“I’m really sorry you had to see him like that, Arthur.” Alfred says quietly, shotgun lying across his lap. He shifts, and the gun shifts with him against the wool of the blanket that then Alfred pulls higher up to his waist. “I know Matt wouldn’t have wanted it, either. He’s going to be so embarrassed.”
Arthur remains silent, closes his eyes.
Between them, the silence rages on, deep and prickling, blanketing them. The lake gleams like glass under the stars, casting moonlight into the shadowed recesses of the forest.
His name echoes in the wind, soft and gentle against his cheek. Arthur trembles, thinks of Matthew’s honey-sweet voice calling him, coaxing him into the dense forest that looms just at their shoulders.
He thinks of Matthew’s bloodied mouth, and the carcasses of the family of five just across the lake.
Arthur tastes bile at the back of his throat.
He realizes Alfred has been calling his name.
“Just remember: this isn’t Matthew.” Alfred murmurs, certain, nodding to himself. “Keep saying that.”
“How long have you known?” He asks, hoarsely. His name in the trees gets louder as the wind picks up. It gets colder even before he starts speaking again. “I thought you couldn’t see magical creatures.”
“Usually I don’t.” Alfred replies, frowning. “But…this isn’t exactly a creature. And this isn’t really magic. At least, not like your faeries or unicorns. This isn’t even…” He pauses, staring hard at the campfire between them. “This is something older, uglier. Meaner.” He looks at Arthur, mouth in a thin line. “It was here before us. It’ll be here after us.”
The embers across the lake still smolder.
Arthur tries to sleep.
(He thinks of gleaming eyes in the darkness, his voice whispered over and over while the leaves rustling turns to thunder.)
He wakes up when the sky is still grey and the air is cold. He breathes out, his breath freezing in the early morning air.
Alfred is awake, watching him, like he never fell asleep.
“I’m going to go after him in a little bit.” Alfred says quietly. “I’m going to kill him, okay?”
He says it like a question, but the hard look in his eyes make Arthur believe that it really isn’t up for debate.
“I’m going to shoot him, hack him apart, and then set him on fire.” Alfred continues, carefully, voice even. “I want you to stay in this circle. No matter what, Arthur, stay here.”
“What if you need—“
“The first time I did this, Matthew and I were kids. I don’t need help.”
Arthur hears Alfred screaming and staying still is the hardest thing he has ever had to do.
Alfred comes back a few hours later, a bag dragging behind him. He smells like rot and wet dirt and blood. His expression is grim.
“Come on.” He sighs, not even pausing. “Maybe we can make it to McDonalds before they stop serving breakfast.”
“I think he ate my liver once.” Alfred begins, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “I woke up, covered in my blood. My side hurt something awful, like a chunk of it was missing. Turns out, a few pounds of flesh were just ripped away.” He laughs, but it lacks humor.
Arthur puts down his cold cup of tea.
“You picked one hell of a time to remember him.” Alfred continues, like Arthur hasn’t pushed away his food, his bitter tea. Alfred’s already finished his McMuffins, his hashbrowns, and three cups of coffee. He’s even popped a button on his jeans for comfort while driving. “You shouldn’t have come with me.”
Arthur murmurs, “I missed him. I hadn’t seen him in months.”
“You probably shouldn’t tell him you were with me.” His face is serious, something soft in the curve of his mouth when he looks at the backseat where the bag of Matthew’s limbs sits. “He thinks the world of you.”
“He’s done it before.”
“There were children—“
Alfred gives him a sharp look, pressing harder on the brakes than necessary. He stares for a long time. At length, he says, “It wasn’t him. You have to remember it wasn’t him. You have to keep telling yourself that or else you’ll go crazy, too.”
There’s something like pity in his gaze, and Arthur just nods.
They return to the motel on the edge of town. The forest looms just behind it, trees like specters in the dense fog. Arthur remembers how Matthew had disappeared into those woods, like he had never been there, and how Alfred had later followed, melting into the shadows between the tree trunks.
These woods are nothing like the ones he remembers in his land. These ones seem older, hiding something primeval, long-forgotten things in the shadow of their trunks, under their flushed canopies.
Arthur trembles and hurries into their shared room.
There is nothing safe about these woods.
Alfred’s already spread out Matthew’s limbs. He’s got one of Matthew’s slender, skeletal hands in his, and it’s pressed to Alfred’s cheek. It’s a little macabre, but almost sweet when Alfred kisses Matthew’s knuckles with a sigh before he drops the hand back on the bed.
“You brought your sewing kit, right?”
Together, with care, they put back the charred bits and pieces of Matthew, stopping, lingering over his emaciated limbs.
It must be wrong, must be obscene, but it turns into a labor of love, an act of worship, as they piece together Matthew’s body parts, sewing him back with neat, even stitches.
Alfred catches sight of his face as he’s threading a needle, and he raises an eyebrow.
“I can take it from here, Artie.”
“Yeah? Then could you stop caressing his lower jaw? I need to somehow fit that next.”
“You said the first time this happened, you and Matthew were children.”
Alfred looks up, still puzzling with some of Matthew’s organs. He’s holding a spleen.
“Yeah.” He looks down at the spleen. “I don’t really know. I just woke up one night and Matthew…was gone. I was afraid. I couldn’t find him. I remember hearing my name and I remember…I remember knowing I shouldn’t have gone outside.” His eyes go distant, head tilting. “So many people had warned me, warned us both. But there was a blizzard, Matthew told me, and someone gave him stew and…” Alfred trails off, catching himself. He frowns. “Anyway, I went even though I shouldn’t have. And I remember something was following me. It came from the bushes. I ran.”
“It was faster. I managed to grab a rock. I bashed it in the head, over and over. It was small. And I was always stronger. When it stopped moving, I realized it had Matthew’s eyes.”
He doesn’t know what’s on his face, but it makes Alfred flinch and look away. “And then when Matthew came back, I asked him. And he told me.”
“You don’t transform into a human flesh-eating monster every few years, terrorize hunters, and just not remember.”
“Why did neither of you—“
“Our monsters aren’t your monsters. You wouldn’t have believed us.” Alfred interrupts, tone bitter. “You tried so hard…we tried so hard to forget, to erase. But it didn’t work. Monsters might be born from people, but they don’t die with them. They just wait.”
Matthew wakes up the next evening, pale and shivering. Alfred presses up against him under the sheets, and Matthew cries into his shoulder.
Arthur remains silent because he knows if Matthew sees him, so much as hears him, well those sobs might not stay so quiet.
Matthew falls asleep, uneasily to be sure, but he sleeps.
Alfred hasn’t sleep in days, Arthur is certain, but he keeps vigil, one hand in Matthew’s hair, the other up on the pillow.
Arthur watches them both from his own bed.
He doesn’t sleep, either.