Chris turned to Sascha. “What was that smile about?”
“Just reminded why I hang out with you.”
“The only time I’m gendered right is when I’m standing next to you.”
Chris pouted. “Weak.”
“Well, we don’t have many interests in common. Like these,” Sascha pointed up, smiling.
“The birds? Gross.”
“They’re fucking adorable, dummy. See, there’s three different
species of swallow, all nesting in this roof. Look at the little peepers.”
Baby swallows poked their heads out of mud nests, shrieking for food, too tiny to make more than an insistent ‘beep.’
Their tiny black eyes blinked adorably as a parent flew in to feed them, all iridescent fans and frenzied purpose.
“That’s a cliff swallow.”
“Sure, sure.” Chris glanced toward the bog. “What’ll we see out there?”
The first stretch of the walk was over mounded gravel and dirt paths, soggy earth several feet below. Plant-life still made its way through, the floor choked with unhealthy ferns and clods of grass, the trees just overgrown bushes.
A light rain drizzled in bursts that were more annoying than drenching.
Sascha grimaced and wiped the rain from his forehead. “You really aren’t expecting to find the killer wandering around out here.”
“Hehe, yeah,” Chris said, “Just looking for some kinda validation I guess. About my theory the killer is copying an obscure horror movie.”
“’Legend of Gore Lake’ isn’t exactly obscure. It presaged the whole genre of Grey Slasher and started the career of Nolan Buckw-”
“Anyone into horror knows about it. Besides, it’s not like drowning is the most creative murder method.”
“But who drowns grown men with a bunch of other random victims? Killers have
a type. Usually weaker than them, like kids or young women or whatever.”
“Yeah, like whoever they secretly want to bone. But spree killers don’t discriminate.”
“Ah, you’ve been absorbing my wisdom after all. Yeah, I guess it could just be a spree killer.”
“Bog wren. So cute.”
“Right in front of you, four-eyes.”
Chris didn’t bother search for it - it was too well-hidden in the profusion of plant life. Suddenly he
perked up. “Look, another bog wren fan. Perhaps one who crossed paths with killer or victims?”
Up ahead, a lady with thick dark-framed glasses and short curly hair raised her binoculars.
Sascha said, “You should go talk to her. If you need any info on bog wrens, just call me over.”
Chris glared. “Have you no respect for the enterprise of journalism?”
“Maybe some, but not a lot.”
Chris went on, Sascha trailing a few steps behind, still searching for birds.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” Chris said, “I’m investigating the murders and was wondering about—”
“The thoughts of any random person you pass? I’m watching birds.”
“Hey, how ‘bout those bog wrens?”
She snorted. “So drab. Last year I saw a vagrant Koroman tanager.”
Sascha looked around faux-casually, “Huh. Wonder if something’s scaring ‘em off…”
“Don’t be impertinent.” She almost took off the binoculars, but changed her mind.
Chris said, “Mm, yes, well, what of the danger? Wouldn’t any lone birder be easy pickings for a killer?”
“You think *I* care about being serial killed? At least that’s an interesting way to die.”
Sascha raised his eyebrows, “I didn’t know ‘interesting’ was an important criteria for one’s ideal death.”
“Better get yourself ready. You’re on your way to death even as we speak.”
“Whoa,” Sascha said, “That’s either real bleak or real creepy, or a combination of the two.”
Chris nodded at the sage words of wisdom. “We will, ma’am. We will.”
Before the trees broke into the flooded, open swampland, the gravel path was replaced with a wooden one. It rose and fell gently with a sturdy rail to discourage foolish adventuring. The sky was darker now, but was it clouds or the setting sun?
“Oh man…” Chris said.
“Dusk? When the murders happen? I guess that drive out here was longer than I thought.”
The trees of the path thinned on one side, revealing a vast stretch of marsh - all grass
and reeds and random puddling of the sodden earth. The sky was deep periwinkle.
Sascha almost felt weird that he wasn’t worried about getting murdered, but then, the
victims of this killing spree had all been alone. Maybe Chris would be protection enough.
“Oh man…” Chris said again.
Sascha was relieved, and keen. “Aw. I wonder if they’re used to humans.” A group of several deer was slowly
foraging and drinking the ill swamp water. “Don’t pet ‘em if they are though. They carry a lot of ticks.”
“Don’t think that’s going to be a problem.” As the boys approached along the path, quiet as they were, the deer grew nervous and backed slowly toward the denser brush. Their brown and long limbs blended well with the slender tree trunks. Chris just shrugged and turned back to the path.
They were further along, Sascha casting a lot of backward glances, when a large muddy glomp sounded and deer
crashed through the trees. Chris looked back, but Sascha had already been looking, and was paralyzed with terror.
"Dude, what happened?"
"Uh, uh, a water horse ate a deer?"
Beksinski looked at him blankly, then at the water, then back at his friend. "Whut."
"Serious, dude! A freakin' horse took a deer out like a lion, dragged it under the water!"
"I... don't... follow."
"What's there to follow? Am I not speaking Glennish here? What exactly are you confused about?"
The sounds of retreating deer had died down completely, leaving only their conversation and light rain patter. Sascha said, "Look! They're running from the freakin' water horse lion."
"OK," Chris said, "Something scared the deer, and you say it was a carnivorous seahorse"
"Not a seahorse, a water horse, with like, hooves and shit." He put his head in his hands. "I guess you're just not going to believe me, but I really saw that."
Chris folded his arms and looked at Sascha in concern. "OK, two possibilities, not mutually exclusive. It was a crocodile, or you scared the deer by having some kind of neurological episode."
"Man, fuck you dude. I'm going to the ranger. Don't get eaten by a horse while I'm gone."
Sascha hustled away, boots tonk-tonking on the wooden path. Chris looked to a bench ahead and went to have a sit.
Chris huddled on the bench waiting for Sascha, wondering if he should turn back, until the rain broke and he got a burst of energy. He crept along the walkway, then picked up the pace. The open space was less miserable now than the dripping trees. The platform ramped to a three-level deck with observation telescopes and a small covering. He climbed, the steps steep enough to embarrass his short legs.
At the top he grabbed a telescope. Coin-operated? Luckily, it was free to the public. Who carries coins anymore? He balanced on the rail to get in a good angle.
He saw the rest of the bog’s walking path. A sprawling, wooden thread hovering above sodden mush-land with sparse tufts of tall creepy grass and reed. Large puddles and small lakes dotted the rank swamp. A brackish river wound around the far reach of the path.
Gull-like birds made improbable dives at the water. He’d never seen gulls do that before, but he was pretty incurious about birds, and slowly lowered the scope along the path. Starting at the end, moving down where the planks broadened, drawing closer, until he was on his tiptoes looking at - yikes— oh, just a brown paper bag.
Then, the wet paper bag turned its head, revealing a swollen pinkish mug erupting with black and white wiry bristles. Bulgy pale eyes with strawberry-cream sclera.
An old-timer. What luck, Chris thought. They know all the hot local creepiness. He dropped the scope and hopped down, skipped steps to the path below, and approached the paper-bag man, trying to catch his breath before speaking.
“Hey there,” he said a few paces away.
The man’s trenchcoat dripped, rather paper-bag like indeed. He looked back to Chris, the coat’s folds twisted like snakes and stuck to him like seaweed. “Boy.”
“Haha, okay, I’m short, but I’m all man.
Want a smoke?”
The oldster’s face relaxed. “Why not?”
Chris lit a cigarette and handed it over with cold, stiff fingers. “So, haha. Not to put to fine a point on it, I’m looking into the, er, Barwald Bog murders.”
“Psht. Murders.” The man stared ahead at nothing.
“So, hm, you think it was a series of accidents?
The man spoke out of the side of his mouth, flashing dry, yellow-grey teeth.
“I guess you can call ‘em murders because they was pointless.”
“Hm, that makes sens- Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Murders are
done on purpose, for a reason. A point, however perverse it may be.”
“Yeah, marrels. Thing is, once upon, there was ways of keeping folk in line.”
“Moral decay. That’s what they say, like, ‘What’s the matter with kids these days,’ am I right?”
The guy huffed - a snapping sound and curl of smoke - and rolled an eyeball toward Chris. “You gon’ta listen?”
“Sure, it’s what I’m here for. Heh, starting now.”
“So… people are gon’ta do what they will, regardless of consequence. Animals foller their passions. But sufficient consequence’ll keep most humanity on the right path. Nowaday, the consequences are too slight, too rarely apployed.”
The side-eye silenced him again. “Mind you, I don’t care about th’ right path. Why would I? I live in a swamp.”
“Hurhur, certain you are. As I was sayin’, I just like t’ see nature as it should be. Bound’ries keep things comfortable for everyone, nice ‘n’ cozy-like. Humans get greedy, what sets ‘em to rights? A poison prize. Bite the hand that grasps. Where’s the greed? Still there, but it’s gone all willy. Too much chasing paper. What kind of prize is that? Now, a harse— that’s a proper prize.”
“A horse. That’s funny, my friend thought—”
“A harse. Din’t ya know? Once upon, a harse was the single most valuable thing you could possess. There’s reason for the divvy ‘tween knights and footmen. Anyhow, someone sees a harse, thinks, ‘I can be a knight.’ That’s when the beast gets ‘em. Not enough respect for the power that makes ‘em valuable in the first. Something ya want that can easily kill ya, a proper poison prize.”
As the old man expounded, part of Chris’s brain kicked up a signal, but the rest was just not getting it. He smiled blankly and puffed his cigarette like a fashion-conscious greaser.
The oldster finally turned and faced Chris as he spoke, his face twisted into a semblance of emotion. “That’s romance. That’s proper punishment. Not something light, not a missed bill or a bounced check, but some right-nasty violence. Little Billy reaches in the cookie jar? Maybe the first fifteen Billies get away with, but Billy sixteen? Arm ripped off and shoved down ‘is throat. HA HA HA!”
Chris shifted on his feet, “Heh heh, that’s terrible. I’ll say, you have an infectious laugh.”
“What?” The old man blinked, then creased his face with anger. “I’m not in a laughing mood, sonny!” He stared, seething. “That’s how it should be, but not how it is. When people look at the harse now, it’s like, ooh, wanna pet? Want some yummy trail mix, sweetheart? So they’re just getting killed for stupid, not for sin. Pointless. May as well call it murders.”
Chris cocked his head. “Um, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.”
A cry rose in the distance, “CHRIS! WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT THING?” Sascha sprinted up the path waving his arms.
Chris spun around, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN? Oh,” he turned back to the old man, “Sorry for shouting right by— your hooves.”
Instead of an old man, he found a tall, swaybacked horse with sunken sockets and bulging, cataracted eyeballs. It looked down at him like a tyrannosaur and whickered - giant lips flapping around dry, yellow-grey teeth.
Chris flopped on his back and scooted away on his palms. The apparition stomped the wood between his legs, sending up a spray of splinters and wet dirt in his face. Chris scrambled up halfway, tripped and fell again. Sascha ran closer, but Chris would be dead before his friend got anywhere near. He squeezed his eyes and waited for the killing hoof.
It never came. Chris wobbled to his feet and ran, but Sascha stopped him with an outstretched arm. They looked at the dock where the killer horse had been. Empty. Great ripples spread through the foul swamp water nearby.
Chris gaped, his mouth hanging open. “It went for a dip?!”
Sascha stared, eyes wide, “Yeah, just slipped right off like a fish. What the hell? And what the hell were you doing? Trying to feed it a carrot?”
“A cigarette…” Chris mumbled, “I was talking to an old man… Hell, he must have gone in the drink too.” He shook his head. “Swamp gas. This doesn’t make any sense. Maybe we are actually lying a torpid heap back at the bend, tripping on methane and babbling at each other.”
“Because telepathy isn’t real, we’d need to be communicating to have the same hallucination. You said the horse dipped and I saw the rings in the water.” Chris pushed his glasses and rain sprinkled over them.
“Okay, but wouldn’t it be more likely I’m hallucinating both sides of this dumbass conversation?” Sascha cinched the drawstrings on his hood and tied them.
“Ooh, or that you never existed and in my altered state I’ve imagined our entire history together.”
“You wish we had a history— WHERE IS THE RANGER?! I told him about the killer horse. He said he’d get a gun and come back!”
“He believed you saw a killer horse?”
“I said it was a crocodile.”
“Smart. More evidence you’re a figment of my imagination though.”
Sascha waved the comment away with a flimsy gesture and stepped toward the space where the weird scene had unfolded. “There’s no way. The water isn’t deep enough to submerge a horse, is it? Look, those reeds can’t be that tall.”
Both boys walked to the railing. Chris pointed, “The reeds go under all around here. It’s irregular, but it’s a deeper channel. I mean, why would a horse and a swampy man commit suicide here? It’s just…” He sighed. “The ranger may as well shoot us and get it over with. College has melted our respective brains.”
Sascha glowered through the little opening in his hood. “Fuck it, let’s get out of this piss.” He turned, boots making hollow thumps over the boards.
What was that? Another sound between his footfalls - a heavy sack hitting the wood, slipping, submerging. He wheeled about, Chris Beksinski was gone. The water rippled again.
“What? Kill myself over a goddamn hallucination?! Fuck you, Beks.” He hopped over the rail and dove into the eerie ripples.
Branches thrashed around them. Must have been branches, but they looked like giant pale arms - so many arms. He caught sight of Chris thrashing in panic when the cyclopean limbs grabbed his arm and his leg. His eyes bulged.
Chris felt his sodden clothes were iron belts strapping him down while the …horse? drowned him. Especially the pants. Why must he be a slave to fashion? Air was a distant memory. The teeth… The eyes… Laughing underwater.
Cold wind blew over his scalp and snapped him awake. He forced his body to roll and it complied, a million times too slow for his liking. Rolling all around him, a sea of dead tree limbs, soft and clammy to the touch. The smell of blood.
He broke the surface, gasping. Sascha was already there, and between them - the swamp man, face-down in the water, trenchcoat fanned out and touching them both. They jerked from the body in revulsion and started slogging to the most solid ground available.
“You boys alright?,” the Ranger asked. “I can’t believe it… The hell was wrong with that old man?” His rifle was still smoking. An aura of rain fell around him in the fading light.
Chris pulled himself onto a clump of tall, barely rooted grass, his head just above the water. “Ugh, ugh… He…? Oh god no.”
Sascha said, “Come on, come on. Don’t think, just get out of here.”
Chris nodded. The corpse still bobbed between them, uniformly brown and slick, the color and texture of seaweed. The boys slogged to the wooden refuge.
Crack! The ranger fired his rifle into the railing, splintering the wood along the top. “—mark the spot in case the body drifts out of sight,” he explained as their hearing returned. “Let’s get you out of here.”
They stumbled stiff-limbed up the path. The ranger said, “Guess you caught your story, huh?”
Chris said, “I don’t feel like writing anymore.”
“You will,” Sascha said.
The sky darkened and went completely black.