I reckon we can make it through whatever they made it through, she says and continues west down the swamp road.
Soon the road rises up on concrete pylons and the swamp becomes a lake of thick brackish water beneath them, green slime shifting in slow eddies across the surface. The road ends halfway across the bridge, the tarmac surface ripped away from itself and collapsed into the muck. She stops the car and looks across the gap where the bridge continues a hundred yards away, the ragged end of the concrete bent like an aluminum antenna. So she turns the car around and drives back and takes a side road that looks like it might circle the lake to the south. The road follows a narrow brown river, scrub overgrowing the verge, styrofoam cups and other ancient garbage caught up in the thorny limbs of bushes.
Around a bend she sees the thing in the distance. At first it looks like a man in the road, or a slug, but as she gets closer she realizes the thing is too big. It’s man-shaped, but it must be seven or eight feet tall. It lumbers along, a revenant, its arms swinging like heavy chains. When it hears the car behind it, it turns its head and she can see the face—human but disfigured, part of the skull exposed, one eye crazy wide and the other sleepy lidded, a pallor the color of moss or rot. But it’s not a slug, because when it sees the car it retreats into the trees with a weird sideways loping gait.
Now what in holy hell was that? Temple says.
She gets to the place in the road where the thing disappeared and pulls the car over. She leans out the window and scans the tree line, but there’s nothing to be seen.
Hey! she calls into the dense brush. Hey, bigfoot! You can come out, I ain’t gonna hurt you.
Next to her, in the passenger seat, Maury begins to moan, a long low wail absent of meaning.
Hush up, she says. We’ll get movin again. I just gotta know what that giant was. Miracles’re sometimes hidden by unpleasing looks.
She opens the door and steps out, putting on the panama hat and taking the gurkha knife in hand. In the car, Maury continues to moan.
Come on, Maury, she says. Hush up, would ya? I’m listenin for the monster.
She steps off the tarmac into the tangle of ropy weeds on the shoulder. Evening is coming, but the cicadas haven’t started up yet. Instead the birdsong preaches clipped and constant through the air.
Come on out, monster, she says loud. You’re one of God’s own creatures. Ain’t no reason to hide.
Pushing through some viney branches, she comes into a clearing and finds a sight that makes her hush—and not just her voice but every part of her, like feeling silence in her deep guts.
At first she thinks it’s a row of dead infants all lined up, but then she sees they are pink plastic dolls. Baby dolls, some naked, some clothed in dirty, rain-blanched outfits, some with tangles of fake hair, and some bald with painted forelocks. And not all of them are complete. A couple are missing one arm, one has no limbs at all, and another is just a torso lying like a fleshy lozenge on the packed earth. Most are nested on cradles made of twigs, with leaves for pillows. She sees one that has been knocked askew, the twigs scattered and the doll lying facedown, its pink lace dress, stiff and reedy, twisted up to expose the legs bent backward in an unnatural way.
It’s something she can feel in the back of her throat, her dislike of the scene—as though what she’s looking upon is unholy, the conjunction of chaos and order in a forced fit where everything is stretched and bent the wrong way like those baby legs.
She hears the breathing behind her, a raspy, fluttering intake of breath—but her mind is gone to darker places, and by the time it comes back it’s too late. She turns to see the face a full two feet above her, skeletal and horrid, peeled half away, the bone dry and filthy gray, the gumless teeth, the intelligent eyes. Then she sees the arm like a tree limb, raised above her, and the stone clutched in the hand.
And when the hand falls, her mind explodes with light.
BY THE time she wakes, evening has fallen—the crickets and tree toads making their racket, the sky still umber with the leftover light of a sunken sun. She tries to get to her feet, but her head sways to right and left, and she can’t control it so she sits down hard and waits for the pounding and the nausea to go away. She finds the spot on the back of her head where the bump has raised. Her fingers come back bloody, and she can feel that it’s already begun to scab over. She’ll be all right if she can stop the world from leaping around.
There’s a rustle of movement behind her, and when she turns she finds a girl with pigtails, who stands half-hidden by a tree trunk and looks like she could be seven or eight years old except that she’s at least as tall as Temple—like an overgrown baby in a checkered dress.
The girl peeks out from behind the tree trunk and picks at the bark nervously with her thick fingertips.
Temple gazes at her, trying to hold her vision in place.
Where’d you come from, little miss? Temple asks.
Temple can hear the engine of her car still running in the distance.
How long’ve I been out?
The girl doesn’t answer. She keeps her eyes trained on Temple and picks at the tree bark.
Come on, Temple says. I ain’t gonna hurt you. What you lurkin back there for?
The girl says nothing.
Did you see the monster? The one that hit me? You don’t have to worry—I ain’t gonna let him get you.
The girl looks around, but not fearfully. She mumbles something that Temple can’t quite hear.
What? What you sayin?
The girl repeats herself in a curiously deep but still frail voice:
I said I’m gon kill you.
For the first time Temple can see there’s something wrong with the girl’s teeth—instead of being in neat rows, they seem to stick out every which way, some of them even poking out from between her lips when her mouth is closed.
I’m gon kill you, the girl repeats.
What you wanna kill me for?
Y’ain’t no kin-mind.
Kin-mind? What you sayin?
Y’ain’t no kinnamind.
Kin of mine? You sayin I ain’t no kin of yours?
I’m gon kill you.
I don’t think so, girl. Go play somewhere else. It’s time for Temple to rise and shine.
She lifts herself to her feet, balancing herself with her arms outstretched as though she were walking a tightrope.
When she’s steady, she looks up and finds the girl has come out from behind the tree. For the first time she sees the girl’s bulk, thick all around like a walking log. There’s something wrong with her arm, and when Temple looks more closely she sees that all the skin of the hand and forearm has peeled back to expose the bones, the tendons, the brownish meat and muscle. It doesn’t seem to be a wound—she can see the muscles roiling with strength. In some areas there even seems to be a white chitinous crust formed in patches over the arm.