Just how long I’m in darkness God only knows. Intense pain streaks through my body. Something touches me. It’s a hand, shaking me. In the darkness, I hear this voice, a mile away, saying:
“Josh. Wake up, son.”
I open my eyes. I’m lying on the kitchen floor. Ralph stares down at me. I notice his eyes are fresh with tears.
“What … happened?” I ask. I try to get up, but can’t; there’s too much pain. I glance at my left leg. It’s wrapped in a blood-soaked towel.
“Tyler,” Ralph says quietly, motioning with his head behind me. When I look I see my brother lying on the floor a few yards away. The place I shot him is still fresh, but now there’s another dark hole just below his throat.
“He came back,” Ralph says. “Just like Laddie did. I was afraid he would, but I … I didn’t know you had left your rifle there too. It’s all right, though”—he nods at my leg—“I don’t think the bullet hit the bone. I’ve wrapped it and set a splint, so you should be fine. But we will have to get you to a hospital. And … ” His eyes shift away from mine.
“What?” I try moving again before quickly giving up. “What is it?”
“It’s Amanda. Tyler … he tore her apart. There isn’t much left of her.”
I stare at him, and it’s like I can’t see him, like I can’t even hear him. So much, all at once, it’s hard to get over. Especially now.
Ralph pulls up a chair and sits down. “I think all the worms are out of him now. But still, he could come back.” He pauses, reaches down to pick up the gun and ax off the floor. He hands me the ax. “That’s why you need to take his head.”
I’ve become more focused, so I stare at the ax. After a moment, I shake my head. “Fuck you.”
“Josh, you don’t understand. This is the only way to free his soul. The only way to ensure our safety.”
“Then why don’t you do it?”
He sighs, shaking his head. “I wish I could, Josh, I do. But I can’t. Tyler … he’s like my grandson. You both are. I just … I can’t.”
“And he’s my brother. So that makes it okay for me?”
He lowers his eyes. Fresh tears course down his face. He coughs, and for the first time I realize that stupid pipe of his is nowhere near his mouth. This is the first time I’ve seen him without it, and boy how I wish he had it back between his lips, because then the two of us wouldn’t be here now, debating over the fate of my already dead brother.
Ralph sighs again.
Looks back at me.
“Decades ago, when I was about your age, me and a couple of my friends happened upon what’s out in the woods. I don’t even remember how, exactly, but we were fascinated by it. We were scared, too. We decided to keep it a secret. Our own little secret. We wouldn’t tell our parents, not even our girlfriends.”
He shakes his head, staring down at the weapons in his lap.
“Somehow it cast its spell over us. We just … wanted it for our own. Sometimes we’d even fight over who got to spend more time staring at it. It became an obsession. Then … then William got caught.”
Ralph wipes at his eyes.
“Sometimes, in my dreams, I can still hear him screaming. We were all there, and we watched … but we did nothing to help him. Absolutely nothing.”
Images of those thin blades reaching out and grabbing my brother’s leg, his helpless eyes as he was dragged into the grass, flood my mind.
“We knew then we needed to destroy it,” Ralph says. “We couldn’t tell anyone, not even the constable, because then we knew we’d be blamed for William’s death. So we tried to do away with it on our own, but … but it was no use. So we placed a board over the hole and swore to keep it a secret forever.” His eyes shift to meet mine. “But I guess that was our worst mistake, wasn’t it?”
Instead of answering him, I ask, “So what the hell is that thing?”
Ralph leans back, stares at the ceiling. “I don’t know. None of us know, at least those still alive. But whatever it is, it’s not grass. On the outside, yes, it looks like grass, but on the inside … it’s some kind of creature. My theory is that it’s a massive worm. It lures its prey in with those waving blades, then sucks it in and takes its life. Replaces it with its … its babies.”
“Its babies? What do you mean its—”
Somewhere behind me, I hear this moaning grunt, and before I can even turn my head to see, Ralph raises the gun and fires. The sound is deafening, and just hearing it makes more pain streak up my leg.
When I turn my head the entire way, I see another bloody hole in Tyler’s body.
“I don’t want to do that again,” Ralph whispers. “I’ve called James. Besides me, he’s the only one of us five who’s still alive. I told him what’s happened. He doesn’t want to, but he’s coming here. He should be here within the hour. We’re going to try to stop it once and for all, if it’s possible. But please, Josh, for the good of Tyler’s soul, finish this.” He extends the ax to me again. “Set him free.”
So what am I supposed to say? All of a sudden this huge burden has been placed on my shoulders, and the person who’s done that is just going to stand by and watch? The person I once considered my grandfather, the person I loved deep down in my heart more than my own parents?
I hate him for it; I fucking hate him.
But I know I have no choice.
“All right,” I say after a long moment, as I realize that everything I’ve done before, everything I thought was the hardest thing in the world, was nothing compared to this. Because right now I have to close my eyes—I can’t look at anything—as I say these four fucking words: “Give me the ax.”