A Report from Lauren Wagner:
Brady went missing yesterday. Sadly, it’s really not a surprise. The Clay affects us all, one way or another. Sometimes, that terrible place learns one of our names and refuses to forget it. It’s an awful thing to be marked, I imagine—to know that all your actions, all your thoughts, are little more than antecedents to a horribly calculated doom, one that you can neither understand nor avoid. As an outsider, you might find my words callous, perhaps even heartless. But just as the soils of Devil’s Clay are bereft of life, so are we of hope.
No one really knows why the Clay took such a liking to Brady. Some of us think it’s because he was born on the day our ancestors tried to burn down Devil’s Clay (something they paid dearly for), while others don’t believe there’s an explanation at all. As one of our town elders, Johansson Thornsby, put it, “The Clay don’t do things like you and I, y’hear? Ain't no rhyme or reason ta’ what it does, and if there were, it’d sure drive ya’ mad ta’ know it!”
Twenty-four years ago, on October 16th, Brady was brought into the world. And it was that very night that the Lowhouse Woods sang a strange and somber tune from somewhere beyond its autumn tresses. While the rest of the town cowered beneath the weight of the dark and unwelcome serenade, Brady, according to his mother, was lulled to sleep by it. In fact, the melody played on and off for an entire week, and every time its wicked notes beset our small community, Brady could be found slumbering peacefully in his crib.
The strangeness surrounding Brady continued over the years, reaching fever pitch when he was about twelve years old. Many of us knew Brady when he was a kid, and although we were aware of his “circumstances,” we couldn’t help but poke a bit of fun at him one day when we saw him playing with a dirty old jack-in-the-box in his backyard. Perhaps if we’d bothered to ask where Brady had gotten the filthy little toy, he would have revealed to us that he found it on the borders of the Lowhouse Woods. Regrettably, youth often mires such considerations, and now someone is dead—or worse.
Weeks after poking fun at him, we would learn the tragedy with the toy began in Brady’s backyard, where he and his ten-year-old cousin, Mason, were playing. He said they were digging in the dirt, “looking for dinosaur bones.” As Brady “excavated” the next big exhibit for the Smithsonian, he noticed his cousin had wandered off, along with his cherished jack-in-the-box. Worried, he went searching for Mason. After cutting across some yards and hiking a few fences, Brady found himself in some shallow woods, where he claimed to see Mason out in the distance, being led into the Lowhouse Woods—by his jack-in-the-box. The sight had frozen him, soldered him tightly to the moorings of this world, keeping him from spilling over the edge and into another. But after a few moments, he was speeding towards the trees, rushing after horrors that had, for once, found someone else to haunt.
Brady said he didn’t remember much about his entrance into the Lowhouse Woods. It was simply a blur, a befogged recollection of dusk-toned coppice and crooked barked arms. Even so, the forest was a graveyard of dead dreams that left an impression that would echo in Brady’s nightmares for years to come. However, those specters would have to wait their turn, for when Brady found the terminus of his cousin’s tracks, a more distinct exposition of dread imposed itself upon him.
According to Brady, he saw among heaps of autumn detritus Mason’s tiny legs sticking out from the opened lid of that horrible jack-in-the-box. Its little cloth-covered hands were pulling at his cousin’s kicking feet, trying desperately to squeeze him into the impossibly small confines of its box. Brady tried to help his floundering cousin, but before he could grab onto his flailing sneakers, his cousin was gone—swallowed into a tiny, six-walled world where the sounds of springs, laughter, and discordant nursery rhymes would forever be his only company.
I remember when the police found Brady later that night, in the darkest hours before dawn. We had all come out to help with the search, and it was only after a couple of us were taking a break that we heard the cops had found Brady in a state of shock, huddled under a blanket of leaves in the Lowhouse Woods. It took a week for Brady to finally talk about what happened, and when he did, it tore the town apart—some believed his story, others didn’t. However, since no body was ever found, and no signs of foul play were discovered, Brady was let off the hook. Even now, at twenty years old, Brady has had little opportunity to move past the event—many townspeople still believed him to be a murderer, and treated him as such.
Despite being lulled to sleep by bouts of disembodied music, or living in a town that hated him, Brady’s most troublesome adversary was his own subconscious. Over the past ten years or so, his older brother William said it wasn’t uncommon for the night’s quiet to be suddenly shattered by Brady’s screams. And since Brady refused to discuss the content of his nightmares, William, being a concerned older brother, took it upon himself to find out more. He waited until Brady left for work one day, and pillaged his room for clues. After pouring through closets, boxes, and sock drawers, he finally stumbled onto a particularly worn notebook stuffed beneath a corner of the carpet. At first, he didn’t think it was Brady’s—none of it sounded anything like him. But the handwriting was unmistakably his, and the experiences scrawled into the crumbling thing could have only been known by Brady. Looking for an explanation behind his brother’s disappearance, he read the latest entry:
“Upon the onset of sleep, I found myself wandering the corpse of a long-dead town. There was no wind there, just the hot exhales of whispered secrets. And the houses lining the streets loomed like gable-roofed coffins, each one burgeoning with the heavy breaths of resting evils. With each step forward, ghosts of red dust blossomed beneath my feet. It was at that moment a strange scene suddenly rose before me—a run of seed-bedded terrain, crimson in tone, stretched out into the bruise-colored dusk. Hundreds of shadows began to congregate, each one kneeling down and planting a large sum of strange black seeds into the ruined soil. Upon deposition, I could somehow “hear” the seeds—some screamed out in terrible pain, some laughed maniacally, and still others had no voice at all. But no matter the sounds, each seemed to echo somewhere farther below. It was as if they hadn’t been buried at all, but instead tossed into some never-ending well.
“However, the shadows’ efforts seemed to pay off, as the dirt began to erupt with wicked shapes—monstrous trees jutted from the ground, long fingers of fetid lumber joined to form haunted chimeras of house and devil, and figures of sculpted midnight rose from the earthen deep. As the land succumbed to the blossoming penumbra below, a voice, fragile and effervescent, flitted through the air with the whimsy of falling leaves. It whispered, ‘Soil is as good as sun if it contains the right nutrients. And oh, what sins this world has sewn to bloom such beautiful darkness. Come see us, child. Come see this wonderful garden of shadows. See for yourself the garden your world grows, and the fruit it has wrought."
Now it seems things have come full circle—the music that accompanied Brady’s birth has begun again. But now we fear the melodic omen that once heralded our friend’s entrance into the world may now be attempting to deliver him into another.
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