The Thing in the Woods
By D. R. Smith
We found it in the woods behind my house. My friends and I were playing hide and seek when Austin tripped over it and did a face plant in the mud. It sat under a birch tree, black and steaming like some weird volcanic rock belched out of the earth.
It fascinated us.
All its surfaces were smooth, flat, and gleaming. Yet it shimmered, it stirred, even as it sat motionless amid the weeds. It warned us away yet tempted us to touch it. It was everything boys like us dreamt of finding in their treasure-hunting forays into the woods. All the wonders of the world in one odd thing.
And it was a nightmare, a strange, beckoning nightmare, a horror for which we had no response, except to stare.
“What is it?” Justin asked, wandering over from his hiding spot.
I glanced at my friend. “I don’t…” I started to answer, but my throat dried up. “HellifIknow,” I spat in one single syllable.
Austin brushed the leaves and mud off his clothes. “Why does it look like that?” he said.
“Is it alive?” Justin asked.
We crept up to it for a closer look.
The rock, for I had no better word to call it, seemed to shrink and expand imperceptibly, as though it drew quick, shallow breaths. Its angles and lines morphed into curves and corners, almost at once, like a weird trick of the light. But that didn’t make sense, because the sun was hidden behind the clouds. There was no wind to speak of, either.
Something else, then.
The rock stared back at us, though it hadn’t the eyes of a living thing. Yet, living it was, living and watching, as if it had been waiting patiently to be found for a thousand years.
Waiting for us.
“What do we do with it?” Justin asked.
“What can we do?” Austin replied. He reached out to poke it and then jerked his hand away. “It’s hot!”
Justin stuck his own hand out and touched it. “Freezing,” he said matter-of-factly. “Like ice.”
Both of them turned to look at me.
It was my turn. I slowly reached out and brushed my fingertips along its unexpectedly silky surface. “Warm,” I told them. I was about to add that they were both crazy, but how could I? The rock was crazy. It shouldn’t have been there. It belonged on another planet somewhere.
I was convinced of that fact, but not enough yet to share my theory with my friends.
“What do we do with it, Mike?” Austin sucked his burning fingers and looked at me.
It was a fair question. My family owned the woods, so the rock was on my land. It made sense that it fell to me to decide. Only I wanted no part of it. No part of the thing, the rock, or whatever the hell it was. No part of this whole weird day. My stomach hurt and bile bubbled up my throat as my eyes strained to focus on the thing’s constantly churning surface.
“Kill it,” I heard myself say.
We stared at the rock.
Austin had his slingshot with him. We all did when we played in the woods. We called them our peacemakers, but we were really just looking for squirrels to paste.
He pulled back on it now and launched a sharp-edged stone at the rock from only three feet away. He shouldn’t have missed. But the missile sliced harmlessly into the tall grass behind the rock, which shifted in the weeds in the blink of an eye to avoid the contact.
Austin took a step back, startled. “Did you see that? It moved!”
We saw. Christ Almighty.
Justin fired a shot. Same result. The rock jigged to the side again. The thing was now six inches from the spot where we’d originally found it, quivering, gleaming, smirking at us. Somehow I knew the rock was mocking us. Daring us.
“It won’t work,” I said, sighing. “It’s been waiting too long and now it has what it wants.”
“What’s that?” Justin asked.
A sudden urge told me to pick it up. I was twelve; how could I resist? Boys our age have urges coursing through their bodies all the time, usually about girls, but this one was different.
This one was coming from the rock.
“Let’s take it with us.”
Austin looked at me like I was insane. “What do you mean, ‘take it with us?’” He was almost in hysterics. “What for? Why? C’mon, Mike, what are you going to do with it? I mean, it freaks me out.”
“I don’t know yet.” I walked up to it and placed both hands on it. I felt a thrumming vibration deep below the surface of the thing, as though energy cells were heating up.
“Help me,” I called over my shoulder. I tried lifting it myself, but the bitch was heavy. Though the rock was only a little bigger than a bowling ball, it was incredibly dense. My back muscles protested as all three of us carried it to my house.
“Let’s take it inside,” I said, as we struggled to climb the steps of the back deck.
Fortunately, no one was home. My mother had taken my four-year-old brother, Cody, to the park. Dad was at work. We lugged the rock into the living room and set it down slowly, so it wouldn’t crash through the floor. Then we all sat around it, Indian style, like three chiefs planning their battle strategy. My heart roared in my chest. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the rock, from the subtle and ever-changing patterns of faint luminescence on its surface.
MMMiiiiikkkeee, the thing taunted. But it was only my imagination.
Or so I told myself.
“How much do you think we can get for it?” Austin asked. I looked at him. When you’re a kid you ask dumb questions, dream stupid dreams, and wish for things that can never happen.
“Who the hell would pay for something like this?” I asked him.
“A collector of some sort,” he mumbled, shaking his head.
“Of some sort,” Justin agreed, smacking him on the arm.
The rock, still breathing, waited.
I felt I had to ask the question that I knew was on all of our minds. “I wonder what it can do.”
Austin perked up. “You mean, like, its powers or something?”
“I’ll bet it has some,” I said. “I felt something inside the rock while I was carrying it in. Energy waves, or something.”
“Me, too,” Austin said.
“Maybe it’s a meteorite,” Justin replied. His dad was an astronomer at the local university, so he was always talking about space.
I smiled. This wasn’t just a piece of cosmic scrap metal that fell from outer space. It was…intelligent. I didn’t sense a complex brain, however, but rather a desire to live, to feed. Yes, that’s what it was. A spike of fear drove through my body. I immediately put a stop to my thoughts before they led me to a place I didn’t want to go.
“It’s no meteorite,” I declared. “But I don’t think it came from here, either.”
“You mean, the woods.”
I glanced at Justin. “I mean, Earth.”
Time passed. The surface of the rock, the thing, whatever you want to call it, flowed in waves of dreamy color, entrancing us completely. Suddenly, a cold, wet touch on the back of my neck made me jump. Our tabby cat, Mewler, was curiously nosing around us. She stopped in mid-stride when she saw the rock and froze. The tip of her tail twitched earnestly.
“I wonder what it can do,” Justin whispered to himself when he, too, noticed the cat.
Then he lunged with incredible speed and scooped up Mewler before I could stop him.
I must not have been the only one the thing was communicating with. Justin dropped the cat on top of the rock. At first, nothing happened. Mewler lowered her head and sniffed at the thing, pawed at it lightly, and issued a few warning sounds in the back of her throat. We remained still, gawping at the cat. I should’ve snatched her away immediately. Why didn’t I? It was Cody’s cat, for Chrissakes, not mine. What would happen if …
Suddenly a small opening at the top of the rock sprang open with a metallic clank, and Mewler got sucked inside. Bent and twisted at sickening angles, her joints popped and her leg bones splintered as she cried like a human baby for us to rescue her. The cat got drawn down into the rock in stages, like a python gulping its prey, and after about twenty seconds, she was gone. The rock made a series of disgusting slurping sounds and gaseous exhales as the last few inches of cat tail disappeared into its maw.
Then a horrific fount of gore erupted into the air, splattering all of us in the face, and flowed over the sides of the rock like an erupting volcano. Fortunately, when I looked back on it later, I didn’t think the cat suffered too much beyond the first few seconds. It was lights out for Mewler before she ever really knew what happened.
I must have blacked out, because when I regained my senses, both of my friends were screaming and practically sitting on top of me. The thing was still in the middle of the living room floor, except it had changed.
Mewler was back, only it wasn’t Cody’s cat anymore.
The lifeforce in the rock stared at us from behind those imperious feline eyes. Not a cat, but something alien.
Mewler watched us with an icy gaze. Those crazy geometric patterns from the rock were swarming all over her body, changing colors, shapes, and sizes, making her silky coat ripple as though invisible fingers stroked it in haphazard directions.
“We have to kill it,” I sobbed. I loved that damn cat, but now I was thinking about my family. We had to kill it before they got home.
Before it grew large enough to swallow us whole.
But just as I thought it, the cat leaped forward and dashed from the room. Her legs made grinding sounds, like rusty gears, as she fled down the hallway with all of us in close pursuit. She headed for Cody’s bedroom, where Miranda, our labradoodle, slept during the day.
The cat was lightning quick, and it pounced on Miranda while she slept curled up at the foot of the bed. We had no chance to stop what happened next. The cat’s mouth cranked wide open just as the rock had, the top of her head falling backward until she stared upside down at us with glassy eyes. Then a series of mechanical whirrings and buzzings emanated from her chest as it, too, sprang open to reveal a menacing row of razor-sharp teeth. I stared in horror as the teeth began chugging and spinning, like a circular saw, and sank into the dog’s squishy middle. Gouts of blood erupted in thick waves and painted the walls and ceiling with gore. Clanks and clunks echoed in the thing’s belly, like a lawn mower running over fallen branches. The dog was devoured, bones and all, in greedy, wet gulps. Mewler, the rock, whatever you want to call it, sat astride it now, sucking down the last sinewy bits of dog meat until nothing remained but a crimson stain on the floor. Miranda didn’t even have time to bark. The cat, now so engorged and fattened with meat that it looked once again like a rock with stubby legs poking out, rolled over and let out a belch that filled the room with a fetid, greasy stink.
Then, horrifically, its stomach broke open.
Watching Miranda ooze out of the gash in Mewler’s belly was like watching a baby calf be born. Smothered in sticky pink shit, Miranda shook the cat’s guts off its matted fur and stood before us on unsteady legs. Our adorable little Labradoodle was now a monstrosity with teeth that packed its mouth like razor blades. It glared at us wetly and barked, only it didn’t sound like Miranda’s bark anymore. No, there was nothing about it that sounded like a dog anymore. It was almost like it was trying to utter a word.
It was almost like it was trying to say my name.
Beside me, Austin puked all over his shoes. Justin had the shakes so bad I actually heard his teeth chatter.
“Get back!” I screamed, herding us all out into the hallway. I slammed the bedroom door shut. Clutching the knob, I braced for the impact of the thing, but nothing happened. Except for my own ragged breathing and the muffled sobs of my friends, all was eerily quiet. It could have broken through the flimsy door any time that it wanted. What was it waiting for?
I’m waiting for you, the rock’s voice hissed in my head. Though it added nothing more of value, I had the distinct impression it couldn’t attack again because it was sated.
I dragged Austin and Justin downstairs with me. We looked for weapons. The basement was large and overflowing with boxes of crap my parents refused to throw away, most of it stacked in towers resembling a cardboard metropolis of forgotten memories.
What was I searching for? A gun? Unlikely I’d find one. My father wasn’t a hunter; didn’t believe in it. He told me once that he believed in a universe of kindness and order. He couldn’t accept chaos as a functional part of life.
Neither could I, until I found the thing in the woods.
Austin paced around, not looking for a weapon but wandering aimlessly, scratching his head and waving his arms around.
“Calm down,” I told him, but I only agitated him more.
“Did you see what that fucker did up there?” Fucker. Now it was out in the open. We were talking about a living thing.
“Of course we did,” Justin said.
“It ate his cat, man, and his fucking labradoodle.”
“So it did,” I said calmly. For the first time since we found the rock, I felt myself gain control of my emotions. I kicked over a few more boxes. Where the hell did my dad keep his old golf clubs?
“I guess we know its power.” Justin slumped against the wall, exhausted. He looked green, like he was going to be sick.
“We don’t know jack shit,” I pointed out. A couple more boxes tumbled over, disgorging Christmas memorabilia.
“It needs to fucking die,” Justin pointed out uselessly.
“That’s why we’re here,” I said. “We’re looking for a weapon.”
“It needs to die,” Justin repeated, only not to us. He was saying it to himself now, like a mantra, something his mind could hold on to so it wouldn’t slip away into infinite madness.
“We’ll kill it,” I assured him.
Austin came up to me and grabbed my shirt. His gamey breath wafted into my face. “How, smart guy? How do you kill a fucking, whatever the fuck it is? It’s a goddamn robot or something, a monster. That’s it—a fucking robot monster.”
“Get a grip, dude!” I shouted, shoving him off me. Austin must have seen something he didn’t like in my eyes, because he sank to the floor next to Justin and shied away.
“It’ll be all right,” I said, with all the conviction I could muster. “It has to be all right. That thing can’t be allowed to leave Cody’s room. Alive, that is.”
“We need help,” Justin said, his face crumpling into tears.
“Yeah, from who?” I shouted. “The cops? You think they’ll believe us? Austin here has been busted twice in school for marijuana possession, and last year got caught slashing school bus tires. They’ll assume we made the whole story up to cover our asses, wouldn’t you? And when they find the blood all over the walls in the living room and Cody’s bedroom, they’ll drag us to juvie for killing the animals. And what’ll happen to that thing if we’re gone, huh? It’ll keep on killing, that’s what, and its taste for cat and dog won’t last for long.”
“Did you see it grow?” Justin asked. His voice sounded distant and detached. “After it ate Mewler? It got bigger.”
“And it took her shape,” Austin added. He shook his head like he didn’t believe his own words. “It’s a fucking shape-shifter, dude.”
We were silent after that for a few minutes, each of us catching our breaths and thinking. I couldn’t say I was thinking about much. My mind by then was a total blank. But the silence was a blessing. It gave me a chance to scan the basement and continue looking for weapons. Could we beat the thing to a pulp while it was still small, wound it enough so we could carry it out of the house? When we got it outside, I knew exactly where I wanted to dump it: in the pond my parents installed last year. We found the rock on dry land; maybe it hated water. Maybe we could drown it. It was worth a try. But first we needed a weapon.
“It doesn’t belong here.” Justin’s dreamy voice and glazed eyes were starting to spook me. He seemed to be in deep shock.
“What do you mean?” Austin croaked.
“My dad makes me read science fiction sometimes,” he said. “He told it’ll make me like science class better, but I still hate it. Anyway, did you ever read War of the Worlds?”
“Saw the movie,” I said.
“The machines that woke up and started destroying everything, they were already here, buried in the ground for thousands of years. Put there by some race of aliens a long time ago. Then one day they just flipped the switch. When it was time to annihilate us all.”
“Armafuckingeddon,” Austin added unhelpfully. I didn’t like what I heard in his voice.
“Bullshit,” I said.
He shrugged. “Then where the hell did that rock come from? What is it? No person built a thing like that.”
“We don’t know that,” I said. “We don’t know anything about it.”
“My dad says the more science teaches us, the less we actually know,” Justin said vaguely.
“Wow, that’s deep, professor,” I said, “but not very helpful. Do you have any more insights, Einstein?”
“It talked to me,” Justin continued. “It told me to pick up Mewler.”
I believed him. I heard the voice, too. Besides, there’s no way Justin murders my cat without good reason, knowing I’d kick his ass for it.
I glanced at Austin. “Has it talked to you?”
Austin looked away, and said in a small voice, “Yes. It wanted me to pick it up.”
“Yes,” he growled, “and smash it on your head!”
I swallowed hard. It was only a matter of time before one of us snapped. We were close to it already. Justin was spacing out and Austin had a look to him like one of those meth heads in those scared-straight videos they showed us in health class. Like he could murder someone. We had to go back up there, take care of business, and do it quick. But not empty-handed.
Goddammit, where are those golf clubs?
Then I noticed the furnace and the dark space behind it. I hurried over to investigate and broke out in a grin. Wedged back in there, moldy and forgotten, were my dad’s old clubs from his college days. I started pulling them out, one by one, discarding the wooden ones immediately. I settled on three of the irons, giving the five-iron to Justin and the six-iron to Austin. I kept the nine-iron for myself. Thus armed, we faced each other solemnly one last time.
“Anyone got anything to say?” I looked them both in the eyes. “It’s now or never.”
“Let’s waste the motherfucker,” Austin snarled.
I couldn’t agree more. Without another word, we marched up the stairs to finish the deed.
As we neared the top of the stairs, I heard a sound. A muffled scrape, like a chair being pulled back on linoleum. Then footsteps, thumping around hollowly in the house. My heart jackhammered in my throat. I bounded up the remaining stairs and burst through the door–
–and found my mother standing in the kitchen, chopping carrots and singing softly to herself.
“Hello, Michael,” she said cheerfully. “Are your friends staying for dinner?” Her eyes narrowed when she noticed the golf clubs in our hands. “Thinking of taking up the sport? Your father would be so proud. He thinks you spend too much time playing video games.”
“Jesus, Mom!” I cried, shaking all over. “Where’s Cody?”
“Language, young man! He’s in his room, of course. He couldn’t wait to get home and play with Miranda. What’s gotten into you?”
Once when I was five a hornet stung me on the ass. I was sitting in the middle of a clump of clover, watching my mom pull weeds, when the goddamn thing came out of nowhere and plunged its stinger right in my crack. I howled in agony for a good half hour and had to sit on bags of frozen peas for the rest of the afternoon. An existential moment, I guess you could say, when I learned the universe could give two shits about my personal welfare.
But I never realized until now how cruel the universe could actually be.
I shot off toward Cody’s room, Justin and Austin at my heels, my mother’s frantic voice floating in the air behind us.
When I reached Cody’s door, I stopped and listened. A scuffling sound came from the room, then a low, lilting hum, like a little boy singing to himself. My head buzzed as relief flooded through me. The voice was Cody’s. I swallowed a lump in my throat and handed my golf club over to Justin. I didn’t want my little brother to be spooked when he saw me. I didn’t want to set that thing off and make it feel threatened, either. It must have still been digesting. What must Cody be thinking about all the blood in his room? He wasn’t crying, which was good. I decided I was going to calmly get my little brother out of there. I was going to do it quickly and quietly, and then I was going to buy him the biggest goddamn ice cream cone he’d ever seen. After we drowned the Miranda-thing in the pond, of course.
I twisted the knob and pushed the door open.
And felt the universe sting me in the ass once again.
Cody stood in the middle of the floor, arms at his sides, head cocked slightly to the left. His expression was serene, his skin shiny and swirling with those perfectly alien colors. A wet ring of sticky blood encircled his mouth and stained the front of his Curious George T-shirt. His eyes lit up with recognition when he saw me. Miranda was gone. The room stunk like a morgue.
Cody lifted his hand and gave me a little wave.
I braced myself for what I had to do. I had my friends. I had my mission. There are no answers sometimes for the mysteries of life. But there comes a time when the questions don’t matter anymore, when all you need to do is finish the job.
Justin came up behind me and slipped the cool steel of the nine-iron into my hand, and whispered, “I’ll distract your mom.”