The Killer in the
I first became acquainted with the Killer in the Woods when I was six years old. I spent the summer with my grandparents in their post-war house on the Chesapeake Bay swimming and reading comic books. I was utterly fearless in those days, only having the occasional run-in with a neighborhood bully or a scary insect, the dread dissipating with the dawning of a new day.
One evening I headed back to the house across the lawn away from the tree line, where I had spent the afternoon constructing a barracks out of stones for my plastic army figures. In the gloaming I could see the figure of my grandfather stand quickly from the lawn chair where he had been smoking and watching me play. The sky was rapidly darkening. Darting his eyes furtively at the billowing trees and bushes, he ushered me inside.
“Son, son, son,” he said in his swift Southern accent, “you knows Granddaddy loves you and wants you to be safe.”
I nodded apprehensively.
“Y’have to always make sure you lock this here back door at night.”
I looked to where he was pointing, and for the first time observed the series of locks that ran up the length of the door. There was a lock on the doorknob, followed by two deadbolts, and a chain at the top. “As a last resort,” my grandfather explained, as he clicked each lock into place. He unlocked them again and had me repeat the process.
Lowering his voice, he glanced over his shoulder at my grandmother, who was lilting around the kitchen, preparing dinner.
“There’s a killer out thar in them woods,” he whispered, “and he’ll get in here if he can and kill us all in our sleep for no reason at all.”
I didn’t sleep that night.
As the summer progressed, I learned to live with the onerous presence of him. I played a little closer to the house after that, looking over my shoulder at the trees periodically. Observing my grandfather’s behavior, it became apparent that he would relax after the door was locked. He would breathe a sigh of relief, then head over to my grandmother in the kitchen, hug her and smooth her hair as she moved between the counters cooking. It seemed as though she didn’t know about him and my grandfather was trying to keep the impending doom from her mind.
He was deterred not just by the impediment of the door, apparently, but also by the concept of safety itself. Any time I saw the immense flash of a silhouette creeping by the windows as I lay in bed, I would focus on the series of locks, and instantly the shadows would retreat. Through the long nights all I could hear was the ticking clock in the sitting room, the wind coming across the Chesapeake, the high keen of the trains bound for Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
The only bad nights for us were when my grandmother was out of town. She would take frequent trips, bus tours I was told, and my grandfather and I would be alone. During the day he shied away from me while she was away, and I could hear him through the heating grates down in the basement, pacing and smoking and mumbling quiet mantras. I tried to be silent, but if I made any noise, if the floor creaked under my knees, I could hear him pause, and after a few moments would return to his routine.
On one such occasion, he came quickly up the stairs and spoke to me from the door of his bedroom.
“Son, what are you doin’ thar?” he asked nervously.
I had scrambled onto his squeaky bed, sitting cross-legged on his pillows, and was carefully applying the stickers I had won at the carnival that I had been saving all summer. They were glow-in-the-dark depictions of fearsome clawed and fanged fire-breathing dragons. They seemed a pretty safe protection against anything, even him. I awkwardly explained my idea.
“I loves you, Grandson,” he said, scooping me up and hugging me. I slept next to him in his starkly tidy room that night. Not long after the lights had been extinguished I could hear his breath, steady and even, rising up next to me, and I felt safe in the thought that we would have no threats that night. I stared up at the headboard, watching the radiant dragons patrolling above us.
As my life progressed I only thought about him on rare occasions, worrying instead about money and girls and how my hair looked. Occasionally I would find myself waking up in the night to check that my doors were locked, but I always fell immediately back to sleep after finding that all was well. I thought about my family less as well, knowing they could take care of themselves.
I was driving out west on summer break after my sophomore year in college and decided to pay a visit to my grandparents. I called them from a payphone on the New Jersey Turnpike.
“Hello?” said the timid voice of my grandmother through the tinny receiver.
“Hey Grandmother, it’s me,” I said.
There was a pause.
“I don’t know you,” she said, sounding uneasy.
“It’s Ben,” I said louder, thinking the connection was bad.
“I don’t know you,” she repeated nervously. “Bye-bye.”
“It’s Ben . . . your grandson!” I shouted.
“Bye-bye!” she said loudly, hanging up.
A few hours later I arrived at their house. My grandfather was sitting in the lawn chair in the backyard smoking. He looked surprised to see me, but also relieved. The fact that he recognized me settled the vague fear in the back of my mind. I asked him where my grandmother was.
“She had to go out of town,” he said quickly.
Although my grandfather had aged in appearance since I had last seen him, he was still as healthy and agile as ever. He had grown up the son of a poor tenant farmer in North Carolina and worked hard his entire life. In the past he would tell me about his upbringing in a calm, passive way, even converting the abuse he had suffered into important life lessons, like being locked inside the tobacco-drying barn for twenty-four-hour shifts to tend the fires. My great-grandfather, the colossal brute who stared out from an ancient yellow photograph in the sitting room with dead scowling eyes beneath flaring, owlish eyebrows, seemed to have made it the central goal in his life to show his son how hard life was. One of his favorite “lessons” was to put my six-year-old grandfather on the roof of the henhouse, and tell him to jump off into his outstretched arms.
“And just as soon’s I’d leapt into the air, he’d step back and let me fall into the dirt,” my grandfather said. “And then he’d tell me, quick as greased lightning, ‘You see, son, not no one gonna catch you but youself.’”
I don’t think my grandfather was looking for pity by describing these kinds of scenarios, but rather seemed to be trying to impart the wisdom onto me, though he hadn’t the stomach to torture me himself.
I had also listened as a child to his tales of his service in the navy. As a medic during World War II, he had seen his share of death and disease, and even contracted tuberculosis, which for some reason remained encapsulated inside his body without killing him. He would hold up his forearm and point to the blue veins poking through the skin.
“Death has already made its way in there, planted the seeds and hoed the rows,” he said. “He’s waitin’ down in thar.”
Inside the house things had aged far worse than my grandfather, even with Death gardening inside his bloodstream. A fine dust settled over everything. The corners were filled with cobwebs and newspapers. The only clean space in the house was a little table where my grandfather had been cutting up old I.D.s and bills, clipping out key information with a pair of old scissors and rusty razor blade. In one corner of the table a small pile of social security numbers, birth dates, and PINs awaited their execution in the furnace. I looked at the curtains, which were shut tightly, the top of each clipped together with a clothespin. My grandfather followed my gaze.
“To keep them from looking in,” he explained.
The kitchen was full of dirty dishes, so I accepted his offer to buy me lunch. We went to his favorite old diner, where he sat in a booth smoking and drinking coffee as I wolfed down a club sandwich. I brought up my grandmother again, but he hastily changed the subject.
“Y’know, a few years ago, I dropped your grandmother off at the Seafood Dealer,” he began, taking a deep drag off his cigarette. “I wanted to smoke, but of course I knew somebody’d get offended if I did it then and thar. So I crossed the sidewalk, then the parking lot, across two lanes of traffic, then cross a half a mile of open field, all the way to the edge of the wood. And do you know what happened next? Granddaddy was minding his own business, when this woman, big as life itself, come along the sidewalk pushing a big ol’ baby carriage.”
He paused for dramatic effect, inhaling another puff of his smoke.
“She actually come across the sidewalk, down through the parking lot, through four lanes of speeding traffic, over the half-mile of open field, all the way to the edge of the wood. And why did she endanger her baby’s life and hers? ‘I don’t appreciate you smokin’ in front of my baby, sir!’ In front of her baby! So I says, ‘Lady . . .’”
I had heard the story in its various incarnations throughout my entire life. The half-mile of field was a new addition, and I could vividly see the immense woman in a flowery gown bumping the carriage along the furrows of the field, daggers for eyes pointed at my grandfather.
He asked me what I was reading at the moment and I told him. He nodded, and then added his suggestions. He was an erudite man and favored tragic tales, which he had narrated to me, comparing his own life with the ill-fated hero. From a very young age, I knew by heart the disastrous lives of Othello and Francis Macomber and Chicken George.
As soon as we arrived at the house and were securely inside, my grandfather asked me to lock the door. I snapped each one into place.
“There’s a killer out there in them woods,” he said in a nervous tone, “and he’ll come inside and kill us all in our sleep for less than a wooden nickel.”
Just as I had fifteen years before, I lay awake that night and listened to the ticking clock and wailing trains.
Things fell apart quickly over the next few years. My grandmother ended up institutionalized full time after the slow mental decline sped up and could no longer be ignored. Shortly after she was taken out of the house my grandfather fell down the basement stairs and broke his hip, then died. After my father’s untimely death, it fell to me to take over my grandmother’s affairs. I went to see her in the nursing home not long after the funerals.
“I don’t know you,” she told me when I was first seated in the sunny rec room with her. She was wearing clothes that didn’t belong to her. The sweatshirt had a large tomato sauce stain on the front. After talking to her soothingly for a little while, fear began to smolder in her eyes. “I thought you died,” she hissed.
After she died I became the personal representative of the estate, and one of the first orders of business was to sell the old house. I hadn’t been back in several months, so I was surprised to see that the house looked less haunted than I expected. The lawn was mowed, the hedges and kudzu were clipped back. A friendly neighbor was helping to keep up the appearances of normalcy. His boat sat in the driveway like a beached whale. The dark shadow of Death had nowhere left to hide and was invisible in the neighborhood.
It took ten minutes to get inside. Upon being named executor, I was handed an enormous key ring. None of the more than thirty keys were labeled, so I had to try each in the series of well-worn locks, including a new deadbolt that must have been added some time shortly before my grandfather died.
The façade broke down inside the house. Junk covered every surface. Stains of food and feces and blood marked the walls and carpet. It looked like a still life testament to the madness of a death in motion, a body caught in midair tumbling down a stairwell, a mirror reflecting weak human struggle, reminding how close one’s own demise is. The I.D. eradication workstation was still set up, and a moldy cup of coffee trembled next to a little pile of numbers as I walked by.
It was a mistake anyone could have made, even with my decades of training. Years later now, I wonder if subconsciously I did it on purpose. That evening, for the first time since 1947 when the house was built, the door was left unlocked.
I was sitting at the grimy kitchen table watching the sun set over the Chesapeake Bay as I looked around the desiccated hull of the house. The kitchen tile was filthy, the ceiling plaster was peeling, the white metal cabinets were rusting. I wondered how so much degradation could occur in so short a span of time. My grandparents had lived together in an anxious balancing act for years, it was true, and if my grandfather had not broken his hip, they might never have been exposed. The house could have been this way for a long time. Maybe I had been blinded by childhood memory. My feelings of sadness and loss were tempered by the practical realization of how long it would take to clean everything out.
I washed a sticky mug and made some tea from the cupboard that smelled like wet cardboard and tasted like dust. Sipping it gingerly, I watched the steam rise. The only audible sounds were a distant seagull, a train whistle, and the beating of my heart. I tried to ignore the creeping dark feelings in my mind.
I could feel his presence even before he entered. The knob turned shakily, the door burst open, and in a flash he stood before me. After decades of waiting, the Killer in the Woods entered the house.
He was not merely tall, but rather seemed to fill whatever space he entered like a gas. He had to duck to fit under the arch leading from the foyer to the dining room. His meaty shoulders bloated the trench coat he wore, the ragged bottom hems crawling out like tentacles at his feet. He brushed by the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and the light bulbs were swept off like leaves, falling and shattering on the dining room table. In his hands he held various weapons. In one a sharp knife gleamed. Another held a huge sawed-off shotgun. Yet another had a sinister length of rope, and a fourth held a bottle of something dark and viscous. A fifth arm simply clutched the air menacingly, presumably prepared to strangle a sleeping victim.
For a moment he just stood motionless and looked at me, gnashing his teeth and grimacing maliciously. I sat frozen with the mug pressed to my lips as if I was kissing it. There was something vaguely familiar about his face, or several familiar things, a composite of parts that phased, blurred at the edges.
I was scared to death, of course, in the presence of the titan, but it was augmented by a palpable external fear, as if it was a substance pressing against me, trying to permeate my skin. A nagging feeling of immaturity swelling inside me. I couldn’t get over how odd it was that a fully-grown man could instantly be transported into the state of a child. I had sat at that table as a kid, and at that moment, despite all the worldly knowledge and facial hair I had acquired, felt no different than that spirited little boy.
The Killer in the Woods squeezed his bulk into the tiny kitchen and glowered over me but, despite his threatening stance, still did nothing. He seemed to be waiting. I didn’t know what to do either, and my heart was pounding in my chest. The external fear pressed against me, and I could feel the bubble of anxiety from within swelling to meet it. Every sleepless night, every phobia, every mild worry I ever had grew to an immense size, and my breath caught in my throat. With all of my effort I shoved the fear down into me.
A few minutes of silence lapsed. He had not moved. I was shaking, but I needed to move things along somehow, burst the bubble or let it consume me. I couldn’t stand the waiting any longer.
“Have a seat,” I said as bravely as possible, pushing the chair opposite me away from the table with the toe of my shoe. Without looking away, he slumped into the chair in an impossible feat of physics.
Slouching over the table, towering above me, his yellow fangs dripped saliva onto the surface of the table, into my mug, onto the floor in huge slow drops, running across my forearms and into my shoes. The tendrils of his trench coat began creeping along the walls, floor, and ceiling, encasing us in a cocoon of moldy cloth. The decorative plates fell from the walls in a hail of plaster, shattering on the linoleum. He held his weapons aloft, one at a time, as if he was presenting them to me. I should have been afraid, and I was, but not of Death, only of him, even though there was something about his bearing that suggested he wasn’t even capable of using his arsenal. It almost seemed like he was scared of the objects himself, or that he wanted to get rid of them. I was puzzled.
“Yes, I see,” I said, as he held the knife towards my throat, the tip poking a neat hole in the surface of my skin.
His eyes, though pointed toward me, seemed softer than the rest of him. The dark shark-like pupils underneath the owlish eyebrows didn’t seem homicidal or even angry. They seemed tired. He looked exhausted, even as he shook with rage, clicking the hammer of the shotgun into place, stabbing the end of the knife into the tabletop. The drool ran in long rivulets across his jowls, the trench coat continued its absorption of the room, knocking dishes and utensils off the counters. And yet his eyes, giant and lolling, looked pained. He didn’t speak but looked pleadingly at me.
“He died,” I said. The trench coat tendrils paused and withdrew a little. He stabbed the table harder now, the rope crept out of his hand and wrapped around my neck.
My internal bubble of fear rippled and expanded to meet him, but I pushed my hardest against it as anger rose up inside me. My air cut off, I struggled against the fear, shaking and pushing, almost as if I was giving birth.
“They’re all dead!” I gasped. “It’s OK! You don’t need to be here any more! You’re free to leave!”
For the first time, the Killer in the Woods broke his gaze and sank his head, the tired old shark eyes closing to slits. The strangling hand reached toward my throat, but finally shuddered and unclenched into a flat palm a foot across, the dirty jagged talons dragging through the saliva on the table, and it came to rest gently on top of my own. Silently, the bubble of fear that had filled the room popped and dissipated.
I could see how broken down he was. He hadn’t just been waiting outside since my childhood, or even since the house had been built. He was there lurking when my grandfather leapt off the henhouse roof into space. He was in the naval barracks as my grandfather struggled to save lives, absorbing diseases into himself. He was there when he tumbled down the stairs. He was there when my grandmother died. He was there when my father died. He was even there along the tree line when the mother came to hassle my grandfather about smoking.
“You’re free to leave,” I repeated, rubbing my bruised neck and gently patting the massive filthy paw on the table. I felt fearless. Slowly, the trench coat retracted across the room back to the Killer in the Woods. He laboriously stood, and a look, perhaps not of serenity, but more of relief, spread over his face. Slowly he turned and squeezed out the door, softly closing it behind him.
I set down the mug of dusty tea and shook the drool off of me like a wet dog. The walls and floor were slippery and covered with plaster and broken dishes, but I ignored it. I was tired, and beginning to clean out the house could wait for the morning. I headed automatically toward the door to lock it, but then thought better of it. It was unnecessary. He wouldn’t be back, certainly not that night.
My old bed in the guest room was filled with soiled clothing and broken glass, so I went into my grandfather’s room, which was dusty but still immaculately organized. I slipped out of my soggy clothes and threw them into a pile on the floor. Lying down on top of the blankets, I turned out the light and fell asleep deeply beneath the dragons that, despite losing their luminosity, still stood in a protective arc, flexing their claws and exhaling long curls of flame.
Richard Radford’s fiction has appeared in The Ampersand Review, Pear Noir!, Bartleby Snopes, Hackwriters, and Hearsay. His journalistic work has been printed in myriad newspapers and websites. His hobbies include excessive reading, cooking, and hiking. Currently Richard lives in Juneau, Alaska, and can be reached via email: raradfordATgmail.com