Authors: Jeff Strand
NEW YORK CITY
Toby hadn’t believed that there was such a thing as truly paralyzing fear. He had never imagined being literally too frightened to move. His muscles ached with the effort to move them, yet he couldn’t budge. He just knelt on the ground, staring at the horrific sight before him.
It was covered with thick brown hair, except for some bare patches on its arms and legs. It stood upright, like a human, though its arms and legs were slightly twisted, as if they’d been broken and not healed quite properly. Its claws—good God, its claws were huge, curved white razors at least three inches long on each finger. Its yellow eyes were set deep inside of its face.
Its jaws were a complete horror show, with teeth that were almost cartoonishly large and sharp.
It was an imposing, terrifying creature. One that clearly had every intention of devouring Toby…
Dedicated to Tony Tallicaro, who I’m sure has no idea who the hell I am, but whose
Things You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Monsters…But Were Afraid To Ask
is the book that made me love the genre.
“We should’ve brought more ammo,” Thomas said, wiping the blood out of his mustache. He brushed his wet fingers along the oak tree he leaned against, then picked up his empty rifle by the barrel, holding it like a baseball bat. Phil was surprised the metal didn’t burn his hands. “Why the hell didn’t we bring more ammo?”
Phil didn’t answer. They all knew why: because they weren’t fighting Nazis this weekend, they were camping by the lake. The only reason they’d brought the rifle in the first place was because Christine was paranoid about bears. Phil had humored her—there was no reason not to—but he’d never expected to need any weapon more powerful than a fishing hook. The war was over. One fully loaded rifle should have been more than enough to protect them from nature for a couple of days.
It hadn’t protected Christine, though. She’d been the first to die.
The creatures had gotten Darla, too, but instead of ripping her apart they’d dragged her away. Thomas, Phil, Mikey, and Nancy had chased after her, racing through the woods and screaming her name. When they found her half an hour later, she looked worse than Christine. They probably wouldn’t have recognized her at all if it weren’t for those elegant shoes she insisted upon wearing,
even on a camping trip. They sure wouldn’t have recognized her once-white blouse. Or her face.
Mikey had screamed and vowed revenge. And he’d fought like a brave soldier after those things ambushed them. Had they known how many creatures were out there, though, Thomas probably wouldn’t have wasted the mercy bullet he put in Mikey’s forehead before they fled.
At least their enemies had fared worse. Three dead humans, five dead creatures. Unfortunately, that left at least five more of the creatures—that they’d
—and Thomas wasn’t going to be doing any more running on that leg, maybe ever. Phil’s vision was still fuzzy from bashing his head against the ground when a creature pounced on him. Nancy was the only one of them not in terrible shape.
“Do you think they can climb trees?” Thomas asked.
“I don’t know. They’ve got two arms and two legs—I don’t see why they couldn’t.”
“Maybe they can’t, though.” Thomas coughed, and a rope of red spittle dangled from his lower lip. “Let’s not kid ourselves. I’m not going anywhere. Unless you want to carry me on your back, you need to hide me somewhere and leave me behind.”
Phil nodded. “You and Nancy hide in the tree. I’ll go get help.”
“No,” said Nancy. “I’m going. You’re hurt too bad.”
“Your head is bleeding and your words are slurred. I’m going.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Honey, you’ll slow me down.” She reached for Thomas’s rifle. “Give me that so I can beat them to death if I need to.”
Thomas hesitated for a moment, then handed it to her. Nancy gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “I’ll bring back
help. I swear.” She looked at Phil. “Don’t let anything get him.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
Nancy ran off.
Getting Thomas up the tree wasn’t easy, but when they heard a rustling in the nearby bushes it encouraged Thomas to move more quickly, ruined leg or not. They climbed to about thirty feet high and waited.
They saw the first creature about three minutes before it saw them. It immediately shouted out in the guttural sounds of an ape, and was soon joined by two more. Then another three. Then another six.
But though it sounded like an ape, it couldn’t climb like one. The creatures punched at the tree, kicked at it, and tried to shake it, yet didn’t seem able to actually ascend the branches.
We’re safe for now
, Phil thought.
Thomas bled to death before dark, so Phil had nobody to talk to.
By the end of the second day he was talking to himself.
The youngest one, the runt, was hungry. He was also getting impatient waiting for the food to fall out of the tree, so he searched for bugs. Caterpillars were his favorite. He let a bright green one crawl along his talon, then popped it into his mouth and chewed slowly.
He cried out as his mother’s head burst open.
Loud noises everywhere. His father moved toward him, arms outstretched, but several red holes popped in his chest, all at once, and his father fell to the ground. The youngest one screamed and scurried away, just like his mother and father had taught him.
He hid in the bushes for a while, sad and scared.
When he finally went back, food was helping other food out of the tree. Some more food was poking at his brothers and sisters with the same kind of stick that had
made his oldest brother’s eye explode two days ago. All of them were dead, even Beka.
The youngest one turned and ran.
He ran and ran, as fast as he could, so that the food wouldn’t kill him, too.
When he stopped running, he wept.
1953. Age 8.
Toby Floren was ready for the Martian invasion. More than ready. If those green killers from outer space dared show up at his house, he’d lop off their tentacles with his pocketknife, steal their laser guns, and then disintegrate them. If nobody was watching, he might disintegrate Mrs. Faulkner, too, and blame the aliens. He’d only taken two or three blackberries from her yard—not even the biggest ones—and she’d screamed at him as if he were a masked bank robber stealing bars of gold.
Toby thought his pocketknife might work even better against a bank robber than an alien, so if bank robbers attacked, he’d be ready for them, too.
He stabbed at the air. His mom had made Toby promise, hand on his heart, that he wouldn’t take the blade out when she or Dad weren’t around, so he just lunged with the handle. “
!” he said, imagining his knife plunging right into one of those sucker-filled alien tentacles.
What if they were invaded by Martian bank robbers? It would be the greatest day ever.
Any Martians, bank robbers or not, were doomed if they caused any problems in
town. As soon as he saw their leader, he’d fling the knife. The alien leader would duck, but Toby would have anticipated the move and thrown the knife at the wall, where it ricocheted off
and struck the alien’s exposed brain. With their leader gone, the other aliens would be quick to worship Toby, and he’d use their foolhardy vow of allegiance against them, destroying their entire army with a well-placed explosive device in their spacecraft.
He stabbed at the air again. He almost snapped out the blade, but if he accidentally cut himself, his parents would know that he’d broken their rules, and they’d take away the pocketknife. By his next birthday, he was certain that they’d let him open the blade unsupervised, and also that they’d let him go out into the woods farther than…
Toby looked around. He’d been so engrossed in his fantasies that he wasn’t paying attention to where he was going. He hadn’t been paying attention for quite some time. None of his surroundings looked familiar.
As Dad liked to say: “This ain’t good!”
What should he do? If he kept wandering, he might continue to go deeper and deeper into the woods. If he called out for help, his parents would know that he’d gotten lost and they’d restrict him to the backyard. There was nothing wrong with the backyard—it had a swing set and a sandbox and a few decent anthills, but it was nowhere near as wonderful as the forest.
Fortunately, he hadn’t been walking long enough to get out of earshot of his parents. So he’d simply stay here, wait for Mom and Dad to call him in for dinner, and then run toward the sound of their voices. They’d never know that he went out farther than he was supposed to.
Toby grinned. It was a great plan.
sure he wasn’t out of earshot. You had to be really deep in the woods not to hear his mother yelling.
Toby sat on the ground, leaned against a tree, pursed his lips, and began to whistle. He was starting to get pretty good. Not quite to the point where he could whistle
an actual “tune,” but he could now whistle notes that sounded different from each other. Previously, he’d been limited to squeaking and blowing soundless air. Any day now he’d be able to whistle the
He sat there for a while, whistling and playing with his unopened pocketknife.
He sure hoped he wasn’t lost. It was too nice of a day to be ruined with a lecture.
What if the woods were haunted? No matter how sharp or long it was, a knife blade wouldn’t save you from a ghost. Toby wasn’t exactly sure what a ghost could do to you—they couldn’t vaporize you like aliens or drink your blood like Dracula—but they had to be able to do
bad, right? Maybe they dragged you off to meet the devil.
He really should have paid attention to where he was walking. He’d do that from now on.
Some bushes shook.
That wasn’t anything unusual. The bushes in this forest were always shaking. But this sounded like it was caused by something
He stood up. The sound wasn’t that far away. So many ghastly things it could be…but Toby quickly decided that he wasn’t scared of any of them. Nobody was going to ever call Toby Floren a coward. He was going to march right over to those bushes, find out what was shaking them, and let that intruder know that he wasn’t going to put up with any funny business in his forest.
The bushes rustled again. Toby’s bravery faltered for a moment, then returned in full force and he walked forward, prepared to deal with the menace.
He froze. The large cluster of bushes was about ten feet away, and there was definitely something hiding in them. Not an alien or something boring like a deer, but a…person?
“Hello?” he said.
Toby screamed as it emerged from the leaves.
It wasn’t huge—maybe the size of his dad. Covered with brown hair. Sunken yellow eyes. Claws. Teeth.
Toby wasn’t sure if it reached for him, or if he just
it did, but he turned and ran, not caring which direction. His knife slipped out of his hand but it didn’t matter, he just left it behind; it wouldn’t do any good against that beast anyway.
He fled for his life.
It didn’t sound like the monster was following him. He didn’t look back to be sure.
He didn’t stop running until his foot struck a root or a rock and he fell to the ground, throwing out his arms just in time to avoid bashing his nose against the dirt. So much pain shot through him from his palms to his shoulders that for a split second he thought his arms had snapped right off. But they hadn’t, thank goodness, and he scrambled back to his feet and continued running. He still didn’t dare to look behind him, for fear of seeing a pair of giant wet jaws coming toward his face.
After a couple of minutes, he forced himself to stop.
He finally looked back. Nothing was chasing him.
It was real. Toby was absolutely positive of that. There might not actually be ghosts, or alien spaceships headed toward earth, or vampires in coffins, but there
a monster in these woods, with long, sharp claws and scary fangs. He knew the difference between the imaginary monsters he liked and the real ones he didn’t like.
And now he was completely lost.
He didn’t care anymore about getting in trouble—he just didn’t want to die in these woods, either by wandering around until he starved to death or by getting eaten. He called out as loudly as he could: “Mom! Dad!”
He cried out again: “Mom! Dad! I’m lost!”
What if the monster were drawn by the sound of his voice? What if it found him first?
He had to risk it. He shouted for his parents once more, screaming so loud that it hurt his throat, crying now.
Off in the distance, his mother’s voice: “Toby?”
He ran toward her.
Now that he was home safe and facing punishment, Toby wished that he’d made more of an effort to find his way out of the forest without calling for help. He sat in the living room, across from his mother and father, staring at the floor and squirming uncomfortably.
“Didn’t we tell you to stay within sight of the house?” his father asked, in a very stern tone that Toby had heard many times before.
“Look at me.”
Toby looked into his eyes. Fifteen minutes ago, he wouldn’t have thought there was anything scarier than his father when he was angry. Even now, he wasn’t so sure.
“Why did you disobey us?”
If he’d had time to think about things, he probably could have made up a story that would have gotten him in a lot less trouble. Unfortunately, he’d rushed right into his mother’s arms and sobbed about having seen a monster, which had earned him a few minutes of sympathy and comfort but was now very much working against him. Even though he knew he was telling the absolute truth, he also knew that it was a tough story to swallow, and that he’d have been much better off lying about what happened and easing his parents into the whole “monster in the woods” part.
“Where’s your pocketknife?”
“I dropped it when I was running.”
“From the deer?”
“It wasn’t a deer.”
“Well, whatever it was, you shouldn’t have been out
that far to see it. And now you don’t have a pocketknife. What do you think I should do about this?”
There was only one correct answer to this question. “Make me go get your belt,” Toby said quietly.
His father nodded. “Go get it.”
Toby didn’t think that the belt had ever been used to hold up his father’s pants. It was strictly a tool of punishment, and it did that often and well. Toby had tried various tricks to get out of the spankings, including pretending that he couldn’t find the belt or that he thought his father meant a different, thinner belt. None of these had worked out in his favor.
This particular spanking wasn’t that bad—three quick smacks and it was over. His mother’s lecture on responsibility took quite a bit longer. When it was over, Toby was sentenced to a week without dessert (a fate worse than a thousand spankings with a steel electrified belt) and forbidden to go into the woods by himself, at all, until further notice.
But his dad never stayed mad for long, and before it started to get dark they hiked out into the woods together to try to find his pocketknife. Toby tried to remember where he might have dropped it, but really, he’d been fleeing in pure terror at the time and didn’t have the slightest clue how to get back there. He wasn’t scared of the monster, though, not with Dad around.
“You need to be able to recognize landmarks,” his dad said. He pointed straight ahead. “What do you see?”
“Yes, but look exactly where I’m pointing. Even if it’s just a bunch of trees, you should be able to find things to help you find your way. What do you see?”
“Three of those trees kind of look like a
“Exactly.” Toby’s father took him by the hand. “Watch for that kind of thing and you won’t get lost.”
They weren’t able to find the pocketknife. His father
frowned when Toby described the monster yet again, but Toby couldn’t help himself. He wasn’t making it up and he hadn’t imagined it and now that he was already in trouble he wasn’t going to pretend he hadn’t seen it. As they looked for the knife, he watched for traces of the monster—footprints, hair, a fang, anything—with no success.
Dessert was apple pie. Not one of his favorites, so Mom and Dad weren’t
mad at him.
The restriction on going into the forest by himself was lifted a week later. It was three more days before Toby summoned the courage to actually do it. He stayed well within sight of the house, and encountered no sign of the monster.
Summer ended. Toby returned to school and thoughts of the monster faded.
By the time summer returned, he occasionally laughed to himself about the silly time when he’d imagined seeing a hairy, clawed, fanged beast in the forest.