Countless Haints

Countless Haints, Pt. 10

Posted by cullenbunn on January 08, 2012  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

Madi thought she was farther away from home than she had ever been before.

That wasn’t true, of course. Every now and then, Pa had taken her into the nearby town of Ahmen’s Landing. Usually, she just waited in the truck while he ducked into the feed store or the hardware supply. She would sit there, watching the townsfolk—the women chatting as they exited the beauty shop, the men gathering outside the diner, the kids her age laughing and goofing off as they strolled past. Once, one of the boys had looked her way and smiled even though he was walking with a girl who must have been his girlfriend. Madi felt her face flush and she gasped aloud. In the instant when their eyes met—in that second before Madi forced herself to look away—she felt like the prettiest girl in all the world… and she was certain that he was the most handsome boy that ever lived. And then he was gone, continuing on his way, throwing his arm around his girl, talking loudly and boisterously with his friends.

A couple of times, Madi had accompanied her father to the grocery. The small store with its crowded, dusty shelves and rumbling refrigeration units seemed like a magical place to the girl. She could have spent hours browsing those shelves, looking at canned food and boxes of cereal and packets of juice mix. The colors and the images amazed her. But Pa always hurried along, like he didn’t want to be seen with her. Madi had to admit, some of the other customers looked at her strangely, not with malice or distaste, but with a glimmer of familiarity. Madi always left the store with a couple of bags of groceries, a tattered paperback book or a few out-of-date magazines, and the distinct the impression that the townsfolk wanted to talk to her… but they were afraid. Read More

Countless Haints, Pt. 9

Posted by cullenbunn on December 06, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

Faceless and silent, the ghosts stood behind the grave markers, one spirit for every stone.

They reminded Madi of schoolchildren waiting patiently for their teacher’s instruction. Of course, Madi had never set foot in a real school. She’d been educated mainly by her Pa, who read to her from the Bible, and by Miss Cora, the teaching woman who used to visit her twice a week. Madi had liked Miss Cora, who always brought a bag full of books and old magazines and learning games. But Miss Cora had stopped visiting more than four years ago. Pa said she had met a fella, married him, and moved to West Virginia.

Now, with everything she thought she understood crashing down around her ears, Madi wondered if even that had been true. Maybe Miss Cora had run afoul of the congregation that had gathered under the branches of the twisted oak.

Or maybe Miss Cora had been among their number.

Madi had never seen a real classroom, although she could guess what one looked like. She had never had a real teacher, but she had learned just the same. She had never had a real father, and the man she thought was he Pa was chasing her through the woods, intent on killing her. Read More

Countless Haints, Pt. 8

Posted by cullenbunn on November 01, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

The tombstones were so old that the epitaphs—if the graves had ever borne epitaphs—had been worn down to nothing by time and the elements. The pale markers looked like ancient bones only partially uncovered. Madi imagined that if she dug, she’d find that the cold stones stretched deep into the earth, like roots.

Tears burned in Madi’s eyes.

This was a lonely place. Madi might have been the first living soul to set foot in the cemetery for decades. The people who were buried here were forgotten by their family and friends. Looking out across the bare gravestones, Madi felt a terrible sadness weighing her down, as if her bones were frozen and caked with ice. Read More

Countless Haints, Pt. 7

Posted by cullenbunn on August 23, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

Madi knew those woods just as well as she knew her own bedroom. She’d been exploring the wilds all her life—the hollows where she chased squirrels, the muddy swimming holes where she cooled off on hot days, the brooks where she skipped stones on lazy afternoons—but the places she knew seemed a distant memory. Now—in the dark… with her father chasing her… with her father possibly wanting to kill her—nothing seemed familiar.

The ground dipped and rolled, and Madi tripped through the thickets as she pressed on at a breakneck speed. The darkness was as thick and syrupy as tree sap, and the sweet smell of honeysuckle was redolent of decaying funeral wreaths. She crossed a fallen, moss-covered tree and skirted a dry, winding creek bed. She wasn’t sure where exactly she was heading. She only knew that she had to get away… away from her father and all the other men and women who had gathered under the blight-ridden oak tree to proclaim her a witch and decide her fate.

“The girl must die,” they had said.

Hearing movement in the brush behind her, Madi quickly hunkered down behind a tree trunk to spy the source of the sound. Peering out from around the tree trunk, she saw nothing. But she knew that someone—something—scrabbled through the woods after her. She heard the snap of breaking twigs, the rustle of something passing through the underbrush, a stirring among the branches.

In the satchel at her side, the boy’s skin squirmed and wriggled as if wanting to crawl out on its own.

Madi clutched the bag tight, and the boy’s hide grew still.

She waited, holding her breath, watching.

Whatever it was, it loped through the woods in a kind of herky-jerky gait, stopping and keeping still for several seconds at a time, then lurching forward without caution. Something about its movement reminded Madi of a spider, lying in wait upon its web, still as death in anticipation of a fly crossing its path, then pouncing with ruthless speed.

Not her Pa…

At least, she didn’t believe so.

Whatever followed her, it moved like an animal—like a predator tracking prey.

And then, just as she thought she might have spotted a shadowy form moving through the brambles, the sound stopped. The forest was still once more. Madi’s eyes darted back and forth as she tried to once again discern the strange, crouched shape she had seen just seconds earlier. Whatever she had seen—or imagined she had seen—it was gone now. Shadows rushed in like black, freezing water to obscure Madi’s vision.

She was alone.

“Not… alone…”

The voice, little more than a feeble hiss, came from the satchel, from the skin within.

“I know,” Madi said. “I know. You’re here, too, for all the good it does me.”

“Not alone.”

She wondered if maybe it was the boy’s skinless body that was following her through the forest. The thought did little to comfort her.

Knowing her Pa was somewhere out there, maybe not too far behind her, Madi didn’t wait long before setting out again. She knew he’d find her soon enough. Pa was an excellent hunter and tracker. He’d find her trail if he hadn’t done so already, and—

Startled by a sudden commotion, birds—sparrows and towhee—erupted out of the brush and took flight through the darkness. Something crashed through the trees. At first, Madi thought her father had found and was leaping through the foliage to grab her up. She realized soon enough, though, that the sound was moving away from her.

“Not alone,” the boy’s skin rasped once more.

“That was you,” Madi said to the haint, “wasn’t it? I mean, it was the other you. And it’s making another trail for Pa to follow. It’s covering my tracks.”

The haint released a rasping sigh.

“Hhhhhhhh…”

“How did you… how did it know what I was thinking? How did it know I was worried about Pa tracking me?”

But the haint did not respond.

Confused and frustrated, Madi set out through the woods once more. Her surroundings grew more and more strange, more foreboding. The air smelled of rich, earthworm-ridden soil freshly turned for a crop, but Madi couldn’t imagine anything wholesome growing in this place. The trees were tall and twisted and clustered together in gnarled tangles, the trunks knotted with fat, black growths and veined with pale vines.

She moved past the trees the way a small child might move through a room full of tall strangers. She watched the them nervously, as if she feared they might reach out, snatch her up, and rip her to bits with their gnarly branches.

Her foot struck something hard, and she tripped, sprawling to the ground. The fall knocked the wind from her lungs, and it took her a moment to recover. She pushes herself up and brushed her hands clean. She looked to the ground, and saw a chunk of white rock jutting up out of the leaves and pine straw. Turning, she realized she had entered a small clearing, and she saw dozens of taller stones all around.

 “Not alone,” the boy’s skin hissed.

Dozens of grave markers stood before her.

She had stumbled into a cemetery.

Countless Haints, Pt. 6

Posted by cullenbunn on August 16, 2011  /   Posted in Countless Haints, Fiction, Writing

She ran.

She didn’t know what else to do, and she didn’t have much time to think about it.  Even as she pulled herself away from the window, she saw the congregation of torchbearers disbanding.  They scattered in every direction, the light of their fires snapping in the night’s gusts, shadows shrinking away from them as if afraid.  The thing crouching in the tree watched them with baleful, glimmering eyes.  Pa—at least she assumed it was her father—loped towards the farmhouse, his steps hesitant and labored.

He’s going to kill me, Madi thought.

Maybe she was letting her imagination get the best of her, but she didn’t plan on waiting around to find out.  She grabbed a musty duffel bag from under her bed.  With a snap of her wrist, she sent the dust-bunnies that had been nesting on the bag flying.  Throwing open the dresser drawers, Madi packed several untidy handfuls of clothes.

“You’re coming with me, too,” she said as she bunched up the boy’s skin and shoved it into the satchel along with the garments.

Madi took one last look around.  She didn’t know if she’d ever see her room—let alone the house or the farm or her father—again.  She drew in a shuddering breath to steel her courage.  She wasn’t afraid Pa might catch her.  She knew she could duck out into the night before he so much as suspected she was gone.  But she was afraid of what else might be waiting for her … out there in the dark.  More than that, she feared leaving the only home she had ever known behind.

It dawned on her that the boy’s skin might have been lying.  It might have been trying to trick her into leaving the safety of her house and rushing into danger, like fool’s fire dancing over a bog.  The raw flesh and bloody bones of the boy’s body might have been waiting in the darkness to pounce on her and eat her alive.

And maybe Pa was on his way to choke the breath from her lungs right this very moment.

She couldn’t trust anything or anyone except herself, and she didn’t put much faith in her own mind any more.  The dark thoughts surfacing in her head didn’t feel right.  It felt as though she was losing touch with the person she had always been.

Old Man ‘Riah said something about me changing, she thought.  Maybe he was right.  Maybe this is what he was talking about.  Maybe whoever it is I’m becoming doesn’t deserve to live.

But it didn’t matter what she deserved.  She didn’t want to die.  At least, not tonight.  Not by her father’s hand.

She barely remembered racing through the house, crashing out the front door and jumping from the porch without so much as touching a single step.  Once second, she stood trembling in her room.  The next, the night air was whipping past her.  She dashed through the yard, past the animal pens, and into the wood.  She stopped and crouched in the brush, watching the house.

Pa rounded the corner.  He tossed the torch to the ground and stomped upon it until it went out.  Wisps of smoke rose around him in tangles.  His eyes scanned the woods, and Madi flinched and hunkered down, even though there was no way his old eyes could have picked her out in the darkness.  He climbed the steps and went inside.

If he stays inside, Madi thought, that means he didn’t mean me any harm.  It means he went straight to bed without so much as looking in on me.  But if he comes back out—

The front door couldn’t have been closed more than a minute before it swung open again.  Pa strode onto the porch.  He leaned against the railing.  His hands were clenched into fists.  His knuckles were pale white.

“Madi!” he called.  “Where are you, girl?”  

Madi crept backwards, trying not to make a sound.  When the branches obscured her view of her father, she turned and scrambled through the thickets.

© COPYRIGHT 2014 Cullen Bunn