James Stanton was tired of running. He knew that eventually he would have to stop, the German shepherd was right behind him and Bill, and it was gaining on them, its powerful legs pumping and its bared teeth gleaming with menace. A painful ache was curling in his abdomen, every time he took another step it got slightly worse until it was like poison that was eating him up from inside, perhaps burning a hole in his stomach.
Bill Deplume was seventeen years old and James’s drug dealer. James knew how he had found himself in this dire situation. He owed Bill money. The last three times James had bought his usual ounce of marijuana, it had been with the promise of cash the next time he came over to fork on the winding mountain road that they had utilized for drug deals.
Eventually Bill had grown tired of James’s broken promises, so he had him come along to help him in a little heist to even things out. “It’ll be simple,” Bill had said. “It’s a two man job. I need you to be on lookout when I break into Old Man Dillard’s house. I’ll pop in, grab what I need and get out. It’ll be easy and the debt will be paid. No harm done. Isn’t that right, kid?”
At first James had tried to get out of it. There was, after all, a serial killer on the large in the mountainside town of Seven Devils, North Carolina. Nobody knew who he was or what he really looked like, but somebody had to have killed those five little girls. They were all kidnapped last December, and now their mutilated remains had been found in the one of the creeks in nearby Hawk’s Nest Resort, where James’s father, Martin Stanton, worked. The tongues of each girl had been cut out. James remembered seeing an eyewitness account on television of a woman who had claimed to have seen a suspicious looking man at the site of one of the kidnappings. She had described a “tall, intimidating figure wearing a black jumpsuit.” She claimed she couldn’t see his face due to the hood that the man wore in broad daylight. James had heard of serial killers before. He had even read about quite a few of them. John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, Albert Fish. James loved to read. Other than smoking pot it was one of his favorite hobbies. In a way it sort of made up for how slow to learn the drugs had made him. The prospect, however, of a serial killer being within the same town as him terrified him to the core. He had heard of disappearances of teenage girls in Oriental, but this was different. It was closer to home, and that somehow made it horrifyingly real.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that, whenever he walked home, there was somebody prowling in the shadows. Perhaps waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in and go for the kill. All the girls had been taken in that way. Hit over the head with a blunt object while they were making their way home from school. They were knocked out cold before being dragged out of sight. Many of James’s friends called him the Black Butcher because of the dark clothing the eyewitness had described. He became a sort of joke. A common goodbye at Appalachian Middle School was “See you later! Don’t let the Black Butcher get you!”
In the end, there was nothing James could do to refuse Bill. He had to help with the robbery or he would get hurt. Although Bill had never said this directly, the threat was always there in those ice blue eyes whenever James tried to turn him down.
He had watched in fascination as Bill pulled a stiletto switchblade from his right pocket and flicked it open. His tattooed arm had reached around and he inserted the blade within the opening that the window to the basement provided. He then pushed, widening the gap. Nobody knew how Bill had gotten his tattoos. He was probably too young for them, but even so, an inked in Dragon curled its way up his forearm. James had regarded it with a grudging respect. Being only fourteen and born into an esteemed family, he had nothing of the sort. Not even a piercing.
James wasn’t really a bad kid. His grades were above average and he almost never got in trouble. He just loved his drugs. Two or three puffs of a blunt when he was eleven was all it took. Before long he was hooked on the green gold. The only problem was getting his greedy hands on it. He had a summer job mowing lawns but that really wasn’t sufficient enough to cover his funds. There were many times when he was forced to slip a portion of money from his father’s wallet. Eventually he had been caught, and that was the end of that.
It all went downhill from there, he couldn’t pay for the marijuana he was getting, and eventually, one thing led to another…
The old man had caught them red handed, and adrenaline had taken over. Then the dog came, Old man Dillard’s trusty German shepherd.
“Follow me!” Bill yelled. “I know a place!”
When Bill made a right turn onto Copperhead Road, James assumed that they were headed for Hawks Nest Resort, but to his surprise, Bill sprinted towards the wilderness on the left side of the road, probably in the hopes that dodging the trees would prove too big an effort for the dog. He was sorely mistaken. The canine was a hunter that was used to running in the woods and easily avoided the obstacles and rough terrain of the forest. Then James saw there was a shack up ahead, and Bill was yanking open the door.
“Get inside quick!” he screamed.
James wasted no time, diving into the interior before Bill slammed the door shut and pressed his back against it hard, panting with weariness.
“How the hell did you know about this place?” James asked between breaths.
“Always plan ahead kid, when you think something could go wrong you check out the area around you and look for potential places to chill for awhile.”
Bill was no longer tired. James simply couldn’t understand how he did it. One second he was bent double and drained of energy and the next he was upright and calmly informing him of how he proceeded to commit his crimes.
James stayed there for a while, catching his breath in the darkness. Then he sagged against the wall.
That’s when his hand touched something on the wall that was thick, wet, and moist. He recoiled in disgust, holding his hand as if it had been injected with poison, “Whoa! What’s the matter, kid?” Bill had questioned, hearing the commotion.
“Bill, I swear to God there’s something alive on the wall!”
James’s heart was pounding fast and hard in his chest, sending blood coursing through his body in rapid succession. He began to feel lightheaded, as if he had just taken a deep first puff on a newly lit joint. His knees turned to jelly and they were shaking violently.
“Chill out, kid, I have a light right here, I’ll check it out.”
James stood there as Bill causally went forward in the darkness and flicked his lighter to life. He moved along the wall muttering curses under his breath and obviously seeing nothing of any consequence.
Then he went completely motionless.
“Bill…?” James inquired. An edge of dread crept into his voice. The only answer Bill gave was a choked sound from the back of his throat.
Bill never got scared.
James took a shaky step forward, then another, and kept going in that manner until he was standing right beside Bill, looking down on the disgusting, fleshy, shriveled, thing that was nailed to the wall…
It was a human tongue.
Nausea ebbed away at James’s stomach. His breath grew heavy and his blood cold. His hands clapped over his mouth. It was the only thing he could do to keep down the vomit. His knees gave out and he hit the ground hard, still looking up in total astonishment at the atrocity above. Bill slowly moved the lighter, examining the wall. There were four more tongues attached to the wood.
James and Bill had inadvertently discovered the lair of the Black Butcher.
James tried to speak, but his voice came out in a whine. He tried again, and was able to squeeze out the words “What are we going to do?” Bill turned around sharply. Even in the light of a weak blaze James could see that Bill’s face had gone completely white.
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep our mouths shut and nobody is ever going to know about this.”
James’s jaw dropped, appalled. His heart, which had pounded so hysterically in his chest before, was now weak and beating sluggishly, as if it was looking for the strength to go on. He searched desperately for the right words, before spitting out his thoughts.
“Just what the f**k are you thinking, Bill? We’ve just found the den of a serial killer, and you’re saying that we keep our mouths shut?”
“Kid, if we tell the cops about this place, do you know what’s going to happen?” his voice shook with barely controlled anger.
“They’re going to run a background check on us, they’ll find out that I’m involved in drugs and that you’re using, and then I’m going to go to prison! The police already suspect me for a lot of s**t, just imagine what it’ll be like if I come in with something like this!”
“Bill, it’s just weed, these are the lives of children!”
Bill gave James a disparaging look, “Do you really think dope is the only thing I sell, kid? The only thing myparents sell?”
“I don’t care Bill; I’m going to the police. We could leave an anonymous tip.”
Bill let out a mirthless laugh. “Everyone f*****g knows that they trace those calls, you dumbass. They’ll want to know more. They’ll call us in as suspects, James. I know how the police work.”
“We could slide a note under the door, Bill, we have to do something!”
“What about the security cameras and the eyewitnesses? It’s too risky; we’ll just have to keep our mouths shut… Kid please…”
James stopped, incredulous. For the first time in his life Bill was begging with him.
“My parents… they’ve done bad things. Really bad things, I don’t want to lose them.”
“Bad things like what?”
“My mom and my dad, they run a meth lab…”
“Bill, we have to. We don’t have a choice.”
Then, James made a break for the door.
It was no good. Bill tackled him full on. He struggled to breathe as Bill’s knee was forced against his chest. There was a sharp click that indicated Bill had his switchblade out. James cried out as the cold steel pressed against his neck.
“Don’t you tell a f*****g soul or I swear to God I’ll kill you myself,” Bill snarled. “And if I’m in prison and I can’t kill you, I’ll have someone do it for me. I get a phone call, kid.”
“Okay Bill, I promise, I won’t tell anyone, I swear to God. Just please let me go.”
Bill let out a pitiless chuckle. Once again, his lighter came to life, illuminating the room once again.
“Cut your hand.”
“Blood oath, kid, it’s the most powerful kind of promise.”
“Oh Jesus, Bill please don’t make me do it.”
But before James could protest any more, his hand was being pulled towards Bill and he could do nothing but scream as the razor sharp blade sliced across his open palm. Hot blood was running down his arm and his hand wouldn’t stop shaking. Then the cool metal was back under his chin. “Damn it kid, promise.”
“Okay, I promise I won’t tell anyone about this place or anything about Bill Deplume or his parents.”
Seemingly satisfied, Bill let him go, and he rushed out of the shack, charging out of the forest and onto the road.
When he got home, his father wasn’t there quite yet, which was a relief. Lately he had been working extra hours at the resort. This gave James time to ready himself by bandaging his hand. By the time James’s father was opening the front door to let himself in; nobody could have guessed what James had been through.
“Hello son,” he mumbled tiredly, taking off his jacket and hanging it on the coat rack. Martin had never been quite the same after his wife and mother to James, Margaret Stanton, had divorced him. He now spent most of his hours extremely tired, as if he stayed up all night, with deep rings under his eyes and worry lines crisscrossing his face.
James was sitting on the couch, watching television; he amiably greeted his father before redirecting his attention back to the TV. Martin grabbed his book and collapsed into his special chair. James knew it wouldn’t be long before his father fell asleep, and sure enough, he peacefully slipped into a deep slumber within minutes.
Only then did the worry show on James’s face, this was something he was good at hiding, he never let it show if anything was bothering him. He’d glanced over at his dad, one of his favorite people in the world, a great father by all accounts, but horribly naive, unaware of the fact that his son was a drug addict and now hiding the lair of a murderous monster.
James changes the channel to the local news station. There was nothing about the case of the Black Butcher. Everything around him faded out and became a blur as he anxiously combed through every informational channel he could find, trying to detect even a mention of the latest murder in Seven Devils. There was nothing. He wasn’t responsible for anyone’s death. Not yet.
His thoughts plagued him when he laid his head against his pillow. A hurricane of contemplation was raging inside his mind. What if there has been another murder, but they just haven’t found the body yet? Even if they haven’t, what does it matter? The killer is sure to strike again, and when he does, the death of a little girl will be on my conscience, perhaps until the day I die. I’ll know that I could have been the hero that stopped a cold blooded murderer, but I never did.
He closed his eyes tight shut, but could do nothing to stop the tears that squeezed out. Things changed for James. It was now impossible for him to be happy. Whenever his friends made a joke at school, he would no longer laugh, but instead stare into the distance, unblinking, lost in the whirlwind of his thoughts.
It’s your fault if anyone else gets killed, he reminded himself hour after hour, obsessively.
Guilt haunted him like a ghost. He could not escape it. Whether he was in a classroom answering questions on a lined sheet of notebook paper or hanging out at a friend’s house playing chess, the guilt hung over him like a black cloud. The jokes about the Black Butcher that he had laughed over and smiled at only a week ago now seemed sinister, as if his classmates were taunting him, daring him to say something.
One Friday afternoon James had a sudden thought. I could say it right here and now, I could yell it out as loud as I can “I know where the Black Butcher kills people!”
He did nothing of the sort, of course.
It was that day, when the worst blow of all finally came, the thing that shattered him more than anything else. Two more bodies were found, with the tongues removed, two more innocent victims of the serial killer, Mary Harlem and Jessica Baker. Both adorable blondes who smiled with pearly white teeth in the pictures the news team showed of them, so ironic, when they had in fact suffered a prolonged and painful death of many knife wounds. It’s my fault that they’re dead, he kept thinking. It afflicted him like the plague. He spent the whole day locked in his room, crying. Not even letting his father in when he pounded on the door. Instead he remained on his bed, curled into the fetal position, rocking back and forth.
He had to escape, had to find something to take everything in his world away. His hand darted under the mattress, scrabbling for the last ounces of marijuana he had that were stored safely in a Ziploc bag. His fingers closed around weathered plastic and drew it out excitedly.
He rolled the weed into a crumpled piece of paper before sealing it shut in addition to lighting one end and inhaling deeply. He absently opened his window and let the smoke cascade out, watching the beautiful shapes it made as it curled and drifted off into the wind.
He smiled as the sweet sensation took over his mind. Everything became amazingly clear to him. He didn’t have to worry over the serial killer, he would be found out eventually and everything would be okay. As James’s thought process became hazy, he lay down on the bed, the deep feeling of relaxation only increasing with each new puff of gorgeous white smoke.
In an hour, the last gram of marijuana that James had was gone. Burnt and inhaled into unhealthy lungs.
What difference does it make? a voice in the back of his mind jeered. The girls are still dead and you’re just as much a murderer as the Black Butcher himself. Nothing has changed.
With this in mind, James threw away the plastic bag and never touched any marijuana for the rest of his life.
That night James had a horrible nightmare.
In his vision, he was back in the shed. There was a pentagram drawn on the floor with red chalk, and candles donned each point, illuminating the small, musty room. On the wall, there were now six tongues instead of just five. James thought to himself in the stupor of his dream, didn’t they find two more bodies instead of just one?
That’s when the cold hand of a little girl touched his shoulder from behind. His heart leapt and he swiveled around to face nine year old Jessica Baker. She had a solemn expression on her face. She was not smiling as she had in her picture on television. Her blonde hair shone in the candlelight and her lips quivered before she parted them and whispered to James…
“This is your fault. This is all your fault.”
James tried to respond, tried to open his mouth to tell her that it wasn’t his fault, that Bill was the one who was forcing him to keep his silence. That he could do nothing as long as Bill’s death threat hung in the air.
That’s when she was grabbed from behind by a gloved hand and dragged backwards. Her eyes shone with fear as The Black Butcher, with his pitch dark jumpsuit and silver blade, stabbed her through the chest. She let out a realistic and guttural cry as the knife was pulled out of her body and stabbed down again, and again, until her blonde hair was muddled in red. The murderer looked up and observed James cynically from underneath his hood. James realized what was going to happen. Oh God, he’s going to murder me and my tongue will be on that wall before long, oh God, please help me. At this point he had comprehended the fact that he was in a dream and he became conscious of the fact that he would have to awake himself by one means or another.
His mind was racing faster than the nightmare itself. Scream yourself awake! You’ll have to scream yourself awake, come on, scream, James, scream as loud as you f*****g can! Scream, you f*****g b*****d!
He opened his mouth, but his throat had grown harsh, and the only thing that escaped his lips was a rough croak. Then, the Black Butcher lunged and he felt a jerk below his naval. In his spasm of fear, he awoke in the dark, sitting up in bed and breathing deeply.
I have to tell someone, he thought to himself. I don’t care what Bill does to me, I just can’t live this way.
He stayed up for a long while before going to sleep, planning what he was going to say to his father.
The next day James walked into his father’s room prepared. He knew what he was going to say, he had rehearsed everything in his head the night before. He took a shaky breath before forcing out the words, “Dad, I need to tell you something.”
Martin Stanton raised his eyebrows. He had just gotten out of bed and was looking quite exhausted.
“What’s that, James? You can tell me anything, you know.”
James told him everything, the whole story from beginning to end. When he was done, he was practically in tears and Martin was there patting him on the back.
“Don’t worry, son, it’s all going to be okay, just wait here while I call the police.”
With that said, Martin calmly walked over to his dresser and opened the third drawer down where he kept his cell phone. Instead of reaching for his Android, however, he instead felt past the clothes on the bottom layer, his hand sweeping across the old wood. Such a shame, he thought to himself, that I have to keep all my best weapons under the floorboards of that old shed in the woods. Then, he smiled as his fingers curled around the spare buck knife that he kept in case of emergencies like this one.