on the soft area beneath her skull. Then he’d swung her around and threw her to the floor. Her face was right over where the beer had spilled.
“Clean it up, bitch!” he screamed.
He grabbed a wad of her hair and started rubbing it into the floor, mopping the beer with it as he did.
“You clean it up, good!”
Cheryl had begun crying at that point.
He shoved her hair around in the beer a few more times then stood up and kicked her in the ribcage. All the air in her lungs blew out in a pitiful gasp. Tears were streaming down her face now, and snot and phlegm dripped from her nose and mouth in strings. She had begun to cough.
“Goddamn whore,” Chester had said and spit on her. He’d turned from her and headed to the kitchen. Down the hall past the kitchen, their son’s bedroom door opened. Ryan Laughton stood in the doorway, staring at his father. There’d been a mixture of fear and fury in his boy’s eyes. Chester could see the faint twinkle of tears in the corners of his son’s eyes.
“Get back to bed, boy,” Chester had snapped at him and pointed to the door beyond him. “You ain’t supposed to be up.”
“I heard momma scream, daddy,” Ryan had said.
“You mind your business, son!” Chester barked at him. “Now get your ass in bed!”
But Ryan hadn’t.
To Chester’s bewilderment, his son had defied him and stepped into the hallway and marched right past him and went to his mother, completely ignoring his father.
Chester had watched him go, his mouth agape and eyes wide in furious wonder.
“You OK, momma?” Ryan had asked as he reached her and knelt beside her. “Are you hurt?”
“Get the fuck back in bed, I told ya!” Chester screamed.
Ryan’s mother raised herself up on an elbow and wiped the snot and tears from her face. Then she put a hand on Ryan’s arm.
“Do what your father says, baby,” she’d said to him. “Go get in bed. I’m alright.”
But Ryan had shook his head.
“You don’t look alright,” he said, and glared at his father.
Ryan was eleven years old, and already was as tall as his mother’s five feet and four inches. He was big too. Not like his father, with slabs of fat hanging and bloating every which way. Ryan was strong. He played outside most days after school and enjoyed physical education at school. His young body was muscular and one day he would be someone to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, he thought he already was.
Ryan had stood quickly, his hands clenching into fists. His eyes bore into his father’s.
“Don’t you touch her again!” he’d shouted.
Chester had laughed out loud at this. He’d turned from his son and opened the refrigerator and fetched himself a beer to replace the one in the carpet and Cheryl’s hair. As he turned back towards them, however, grasping the twist top to open his brew, Ryan was suddenly there. He’d swung a fist at his father and caught him across his left cheek. Wasn’t a bad hit either, Chester remembered. It had hurt.
But it also had pissed him off.
Chester proceeded to smack the bottle in his hand across his son’s face, bloodying his nose and mouth. When Ryan had hit the floor, Chester kicked him in the stomach three times.
Then he opened his beer. Cheryl had been screaming and crying again, her arm reaching towards her son. Some foam from the disturbed beer spewed up from the lip of the bottle as he opened it. He had held the beer over his son and let it rain on his gasping and bloody face.
“Be sure you clean that up, you little son of a whore,” he’d said in a measured and calm tone.
Then he’d gone to bed.
When he rose that morning, Cheryl had been lying next to him and Ryan had been in his bed. Both had cleaned up the spills and themselves. They’d been right where they were supposed to be, and he knew they always would be. Sometimes wives and kids needed lessons, and he considered himself a pretty good teacher.
Now, he and Mike were out in the woods for their afternoon hunt. The sun was dipping low on the horizon and daylight would be gone before long. They had less than an hour before they would need to be back at the truck to get going at last light.
Chester looked around again, knowing Mike didn’t mind drinking but didn’t appreciate being in the woods with someone carrying a loaded deer-rifle and drinking alcohol. But he didn’t see Mike anywhere, so he repeated his moves from earlier.
Rifle slung onto shoulder.
Dig out flask.
He issued another sigh of satisfaction and took a deep breath. He could smell the whiskey coming off his breath and his beard. He could smell the leaves, the trees, the smells of the woods. He could smell the…
What the hell is that? he thought.
He finally noticed the smell. It was subtle. It almost seemed to blend in with the rest of the scent of the woods. Almost like it belonged. The dead leaves. The damp earth. The rotting branches and trunks. Dead insects and animals.
And this other thing.
He looked around, trying to identify where it was coming from. He sniffed at the air like a dog for nearly a minute before deciding it was coming from his left. He began to move that direction.
Twenty feet. Thirty. Fifty.
The smell was getting stronger. Whatever it was, he was on the right trail now.
He moved further into the woods in the direction of the smell. He was faintly aware of the fact that he was moving further and further away from the road, their trucks, and that the sun was going down faster now. He needed to find Mike and start heading back.
He pushed the branches of a mostly dead dogwood tree out of his way and stepped around it. Ahead, he could make out the shape of…of a…
He stepped closer now, squinting his eyes in the diminishing light. It was definitely an old house. The woods had grown up around it, all the way up to it on all sides. It was an old, dilapidated place. He guessed it had been built in the late 1800s, possibly the early 1900s, but no sooner. Lots of rotting wood on the sides adorned the place, and the windows were mostly busted out, however, a few still had panes in them. Some were only half missing, their sharp, razor-like pieces standing there like threats.
Come on in. I dare you.
Chester was aware of the thought, the words, but had no idea where it had come from. He had no desire to go inside the house. He only wanted to find his friend and get the hell out of there before it got too dark to find their way back. But still, he’d heard it. It was there. In his head, but not coming from his head.
It was getting cold, and he needed some more whiskey to warm him. That was all.
He pulled his flask out again and took three huge gulps. Then he looked all around the side of the house. The stairs to the porch were splintered and smashed in places, but seemed sturdy enough near the edges. The porch itself led around to the right of the house and then turned and followed on to the back. To the left was a large column-shaped portion of the house that rose into the trees to a point which seemed to be a third level. Half-shattered windows and graying wood siding stood silently before him.
And that smell.
It was stronger here. Much stronger. A breeze was blowing through the trees and carried through the missing and busted windows of the columned area of the house. The smell was on it, coming from inside.
Probably a dead animal, he thought.
But this smell didn’t really fit that. It seemed like something that belonged with death, but not death itself. It had a metallic scent to it. Almost a tang.
“Mike?” Chester shouted from the base of the stairs.
There was no answer. Only the breeze gliding through the pines and oaks and dogwoods.
And the smell.
“Mike, we gotta get going!” he shouted. “Where you at?”
He was met with more silence.
He raised his foot and took a step up on the stairs. He moved cautiously, putting his weight on it a little at a time until he was sure it would hold him. It seemed solid.
As he climbed the stairs, his eyes fell on the door. An ancient thing, hanging three-fourths open, its hinges rusted. There were the shattered remains of some old stained glass in the center, now just a few pieces remained, the intersecting and serpentine wire that separated the parts still standing defiantly.
Another gust of wind blew through the house and out the front door, hitting him in the face. The smell was on it, stronger than ever now. It was accompanied by something else. It took him a moment to place it, but once he did, he was sure it could be nothing else.
Shit and piss.
“Mike?!” he called again. His heart rate was rising steadily now. Another shiver went down his spine, but the thought of warming himself with the whiskey that still sloshed in the flask in his hand was the farthest thing from his mind.
Where the hell is Mike?
“Mike, quit fuckin’ around, we gotta get!”
He reached the top of the stairs. He glanced around a few times before stepping onto the landing. There was nothing. Dead leaves and limbs littered the porch in spite of the awning over it, but aside from that, there was nothing. He took a step toward the door.
“Mike, I’m gonna kick your a—”
His foot broke through the landing in front of the door. He tripped and his flask flew from his hand and into the house. It clanked and clattered loudly on the hollow floor within. He put his other foot out to catch himself, his hands beginning to flail in involuntary defense. His other foot crashed through the floor as well.
He was teetering forward now, his arms in full revolt. He managed to get his first foot out of the hole, but the second foot was also trying to free itself at the same time, as if operating on its own, completely independent of the other. He came crashing down into the door. It screeched and howled in protest as it swung inward the last quarter of the way and smacked into an eons-old wall inside.
Chester crashed down finally, half in and half out of the door to the house, the wind whooshing from him as he did. His rifle clattered to the porch behind him. He heard a sound of glass shattering and began to absently curse in frustration. The scope would be ruined.
“Son of a bitch!” he snarled through clenched teeth as he was getting his breath back.
He looked back through the door and saw the two wooden craters in the landing beyond where his feet had crashed through and shook his head.
Daring, are you?
It was that voice again. Inside his head, but not from it.
He swung his head around again to look into the house now. He squinted his eyes, the darkness of the house contrasting with the last vestiges of light outside.
The smell hit him again. And strong.
He took a moment, blinking to help his eyes adjust. The stench was so strong now it was covering up everything else.
He started to push himself up and noticed his hands were on something wet. His brow furrowed as he looked down at his palms. A dark, viscous fluid covered them, and it took a moment before his mind registered what he was seeing.
His hands were covered in blood.
It was bright. Fresh. Still moving across the floor of the house.
“What the fuck?” he croaked as he looked into the house again. His eyes had adjusted, and God help him.
In front of him was an entryway about ten feet deep. At the end of that, the hallway separated to the left and right, leading to opposite areas of the house.
And sitting in the middle of it was Mike.
He was sprawled out, his right leg bent at an unnatural angle, the left jutting straight out towards Chester. His eyes were opened wide and his jaw was dangling wide and crooked. It was horribly out of alignment, like something had knocked it loose from the joints and tried to twist it around to the back of his head. His tongue flopped limply from behind several shattered teeth.
And his chest and stomach, all the way down to his crotch, were ripped open. Blood was everywhere. Mike’s intestines were splashed in the blood in front of him and some were torn open, the somewhat digested waste spilling out from some of them. He could see his flask glint in the dim light just in front of the spattering of insides, partly coated in blood.
It was a shrill, maddened sound. Something you would expect to hear from a hysterical woman in one of those old movies from the thirties or forties. But here it was, screeching out of a fifty year old Texas man.
He began to scramble to his feet. His gut and chest were covered in Mike’s blood. As he stood, he tried to paw at it and wipe it away. It went nowhere. It just smeared and soaked into his clothes with every batting motion.
He was on his feet now. His heart was thumping in his ears so loud he couldn’t hear himself breathing, the frantic huffs like a galloping animal, nor could he hear himself screaming.
A shadow moved to the left of Mike’s body.
I was hungry. Soooo hungry.
In his head again. That voice. It wasn’t his.
Stick around, Chester. I’m making seconds!
Chester’s last tenuous grasp on sanity snapped. He turned and ran for the stairs and the woods beyond, screaming like a dying hyena the whole way. He tripped over the holes in the landing and rolled painfully down the stairs, snapping several planks in the process. He hit the ground with a loud thump, but he could hear nothing but his thrumming heart, pounding in his ears.
And that voice.
Where do you think you’re going?! it growled at him from somewhere deep within his mind. I need meat!
He howled another hissing, silent scream as he got to his feet and bolted as fast as a fat man could for the woods. It was by mere coincidence that he happened to be running straight for his truck, though that was still a good mile and a half or more through the trees. He was just running. Away. That was the only place he wanted to get to.
As he sprinted, he saw some faint movement behind him in his vision’s periphery. Only a blur. A shadow. He pumped his fat legs as fast as he could. His rifle was gone. He had nothing to defend himself with.
Oh, God, what happened to you, Mike?
He recognized this voice. It was his. His internal talker. The one that reasoned with him. The one that reminded him of what he needed to do when the wife and boy got out of line.
But this voice was whimpering now, just as he had begun to do while running. He was crying. No, he was sobbing. Big strings of mucus were running from his nose and tears were streaming his cheeks and catching in his beard. Had he been more aware, he might have realized in this moment how much he resembled his family from the night before.
Yet, at this moment, however, the only thing Chester Laughton was aware of was running as fast as he could. To that special place. That place where there was safety and sanity.
He was heaving now. His fat frame hadn’t exerted itself in such a manner since he was in high school, and it was vehemently protesting everything he was putting it through now. But he didn’t stop.
Another shadow moved, slower this time, to his right and slightly behind him.
Don’t you want some meat, Chester?
That voice was back.
Don’t you want seconds?
He screamed again, snot strings flying from his mouth. He ran for what seemed like an age. He was heaving and panting and sobbing all at the same time.
The shadows quit moving. The voice was gone now. But still he ran. He ran all the way back to the dirt-top road and came out about thirty yards from their trucks, sitting silently in the moonlight. He turned and ran for them, night almost fully upon him.
He had made it. He’d managed to get away from that thing. From that place. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but all that could be decided later. He needed to get home and get cleaned up. Then he needed to get some whiskey in him. A lotof whiskey. Yeah. That would do the trick. That would calm him down. Then he could decide what to do. Who to tell.
Or tell anyone?
He was almost to his truck when his foot slipped in the dirt. The last thing he saw before blacking out was the bumper of his truck rushing up to meet his face.
He had made it.