(CW: Death, Horror Themes)
In the back seat, the boys are almost fizzing with excitement as the car bumps along the rutted track.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ asks Harvey for the umpteenth time.
‘Yes. This is it,’ replies Duncan as he pulls up at a dilapidated cabin.
Both boys groan and Oliver asks, ‘Is this where we’re staying?’
Duncan turns off the engine and opens the door. ‘Only if the weather turns bad. I’ve brought tents, and there’s a place to pitch them by the lake, but your mother would kill me if I took you home full of sniffles and colds.’ He steps out of the car gingerly and stretches his back, using knuckles to knead the knots in his side.
‘Which way?’ asks Harvey as both boys clamber out of the car and the woods echo with the metallic slam of doors.
Duncan gestures beyond the cabin, pointing downhill, and the boys run off through the trees. ‘Wait.’ But they’re already out of earshot. ‘At least carry something and save a trip,’ Duncan says with a sigh. He walks around to the boot of the car and hauls out a large opaque plastic box, then places a shopping bag full of groceries on top of it. On the front passenger seat are three rolled-up sleeping bags in waterproof coverings and Duncan piles them next to the box, noting that the ground is dusty. It can’t have rained for weeks. He looks up at the clear sky and smiles. As he returns to the unloading, the boys run back up the hill and Oliver slams his hand onto the bonnet of the car saying, ‘I won.’ Both boys bend over, panting, their hands on their knees.
‘Does it meet with your approval, then?’
‘It’s awesome, Mister Blackburn. There’s a fire pit and everything!’ says Harvey.
‘I’m glad. You can call me Duncan when we’re alone. Now, we need to get all this stuff down to the camp. But first, we have to switch off the phones and put them in the glove compartment. It wouldn’t do for them to get lost or damaged.’ The boys grumble but give up their mobiles, then pick up the big box between them and walk crabwise down to the lakeside. Duncan locks the car, picks up a folding canvas chair and his fishing rod and follows them.
Harvey and Oliver unpack the box, then Duncan sends them off in search of firewood while he places a six-pack of beer in the lake to cool, then sits and catches his breath.
‘Like this?’ Oliver bends a branch across his knee, and it splits but doesn’t break.
‘That’s too green. It’ll make the fire smoke.’ Seeing Oliver’s disappointed face, Duncan adds, ‘But we can dry it out and use it later. Why don’t you go up to the cabin and get some big logs from the wood store? They’ll burn for longer and we can cook.’
Oliver nods and sets off at a run. Harvey returns with an arm full of twigs and dry bracken then dumps them into the centre of the fire pit: a circle of large round river-stones surrounded by tree-trunk seats.
‘Good boy. In the box is an old newspaper. Scrunch up the pages, not too tight, and then put the small twigs on top, followed by larger and larger sticks in a wigwam shape. Yes. That’s it.’
Oliver’s voice comes from behind them. ‘Wait. I want to light it.’ He is carrying three split logs in his arms.
‘You can both light it at the same time, there are two lighters in the box.’
The boys do so, and a blaze rises, then burns down as the newspaper is consumed. Duncan shows them how to carefully place the big logs and blow on the fire until they catch.
‘What now?’ asks Oliver.
‘I guess you guys are hungry after such a long drive. We’ve got hot dogs and beans, and marshmallows to toast. Then when it goes dark, there’s a box of fireworks. Does that sound okay to you?’
Both boys agree that it sounds ‘lit,’ which Duncan assumes is a good thing.
‘I’m thirsty,’ says Harvey. ‘Can I have a beer?’
‘No, you can’t. But I’m going to have a beer and you can either have just one taste of it, or you can have a very weak shandy. Whichever you prefer.’
‘Shandy.’ ‘Shandy!’ They vote.
After they’ve eaten charred hotdogs on skewers and beans heated in their can in the fire, Duncan opens a box of homemade marshmallows and a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits. He shows the boys how to melt a marshmallow on the skewer and then use it to sandwich together two digestives. ‘The Americans call these s’mores,’ he explains. ‘I’ve no idea why.’
‘They’re good,’ says Oliver with his mouth full.
‘Aren’t you having any?’ asks Harvey.
Duncan shakes his head. ‘Unfortunately, diabetes precludes the consumption of excess sugar. Though I will enjoy some second-hand later.’
Oliver and Harvey look at each other and shrug, then carry on eating.
After dinner, the boys want to light the fireworks straight away, but Duncan tells them they will have to wait until it gets dark, or the lights won’t show. ‘Let’s tell scary stories around the fire until then,’ he suggests. ‘Do you know any?’
‘I know one,’ says Oliver. ‘It happened last summer when we went out with Billy Jenkins and his gang…’
‘Oh, yeah. The rat,’ says Harvey.
‘I’m telling it!’ Oliver raises his hand toward Harvey.
‘Now, now.’ Duncan interrupts. ‘Oliver tell your story. Harvey, I’m sure you can come up with another one in a minute.’
‘Right,’ says Oliver. ‘Last summer we were down by the railway tracks and there was a flock of big black birds, all fighting and squawking and flying up from the ground. When we got near, they went up into the trees and we could hear this noise, like buzzing. It was a great cloud of flies and under the flies was a rat. Dead. It was huge, bigger than a cat and its tail was like this long.’ He holds up his hands a metre apart, like a fisherman telling about the one that got away.
‘Good story.’ Duncan nods his appreciation. ‘What happened next?’
‘Billy poked it with a stick and all this slime came out. And maggots.’
‘Yeah, loads of maggots,’ agrees Harvey.
‘And the stink. It was rank.’
‘Really rank,’ agrees Harvey again. ‘Oliver pushed Billy and he nearly stood in it. Then we ran away.’
‘That’s a worthy story. I’m glad you shared it,’ says Duncan. ‘How about this one?’ He tells a long, twisting story about a boy who goes on a quest to find a magical cure for his mother’s illness. The boy uses coloured rings and steps into pools of water that take him to other worlds, some ancient and some newly born, with dragons and talking animals.
The air begins to chill. Harvey gets up and pulls two sleeping bags from their tent, handing one to his brother and unzipping the other to wear around himself like a blanket. Duncan continues with the story.
A snuffly snore comes from Oliver, and Duncan stops speaking. He watches both boys for a moment, Harvey’s head is tipped back and his eyes are closed. Duncan stands and walks to the lake, the box of marshmallows in his hand. He tips them into the water and rinses the box thoroughly.
As he walks back to the sleeping forms, he hums ‘Happy Birthday to me.’
Leaning on one of the log seats, Duncan lowers himself to the ground next to Oliver. He pushes the boy’s head until his cheek is resting on the log, then leans forward and takes a bite of Oliver’s earlobe. He chews slowly, head tilted to one side, and watches to ensure there is no reaction. The boy sleeps on. Next, Duncan grips the top of Oliver’s ear in his teeth and rips the whole thing away. Blood runs down Oliver’s neck. White bone glints in the light of the setting sun as Duncan chews and swallows. He sticks out his tongue as far as it will go and licks all the way up Oliver’s throat to his hairline, then begins gnawing at the skull bone with his front teeth, like a rat. Already, he can feel the boy’s life force merging with his own.
Duncan is looking forward to another new life. He’s never had two boys at once - hopefully, he’ll end up looking thirty years old. That’s the age of the new identity he’s set up. It’ll be a shame to have to start all over again, but his ancient body has been giving trouble for months and it became a race to groom the boys and Emily, their mother, before his body let him down altogether. He feels sad about Oliver and Harvey, who he’s grown very fond of. He pities their lives, growing up with a disinterested mother who never showed them the joy of camping, not even in their own back garden. Emily never took them fishing or lit fires to char food.
He finishes eating Oliver, all except for ten toes, which he lines up carefully on the ground, and moves over to start on Harvey. Duncan ritually eats in the same order; starting with the boy’s left ear, then his head and working from his neck down to the ball of his foot, demolishes all of Harvey, leaving a pile of blood-soaked clothing and ten toes.
Satiated, Duncan rolls onto his back on the ground, remembering the last time he fed, almost twenty-five years ago. He’s never enjoyed the taste, finding little boys to have an earthy flavour, rather like potatoes that haven’t been washed well enough. At least he doesn’t have to do it too often. Right. Time to tidy up and move on.
Duncan bends his knees until his heels touch the back of his thighs, then with a push from both hands on the ground, he springs to a standing position. How great it feels to have a pain-free body again. He picks up the blood-soaked clothing and puts it onto the fire, where it gives off a barbecue smell and a drift of grey smoke. Next, Duncan strips off and adds his own clothes to the fire, before walking to the lake and washing himself.
The large plastic box has clean clothes and a towel in the bottom, then it’s empty. He jams everything into the box: tents, sleeping bags, food wrappers and litter. Finally, aside from a line of twenty toes, there are just the embers of the fire to show they have been there, and he kicks dirt over the last sparks.
Picking up the box with one hand, Duncan wonders why he still leaves the toes. Maybe it’s a part of the ritual from the first little boy, Ezekiel, whose toes were so dirty and smelly (even worse than eating his intestines) that Duncan couldn’t bring himself to swallow them. Last time, twenty-five years ago, he thought he would be caught, leaving ten child-sized toes in such a prominent position by the lake. But the newspapers reported that both the old man and the boy, on a camping trip together, had disappeared, assumed eaten by wolves. It had rained that weekend and maybe the toes had washed into the lake, never to be found.
Humming again, Duncan strolls back to the car, carrying the box, marvelling at his own strength. He unlocks it and puts the box in the boot, then remembers the phones in the glove compartment and adds all three of them to the haul. Under the driver’s seat is a plastic bag with a large wad of cash and a wallet containing his new identity. He’ll drive into the city, dropping the contents of the box in various bins and skips along the way, then leave the car in the rough area by the docks with the keys in, where it’s sure to be stolen within minutes. After that, it’s just a coach ride to a new city to begin over again for a few years.
Duncan starts the car and looks up as he puts it in gear.
There is a woman standing in the glow of the headlights, feet apart and her fists resting on her hips. He turns off the ignition and steps out of the car. ‘Emily.’
‘Duncan Blackburn,’ she replies with a sneer. ‘Or should I say Evan MacAllister.’
Duncan’s mouth makes a surprised ‘O.’
‘I recognised you.’
Duncan frowns. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Did you do that to my brother too?’
‘Alex. Alex Whiting.’
Realisation dawns, and Duncan’s eyes open wide. ‘You were little Emily Whiting.’
‘Then why didn’t you stop me just now?’
‘I wanted to see what you did. To him. To know if he suffered.’
Duncan softens his voice and hopes he’s got his hypnotic powers back, or else this could turn violent. He hates violence, though his hands with their renewed strength could break Emily’s neck as easy as twisting open a beer bottle. ‘I’m sorry about your brother. I liked him, he was a good and caring soul. How about we sit down and talk it through?’
He walks to the cabin and sits on the top step. Emily, almost sleepwalking, joins him. Duncan continues, ‘I knew I was leaving you to a far worse life without Alex, and I did regret that. But you must only have been four or five, how did you recognise me now?’
‘I don’t know, wasn’t sure. I just felt it deep inside.’ Emily shrugs. ‘I had to prove I wasn’t going mad.’
‘But…Oliver and Harvey. You used your own children as bait? You wanted so badly to trap me?’
‘They weren’t mine. I adopted them, just to catch you. It got harder as I found myself getting fond of them, but I could never love them like I loved my big brother.’
Duncan admires Emily’s determination, wants to put his arm around her. ‘I wish I could change the past. Did you come here to kill me? It won’t bring Alex back, you know.’
‘No.’ Emily inhales and lets out a sigh. ‘Aside from Alex, you were the only one in my life who cared about me. When I saw…they didn’t suffer...’ She looks at the ground.
‘Well, here’s an idea. Tell me if you don’t like it.’ Duncan turns his head toward her. ‘I’ve got a fresh identity and am planning to start a new life. Come with me. We can get you a new ID too, and you can be whoever you want. I’ll be there for you.’
Emily turns to face him. ‘Do you promise not to kill and eat me?’
‘Of course, I never eat girls.’ Duncan smiles and holds out his hand.