r/NoSleep - Thorns
If you're not familiar with Reddit, it's a massive forum that often bills itself as "The Frontpage of the Internet." Reddit allows users to create their own sub reddits, basically, forums where you can post pictures, videos, discussions, and so on.
One subreddit that I stumbled on and enjoyed is called NoSleep. It is dedicated to original horror fiction, and the fun thing is, all stories are treated as "true." The author is a character, as if the forum was not original horror stories but rather the spooky tales we tell each other over fires.
I am going to make it my goal to post one or two original horror shorts on NoSleep each month.
Here is a revised version of a short story I never published called "Thorns."
When I dream, I am many things, but I am never human. Last night, I was a baby squirrel, dying slowly on the thorn of a locust tree. A bird stole me from my nest, a shrike, I think, and took me to the tree. I struggled, but I am only a baby squirrel, not long have I even had my eyes open.
The pain, burning hot, turning into a screaming fire, as a thorn is drawn through me by the shrike, and then the intensity turning to a keening throb as I struggle against the hardwood piercing my body. I die as the sun sets.
Another night, I am the tree, evil, malicious, lurking...waiting. I feel the pain of the animals impaled upon me, and the shrike, some agent of the my evil will, fills my thorns with sacrifices, always with more small things that come to wait to die, a piece of me stuck through lungs and hearts and carapace.
I am an owl that watches a group of humans circle that same locust tree, one hundred years before, where their human victims squirm and moan, impaled on poles drawn through abdomens, crotches, torsos. The locust tree turns dark red, to purple, to black, as the blood trickles down the poles and seeps the ground. I see the roots wriggle to surface and draw the blood into the tree. Those standing in the circle cavort and extol, raising hands to a red moon high in the sky as the tree drinks.
I am awake.
The tree lives in my backyard. I never tell anyone about these dreams, never mention them to my wife, would not ever tell them to my son. All he knows is that he is not allowed to play near the old locust tree in our backyard, must stay away from it at all times. I tell him it is dangerous, that the thorns fall and would be more than willing to stick into his feet. I don’t tell him that I think it would be eager to taste his blood.
I work from home, and my wife is a pharmaceutical rep, so she travels frequently. Our son, Jacob, is ten years old, and a bit of a book worm.
My job takes only an hour or two of real work, honestly, so when I am done, I research. I look for information about the area, about mysterious deaths, about the history of my home. It was built in 1890. The tree was already grown then, around ten feet tall. There have been three cases of missing persons associated with the home. Suspects and persons of interest lived here, had the person over who disappeared, but nothing could be proven.
Accusations of cult activity in the 80s.
Town rumors of human sacrifice and witches in the woods, dating back from before the area was fully settled.
The dreams come.
My paws dig at the dirt, eager and hungry, and I unearth the source of that delicious smell. A hand, fingers drawn up so that the index finger was pointing, is revealed. I grab the hand in my mouth and run, drooling around the ripe, dropping skin. I chew the bones and revel in the fleshy heel.
I am awake.
In the backyard, Jacob at school, my wife in California, I dig into the ground. It takes two tries, but I find a hand. It is skeletal, the bones stained with the dirt, but a hand nonetheless. I pick the bones out of the ground, place them in a tupperware, and hide it in the garage.
The tree’s branches rustle, though there is no wind. It knows I am here. I feel a subtle menace. The bones secured in my locking toolbox, I return to the backyard. I close my eyes and remember the coyote who helped me find the hand. His hand would have been across from mine, on the far side of the tree. Was there a pattern?
I approached the tree with caution. I had never gotten that close to it in the past, even when cleaning the backyard, mowing, and the like. It was covered in thick, black thorns. They stuck out in single points and in clusters. They were hard, I’d read in my research that they were sometimes used as nails. I heard a rustling of feathers and looked up. A shrike perched in the topmost branch of the tree, head turned to look at me. The bird watched. The tree waited.
Movement drew my eye towards a branch near the same level of my head. A grim parade of small creatures were impaled on the upturned spikes of the branch. Something furry, maybe a chipmunk. A lizard kicked with languid movements, a thorn shoved through the back of its shoulder to the front. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of insects. Roaches, beetles, centipedes, even worms.
I stepped back from the tree and felt a sharp pain pierce the ball of my right foot. I fell to the ground, gritting my teeth, and held my foot. I could see the wide base of a thorn sticking out of the bottom of my boot. The tip of the thorn stuck out to the left. The thorn had gone through the flesh of the ball of my foot, hit the bone, and been turned to the side. I gritted my teeth, took hold of the thorn, and yanked it out. It was like drawing a hooked barb from my own skin, made of hot barbed wire, liquid metal that tore at me.
The thorn came out reluctantly, covered in my blood. I watched as it turned dark purple, then black, my blood slowly disappearing along the plant’s flesh. Blood dripped out of my boot onto the ground. The tree seemed to raise its branches, eager, almost. The leaves shook. The tip of a root appeared in the ground and nosed around, like a blind snake after an injured mouse, until it found where the blood dripped.
I stood and hobbled into the house.
I’d seen what happened when a root got to a living thing.
I am a whippoorwill, calling to the falling light, watching curiously as the nude humans below my branch cut hands from bodies held in the sky by sharpened poles. They murmured in their human tongues, sucked at the stumps where blood oozed, threw some hands into a boiling pot, and others they buried after tying the fingers back. All but one.
They made a ring around the tree, each finger pointing to the stump of the next in the circle.
I am awake.
I dig in the backyard, limping from the wound in my foot. It grows infected. Veins turn black against my skin. No one knows but me.
I found eleven more hands. Some of the hands still had flesh on them, old and smelling like rotten wood and old musk, bindings falling apart. The fingers point accusations at me as I remove them from the ground.
When I found the eleventh hand, I thought I was done. That made twelve, and through the dreams I could only remember there being twelve holes dug around the tree. I knew I would have to get rid of the hands somehow, the bones, carefully, so as not to draw the attention of the police.
I am a fawn. I am dying. It is long, long ago. Tall, dark trees surround me as my eyesight flutters between life and death, between light and dark. I see a human above me, an old, wizened face, evil. The human creature speaks over me, twists a sharpened staff through my ribs and into the ground. I try to flail, but I am too weak. I try to call to my mother, but I cannot draw breath enough to make sounds.
The human digs next to the pool of blood seeping from my body. They speak more human words. The world fades. Tightness drags at my throat. I am so thirsty.
The human holds out their hand. It is black. Black like the river rocks. They take out a metal tooth and strike the hand from their body, screech in their human voice, and the hand falls into the hole. The last thing my blurry eyes perceive is a tree, gray, then red, then purple, then black, slowly rising out of the hole.
I am awake.
I have a high fever. My wife is returning from California. Jacob didn’t want to go to school, but I forced him to. He cried at the door, I could see him pressed to the glass of the school bus.
I must finish.
I make my way to the back yard, unable to put any weight at all on my infected foot. The black streaks reach my knee now. I fall once, near the tree, and feel the bite of another thorn.
The shrike screeches from the branches.
As I dig into the ground, a wind kicks up, and the shrike comes down and pecks at the back of my neck, tries to get to my eyes, and in a moment of feverish furor I am able to grab the bird and crush its tiny body, bones snapping in my hand like a porcelain doll wrapped in a blanket.
I am a dog, following behind my human, to the woods where we’d never been before.
I am awake.
In my fever, in the dreams, I continued to dig. There is a small tunnel, large enough to admit my hand, reaching into the roots of the tree. I shove my hand down into the dark, damp earth. The sky breaks open, and rain pours down. The tree shakes.
I am the shrike. I am the will of the tree, the unwitting neighbor that brings the blood. I am never satisfied with what I kill, what I store on the tree. I must have more.
I am awake.
A hand grabs mine under the tree and tries to pull me down. It pulls with the strength of a bull, and I am all but too weak to resist, but I manage. I have better leverage, another hand and a good foot to push against the earth with. The ground is littered with falling thorns.
A gust of wind knocks a brittle branch down upon me, it strikes my chin, throws me back, and the hand comes with me. The branch pins me to the ground, I feel thorns digging into my skin, but I smile.
The tree begins to wither, the leaves turning brown and blowing away.
I am a blackberry bush, lifting my leaves to the sun. Somehow, in some kind of natural consciousness, my human mind can tell no person has been in this land before. My berries draw animals to me. This is a good place.
I am awake.
My wife is screaming in my face, but I can’t hear anything.
I am a skink, sunning myself on the brick foundation of a house that’s been abandoned for years. I have never heard or seen a human.
I am awake. The monitor beeps. The IV pump murmurs as it administers antibiotics to my blood. My wife sits next to me, holding my hand. Some part of me wants to jerk away, but the other part knows that this is good.
I am in a good place.
I sleep, and I do not dream.