It’s not often that I tell this story, and I don’t much like telling it either, but it seems to get a little easier every time I do. The memories that I have of that night don’t even seem real to me. To this day I can’t wrap my head around how such a thing could have happened to me. I never saw it coming. I mean, how could I be in one place, then suddenly be in another? It happened faster than a lighting strike and it happened faster than a finger snap.
The best I can compare it to? A night void of dreams. It was the kind of slumber where a person stares out of a window at an evening purple sky, blinks, and then finds the window sharply illuminated by the morning sun. The comforts of a familiar bedroom are not in my recollection. Rather, I remember sitting on a bar stool and staring into a glass with anticipation. The bartender returned with my change and I guzzled the first drink of the night.
As the bitter perfume of hops coursed its way out of my nostrils, I peered into the emptying glass. Through the frothy bottom, I saw the clock bordered in a green neon light. Its red L.E.D. digits gave me the time, 9:24 P.M. The time isn’t really important, it’s just the last thing I remembered before the transition.
As the last of the liquid flowed down my throat, I closed my eyes. Upon reopening them, the smoky environment of run-down bar changed to a clear, star-lit sky. The ambient sound of hushed talk and sporadic laughter gave way to a symphony of crickets chirping and Tiger Frogs croaking. As I stared up at the sky, the leaves of a Weeping Willow danced amongst the stars with a gentle night breeze calling the steps.
Blades of long grass tickled my arms and neck as I lied motionless in a silent hysteria; pondering how I managed to get there. I tilted my head to the left and saw a grove a trees in the distance. Before them was a house left in ruin from years of abandonment. The small amount of light from the sky only hinted at its features. It leaned unnaturally at its foundation with a door and set of windows following in parallel with the slant.
I then looked away from it and lifted my head upwards, touching my chin to my collar bone. Past my feet there stood a pond in the distance. The moon’s light reflected off it like a mirror in the stillness of the water. Another Weeping Willow was set at the shoreline with a dim, amber, and scintillate glow of light at its base. In many respects, the way the waxy leaves hung over the light reminded me of a lamp shade. I remembered thinking that some answers to my whereabouts could have been revealed if I ventured towards it, and that is exactly what I would end up doing.
I stood up and immediately a sharp pain throbbed in my right ankle. How I became injured is still a mystery to me as it is to anyone else. Yet still, I limped forward to the light. I had become aware that the place I awoke from was on a hill and my destination was a sharp descent down an embankment, but I clenched my teeth and moved despite the pain.
Eventually, I made it to the embankment and found the source of the light. A simple lantern was affixed to one of the sagging branches of the willow and bobbed up and down in the breeze. I dropped to the ground in a sitting position with my injured limb outstretched in the air. With slow cautious motions, I shuffled myself down the steep slope and again rested at the base of the tree. I was still utterly confused with the situation, yet, there was a glimmer of truth that beckoned in the distance. This truth was a flashing red light in the sky. I recognized it as the water tower of my home town. I thought a great deal about it. If I only followed it, I would find my way back home, but it only appeared as a dim sequence of flashes that indicated it to be miles away. At the same rate. I would eventually come across a road and maybe I could hitchhike my way back.
My thoughts hatched together a plan to tough out the pain and get back to civilization, but first I had to address a need. The gratuitous amount of alcohol I assumed I drank earlier left me with a parched throat. I then gazed at the body of water that welcomed me so invitingly, at least in my mind. I proceeded to crawl on my knees to the pond. The water felt cool as my hands and legs began to submerge below the surface and without hesitation, I cupped a handful and slurped it into my mouth. It tasted horrible as pond water usually does, yet, it did not deter me from collecting a bellyful of it.
After I was satisfied with my consumption, I dipped my hands back into the water and rested them in the muddy depths. It was then I felt a sturdy stick at my fingertips. I could’ve used such a thing as a rudimentary cane considering the painful extent of my mysterious injury. Wrapping my fingers around it, I lifted the wood above the surface and froze in terror.
There resting the slanted branch was face staring lifelessly at mine. Its blackened skin was shriveled against its skull and its long disheveled hair dripped water back into the pond. Its mouth was agape with a patch of algae hanging from the darkened hole flanked with a set of brown teeth. Its chest arched upwards with the pressure of the tree limb compressing against its back. Strained rib bones jutted out through the front of the skin and a sickening sound filled the air as the leathery mass began to stretch under its own weight, like rope under tension. I slowly lowered the stick back into the water with liquid refilling the wide and empty eye sockets of the corpse.
The thought of small decayed particles of flesh floating in the water may have unnerved me, but the reality of that same water being my stomach absolutely disgusted me. I backpedaled out of the pond and vomited shortly after. With shock, I shivered with my back resting against the willow. I’m not sure how long I stared out into the water thinking. Maybe it was a minute? Maybe it was an hour? Perhaps it was most of the night?
At some point, I managed to collect myself once more. Priorities began to develop in my mind of what to do next. The second was to find a way back home. The third was to call the local constabulary and show them the pond. The first did not occur to me until I finally stood once more with my hand resting against the tree. That priority, was to run like the dickens.
Despite the pain it caused, I quickly sprinted away from that place. Every sound of the night was amplified as blood rushed to my eardrums. A rabbit retreating into the bushes or a twig snapping below my feet made me shriek in terror as I panted, sweated, and cried. I’m not even sure how long or how far I ran, but I know a legged-it through a line of trees, two fields of corn, and a quarter section of wheat. Eventually I emerged from one of the fields and found a lonely stretch of blacktop. There I rested alongside the road and wept uncontrollably in the fetal position. My lungs were on fire, my legs ached, and my ankle felt as if it had been put through a wood chipper.
My salvation came as a pair of headlights in the distance. I may not have been able to get to my feet once more, but I waved my arms around in the air like a maniac until they drew close and stopped by me. One of my neighbors just so happened to be passing by and gladly gave me a ride back to town. He asked a lot of questions, most of which I couldn’t answer, and a great many I still cannot. I had no idea how my ankle was sprained. I had no recollection as to how I got there. I couldn’t even fathom how the police eventually found 12 dead bodies in that forsaken swamp. I don’t even know how I could be alive. Maybe I’m just lucky?
There is still one detail that haunts me to this day. It’s not the bodies or the fact I awoke in the middle of nowhere; Its that hanging lantern. I know it’s all painfully obvious in hindsight, but this thing so simple and innocent held a much more sinister meaning with its presence. I knew one thing for certain. I sure as hell was not the one who put it there. Somewhere in the darkness, someone was with me.