“There’s a monster in the woods.”
“There’s no such things as monsters,” Lily scoffed. She was older than Claire by nearly half a year. She sometimes thought maybe she should hang out with the older girls. Claire was such a baby sometimes, but her mother made her walk to school with her, especially since Danny Long had gone missing the other day, just 2 days after Mark Souza had disappeared. The whole town was out searching for them.
“I heard it,” Claire said. “When I walked down to the end of the lane to get the mail. It was just inside the woods. I heard it before I saw it. It was cloudy that day and the thing was nearly hidden among the trees. It’s a noisy eater,” She added, mysteriously.
Lily rolled her eyes. Claire was a notorious storyteller. “So what was it eating?” She asked, deciding to play along.
“Danny Long. That’s why they can’t find him. It probably ate Mark, too.”
“Claire Darling, that’s a horrible thing to say!”
“Well it’s true. I just thought you should know… since you and Danny were friends.”
“We aren’t friends,” Lily said. “His dad is friends with my dad, that’s the only reason I talk to him.”
“You kissed him last week,” Claire said. “I saw you… behind Old Man Johnson’s shed.”
“That… that’s not true,” Lily sputtered. “Danny Long is a spaz, everyone knows that and I would never kiss him. NEVER!” She had stopped walking and was facing Claire. Clenching her fist she shook it at the other girl for emphasis.
“Well, not anymore,” Claire said. “He’s dead. The monster ate him.”
“You are a horrid girl,” Lily screeched. “I don’t care what my mother says, I’m not walking to school with you.” Then she started walking ahead of Claire, increasing her pace so as to leave the other girl behind.
The police were at the school when the two girls arrived. All the other students were standing around, whispering nervously to each other. Lily approached Jane, who was the police chief's daughter. "What's up? Did they find Danny or Mark?"
"No," Jane said. "Tommy Jones is missing. His mom said he went to bed last night, and he wasn't there this morning."
"Did they ask Gary or Mike if they had seen him?" Claire asked.
"What do you know about Gary and Mike?" Chief Evans asked. Claire jumped, surprised to hear the officers voice behind her.
"Just that he had been planning to meet them somewhere yesterday. I don't know where, but heard them talking about it. They stopped talking when they realized I was listening."
"You hear a lot," Lily mumbled.
Claire nodded her head, ignoring the sarcasm in the other girls voice. "People don't pay attention to the weird orphan girl."
"It's not because you're an orphan that you are weird," Lily said.
"Girls," Chief Evans said, "Gary and Mike ..."
"Gary and Mike Garrett," Jane said. "You remember them dad, they're the ones that played that Halloween prank last year."
"Oh yeah, those two. If I remember correctly, I told you to stay away from them."
"And I have! Claire's the one who brought them up."
"Because Tommy was going to meet them last night, after their parents went to bed."
Chief Evans shook his head. "What is wrong with these kids ... 2 boys missing, boys sneaking out after dark ... Jane, I hope you and your friends know better than that."
"Yes, sir," Jane and Lily said, while Claire nodded her head.
"All right," the Chief said. One of the Chief's officers approached him, a concerned look on his face.
"Sir ..." Chief Evans and the officer stepped a few feet away. While Jane and Lily talked about how scared they were about what may have happened to the three missing boys, Lily moved closer to the two officers, trying to hear what they were saying. Something about another missing boy, and one that was hurt."
Chief Evans looked the young boy in the eyes. He looked scared. But the story he was telling was impossible.
"You're telling me a monster attacked you and your brother. Half human ... Half bull."
"Yes. A minotaur. We learned about them in school. Greek Mythology."
"Myth's aren't real," Chief Evans said. "Monsters aren't real. At least not the non human kind."
Gary looked at his mom. She'd been crying, and she shook her head, not understanding the story her son had just told the Chief. It was the same story he had told her earlier and didn't make any more sense now than it has then.
"He's scared," Helen Garrett said. "He's hurt. Lucky to be alive. They gave him some pain medicine ..."
"Mom, I'm not high. I know what happened. Me, Mike, and Tommy were supposed to meet last night. Only Tommy didn't show up. We figured he chickened out, so we went ahead without him."
"To go play a prank on Claire Darling? Why would you do that?" Chief Evans asked.
"Have you ever met her? She's creepy. Always staring at people, listening in on their conversations. We caught her staring at Tommy. So we let it 'slip' that he liked her. Then we told her that Tommy wanted to meet her last night."
"So she thought Tommy was coming over? For what?"
"To make out. Mike and I were supposed to hide and use our phones to record it. He had a mask. He was going to tell her to close her eyes, and then put the mask on and scare her."
"GARISON BRADY GARROTT! Why would you do that to that poor girl."
"It was supposed to be a joke. But we didn't do it. We figured if Tommy had chickened out, we could go and tease her about how stupid she was to think Tommy would want to kiss her. But not only did Tommy not show up, Claire wasn't there either. She was supposed to meet Tommy outside the woods, but she wasn't there."
"Probably because she knew you were planning to humiliate her," Chief Evans said. "She overheard you and Mike talking about meeting Tommy."
"And then we heard a noise inside the woods," Gary continued, ignoring the Officer. "Itsounded like a girl giggling. We thought it was Claire and we went in. That's when we saw the monster."
"And then you ran?" Chief Evans asked.
"Yes. But something knocked me down and dragged me back into the woods. Damn near ripped my arm off. I think I passed out. I heard Mike screaming." Gary looked at his mom. "I'm sorry. I didn't know what to do. I just ran. I left Mike behind. I should have tried to save him."
"You did the right thing," his mom said, putting her arm around her son's good side. She hugged him, trying to avoid jarring his bad side. His arm had been ripped out of its socker when her neighbor found him hiding in the back yard, delirious and rambling about a monster in the woods. Suddenly Gary looked at Chief Evans.
"Is Claire alright?"
"She's fine. Why wouldn't she be?"
"She was there. We hadn't thought she'd shown up, but she was there in the woods. She was talking to the monster."
The Principal had cancelled school for the day, and probably for the rest of the week. 4 boys missing and one who barely escaped with his life ... At least that was the rumor going around school ... It wasn't safe for the kids to be out.
Principal Reed had called and left messages for the parents, letting them know their kids would be coming home, but most of the parents were at work. Some of the kids, those that were old enough, had cars and could drive home. A few parents did come to pick their kids up. The rest were left to walk home. Groups of 3 or 4 kids could be seen from his window, as they left the school grounds.
He wondered if they would all make it. Maybe he shouldn't have let school out. Cancelled it at the end of the day, for the rest of the week. Give the parents a chance to make arrangements. At least at the school they would be safe.
But Principal Reed's daughter was home sick today. And his wife was at work. He wanted to get home and check on her. It was boys who had gone missing, but if it was some pervert ... No, he was sure the kids would get home ok. But Tanya was home alone, and when he called to check on her, she hadn't answered the phone. She was probably sleeping, but he needed to get home and see for himself that she was ok.
Tanya was only 8. He hadn't liked the idea of leaving her home by herself, but Mrs. Townsend was out of town. His wife couldn't call off work. Tanya was a responsible child though. She was to stay in bed until her mother got home at noon. But 8 am and 4 kids missing, those 4 hours until noon seemed too long. He'd caught her sleepwalking last night. She said she'd heard someone singing in the woods.
"It was a pretty song, daddy," she had said. "A lady with a beautiful voice. I could see her in my mind. She was so pretty. A mermaid."
"Honey, you were dreaming." He'd felt her forehead. She was warm with a fever. He'd given her a pain reliever and tucked her back in. But now he worried, what if she'd had another dream and tried to leave the house again? He'd locked the doors and they had special locks at the top of the door ... This wasn't the first time Tanya had sleptwalked ... But if she stood on a stool, she could unlock the door.
Pulling into the driveway, Ed Reed stumbled out of his car and ran for the door. It was standing wide open.
"TANYA!" He called for his daughter as he ran up the stairs, but he already knew his worst fears were realized. His daughter wasn't in the house.
"I head Gary Garrett's arm was ripped off," Frank said. "Blood. Everywhere." He said that part with emphasis, trying to freak out the girls as they all walked home together.
"His arm wasn't ripped off," Claire said.
"Like you would know," Frank said. "My mom's boyfriend is a cop, and he said it was gruesome. That Gary is lucky to be alive. He had a big gash in his throat too. That's what I heard anyway."
"Your mom's boyfriend didn't tell you this?" Jane said. "My dad wouldn't let them talk about what happened. They take an oath. They can't discuss ongoing cases with anyone."
"Well, I overheard him talking this morning."
"No you didn't," Claire said. "You're just trying to talk big because you want to impress Lily. I don't know why. She doesn't like you, she likes Danny."
"Claire," Lily hissed, "quit saying that. I don't like Danny."
"Well not anymore. He's dead. But you did like him."
"He is not dead!" Lily said. "He's missing. They will find him."
"He's probably dead," Frank said.
"Most likely taken by sex traffickers," Jane said. She shrugged her shoulders when the other kids stopped and stared at her. "My dad's a cop. I hear things."
"And that's what they think happened?" Lily asked.
"They think a lot of things. I just know that's one of the possible scenarios."
"So they'll probably find them," Lily said.
"Probably not," Jane said. "I hear things. The longer they're missing, the less likely they'll be found. Mark has been gone for a week. Danny for 3 days. Now Tommy and Mike last night. Probably a whole chain of people. Some to do the snatching, and then hand them off to someone to get them away from here. Could even be someone local working with them, since no one new has been around."
"They haven't been sex trafficked," Claire said, "and they aren't going to find them. Not even their bodies. They've been eaten."
"Claire Darling, I really don't like you," Lily said. "You are a horrid girl."
"They were eaten?" Frank asked. He sounded like he thought that was cool. "How do you know?"
"A monster ate them. I saw it."
"If you saw something, you have to tell my dad," Jane said.
"Why? He wouldn't believe me. You guys don't."
"Because you are lying," Lily said. "There are no such things as monsters that eat people."
"I'm not lying," Claire said. "I can prove it."
"How?" Frank asked.
"I can take you to the woods and show you."
Chief Evans was on his way back to the school, to question Claire Darling about whether or not she'd been in the woods last night, when he got the call about Tanya Reed having gone missing. And she wasn't the only one. Frantic parents had been calling the station all morning.
And it wasn't just kids who could walk away from their house who were missing. The nursery at the hospital was empty. Every child who had been born in the last few days was gone. Vanished. The nurses that worked the floor had all said they'd heard someone singing. They claimed they were put into some kind of a trance and when they came out of it, the infants were gone.
Chief Evans knew that wasn't possible, but then he got the call from Ed Evans who was babbling on about his daughter and a mermaid that had tried to lure her away in the middle of the night ... Well it was crazy. The whole town had lost their minds, with talk about mermaids and menotaurs. What was next, Unicorns? Centaurs? Maybe Rumplestiltkin would appear and demand the first born child of every one in town.
Whatever was going on didn't have anything to do with mythological creatures. Those things weren't real. But someone very real had taken off with all the missing kids. In his mind he pictures the Pied Piper, luring the children out of town. While he knew that wasn't the likely scenario, he wondered if some kind of a hallucinage was involved. That would explain this mass hysteria. Maybe in the water. Terrorists? Oh geeze, he hoped it wasn't that.
And if it was terrorists, how was Claire Darling involved? She was an orphan. At least she appeared to be. They really didn't know much about her. She'd been found wandering the town a few months ago. No parents and no memory of where she had come from. She just knew her name, Claire Darling. But she always said the last part, like it was a per name. Claire, darling. Like honey, or dear.
Since the school had closed early, and he still needed to talk to Claire, Chief Evans changed his direction and headed toward the The Blessed Home for Orphans where Claire was the only child resident. The orphanage was never full. They weren't a large town. Until Claire came along, the orphanage hadn't had any children in it for 12 years. Not long term anyway. The last child there for any length of time was Lily.
She'd shown up under strange conditions too. She wasn't an orphan, but her parents had left her in a basket, outside the church parish with nothing but a note. She didn't even have clothes. Then when she was 3, she had been adopted by the Roberts. He heard she didn't even know she was adopted. Her parents didn't want her to know she'd been abandoned.
"I'm not going into the woods," Lily said.
"She's right," Jane said. "That's not a good idea. We're supposed to go home. Our parents will worry if we don't."
"It will only be a few minutes," Claire said, "but if you're afraid ..."
"I'm not afraid," Frank said. "Let's go."
"Well I am," Lily said. "I don't want to go."
"Then go home," Frank said. "We don't need you."
"If they're gonna go," Jane said, "we should go with them. We're safer together."
"I don't want to go," Lily said.
"I don't either, but if they go and something happens ..."
"Nothing's gonna happen," Frank said. "If there's something there, I'll take care of it." He flexed his arms, trying to show off muscles, though there weren't any to show. "Maybe we'll even find the other kids."
"There is safety in numbers." Jane said
"Yeah, tell that to Gary and Mike," Lily said, but since she didn't want to walk home alone, she followed the others.
"What do you mean she's not here?" Chief Evans asked.
"I'm sorry," Mrs Sanders said, "But Claire Darling hasn't been here for a few days. I thought you knew."
"Why would I know that? I brought her here three months ago. Put her in your care. I was never given an order to have her removed, and I never authorized you to have her removed."
"I've got the letter right here." She handed the Chief a piece of paper with the town seal on it. It said that Claire's mother had been found and she was to release Claire to her immediately. It had the mayor's signature on it. He should recognize it ... The mayor was his wife.
This didn't make any sense to him. His wife had just taken some old clothes to the orphanage. She'd said that Claire should have some nice things, that it would help her fit in with the other kids, until they could find a permanent home for her. If her mother had been found, she would have told him. As he contemplated that,he stared,out the window. Across the road, he saw some movement in the woods. What he saw didn't make sense, because what he saw was half man, half bull. A Minotaur. And then he saw Jane.
"This is where I saw the monster eat Danny." Claire said.
"That does look like blood on the ground," Jane said.
"And look there," Frank said, sounding nervous for the first time. "That's part of Mark's jacket on that tree branch. I recognize it, because we have matching jackets." He pointed to his jacket to show that it did match the material.
"So Mark had to be through here too. But what would he be doing in the woods?" Jane wondered.
"They were lured here. By the mermaid."
"The what?" Frank laughed. Mermaids aren't real. And if they were, they would live in water. There's no water around here."
"They can live for a while outside of water," Claire said, "and walk on land like a human. But only for a few months. Then they have to return. But they get awful hungry. So do Minotaurs. And Minotaura."
"Minotaur what?" Frank asked.
"I'm going to tell you a story," Claire said. "A long time ago, a Siren, also known as a Mermaid, and a Minotaur fell in love. Every year, when she was able to walk on land, she would come out of the water and spend her days with the Minotaur. And then she ended up pregnant. But her daughter was born human ... Or at least she appeared to be human. She didn't have a fish tail, and she didn't have any bull body parts. So they weren't sure what to do with her. The mermaid couldn't raise her under the water, and the Minotaur was not suited to raise a human child. So as the Mermaid's last fewdfew on land came to an end, she decided to leave her daughter in the care of the humans. She put her in a basket and left her at the Church orphanage.
"You are saying that was you?" Jane asked. "You only showed up a few weeks ago."
"No. It wasn't me. The Mermaid and the Minotaur were sad. They comforted each other and promised they would check on their daughter every year, because it was possible that as she got older, she could change. Then, the very next year, they had another child ... Another daughter, and this one was a Mermaid. Mostly. And like her mother, once a year she could come up on land. And she would join her parents in watching her sister grow from afar. But then this year, something changed. Their human like child was changing."
"Changing? Like how?" Frank asked, completely enthralled with the story.
"She began to develop Minotaur features. Not all the time. At night. At first it was only a night here and there. And she didn't know what was happening to her, because she didn't know she wasn't human. She was scared, because she would wake in the morning, covered with blood ..."
"With blood?" Frank asked.
"She had to hunt. She had to eat. At first, just chickens. A dog,n a cat. Every night she changed, she needed more. She needed the food of the Minotaur."
"What's that?" Frank asked.
"Young children. Boys. Girls. Not adults. And she started turning more, no longer a night here or a night there, but every night. And before long, it may become permanent. Or not. We don't know."
"My parents ... My sister ... Lily always forgot in the morning, but at night, she knows who she is. I've been trying to remind her ... She gets angry. Afraid of what she is. And now. She's been remembering it. Here and there. She's becoming who she is. She's beginning to accept. Isn't that right Lily?"
Frank turned to look at Lily, only instead of the girl he had walked into the woods with, he was looking at a girl who was half bull, half girl. Her face was mostly the same, but she had horns growing out of her head. Her legs and feet were those of a bull, and she even had a tail.
Behind her stood an even larger creature, a man whose features resembles a bull. He even had a bull's snout. His torso though was human, and his arms.
Jane was standing next to Lily. At least that was the first impression that Frank had. And then he realized Jane wasn't standing, she was being held up, by Lily. And she had stopped being alive sometime during Claire's story, and had become a buffet for Lily.
Frank's mouth moved. He wanted to scream, but a soft singing stopped him. He turned and stared at Claire, falling into a trance.
"Come with me," Claire sang, and he followed her, deeper into the woods. There was a pond there.
"My days on land have come to an end. I have to return to water, but I'm taking you with me. There's an underwater stream that will take my mom and me back to the sea, it's a long trip. We'll get hungry.
Stepping into the water, her legs became find, and she slid under, pulling Frank with her. In his trance, he continued to see Claire as beautiful. When her mother came along side her, he only saw beauty in her as well. He never saw the sharp teeth that deformed their mouths, and he didn't flinch when Claire put her mouth over his, sealing his breath so he would survive under water ... At least until they decided to enjoy their meal.
Claire turned to her dad. "I'll see you next year dad. And you too Lily. I love you .,. Even if right now you don't much like me."
"I ... I love you too," Lily said. "Why wouldn't I?"
"She'll be ok," their mother said. "As she becomes more of who she is. She's Minotaura now. Fully so.
Then the two Sirens dove under water, their meal in tow.
Chief Evans ran to the woods as fast as he could. He lost sight of the Minotaur and his daughter. When he got there, he searched the woods, but there was nothing or no one to be found. For weeks, search parties would comb the woods, looking for some sign of the missing children. They were never found. And while no other kids went missing that year, a constant dread hung over the town, as if it were waiting for the monster in the woods to return.