Tan and Sal

Tan kept wak­ing up in the for­est. He was sure it was his step-sis­ter’s fault.

If only Sal could have been nor­mal, then maybe Tan might have stood a chance. Their  mad­ness might have made sense if they’d shared his moth­er’s genes — high-strung and always ready to snap. But their father was as plain as could be. Sol­id job, drove a Vol­vo, always so calm, even now as he came to the end. There didn’t appear to be a trace of him in either of them.

Tan was only a baby when Sal’s delu­sions start­ed. He always felt that she blamed him. But then you could­n’t expect any log­ic or ratio­nal thought from Sal. She was fif­teen when she took Tan from his cot and dis­ap­peared for twelve hours. Their father final­ly found them in the park. She was cradling Tan under a mag­no­lia tree and gig­gling furi­ous­ly, her long white dress caked in mud, her arms and legs scratched by bram­ble. They brought her back home and sent her to her room where she imme­di­ate­ly passed out, exhaust­ed. But then in the mid­dle of the night the crash­ing and shout­ing began. She turned her room upside-down, clothes thrown out of the shat­tered window. 

“It’s here,” she mut­tered. “It fol­lowed me back from the for­est. I can see it in the cracks. It wants me to suffer.”

At first, they thought it must be drugs. Drink, perhaps—and that would all come in time. There had to be some expla­na­tion, it all seemed so out of character.

That was how it began for Sal. They ground­ed her for a month, chalked it up to teenage hor­mones. Tan came out of it fine—he was a robust lit­tle baby—but it was a scare. And after­ward she had been all right for a long while. She had done well at school. Gone to Art Col­lege. Had sev­er­al musi­cian and actor boyfriends that nev­er last­ed. Then she start­ed to van­ish for days at a time. She was an adult, though. What could they do? She dropped out of Col­lege and failed to hold down a string of low-paid jobs. 

Tan didn’t under­stand it until he hit sev­en­teen. That sum­mer he had his heart bro­ken and found him­self deep in the for­est for the first time.

For him, it start­ed with dark move­ments in the cor­ner of the room. Strange, dis­em­bod­ied voic­es. The feel­ing that there was anoth­er world around the cor­ner if he could just push through the fab­ric of this one, if he could just learn to look at things dif­fer­ent­ly. When the sad­ness caught up with him, when the pain began to over­take him, moss start­ed to grow on the walls of his room or huge ferns would spring up in the cor­ri­dors of his Col­lege. Long, snaking lianas would reach out to him like ten­drils at Swim Club. Things would go hazy, the first creep­ing vine would wrap around his foot and he would be gone, back to the for­est, back to walk alone until inevitably he reached the swamp where it would lever itself out of the mud­dy waters and drag itself towards him. There was no escape once you were in the for­est, no alter­na­tive route. God knew he’d tried. Every path led to the swamp and there was no way home until the thing had tak­en its fill. 

Nat­u­ral­ly, Tan assumed his mind was going, just like Sal. He tried to tell his moth­er, but she gabled some­thing about his over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion and shut down right before his eyes. Sal was the only one who could under­stand, but right when he need­ed her, Sal van­ished again.

It had all slow­ly unrav­elled for her. There had been the inci­dent with the injured fox she’d tak­en in; then she’d tried to break into the bear pen at the zoo… and then she’d gone. A month this time. His par­ents had list­ed her as miss­ing, and the Police briefed to pre­pare for the worst. But Tan had tak­en his father’s car and found her squat­ting in a log cab­in at the edge of town, half-fer­al, like some kind of crea­ture of the woods. Ram­bling the whole time about the thing in the cracks. 

He’d brought her home, tried to clean her up, but she was a mess.

“What hap­pened, Sal?” he asked, hop­ing against hope for a straight answer.

“Same thing as ever, lit­tle broth­er. Same thing as ever. It took me away for a while, that’s all.”

“It?”

Sal tilt­ed her head and looked at him from the cor­ner of her eye. There was a slight upturn at the cor­ner of her mouth which he could almost con­vince him­self was the begin­nings of a smile.

“Oh, you know. You know, don’t you lit­tle broth­er? You’ve seen it by now, I’m sure. Pain, Tan. Pain and dis­tress open the thresh­old to its lair. Don’t you feel it? When you’ve been kicked around by life just enough and the cor­ners start to get dark and those things start to crawl their way across the floor. And then you’re there.

Tan was going to deny it for a half-sec­ond, but then he sighed. “The for­est. Is that what you see?”

Sal nod­ded. “The for­est. The dark for­est, the fall­en, rot­ted trees. The moss hang­ing heavy and low, the vines. And-”

“And the swamp.”

“It’s… more like a black pool of oil. The sheen of the light com­ing through the canopy. Flash­es of rain­bow. I won­der some­times, what would hap­pen if I sim­ply jumped in?”

Tan flexed and unflexed his hands. “But it won’t let you, right? You want to fall into the void but it holds you there, bal­anc­ing on the edge.”

“And then it comes.”

“And then it comes. Long ten­drils inch out towards you from that huge mass of sludge and weed, emerg­ing from the water-”

“And after, you wake up, and every­thing is bet­ter. For a while.”

Tan bit his lip and sat down in the wide arm­chair. His eyes flicked to the cor­ners of the room where the shad­ows were grow­ing dark­er. He looked up into his sister’s face and saw her look of seren­i­ty. Or was it res­ig­na­tion? The shad­ows crept fur­ther toward him.

“So?” he snapped. “So we share the same delu­sion. You prob­a­bly put the idea in my head when I was younger. You real­ly messed me up, you know.”

“It’s real,” Sal said and rolled up her sleeve. Her fore­arm was cov­ered in deep red welts, as though she had been lashed. “This is where it grips me.”

“They’re just track marks, Sal. Nee­dle pricks and infec­tions from dirty nee­dles. That’s all.”

“Real­ly? Well, then why don’t you show me your arms, my saint­ly lit­tle brother?”

Tan rolled up his own sleeve, looked at his own scars and then looked away.

“I don’t know what I know. But what does it mat­ter? What do you want me to do about it?” Tan’s eyes flicked to the cor­ners of the room, things were mov­ing in the shad­ows. Sal fol­lowed his gaze. “I see it, too,” she said. “The creep­ing vines, com­ing for you, drip­ping with black water. Spi­der­web­bing their way up the walls, fine enough to be cracks in the plas­ter at a distance.”

“I can’t help you, Sal. I’m not strong enough. We’re not strong enough. I can’t go there and fight it with you.”

“Fight it? Fight it?” Sal laughed in his face and Tan shrank back into his chair. “Oh, my poor lit­tle broth­er. I didn’t realise. You don’t know, do you? At first, I thought it want­ed me to suf­fer, too. I thought it want­ed me to feel pain, I thought it want­ed to hurt me. But that’s not right, Tan. It heals.”

The dark­ness closed in on them and they were gone again.

#

“Sal? Sal, are you here?” 

Tan walked through the for­est. The trees were long, straight things that shot a hun­dred feet up into the air like mis­siles. Pines? Red­woods? He didn’t know. They blot­ted out the sun and below all was shad­ow where moss cov­ered the ground and ferns grew tall. The place had a primeval feel, insects buzzed around his head and mois­ture dripped from bark and leaves. The ground was mud­dy under­foot. He walked, but he knew it didn’t mat­ter which direc­tion he took.

“Tan?”

He heard Sal’s voice off to the left. It wasn’t urgent, or loud. It was calm and beck­on­ing. He fol­lowed it into a small clear­ing and stopped dead. He opened and closed his mouth a few times as he took it all in.

“Sal? Sal… what is this?”

“Well, what does it look like, lit­tle broth­er? Come inside.”

Sal stood on the porch of the log cab­in and held the door open. The cab­in was furred with green lichen, ivy wrapped its beams and through its open win­dows. It almost melt­ed into the for­est and he could have walked past it if he hadn’t seen his sis­ter. It shouldn’t have been there, not in that place. Wher­ev­er the for­est exist­ed, it was not a place for hous­es, cab­ins, huts, or sheds. Not a place for a human to dwell

Inside, Sal ges­tured for him to take a wick­er chair. He stood.

“I don’t under­stand. Where did this come from? Who built it?”

built it, sil­ly. It helped me. I’ve spent so much time here, that it want­ed me to be comfortable.”

“Why?”

“I told you, it heals. Now come on, you know there’s no oth­er way out of here than through. Let’s go find the swamp.”

The walk to the swamp could be twen­ty paces or it could be ten miles. It was always the worst part. With every step, his head seemed to grow heav­ier, his legs stiff­ened and his mind became hazy. All the thoughts would crowd back in. The thoughts that had first brought the dark­ness on. If he was angry, the rea­son for his anger would frac­ture, mul­ti­ply, exag­ger­ate and mag­ni­fy. If he was lovesick, the object of his affec­tion would scorn him from the tree­line, would laugh in his face and dis­miss him a hun­dred­fold. The greater the injury, the longer the walk. Sal had been gone for a month, and he won­dered how much of that time she’d spent walk­ing through the woods alone.

They reached the swamp after an hour, or so he guessed. It was dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late time in the forest. 

The oily sur­face glis­tened at their feet and they waited.

“So… I’m sup­posed to just go on like this? For the rest of my life? Can’t we… do something?”

“The swamp isn’t the cause of my ill­ness, Tan. It isn’t even a symp­tom. It’s the cure.”

“You could try-”

“Med­ica­tion? Ther­a­py? Maybe they would work, maybe they wouldn’t. I know this works. It’s a gift, lit­tle broth­er. You have to embrace it.”

The dark mass broke the black sur­face and slow­ly rose from the depths. An acrid smell came with it, part rot­ting veg­e­ta­tion part sul­phur. The thing didn’t have eyes, a nose, a face or any recog­nis­able body part. It was an amor­phous mass that rolled and changed and crawled its way for­ward. When it grew close enough, a gap­ing hole opened at its cen­tre, and sludge-cov­ered ten­drils emerged, cov­er­ing the ground. They crawled toward him and latched onto his arms, hold­ing him in place. There was a yawn­ing sound like a huge iron door swing­ing open and the drain­ing began.

#

Tan came round, the ring­ing of a great bell tolling in his ears. 

His phone. Just his phone.

His moth­er screeched down the line, hys­ter­i­cal. He looked around but couldn’t see Sal anywhere.

“He’s going, Tan. Your father. Where the hell are you? Get to the hos­pi­tal, now.”

“Is Sal there?”

“Sal? No, of course not. Don’t be ridicu­lous. That’s the last thing he needs now, to have her upset­ting him.”

“Sal should be there.”

“Shut up Tan. Just get your­self here. It’s bad enough you doing what­ev­er the hell it is you do. God, the two of you…” She said, voice strain­ing and crack­ing, “What did he do to deserve two such…such…”

Tan hung up. She was right. What had his father ever done to deserve them?

He wrapped his huge, wax leather jack­et around him­self for warmth. It was his one prize pos­ses­sion. His father had passed it on before the ill­ness start­ed to waste him away. Tan couldn’t imag­ine him wear­ing it, it seemed to hint at a dif­fer­ent man, some­where back in the past. 

An hour lat­er, his moth­er met him out­side the hos­pi­tal smok­ing a cig­a­rette. She looked ter­ri­ble. She’d lost weight, she was pale, and her hair was stringy and unkempt. She gave him the room num­ber but bare­ly spoke. She would­n’t meet his eyes and would­n’t come in with him.

The nurse caught up to him along the cor­ri­dor. She was a small woman who seemed to be car­ry­ing the weight of the world on her shoulder. 

“Your father, I’m sor­ry. It’s only a mat­ter of hours. You should pre­pare your­self. He is not con­scious or aware of his sur­round­ings, but it would bring him com­fort to hear your voice.”

“Thank you,” Tan said. It did­n’t seem any­where enough. 

She ush­ered him in and Tan looked around the room. His father was alone. He looked tiny in the pris­tine bed. He took a seat and held his father’s hand. The machines beeped rhyth­mi­cal­ly, and he began to feel his eye­lids droop.

The room, bright white and spot­less before, seemed to dark­en, as though some­one had hit the dim­mer switch. Tan blinked and the room grew bright again.

His father groaned and his eyes opened slightly.

“Tan.” It was a voice that had been sandblasted.

“Here, Dad. I’m here.” 

“Where is Tan?” The voice was a growl. The room closed in on him. Not now. Not now. This was not how he want­ed to remem­ber his father, not as one of his episodes.

“I’m here, Dad. It’s me.” 

“What did you do with Tan? Sal, where is Tan? You stu­pid lit­tle girl.” 

Deliri­ous, he must be deliri­ous. His moth­er said this might hap­pen. He was lost in time somewhere. 

“Dad? Dad? What are you talk­ing about?”

His father coughed and groaned and fid­get­ed, as though his body and mind were fight­ing each oth­er. A smile came over his face and his voice became smoother. “The pain. It’s gone. Heqet heals me.”

Tan wrin­kled his brow. “Heqet? Is that what they’ve got you on? Some kind of painkiller?”

“In a man­ner of speak­ing. Heqet. God­dess of the swamp.”

Tan’s stom­ach lurched. “The swamp?”

His father did­n’t hear him, or if he did, he ignored him. “When Sal was born I became the dullest man I could imag­ine. No highs, no lows. I did­n’t find myself at the swamp for twelve whole years. And then… and then Sal start­ed to… well, you know. Then it was both of you. You’re only as hap­py as your sad­dest child.”

Tan clasped his father’s hand and tried not to look into the cor­ners of the room. His voice rose, as if try­ing to scare the grow­ing shad­ows away.

“You know about the thing in the swamp and you did­n’t tell us? What is it? Sal says it heals her, but that can’t be-”

His father shook his head slow­ly. His bot­tom lip hung thick and puffy in one cor­ner of his mouth. His eyes were bare­ly there any more.

“Not heal… it just takes the pain away, but it takes some­thing else, too. For Sal, it’s her san­i­ty. Every time it heals her, it takes a lit­tle more. And the more it takes, the more often Sal finds her­self back in the for­est. For me, it’s my health. I’ve tried to fight it, but the pain… it can be unbear­able, and that’s when I find myself going back there. But when it takes the pain, the tumour grows a lit­tle bit larg­er. What it’ll be for you… I don’t know.”

Tan looked at his father, ema­ci­at­ed and winc­ing in pain with every move­ment and every breath.

“Can… can I stop it at all?”

His father shook his head, his voice fad­ed to a whis­per. “The God­dess must have tribute.”

Tan focused on his father’s face. He could sense the room fad­ing away, he could feel the cool, air of the for­est on his face and the green smell of veg­e­ta­tion eddy­ing through the hos­pi­tal room. If he just focused on his father’s face, it would­n’t take him. Not here, not in his father’s last moments. 

He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again and the bed—formerly aus­tere, hospital-regulation-basic—had grown, had become some­thing liv­ing. A great tree, spread­ing its branch­es and wrap­ping around his father, cradling him. A look of peace crossed his father’s face, he reached out and took hold of Tan’s hand. The bed seemed to move and Tan watched as a great branch grew before his eyes, through the wall and straight through the ceil­ing. It punched a hole and the room jud­dered, plas­ter rained down on the bed. His father smiled and they were gone, deep in the for­est, stand­ing togeth­er at the edge of the swamp. 

“Heqet,” his father said and the sur­face of the water broke. The lump of mud and veg­e­ta­tion that was the Swamp God­dess wait­ed. “Heqet, this will be my final trib­ute. I am going to die.”

The mass seemed to weigh this up for a moment.

“My son does not wish to pay you trib­ute any longer.”

Heqet began to vibrate gen­tly and advance towards them at a glacial but inex­orable pace. Tan felt his feet set in stone, the same way they always did. Wet ten­drils began to unfurl from the dark recess­es. His father began to chuck­le gently.

“I tried, son. But I told you, she hungers for more trib­ute.” He turned to him and smiled. “Good­bye, Tan.”

Heqet enveloped him in its creep­ing ten­drils and Tan could see the drain begin, he watched the life die in his father’s eyes and knew that the thing would nev­er be sat­is­fied, would nev­er have enough trib­ute of pain and suffering.

“Wait,” Tan said. “Wait. I can lead more here to you… I can lead them to this swamp—people in pain, peo­ple in despair, peo­ple suf­fer­ing. I will be your mis­sion­ary. I can bring you trib­ute if you leave my sis­ter and I alone.”

Heqet left his father in a heap on the shore of the swamp, his face sta­t­ic and half-buried in the mud. He was gone, motion­less, an emp­ty shell. A toy robot with its bat­ter­ies removed. Inan­i­mate. The mass oozed towards Tan then stopped, paused and slid back into the swamp. 

Tan woke to find he was clutch­ing his father’s cold hand. 

#

“It’s so good of you to do this,” the nurse said. She was a pret­ty young thing and Tan was work­ing up the courage to ask her out. “We get the occa­sion­al vol­un­teer. Usu­al­ly, there’s some ulte­ri­or motive. But not many choose end-of-life pal­lia­tive care. And I don’t know what you say to them or do, but they seem to bright­en up after you leave. They feel bet­ter, and their vitals improve, for a short time at least.”

“I just read to them, is all. Some­times I tell them sto­ries. It sounds sil­ly but… no.”

“Go on,” the nurse encour­aged him, plac­ing a hand on his shoulder.

“Well, my moth­er always told me when I was in pain to think of my hap­py place. When my sis­ter and I were grow­ing up, we used to spend a lot of time in the for­est and I guess I could describe just about every tree in that place, the log cab­in… the swamp. It was so calm, so qui­et, you know? I guess I can describe it so well that maybe it’s like being there for a short while at least. I hope they find it peaceful.”

What’s scarier than short horror fiction?

Miss­ing Out! Sign up to join 129 oth­ers and receive ter­ri­fy­ing con­tent in your inbox, every quarter.

We don’t spam! You don’t like spam, and nei­ther do we.

T. K. How­ell (he/him) lives on the banks of the Thames and man­ages ancient oak wood­lands and tends to trees that are old­er than most coun­tries. His writ­ing is often inspired by mythol­o­gy and folk­lore and can be found at var­i­ous genre and lit­er­ary spaces includ­ing Lucent Dream­ing, Mys­tery Mag­a­zine, Dark Horse and Indie Bites.

Leave a Reply