It had been nearly eight months since Herb took possession of the Caretaker’s cabin.

He’d been through the remainder of the fall (lots of rest, lots of healing, lots of soup delivery on Cassandra’s part and pies that he knew came from Gladys), the long winter (lots of gentle exercises, gratitude for the overfull woodshed and surprisingly extensive book collection, near constant canine companionship), and into the spring (vigorous physical exercise, tidying up both indoors and out including the healthy beard he’d acquired, and exploration of the surrounding woods).

He had settled into somewhat of a daily routine without ever considering how strange and winding was the path he found himself on. He often wondered about Cassandra, how she was holding up after the brutal experience of losing brother and her friends, but each time she’d visited to bring him soup, he couldn’t find the courage to ask her about it.
She’d started using the old blue truck that Alex had left Herb along with the cafe all those years ago. When she mentioned that she’d told everyone her name was Alexandra, Herb laughed at how perfect it was, before his ribs reminded him that exuberant exclamations of joy were not a good idea. Regardless, it felt good to laugh about something again. For a moment, he saw the familiar spark in her eyes too. The winter felt much longer than it actually was, but long nights gave way to mornings filled with birdsong and the promise of spring.

It was well into May before there was any hint that something might be amiss. He hadn’t seen the dog for a few days, but that was nothing new, he was sure entities’ companions had things to attend to which were not of the world he could see, but a sense of wrong decided to crawl into the space between his shoulders and hover there. He found himself looking into the trees for a glimpse of the creature which resembled family friend more than hellhound, eager to see a small orange ball rolling out of the shadows.

By late May, Herb was worried. He could only distract himself with so much work around the cabin, though was finding a daily joy in rediscovering aspects of the original homestead which had been neglected for so long. He decided the next time Cass – no, Alex, came by with her monthly delivery of groceries, he would request some chickens, then bring up his concerns and see if she had an opinion. He was so new to this Caretaker business, and there had been no orientation to let him know what was expected of him. Perhaps he’d ask her to accompany him into the woods, try and track down the entity if that was possible.

Turns out, he didn’t have to wait. On what would have been considered a perfect early summer day, a gentle breeze sighing though the cottonwood trees surrounding the cabin, dappled sun creating pockets of warmth and the smell of life all around, the dread finally left his shoulders, only to move into his chest. He was standing in a glade that he’d been clearing of underbrush, having discovered wild blueberry bushes being choked by the excess, when he felt a shift in the wind and turned to see Tommy standing there. Herb was really glad Cass wasn’t around. He wasn’t sure she was ready to handle the sight of her friend, knowing it wasn’t really Tommy. He wasn’t sure he was ready. The entity as Tommy opened its mouth but it felt as though the voice came from the trees or inside his head. It was unsettling, to say the least.

“Caretaker. You thrive. But I sense a disturbance. Have you already encountered the Other?” TommynotTommy spun about, eyes darting toward the depths of the forest. “I don’t sense its proximity, but you are agitated. Perhaps you are finding the increase in revenants bothersome?”

“Ok, we’re going to come back to that Other thing, as well as the revenants, but first, showing up in the skin of someone’s dead friend is rarely advisable. What if Cassandra had been with me? You would have reignited her trauma all over again.”

“Oh yes, she mentioned this when last we spoke. I was not concerned as I know she is elsewhere. Does this form cause you distress?” The entity pivoted, giving Herb a view of Tommy’s fit and firm backside encased in bright purple tights.

Herb sighed.
“I mean, it’s a very nice, that is to say, the woman was well fit and certainly it’s a pleasing form to the eye. But it’s hard on the heart. Do you understand?”

“I think so. Unfortunately I hesitate to change now as any expenditure of energy might alert the Other to our location, and if you’ve not encountered it yet, I’d like to keep it that way. I don’t know how much awareness it has yet.”

“Ok, what’s the Other? Or is it who? And what are you talking about, an increase in revenants?” Herb felt the dread in his chest start to branch out, like the cold fingers wrapping his heart had found their way into his bloodstream.

“There are creatures old, such as I am, and then there are creatures older, such as it is. They have been buried so long that they have no sense of what it is to move in the world without disrupting it, leaving only pain and havoc in their wake. I’ve known of it since my beginning but it has been asleep so long that I had little concern. But something has changed and I feel it stir. If it wakes fully, I fear there is nowhere that is safe.”

“So what, we should leave? Abandon this place?”

“I cannot. I am tied to the land. There is nowhere for me to go. You could leave, you could go and warn the people of the village which has enacted a boundary point to this sanctuary for me for so long. There might be time for them to save themselves.”

“What will you do? Will you fight it?”

“I don’t know if I can. It is much older than I am. My companion has been tracking the spread of its darkness, and strangely the radius of influence seems to be growing. There was a place in the forest dedicated to it, long overgrown. But it seems that in recent times there have been visitors, more tortured souls feeding it, at times even in slumber. Direct is best, obviously, but nightmarish visions will sometimes suffice. Unlike many other creatures, humans have no natural defenses and when you’re asleep you are more susceptible to influence without any knowledge of contribution. It is a most unwise evolutionary trait. And so the area affected by it grows, which seems to be having an effect on the dead. Their spirits are much more active.”

“How recent are we talking? How many visitors? How are the spirits active? And how long do we have? I mean, is it going to wake up and hulk smash the heck out of everything? Will it show up as earthquakes? Some sort of kaiju rising from the depths of the earth? Is there any way to prepare? Anything we can do to stop it?”

“I wish I knew the answers to all of your questions, Caretaker. All I know for certain is that it’s ancient and dark. I know only to tread softly near its domain, and fear it.”

“So let me get this straight. Somewhere in these woods is something older, and darker, and more powerful than you. A creature of such potential malice that if it wakes, which it hasn’t done for the incredibly long time that you’ve been around, everything within an unknowable distance could likely be obliterated. And there is nothing we can do to stop it or know how far is far enough to run. Have I got that right?”

“It seems a simple rendering of the situation, but for human minds that’s good enough.”

Herb let out a deep breath, inhaled fully and exhaled one more time. Gazing off into the trees beyond the cabin, he watched the sun dance among the leaves as though nothing had changed from ten minutes before, and muttered to himself, “when did we go from horror to sci-fi?”

He turned back to TommyNotTommy.
“Ok, NotTommy. What would you suggest I do?”

“Find those you care about, get them away from here, and hope that the Other never wakes or if it does, that you’ve managed to create enough distance for it to matter.”

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash