Jamie had seen the posters around town, but he couldn’t help himself: he always stopped and stared at her face, trying to think if he knew her, if he’d seen her in the past three days. He was old enough to know that was unlikely, of course, but part of him shivered at the thought of being a hero. Maybe his father would finally pay attention to him. Maybe even Hunter would compliment him.
“They’ll never find her,” his brother said behind him, interrupting Jamie’s reverie.
Hunter always sounded confident. At thirteen maybe he had a right to be. Five years older, so he knew things that Jamie couldn’t possibly. Maybe it was just that he always felt he knew; maybe he was actually very stupid, but just a really good actor.
No. Jamie shook his head. Hunter was smart. He knew things.
“Don’t disagree with me, twerp,” Hunter said swatting Jamie’s shoulder. “Trust me, I know. They’ll never find her.”
This particular poster was stapled to a telephone pole in one of the forgotten corners of town. The road twisted and meandered, until scraggly trees forced their way over the tattered, rocky sidewalk. The telephone pole stood directly beside a storm drain, and Jamie found his gaze drifting downward, into the darkness. The hole was easily big enough for him to fall through.
“Exactly,” Hunter whispered in his ear.
Shouldn’t have looked. You never showed Hunter what you were afraid of.
All the kids in town talked about the monster. Once, it’d had a name; his father had only mentioned it in passing, which just showed how old the stories were. Nowadays, the kids just called it the monster. When someone talked about it getting you, you didn’t ask them to explain. You closed your eyes and imaged two glowing red eyes the size of large marbles; fangs glistening with poison; rough scales that grated like sandpaper against the tunnel walls as it crept beneath the town.
“No,” Jamie whispered. Like all of his rebellions, this one died even before it had begun, a soft exhalation of denial.
“Oh yes,” Hunter said. “She’s monster food by now, little buddy. Chewed, swallowed, and digested.”
Jamie turned away from the storm drain, staring up at his brother. Hunter stood almost six feet tall. He was a natural basketball player, athletic and physically gifted. Jamie knew that he would be there someday as well—both of his parents were in great shape, and he even looked something like Hunter already. But that was a few years off, and at this point, Hunter towered over him. The intimidation was almost primal; Hunter was known for his temper, or rather his inability to control it.
“She was already dead when it ate her,” Hunter said, grinning. “It tore off her arms and legs, ate them first. You know what it ate last? Her eyes. They popped when it bit into them. Pop!”
Hunter chuckled. “You better believe it, twerp. ‘Cause I know.”
“No you don’t,” Jamie said. “The monster doesn’t exist.”
“Yes, it does. I’ve seen it.”
Jamie jerked. Hunter didn’t always tell the truth, but he never blatantly lied. He was more cunning than that.
“It’s not as tall as you’d think,” Hunter said. “At least, I don’t think it is. I didn’t see all of it. It was sort of leaning out of a storm drain just like this one. It’s not much bigger than Dad, I guess. But it’s…not human. Not even close.”
His voice seemed to drift away, as though he were fondly remembering a birthday from years past. Jamie leaned forward, enraptured despite himself. Hunter had to be fibbing, but that didn’t mean this wasn’t interesting. Besides…well, again, Hunter didn’t just straight-up lie.
“It can talk like a person, though. It knows our language. I think that’s ’cause it’s so old…it sounded old. I think it learned how to speak like us by listening to us. Like how you picked up some Spanish off Maria. It’s smart, too, man. And…”
Hunter shook his head, bringing himself back. He stared over Jamie’s shoulder, into the drain. Jamie couldn’t help himself; he glanced back, searching for a pair of eyes in the darkness.
Don’t let him do this to you again. You’re too old for that.
“It spoke to me,” Hunter said. “It knew my name.”
Jamie thought of all the late night ghost stories Hunter had tortured him with. Those had been different than now. For one, the sun was shining, and such things usually weren’t scary during the day. For another, Hunter didn’t seem like he was trying to scare anyone. He was just telling a story. He was…
“She was dead when it ate her,” Hunter said again. “You know how I know, little buddy?”
Before Jamie could answer—not that he was about to—Hunter reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out something long and thin. Jamie stared at it for a few seconds before he realized what it was: a scalpel, with an old, curved blade, and an intricate golden inlay.
Their father collected antique medical instruments. It was a “doctor thing,” he’d always said, though their mother was also a doctor and she didn’t share the obsession. Their father had such a large collection that he could only display so many items, even though their house had a room solely dedicated to the macabre hobby. Perhaps half his stuff, maybe more, was buried away in the attic. Jamie couldn’t remember ever seeing this particular scalpel before; it must’ve come from the forgotten items upstairs. Which meant their father would never miss it.
“It told me I could live forever,” Hunter whispered. “I could be immortal, just like it is. All I had to do were a few favors. A few…sacrifices.”
Jamie couldn’t find his voice. Talking? How did one manage that?
“She was alone,” Hunter said. “All alone. That’s why I chose her. No other reason. Never saw her before. All alone, in a part of town she shouldn’t have been in. Downtown, behind O’Henry’s, you know? Like, what’s a little girl doing all alone out there? She was practically asking for it, Jamie, and so I came up behind her, did a little smooth talk, and as soon as she turned her back to me, I grabbed her and slit her throat. Like this.”
He raised the scalpel about even with Jamie’s throat, only a few inches away, and drew a line through the air. Jamie clenched his eyes shut, but not before his brain pictured blood gushing from the imaginary wound.
He wanted to run away. This wasn’t funny. This wasn’t funny because he thought it just might be true. But he couldn’t turn around, because the drain was there, and monster or no monster, he could easily slip and fall inside.
And what if she’s down there, the body?
Or worse: What if it’s down there?
“I thought it would want her alive,” Hunter said, “but it didn’t. It just needs the food, you know? Like us. It’s so much like us, but so much more!”
Spittle hit Jamie’s face. He couldn’t help it; he took a half step back.
Hunter reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Squeezed. Jamie winced, almost cried out. He looked around, hoping to see someone, but they were alone.
“You want to know if I’m going to sacrifice you, too, don’t you?” Hunter said. “You want to know if I’m gonna slit your throat like I did her, feed you to the monster, don’t you?”
Jamie didn’t respond. His mind had shut down.
“I’m not,” Hunter said, and slowly let go. His grin widened. “I’m not, and you wanna know why, little buddy? Because I want you to know. I think it’s awesome that someone knows, and guess what? You could tell Mom and Dad, you could tell the cops, and will they believe you? No way in hell, little buddy. They won’t believe one damn word. Some little kid scared of monsters. Mad at your big brother. Nope. You know, and I know that you know, and you can’t do a damn thing about it.”
Hunter slid the scalpel back into his pocket. Jamie didn’t relax.
“I want you to think about it,” Hunter said. “I want you to live with it. Maybe, one day, I’ll introduce the two of you. If it wants. Maybe, if you do a good job of keeping your mouth shut, you can help me.”
Hunter started to turn away, then stopped and stared hard at his brother. Unsmiling, he said, “Or maybe it’ll want to eat you, too. If it gets hungry enough.”
He left on that, whistling as he walked away. Jamie watched him, every muscle taut, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what was real. Hunter disappeared around the turn in the road, hidden by the trees. His melodic whistles lingered long after he was gone.
“Uh,” Jamie said again, and shook himself. He was somewhat ashamed to feel tears on his cheeks; he wiped them away with the back of his hand.
A joke. A bad joke. That was all. That’s all it could be. Hunter wasn’t a killer. And there was no monster!
Jamie took a deep breath, steadied himself. Yes. He was old enough to know better. If he didn’t believe in Santa Claus, he wouldn’t believe in some storm drain monster. And he certainly wouldn’t believe that his brother was a cold-blooded killer. A jerk, maybe, but not a killer.
He closed his eyes, counting carefully to ten. Then twenty, just to make sure. He’d been scared before. That’s what brothers did. Some more than others. One day, Jamie would be big enough to get payback. Maybe there really was something wrong with Hunter, and soon enough, Jamie would be old enough that people would listen to him. But not now. Now, he couldn’t do or say anything that would get anyone’s attention. Hunter had been right. Jamie was just a kid, and no one listens to a kid.
Daniel Davis, born and raised in rural Illinois, is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at http://www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com, or on Facebook and Twitter.