“Save me, Mary!”
Mary fell to her hands and knees in the soil and reached down to her screaming brother. She knew her brand new dress was ruined now, but she never liked it anyway.
“Can you grab my hand, Matthew?”
The boy jumped, arms stretched and palms white with strain, but his hands met only the moist and earthy walls of the ditch. He yelled, voice cracking, “Go get Daddy!”
“You shouldn’t have been playing near the big ditch! Mommy said so, Matthew! This is your fault!”
“I’m sorry!” The boy’s face was caked with filth now, the tears running down his cheeks leaving gaps like rivers.
“It’s gonna be dark soon! I can’t see anything!”
“Mary! Go find Daddy, quick! Please! Please!” Matthew’s knees buckled, and he wept, wiping his nose on his bare arm.
Mary stood up and brushed her long red hair out of her eyes. She was used to the responsibilities of an older sibling, despite her single-digit age. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the sunset, always a beautiful sight on her farm, a place free from the blinding street lamps of the city. She ran barefoot along the dusty trail leading back to her small house. It was already too dark for her to make out the tops of the tall trees surrounding the path and , twice, she nearly tripped over an embedded rock.
Daddy wasn’t home. Neither was Mommy.
Mary noticed their car was missing and realized that tonight was her parent’s weekly night out by themselves. She felt a void grow inside her. The cold sweat made her itch. Mary tried to remember where her Daddy kept that big coil of rope. She had seen him use it only the day before to move his horses through the fields. After he was done, she recalled, he had stowed it in the cellar. This thought made her slow down. She did not like the cellar: It was too empty, too dry.
Mary loved the warm, wet air of her farm. All of it except that cellar. But she knew she must be brave for Matthew.
The cellar doors looked older than the house, but the wood had not rotted away. Mary lifted one and climbed through the portal. She flicked the light switch, activating the solitary bulb dangling like a hanged man from the ceiling. It lit the vast variety of tools and equipment stored down here, some new and virtually spotless, some old and rusted over. She spied the rope lying an arm’s length away and gathered it up, when a voice said, “You can’t help him.”
Mary gave a small whimper, turning to the sound. There was something standing in the gap between the antique lawnmower and the shovel. Mary’s head hurt to look at it. It was many shapes at once and it extruded itself through Mary’s vision. She only gaped and tears started to form in her eyes. It smiled in front of Mary and past Mary. It said, slowly, “The rope will not help him. It is his time.” Its voice was many voices. And it was nonsense.
“Do not worry,” it said. “We will not harm you. You have never done anything wrong in your life. It is his time. It is not your fault. It was an accident.” It meshed with the geometry of the cellar and in an unquantifiable instant it was gone. Mary found her legs and ran. She did not stumble once running down the path.
Mary could barely see Matthew through the growing night, sitting prone at the bottom of the ditch, his knees brushing his hair. She called out to him, “Matthew, it’s OK! I found the rope!” She tied an end of it to a nearby tree and dropped the other end down to her brother. “Climb up!”
Matthew gave a sniff, nodded slowly, and started to climb just as something formed from many impossible directions around the two and coalesced at the bottom of the ditch behind the boy. It walked slowly to Matthew and touched his shoulder. He instantly dropped off the rope and turned to face it. It said, “It was too great a drop. Come Matthew, it is your time now.” Matthew nodded. Mary screamed. The unfathomable creature wrapped itself around the boy, small fibers twitching and writhing around his flesh, mingling, dancing. It was gone quickly. Matthew fell to his knees.
“No!” Mary shouted. She swung herself over the side of the ditch and slid down the rope. She reached for her brother just as he rolled over, almost a somersault, and she heard something break inside him, like a dry branch cracking. Matthew was lying on his side now, his head twisted in a wrong angle. He was pale. Mary screamed and screamed.
She didn’t know how long she spent in that ditch next to her dead brother. She found herself shuffling weakly along the path back to her house, moaning like an injured animal.
She was thinking about the creature, shifting itself around her brother. About watching the boy stumble headlong and fall for too long. She was thinking of its voice, that impossible voice, and she knew what it said and she did not understand.
When her parents pulled into the driveway, she was hunched over the abyss. She saw them scramble out of their seats to kneel down next to her.
“Mary, what’s wrong?” Her father cupped her shoulder gently. Her mother was already crying, as if she had known when it had happened. She said her dead brother’s name. Her father picked her up in his arms. She described the gaping wound in the earth where Matthew lay. Mary knew only brief flashes of the path as her parents, her family, ran as fast as they could, Mary dangling from her father’s arms.
And they were at the ditch, and Mommy looked down and could just make out the pale form of her baby boy, his neck twisted, still. She collapsed in the dirt and wailed. Daddy placed Mary on the ground beside him.
“How did it happen?” He spoke with great effort. Mary wiped her face on her dress and looked up at her father.
“Matthew fell in. I told him not to play there but he did anyway. I told him I would get help but you and Mommy were gone. I went into the cellar to get the rope-” Mary stopped here. She started crying again, and so did Daddy. Mary whispered, “There was something in the cellar. It wasn’t a person. It said that- it was awful, Daddy. It said that it was Matthew’s time. It said it was his time. And I ran back with the rope and Matthew nearly got out but it got him, Daddy, it got him and it killed him.” Mary was sobbing now. Daddy pressed his fingers to his jawline and looked at her. “Mary, this is no time for stories. Tell me what happened.” He spoke now with patience.
“But I did! I just did!”
Mary ran to her mother, and they curled and embraced together. Daddy walked slowly to the edge of the ditch and looked down.
He had warned both of them: the drop was fatal.