Connor stared at the culvert’s darkened entrance and shuddered.
The young boy bit his lip and glanced back over his shoulder at the overgrown median with its towering weeds and steep slopes, and the gloomy, desolate highway that hemmed him in on both sides.
He could still go back, his mother and father would be angry, but the night was cold and the darkness was oppressively thick
Connor shook his head and turned his gaze back at the culvert. He couldn't go back there, not after hearing all of the fights, the shouting that shot upstairs and tore through the walls of his room, the cold looks his parents gave each other as an ever-increasing silence ate away at their time together.
He hadn't been able to name the sickness that had infected his parents until he had told his small circle of best friends about his situation at recess the previous day. They had all shared sad looks and Josh, a boy with sad eyes, told him that his parents had acted just like Connor’s a few years before they got a “Divorce”.
And, just like that, the sunny, warm day had grown gloomy and cold. Connor had felt a lump form in his throat and he had run away to find a safe place to cry.
Divorce. The word pricked at his mind like a bee’s sting. Josh had given a name to the sickness which was going to drive his family apart.
Connor thought of all the happy times he and his parents had shared, all the times they had comforted him when he had a nightmare, the Saturday trips to the local comic shop, their gentle words and warm caresses when he was sick.
All of it was going to end.
The boy wept until his eyelids stung and his stomach ached as the sounds of the bell rang out to call the other kids in for class. Connor didn’t care, he was too tired, they wouldn’t miss him anyway.
Connor eventually managed to get up the spirit to leave his hiding place, but he didn’t go back inside the school, even though his stomach ached from all his crying and the lack of food.
Instead he ran.
Maybe, if I go missing, Mom and Dad won’t care about leaving ‘cause they’ll have to find me! he thought as he raced down the sidewalk, letting the familiar storefronts pass him by. It was, in his young mind, a perfect plan.
He’d make them sorry for leaving, he’d punish them for divorcing and it would be so much worse than a spanking.
And so Connor ran until he reached the highway. By that time the sun had set and the last hues of purple and pink were fading into the chilly blue of night.
Connor had slipped and slid his way into the median when the headlights of the first few cars appeared out of the darkness.
At the time he had still held on to the notion that his plan was a good one, but when night had fallen completely, and the rise of the full moon had brought with it a strong, cold wind that numbed his fingers; Connor had realized how stupid he had been.
They won’t stay together just because I ran away, he thought miserably, they’ll only be angry at me. What if my running away makes them so angry that they won’t wanna see me again? What if they send me off to live with Grandma and Grandpa?
The thought made Connor’s eyes fill with tears and he sobbed as he imagined his parent’s angry faces and the horrible things that they would say to him before they sent him away.
“I have to go back,” he said to himself, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice.
He turned back, ready to make the return trek despite the ache in his legs, and had taken a step towards the incline when a drop of cold rain hit his head.
Connor looked up just as the torrent began.
Letting out a yelp of shock at the sudden storm, he threw himself backwards into the culvert and scrambled away from the opening as another gust of wind came whistling down through the median, carrying the smell of fallen leaves and fresh earth.
Where did the storm come from? he wondered, clutching at his arms as the wind froze his skin and set his teeth chattering, And why is it so cold? It’s March, doesn’t that mean that it should be getting warmer?
A peal of thunder roared overhead, sounding far too close for comfort. Connor whimpered and backed away.
The rain was coming down so heavily that Connor could barely make out the world outside of the culvert.
There was another boom of thunder, one that sounded like it was right above his head. Connor whimpered and crawled deeper into the culvert, wincing as his hands met the wet, flotsam-encrusted concrete beneath him.
He moved farther down the length of the culvert, the gray light behind him fading as he did.
Connor twisted around to face the away from the rain-lashed outside and peered into the darkness before him.
The sides of the culvert were stained and pitted from age, the bottom was strewn with moldy, half eaten snacks, grimy soda cans and other things that had been thrown from car windows and washed down by the rain.
And then there was the darkness.
It lay in front of him, slicing off the outside’s faint lunar illumination like a massive door without a knob. Connor was afraid of the dark, he had been since he was three, when a garden snake came in through his open window in the dead of night as he slept.
After that he saw snakes and things much worse lurking in the darkness under his bed, beyond his open door and in his closet. He still needed a night light even though he had been repeatedly told that he was a big boy.
Looking at the darkness before him and listening to the sounds of the rainfall echoing off of the walls, Connor knew that he would be needing his nightlight for some time to come.
Connor felt a wave of cold sweep through his body and he shuddered deeply. He could already feel the tell-tale lightheadedness that came with a bad cold creeping into his skull and he knew that the runny nose, sneezing and nausea weren't far behind.
“I’m such an idiot,” he said aloud to himself. Taking a sort of miserable pleasure in the feeling of rightness in those words.
He closed his eyes and began to mentally prepare himself to brave the rain and the darkness outside.
Then, from a ways down the culvert, coming from the shadows, Connor heard something faint, but unmistakable in its tone and melodic cadences.
Someone was humming.
Connor felt a surge of fear pass through him like a bolt of lightening. His bare arms broke out into goose-flesh as the back of his neck prickled.
He had, of course, heard the horror stories of people finding dead bodies in ditches or dumps or thickly wooded hiking trails, their bodies dirty, rotting and slashed to ribbons by claws or by knives.
He had overheard his parents talking about murders in the woods before, the hushed tones and worry in their voices adding kindling to his fear of the dark. He had forgotten about all of that in the whirlwind of chaos that his recent life had become, but now that fear came rushing back to him with like a punch to the stomach.
The humming continued, growing louder as Connor’s hearing unconsciously attuned itself to it, reducing the sounds of the storm outside to background noise.
The song sounds familiar, thought Connor as he listened. The tune was one that he had heard from his father’s old, battered CD player a thousand times before: It was Oingo Boingo’s song, “Skin”.
The sheer ridiculousness that came with that realization forced a quiet giggle from his lips. He couldn't believe his ears. It had to be a trick of the wind or his own mind.
What did Dad call it? he wondered, A hall-u-sination? Yeah, that’s what it is. It has to be.
The humming grew louder.
Connor staggered upright and backed away, the scrape of his filthy sneakers across the concrete sounded a hundred times louder to his ears. He felt cold sweat break out on his brow and fought to keep his breath from bursting through his clenched teeth.
He knew, without a single doubt in his terrified mind, that he was in danger, but his feverish, exhausted body wasn't obeying his commands.
The humming resolved itself into a low voice, singing.
“If you peel away the armor, is something underneath? If you look below for hidden treasure, underneath another layer, are you hiding underneath the skin?”
Something was thrown to the ground with a wet-sounding slap, something that poked into the light, something that looked like fabric, but Connor knew by its texture and the spatters of red that painted it that it wasn't fabric at all.
A figure walked into the light, a tall figure that was even in the darkness, unmistakably masculine.
A hand bearing long, spider-leg fingers reached out and grasped the material by a thatch of thick hair and yanked it upwards, leaving strings of gristle laying in a glistening patch of red.
Outside the lightening flashed and illuminated part of the culvert. The man’s features were distorted by the shadows, but, despite this, Connor could clearly see that his eyes had fallen on him.
Connor’s fevered trembling stopped as he gazed into those eyes. They were brown, inquisitive, wet, like the eyes of a dog, but there was a cruel mirth behind the curiosity, a predator’s glee poking through a thin veneer of normalcy.
The man spoke.
“Hello there,” he said slowly.
Connor felt his bladder release at that voice, it wasn't deep or gurgling, it wasn't punctuated by a hiss or a roar. It was calm, almost soothing, it wasn't the voice of the Boogeyman, it was the voice of a normal human man.
“Are you lost?” inquired the man, his thin fingers twitching.
Connor’s tongue was heavy with terror; He could only whimper.
“Don’t be shy,” said the man, “I won’t hurt you. I’m very gentle.”
He reached out and grasped Connor’s wrist. The boy let out a short sob at the touch. The man had such soft, warm skin, like a baby’s.
“Here, I have something for you. A little gift from me.”
Connor closed his eyes as the man placed something into his small hand. Then the man gently pressed Connor’s fingers against the thing, molding his hand to clasp it tightly. He turned and walked away, placing his horribly soft hands into his pockets.
The next hour of Connor’s life was a blur of tears and rain, and his screams of pure panic were blotted out by the roar of the thunder.
He ran until his legs gave out, until his fear and the sickness which had been boiling in his gut overcame him. He was found, through pure happenstance, by a family driving down to their summer home.
Connor was unconscious, his skin was hot to the touch and his entire body was caked in filth and soaked with rain water.
They managed to get him to the hospital before the first symptoms of pneumonia set in.
Connor’s parents were notified three hours after he had been admitted, after some DNA tests revealed his information. They sat in the waiting room, exchanging frightened glances and tensing every time a nurse or doctor entered the room.
“Why hasn't anyone told us what happened?” asked Connor’s mother, her voice tired and raw from crying.
“I don’t know,” said Connor’s father, his voice much the same. “The better question is ‘What was he doing out there?’”
There was silence for a moment, then, “I think he heard us fighting, he must have. Do you think... maybe he thought that we were getting a divorce?”
Connor’s father placed a trembling hand to his mouth and let out a low, shuddering sigh.
“We should have told him about the baby,” said Connor’s mother, looking at her stomach, noticing its increased size and feeling the slight shifting of the tiny life within.
Her reverie was interrupted when a sad-faced doctor and a shaken police officer walked into the waiting room and called them.
They came and bombarded them both with questions and it took some time to calm them down and for the doctor to explain that their son was going to get better, but that the family had found something with him when they discovered him, something clenched tightly in his hand.
“What did they find?” asked Connor’s mother, her gut roiling as her intuition told her that the answer was one to be dreaded.
The officer sighed and said, in as calm a voice as he could manage, “Your son was found with a small bag in his hand, a little bag tied off with hair and made from old newspaper. In the bag we found… teeth. Small teeth, we-we think they belong to children.”
The officer told the two horrified parents more about the situation as, not three doors down, their son lay in the grip of what would be the first of many nightmares to come.
Outside the rain lashed the trees and the culvert in the overgrown median filled with water. The water washed away the blood and carried the flayed thing that had once been a human away.
And the man left with his latest trophy bound in a plastic bag.