by Avery Malone
“Tell me again what kind of cult it was,” he said, eyes scanning ahead, both hands on the wheel. Both hands on the wheel meant he was paying close attention to his surroundings. Marco hoped they weren’t lost.
“Okay, hold on,” Marco answered, “gotta wait for this site to load.” His reception wasn’t great. He knew they had to be close, and he was holding out hope that he’d magically gain three bars by the time they’d arrived.
The page loaded and Marco scrolled through with a thumb.
“Voodoo?” Danny grinned.
“Way worse,” Marco intoned, and when Danny flicked a questioning gaze his way, “White people.”
“Hey, I’m a White people,” Danny replied, but there was no bite in it, and he was laughing, too.
“It’s actually pretty weird,” Marco said, brow furrowed as he read closely. He’d glanced at some of this when they’d talked about it earlier this morning, but he hadn’t really read it in detail.
“They were kind of their own thing, seems like. It kind of just reads like spooky Internet urban legends, you know? Lots of stuff about chanting from the swamp at night. People seeing lights. Internet says they worshiped some kinda swamp thing, but people are superstitious motherfuckers.”
“True,” Danny said.
Danny was intensely fascinated by the occult, through some inherent quirk of personality. He’d had them listening to a podcast about cults for half of the six-hour drive here, and this was completely typical. Not that Marco minded. The wild gleam in Danny’s eyes when he was excited about something excited Marco in turn.
“I think this is it,” Danny said.
Those were the words Marco was afraid of. They were truly in the middle of nowhere now. The trees surrounding them were a gray expanse, the land was flat and grim.
They pulled down a long and long-overgrown dirt driveway, and as they turned a curve the trees gave way and the house became visible from where it stood nestled among the thick trees, like a wary animal staring from within an uncovered nest. It was a white–or at least, that was the intended color, Marco felt sure–plantation style house. Vines crept up the stately pillars and tangled and entwined with the balustrade on the second-floor terrace. Parallel rows of windows on both stories watched with arachnid patience. Behind, the lawn gave way with surprising suddenness to the bleak heart of the swamp beyond. Marco could see the knuckles of cypress trees near what had to be the water, and he could see their sparse limbs reaching out and upward, dripping beards of Spanish moss.
Danny parked the truck in the spacious driveway. The windows were rolled down, and the sounds of wind and frogs streamed into the cab to fill the vacuum of silence.
“Welcome home,” Danny said.
“I guess so,” Marco said, and his voice sounded muted, clipped. The swamp sounds swallowed his words.
They got out and as they opened the back of the truck on the driveway, Marco reflected on how little either of them really knew of this place. The property had once belonged to Danny’s family, the Whitmans. One sort of mundane misfortune or another had led them to sell the home generations ago, and the Whitmans had led a middle-class life elsewhere, while the house itself fell into the hands of others–including, infamously, the mysterious commune of local legend.
Devoid of owners and dirt-cheap, the house had fallen now into the hands of the last scion of the Whitmans, AKA Marco’s boyfriend. Once he’d found out about it through genealogical research and discovered it for sale, the rest was history, because it sort-of aligned with their plan to pack up and head somewhere new, far from the city: “Two Twinks In the Wilderness,” as Marco had jokingly been calling it. Both of their freelancing jobs allowed the freedom to work from essentially anywhere.
As he sweated carrying one half of a table into the maw of the old house, Marco was beginning to suspect his definition of anywhere had been too broad. This move was starting to feel sickeningly real, as he stood in the shaded, silent foyer, in a way that it hadn’t before, and he was internally panicking at the thought he’d made an irreversible mistake. They’d romanticized living in the middle of nowhere–what was he expecting, a white fence? A goddamned dog and two-point-five adopted kids? And they’d moved six hours away on a dumb impulse.
But then Danny entered, tossing him a cold water bottle wet with ice from the cooler, and flashing him his signature quirky smile, and Marco’s seething worry cooled to a low simmer. He’d just gotten here. It was the biggest house he’d been in. It was a major change, and of course he’d be a bundle of nerves.
It hadn’t taken them all that long to move their boxes and furniture in. Their belongings were laughably sparse in this grand house; in their shared downtown apartment, neither had needed much to be comfortable. After doing some unpacking, they decided on the time-honored moving tradition of ordering takeout. They found a Chinese place in the nearby town by searching online and called it in, and Danny went upstairs to shower, as he’d offered to drive in and pick it up.
Bored with the humid, thick silence inside, Marco ambled back out onto the driveway, and gradually found himself turning toward the swamp behind the house. The sun was dying spectacularly in the sky and the clouds were smeared with red and orange. There was a wooden platform, a sort of dock, built over the water where the yard met true bog, and he stood cautiously on the old wood and wondered how old it was. The innumerable trees in the swamp were dark silhouettes that gave way to uniform gray shadow deep inside. Behind him, in his periphery, Marco saw Danny leave the house, step out onto the driveway, and then turn and go back inside, apparently forgetting something. Marco smiled, shaking his head.
Before him, a heron stalked between trunks, sending gentle ripples with its careful steps through the dark water. Its snakelike head shot forward and it regarded him with a wild pale eye before stretching its wings and pushing itself heavily up into the air, gliding out deeper into the dark.
Marco looked at the black water and suddenly felt that it was impossible to truly judge its depth, an irrational thought, given the bird he had just seen wading through. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the brackish water seemed to him like a lid. Anything could be below. Things fell into the water, and the water kept what it received.
“That makes no sense,” he told himself aloud, and his voice was small in the lunatic chorus of frogs and insects. But the moment passed, and he was staring at a darkening forest. He went back inside.
Danny was walking downstairs in a light blue t-shirt and black shorts, toweling off his pale brown hair.
“What’d you forget?” Marco said casually.
“You leave your keys?”
Danny looked at him quizzically. He reached into his pocket and jingled his keys in the air.
“Got ‘em right here. Just got outta the shower, it’s yours if you want. I’ll head out now,” he said, tossing Marco the towel.
Marco’s heart thudded in his chest. He debated telling Danny. Anyone could be in this house with them, hiding, waiting for them to fall asleep. Yet the longer he tried to replay what he saw in his periphery from the yard, the more he wasn’t really sure he’d seen anything. Marco watched Danny start the truck, wave through the windshield, and then rumble down the driveway.
Marco took a deep breath and a kitchen knife in that order and resolved, after locking all the doors, to check every inch of the house for signs of intrusion. The floors creaked and groaned faintly under his feet: the house mumbling complaints about his imposition in its walls. He searched all of the rooms, the yawning closets, the under-staircase alcoves. He turned up nothing but spiders, the husks of dead insects, and a mouse’s skeleton.
Now thoroughly exhausted, as though the day had suddenly, finally caught up to him, Marco went into the upstairs bathroom attached to the master bedroom, where Danny had earlier left their shower supplies, and shut the door and locked it. He had taken the knife in with him, feeling somewhat ridiculous, and left it perched atop the toilet in clear view from the foggy glass shower door. The warmth of the water worked its way into his back, easing its way into his bones, and he felt the tension in him slowly flow into the drain.
His tension returned late that night, when they lay on the mattress beside their disassembled bed in the utter dark. Danny, who was typically the one with sleep problems, was asleep nearly the moment he had closed his eyes. For his part, Marco held tightly to Danny’s back, trying to let the slow breathing of his partner settle his mind and push out the encroaching darkness. The house was too quiet; the air was too still. At some point, he finally drifted off. He had troubled dreams that he forgot the moment he opened his eyes the next morning. The feeling they left with him, however, persisted, and cast a veneer of unease over his morning.
* * *
After the first week, Danny and Marco decided to lighten things up with a housewarming party, inviting a handful of friends and neighbors, many of whom they had only recently met. It was another spur of the moment decision on Danny’s part. Marco suspected it was meant to peel away the odd, somber mood that he had been in lately.
They cleaned the house in earnest now, having done some cursory vacuuming and sweeping already. They took layers of grime and dust from the floors, the windows, the bathroom. Despite the newfound brightness and the fresh air filtering in through opened windows, Marco couldn’t shake the sense of stagnation.
Their guests trickled in. Everyone ended up on the back porch while Marco grilled burgers they’d bought frozen the day before, laughing and talking with beers and sodas while the sun sank behind them into the swamp, slowly draining into the black water that gave back none of its light.
When, despite their one meager citronella candle, the mosquitoes proved too insistent, they went inside the house and talked, half in the living room and half in the kitchen. Marco was hovering and half-listening in.
A hand rested on Marco’s shoulder and he startled.
“Easy,” Danny said quietly in his ear, gentle and surprised.
“Sorry,” Marco said.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, boy,” one of the women teased.
Marco forced a laugh.
“I was gonna ask if you remembered where we put that extra chair, the folding one,” Danny said.
“Yeah, I’ll go get it,” Marco said. “It’s in the big room upstairs.”
“No, don’t worry about it, I’ll get it in a minute,” Danny said. He gave Marco’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and then he sauntered back into the living room.
After a few minutes, Marco decided to get the chair, eager to break away from the conversation after jumping out of his skin in front of his neighbors. On the second floor, the din of the conversation downstairs made the silence around him seem absolute by comparison.
There was a large, central room upstairs that Danny and Marco had initially decided was perfect for a game room, but currently used for storage of bits of furniture whose permanent locations were yet to be decided. This included a table and a worn armchair and several other odds and ends, as well as the simple folding chair Marco had come to retrieve.
He entered the room to find the light on. The folding chair was sitting there on the floor, where he’d last seen it, and as he bent to retrieve it he noticed Danny sitting in the armchair off in the corner, bent forward and staring at his shoes. Marco straightened immediately, gripping the chair.
“Danny?” he said quietly. “Did one of the guests say something?”
Danny’s head lifted and he stared blankly at Marco, as though uncomprehending. Marco started to walk forward, to put his hands reassuringly on Danny’s back, but something in him willed him to stop.
Instead, he said, “I’m gonna take this chair down real quick, and then I’ll be right back, okay?”
When he got downstairs and delivered the chair, he was only half-surprised to see Danny sitting cross-legged on the floor across from Eric, laughing riotously. Marco parked himself in the corner with a beer, back to the wall, and stayed there until the party ended.
* * *
Marco woke to singing. He lay in the darkness of the master bedroom, and heard chanting, low and rapturous, the rhythm steady and slow but alien. The space in the bed beside him was empty, and a note of panic fluttered in his heart. The chanting continued, muffled by the wall. It was coming from the office, one room over. He steeled himself into stillness so that he could strain his ears for words.
“…Plant your songs in my throat, that I may…” he heard Danny moan. The rest was too difficult to decipher, and his pulse quickened when he recognized the voice.
Cat-silent, Marco crept up from bed and slowly walked to the door on the balls of his feet. He walked out into the dim hallway, which was lit by a single lamp, and crept as quietly as he could to the door of the office, mere feet away. His hand fell upon the doorknob, heart beating in his chest as he slowly grasped and turned it, sending the creaking door open–the chanting stopped immediately–and he beheld Danny, sitting at his desk, his laptop open in front of him. He could see spreadsheets on the screen. Danny turned to him, bleary-eyed and bewildered.
“What’s wrong, Marco?” he said, voice heavy with fatigue.
Danny cocked his head, and then angled himself more fully toward Marco, regarding him with genuine concern.
“Babe? You okay?” he said.
Marco nodded mumbled, “Yeah, sorry. Just couldn’t sleep and wondering where you went to,” and padded back to the bedroom. He left the door open to the lamplight from the hall and listened closely. He heard nothing.
Somehow, eventually, by the end of that miserable night, Marco managed to fall into one of his strange dreams that dissolved from memory the moment he opened his eyes.
* * *
Danny had gone to a coffee shop in the town to work for the day. This wasn’t unusual, but Marco wondered if he hadn’t picked up on the shift in Marco’s treatment of him. The slight hesitance at his touch, the almost imperceptible coldness. The uncertain distrust.
This was the first full day he’d had to be alone in the house, and irrational though it was, it felt like a test. If he could get through the day on his own, he could prove to himself that he hadn’t made a mistake in moving here. That he was fine. That nothing was wrong here.
The house, with the curtains of the windows all parted and the windows cracked open, was filled with streams of golden sunlight and the pleasingly normal, vapid chatter of birds. Marco decided to walk back over to the edge of the swamp and peer into its shadows, partly out of the same sense of proving himself and partly out of a desire to leave the oppressive enclosure of the house.
As he stood at the docks, looking into the uniform gray of trees, the swamp seemed entirely unchanged from the last time he had stood here, weeks ago. He half-expected to see the same heron wading past. Time didn’t pass amid the cypresses. Stillness hung in the air over the black water like the morning fog that permeated the swamp and that crept out onto the yard to isolate the house in whiteness.
Marco’s thoughts lit unbidden upon a documentary that he had watched one time about bog bodies. There was some freakish chemical property of the water that preserved them, in the bog’s own strange way. The water kept what was given to it and preserved it.
Marco chastised himself for letting his mind take an unsettling turn for no reason, and he went back inside the house. The hours passed uneventfully; Marco made some minimal progress in his novel, did the laundry, cleaned the bedroom. Eventually, it was late afternoon, and the light made the house a place of twilit orange and deep shadow. Marco heard the front door open and crept toward the edge of the second-floor balcony: he saw Danny enter, wave and smile at him, and then set his keys down and head toward the kitchen.
Marco walked downstairs to greet Danny. He headed toward the kitchen and turned to see Danny’s back as Danny entered the living room from the narrow hallway to his left. As Marco started to follow, he saw something in the corner of his right eye, and he looked into the kitchen beside him to see the edge of Danny’s face around the corner, mostly obscured by the counter and cabinets. From where Danny was crouched, Marco could only see the top-right of his face: a portion of pale skin, a fringe of light brown hair, one eye gazing wide and fearful.
Marco froze, his heart in his throat.
“Danny?” he said.
“Marco?” Danny said in response from the living room, behind him, walking over into the edge of the corridor.
Marco turned to the Danny in the living room. He whirled back to face the kitchen. There was nothing there. He braced himself, and slowly walked in, rounding the corner. There was nothing behind the counter.
“You good?” Danny said, puzzled, walking up behind him.
“Yeah,” Marco said. “Thought I saw a mouse.”
Danny’s response, whatever it was, was lost to the sound of Marco’s pulse filling his ears.
Marco peered closely into his partner’s face. Had Danny always smiled like that, with his mouth crooked to the left? Had his eyes always been so gray?
* * *
Marco wasn’t sure when the transition had begun, exactly, but slowly, over time, the chanting had become a nightly occurrence. Sometimes, now, he even heard snatches of it during the day. It wasn’t always Danny’s voice, he was pretty sure, but it was often too muffled, too far away to tell. But he unmistakably heard it, the low rhythm, the reverent, slow cadence.
His sleep was restless. He awoke most of the time feeling like he hadn’t slept at all. Danny had progressed from inquisitive looks and gentle, indirect questions to expressing concern and staying home more often to be with Marco, but Marco hardly registered any of it.
He was lost in his thoughts, and in the echoes of the songs.
“I have to go to the grocery store,” Danny finally said one day. He’d sat down beside Marco in the living room. His brow was furrowed, and his eyes were darkly circled and staring concernedly at Marco. Marco thought hard and realized Danny hadn’t left the house, hadn’t left him alone, for some time.
“Okay,” Marco mumbled.
Danny looked deeply into Marco’s eyes and Marco, in return, saw sadness and some vague fear.
Finally, Danny stood, put his hand on Marco’s shoulder, and told him to call if he needed anything at all, and he’d come right back. And Marco nodded placidly. Keeping his eyes on the shadows in the corner of the room. Keeping his ears tuned for the chant.
It was some time after Danny had left that Marco heard him speaking from the pantry. He rose, walking over to the kitchen, and saw that the pantry door was shut, and an eye regarded him from the gap below the door, as of a face turned sideways, watching from the floor.
“Marco,” Danny’s eye said from the pantry floor.
Marco opened the door and saw, in the darkness of the spacious pantry, Danny lying curled on the floor facing him, but something was wrong with his face. Even in the steep shadows in the back of the pantry, Marco could see that there was too much darkness around his mouth, there was too much space there. His form was too drawn, spindly; his skin too dark, gleaming. The thing in the darkness shifted. Marco closed the pantry door.
He walked outside. The afternoon sun was low: an ember in the gloomy sky. He heard the song and was not surprised to find it coming from the swamp. He followed the chant to the wooden dock. The water held what it received. Souls fell in. Songs fell in. The water preserved them alike, forever.
Marco stood and saw it, above the black water: Danny, hovering, but no, it was shifting, becoming something else. A tall figure cloaked in shadow, wreathed in mist. Inhumanly still and patient, something old and belonging to the swamp as much as the swamp belonged to it, and he knew what it was immediately with utter certainty because he had dreamed of it since the day he’d moved in.
Marco’s head was full of song. The air around the figure whispered. Marco took a step into the dark water, and then another. He knew how this had to end. The chant swept into a frenetic, dissonant crescendo. Darkening sky. Dark water. The figure. Marco walked.
The water held what it received.
About the Author
Avery Kit Malone is an academic researcher, admirer of cats, and perennial insomniac. He currently lives in the Northeast US, where the weather is cold enough, but the humid wetlands of the South made a lasting impression on him. He enjoys reading dark and weird fiction in his free time.