There Is Only A Hole Here Now (from Elements of Horror Book One: Earth)
A solitary maggot wriggled and stretched its grotesque little body up and out of the girl’s tear duct. Its pearlescent hue glinted in the sun and Jau watched it locomote across the bridge of her nose. Fat and peristaltic in its clumsy side-wind of a gait, it plopped to the ground and disappeared in the wet mud and detritus. The thick and cloying smell misted, musty and redolent like stale piss. Revolting bile flooded into Jau’s gullet with the taste of half-digested chocolate milk and school-canteen meat pie. Hot and acidic in his throat, it lapped somewhere behind his barely formed Adam’s apple, threatening to erupt in a viscous fountain of puke. She had strips of flesh missing. Sinewy strands of muscle dangled like spaghetti. Claw marks like those you’d see on the cover of an old horror movie lacerated her face and arms. There was chewed flesh. Broken bones.
Ryan pressed the back of his hand against his nose. “That’s Haley,” he said, “That’s Haley from school.”
“No way dude, how could it be her?” Sandy leaned over the corpse.
Jau waved a fly away from his face.
“Have you seen her this term? I haven’t.”
Using a twig, Sandy lifted a shock of mud-stained hair away from her face. “Man, we need to call the cops. No, call my mum. She’ll know what to do.”
“Don’t be stupid, Sandy. She’s got maggots crawling out of her face. Call my Dad. Tell him to come get us, then call the cops.”
“What if they think we did it?”
“Murdered a girl and left her near our treehouse?”
“I’m going to be sick, man. I’m not even allowed to watch television after six-pm. I shouldn’t be seeing this.”
“Then go away, Ryan. Go away and be sick or stand here and hold it in like everyone else.” At the thought of vomit, Jau’s stomach went queasy. If Ryan threw up, he’d have trouble holding onto his own guts. They chucked, he chundered. It was a thing.
“Let’s go. Please,” Ryan said.
Shortly after rollcall, Jau looked up from his worksheet when he heard Mrs Martello speak. “Sandy McAllister,” she said in her no-nonsense voice. “Return to your seat at once, thank you.” She observed Sandy’s actions with a monstrously patient eye, but Sandy turned the computer on without looking at her. “I’ll give you sixty seconds to make the right choice before I issue you with a detention.”
“What’s going on with him?” Jau asked Ryan. Sandy wrestled a thick green booger from his nose, wiped it on the screen and eyeballed the teacher.
“I don’t give a shit,” he said. Later, when he came out of the deputy principal’s office and found Jau and Ryan in their spot outside the library, he yanked a sandwich out of his bag and bit into it. “Mum’s marrying that douche-bag, Adam.” He crammed the remaining half bite into his gob. “She’s gonna move us to Perth.”
“I think Jau’s right; your mum can’t take you away without your dad’s permission.”
“No shit. That’s why she’s going to court. Adam has money.”
That night at dinner, Dad polished off his beer and immediately opened the next one. Using the handle of his knife, he popped the cap and let it clatter to the floor. When it finally stopped spinning and fell silent, he leaned forward, his shirt pressing into his baked beans.
“You don’t even have a boyfriend; when the hell do you get pregnant?” Ellin looked down and nibbled her corn. Mum made herself scarce. Dad swigged.
“You’re not having it.” Ellin stood, sliding her chair back with her legs.
“D’you hear me?” Dad said. “You’re getting it fucking aborted.”
“I hate you! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.” Her bedroom door slammed, and Dad turned his gaze to Jau. “What the fuck are you looking at?”
The next day at school, Jau found it almost impossible to phase out the teacher-librarians as they contemplated the ins and outs of Haley’s murder. He scrunched up a ball of paper and tossed it into the bin then leaned across to whisper in Ryan’s ear.
“They think her Dad did it too.”
“Are you even listening?” Ryan asked. “We can’t hang out after school because the chess competition’s on.” Jau separated the nib of his biro from the plastic casing and held it up to look through it.
“Why don’t you blow that chess shit off?”
“Because I can hang out with you guys the day after tomorrow.”
“Why not tomorrow?” Sandy asked.
“Violin.” Ryan’s shit-eating grin stretched from ear to ear. “There’ll be people from the State Youth Orchestra there. I want into that.”
Eventually, Saturday cycled its way around and Jau and Ryan rode to Sandy’s house. His mum sent them into his backyard caravan with a plate full of sandwiches.
“We should build another treehouse,” Jau said. Sandy scanned across television channels.
“No way. We can’t even use the one we have.”
“There are other ways to build treehouses,” Ryan said. “What about a foxhole or shack?”
“What’s a foxhole?” Sandy plucked one of the sandwiches from the plate.
“A hole in the ground. You put a roof on it. Build benches and shit into it.”
“Sounds awesome,” Sandy said.
“We have to destroy the treehouse first.” Jau grinned at them.
“I’m sure we can cannibalise a lot of it for use in the foxhole.”
“And of course,” Jau said, “We’ll also make sure no one else benefits from our hard work. That’s our treehouse.” He picked a poppy seed from his teeth. “No one else gets to have it.”
When Dad hung up the phone, he turned to Jau. “Who else does your sister hang out with?”
“I don’t know.” Six beers down, he snatched his car keys off the kitchen bench.
“Bruce, no,” Mum said.
“If you ever bothered to get your licence I wouldn’t have to.” She stepped in front of the big man.
“Things are hard enough without you getting a second DUI.” He shoved her out of the way and threw the keys at Jau.
“You can drive. About time you learned.”
“What if whoever got that little slut from school gets her?”
“Okay, okay, just let me check the skate-park.”
She was sitting on a bench in front of a backdrop of juvenile graffiti with Veronica and a few guys from school. They had cheap cans of pre-mixed vodka and cigarettes in their hands. Her legs were draped over a guy in chinos and a Dickies shirt.
“Ellin, Dad said you’ve got to come home.”
“No way. He doesn’t give a shit about me.”
“He’s already shoved Mum. Thinks whoever got Haley will get you too. Just go to your room or something.” One of the guys stood up.
“He can’t do that.”
“Sit down, Joe.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”
“I had a phone call from the State Youth Orchestra. They want me to audition.” Ryan hovered outside the crime-scene tape.
“That’s awesome, dude. When is it?”
“A couple of weeks. It’s in the city.”
“You’ll smash it. You’re a gun.” He stepped closer to the treehouse. “Feel like someone’s been here to you?” Ryan blocked his nose with his hand. “It smells like animal piss.”
“You think the cops are coming back?”
“Fuck the cops,” Sandy said as he retrieved a little hatchet from his backpack. Whereas Ryan’s instrument was the violin, Sandy’s was his rage. He threw the sharpened tool and the blade thudded into one of the load-bearing branches used as a beam. It wobbled there, shuddering.
Jau poured petrol siphoned from his Dad’s car into an empty ice-cream container and pulled a plastic bag full of polystyrene from his backpack. He snapped and crumbled chunks of the polystyrene, dropping it into the container, watching it react and melt into sticky goo. He sat an old trowel and a stolen lighter beside the mixture. Ryan shook his head.
“You can’t set fire to it. We need the logs.”
“We’ll chop more trees.”
“That’s a waste.”
“Pussy. Sandy is totally up for chopping down trees right now.” Look at his eyes, Jau thought. He wants to watch the whole thing burn every bit as much as I do.
On the upper levels of the treehouse, Sandy hacked into a branch with his hatchet. He smashed the zip-ties used as hinges for the rusty gate posing as a door and stepped back.
“Watch out!” He kicked it with pulsating glee, and it crashed into the shrubbery. “Is that napalm?”
“Do Catholic priests fuck little boys?” Jau asked, scooping up a wad of it with the trowel. Sandy jumped down, clumsily fell over, brushed grit from his knees, and laughed as Jau spun the lighter-wheel and flames engulfed the gunky mixture. Sparks sputtered as the projectile fizzed through the air. It landed with a splat and fire crawled up the dry bark.
They took turns throwing the burning substance at the treehouse and held a bonfire to celebrate their youthful frustration with their shitty lives. In the middle of preparing a gob of napalm to hurl at the already burning treehouse, Ryan stopped and pointed.
“What the fuck is that?” There, visible through the shifting flames, staring with malevolent eyes, a hulking thing loomed. Jau shielded his eyes and squinted at the shape beyond the smoke, flames, and burning timber. Every primitive fibre of his body wanted to run. Just run and run and run. His body screamed it at him, but he couldn’t turn; couldn’t pivot. The thing’s head jerked sideways. Then it dropped low, disappearing from sight.
“What in God’s name are you little bastards doing in here?” The cop strode towards them with a cocksure grin on his face. “This is a crime scene,” he said. “You boys are in shit now.”
Ryan stammered an answer while Jau tried to relocate the monster. Only a branch swayed back and forth where it had stood.
“And so should you be. Grab your bikes and get up to the bloody road before this whole bloody forest catches fire.”
When the news started, Jau’s old man put his belt away. He didn’t even bother with the usual lecture. He grabbed another beer and watched the reporter share the remains of the boys’ handiwork – the blackened husk of a treehouse – on the television. He swigged; wiped his mouth.
“You little wanker.” All Jau could think of were Haley’s wounds, the maggot crawling out from the corner of her eye and the thing at the treehouse. The next day, when he and Sandy got to Ryan’s place, Jau knocked three times and did a full lap of the front and back doors before giving up. They found him at school, comfortable in the library.
“What’s the go, dude?” Jau asked. Ryan shifted.
“My parents are driving me from now on.”
“I can’t hang out with you anymore.”
“That’s bullshit,” Sandy said.
“I told them that.” He didn’t. He never stands up to his parents.
“So, we can only see you at school?”
“Yeah, but Mum asked my teachers not to let me sit next to you in class.”
Jau groaned. “This sucks a fat one.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Sandy. Ryan rolled his eyes.
“The bitching fire we had last night, Sandy. The cops took us home. I’m grounded forever. Hell, I’ll be lucky if I’m even allowed to audition for the orchestra at this point.”
“What about the treehouse?”
“There is no treehouse, Sandy. We burned it down.”
“What about that thing?” Jau asked. He had to keep it fresh in his memory, so he didn’t forget it completely. The general shape and ominous size of it wouldn’t leave his mind, and neither would its eyes. The fine details, though? They were gone.
“The flames played a trick on us,” Ryan said. “We imagined it.”
“We didn’t. Not all of us.” The visceral image of Haley’s mutilated body and the smell of stale piss in their newly blackened treehouse hadn’t escaped Jau’s memory yet.
Back at home in his bedroom, Jau tried to avoid attention while his father tore into Ellin again.
“You’re nothing but a whore and you won’t be having it under this roof!” Jau looked up from his sketch when she ran past his room.
“I’ll have to leave,” she said when he knocked on her door. Wet tissues marred by mascara and tears were piled on the bed next to her.
“He’ll come around,” he said. “Mum won’t let him kick you out – especially with a baby.”
“Mum said she might get Auntie Kylie to take me. She’s been lonely ever since Uncle Phil died.”
“Where is Mum? I haven’t seen her all day.” Ellin checked the hallway, and then quietly pressed the door closed.
“In bed. She doesn’t want you to see what he’s done to her. She thinks it’ll teach you it’s okay.” Jau made a fist and gently pressed it against his own face before opening his palm in a questioning gesture. Ellin nodded and hugged her brother close.
The next few days were quiet. Still grounded, Jau was putting the finishing touches on another drawing – his best yet – of the monster, when he heard screams in his sister’s bedroom. He dropped the red pencil and ran to her. She scrambled against the wall, a wash of blood between her legs, clutching her stomach. “Get mum!”
He burst open the door to the master bedroom, something they were never supposed to do. “Mum! Ellin needs you!” He snatched the phone up from beside her bed and called the ambulance. When he went back into his sister’s room, his Mum sent him out.
“Just grab a bag and pack her toiletries,” she said. “I’ll pack her clothes.”
The day after, Sandy went to the city for the court-case, but Ryan should have been there, fresh from his audition. He’d been told he might still be able to go if he could stay out of trouble.
Jau got through the day without going completely mental, but after school, he stopped by Ryan’s house to ask how the audition went. Ryan’s older brother Jonathon answered the door.
“Come in, Jau. Come in.” He led Jau to a seat at an expensive dining table. “Ryan is in hospital. Dad crashed the car on the way back from the audition last night.” He paused when he saw the tears running down Jau’s cheeks. “Ryan’s okay, but Dad’s on life-support. I’m going to meet the rest of the family at the hospital soon.”
On the way home, Jau cycled past the outskirts of the forest. Even from the road, he could see the burnt patch where the treehouse used to stand. The police tape strung across the walking trail flapped lazily in the breeze. Buffeted by the wind, it had stretched and warped. It hung loose. Dirty. He slowed down, and tried to look beyond it, imagining the thing he saw through the flames – fur matted and shaggy, shape hulking and ominous – tearing the tape down, inviting more victims into its territory.
From the pathway leading to the treehouse, a flock of birds shot skywards. In their wake, the monster, ponderous and massive stepped forward. It cocked its head to the side as if listening and then levelled its baleful eyes on Jau. Bigger, far bigger, than the largest man could ever be, it dwarfed the boy, even from this distance. Pedal. Just fucking pedal. Get out of here. The thing jerked its head towards the intersection a few hundred metres back the way Jau had come, then turned and loped back into the trees. The revving of a car engine cut across the breezy afternoon air. He let it pass then pedalled for home.
When they arrived at the hospital, Sandy and Jau raced ahead of their mothers. Inside the room, Ryan sat motionless on a plastic chair. The curtain drawn, an IV drip bled slowly into his father’s arm. Ryan’s mother and two older sisters stood around the bed as Jau approached. Ryan looked up, eyes red-rimmed and tear-stained. A wave of heavy sobs rolled over him like the tide. His shoulders heaved and dropped, and the salt-wash trickled down his cheeks.
Sandy and Jau stared at each other; hovered wordlessly. Jau couldn’t bring himself to approach Ryan’s dad. Instead, he rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Ryan held him and cried into his shoulder before turning back to his sisters. Jau and Sandy lingered for a few more moments, awkward and unnecessary intruders on what should have been a private occasion, before his Mum wiped a tear and damp foundation from her bruised cheek. Ryan finally spoke.
“Will you pray for him?” he asked. What could he say? He sure as hell couldn’t announce that every time he closed his eyes, he saw that thing staring back at him. “I will.”
With the air full of burning humidity, Jau constantly wiped sweat from his eyes. When they stopped to drink from their frozen water-bottles, Sandy finally opened up about the court-case.
“The judge said Mum can only take me if Dad agrees to it.” Unsure how to respond given everything else that had happened over the last few days, Jau opted for a fist-bump.
“I’m really glad, man. I’d hate to lose you.”
Two days later Ryan returned to school. He found Jau at the library while he waited for Sandy to finish his detention. The big goofball might have had some good news, but his mum hadn’t stopped pressuring him. On seeing Ryan, Jau ran to him and hugged him like an excited puppy. Another kid leaned out of the tuckshop line and cupped his hands to his mouth.
“Why don’t you pussies save your love-fest for your little cubby houses?”
“For your information,” Ryan said, “that’s where we trace the lineage of all the students at this school. Apparently, your parents are actually brother and sister.”
“He said the same thing your fringe has been telling us for years, Mark. You’re an inbred fuckwit.” Mark grabbed Ryan, the smaller of the two boys, and threw him to the ground just as Sandy strolled around the corner with a plastic bag half-full of rubbish in his hands. He dropped the bag and pushed Mark away from Ryan.
“You want to fight?” Mark raised his fists. A fringed pugilist. Sandy ploughed a big fat fist straight into Mark’s pointy nose. He didn’t stop swinging until the teachers pried him off.
Ryan’s dad died that night. Jau dreamed of the shambling creature. He wondered if Ryan did too.
Sandy returned from suspension and after a few days of grieving, Ryan wanted to ride to school with his friends.
“I want to dig a foxhole,” he said as they rode. “Take back our treehouse. Now the Haley thing’s over, you know.” Those wounds. That thing.
“You really think they did it?”
“Parents murder their kids all the time,” Ryan said. The police tape still dangled there, and the thick smell of musty piss had settled on the area like a fog. Around the blackened frame of the treehouse, a claustrophobic air hung; silent without the usual cacophony of birds. Jau hesitated.
“We shouldn’t be here.”
“You still think there’s a monster here?” Ryan asked, stepping off his bike and unslinging his bag from his shoulders.
“You saw it first, Ryan. Don’t be a dick.”
“I saw a shadow. A fucking hallucination from the smoke in the air.” He walked into the very centre of the charred copse of trees where the old fortress once stood. “Where are you?” he screamed. The afternoon breeze washed through the canopy.
“Come on, Ryan. I don’t want to be here either.” Sandy monitored the foliage around them with concern etched onto his face and his arms folded.
“Then fuck off, Sandy. Go home and leave us alone.”
“He’s right, Ryan. We shouldn’t be here. Can’t you feel it?” Ryan drove a shovel into the ground, right in the centre of the thicket.
“We’re digging a foxhole here.” The scratching of the shovel seemed louder than it should in the closeness of the afternoon. Something rustled in the trees ahead of them. Silence dropped, cloak-like, on the gathering and the thick, musty piss-stink grew stronger. The thing exploded out of the foliage, growling and slavering, charging into Sandy, driving him against the trunk of a tree with the rampaging force of a careening vehicle. A splintered and stubby branch punched through the meaty flesh of his lower back and burst out of his belly. Jau saw his friend’s intestines stretch and bulge across the exposed limb.
The thing, mind-boggling in its aspect, slammed a bear-like paw over Sandy’s wailing mouth. Its stygian black claws raked across Sandy’s throat. Blood spewed. The repetitive thud of Ryan’s shovel grew louder, more rapid. He dug. For some reason he dug while a monster tore his friend limb from limb. The last few years of Sandy’s life, his parents had split him in two and now this thing was literally dismembering him. The creature stretched the boy’s shoulder to breaking point. The sinews snapped, and the ligaments around his exposed socket wriggled in shock like insects under an upturned rock. The smell of piss mingled with the stronger smell of blood and Jau felt a warm wetness run down his leg. Amidst the snarling, the screaming, and the infernal scratching of the shovel striking soil, the monster turned and levelled its gaze on him.
A gunshot boomed. The monster roared at the sky; an unholy baying, and a second report echoed off the trees. It thundered again, and the creature turned tail and fled. Sandy’s mutilated corpse sagged awkwardly, still propped up by the branch impaling it. His blood coated the charred trees. His arm lay on the ground by his feet.
The same policeman who’d busted them on the day of the fire wrapped an arm around Jau and held him tight for a moment before checking on Ryan, who stood knee-deep in the hole he’d dug. Jau puked. Ryan kept striking at the soil with the shovel.
“How did you know?” Jau asked between sobs. Visibly shaken, the cop said something into his walkie-talkie before answering. “A passing car saw you heading in with your tools.” He looked at Sandy’s corpse. “I wish they’d called sooner.”
Ryan’s shovel struck the ground again. Subtly, the scent of freshly turned earth added to the metallic rancour of Sandy’s blood.
“You boys need to come with me. You need shock blankets and I can’t leave you here in…”
“In the treehouse?” Ryan’s shovel finally fell silent. “There is no treehouse.” He sat on the lip of the hole he’d dug. Jau tried not to look at Sandy, putting an arm around Ryan and facing the other way instead. It didn’t hide the smell of blood or musty piss or broken soil, but he couldn’t stare at Sandy’s lifeless eyes any longer. Ryan shrugged Jau off.
“There is only a hole here now,” he said. Jau shook him, but the boy who played the violin so well didn’t falter. “There is only a hole here now,” he said. “There is only a hole here now. Say it, Jau. Say it. You know it’s true.”
Jau rested his forehead against his friend’s. He’s right. The treehouse is gone. The earth is broken. There is only a hole here now.
“There…is only…a hole here now.”It came out like a whisper, but Ryan pressed against him, crying.
“There is,” he said, louder this time, “Only a hole…”
“Scream it, Jau. Scream it.” He grabbed Ryan’s shirt, pulled him close, and bellowed so loudly he could feel his vocal cords tearing. “There is…only… a hole…here…now.”
Connect with Zachary Ashford on Twitter
Grab his new book, When the Cicadas Stop Singing, on Amazon.
Elements of Horror Book One: Earth is available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here