The Bride, a short story from The Forest Around The Hill
She was a girl of eighteen with ash brown hair and flint eyes filled with the burgeoning hope of a young soul on the precipice of adulthood. Her life had been terribly average since her birth. She was raised an only child by loving parents, Henry and Gillian, who were both equally unremarkable.
Henry met his wife at a state university, and after three years of dating he proposed. With a degree in hand he went on to be data analyst for a successful soda beverage company. Gillian was two years younger than Henry and worked as an accountant for an obscure subsidiary tech firm. She also had a degree. Both made good money, enough to make them upper middle class. They lived in a two story house in a good school district and drove moderately expensive luxury cars. Not great, but good. More importantly secure and safe.
Their daughter, Roxanne- or Roxy as she was more accustomed to being called- had dreamt of being a veterinarian since she was nine and was set to attend a college to make her dream manifest after high school. Her parents never showed any objections to her choice. They nurtured her hopes and dreams by pushing her education and supporting extracurricular activities like soccer. Roxy and her family were model Americans, the ideal of success.
Roxy woke up to the succulent aroma of bacon and eggs while curled up in her cozy fat comforter. It was June, a month since she graduated high school. In the fall she'd start college. The future was on the horizon and life was perfect. Of course you and I both know that in a story like this, happiness like this is not meant to last.
She slid out of bed and stretched, her toes curling like talons into the carpet. After cracking her neck and shaking off the last motes of sleep she doffed her shirt and underwear and stepped into the shower. The hot water brought her completely into the world. She always thought of it as a sort of baptism, washing away the missteps of the day before and welcoming in the new. Refreshed and ready she dried off and went down the hallway to the kitchen.
Henry had already set his daughter a plate and was serving Gillian her breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese and some apple slices. She heedlessly thanked him and continued reading the news on her phone.
“Hey mom,” Roxy said, kissing her mother's head then taking a seat.
“Whatcha got going on today?” her father asked.
Roxy took a bite out of the bacon.
“I'm gonna meet up with Christina at the Blue Leaf.”
“How's she doing?” her mother asked, her eyes still locked onto the phone.
“We haven't seen each other since we graduated. She's been busy with work.
She has an off day today so we wanted to get some coffee and catch up.”
“What time are you coming home?” asked her father.
“'Round six. I wanted to go for a run later, before it gets dark.”
They carried on with simple talk until their plates were clean. One by one they left to go about their regular schedule until Roxy was alone. Her plate was a collage of bits of egg, crumbs of toast, and the greasy residue of bacon. She rinsed it then set it into the dishwasher as she had done since she was ten. It was a thoughtless routine. Her life was filled with these routines, a series of predictable actions rarely interrupted by the randomness of the world.
When she was done she took up her keys and went to the front door. The wood of the porch creaked and groaned with each step. The sky was populated with billowing pearlescent mountains and the air carried the acrid scent of the nearby highway. She could hear the distant hum of commuting cars echo through the thicket of oaks that webbed through her neighborhood. It was the familiar song of Roxy's everyday.
She got into her car oblivious to the hungry predacious eyes that watched from the shadows. Not a single pair, but many, all of them familiar and part of her life since she was a child. They had been there without her knowing like every other common routine, waiting for today.
Roxy spent the morning with her best friend, Christina, at the Blue Leaf Cafe, sipping lattes and swapping weeks worth of gossip. When that was done she went shopping for fall semester outfits to wear and appliances for her dorm. The hours passed by quickly. It was summer so the sun wouldn't set until much later around nine. She went home at six, as planned, donning her athletic attire, shorts and a tank, then went for a run.
Her mind scried her future as she ran. She imagined her dorm with all its decorations and appliances. What would her roommate be like? Would they get along? She hoped so. Thoughts pushed forward to after college to a career as a veterinarian. It was a thrilling but terrifying prospect, the future, a fantastic opiate of hope only the young can indulge in. She smiled with each vision conjured.
The neighborhood wasn't a normally bustling place, but there was also a sense of life. There was usually a few cars on the road, people coming home from the workday. It wasn't until Roxy turned back towards the house that she noticed the stillness around her. She pulled out her headphones and listened. Silence. The usual drone of the highway, the chittering of the cicadas, everything, life, had been muted. Yet rather than view it as some dire portent she relished in this moment of serenity. For the rest of the run she did so without music, listening only to the patter of her feet upon the asphalt.
At home Roxy climbed the steps of her porch, went inside, and collapsed into the comfortable embrace of her couch. She didn't care that she was sweaty. Soon, after watching some tv, she was whisked away by sleep. Her dreams were a fantastic kaleidoscope of good things and good memories, some true and others imagined. She dreamed of college life and her career. She dreamed of her husband, striking and tall, and the beautifully symmetrical children they'd bear. They'd go on to live equally successful average lives. It was wonderful.
The air around had changed, subtly so that only her subconscious senses could feel it permeate around her. She was jerked back to reality by an uncomfortable feeling of dread that bordered on turning her picturesque dreams into nightmares. What she woke up to certainly felt like a nightmare.
A legion of strange faces glared down at her in silence, all of them motionless. There were more than a dozen of them gathered. Seeing her shock they said nothing. They simple continued to breathe in unison creating an awful soft cacophony of inhales and exhales. Convinced she was still dreaming, Roxy wiped her eyes, trying to dispel the image but to no avail. Each time she rubbed her eyes, dragging away the grogginess of her nap, the gathered crowd became more substantial. There was nothing ethereal in their quality. They were real.
Some she recognized some of them. The elderly couple that lived across the street, Mrs. Emma and Bill. They had a dog named Brody. Another was the single security guard from next door who worked nights. Opposite of him was another couple, Brittany and Matthew, who had two kids. She knew them well. Her parents had barbecued with them often. Their kids, who were not present, were seven and twelve, both of them boys. They were her neighbors.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as politely as she could, trying to remain calm and rational despite their bizarre intrusion. In her head there was a logical explanation. When they said nothing confused panic started to set in.
“What are you all doing here?” she asked again.
“What are you doing here!” Roxy yelled. If this was a joke it had gone too far.
Again the mob said nothing. Their eyes burned into here, expressions blank. She got up from the couch, unsure if she should leave or barricade herself in her room.
"Leave you idiot," she thought.
But the mob reacted. Hands reached out and shoved her back down on the couch. She expected it but it stunned her nonetheless. Roxy got back up. Her second attempt at escape was again halted. Fear boiled over to frantic anger.
“Stop it!” she screamed. “Let me go!”
This time they moved against her, pinning Roxy down with brute force. Men and women both. All the while they remained mute and expressionless. She thrashed about on the couch in futility, unable to removed their dreadful grasps. It seemed as if she had hardly stirred an inch. Yet rather than relinquish to this grim reality she struggled even more pushing beyond the apex of her normal physical limits. She was being fueled by her own fear, a potent and desperate igniter. Her effort was again met with staunch failure.
With the shifting of the crowd Roxy caught a glance of people she knew amongst their numbers. Cousins. Aunts. Uncles. Her grandparents. They were there too. She plaintively called to each of them, begging for them to help, yet they did nothing. They said nothing. More and more people started to fill the house to such an extent that their body heat and the humidity of their myriad stenches, both foul and perfumed, became a thick and tangible miasma.
When it seemed like the house would burst with human flesh the mob parted like the Red Sea. It happened so seamlessly that Roxy paused her writhing stunned at the impossibility of it. Through the front door entered her mother and father, Gillian and Henry.
Roxy should have been relieved by the sight of her parents but the manner of their entrance to this phantasmagoric scene and the bright smiles they wore from ear to ear seeing their child fettered to the couch, sunk her into despair. They were not just part of this, but the reverence the crowd was showing them seemed to mean they were its orchestrators.
“Mom! Dad!” she called to them, hoping to find reason in this lunacy. “What's going on?”
Her mother circled the couch and came up behind her daughter. The large man who had been holding her there released his grip to make space for Gillian.
Roxy began to cry. “What's going on? What's going on?” she repeated, her chest pounding and mind unraveling.
Gillian leaned closely into her daughter's ear, her lips slightly caressing her skin almost intimately. “You're father and I have been waiting for this day since the day you were born.”
“This is a special occasion,” her father said with unsettling pleasure.
“I know you're scared but don't be. It'll only make this harder for you and make him unhappy.”
“What do you mean?”
Gillian grabbed her daughter's hair and inhaled it deeply. The scent of sweat salt. She kissed Roxy's head then her cheek. Again there was an intimacy to it that made her squirm to her core, made worse by all the watching eyes.
“You know I'm a little jealous. I thought it was going to be me, but he didn't want me. He wanted you. He waited for you. You're so lucky.”
“Mom, what are you talking about?” Roxy asked feebly.
“It's your wedding day. He's coming to marry you sweetpea,” Henry answered as his wife ran her fingers over Roxy's face and lips.
He knelt down between her parted legs. Roxy's skin was flushed with terrified goosebumps.
“We told him you were still clean. Pristine. Pure,” he said patting her thigh just below the wrinkled hand of an elderly woman Roxy recognized from somewhere in the neighborhood.
“Daddy please. God please stop. Please stop.”
“Shh, it'll be okay. Trust me. This is a gift. You're a lucky young woman sweetpea.”
Henry and Gillian stood up.
“Take her. It's time,” her mother commanded.
Without protest or retort the audience, that cult of familiar faces turned ghastly and mute, filed out of the house. Those closest to Roxy, most of them holding some part of her body, hauled her off the couch and above the masses. She attempted another escape, hoping the transition would present an opportunity she could take advantage of, but her captors were relentless. Her limbs flayed but hardly moved as she was taken outside the house where more people were waiting.
The sun had already set. The summer night still carried the dissipating heat of the day. The world was still silent, but this time Roxy felt distress rather than the tranquility she felt earlier at the end of her run. It felt as if the whole neighborhood, the city, the world, had turned against her.
“Where are you taking me?” Roxy cried out.
“To him of course,” replied her mother in a tone that made Roxy's question seem absurd, as if the situation should have been obvious to her.
“Who? Who are you taking me to?”
“Your husband. Well, not just yet exactly, but soon you'll be his.”
“Who?” she asked puzzled, head twisting around to see the marching crowd beneath her small frame. She was carried down the street. No one spoke a single word. No one cried out to stop the madness.
“Oh he has no name sweetheart. At least not we know. He's a prince.”
“A prince of what?”
“The hidden places and the hidden ones. A child of the kings of the ancient world.
“Mom, please stop this. Please god please. Why are you doing this to me?”
“Stop making a scene Roxy. You're lucky to be given an opportunity like this. You're acting like a brat,” spat Gillian. “Be thankful. All these people are here to witness this amazing event. You're embarrassing me and your father.”
“Are you insane!”
“It's okay darling, she'll understand soon enough,” chimed in Henry who was leading them into a thicket of oaks that lay behind their house.
The mob made its way through the underbrush and trees without any light to guide them. The earth below suddenly churned upward. The roots of old oaks who had managed to survive civilization's encroachment lurched up and out of the dark soil. Roxy's captors buckled and some toppled over. She gasped. The earth rose and sank, like a heaving chest, several more times before finally stopping. Leaves loosened from their branches rained down around them as they continued forward into the darkness.
“He's coming,” Henry said.
Roxy realized where she was being taken. Deep in the thicket, between her neighborhood and another, was a gully. It was a part of the woods populated by weird mangled trees consumed in rot and moss, briars, corroded metal detritus, discarded tires, and an eroded section of wall made of slate. She and some of the neighborhood kids would sometimes venture there when they were younger out of dares. Everyone nearby said it was haunted. Roxy believed it. There was always a disturbing energy permeating from this place in the thickets. Adults, of course, never paid it any attention and Roxy had even forgotten about its existence until now.
She hollered for help, hoping someone would hear and come rescue her. Just how far did this go? How many people had been afflicted? Why was she the only person who saw through the insanity of it all?
The crowd came to a halt, some of them in the gully and the rest hovering at the rim. Henry and Gillian stood in front of a circular concrete drain big enough for a child to walk through crouching. Hands shuffled Roxy down onto the ground. She was standing but still restrained.
Gillian addressed the gathered cult. “We've been summoned here by our old promises to god and his angels. They offer us a seat at the table, a share of the returned world. All we have to do is offer up a daughter of the Prince's choosing. He came to Henry and me as we conceived our first and only child, Roxanne. He touched my womb and felt his bride within. Tonight we give over to her husband. She will be his princess and mother to his children. Through this union we shall be one with the divine and herald in a glorious age unlike any other.”
Roxy tried to one of the men holding her. “Let me go please. You don't have to do this.” It was too dark to tell if anything she said stirred his humanity, but she judged by his unwavering grip that it hadn't.
She spun her head around and spied a girl who looked like Christina. Was it her? Roxy wasn't sure but she called to her nonetheless, hoping her childhood friend would somehow snap out of the trance that ensnared everyone else she knew and loved.
“Christina! Christina! Do something! Do something! You're my friend Christina. I just saw you today. We had coffee. We talked about guys and college. Please god please snap out of it. P-p-please,” she stammered at the end.
Christina, or the girl who resembled her in the darkness, paid her no attention. Her head seemed to be locked on the drain. Roxy was truly alone.
“Someone please god please help me!”
Gillian pressed her hands over Roxy's cheeks. “God hears you baby and he's giving you his son to marry.” She turned to the drain, it's mouth opened like an abyssal portal to hell. “My prince! My prince! Our daughter is ripe. The time is come. Make her your bride and ascend us. Let our union be made whole by your union with this child of man. We have kept our bond true and ask that you do the same. We ask for our place alongside you and the father.”
At first nothing happened. The tunnel simply stared back at them as silent as its audience. Then the slopes of the gully heaved inwards, the earth alive once again. A voice boomed out from within the drain, reverberating with a daemonic bass that caused Roxy to collapse in terror. The captors lifted her back up but were also thrown aback by the intensity of it.
“OUR ACCORD IS FULFILLED.”
A sick slithering sound accompanied by ponderous thuds echoed out from the drain. White arcane sigils burned across its rim and dripped like pearlescent saliva. The mob at last broke its silence as women screamed in orgasmic horror and the men shouted bestially. They began stripped off their clothes, men and women, the young and old. When they were done everyone, including her mother and father, stood there in the pale corpse-light of the occult runes. Their manic howling ceased.
From the hole crawled out a swarthy man with a handsome yet strange face. He was well built and tall, his hair matted and covered in leaves and twigs. His eyes were pools of solid white that glinted with alien malignancy. His chiseled jaw shifted from side to side like he was grinding his teeth.
“MY BRIDE,” spoke the Prince as he approached her.
Roxy vomited. The Prince didn't pause. As he walked the flesh on his back opened up and great wings covered in jet fur unfurled. More and more of something else started to pour out of his spine. Legs. Arms. A torso. The Prince's more human form spun around, supported by cloven hooves on thick legs. The human body, now seated on his back, threshed wildly, its limbs mangled and head snapped back with a wicked grin. A head pulled itself from the gory mass, a chimeric mix of bat and bull but far more hideous than either could ever be. Huge. He opened his tooth filled maw and roared.
The cult responded with a single word repeated over and over. “Consummate! Consummate! Consummate!”
The Prince's monstrous new form lumbered over on its great knuckles, crushing one of Roxy's captors inadvertently. The viscera splashed on her legs. Two smaller, almost fetal, arms reached out from its ribs and pushed her down onto the ground. The Prince moved over her, slathering its lips hungrily. But he did not want to eat her. Something she couldn't see crept over her abdomen and pressed down. Roxy's skin tore and a warm rush flooded her body. She whimpered and was consumed by unconsciousness.
She saw awful things in her nightmares. Towering cyclopean idols, masses of fused flesh, moons of blood, fields of bone, demonic entities, and insane laughter coming from bizarre gods.
She woke up in her bed.
Had it all been a dream?
Roxy looked over. Her hands were bound. So were her ankles. There was nothing else peculiar about her room. It all seemed so average, as it had always been since her entire life. Even the sunlight pouring through her window belied the reality of what she endured. It made her nauseous.
The door opened and in came a middle aged women with long light brown hair peppered with grays. She was carrying a tray of food in her flabby arms.
“You're awake. Good. It's been four days and sure you must be starving.”
“What's going on? What happened to me?”
The woman ignored her. She pulled down the blanket to her waist.
“A good mother must always maintain a healthy diet for her babies,” said the strange woman.
“What are you talking about?”
Roxy gazed down at her belly. It was bulbous and churned hideously. The woman ran her pudgy fingers over the rising and falling bulbs of flesh that roiled inside.
“Don't worry we've been making sure your babies have been fed.”
“Oh god!” Roxy wailed as the wound the Prince left her opened up. Three long black tongues, prehensile like an anteater's, reached out and plucked the bacon the woman dangled out of her fingers. The woman giggled, amused. Once she was done the tongues retreated back into Roxy and the gash sealed itself shut.
“What the fuck?” Roxy exclaimed.
“You're a lucky woman,” she said as she checked the tightness of her lashings and walked out the door. She glanced back to Roxy whose eyes were wide with terror. “Just a few more days.”
“For what?” she said starting to sob.
“To meet your children.”
The strange woman closed the door leaving Roxy alone with the foul life living inside her womb. Outside she could hear the hum of the world carrying on as it always did.