Oscar woke up and Celine was gone, along with his Explorer. He called her name and opened the bathroom door when he got no response. He really wished he hadn’t destroyed the girl’s cell phone, and unloaded a string of curses at the empty motel room. He’d been reading about that day that his daddy died, and he kept drinking to make the memories stop until he finally fell asleep.
He froze. He’d been reading Jean-Baptiste’s journal. So where was it?
He looked back at the chair he’d been passed out in — an ancient Barcalounger with hideous faded green upholstery and several stains of unidentified origin — and panicked when he didn’t see it there. He’d already sweated through the shirt he’d slept in, and he started sweating again something fierce, the smell of himself pungent and acrid.
Celine wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree, but she surely had more sense than to go running back to Bayou Bonhomme. Oscar hoped so, at any rate. Then again, there was that boy — that Hereford kid — Lenny or Leon or whatever. Had she gone running back to him?
Oscar pounded his meaty fist into a wall, and felt his heart drop into his stomach. He had to get her back before she did anything stupid. He had to get that journal back before it fell into the wrong hands. What could he do?
He started laughing, and looked at himself in the small mirror hanging by the front door, where the answer presented itself. Was staring him in the face, in fact.
“I’ll call the police,” he laughed.
He dialed 9-1-1 and asked for the police. When the operator answered, he hesitated at first.
“Sorry,” he said. “Yes, I’d like to report a stolen vehicle. My name is…”
The door opened, and Celine came in carrying a cardboard tray with two coffees and a brown paper bag that smelled of cinnamon.
“Never mind,” Oscar told the operator with a relieved but frustrated grunt. “Everything’s fine — I made a mistake. Sorry for wasting your time.”
He hung up the phone and resisted the urge to knock the tray of coffee out of his daughter’s hands and shake her until her nose bled. His doctor told him that kind of anger was no good for his heart. Instead, he surprised her by wrapping his arms around her in relief.
“Ew! Daddy, you’re all sweaty and stinky. Get off of me!”
He laughed, then barked at her that she’d scared the shit out of him, and let it drop. No harm, no foul. And besides, she’d brought him beignets, so he couldn’t very well stay mad at her.
“You go on and get a shower, get yourself cleaned up, Daddy. Coffee’ll keep.”
“The journal,” he asked. “You got it?”
“‘Course I got it, Daddy. I had to get caught up.”
Oscar sighed in relief.
“You ever get a hold of Marla?” she asked, and Oscar shook his head.
“Voicemail just keeps picking up.”
“Well, did you leave a message?” she asked as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Nah, I hate voicemail.”
“Well, be that as it may, Daddy, you may want to think about leavin’ her a message.”
“I’ll think about it. Put the journal back where you found it. Don’t make me regret showin’ you.”
She scowled. “Did you really see Remy? Or Chuk? Or whatever it is?”
Oscar nodded. “You really wanna hear about it?”
She nodded back, than said, “Not really. But part of me thinks I have to. You think Leon’s involved in this, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” he grunted affirmatively, and turned toward the bathroom. “Let me get cleaned up, and I’ll tell you what I remember.”
There are things that define a person, and turning points that mark our lives like scars. Oscar always remembered that night he knocked on Leroy’s door as the time of turning. Everything in his life became defined in terms of before and after that night. His perception of truth altered, his knowledge expanded, he could never again look at the world through the eyes of disbelief. He was young and idealistic, and while he never expected that he would change the world, he’d become a cop because he believed in something bigger than himself, and that was the law. The law had a civilizing effect on people, and upholding it was a great honour. He’d loved his father, and more than that, he respected him, because he’d taught him, not only in words, but by example, that maintaining order was a noble ambition. In the two months prior to that evening, Oscar had seen things that both disgusted and frightened him. They’d managed to keep certain details from the public, but Oscar had been there when another of the children’s bodies was found. He’d never seen anything like it — parts of the body seemed either burned, or melted, and there were strange marks on the arms and legs. Oscar had seen gator attacks before, and even though the story that was being told was that this was the work of some rogue gator, he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. He was beginning to question his own faith in the law, and its ability to protect its citizens. Before that night in the bayou, he would have never even considered some of the things he had to do afterward. But then Mel Cayce turned up dead, and everything in Oscar’s world was called into question.
Leroy was waiting for him when he knocked, and was ready to go, with no excuses or hesitation.
“Come on, then, you,” he said. “I sure hope you ain’t squeamish.”
Oscar grunted and went to step inside, but Leroy shook his head.
“Nah, you’n me, we be goan for a boat ride.”
He forced a grin. Oscar thought he looked nervous, and put a hand to the butt of his gun.
“Ah, now doan be like dat, Of’cer. I ain’t armed, and b’sides, I ain’t the threat. I reckon you won’t need your gun at all, but if it makes you more comfortable…”
Together, they walked down in the dark to Leroy’s dock, and Oscar froze when he heard something moving.
“Come on out of there with your hands up!” Oscar yelled, pulling his gun and shining his flashlight at the boat. “Come on out of there! Leroy, I swear to God, if there’s someone laying in wait for me there, the second bullet will be going through your head.”
“Well ain’t that a fine merci bien?” Leroy sneered, and shined his own flashlight on the boat, and caught a flash of movement from something pale and hairy.
“What the shuddering fuck was that?” Oscar asked in alarm.
“Oh, dat be Pinkie,” Leroy laughed, and moved his flashlight around until he spotted the animal. It hissed at them in fury when they shined a flashlight in his hideous eyes, which were pink. “He an albino ‘possum. Freaky little spook, ain’t he? One of a kind, but then, he ain’t alone in dat when it come to de bayou. Nossir. He ain’t the strangest thing you goan see tonight, so you best be prepared.”
The bayou at night is full of noises never heard during the day. Cicadas, owls, and frogs, and other nocturnal things, of course, but in the stillness, you can truly hear the water move around the boat, and hear your heart in your ears. The wind whispering through the trees, telling secrets as old as the sky. Every movement of every creature grabs your attention; every bird’s cry sends you spinning your head looking for a glimpse. That’s what the bayou should be like, so when Oscar found himself in the midst of what he could only describe as black noise — a sort of nothingness — it unsettled him. It was like entering a bubble where there was an absence of sound. Leroy cut the motor, and in that utter stillness, they could hear a low humming, almost like you’d hear from power lines, or that faint electric buzz after a thunderstorm.
“Leroy,” Oscar said, and the effort of speaking made him feel queasy. “What the hell is this?”
“Pinch your lip or something,” the thin Cajun advised. “It helps a little. And wipe your nose. It’s bleedin’.”
Oscar’s eyes were watering as well. He felt like someone was drilling into his sinuses.
“And whatever you do, don’t look at her too long, neither,” Leroy said. “Best you let me do de talkin’, you. You just sit back an’ enjoy de ride, eh?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Shh,” Leroy put his hand over the other man’s mouth.
They were drifting toward a grove of cypress trees, a mammoth entanglement of roots the like of which Oscar had never seen before. It reminded him of a drawing of Yggdrasil, the fabled world-tree of Norse mythology he’d seen once in a book he’d taken out of the library when he was just a boy. There was a smell to the place — an old, dead smell, stronger than the rest of the bayou. This was a strange, forbidding place, and Oscar felt conflicting urges — the first, a mad desire to jump in and embrace his terror, the second, more sane instinct was to flee. To turn the boat around and never come back.
“Chuk!” Leroy called in a hushed tone. “Chuk, you there ol’ gal?”
Oscar winced through the pain and stared at the roots of the grove. And then the roots began to move.
“Pass me another one of them beignets, cher,” Oscar said, trembling slightly.
“You saw it?” Celine asked, handing her father another pastry.
“I looked at something so impossible I couldn’t have dreamed it in my worst nightmares. The roots was moving, and this… this thing pulled itself up out of the water, and opened its eyes… first one, then two, then six, then ten, then a thousand. Its face, or head, or torso, or I don’t know — was at least ten feet wide and twice that high, and shapeless. It seemed to writhe and swell and change shape even as I watched it, and just looking at it made me dizzy and sick. It opened what I thought was a mouth, but it was like no mouth I’ve ever seen, it just kept opening and unfolding, layer after layer of pink and grey, like a living cave full of teeth. And then it spoke.”
Celine was pale but anxious to hear. Oscar hung his head and couldn’t continue, and she grabbed his head in both hands and lifted it, glaring into his eyes.
“What did it say?”
Several thick tentacles reached out and grabbed hold of the boat. A thick, foul odour filled the air, and two words were uttered in a wet, guttural voice.
Then there was a screech that was heard and yet not heard; more of a feeling, a terrible pain in their heads, and Oscar fell on his face in the boat and began to tremble and foam at the mouth. A thin trickle of blood seeped out of his ears as his eardrums burst.
“Stop, Chuk, please, you’re killing him!” Leroy cried.
Oscar didn’t remember anything that happened after that. Not really. He remembered being stuck in the darkness — a darkness that went on forever. He dreamed, or perhaps saw things, as if in a vision. He saw Gerry Thibeault beating his wife to death with the butt of his Winchester, a crazy smile on his lips, which were smeared with some sort of black goo. He saw Gilles Duchesne delivering packages door to door; saw him stopping at the Thibeault’s house. He saw writhing grey slug-like creatures, and people eating BBQ sandwiches, and children being cut into pieces, and beyond that, screaming and rage, and inhuman laughter, and the sky on fire, and blood, and terrible torture, and stars, big as the sun, burning out and going cold. He saw the universe, and he went so deep into the darkness that he very nearly got lost in it.
When he finally did come to, lying in an ice cold bath in Leroy’s place, wearing only his underwear, he awoke weeping and crying out about the darkness.
“Darkness, Leroy,” he moaned. “Toujours. Darkness forever and toujours.”
“Try to relax, you,” Leroy said calmly. “You’re burning up with a fever and you just had you a first class mind fuck, I’m thinking. I know, ’cause I been where you at.”
“What… what was that?”
Leroy laughed. “Might as well ask me what the sky or the stars or the moon is. Hell if I know. It won’t tell me shit, only answers me in cryptic bits and pieces. It calls itself C’thu… C’thu-un.. well, hell, I can’t wrap my tongue around half of it, and I got me some linguistic skill, or so all the ladies tell me. I just call it Chuk for short. She hates it, but fuck her ugly ass, am I right? Honestly, did you ever see anything so ugly in all your pathetic life?”
“Never mind that,” Leroy dismissed him.
“So is that what’s been killing all them missing kids?” Oscar asked.
Leroy ran a hand through his hair and frowned.
“I would have bet my mama’s corpse on it,” he said. “But I asked about it, and Chuk says he ain’t got nothin’ to do with it. In fact, he said…”
Leroy looked a little pale.
“He said that he hadn’t tasted any human flesh for so long that he nearly forgotten the pleasure. He said that if there were bodies to be found, that we should be — and I’m quoting him here — good little filthy sub-creatures and bring the meat to him, as he could use a change from the usual swamp fauna.”
Oscar put his head in his hands and screamed a wordless release.
“It’s real,” he said in disbelief. “Remy LeVert is real.”
“No no no, mon ami,” Leroy said in annoyance. “You cut that shit out right now. Remy LeVert is the spook story that’s been with this town forever and toujours — you just go on lettin’ that be, you hear me? What you seen tonight — you keep that in here.”
Leroy tapped the man’s forehead.
“You start goin’ round talkin’ ’bout Chuk and you’ll end up in one o’ them jackets with no arms, eatin’ your food with a plastic spoon.”
“Who am I gonna tell?” Oscar asked.
“Dunno. Your wife. Your kid. Your partner. Just know that anyone you tell, you’re puttin’ in danger. Chuk may say he ain’t killin’ those kids, but there’s no denying he’s a monster. Crazy shit done happened in this town over the years, and I’m guess that thing out in the bayou has something to do with that one way or t’other.”
“And now you’ve told me,” Oscar said, scowling. “Thanks for that.”
“I’s just trying to save my own skin. You needed to know that it weren’t me that’s killing them kids, and now you know.”
“No, I don’t. I only know that it ain’t some apparently-not-mythical swamp monster. Still don’t know what it is you’ve been doing out in the bayou.”
Oscar looked at Leroy weakly, not expecting an answer.
“Can’t tell you that,” Leroy mumbled. “Not just yet, anyhow. But I swear, I ain’t hurt nobody. If I hear something, I’ll let you know.”
“And what about your friend? What are we gonna do ’bout Chuk?”
Leroy shrugged. “What is there to do? Arrest him?”
“Jesus,” Oscar sighed, burying his face in his hands again. “I’d like to wake up from this nightmare now, merci bien.”
“You and me both, mon ami. You and me both.”
Oscar finished the last of his coffee and stopped talking.
“I don’t understand,” Celine said. “If it wasn’t Chuk, then who was it?”
Oscar sighed, and stood up, stretching his back, which ached something terrible after sleeping in that beat up old chair.
“Same thing that did in Mel Cayce. And Josie Ammon, too. Same thing that killed Amie LeBeau, and the same thing that killed Jean-Baptiste himself. A man. That’s all. I spent the rest of that summer terrified of that monster out in the bayou, havin’ nightmares so bad I started drinking myself to sleep. I tried to find the truth about Chuk, never wanting to believe that it could be anything but him snatching up them kids and eating them, or else leaving them mutilated beyond recognition. I told myself that nothing in the world could be as terrifying as that thing I still see in my nightmares. But at the end of the day, the really terrifying thing was just a man.”