The man with the terrible eyes is in a diner. The diner is in a town large enough to warrant four gas stations (two of which are truck stops) and two grocery stores, but small enough that there is only one post office, one clothing store, and the two grocery stores it does have both get their stock from the same wholesaler. The diner is one of two in town and the only one open past eight pm.
He sits off to the side, not in a booth, but at a small table close enough to the corner to quiet the steadily growing sense of paranoia that has been festering inside him for the past several months, but still out in the open enough that he can pretend, just for a bit, to be a regular person mingling amidst other regular people. The waitress-- the only one here since the other woman left a half hour ago-- comes bye with another glass of soda.
"You just want the pitcher?" she says. It's the third drink he's ordered. He nods and, feeling daring, inclines his head towards hers and smiles. He closes his eyes behind his sunglasses, though, not wanting to risk that she might look through the darkened lenses and see his eyes. He doesn't want her to be afraid.
She doesn't notice and says, "All righty." And she flounces off, seemingly still cheerful even after what had had to have been a long day. He sips his soda and wishes idly that he felt that happy. His back aches. Absently, he rubs the back of his neck, moving aside his hair, and touching the large band-aid there. Beneath the soft cloth and thin plastic, he can feel his third eye moving under his fingertips, fluttering like it's trying to blink, but the band-aid is forcing it shut.
He takes his hand away and sighs. Once upon a time he'd've given everything make it go away-- until someone actually threatened to cut it out of him without anesthesia or pain killers. Now he's given up hope in ever being able to get rid of it.
He takes another drink from his soda. As he does, the diner's door opens, causing the little bell above the door to jungle, and two of the local law enforcement walk in. "Hiya, Maude," says the younger one, smiling at the waitress who has just arrived from the back with a pitcher of soda. "Hiya, Denny. Sheriff," she says, nodding in greeting to the older one. "Go ahead and cop a squat, I'll help you both in a second."
The two men sit at the nearest empty table, a table down from his left. The woman, Maude, places the pitcher by his hand and he thanks her and pours himself a drink while she goes to the sheriff and deputy.
"How goes it, boys?" she says. "Long day?"
"Too right," says the deputy. "Got us another dug up grave."
A man at a booth near the two turns. "That right?" he says. "I heard about the one. What'cha mean 'another' one? I missed more?"
"It's the craziest thing, Jed," the deputy says, turned towards the man, hands moving frantically as though to emphasize the craziness of the thing. "They've just been stolen! Three bodies in the last three weeks."
"Is it an organ thing?" the man, Jed, says. "Like black market stuff? They do that, right?"
"Yeah, but this ain't like that," says the sheriff, apparently at ease with giving away information regarding an investigation. "All the bodies that got stole were old ones. Like buried for more than a few decades. They're too old for anything useful. All the I can think is that someone's selling them for creepers or decorations." He gets up. "'Scuse me a sec," he says, and he heads to the back where the restrooms are.
"That's sick," Jed says.
"That's all we got to go on. I don't really buy it either, but the sheriff won't hear out my idea."
"Whatchoo thinking, Denny?" says Jed.
The deputy leans back in his chair. "I think we got ourselves an old fashioned psychopath. Maybe satanist cult. It sounds culty to me. Digging up corpses. Doing god knows what with them. I bet we've got something big."
Alan has heard enough. He raises his hand and Maude, who'd been listening to the talk, suddenly remembers she's at work. He pays the bill and excuses himself from the bar. On the way out, he says to the deputy, "which cemetery was this at?" The deputy looks surprised, as though it hadn't occurred to him that people other than Jed would've been listening. "I'm not at liberty to say," he says.
"We only got one cemetery round here," Jed says. "The Oakdale off Vimmens and Southport."
The deputy glares at him, and Alan says, "thanks," and leaves before anyone can ask him why he's interested.
He's a few streets away from the bar when Dog materializes beside him, appearing to have stepped out of the dark nothing and onto the street without missing a step.
"There's something weird going on in town," Alan says. "Dunno if it's Iotech or a regular grave robber or what, but I figure we ought to look into it."
Dog wuffs in agreement and gives his tail a single, interested wag.
"It might not be anything," Alan says. "Or it might be something for the police. But whatever it is, it's at the cemetery. You know the way?"
Dog nods, and the two continue on, Dog in the lead.
* * * *
The Oakdale cemetery is larger than he would have thought for a town so small, and though two sides of it have roads going past, the back and west side are open to the hills but for the fence. The cemetery is not well protected. There is a black iron fence, but it is short, and though it is spiked at the too, he climbs over it easily. There are no lights save for the two at the entrance, or if there are more lights, nobody has bothered to turn them on. No one is around to see him when he creeps in-- which strikes him as odd, seeing as how the police should've been investigating the body thefts.
He doesn't have much experience with cemeteries, and so cannot tell if this one is typical or not. There aren't many gravestones in the front, as he'd expected. Rather there are name plates on the ground. Some have small metal vases attached to them, but most do not. There's a cottage-looking building that has a sign on it he doesn't bother to read, and a fountain up front.
He and dog walk through the graves. It feels cold here, and though he tells himself it's just because it's night time, a little voice in his head can't help but point out that the night air was perfectly warm outside the cemetery. Dog doesn't seem to mind in the slightest and trots cheerfully on, as though they are going for a regular walk.
The farther away they get from the front, the darker it becomes. That's alright, though. He has his own lights. Alan snaps his fingers and electricity sparks to life in his hand, spilling from his palm in thin tendrils that weave through his fingers. It doesn't have the same focused light of a flashlight, but it illuminates the area enough for him to navigate by. He follows the paved path that winds through the cemetery until coming across the only signs that law enforcement has been here; a few strips of yellow tape strung on posts around an open grave.
The grave does not look as though it was dug by shovels. There are deep ruts in the packed earth along the sides of the hole. The hole itself if uneven and round, spreading outward from where the feet of the deceased would be, with mounds of dirt piled behind and to the sides, as though someone or something stayed in one place and dug furiously with their hands or claws, shoving dirt around and behind them.
Most coffins, he knows, are buried in cement, then buried again with dirt. The burial vaults are to stop the ground from sinking when the box and body decompose. But the grave here is apparently from a time before people concerned themselves with how nice the cemetery looked in lieu of concerning themselves whether or not the deceased was dead; there is no sign of cement, but there is a bell on a tube leading down into the hole.
Dog sniffs around the ground while Alan stands watch. There's no way, he thinks, that there aren't any cops. This town was small, but no town is that small.
He checks the tombstone while Dog is busy. The stone is weathered and brown, and the name has been mostly worn away, but the dates are still mostly legible. Whoever had resided in this grave died over a hundred years ago.
He lets Dog investigate until Dog hops into the grave and begins rolling around the dirt.
"Alright, that's enough," Alan says, gesturing for dog to come out. "Come on. Someone lives in there. Sort of."
Dog grins sheepishly and leaps out of the grave.
"Did you get the scent?" Alan says.
Dog shakes himself, sending dirt and dust everywhere.
"That a yes?"
Dog looks at him and pants, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
Alan glowers. "I can't tell if you're dicking with me, or if you really can't understand me."
Dog gives no answer. Alan sighs and heads for the path. The deputy had said there were two graves dug up. Maybe the other would have more information.
They're not far when Dog stops suddenly and growls. Alan stops beside him and holds up his hand, bathing the immediate area in light.
"Hey!" he says.
Nothing answers, but he heard a faint gurgling from the darkness ahead. He moves forward, but stops again.
It takes him a second to understand what he's seeing. There's an open grave near by-- another one that looks as though some great creature has torn through the earth to get it open. Not far from the grave is a body, looking more like a dried husk than a person, lying on the ground. Close to the corpse, a figure crouches over the bodies of two officers.
The figure is humanoid, pale, and thin, freakishly thin, and clothed in loose rags. Its head looks to be covered with stringy, long hair that looks gray or white in the poor light. When Alan approaches, the figure turns, and when it sees him, its huge black pupils shrink to the size of pin points, giving the illusion that its eyes have grown larger. It hisses, and though the deep shadows caused by the conflicting lights hide most of its features, Alan can still clearly see its eyes gleaming from the electric light in his hand.
Without thinking, the hurls the electricity at the creature. It howls in pain and dives for the old corpse. It wraps its arms around the old body and runs awkwardly away, using two legs, but stooped over so as to give the impression it's on all fours.
Dog runs after it, and he goes to the officers. They're alive. He knows it before touching them; they have the faintest electricity buzzing through their brains and blood and it is keeping their hearts pounding. All the same, he checks their pulses just in case. First the woman, then the man.
Their pulses confirm what the buzzing in his head had told him. Their breathing is even, as though they are sleeping, but their eyes are partially open, half-lidded as though they are dazed. He tries to talk to them, to get any response, but they say nothing. That do not move save for the faint movements of their chests as they breathe.
He feels around until he finds one of their cellphones clipped to their belt. He takes it and calls 911, tells the operator the location and that there are two unconscious and possibly injured county officers, and then hangs up before she can ask him any tricky questions.
Dog returns as he is hanging up the phone. The old corpse is in his mouth. It is missing one of its legs, and there are dry bits of it falling off, creating a trail of remains where Dog has dragged it. Alan's nose wrinkles in disgust.
"Bury it," he says. "Cops are coming."
Dog wags his tail and goes to the open grave. He drops the body in, turns around, and starts kicking dirt in.
"Like you're burying a bone," Alan says with a half-hysterical giggle. "And you are, sorta. A lot of bones."
Dog stops kicking and tilts his head, mouth open and grinning.
"Yeah," Alan says. "That's good enough."
There are still pieces of the body sticking out of the loose dirt, but it is good enough.
They leave the cemetery; Alan by climbing over the nearest section of fence and hopping down to the street below, and Dog by retreating into the darkness behind them and then spontaneously showing up beside Alan on the walk home.
The entire time, Alan half-expects the law enforcement to find him, to blame him. He half-waits for the now-distant sirens to grow nearer and nearer, for the dark and the dirty yellow of the street lights to be interrupted by blue and red, for people to step out of the shadows and ask him, exactly, what he was doing in a cemetery after sun down-- but it doesn't happen.
He walks back to the motel unmolested and finds his room-- the last one on the strip, farthest from the street and from the motel office. He slides the key card and the door swings open. He stands aside to let Dog in first, then walks inside, where he stays the rest of the night and most of the next morning.
* * * * *
The next night finds them back at the cemetery. This time there are several police cars; two across the street, one parked in front, and one on the side. He isn't sure, but he guesses that there's probably another around back. However, despite the cars, he sees no officers. The gates are open. He walks inside. Dog begins to growl the moment they step on the premises.
Alan sees nothing out of the ordinary, but Dog has better instincts than he does. "You wanna turn back?" he says.
Dog sneezes and presses forward. The message is clear: I can handle it. Let's go.
They go directly to the area dedicated to the older graves and find an officer on the ground. The man is alive. He is breathing evenly, and like the two the night before, he is unresponsive, despite his eyes being open. Alan reaches for the cellphone at the man's belt, but stops as Dog lets loose a deep, rolling snarl. He looks up.
Dog is walking stiff-leggedly ahead. Alan raises his hand and the light in his palm spills over the ground, revealing two more fallen officers, one of them the deputy from the diner. The buzzing under their skin tells him they are alive, that their personal electric charges are still intact.
He follows Dog, carefully picking his way past the officers, silently apologizing that he isn't calling for help just yet. If the corpse taker is still here, then he doesn't want to lose any time. He doesn't want him to get away.
Dog stops short, silent. Alan creeps forward, figuring that the corpse taker must be close by. He is correct. In another torn-open grave, the man is pulling out another body. Alan watches silently as the man, chattering to himself, tears off an arm and immediately begins gnawing on it.
"Hey!" Alan shouts.
The ragged man looks up and sees Alan, electricity to his hand, ready to strike. With a shriek, the man turns and runs, hurling the arm behind him. It hits Alan on the chest, and with a disgusted cry he staggers back. He tries to hit the ragged man with bolts of lightning, but misses, hitting tombstones instead. The man gets away, and Alan and Dog run after.
The man darts fluidly through and over the tombstones, leading them deeper and deeper into the cemetery. it is hard for Alan to keep up, and soon Dog and the man both are well ahead of him, until they disappear out of sight. Alan slows to a jog, then a walk. A moment later, Dog appears out of the shadows beside him.
"You get the scent?" Alan says.
Dog doesn't answer save for a wag of his tail and a slight increase in speed, putting him in the lead. They walk together to the back of the cemetery, the side that breaks into the hillside. There's a hole in the chain link fence separating the cemetery and the country, and a pair of discarded wire cutters in the dry grass. Alan slips through the hole easily enough, but Dog goes over the fence with a running leap.
The hill is dry with tall, brown grass that clings to his clothes with tiny spines. Dog is large enough that he cuts a sort of path, but the grass is lively enough to rise up quickly after he's passed, meaning Alan still has to work at not getting tangled up. They walk uphill for what feels like ages before Dog begins to growl again. Dog stops and Alan stops beside him.
There, cut into the hill, facing away from the town and cemetery and half-hidden by shrubbery, they find the entrance to a burrow. It is large-- large enough for Dog to enter without effort, and though dark inside, Alan can tell that it opens up a few feet down. The marks on the sides tell him that the same tools used to dig the graves dug this as well. He hears movement inside: pacing. Shuffling. Whining. A quiet, disturbed keening, and the buzzing of flies.
"Come on, Dog," he says.
Dog whines and dances at the edge of the burrow. He shakes his head as though something is bothering his ears.
"What's wrong?" Alan says.
Dog sinks to the ground and puts his head between his paws. Then, he does something Alan had never heard him do before. He whimpers.
Alan reaches down and strokes his head. "It's okay," he says quietly. "I'll do it."
He creeps inside, crawling on his hands and knees. The burrow is deeper than Alan had thought, and it smells absolutely putrid. It stinks of rotten meat and the smell of death mixed with body odor and feces. For most of the way, the dirt floor feels grainy under him, but when it begins to squish, he can stand it no longer. He rises to his feet, raises his hands and floods the burrow with light.
The cave-- it's too big to be just a burrow to his mind. It's bigger than his motel room-- comes into focus, and it takes a minute to comprehend what he is seeing. He can only understand it in parts.
There are packages of food. Cereal boxes with the bags torn open but still mostly full, empty cans of soup and boxes of pop tarts that were only missing bites out of them, as though whoever had them only tried a bite before tossing it aside. There is a palette of bottles water tucked neatly in the corner, surrounded by empty bottles of its predecessor. There are vomit stains everywhere.
There are bodies everywhere, too. Bones, piles of unsorted bones, are piled up in places and scattered across the floor. Corpses of animals of varying size and kind and in various states of decay are likewise piled around. He stares at one heap-- his eyes unable to look away-- and it takes him what feels like forever to understand what he is looking at, to pick apart the things there. He sees deer skulls and half-rotten cats and several dogs and things that might've been dogs once and birds-- so many birds, the floor is strewn with them-- and even decomposing fish.
And in the corner, gnawing on what Alan recognizes as the leg that got away the night before, is the ragged man, frozen in place, staring at Alan.
"Don't move," Alan says, holding up the hand with the lightning.
"Wait," the man says, his voice more a rasp than anything else. "Wait!
"Shut up!" Alan snarls. Some of those dog corpses have collars.
"It's not what you think," the man croaks. "Please--"
He meets Alan's eyes. The ragged man's eyes widen. He opens his mouth to say something, but stops. The man's eyes flick up, looking at something beyond Alan's shoulder.
Alan turns to face whatever is behind him, but before the turn is complete, the creature strikes. Claws rake across his back and side. Razor-sharp claws as long as swords slice completely through him and come out the other side. He knows this is true. He feels it, he feels them cutting him, he knows it's happened, but there's no mark. He can see no claws, no swords, nor any monster they might have come from, but he feels the pain of them. Then he feels the chill. The white hot pain turns to ice, creeping across his chest and abdomen, freezing him from the inside out, and for an eternity he is blinded by first the pain, then the numb.
Cold cold cold.
He doesn't notice when he sinks to the ground. He doesn't realize that he cannot move. He only knows that it is cold, and he is freezing.
The ragged man watches him fall. After a moment, when it's clear Alan will not be getting up, he gets to his feet. He makes a guttural noise to a presence unseen and bobs his head in thanks. Then, he goes to where Alan is lying on the floor, dazed, and checks his pulse. It's fine. He shuffles over and takes Alan's head in his hands and checks his eyes. After a moment, he sighs and lets Alan go, only to grab his arms and drag him to the wall. He sits him up and then sits across from him.
It takes about fifteen minutes for Alan to wake up. The first thing he notices is that his teeth are chattering-- that's what has woken him up. His eyelids flutter and he hears a voice talking, but he can't quite make out what it's saying yet; everything is still fuzzy and far away. He looks around blearily and sees Dog at the entrance of the burrow, right where the tunnel widens into the cave, whining and pacing as though he wants to come in, but cannot. Occasionally he stops and growls up at a seemingly empty place in the air.
"Dog..." he mumbles.
"Your Dog is fine," says the voice. "He's smarter than you. He sees what you cannot."
Alan tries to concentrate on the ragged man. The stench, darkness, and remnants of the chill are not making it easy.
"What...?" he says.
"My brother cut you down," the man says slowly, drawing every word out as though tasting it. "As he did the others. You will be fine. I assure you." He tilts his head a little and looks directly into Alan's eyes. "Did you know you have absence inside you?"
Alan tries to sit up. "Who are you?" he croaks.
"Normally your kind have a light," the man says as though Alan hasn't spoken. "I have seen them for as long as I remember. They flit and fly and vanish into the air, into nothing. I don't know where they go. Maybe I will find out, now..."
He trails off thoughtfully. For a long moment, the room is silent but for Dog's growling.
"You think me a monster," the man says suddenly.
Alan says nothing.
"You have to understand," the man says. He runs his hands through his hair as though trying to comb it, but only succeeds in making it messier. "You have to. I did not want this. I never wanted this. It is abhorrent. I am abhorrent. I do not want this!"
"Who are you?" Alan says again.
"An eater of the dead. The long dead, the dry dead. The dead whose names have been forgotten, whose lights have fled and flown away. The dead whom life and the living have forgotten."
Alan flicks his eyes to the pile of dead animals nearby.
The man sees and makes an anguished cry. "I do not want this! This is not me! This is pathetic. This is flesh. This is not me."
Alan says nothing.
"We eat the dead," the man says again. "We watch over the lights when they leave, and we eat the very old dead. Only the dry, only the empty. No light, no life, no water, no blood. To eat the fresh dead is... Abhorrent. Look- look!" his voice cracks and he gestures to the pile of dead animals. "They're rotten! They're rotting! They were alive and now they are dead and I did it!"
To Alan's horror, the man is crying. Tears streak muddy lines down his cheeks.
"I am not meant to kill. We are not meant to kill! We consume! We devour! We eat the dead, the long dead. We watch the lights as they leave and are unseen by all but the dead and dying and now you can see me. An abomination. I am an abomination. They turned me into an abomination!"
"Who?" Alan says.
"I do not know!" the man half-screams. "I was whole and I was myself and then I was not! They bound me, trapped me, and when I escaped I was like this!" He gestures down to himself. "Human, but not. Mortal! I can die, I can end-- I am not supposed to end! We are not supposed to end! We are the end, we care for those who have ended, we do not end ourselves!"
"You were something else?" Alan says. "You were like the invisible thing scaring Dog?"
The ragged man nods. "That is one of my brothers. He has aided me in obtaining food. He is kind." The man looks up at the empty space with a smile, though there are tears in his eyes. "He will witness my death. I'm going to starve," he adds matter-of-factly. "It may be a while yet, but it is going to happen."
"Why?" Alan says. "Because you need to eat corpses?"
"Because I can no longer eat corpses. This body is flawed. It is too much like my old, but not. It cannot process human food, but nor can it properly process the dead, either. All it will accept wholly is water."
The figure sinks, curling in on himself. The numbness is leaving. Alan can move again. Jerking, awkward movements with little control, but movement never the less. Still he sits against the cavern wall and watches the ragged man.
"Will those cops be okay?" he says eventually.
The ragged man nods without uncurling, still keeping his face down. "Yes. Our claws are not meant to harm humans. They harm... other things."
A long period of silence stretches between them before Alan says, "I think I get it."
The ragged man scoffs.
"No really. I mean it. I do. You're not. . . you're not hurting anyone. Any. . ." He glances at the dead animals and swallows. "Any people. You're just trying to survive."
Images flash in his mind; a man with a blurred face screaming as a swarm of beetles overtakes him, devouring him alive. A security guard left on the bathroom floor while the room fills with smoke and the building around them blazes. Numerous creatures made from void and hunger as, one by one, in different times and places, they're torn apart and electrocuted to death. Three small bodies, patchwork creations that look like him, on a laboratory floor, surrounded by broken glass and blood.
It's not the same as a few dozen family dogs, he knows. But he honestly cannot tell which is worse.
"I understand. And I wish I could help you." He gets up. Nothing stops him. Dog barks from the tunnel, and Alan puts up his hands in a pacifying gesture directed towards the middle of the cave. With one hand, he digs around his jeans pocket and pulls out a few crumpled twenty dollar bills.
"Here," he says, tossing it to the ragged man. "Take it. It's money."
The man looks up. "What for?"
"Because you might need it. Because you can't keep living here. The Sheriffs are going to find this place. If I found it, they will too, as soon as they get their own dogs on it. You have to leave, and if you're going to do that, you might not want to look like someone who's been sleeping in animal guts." He rubs the back of his neck. "If you still need to-- to eat, I saw a town not far from here. I passed through by bus. It's an old touristy type town. It's bigger and busier than this one because of the tourists, but the cemetery is really big and really old. Historical attraction, you know? There are loads of old bodies there."
Another long moment of silence passes before the ragged man extends a hand and gingerly takes the money.
"Thank you," he says.
"I'm going to leave now," Alan says carefully.
The ragged man says nothing. Alan turns and, very slowly, very deliberately, walks to the burrow entrance. Nothing stops him, but for a split second, he though he felt something brush his arm. The second he crawls out of the tunnel, Dog is on him, licking Alan's face and wagging his tail wildly.
"It's okay," Alan says, shoving him off. "It's okay!"
Dog yelps and whines and dances around him. Alan scratches Dog's head and says, "I'm with you, bud. Let's get the hell out of here." He gets up and Dog runs off ahead, obviously not wanting to hang around.
Alan jogs to keep up with him, and the two don't stop until they reach the base of the hill. Only there does Dog stop running and merely trot ahead, guiding the pair back to the cemetery. Alan stops and looks back once, but the angle is wrong, and the shrubs are in the way. He cannot see the burrow.
"Come on," he says. "Let's go."