November rolled in crisp and dead. The changing seasons was of little concern for me and my older brother. Vengeance was on our minds.
Bryce and I camped out in his station wagon, a few driveways down the road from our parent’s house. The keys had been sitting cool in the ignition for some time. I could see my breath inside the car. I cupped my hands over my mouth and blew warm air through my fingers.
Mom and dad used to call Nina their little miracle. It was endearing up until the night she disappeared. After that, the very hint of her memory sliced their insides up like razor wire and exposed them on a silver platter for the whole world to see.
Everyone in a small community comes together when one of its families are stricken by tragedy. There’s not a single person in London Landing that doesn’t know what happened to our little sister.
Our family had become universal recipients of flowers, homemade food, and the well-wishes from all the neighbours. Everyone pities the two aging parents; already well into their fifties, trying to establish a new medium in life after the passing of their youngest daughter.
It was never their intent conceive another child after Bryce and I, their older sons, had already grown up to become functioning members of society. Raising an unexpected child into their old age was a challenge they were equipped to handle. Having that very child torn away from them was something they could not.
Nina disappeared the night of her ninth birthday. Dad tucked her into bed, read her a few pages from a book, and let her drift away to sleep. Her room was right across the hall.
The next morning, her bed was empty. There was no sign of a struggle or forced entry anywhere in the house. The subsequent police investigation was fruitless, as were the countless community-wide searches all over town and the surrounding area.
Her body wasn’t discovered until a few weeks later. She was found in the forest behind our parent’s house by a little boy who had wandered off the path while walking his dog. It was a spot that had already been passed over by search parties many times already.
I still remember the way she laid there. Her skin was pale and cracked. Her night-time pajamas were torn and weathered from exposure.
There were no wounds or markings on her body. No sign of trauma, no trace of toxins– nothing. Much like her disappearance, we were given very little on her ultimate cause of death.
The only solid fact for us to carry on with was the terrible and irreversible fact that she was dead. Our family spent the next few months believing things could never get any worse.
That was before things progressed. It’s amazing how quickly the stakes can be raised and life can kick you while you’re down.
A knock sounded at the door during one of our mundane and mostly silent family dinners. Our father got up to answer it and wailed like an infant when he opened the door. Bryce and I ran to the front hall only to discover him clutching a bleached-white bone.
The following DNA tests were nothing more than a formality. No one doubted that the child-sized femur belonged to our little sister.
Her gravesite, by all appearances, had remained undisturbed. We had local authorities dig all the way down to her coffin, where they found it just the way it had been left. The rich mahogany was still pristine and hadn’t even started the rotting process. Her body was inside and cut open. Most of the bones had been taken.
How someone had managed to get a hold of her bones, and however in the hell they had done it, we had no idea. Neither could we figure out how different parts of her body were still showing up on our parent’s doorstep in the subsequent evenings going forward.
Our parents were at a loss. Their health and well-being on a steep decline. Bryce and I had grown so irate that we didn’t know what to do except camp out in our parent’s living room during the night hours, praying we could somehow catch this elusive criminal the local authorities seemed totally incapable of tracking down.
Every night, we forced ourselves to stay awake, totally forgoing responsibility of our daily lives. Never did we manage to see anyone.
The only nights the bones would arrive after that were on the odd nights where we would get frustrated and give up, or accidentally fall asleep on the old leather couches below the living room window in the early morning.
It was like whatever demented evil being tracked our biorhythms. Like they could pinpoint the minute moments of the night where our guards were down and they could leave their horrible gift to us.
That’s how we came to be in the front seat of my brother’s car that night. It wasn’t anything more than a desperate attempt to try and divert whoever we had been searching for all that time. As if changing our location from our parent’s living room to the car on the street was actually going to throw them off our trail.
The whole plan was nothing more than a delusion. A desperate and pathetic attempt with no chance of success until one night where it actually worked.
The hooded figure approached from down the street. He slunk his way casually down the sidewalk and stopped at the end of our parent’s driveway. We almost couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
The body underneath the shirt looked broad and lined with muscle. It moved with the finesse of a young man still under twenty-five. Something long and white was in his hand. The shape was obvious under the streetlights.
He looked both ways before heading up the lawn and towards the door. He stepped lightly, but not so much to make us think that noise was of his primary concern.
We waited until he was on the front steps before quietly opening our doors and stepping onto the street. Carrying aluminum bats, we tiptoed as fast as we could, slowly reducing the distance between us and him. If we could just get to the lawn while he was still on the stoop, we would have that motherfucker cut off and pinned in.
The chance for retribution was so close I could almost taste it. The only kind of justice left appropriate after all the misery he’s put us through. The kind we would enforce ourselves.
He knelt down on the porch and placed the bone (which looked like Nina’s forearm) gently down on the welcome mat. He slid it around adjusted the angle as if he was intent on improving the presentation like a morbid mantelpiece.
We were mere steps away from the lawn. Bryce bared his fangs in anticipation. It was more than just the excitement that came with the prospect of finally closing in on our prey. It was the maniacal look of a man teetering on the brink of insanity. A line, where perhaps, I had probably been the last barrier to stop him from falling over the edge.
I did not know what he would be capable of doing once he got his hands on this person.
The cool grass crunched beneath our feet when we took our first steps up from the curb. My grip tightened over the bat, my palms ached while they squeezed against it.
Bryce was the first to lose patience with the stealth mission. He quickened his pace and the crunching of his steps became loud enough to alert the hooded figure of our presence. His head shot up like a deer, still and acutely aware. He slowly turned around towards us. He made no attempt to run or engage in a physical altercation. His arms stayed still by his sides.
Bryce started to shake while he lifted his bat up in front of him.
“Bryce, don’t do anything stupid,” I said. My voice was barely more than a whisper. The goal was to not wake my parents or any of their neighbours up. There was no need to involve them in the horrors that would take place that night.
My words were of little consequence. Bryce rushed forward with his elbows above his head. The hooded figure simply stood there, unflinching and apathetic towards his oncoming attacker.
Bryce brought the bat down with the entire weight of his hulking frame over the hood’s head. He connected well enough for the figure’s body to go limp and collapse to the ground. His hands grazed over the concrete steps before finally going still.
I prayed that the impact had not been enough to kill him. We didn’t want him dead.
Not at that point, at least.
Bryce stood over the hood’s body which moved as little on the ground as it did when it was standing. He brought the bat up as if he meant to strike again. I ran beside him and held it back.
“Not yet,” I said. “We need answers first.”
Lit by only the dim light of our phones, we dragged the hooded figure into the woods behind our parent’s house. He remained motionless the entire way.
It had proven rather fortunate that Bryce had rendered him unresponsive. Though we hadn’t yet worked the courage to pull back his hood and see his face, I could feel the muscle on his frame. His body was remarkably light, but he would have been capable of putting up quite the struggle had he been able to.
He was muddied and covered by discoloured leaves by the time we had dragged him out into the clearing. Our choice of location was acutely deliberate. It was a rare open space in what was mostly dense and untouched brush. Thick tree trunks surrounded us on all sides.
It was a spot we had known about in the woods since we were boys, running through the woods chasing each other around until our parents would call us in for dinner. That was a long time ago, back when we were Nina’s age and younger.
That place was no more than a stone’s throw away from where her body was discovered.
We pulled his body up against a tree and sat him against the base. His head tilted forward. My heart fluttered, realizing how close we were to discovering his identity. I couldn’t help but feel relieved when his neck slunk downwards, orienting his face directly at the ground. After so much time detesting this person and trying so desperately to apprehend him, it seemed I wasn’t ready to deal with the cold truth of who it actually was.
I leaned my phone against the tree roots and let its light shine up. It was hardly enough to illuminate the immediate area. Bryce set his bat on the ground and rubbed his hands together.
“Are you going to pull his hood back?” I asked him.
“Was hoping you would.”
We locked eyes with one another. His hesitance reminded me of the sane, rational-thinking older brother that he used to before our lives had descended into chaos.
I looked back at the hooded figure’s body. He looked thinner with his back relaxed against the tree. Still, he did not move.
“Who do you think it is?” Bryce asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“Got to be someone local, right? No one from out of town would have been sitting on this for so long.”
“Bryce, not this again.”
“Well, it has to, right?”
“We’ve been over this a thousand times. I don’t have any idea who this is. You don’t have any idea who it fucking is. No one does. If we did, we would have taken care of this a long time ago.”
The truth was that I had long suspected someone from the local police force or someone involved in the medical examination after her body was found. Perhaps one of them was actually sick enough to tamper with the dead body of a little girl exchange her real bones for fakes so they could gift the originals to torture the grieving family later on.
Even then, the pieces didn’t add up.
I shuddered. Not from the cold, but the brutal reminder of just how long we’d been suffering. The experience had taken its toll. For the better part of a year, we had been living with the knowledge that our baby sister had been taken from the world too early. After that, someone actually had the audacity to defy the laws of physics and bring us back her bones without disturbing the grave site and return them us like they were little gifts.
“Flip a coin?” I asked Bryce while I tossed my bat between either hand.
“Maybe we can get him to lower the hood himself,” Bryce said. He started rummaging through the little pack he had carried along with him.
I glanced quickly back at the figure again. Though it appeared his position still hadn’t changed, there was something discernibly different about him. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Perhaps it was the shadows. The weight of his body just seemed… off.
“I don’t think he’s going to be doing anything on his own accord,” I said, turning back.
Bryce finally found what he was looking for. The long steel blade glistened in the little light from his phone. His cold breath wrapped around the handle of the hunting knife when he brought it close to his face.
“The fuck you intend to with that?”
He started towards the figure. I jogged ahead of him and cut him off. Again, our eyes met and no longer did I see the hesitance of a rational mind. The uncontrolled madness had returned.
“Out of my way,” he said.
“What are you going to do with that knife?”
“Get out of my way.”
He stepped around me and continued towards the figure. I didn’t attempt to stop him again.
The boy’s head rolled from his right to his left when Bryce stood over him. It looked to be a mindless maneuver but it was the first we had seen him move since Bryce hit him with the bat.
“I’ll give you one chance to save yourself,” Bryce said after he brandished the knife just above his head. “Explain to me in three sentences or less how this isn’t your fault and I shouldn’t gut you right here.”
The boy’s chest expanded and contracted below his sweater. Aside from his breathing, there was no other movement.
Bryce’s patience was gone. He wasted to no time. He dropped to a knee and plunged the weapon into the figure’s thigh.
The leg shot straight out and stayed like that, stiffened and flexed. It spasmed momentarily, then stopped. It remained rigid in the air for a while longer before slowly lowering back down to the ground.
Bryce jerked the knife out of one thigh and then slammed it into the other. That leg responded the same way. There was no cry of pain. There wasn’t so much as a little twitch from the upper body.
After Bryce pulled the knife out, the boy started to laugh. Not the deep, mature sound of a young man, but a high-pitched laugh that sounded almost like a shriek. It was the sound of unrelenting and endless joy. The sound was shrill and piercing. It cut into the crisp night air and was so loud I thought it may make it all the way back to the houses and wake the neighbours up.
Bryce was so startled he stumbled back and fell over. He crawled away from the body, digging his fingers into the cool earth while he scrambled back up to his feet.
As if he intended to mimic him, the hooded figure jumped up to its feet and tensed in a lunged position. He held his arms out, his wrists shaking violently. He tilted in either direction, stopping and locking in on Bryce and then myself. He looked bonier than he was when he last stood on our parent’s porch.
I clenched my bat and ran up beside Bryce, who was feeling along the ground to find his own. We stood beside each other with our weapons raised, ready for what we thought would finally be the first aggressive move by whoever we had dragged out into the woods with us.
Rather than attack, the boy sat back down. He did so carefully, keeping his head down so we still could not see his face. He returned to the exact position we had left it their originally, his neck relaxed and craned forward. The laughter slowly faded until dissipating altogether.
Bryce and I didn’t let up our guards. We glanced between each other, both of unsure whether to attack or retreat.
The body had become totally motionless again. Despite the fact that it was in that same position that we dragged it originally, there was something still so different about it. It was as if the body had changed, even more so than it had before.
The sleeves draped well over the arms and shoulders. The upper body no longer pressed against the outside of the shirt, making the whole thing look two sizes too big. The ends of the pants stretched over his shoes. No blood stains were around the holes where Bryce’s knife had ripped through.
Bryce acted without thinking again. He lunged forward, yelling and surely waking up whoever was still asleep back in the neighbourhood. He brought the bat down with all his weight, aiming right for the hooded figures head. I couldn’t help but close my eyes.
The collision never came.
Bryce started to whimper like a little boy. He was on the ground, where he had been ripped down after the figure had caught his arm in front of his face. He had tossed him to the side and then held his arm. He twisted violently like if he moved it anymore, he would rip Bryce’s shoulder out of its socket.
Finally, a voice emerged from the darkness under the hood.
“It’s your turn now, big brother.”
It was not the voice of a young man. That voice belonged to a young girl. There was no mistaking it.
With their free hand, the figure finally pulled their hood back. Nina’s head rested above the shoulders. Her skin looked pale and cracked, but somehow still alive.
“Nina,” Bryce said, his voice quivering and broken.
“Nina’s dead and in the ground,” the thing said. “I plucked her bones from the ground while all of you were sleeping.”
Nina, or at least the thing resembling Nina, squeezed Bryce’s arm and again he wailed into the night. He dropped the bat to the ground.
She pulled the knife from her thigh and pressed it below his eye.
“Soon it will be your bones that I pluck from the ground,” she said. “They’ll line your family’s graves together in a row.”
She dug the knife so far in that the blade disappeared altogether. Bryce screeched into the night.
She rolled his limp body over and turned towards me. The pale skin cracked and seemingly rotted off her face.
“One by one,” she said. “All your bones will be plucked from the ground.”