They didn’t find anything but the teeth. I heard somewhere that’s what pigs do, eat everything but the teeth. Except there were no pigs here. Just bloody molars strewn across the forest floor like a shattered pearl necklace.
The parents of Mill Creek had already buried seven almost-empty coffins that summer.
It was about to be eight.
Me and Taylor and Easton and the rest weren’t supposed to be playing outside when we found them. By that time, our parents had gone from strict before-dark curfews to full on house arrest. I couldn’t really blame them. Not after Christie Etters got snatched in broad daylight, though no one ever saw by who or what. She’d gone into the woods to play hide-and-seek with her little sister, and when it was her sister’s turn to be it, she never found Christie. Guess she hid too well. Or not well enough.
That meant the woods were doubly off limits. But it was also the only place with trails that wove around town unseen. We figured if all of us stuck together, we wouldn’t get got. With our bikes and makeshift weapons—including two baseball bats, a pocket knife, and one tire iron Easton swiped from his dad’s garage—we were nearly invincible. Really, I think we would have left home even if we weren’t.
Every kid-having house in Mill Creek was a pressure cooker. Our parents and guardians, this was something they didn’t understand, didn’t know how to stop, couldn’t dream of fixing. The cops were useless. The search parties never turned up anything but those teeth and trails of blood that led to nowhere.
Real, honest-to-God fear was breathing hot down their necks.
Fear does strange things to people. Twists them, makes them into something they’re not. Or maybe it makes them into something they already contained at their core and just drags it out into the open, raw and writhing, for everyone to see.
I didn’t like what I saw seeping out of my parents. It smelled like decay. A wound that had been festering for years. It came out in fits and spurts after the first set of teeth, and even then, it was something I recognized. I’d lived with that part of them my whole life. But then there were more teeth in the woods, and their fear crawled out of them, full-bodied, all snapping jaws and bitterness, and it didn’t go away like it used to. Attempts to cohabitate, or even be cordial like they were strangers passing on the street, inevitably devolved into a fight. When they picked each other’s bones clean, they came for mine next.
We only purposefully spent time together at the dinner table, a play at normalcy on a bridge ready to collapse. Every moment of tense silence pulled its frayed cables a little tighter.
I wasn’t sure what was worse. The fighting, or the silence that followed—because there would always be another fight after that. At some point, the cables would snap.
In the most recent bout of silence, I left before they started up again. As I pushed my bike into the brush behind our house and made for the woods, baseball bat precariously zipped halfway in my backpack, I wondered if my friends were leaving behind the same thing.
We rarely talked about it. There were other things to focus on now that we were out in the open air—who could ride the fastest, whether we were gonna set up a permanent hideout or if it was better to keep moving, what bird call we should use as a signal to scatter if any of us saw a grown-up. Something about it all gave us a sense of control.
Taylor dragged us back to reality.
She’d been squinting into the woods for a while, the way she did when she was thinking real hard, so no one tried to see what she was looking at until she spoke up.
“Guys, do you see that?” Taylor gestured out beyond the clearing we’d stopped in. We all crowded around to follow her gaze, and there it was—blood smeared across a tree trunk, still wet enough to shimmer in the afternoon light.
There was a heavy pause as we looked at each other, waiting for someone else to make the call. Something rustled near the bloody tree—the decision was made, wordless and irrefutable. Our wheels kicked up dirt as we sped into the thicket. A pack on the hunt.
We didn’t have a plan for when we got there. We just knew we had numbers and weapons. Thought maybe we’d catch who was doing this, even save some kid before they disappeared for good. Heroes didn’t get in trouble for sneaking out.
Taylor skidded to a stop at the tree, and the rest of us followed suit, clustered together in a space so small, our handlebars clacked together. As I steadied my bike, something rolled under my foot like gravel. I looked down.
Teeth. Small, bloody teeth scattered all around us.
We fumbled for our weapons. Backpacks unzipped furiously, a pocket knife clicked open, branches were ripped from nearby trees by those of us who came less prepared.
“We must’ve just missed them.” Easton whispered, struggling to keep his bike upright and hold a tire iron at the same time.
“How? We just heard them.” Taylor whispered back, struggling only slightly less with her own baseball bat.
Before anyone could guess where the them had gone off to, something rustled in the trees again, just out of sight. Too big to be a bird or a squirrel. Too low to the ground to be a person. Another rustle, from the opposite side of the not-quite-clearing. Another to our left. Something pacing. More than one something pacing. Circling.
The air grew thick and frenzied and coppery. It stuck in my throat like a sob. I could make out flashes of dripping, dingy reds and yellows through the underbrush. There was a gurgle, and the leaves gave way to things on all fours rushing towards us, jaws snapping and foaming. We all took swings at them, but either they were too fast, or we were too slow. I scrambled to get my feet back on the pedals, to get purchase on the silt and teeth. I felt their hot breath on my legs.
There was no safety in numbers, and there was no one here to save.
By the time I made it to the edge of the woods, the things on all fours were gone. There were just my friends, shaking with something revelatory and terrible in the afternoon sun.
• • • •
Our flat-toothed mouths couldn’t form the right words for what we’d seen, so we called them something familiar—dogs. Dogs made of raw meat, of our mothers’ uncooked Christmas hams and fatty gristle and possum guts on the side of the road.
But we all knew none of that was quite right. They looked like if you turned someone inside out and stretched them until their bones cracked.
We talked about the dogs for days, in secret of course. Secret meetings in the alleys between our homes, huddled in the thick shadows of late summer. Secret texts that we deleted as soon as we read them, leaving our parents with empty, scattered conversations to keep tabs on.
No matter how perfect of a hiding spot it was, we didn’t go back to the woods.
Only later did we even think about whose teeth we’d found, since no one we hung out with was missing. Turned out they belonged to Christie Etters’s little sister. In hushed whispers at the next burial, crowded around the food table and picking at lukewarm funeral potatoes, the grown-ups were no doubt tired of making, we kept talking. What were they? Why didn’t they get us?
Should we go back and find out?
I spent a lot of the conversations trying to feel out if anyone else had seen what I’d seen. Taylor seemed like she did, but neither one of us could ever manage to spit it out, like a piece of meat stuck between our teeth. Not that it mattered if we said it out loud. She knew same as I did that it was true.
One of the dogs looked like Christie Etters.
I caught one’s eyes as it ran past in a blur of blood and sinew. It had Christie’s eyes, that odd shade of blue she always claimed turned colors depending on her mood, even though we all knew she was lying. I know because I’d looked her dead in the eye for a whole minute the week before she disappeared just to prove her wrong.
And there they were, staring back at me from a long, twisted face. The dog with Christie’s eyes flashed its teeth at me, a million beautiful little daggers crammed into its mouth. That’s when I’d turned tail with all the others.
It was too late. I’d already seen it, and it had wormed its way into my head and made a home there.
Every night for a week, I dreamt about broken feet pounding on a forest floor, canine shadows darting through trees, rabbit hearts between razor teeth and bones cracking into new shapes and the sickly-sweet smell of death. Every morning, I woke up with the taste of blood in my mouth.
I tried getting so tired that I didn’t dream, but it never worked. I could stay up until dawn, and the moment I closed my eyes, there were the dogs, jaws foaming and begging me to run.
The weekend had come and gone like a ghost, meaningless in the endless drift of summer, when I heard the scratching. Night hung so thick and heavy that even the cicadas fell silent under its weight. The scratching at my window was the only noise. It was sharp. Deliberate. Insistent. The sound of something wanting in.
Through my curtains, I saw low, indistinguishable shadows carved out of the moonlight. I slipped out of bed and onto the ground, crawling to stay lower than the shadows at my window, pressing myself against the wall under the sill. My window was closed, but I swore I caught a whiff of that thick, coppery innards smell coming in through the cracks.
The scratching got faster. Like it knew I was there.
My fingers itched to pull up on the windowsill and look, warring with the full-bodied desire to run and keep on running, but I couldn’t do either. Both were a commitment I couldn’t make. The only thing I could devote myself to was the familiar fear anchoring me to the floor, at home in the unpleasantness I already knew.
Eventually, the scratching stopped.
• • • •
The next morning, we all heard that Taylor had disappeared. They only found one of her teeth next to a bloody tree in the woods. Guess she’d had the guts to go back.
We all stopped talking about the dogs after that. Some of us stopped talking all together. Even my parents seemed to speak softer—like my head was being held underwater.
From my bedroom window, if I angled myself right, I could see where the woods began. I kept waiting for Taylor to ride out of there on her bike and tell me she was fine. That this was some magnificent, awful joke. Every time I imagined her face, it was twisted and pulled sharp like the Christie Etters dog.
I envied her.
I envied them both.
Was it easier, being the one who was gone?
Was it better, being the one who was brave enough to look, even if the knowing devoured you?
At some point, I realized I’d stopped waiting for Taylor and started waiting for the dogs to come back. If time rolled back and let me have that night again, I would have an opportunity to change my mind. I wanted a re-do. I wanted to swallow the fear and look. But there was nothing, not even a shadow.
No one was giving me another chance. I would have to rip one from the world’s ribcage, or I wouldn’t get it.
Maybe that’s what Taylor figured out.
The night before her funeral, I slipped out my bedroom window and ran for the woods. My lungs filled with humid, choking air until they ached, bare feet slicing open on litter and undergrowth but never stopping, not even to listen for the wet snuffling of my quarry. I wanted to find the right place to meet them again, somewhere sacred and nameless. My legs carried me there on instinct.
The bloody tree. It was almost impossible to make out in the dark, blood long dried and mingling with the bark. But I could taste it in my ragged breaths.
I could feel it in my sinew.
The pounding, visceral frenzy from that first day, an undercurrent that grew louder by the second. The brush finally rustled with the things I already knew were there, the dogs circling the clearing again. Wild, and putrid, and beautiful.
This time, I was staying.
I reached into my mouth, grabbed a tooth, and pulled until I heard a pop.
Until I was nothing but another pile of teeth on the forest floor.