I was walking back from work, at lunchtime, one of those coveted half days. It was the same route I’d taken hundreds of times before. I’d leave my office, take the main road out of the industrial estate, then take a shortcut through a hedge, which led to a small housing estate. Then I’d duck under the metal bars put up to stop cyclists riding past, and then out into the countryside. I’d always enjoyed it as soon as I hit the wilderness. It was so quiet, and in the summer, there was something majestic about walking past miles and miles of corn fields.
When I got to the T-Junction, my normal way was blocked by a car crash. Two cars were upended and lay peacefully in the ruts along the side of the road, like upturned ladybugs. A police cordon had blocked off entry, and an officer helped cars turn around in the road and head back.
As it was still light out, I hopped a turn style and followed the public footpath along the side of one of the fields. From behind me I heard the screams of a woman, I can only assume she was part of the crash, or knew people involved. I remember wincing, and a pang of anxiety curdled in my stomach.
I’d never walked through the fields before, but I roughly knew the way, using the landmarks, like the church steeple I could see in the distance, that was only a few blocks from my house. I saw the forest that abutted hedgerow in front of me. I approached and saw there was no way through, so followed the footpath that led in the opposite direction to where I was headed. I continued to hear sounds of commotion from behind me, the screams now replaced with the sounds of sirens. I hoped that meant an ambulance was taking away survivors, they don’t use their sirens otherwise.
Halfway along, I noticed a break in the hedgerow, so pushed myself through and into the forest. A desire line from many years of use showed me the way through, a damp track trampled into the dirt where no undergrowth grew.
The spaced-out trees got more and more dense and less light broke through the evergreen canopy above. The track branched in front of me, leaving me with two less noticeable paths. I took out my phone and checked Google Maps, slightly disoriented from the dense forest, I chose the right path. It was hard going, any speed I had was now replaced by careful footsteps, as I lifted my legs over buried roots and rocks, trying my best not to get my trousers dirty.
My progress was stopped as a chain-link fence came into view. Checking the maps again, there didn’t appear to be anything on the other side, so I assumed it was a land owner’s border. Forty yards or so along, I saw an opening. The thin metal wire had been cut and pulled back, like an incision held open by surgical clamps. I saw signs pinned to the fence at regular intervals, no text, just a logo, that of a black square with a white solid circle in the middle. I took a moment to decide if I was going to risk it, having heard rumours from when I was at school of farmers shooting intruders on sight. It was then my phone rang. It was my wife.
“Hey,” I said, as I answered.
“Where are you?”
“I’m on my way home, there was a car crash, so I’ve needed to take a detour.”
“It’s 2 o’clock already.”
“Shit,” I said, remembering the promise I’d made to her.
“I won’t be long, I promise. Don’t leave without me.”
“You know what my mother’s like, I can’t guarantee that.”
A part of me was okay being late, I didn’t get on with the in-laws that well, though the other part of me didn’t want to disappoint my wife.
“I’ll be quick!”
As I hung up, my body already made the decision for me and was under the hole in the fence before I had a chance to put my phone away.
The forest soon thinned. It wasn’t a natural thinning, I could see tree stumps dot the forest floor, until it was almost a clearing. Then the smell hit me, a sweet odour, mixed with rot. My dad had a ball python when I was a teenager and the sweetness reminded me of the smell of a newly defrosted mouse, and the rot reminded me of the smell that would greet me when the snake rejected the food and I’d have to remove it in the morning. I expected to see a dead deer or something similar. When the source of the odour was revealed, I wasn’t ready for it.
I stumbled, and fell to the floor. I didn’t see it. Grass had grown tall in the open area. Even in the winter sun, I hadn’t noticed it. I’d been checking too far into the distance. When I pushed myself up on my arms, it stared back at me. Two empty eye sockets, and a bony smile that either said, help me or gave out a silent laugh. The skin on its face was bloated and a pale tan, pulled taut like a shirt three sizes too small, bursting at the seams. The arms lay peacefully at its side, along with its body and Y-incision buckling around the stitches.
Frantically, I scuttled along the floor, trying to get away from it. I stopped when I felt something come in contact with my back. I jumped to my feet with a scream. Looking, it was only a mound of impacted dirt, like that of a termite nest, with a large hole in the centre. I couldn’t remember being so scared. The last time I’d seen a dead body was before my father’s funeral, and his body had been in storage, so didn’t come with the rot and stench that now presented me.
I scanned around, and noticed more and more of the bodies, all neatly tucked away, some shielded mostly from view by grass, others in the open, as if they had only recently been placed.
I felt my heart race in my chest. I’d heard of body farms before, but knew them to be rare. I didn’t expect to stumble across one in my own backyard. In my adrenaline-soaked high, I took out my phone and began filming. I knew my friend Josh wouldn’t believe me when I told him, so I wanted evidence. I was surprised with how calm I was walking around, holding the phone out in front of me. It was reminiscent of when we both stayed at Chillingham Castle for the night. I was a nervous wreck, but with a night-vision camera, something changed in me. I guess that’s how journalists cope in warzones.
I walked further into the, for want of a better word, farm. I filmed twelve bodies in total. All were in different states of decay, next to them were little white posts with numbers on them. It was horrific. I didn’t stare, instead I followed the phone, making sure I had enough footage for Josh.
In the distance I heard the low-fi sound of radios, maybe walkie-talkies. I didn’t stop filming, I just ran. Ran back from where I came from. I slid under the break in the fence and back out into the field. It was only when I put the phone back in my pocket that I saw how dirty I was. My shoes and trousers were caked in mud, and I hoped that’s all it was.
By the time I’d made it back to the T-Junction, the road home was open. The cars were still lying motionless in the ditches. Though an officer directed traffic down the one open lane, taking turns to let out direction. I waited until he ushered me through.
As I was walking along the line of cars that waited, I felt my phone vibrate. It was a text from my wife.
We are leaving without you.
I took a photo of my legs and shoes and sent it back.
I had an accident, I replied.
She rang me back.
“What happened?” she said, I could hear the sounds of traffic in the background.
“The shortcut I took didn’t work out.”
“You’re telling me. Wait, are you sure you didn’t do that so you didn’t have to spend time with my parents?”
I heard mumbles from my in-laws in the background.
“Show them the photo!”
My legs were heavy by the time I arrived home. I don’t run, so the little I did, I could feel. I showered and changed, secretly glad I had the afternoon for myself. The first thing I did after that was to send the video to Josh, with a message of You won’t believe what I just saw. I waited a couple of minutes for him to reply, knowing that he was probably in work himself. When a reply didn’t come, I booted up my laptop, opened an incognito browser window and searched for body farms.
It was 4 o’clock when Josh phoned me.
“I was waiting for you to phone. Did you watch the video?”
“I did,” he said, and his voice was sombre.
“What did you think?” I said excitedly.
“I’m speechless,” he replied, “how are you not more scared?”
“It’s only dead bodies. Yeah, I freaked out when I saw the first one, but they can’t hurt you can they?”
“Have you watched it back?” he said, I heard his voice become more and more breathless.
“I’m coming over,” he said, “get that on your laptop.”
“Are you running or something?”
“Yes… I… am…”
“I can pick you up when Susan’s back, she’s out with her parents. What’s so interesting I need to watch it again?”
“That first body…” he said, I could hear he was running now, “at the end… at the end of the video… it’s gone.”
I sat in front of my laptop at the dining table, looking out of the front window, waiting to see Josh come up the driveway. The video was ready for me to play, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch it on my own. My hand shook anxiously as I held it over the touchpad. It’s only a video, I said to myself. Of you, and what happened when you were there, another part of me said.
Moments later, Josh walked up the driveway, panting as if he’d finished a marathon, and to be fair, he must have run a few miles. As I answered the door, I wasn’t sure if I was happy, he had run so far for this, it filled me with dread. His face was that of pure fright, I expected it to be red from the exertion, but instead a ghostly pallor greeted me. I’d known Josh since we were kids. I stood by him when he became addicted to heroin. There were times I didn’t think he’d pull through. He’d turned his life around; it was an incredible change, though something stayed with him, an impulsivity and an addiction to risk.
“Have you watched it?” he asked.
“Not yet, I was waiting for you.”
“Fucking hell, man. Do it, now.”
“Can I get you a drink?”
“Are you trying to stall?”
“No,” I replied, but I was.
Josh rounded the table and pressed play. The first thing I noticed was my nasally breaths that hollered through the audio. Watching it again brought back the feeling of anxiety. My hands went cold and sweaty.
“It’s coming up,” he said, sitting in the chair in front of it.
He paused the video.
“Look, it’s gone!” he said, pointing to the patch of ground.
“How can you be sure?”
He rewound the video, like he’d watched it a hundred times already.
“See, that’s where the body is, you can see those three flowers there. Now watch.”
He skipped forward.
“There, the flowers, but no body.”
A tingle travelled down my spine and caused me to shiver; he was right.
I watched as Josh jumped backwards and forwards in the video.
“What the fuck is that?” he said, pausing the footage again.
It was a freeze frame of me turning to point the phone in the direction I heard the radios. A long yellow tendril-like thing spanned the frame. He moved forward another frame, and the tendril appeared to be wrapped around something large, like a body. The next frame, the camera was pointed towards the fence, and on the left-hand side of the screen the lower half of what could be considered blurry legs and feet.
“There!” he said, pointing to the smudge.
“That could be anything,” I said.
“It’s the same yellow thing, it picked up the body.”
“I don’t see it,” I replied, not wanting to believe what it was.
He moved it back a frame.
“How can you not see it?” he pointed to the yellow tendril.
He proceeded to hop between the two frames, and the more he did it, the more I saw the narrative he was painting.
“We have to go back there. You know how to get there, right?”
“I’m not going back! If that’s what you think it is, that would be crazy. I’m getting myself a drink. Do you want anything?”
Josh didn’t respond. He was now watching an earlier part of the video.
I didn’t drink in the daytime, I rarely drank. I poured myself a whiskey and drank it neat.
“What’s that?” he said from the other room.
I poured myself another and downed that, too.
When I returned, the footage was paused.
“What do you think that is?”
“A termite nest?”
“Nah, they are at least a few feet tall. Wait a minute.”
He skipped forward in the footage to where the yellow tendril spanned the screen, and edged back. And I saw it.
“I fell against that,” I said, “Holy shit, I fell on that!”
On the screen, a blurry image burned into my eyes. What I thought was a termite nest was there, very blurred, and out of the hole was a blob of yellow.
“That’s where it came from!” Josh said excitedly.
“I can’t deal with this,” I replied, and returned to the kitchen and picked up the whiskey bottle.
It wasn’t the fright of what happened, it was the what if? I had been inches away from that thing when I fell. If I’d stayed any longer, I could have ended up in there.
My phone vibrated. I picked it up, feeling the warming alcohol begin to take effect. It was a photo of my wife with her parents, sitting and eating sandwiches at the garden centre, and a message, really wished you were here. It was at that point I wished I got home on time and I was there with her and not watching footage of a near death experience with Josh.
I replied, me too, really, I do. She sent back a frowny-face emoji and said they wouldn’t be too much longer.
“I know what the numbers are!” I heard Josh shout from the dining room.
“What?” I said, returning.
“The numbers, on the signs. They are distances. Look, this one says, 10M, that one says 23M, and the one,” he paused as he rewound, “next to the body that disappeared, says 5M. They’re working out how far it reaches.”
I stared at Josh, at how he was able to deal with this as some sort of puzzle. Every extra piece of information scared me further, but to him, he was getting more excited.
“My wife is going to be back soon.”
“What are you saying?”
“We need to wrap this up. I don’t want her to know what happened.”
“You’re kidding?” he said, his face no longer ghost-white, but bright red with adrenaline.
“You need to show me how to get in there.”
I opened my phone and showed him on Google Maps.
“That doesn’t help, I don’t know this area.”
“My wife is back soon.”
“Then we best hurry!” he said, standing up and anxiously dancing from one foot to the other.
“I’m not going back there.”
“I don’t need you to. Just show me where it is.”
I’d never seen him like this before. The determination on his face scared me.
The traffic had cleared from earlier, all that remained of the accident was some police tape around the areas of where the two cars had crashed. On the ground still lay markers. The sun had set a while ago, and I shone the torch onto the hedgerows, looking for the turn style.
“Over there,” I pointed, and Josh ran ahead, vaulting over.
“Don’t go too far, I don’t want to lose you,” I said, trying to keep up.
He relented, but I could see his excitement grow.
“Where next?” he said when we stopped at the edge of the field.
“This way,” I said, and we hurried along the hedgerow until I saw the break.
“What were you thinking coming this way?” he said as we climbed through.
“I was trying to get home; I didn’t expect to find what I did.”
We moved through the forest, it felt all the more foreboding as the light had died. We turned right at the spilt and to the fence. The hole had been repaired, but badly.
“Is it over the other side of this fence?”
“Shit, they know I was here.”
“That’s fine,” Josh said, already twisting the ties of metal to remove the repairs, “fuck!”
“Shhh,” I said, “they’ll know you’re here.”
“Sorry, the fucking end cut me.”
He didn’t care, he continued like a man determined. In moments a new hole was revealing itself.
“I’m not going with you, you know that?”
“That’s fine, but I’m going.”
“What if something happens to you?”
“I’ll share my position.”
He opened up his phone and began typing.
“I can’t let you do it.”
“Dude, you know me more than anyone. I’m going in there. I don’t care what happens to me.”
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“I need to. Please let me. If this is the last thing I do, I will die happy.”
But he was already under the fence and walking away.
I waited for a few minutes, until I felt as if I was being watched. I gave an involuntary shiver and jogged along the tracks and back to the field.
My phone buzzed. It was a photo from Josh, that of a body he found, with the text, 23M.
Be careful, I replied.
I stared at my phone as I made the final stretch to the house, and the phone vibrated again.
Where are you? it was my wife.
Two secs, I replied.
And moments later I was back at the house. I grinned and greeted my in-laws. My wife took me to one side.
“Where were you?”
“I was helping Josh,” I said, and her face changed.
“Josh?” she feigned injecting into her arm and cocked her head back, “that Josh?”
“I don’t like it when you spend time with him.”
“He’s harmless. But he’s also an old friend.”
“You need to spend some time with my parents.”
I said I would and we did. I talked to her dad about the football, and tried to make conversation with her mum about her flower arranging. I cannot believe people have that as a hobby. Even she failed to keep her own interest as she spoke.
“Do you have any alcohol?” my father-in-law asked.
“Yeah,” I said, showing him into the kitchen.
He spied the bottle of whiskey sitting on the sideboard.
“I don’t usually drink in the day, but today has been a bit of a trial,” I admitted.
I poured him a glass.
“How’s the job?” I asked.
“I’ve been quite busy actually. Thanks for the drink.”
“What’s been going on.”
“I’m not sure, a lot of military movements in the area.”
“Oh yeah?” I said nervously.
“It’s a need to know basis, you know what I mean?”
“It’s strange. I think they may be planning some more wargames over in Salisbury Plain, I’ve had to arrange the encampment of a lot of US troops.”
“That not normal?”
“A little, not this many though. So yeah, very busy. How are you?”
“Not too bad.”
“I saw the photo. How the hell did you end up covered in mud?”
“I tried to take a shortcut, didn’t work out.”
He laughed. I noticed his hair was newly cut short.
“I like the haircut,” I said.
“Thanks,” he replied, running his hand through it, “we can have any we like, as long as it’s neat and short.”
He laughed and I reciprocated. I smiled, feeling my phone in my pocket vibrate.
“Best get back to the party, and listen to my wife talk about her fucking flowers.”
He raised his eyebrows and left. I pulled out my phone to see three missed messages and a voicemail. In the time I’d spent with my wife’s parents I’d completely forgotten about Josh.
Oh shit, I found it, was the first message, accompanied by a photo of a body and a sign 10M.
Then another with a photo of 8M sign.
The last with the three flowers and the 5M sign. In the grass, lit by his phone, I could see the outline that was highlighted by the liquid that had seeped from the body.
I called my voicemail and listened.
Oh shit, oooh SHIT! It got me, fucking hell, it got me. I heard maniacal laughs from Josh. Fucking hell, it’s so big. Those tentacles? There’s fucking tons of them, all reaching out in different directions. I have no idea how massive this thing is. I’ll send you a photo if I can. It’s watching me. I think it understands me. Hello you big yellow fuck! If you’re going to kill me do it now. The message trailed off with more laughing.
Moments later a photo arrived. I couldn’t make it out, just a yellow blur.
I phoned him back, feeling my heart race in my chest. It rang and rang.
“Aren’t you going to join us?” my wife asked, peeking her head around the kitchen door.
“Just a minute,” I replied.
“Is that Josh you’re talking to?”
“GIVE ME A MINUTE!” I shouted.
But Josh didn’t pick up.
For the rest of the evening I was distracted, checking Josh’s position on Google Maps. It didn’t move. I saw his pin, sat in the middle of the field.
“What’s wrong with you?” my wife asked as we got ready for bed.
“It was like you were somewhere else tonight.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t have a good day.”
“That’s Josh’s fault, I know that. You cannot let him go, can you. You’d be better off without him.”
As she said this, I was checking his position. It had moved. On the map I saw the pin sat on top of a building called Little Park Farm. I wanted to call him again, but I didn’t.
“No, it’s not that, it’s work.”
“Oh,” she said, as she got into bed and turned over.
It took me a while to get off to sleep and when I did, I had visions of yellow tendrils, and dead bodies, a corrupted version of the events of the day. When I did wake, I checked Google Maps, all I saw was Josh’s last known position. When I called him, it went straight to answer phone.
I walked to work that morning, and saw the remnants of the crash, except the police tape was replaced by wire fence. I didn’t think much of it, until I saw the sign pinned to the fence, black square with a white solid circle in the middle. It wasn’t until I ducked under the metal bars on the way to the housing estate that I twigged.
I was about to call Josh again, but didn’t. I was in denial; I didn’t want to know. And if I didn’t, I could pretend he was fine.
My wife phoned me, when I was at work, to tell me her dad had been called away for training exercises in Salisbury and he wouldn’t be around for dinner. She asked if I could pick up her mother when I got back. I sighed, knowing I’d need to get back home and then take the car. I wanted to tell her to do it herself, but stopped myself.
When I walked home, a man in army fatigues and a rifle stood next to the fencing where the car crash was.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Move along, sir,” he said, and I did.
A few military vehicles passed me on the way home. It wasn’t unusual, but many more than I’d come to expect.
I didn’t go inside when I returned home, I got straight in the car, and drove. I went through the centre of town and got stuck in traffic. I was sat there for twenty minutes, until I realised that we were being turned away. When I got to the front, I saw a man ushering people to turn around. I opened the window and asked what was going on.
“Military exercise,” he said, “please turn around.”
“Is this anything to do with what’s going on at Salisbury?” I asked, thinking of my father-in-law.
“Please turn around.”
As I did, I saw the cordon around the market place, and something caught my eye. Something that looked like a termite nest, though much shorter. In front of it a wire fence, on it pinned a sign, a black square with a white solid circle in the middle.
“What does the sign mean?” I asked the man.
He picked up his gun, pointed it to my mouth and said, “please turn around.”
I told my wife I couldn’t pick her mother up.
I sat in the dining room, checking Google Maps to see if Josh’s position would update. His pin was greyed out.
My wife asked what I wanted for dinner. I told her whatever she had planned was fine.
I kept refreshing, pleading with it to update, not caring about anything else. An hour later the pin disappeared. I zoomed out, expecting to see it elsewhere. I assumed it timed out.
“Lasagne, it’s my mums’ favourite,” she said.
And we ate in silence.
“That was good,” I said, as I finished.
I checked my phone one last time, and to my surprise, his pin was back. Though no longer where it was before. I zoomed in on it. The Nevada desert, in the southwestern US. And as quickly as it appeared it disappeared, and didn’t come back.
Over the last few days I’ve noticed the symbol appearing in more and more places, and the military personnel are popping up all over the place. I’ve told my wife about them, but she says her dad says there’s nothing to worry about. But I am. One of those termite nests has appeared in our backyard. My wife’s asked me to get rid of it, but I don’t want to go near it.