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(The introduction is about five minutes and the story immediately follows.)
He used to stare at the music box in his bedroom for long stretches of time, when he was very young, relaxing into the numbing and tranquilizing effect it had on him. Now, in the crisp night, striding vigorously along the walking path near the lagoon, Gibson Cooley could scarcely remember that childhood remnant from so many years ago. It came back to him in short flashes. For some reason, the rhythm of his steps prompted Gibson to recall that distant memory, and some bit of a lullaby his mother used to sing, along with the music box:
Out in the murky woods…
It was only hours ago that Mr. Crouch, Sr., from Crouch’s Critter & Pest Control Inc., broke the news to Gibson, that he had to let him go. Listening to his own breaths, loud in his ears, as he walked firmly, planting his feet with each step along the cement, he tried to cope with his anger due to that last-straw incident, the firing, causing his disillusionment. Another flash. He remembered her hands, his mother Maxine Cooley’s overdelicate fingers, winding the ornate, golden key at the back of the music box, to replay the gentle, tinkling song again. He must’ve been around three or four years old. And she sang, soothingly:
Out in the murky woods,
Approaching an impasse…
This calming memory, the only one Gibson seemed to be able to dredge up as a comfort, was abruptly and unwillingly interrupted by a cripplingly unpleasant one:
“Why are you always in here reading, Gibson?” His father, Kipp Cooley, had asked him, standing in the doorway of his bedroom. Gibson didn’t reply. “What’s that, a comic book?”
“Yeah, I-i-it’s Venom. He’s the–”
“Look at this,” Kipp interrupted, his demeanor ambiguously drunk, tired, and/or agitated, picking up one of Gibson’s books. “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” he read the title, mockingly. “Sounds like some geeky, weird shit.” Gibson’s eyes filled with tears as he quickly turned his head away from his father. “It’s time for your bath. C’mon, get in there and get out of this fuckin’ room for a while.”
When Gibson returned to his room, after he’d bathed himself, he noticed his music box, a gift that had been given to him by his mother years ago, lying in the trash can. He carefully picked it back out, noticing several cracks in the glass, and hid it under some stuffed animals on his bed.
Pulled from his reverie, Gibson ran right into a man, knocking his forehead against the man’s cheekbone.
“Aw, jeezus, what the fuck Dude!?” shouted the pissed-off passerby.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry– I didn’t see– I wasn’t even–” stammered Gibson, urgently, holding his hand to his head.
“Mother fucker! You busted me right in the face! God dammit!” The man fumed, scrunching and stretching his face and patting his fingers around his undereye.
“Baby, it was totally an accident. It’s okay. No big deal,” the man’s girlfriend quelled, as if she needed to prevent some kind of outburst she’d seen her boyfriend capable of having in the past.
“Yeah, seriously, I’m really sorry,” Gibson repeated.
“Wait…you’re that Cooley guy, right?” the man asked. Gibson blinked silently. “You went to Glen Falls High?”
“Uh…yeah…I-I thought I recognized you.” He had lied to the man. He didn’t just kind of think he remembered, Gibson had terribly vivid memories of the bully, even remembered his full name- Tucker Barlett. Gibson suddenly noticed a small splash and a ripple forming in the glassy, lagoon water, as if made by a startled fish.
“Well, you gotta watch where you’re walking, Bro-” As Tucker talked on, Gibson noticed the girlfriend’s long, blonde hair started to blacken at the tips. The color seemed to crawl upwards, until her entire head of hair was black. Gibson, shaken and confused, tried squeezing his eyes shut and open a few times, hoping this hallucinatory phenomenon would vanish. The girl’s hair now appeared slick and slimy. It separated into more than a half-dozen sections that began to float upwards, as seaweed would, suspended in water, yet neither of the couple seemed to be aware that any of this had happened. Paralyzed, Gibson’s unbelieving eyes watched one of the wet, tentacle-like tresses elongate and curl around Tucker’s throat.
“No…No…Stop…,” Gibson whispered, hoarsely. He turned away, cringing, then looked back. Everything had returned. The girl’s hair was as it was before. Gibson, bewildered and fearful, fled, barreling between the couple and down the path again. The two could be heard mumbling such things like, “…I don’t know…he was a weird dude in high school…” and “…yeah…gives me the creeps…”
Several minutes of talking himself down wasn’t sufficient to alleviate Gibson’s shock; he remained disturbed, his body permeated with tremmors. “There’s no way it was real,” Gibson spoke aloud, quietly, comforting himself. He wrapped his arms tightly across his body and continued his self-soothing whispers. “There’s a rational explanation for it. I’m stressed, that’s all it is. I’m just overwhelmed with everything. It’s no wonder. Maybe I can make an appointment to see someone. Calm down. Calm down.”
Involuntarily, his thoughts were transported back to his childhood bedroom again:
Gazing fixedly through the transparent music box, he watched the gears slowly revolve the pin-sprinkled cylinders that had the mesmerizing lullaby on them. Maxine stroked her son’s back, to relax him, and sang along:
Out in the murky woods,
Approaching an impasse,
One man spied another,
Lying on the grass.
Again, a splash and waning ripples in the lagoon startled Gibson. Instantly, another, forgotten, childhood memory invaded his mind:
His family had taken a trip to the zoo. Standing in awe at the massive, four-story Charybdis Aquarium, Gibson found it hard to move closer to the intimidating array of large sea creatures he was looking at.
“Look over there. Look at that badass octopus, Gib,” said Kipp Cooley.
“Yeah…woah,” Gibson replied in agreement.
“Or is that a squid?” Kipp mused, only partially interested. “Hell, I don’t know the damn difference. But that fucker sure is close to the glass. Why don’t you go see him?”
“No, no, I don’t want to,” Gibson said, scared.
“What are you, afraid?” Kipp began to push his son in that direction.
“No! I can’t go.”
“See, this is what your problem is,” Kipp began, coldly, as he picked up Gibson and started walking over to the animal. “Always so damn scared of everything, you’re never going to be able to handle anything.” Gibson screamed and pleaded with his father to stop, kicking and wriggling in his father’s overtight grasp. Kipp set the boy down, right in front of the monstrous-looking octopus in his acrylic cage.
“Go on. Face him. Square off,” Kipp commanded. Looking down at the blue, berber carpeting, Gibson froze. “I said step up!” Grabbing his son by the back of his head and lower back, Kipp shoved Gibson, who had squeezed his eyes shut, within an inch of the dark-colored, undulating tentacles. “Don’t close your fuckin’ eyes,” came Kipp’s low rasp, and he smashed Gibson’s face into his cold fear, his palm against the boy’s forehead and his fingers forcibly holding his eyelids open. Deep-red blood fell from Gibson’s nose and his mouth throbbed with a now-chipped tooth. He screamed that of a hundred screams, looking into the slitted eyes of the octopus who was also pushed up against the opposite side of the same aquarium wall. “Don’t be a pussy!” yelled Kipp.
Other patrons had turned to see the disturbing episode unfolding.
“What the hell are you doing!?” Maxine’s shriek pierced the tension, causing Kipp to let go of Gibson. He ran straight to his mother, who’d just returned from the concessions area. She dropped the soft drink and the red-white-and-blue snow cone she’d been holding and embraced her son as he bawled. “It’s ok, Sweetie; Mommy’s here. You’re safe now.”
“You stop that!” A man scolded his barking dog on the lagoon walking path, which had ended Gibson’s awful, aquarium memory, though its effects remained. He balled his fists in his coat pockets and punched them downwards.
As the man’s curious dog sniffed Gibson, he spotted, to his horror, a black, tentacled creature, slithering along the walkway. It’s wet skin made slathering, slupping noises as it crawled, reaching and pulling forward, one tentacle at a time. Gibson was not only consumed with fear, but also with rage. The evil-seeming creature pushed off the ground and floated upwards, leaving an oozing yet smoky substance in his wake. When it was about eye-level, Gibson could distinctly see its faceless body and long, thick, sinuous tentacles.
Suddenly, the octopus-like thing opened a mouth, filled with crowded, razor teeth, and released a powerful, wheezy growl. Without hesitation, then, Gibson lashed out, violently attacking the creature, landing a barrage of crippling punches, followed by countless, thudding kicks.
Stopping finally, trying to catch his breath, his rage subsided. He examined his surroundings. There was no sign of the creature any longer. The dog had fled, dragging its own leash. On the ground, was the man, battered, unconscious, his own blood pooling underneath him.
In a numbed, hazy flurry, Gibson shuffled through the next few hours. The police had been called by a nearby witness. Gibson faintly heard EMTs declare that the victim did still have a pulse. At some point, he was Mirandized, mug-shotted, and booked.
The next morning, Gibson received a visit from his mother, separated from her by a glass window with a slotted, metal circle in the middle. Her eyes made it apparent she’d been crying profusely. She had an extremely hard time finding any words to say to her son.
“Gibson…honey,” Maxine uttered, weakly. “Why…why did this happen? Why did you-” She cut her trembling sentence short, fighting further tears. There was a pause of a couple minutes.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Mom,” Gibson managed, ashamed. “I can’t explain- I’m so confused. Something’s happening-” Gibson wanted so many answers, but he decided to start somewhere. “Mom, I couldn’t remember…I mean…I started to remember…about Dad. What happened to-”
“Gibson, I’d just rather not talk about that man, Sweetheart,” Maxine interrupted, abruptly. The tip of a black tentacle crept onto the glass on his mother’s side. Gibson slapped both of his hands over his eyes.
“No. No. No. No. No. Stop. Stop. Please, stop,” Gibson said, hushed, into his palms. When he opened his eyes, he barely caught a glimpse of his mother’s back, walking out of the visiting room door. Only her black scarf was left behind on the back of the visitor’s chair.
The octopus-like creature then shifted into full view of the window. As much as Gibson had hoped he would never see it again, he had returned. It was as if it was floating in water, staring at Gibson, although faceless. Gibson whirled around and started pounding on the door, hollering for the guard to unlock it. When he looked over his shoulder, the dripping, blackened monster was now, somehow, on his side of the glass, hanging suspended in the air, tentacles swaying about randomly. Just as it had happened the night before, Gibson threw swings at the creature and, luckily this time, narrowly missed the guard. He was then isolated in a solitary jail cell.
Lights-out time came that night, and Gibson lay on his cold, uncomfortable mattress, alone in his cell. He didn’t know if he would ever be able to relax again. Running his fingers through his hair, a sweet memory with his mother came back to him, in its complete vividness:
Maxine tucked her son in his bed and then wound the music box key. Her fingertips brushed lightly over Gibson’s hair, temples, and eyebrows. He was crying, upset, and needed to be soothed. Gibson was so transfixed by the music box in the soft glow of his night light. The cylinders revolved and the pins plucking at the tiny, steel combs seemed to hammer out each individual note, slamming down after each strum. His mother’s singing was so angelic:
Out in the murky woods,
Approaching an impasse,
One man spied another,
Lying on the grass.
Said one man to the other,
“What makes you lie that way?”
But the other did not answer,
For he’d been dead since May.
“Goodnight, my sweet son,” Maxine whispered, and she left the bedroom.
Gibson tossed and turned restlessly. His eyes remained open, thinking, looking around his walls at nothing in particular. He thought he saw something swaying in the corner of his room.
Suddenly, shooting up from his cell mattress, it occurred to Gibson that he had seen that haunting creature before, in his bedroom, when he was young. A terrible series of vague flashes arrived in Gibson’s memory for the first time since they had apparently been repressed:
Kipp abusively berating and slapping both his son and his wife…
Gibson pushing his father, Kipp, down the stairs…
His mother gasping as she checked over her abusive husband’s lifeless body…
Maxine and Gibson alone in the woods with a shovel and a flashlight…
Maxine crying as she dug through and shoveled dirt, Gibson shining the flashlight on her work…
Gibson, rocking back and forth in his mother’s embrace, both crying, on the wet dirt in the dark forest…
Gibson listening intently as Maxine explains that they aren’t to speak about Daddy again and that God has made him disappear for being bad; he is not coming back…
Gibson gasped and threw his hands over his mouth. His eyes darted to the far corner of his cell. There was the thing of evil in his black, soaking-wet, seeping presence. It hissed, flashing a bit of its knife-like teeth. A splash of saliva poured from its mouth. He swam through the air over to the door of the cell. Two of the creature’s glistening, purple-black tentacles curled around the bars and, as if it had never been locked, eased open the door of the cell. He swam into the hallway and waited there a moment before he released a beckoning, rumbling sigh of air. Gibson obliged, and followed.