Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. His work has appeared in The Horror Zine’s Book of Werewolf Stories, the Splatterpunk Award-winning anthology Camp Slasher Lake Vol. IGeneration X-ed, and Anterior Skies Volume I.


by Derek Austin Johnson


The woman approaching the truck was so small that the sign she held shielded her entire body, making her resemble a flat square with a round head and filthy shoes. Black Sharpie detailed her circumstances in lettering so perfect that John Cramer, in the passenger seat, wondered if she once was a graphic designer.

As the light changed, Trevor Barnes raised his fingers from the steering wheel to wave her away and stepped on the accelerator. Wind whipped her long gray hair around her head like a flutter of startled wings. Yes, she’s old, Cramer thought, but shouldn’t be begging on the side of the road. If she was enterprising enough to make such a perfect sign, she could find a job that suited her skills.

It bothered him that Barnes had acknowledged her, even to get through the intersection. Any engagement made you complicit in their actions, even if you never passed them a bill or threw change at their feet. Cramer believed that everyone should “pick themselves up by their own boot straps,” no matter what their situation.

“It’s there,” Barnes said, pointing. On their left, a metal shopping cart lay on its side next to a gravel path surrounded by elm trees. Barnes made a U-turn in front of an oncoming car. Its brakes screeched and horn blared. Lazily Barnes flipped the other car off and drove over the curb, the bumper inches from the cart’s wheels.

As Barnes switched off the engine, Cramer opened the passenger door and winced from the summer heat that appeared to be waiting for them. Overhead, birds circled and called. “You’re sure this is the place?” he asked. 

Barnes fitted his orange hard-hat on his head and unfastened the canvas tarp covering the truck bed. He collected several poles capped with reflectors. “This is where you asked me to send the others, Mr. Cramer. ‘Send them to the Triangle,’ you said. Do you know why they call it the Triangle?”

Cramer ran a hand over his thinning blond hair, already slick from the humidity. “Outside of the fact that it’s shaped like a triangle?”

“It’s a place to lose things,” Barnes said, gesturing. As if in answer, a bird called, its cry something between a bark and a yelp. “It used to be a dumping ground for crooks to hide evidence. Stolen cars. Discarded weapons.”  He paused. “Witnesses.”

Cramer snorted. “Urban legends make great stories.” 

He’d sent a team to survey the twenty-three verdant acres in preparation for development. Plans for a supermarket, theatre, restaurants, coffee shops, and retail shopping sat before zoning boards and civic engineer but met with opposition from residents and environmental groups. Restaurants, strip malls, and office centers already surrounded the Triangle, they said. At a city council meeting to discuss the triangular patch of land’s future, one store owner mused on the necessity of paving over every patch of open space in town. Someone else wondered what would become of the homeless population occasionally camped in the Triangle (as the city’s residents called it) when the shelters filled. Where else might they go? Cramer groaned inwardly at the one.

However, others agreed with her.

Which is why development had been delayed.

Still, Cramer hired a survey team under the table to see what could be cleared and what terrain lay beneath the myriad trees. When council members finally approved his plans, he wanted his landscapers to be ready. The team expected to complete their task within two weeks. That had been over a month ago, and he hadn’t heard from them. Neither had Barnes, who put the team together. Every call went to voicemail without a ring.

Barnes tucked the reflectors beneath his arm and checked the compass he kept in his vest. Keys rattled against a canteen clipped to his belt as he shrugged the laser level’s strap to his shoulder. “I can’t believe you made me bring these,” he said, his chin dipping to the reflectors.

Cramer removed a plastic water bottle from his backpack and drank, smacking his lips as he pushed the nozzle back into place. “If it turns out they left before doing anything, we can set them up for the usual distance measurement. And we can use them as breadcrumbs since we don’t know how thick the foliage is.”

He knelt at the shopping cart. Someone had pulled apart the wire mesh so caked with rust that it stood straight up like a spider had spun a web with the appearance of an iron gate. Next to it sat an upturned metal trash can lid. He wanted to touch the shopping cart’s rough tips resembling railheads but shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his pleated chinos, as if its mere proximity might give him tetanus. “How long do you think this will take?”

Barnes’s hand squeezed around the reflector’s poles. Shaking his head, he stepped around the shopping cart and onto the dirt path.

Ungrateful prick, Cramer thought. As he followed Barnes, he stole a quick glance at the intersection. The woman with the sign still stood at the corner. She was far enough away that Cramer could not make out the lettering, but he was certain she was watching them.

The path wound between clusters of trees that grew denser the farther they went. At each turn, Barnes stuck a reflector into the ground, the round red plastic top coming to his waist.

Soon, branches crowded overhead. They seemed to interlace like fingers and blocked the sun save for light stippling the path. Cramer smelled damp leaves and rotten wood mixed with a hint of vanilla and something else he couldn’t identify. Whatever it was attracted insects; flies buzzed near his ears and mosquitoes landed on his hands and wrists. He swatted at them, but they zipped away with a whining of wings. He wondered if Barnes had sprayed bug repellant on himself before they arrived. It certainly would explain why bugs didn’t bother him.

They ran out of reflectors at the sixth or seventh turn. Cramer lost count. Regardless, as trees crowded them the path darkened, sunlight dotting the ground first dimming and then eclipsed by foliage overhead. It reminded Cramer of the dense forests up north, where he and a woman he was dating would hike with a guide, though here it retained the heat of the summer instead of storing the chilly fall air he enjoyed. His mouth felt dry, and he took another swig of water. The guide up north had been a college student, studying maybe geology or earth science, or some other nonsense. He couldn’t remember his date at all.

Cramer’s mouth contorted into a grimace. His lips were dry. He stopped long enough to gulp down several mouthfuls of water, batting at the bugs landing on his face. Bugs were never an issue up north. He looked forward to developing this wild land and leaving for good. Maybe he would settle somewhere colder. Or out of the country altogether.

He zipped his water bottle into his backpack.

When he looked up, he was alone.

“Barnes!” he called. “Where did you go?”  His voice sounded as if he had shouted into a pillow, dull and lifeless.

“Damn it, Barnes,” Cramer growled as he started along the path. “I’m paying you to stay with me.” 

The path curved and he followed it. If he didn’t arrive at one of the reflectors at the next turn he would go back until he came to the last one Barnes set.

There was no reflector at the next curb, so Cramer turned around. He swore under his breath. Barnes was often reliable, which is why Cramer continued to hire him, even for work on the hazy borderlands of legality, requiring generous compensation—nothing extravagant, but certainly more than he paid other contractors and laborers, even the documented ones.

More turns.

No reflectors.

Suddenly Cramer was lost.

“Barnes! Where the hell are you?” He strained to hear a response. Nothing. Not even the sound of traffic. It seemed impossible that not a single car engine rumbled as they sped along one of the roads.

He hollered in frustration. A clacking responded.

Scrabbling, he fished his phone out of his backpack and dialed Barnes’s number. The phone rapidly beeped three times in his ear. Cramer tapped at the screen displaying a grid on a beige field. He didn’t have enough signal for GPS location. Even the compass app offered no guidance. Squeezing his eyes shut, he hollered again. His neck itched and he swatted it. On his palm lay the half-crumpled, half-smeared body of a mosquito in a pool of blood.

Cramer continued walking. No matter which way he went, he was bound to come back to one of the roads. Twenty-two acres was a lot of ground, but it was still circumscribed by asphalt and shopping centers. The one at the northern point had one of the last honest-to-god diners in the city and not one of those modern rip-off restaurants. He would cross the street and stop there for coffee, then take an Uber home. Barnes could fend for himself without so much as a severance package.

His watch indicated he’d walked for more than two hours. His heels began to ache. At one point found a dirty milk jug standing next to the path’s edge. Someone had torn off the side with the handle and filled the interior with what looked like red melted candle wax.

Stuck inside the bottom was the head of a baby doll.

He’d seen these before. His older sister owned a similar doll whose blonde bangs brushed eyes that closed when she tucked it into its toy crib. Whoever had embedded this head in the wax had yanked out the hair, allowing dirt and grime to fill in the hair holes. Dirt also covered the eyes and the cracks radiating from the ears. On its lips was painted a black diamond, its edges highlighted in yellow. Cramer set it down and shuddered.

He came to a clearing.

It wasn’t large—Cramer doubted a convenience store could be squeezed into it, even if you eliminated the parking lot. Morning fog clung to the ground, occluding all but a few patches of reedy grass. The smell of mildew and rot was overpowering and almost sweet. Overhead, gray clouds blanketed the sky.

Tents dotted the clearing. Shaped like domes, each no higher than four feet, they had been set without any organization. Mud streaked them, with the fiberglass pole of one broken, causing the polyester and taffeta to sag.

Garbage littered the clearing: scraps of canvas, piles of clothes and shoes, empty cans and chipped paint buckets filled with fetid water. Away from the tents, bricks circled black, burned branches poking from a pile of ash. They looked like charred bone clawing their way out of a grave, the bodies of small animals capping their tops.

Nearby stood a lean-to shelter.

It was small, the top of the roof’s pitch reaching just below his neck. The three walls of two-by-fours were constructed with an incredible amount of care, though the sun had burned the outside to a mixture of brown and gray, the texture now rough and grooved.

Cramer touched it and jerked back his hand. A splinter embedded in his finger. When he pulled it out, blood welled from the puncture and dripped onto the ground and the toe of his boot. Cramer squeezed his finger and knelt at the corner of the shelter to get the first-aid kit from his backpack, but not before he peeked inside.

Inside the shelter, aluminum cans, their labels scratched and unreadable or completely peeled away, sat in a circle. On top of each rested the remains of candles, the wax dripping down the sides smeared with dirt and flaked with rust. Inside the circle lay what looked like bones picked clean by an animal.

In the center of the shelter was a statue, a pair of red horns jutted from the top. Large eyes with dark pupils stared over a thick red beak as if studying him. The paint had faded over time, but the image remained vibrant, almost lifelike. Black wings spread from its sides. Painted eyes centered in each regarded him like prey.

The snap of a breaking branch startled him. Cramer spun around. He was alone, and suddenly wondered where the campers had gone.

At the other end of the encampment, branches hanging from one of the elms moved, followed by a low roar.

Cramer ducked behind the shelter and peeked around the corner. The weight of his backpack threatened to teeter him backward. He regained his balance and dropped it to his feet. The water bottle sloshed.

From the trees emerged a stout, round man with spindly legs and arms. His tattered, olive field jacket strained across his expanse of stomach; the placket stretched to reveal scaled skin tufted with coarse hair. A gray beard billowed over his cheeks and jaw and down his chest, occluding anything resembling a chin. In one hand was a white spear with what resembled a jeweled fruit stuck to the tip, red paint dripping from the other end. On his head wobbled an orange hat.

Cramer clapped his hand to his mouth to silence a rising wail.

He couldn’t be sure without getting closer, but the hat resembled Barnes’s helmet. But he was certain the spear the man held was one of Barnes’s reflectors.

The man looked around the encampment. Then a black hole opened in the middle of the expanse of gray beard and emitted a sound that sounded like a cross between a pigeon’s coo and an owl’s hoot. He strode toward the encampment, head bent forward as if studying the mist-covered ground.

Behind him appeared two more men, both dressed in rags and bristling with beards and long hair. Side-by-side, they dragged a large sheet of corrugated metal, something that might once have been a roof. On it lay Barnes, fastened to it by reflectors, one stuck through his stomach, another through his torso, and two at his wrists. Though the clouds blocked the sun, light danced in the heads of the reflectors like flames in torches.

Approaching the shelter, the man called again. More people emerged from the trees and followed. Their emaciated bodies made Cramer think of scarecrows overseeing cornfields. He breathed through his mouth as their stench overpowered his nose.

The roar grew louder, and Barnes’s truck bumped down the path and into the clearing.

Cramer gripped the backpack’s shoulder strap. The view before him was a crazy dream. He figured he must be dehydrated and this was a hallucination.

He tapped his phone awake. Wireless bars remained flat and his GPS displayed a beige grid. No matter. He opened his camera app and took several pictures of the leader and the men dragging Barnes’s body. When he finally left the Triangle—and he would leave; eventually he would have to arrive at one of the bordering roads—he planned to notify the police and contact the reporters he knew at one of the local news affiliates. Feed his account to more politically favorable websites.

Slowly he rose and backed away, careful not to let anyone see him.

He bumped into something and turned.

Someone stood in his way. Wide, watery eyes glared at Cramer from a face so deeply creased it looked as if one could fall forever in its folds. A chambray shirt draped his cadaverous frame like a sail baggy from lack of wind.

The old man pointed to Cramer and screeched like a crow. Cramer hefted his backpack and flung it at his face. It connected and the man huffed as he crumpled. The backpack’s strap twisted around Cramer’s hand and the force of his throw toppled Cramer on top of the old man. Cramer’s breath rushed from his lungs, and he fell. The man was so frail Cramer was certain he heard bones crunch.

Calls erupted behind him. Bird noises. Hooting and cawing. Snaps and cackles. Hisses. Beaks clacking.

Not looking back, Cramer ran for the nearest trees, their calls following.

In the trees, leafless branches reached for Cramer, their tips tearing his clothing and scratching the skin beneath. Twigs snapped beneath his feet as he turned left at a large elm, its bark peeled away to reveal pale yellow phloem. Blue lines webbed the surface like veins in an arm. At one point he stopped, bent over and out of breath, the sound of blood rushing through his ears, his hand on a trunk. Beneath his soft palm, the bark was rough and warm and pulsed with life.

Overhead, something whistled past and embedded itself in the trunk. Someone had thrown one of the reflectors, the shaft embedded deep into the bark. The circular head wobbled, the red plastic winking at him.

Cramer continued running, legs screaming in pain. His sided ached from exertion and the lungful of breath he drew in. Behind him, more calls and clacks arose and echoed through the woods and to the tops of the elms. Impossible. There had been no echo before.

Ahead, the familiar roar of engines and tires on asphalt.

He was so close!

They wouldn’t follow him out of the Triangle. They couldn’t. Whomever these people were, regardless of the circumstances bringing them to its heart, they couldn’t survive outside of it, in a place where cameras studied you at every intersection and phones tracked every movement.

Beyond the trees, a large truck rumbled past. The smell of diesel stung Cramer’s nose and his eyes watered. There was no way for him to tell how much farther the road was, but he had to arrive soon. He knew it.

The trees parted in front of him just enough to see the intersection where he and Barnes had seen the woman with the sign. A truck’s engine rumbled. Cramer shouted and frantically held up his hands.

He collapsed on his side. A second later he felt the pain in his right leg. He pushed himself up but couldn’t gain his footing and collapsed again.

From his shin protruded the pointed tip of one of the reflectors.

He howled and propped himself onto his elbow. There was no blood other than what tipped the reflector’s point. It surprised him only for a moment. The pain bit into his leg and he screamed as a battered Toyota sped past. On its rear bumper, a sticker read, “Keep Our City Weird!”

At the intersection was the woman he had seen earlier. Although her back was to him, the sign covered her body, as if she wore a large envelope.

“Help!” he called. “Miss, can you see me?”

She turned around and watched him as another reflector sailed through the trees and stuck into his lower back. Cramer grunted and coughed. The taste of blood filled his mouth.

Folding her sign, she approached. There were no cars on the street, so she had no need to watch for them. Even the parking lot at the office building facing the Triangle was deserted.

Cramer spat blood and shrieked.

The woman’s hair fluttered around her face despite the user lack of wind or breeze. Blackness filled her eyes, not the color of onyx but of a void. As she stepped into the Triangle she slipped from the baggy dun-colored dress hanging from her shoulders and wings sprouted from her clavicles and her chapped lips contorted and hardened into a beak and she emitted a piercing shriek.

Crying, Cramer clapped his hands over his ears as blood gushed from his mouth and the people of the Triangle surrounded him, placing him on the corrugated sheet of metal and dragging him back to the clearing with their other offering.

Above, black wings flapped, and a call sounded across the sky.