This short story was first published in the charity anthology “At Hell’s Gates 3: Bound by Blood“.
The Coffin in the Reeds
By RJ Kennett
© 2015 RJ Kennett. All Rights Reserved.
Lightning flashed and thunder crashed, shaking the very foundations of the little farmhouse. Inside, twelve year old Tommy Watkins shook under the covers of his bed as if they offered sanctuary from the raging storm.
“That was a big one,” he muttered through chattering teeth. He stroked the golden fur of his dog as it quivered under the covers next to him. Baxter was a foundling of indeterminate parentage, but the dog had wormed its way into their lives and had become Tommy’s best friend over the past two years.
Baxter was usually relegated to the barn, but that was one of the very few nights Grampa had relented and let the dog sleep inside. It was on account of the roiling black storm clouds that ominously rumbled towards them.
“Gonna be a gully washer,” Grampa had said upon seeing the angry skies cut short his afternoon farm chores. His words proved prophetic as the storm raged across the county, the wind howling around their little farmhouse through a heavy rain.
Tommy, Grampa, and now Baxter comprised the entirety of their family unit, ever since Tommy’s parents died. A plague had swept through their little Kansas county several years back and both of his parents succumbed to it. Since it happened when he was only five, Tommy couldn’t remember it very well–he just had some vague memories and the occasional nightmare–but Grampa did. He didn’t like to talk about it though. “No man should have to bury his child,” he would say quietly through wet eyes whenever Tommy asked. Tommy didn’t like seeing tears rolling down the deep wrinkles in Grampa’s face, so he quit asking about it.
The room lit up as another flash and crash from the storm snapped Tommy out of his remembrances. He realized with dismay that he had almost fallen asleep.
Baxter quivered so fiercely that the bed shook and he tried to nuzzle even closer to Tommy.
“It’ll be over soon,” he whispered while hugging his dog tightly, hoping he was right. The storm had been raging for hours with rain pelting the glass so hard that Tommy thought it might break. He thought he heard the distinctive popping sound of hail striking as well, and worried that a tornado might come. At some point in the night, exhaustion overcame him, and Tommy fell asleep.
He awoke when there was a knock at the door. Baxter tromped across him and bounded out of the bedroom, barking. Sunlight streamed through the window panes, bathing the room in a golden glow. Tommy stretched, feeling his muscles uncoil into a more relaxed state. He then wiped the sleep from his eyes and rolled out of bed to see who it was.
“Shut up, Baxter,” Grampa yelled in the living room. Baxter responded by barking, but it was a gentle “woof” as opposed to the initial, ear-splitting wave of barking. Grampa grunted, pleasantly surprised at his success.
Tommy staggered to his bedroom door and looked into the living area just as Grampa opened the door. “Doug,” he said in greeting. “What brings you here?”
Doug was a sheriff’s deputy, a large and tough young man in his mid-thirties. Tommy called him “Sheriff Doug” even though he was just a deputy. It was close enough for Tommy; Sheriff Doug had been a boyhood friend to both of Tommy’s parents and was therefore deserving of the utmost respect. He hadn’t come around as often since they’d passed away almost six years earlier, but he always made sure to visit on Tommy’s birthday and would bring him a present. Tommy felt that seeing him made Grampa sad, like it made him miss his own son that much more.
Sheriff Doug leapt aside as Baxter gleefully rushed out to enjoy the sunshine, chase rabbits, roll in feces, lick his balls, or do whatever else farm dogs liked to do.
“Can I come in?” Doug asked, politely removing his hat.
Grampa opened the door wider and the deputy stepped inside. He closed the door behind him and nodded an acknowledgement to Tommy, but gone was the usual cheerful twinkle in his eyes. Grampa cued off Sheriff Doug and turned to face his grandson.
“Mornin’, Tommy. Breakfast is ready,” he said with a wry smile. “Go fix yourself a plate. There’s eggs, bacon, and toast.”
Eggs, bacon, and toast. It was always eggs, bacon, and toast. Every. Single. Morning. Just once Tommy wished he could have the Choco-Puffs he had when his parents were still alive, but Grampa insisted that farm fresh was better. Perhaps it was, but Tommy couldn’t compare the two because it had been so long that he couldn’t remember how Choco-Puffs tasted. He just remembered that he liked them.
Tommy ambled into the kitchen and got himself a plate, making a show of clattering around as he spooned on scrambled eggs and as much bacon as he dared, and eavesdropped on the older men.
“Quite a storm last night. What brings you out this way?” Grampa asked.
“Business, I’m afraid,” Doug responded. “That storm did some damage.”
Grampa grunted a query, prompting the younger man to continue.
“The riverbank gave way at the cemetery. A bunch of coffins washed away.” He said it in a matter-of-fact tone.
Grampa cleared his throat. “Is… is my son’s coffin still there? Did he–”
“I don’t know,” Doug replied. “I haven’t been up there yet. Don’t know how bad it was, or how many washed out. I just heard the news. Wanted to come by and let you know and… and maybe get your help? We have to round those coffins up quick and keep it as quiet as possible. You’ve always been dependable. We don’t want to start a panic, but we need reliable eyes to help search. Can we count on you?”
“Of course,” Grampa cleared his throat. “Let me get my truck and let’s go. No time to lose.”
Tommy peered around the corner as Sheriff Doug left. Grampa closed the door behind him and turned, running his thick, leathery tough fingers through his thinning gray hair. He exhaled a long, shaky breath.
He stopped cold upon seeing Tommy in the doorway to the kitchen. “I guess you overheard. I’ve got to go, I’m sorry.” He smiled for Tommy’s benefit. “But hey, you’ve got some chores to do today anyway, best get to ‘em.” He lightly poked Tommy in the chest for emphasis.
“I’ll be back this afternoon, maybe this evening. If you have any trouble, go to that boy Brian’s house and I’ll pick you up there.”
Brian was almost the same age as Tommy. He lived with his parents on a farm just up the road and was Tommy’s best friend, after Baxter.
Tommy nodded. “Yes, Grampa.”
Grampa affectionately tousled Tommy’s hair then pulled him close in a warm hug. “I love you, Tommy.”
“Love you too, Grampa.”
Then he left, letting the door swing closed behind him.
Tommy watched as Grampa fired up his rusty-but-trusty pickup truck and pulled away, then finished his breakfast. He skipped his shower and got dressed instead, then started on his chores for the day.
After cleaning out the stable and feeding the horses, Tommy mended a fence that had been damaged by a falling tree limb during the storm. As he carefully put his tools away, his breast swelled with pride. Grampa hadn’t told him to do it, didn’t even know it needed doing. He’d be proud to know his little Tommy was growing into a responsible young man.
While he was in the barn, he heard a voice yelling in the distance. He poked his head out and saw his friend Brian racing across the field. Tommy waved and Brian waved back.
“Hey Tommy,” Brian said, breathless from his run. “I went down to the swimming hole this afternoon. You’ll never believe what I found. Guess. Go on, guess! You’ll never guess in a million billion years.”
Tommy thought hard. Just as Brian was about to cave in and tell him, he blurted it out. “A coffin.”
Brian’s mouth dropped open. “No way! How’d you guess?”
“That’s where…” his voice trailed off. He remembered that Grampa and Sheriff Doug were concerned about finding the coffins that had washed away. They seemed to want to keep people from knowing, that they’d be scared or worried about their loved ones that were buried in the little hilltop cemetery by the river. “Just a lucky guess.”
Tommy figured that if Brian could show him where a coffin ended up, then he could tell Grampa and Sheriff Doug. They would be so impressed with him, taking care of all of his chores and then some, and reporting on the coffin. He’d be a man soon enough and figured to make his elders respect him as such.
“Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky–” Brian muttered softly, looking at his feet in disappointment.
“Lucky guess, yeah, I get it. So it’s at the swimming hole?” Tommy asked.
Brian’s face lit up again. “Near to it. It’s kind of hidden in the reeds. Want to go see?”
Tommy looked to the sky. The sun was low on the horizon, but the swimming hole wasn’t all that far away. He figured they could probably make it and he should be back just in time for supper, if Grampa was back by then. If not, he could fix his own supper, and then wouldn’t Grampa be impressed?
He nodded. “Okay, let’s hurry. It’s getting late.”
The boys headed across the muddy field to the swimming hole, Baxter trotting happily beside them.
They walked for nearly twenty minutes, across fields and through thickets, finally pushing through dense brush to emerge into a small clearing that sloped down to the river. “River” was a generous term. Most of the time it was a shallow creek, but runoff from the storm had filled it up. They followed the bank down almost to the swimming hole, and Brian stopped.
He shielded his eyes from the glare of the setting sun as he scanned the riverbank for his quarry. “There it is.” Brian pointed to a stand of reeds by the water’s edge.
It was mostly hidden by the tall cattails and long shadows they cast, but Tommy could see the wood of the coffin poking through where it pushed the reeds out of the way. He swallowed hard. “Wow, you weren’t kidding.”
Brian beamed with pride. He whispered conspiratorially. “Let’s get a closer look.”
“Let’s leave it. We should go tell someone.”
“Aw, come on,” Brian teased. “You’re not chicken, are you?”
Tommy bristled at the suggestion. He was almost a man and a full eight months older than Brian. “Of course not; it’s just a wooden box stuck in the mud and the reeds, nothing to be scared of. And cool, but not that cool. Besides, it’s getting late.”
“Just a wooden box with a body in it,” Brian corrected, and headed down the muddy embankment to investigate. He started clucking like a chicken as he did so.
Pride dictated that Tommy couldn’t let the insult slide. He bounded down the embankment after his friend, with Baxter hot on his heels. He caught up quickly and the two boys giggled as they raced each other to be first to the coffin, slipping and struggling through the thick mud that sucked at their feet with every step. Baxter ran alongside, barking wildly.
Breathless, they reached the coffin in the reeds. From a distance, it was interesting. Up close, it was terrifying.
The wood was old, swollen with moisture and slightly warped, and some kind of fungus or mold was growing on it, creeping around the seams. Tommy couldn’t guess whether it was a crappy quality coffin, or if it was just really old. There wasn’t any writing that Tommy could see that might indicate who was inside.
Baxter crept up on it, sniffing cautiously, then backed away. A low rumble emanated from his throat.
“What’s up with your stupid dog?” Brian asked.
“He’s not stupid, you’re stupid,” Tommy shot back. He knew it was a lame comeback, but his mind was spinning with possibilities over the coffin and in the moment it was all he had.
“Well, there it is,” Brian said. “Should we… you know.”
“Should we…?” Tommy shrugged.
Brian tossed his head toward the coffin. “You know.”
“Oh, hell no,” Tommy said. Brian was trying to goad him into it, but Tommy wasn’t having any of his bullshit. “You wanted to see, we saw. You wanted to get closer, we got closer. Now let’s go home and tell someone.”
Brian hesitated. “You’re probably right.”
Tommy turned and took several steps back the way they came.
“But I’ll probably never get another chance to see a dead body,” Brian said. He inhaled sharply. “I’m gonna do it, since you’re a pussy.”
Tommy turned to find his friend fumbling with the latch on the coffin lid.
“Come on, Brian, that’s not cool.”
With a groan and effort that sunk his feet into the muddy embankment, Brian lifted the lid. There was a loud creak and several quick popping sounds as it swung on its hinges and flipped open. Brian stood transfixed. “Whoa.”
A moment later and Brian gagged, lifting his shirt to his face in a vain attempt to filter the noxious odor.
Baxter growled and retreated. The stench emanating from the coffin was almost overpowering. Brian wiped his eyes briefly, then shot a wicked grin back at Tommy. “You gotta see this.”
Tommy wanted to turn and run, yet he found himself curiously drawn toward it and moved on wobbly knees. The smell was bad, but Brian seemed like he was getting used to it, at least a little. He figured it was probably dissipating with every passing second and would be tolerable soon. Tommy took another step, and another, and another again, vaguely aware of Baxter barking behind him.
Finally, Tommy stood in the ankle-deep mud next to his friend and gazed down into the coffin.
Inside was the body of a man. Tommy was thankful he didn’t recognize him and couldn’t guess his age, as the face was shriveled with decay. He was dressed in his Sunday best, and the clothes were in surprisingly decent condition even if their occupant was not. Wispy strands of scraggly beard covered his face. The eyes were closed, but sunken far into their sockets. His lips had rotted away, leaving him with a sneer frozen in time that revealed long teeth protruding from withered and blackened gums. His hands were upturned by his face, but several of the nails were long, more like claws than fingernails. Others were broken.
Baxter was barking wildly.
“Baxter, shut up!” Tommy yelled. Baxter whimpered in response, then woofed quietly twice. Tommy turned back to examine their prize and Baxter started up again. “Shut up!” Tommy repeated.
“I’m never going to eat again,” Brian said. “That’s disgusting. I wonder what killed him?”
“Is it what you expected?”
Brian shook his head. “I don’t really know what I expected. Not this.”
“Come on, we’ve seen enough. Let’s close the lid and get out of here,” Tommy said, his voice quivering. He wanted nothing more than to seal it again and get home and get Baxter to shut up, shut up “Baxter shut up!” The dog was going berserk. He’d never seen his dog so wild.
The boys moved to flip the heavy lid back over and Tommy froze. “What is that?” he said.
Across the inside of the coffin lid there were long, scrabbled scratch marks etched deep in the wood. Tommy ran his fingers across the grooves and looked at Brian.
“You think they… someone buried him alive?”
“You poor son of a bitch,” Tommy said, looking at the body again with a profound sense of sadness. The man’s eyes were open, cloudy orbs set deep in their sockets. A chill ran up Tommy’s spine. “His eyes!” he shrieked, backing away in terror, his feet slipping in the thick mud.
“What about them?” Brian asked.
“His eyes were closed!”
Brian leaned forward for a better look. “Nah. You sure?”
It happened fast. A clawed hand shot out from the coffin and grabbed Brian, pulling him down on top of it. There was a groan and a wet gurgling sound as Brian screamed a high-pitched scream that only pain and primal terror could evoke.
Baxter was barking like crazy and Tommy wanted to run, run away with his dog and shiver under the covers safe in his bed. But Brian was his best friend and he was squealing, punching, and kicking his little legs futilely in the grasp of the creature in the coffin. Tommy had to help.
He sucked in a deep breath and tried to wrest the cold claw from where it dug into his friend’s arm. Brian’s arm was wet with hot blood that streamed from a ragged hole in his throat, down his arm, and into the creature’s gaping maw of gnashing, broken, and bloodstained teeth, and Tommy couldn’t get a firm grip. He shrieked and struggled as the monster’s other hand found him, claw-like fingernails digging deep into his flesh, pulling his arm to its mouth. He felt a sharp pain as it bit down hard into his arm and ripped out a mouthful; Tommy’s own panicked shrieks joined Brian’s.
There was a flash of fur and furious gnashing of fangs as Baxter charged in and bit down into the creature’s arm, snarling and savagely tearing at it, and just like that, Tommy was free. He stumbled backward and fell in the mud, cradling his injured arm. Baxter pulled away, the creature’s grasping fingers still clutching a tuft of his golden fur.
“Tommy,” cried Brian weakly. He shuddered and fell silent.
Baxter ran to where Tommy lay sprawled, wide eyed and numb with fear.
The wet smacking sound of the monster feeding on his friend caused bile to rise in Tommy’s throat. Tears stung his eyes as he clambered to his feet and staggered back up the riverbank, following Baxter’s lead. His arm stung terribly where the thing bit him, and he could swear the pain was spreading from the wound with every step he took.
“It’s only twenty minutes. I can make it twenty minutes,” Tommy thought. He felt light-headed and his arm throbbed with intense, burning pain. He wanted Grampa to hold him and take the pain away.
Somehow, with Baxter coaxing him along and nipping him sharply whenever he stopped, Tommy made it to the field by his house, and there his legs gave out. Even Baxter’s nipping and barking couldn’t get him to move any further. Defeated, he rolled onto his back. It was almost dark, and the porch light was on. Grampa’s old rusty-but-trusty pickup truck was parked in its spot next to the house.
The last thing Tommy saw was the inviting glow of the porch light as a curious warmth filled his being. The pain subsided as darkness closed in. “Grampa,” he croaked weakly.
It was still in the dark of early morning when Tommy finally came home. His thinking was muddled, more instinct than conscious thought, but he knew who he was. He had… memories? Yes, that was it. Something bad happened to him. His muscles and joints ached and didn’t work right, causing him to shuffle towards the house. He was aware of an agonizing emptiness in his stomach, a hunger unlike any he had known or could have imagined gnawed at him with every step. He tried to call out to his Grampa, but it came out as a strangled, gurgling sound. He was vaguely aware it was his own voice, but the words just wouldn’t come.
He staggered to the back porch and fumbled with the knob. He knew it shouldn’t be so difficult, but nothing about his body seemed to work right, and every movement was agony. His head pounded fiercely with a headache so ferocious that he couldn’t think straight, but he need to get inside, needed to find… Grampa? He wasn’t certain. Someone was there, he knew. The knob finally clicked, and Tommy managed to force his way in.
The aroma of eggs, bacon and toast filled the kitchen, but Tommy hungered for something else and shambled past. Almost instinctively, Tommy knew only one thing could take the horrendous hunger pain away.
Grampa stormed into the living room. “About blasted time; I sent Doug searching for you. Where the hell have you–” He froze when he saw Tommy shambling hungrily towards him.
“Grampa, run!” Tommy tried to warn him, but only managed a guttural growl that rumbled from his little chest.
Grampa slowly sunk to his knees and released a soul-rending wail of despair. “Oh, God! Tommy! Not you! You sweet, sweet little fool, they were plague coffins!” Tears ran down the deep creases in his face as Grampa outstretched his arms to embrace his grandson one last time.
Tommy knew what he was about to do was wrong. He didn’t want to hurt his Grampa. Grampa had always looked after him, cared for him, ever since his parents died, but he couldn’t help himself. The pain in his stomach was so powerful, and the allure of Grampa’s flesh, so close, so tasty only intensified his need for meat.
He opened his little mouth and lunged for Grampa’s exposed neck, but Grampa was ready and shifted away, pushing Tommy to his stomach and sitting on his back.
Tommy snarled in pain and frustration at his meal’s sudden movement. He found his hands and feet being twisted behind him as Grampa expertly hogtied him with his shoelaces. In the midst of his struggling, Tommy was angered. How could Grampa do this to him? His little man, his little Tommy, his own flesh and blood?
“I’m so sorry, Tommy,” Grampa repeatedly sobbed as he dragged Tommy back through the kitchen, and to the rusty-but-trusty pickup. “I’m so, so sorry. We can’t have you running around like this and Sheriff Doug will shoot you if he finds you first. But look on the bright side; you’ll be buried next to your mother and father… forever.”
Somewhere in the darkened field, a lonely dog howled a mournful cry.