At the end of a condemned road lies the church camp where Levi’s darkest memory formed. Attempting to shed light on his enigmatic childhood, the teenager convinces a group of friends to visit the secluded area with him. What they find is the land has been abandoned by all but a demonic presence. Now, several years later, the survivors of that terrifying night learn they can run from the forces of hell, but they can never hide.
Remember when the sole survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre escaped the carnage, but seemingly lost her sanity in the process? Do you ever wonder where she is today and how she’s doing? I think about stuff like that all the time, which is one of the reasons I wrote Corpus Evil, a pulpy horror novel told in five distinct parts. In the first part the Bad Thing happens. In the additional parts, the survivors attempt to move on with their lives. Then again, they never really escaped what happened at that church camp in the woods.
At the center of the tale, which begins in 1982 and ends in the far future, is the corpus evil: a collection of ancient texts written by mad priests and curated by their demented followers.
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THE CHURCH CAMP
The Class of ’82 ended up at Vivian Mead’s house for the after-party and it proved to be as mind-numbingly prim as you’d expect. Vivian, who couldn’t go two minutes without mentioning her older boyfriend, never bothered to get a keg or so much as a case of beer. Her parties were strictly bring-your-own, though it wasn’t encouraged, and the fun was as watered down as the scotch in her parents’ liquor cabinet.
Denise and friends retreated to the porch while the desperately mature kids compared career paths indoors. The night was almost as hot as the day.
“This blows,” said Levi, a giant of a teenager.
A burn mark, which stretched from his ear to his chin, was the only part of his face unclaimed by acne. He plopped down between Denise and Ashley on the bench, which groaned beneath his weight. He was heavier than the girls put together.
“Watch it,” Denise said as foam boiled out of his beer can.
Levi paid it no attention. “The fuckin’ bingo hall would have been more exciting than this.”
“Then let’s go,” Brad called from across the yard. He and Zachary were playing lawn darts beneath the gnat-swarmed floodlights of the detached garage. “Better yet, why don’t we go to your house for a change?”
“Because my mom thinks I’m spending the night with you two assholes.”
“You still have to make excuses to your mother?” Ashley asked.
Levi exaggerated his arm movements, which spilled even more beer. “I told ya, my mom’s insane!”
“You’re always saying that,” Zach said, “but she seemed kind of quiet… all two times I ever saw her.”
“Oh, you think I’m making it up, do you?” Levi scooted to the edge of the bench and held his beer limply between his knees. He wanted to command a serious mood, but no one ever took Levi seriously. “She’s mellowed out for sure, but she’s still a fruitcake. I never told you the half of it because you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Okay. The real reason I have to sneak out and lie about what I’m doing all the time? I’m only sixteen.”
“Sixteen?” Denise asked. “And you just graduated high school?”
“My mother lied about my age so she could get me into class sooner. I don’t turn seventeen until next month.”
“Big deal,” said Ashley. The brunette’s husky tone suggested she was chronically bored. “My aunt did the same thing to my cousin.”
“Yeah, but she probably had a reason. My mom did it just because. She’s always doing stuff just because.”
“That’s women in general,” said Brad, and Ashley threw an empty beer can at him.
“Still,” Denise said, “that’s not certifiably insane.”
“Oh, I’m just warming up,” Levi insisted. “I’m not sure how much I want to tell you, if any of it.”
Levi became quiet for the first time in Denise’s experience. Brad, Zach, and Ashley spun off into a satellite conversation, but Denise studied the scarred side of Levi’s face. She witnessed the exact moment he detached from the group’s presence. It was as if he had entered a trance.
“Levi?” Denise asked softly.
“You know what my first memory is? Some guy with a mustache dangling me over the side of a bridge. My mom’s there, too, laughing while I scream.”
Denise prepared herself for a punchline, but suspected he wasn’t pulling her leg for once. He wasn’t a good enough actor, despite stumbling through two years of drama, and he could never get through the setup of a joke without ruining it with childlike laughter. Yet to think happy-go-Levi, as sweet and cuddly as a teddy bear, could have a childhood which was anything but sunshine….
“I don’t remember anything before school,” he went on, eyes unfocused. “I didn’t even know you were supposed to remember your childhood until I started hanging out with you guys. I don’t remember having friends or playing with toys. I don’t remember anything. I just remember that bridge. I remember thinking sharks or something were gonna shoot up out of the water and bite my feet off.”
The memory glowed dimly beneath the surface of his eyes, eyes which otherwise seemed pale and lifeless in the floodlights. Ashley and Brad were still cracking jokes, but Zach’s laughter wound down as he, too, noticed Levi was going through something. Zach’s eyes met Denise’s and she shrugged her face into an exaggeration of helplessness.
Levi rocked himself to his feet and stood on the edge of Vivian’s porch. He looked into the impenetrable woods across the road. His giant body swayed to and fro; he was drunker than Denise had realized. At last he turned his scarred face back to the group and asked, “You guys wanna go somewhere?”
“I don’t know,” Denise said. “Tonight?”
“I know a place we could go swimming just off the interstate. Fifteen minutes from here, tops.”
“Hell yeah,” Brad said, slipping into the vacancy Levi left on the swing. “I’d kill to go swimming right about now.” He kissed the side of Ashley’s neck and she cringed giddily. “What do you think, baby? Wanna skinny dip off of I-69?”
He placed a special emphasis on the “I-69” part.
“The lake doesn’t get anywhere near the highway,” Zach said. He was trying not to sound worried, but Denise could always see through his facade. When plans were made, Zach got nervous. Especially when they were Levi’s plans. “The river gets over there, but not the lake.”
“All I know,” Levi said, “is there’s a dock out there and we can go swimming off it.”
“Count me in,” Ashley said, only pretending to resist Brad’s necking.
Zach tried to communicate his unease to Denise without tipping off the others. She hopped down from the porch and placed his arms around her waist.
“It’s going to be fun,” she assured him. “I promise.”
Of course it was Levi’s idea. It was always his idea whenever they did something stupid. There was usually resistance at first, but he could talk the group into doing anything so long as it was no more serious than trespassing or underage drinking.
There was no resistance that night. It was a celebration, by god, and if they all didn’t do something reckless it would set the pace for the rest of their sorry little lives. College was already threatening to tear them apart. No way were any of ’em going down without a fight.
So when they found themselves at a rusty gate with a NO TRESPASSING sign along the highway, it was too late to turn around. Zach dug a hammer out of his pickup truck and struck the padlock with it. The lock popped open and the teenagers cheered. As Brad dragged the squealing gate across the dirt road, Zach slipped back into the pickup and drove ahead. Brad clomped drunkenly after and threw himself over the tailgate.
Ashley was wedged between Denise and the passenger door. She glanced over her shoulder and said, “Beer me.”
Brad plucked a can from the watery bowels of the ice chest and passed it through the rear window. “Oui, madame.”
Go easy, Denise thought as she watched Ashley chug her beer. I want to enjoy the night, not play babysitter.
Levi, who was riding in the back with Brad, had perched on his haunches so he could monitor their progress through the cab. As the truck bounced violently along the abandoned road, the bumper tucked away an endless stream of Johnson grass which had sprouted between the tire ruts. A minute later the hi-beams illuminated a canopy of lush branches overhead. The wooded tunnel stretched as far as they could see.
Denise rolled the radio knob to its off position. Ashley, who usually complained whenever the music was abruptly silenced, said nothing. Instead, she shivered despite the warm air blowing through the vent windows. Denise’s armpits were growing damp against her sleeveless tee. She startled when Zach’s hand grazed her knee on its way to the gearshift.
“Nowhere to turn around,” he pointed out. “I mean, if we had to.”
“We won’t have to,” Denise said. “You can tell this place has been abandoned for years.”
“I’m saying if cops caught us out here, we won’t be tried as minors. We’re adults now.”
“We’ve never been caught doing anything before.”
“That doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
Denise placed her hand on his leg. “Then I guess it’s a good thing your dad’s a lawyer.”
Left of the road was the first sign of civilization: a trio of log cabins, turned at angles which didn’t align with the cardinal directions. Ashley perked and squinted in the opposite direction. Denise followed her line of sight and saw the dull glow of a plastic lawn ornament, strobed by the passing trees.
“What is that?” Ashley asked.
“That would appear to be Santa Claus,” Denise said.
“And why did someone go through the trouble of putting it out in the middle of August?”
“Maybe it’s been there since Christmas?”
“That’s gotta be a hundred yards from the cabins,” Zach pointed out. “Either there’s electric out there or someone went through the trouble of stringing together a ton of extension cords.”
“Hey, look!” Brad shouted from the back. “It’s Santy Claus! I love that guy!”
“Jesus,” Ashley said, “this place is fucked.”
At the end of the road was a clearing of broken asphalt. It sloped into a lake so small they could see the woods on all sides of it. Zach parked beneath a utility pole which had a dull bulb suspended from it. As the teenagers piled out of the truck, something the size of a small dog fled from the noise and thumped into the water.
Denise had yet to scoot out of the cab, yet Brad was already racing down to the water naked. His superpower, it seemed, was stripping at a moment’s notice and he never missed a chance to demonstrate. Brad raced across the gangway and cannonballed into the water. He bobbed to the surface, whooping and hollering.
“Warm?” Zach called out.
“Colder than a witch’s tit! You comin’?”
“In a bit.”
“Come on, Ash’!”
“Nope,” Ashley said. “I’m nowhere near drunk enough to get in that mocassin pit.”
“I am the king of the serpents,” Brad said in his Peter Lorre voice, backstroking to the center of the lake. Archie Bunker and Johnny Carson were also in his repertoire of impersonations, none of which were convincing. “Here snakey, snakey, snakey.”
Denise found Levi standing near the rear of the truck where he stared across the water in silence. He had seemed normal when the night began, but it was as if someone at Vivian’s had flipped a switch in his brain. Happy-go-Levi was gone. In his place was this stone-faced imposter.
“You okay?” she asked him.
“Just thinking.” He shook off his daze and forced a smile. “Sorry, I guess I drank too much.”
“I’m gonna go exploring,” Zach announced. He grabbed a six-pack from the cooler and put a hand on Denise’s forearm. The gesture implied more than exploring would be done. “You want to come with?”
“Me, too,” Ashley put in.
Zach batted his eyes, no doubt wondering how someone as experienced as Ashley could miss the hint.
“Sure,” he said. Now that it was a crowd, he extended the invitation: “You coming too, Lee?”
“You all go ahead,” Levi said. “I’m gonna have a look around.”
“Well, if you don’t mind….” Zach tossed the truck keys to Levi and offered an elbow for each of the girls. “Shall we?”
The three of them wandered off.
What Levi couldn’t figure out was where his memory of a bridge fit into the increasingly familiar landscape. Maybe the memory was a transmutation of the dock, but he didn’t think so. He briefly considered the possibility the bridge had been removed, but where would it have been in the first place? The lake, though small, was too big to support the relatively short structure he remembered so clearly.
No, he decided. The bridge hadn’t been on the lake. The bridge was somewhere else. Somewhere nearby.
Levi shuffled down to the water where the smell of dead fish overwhelmed him. He walked along the gangway, which bobbed beneath his considerable weight, and the styrofoam floats smacked softly against the water. A black mocassin wiggled out from underneath the floats, holding its slender head above the water. It steered clear of Brad’s direction, who splashed around on the other side of the lake, playing as unselfconsciously as a child.
Dread weighed on Levi, wringing the blood from his heart like a wet washrag. Earlier he had attributed the anxiety to the realization he had no idea what he would do now that school was over. The others had it all figured out: Denise a physical therapist, Ashley a bank teller like her aunt. Zach would study law while Brad would end up managing his parents’ storage complex if the football dream didn’t pan out. Levi, on the other hand, had nothing but a summer job at the feed store.
And that was scary.
He looked in the direction the others had gone, hoping to steal another glance at Ashley’s legs, but they had disappeared into the woods and the darkness. Did she even remember him from middle school: the pudgy kid who sat alone as boys and girls alike competed for her attention? Did she remember the time a gust of wind had blown her dress up around her armpits and she had pushed it back down without an ounce of embarrassment?
He remembered. It was the earliest memory he could trust.
Brad made as much noise as possible as he crawled from the water on the far side of the lake. It was a trick as old as swimming itself: most critters would book it in the opposite direction. Anything which wasn’t spooked by the noise… well, you tried not to think about running into things like that.
He pushed through the pondweed and managed his balance as he crossed a large rock, slick with algae. His toes squishing clay, he turned back to admire the distance he had crossed. The bulb on the utility pole was a pale orb of light, occasionally buzzed by bats. He hollered triumphantly to the other side, expecting a response from his friends, but heard only the echo of his voice.
Levi’s silhouette was lumbering about the dock. As Brad prepared to egg his friend to come out after him, he thought better of it. Levi wasn’t himself that night. He wasn’t the constantly grinning goofball who never let anything get him down, not even the outright rejection of every girl he had ever pursued. Ashley once expressed concern over the fact he always ended up playing Atari at the end of the night while the couples found someplace to be alone. Brad, too cool to show his hand, had brushed off Ashley’s concern.
“Nah, not Levi. Nothing ever bothers Levi.”
But of course it bothered Levi. Whereas Brad could easily cover up his own insecurities, Levi had three hundred pounds of it, front and center, like a beacon for all to see. And the fact that the others pretended to be so perfect on the outside… well, that couldn’t be helping the guy’s self-esteem, either. So, feeling the urge to drink another beer anyway, Brad waded into the water and swam toward his friend.
Ashley, Zach, and Denise gravitated to the cabins. They followed a vague trail, lighting the way with a Rayovac flashlight which felt like a toy in Ashley’s hand. The batteries rattled inside the plastic casing, which made the bulb flicker, and it seemed at any moment the damn thing would crap out, stranding them in the darkness of the woods.
Polished rocks marked the boundaries of the path. The rocks were scattered at first, but they became more and more uniform the farther the trio walked. Eventually they found a sign suspended from a wooden frame. One of the chains had broken, which made the sign hang crooked.
“Charming,” Ashley said.
Zach turned the sign so they could read it, but there were no words. There was only the carved image of a goat’s face with a star on its forehead. It was the kind of star teachers used to draw on Ashley’s homework when she was in grade school. A sourness settled atop her stomach like an oil slick.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Looks like a goat with a pentagram on its head,” Denise said, “but I’m no expert.”
“Hilarious, but what the hell is a pentagram? Isn’t that, like, satanic?”
“It is when it’s upside down like this,” said Zach, grinning as he twisted the sign to inspect the other side. “I’m beginning to think our dear ol’ Levi had one fucked up childhood.”
The back side of the sign bore the same image, seemingly exact even though it was chiseled by hand. As he let it twist back around, the remaining chain snapped and the sign thudded at their feet.
Ashley slapped Zach on the arm. “Stop that!”
“Yeah, I made that happen,” he deadpanned.
They moved ahead to the clearing. The cabins were arranged in a circle around a pillar, which was almost twice as tall as Zach.
“Whoa!” Denise shouted, throwing her arm out to stop the others.
Ashley lowered the flashlight and found a circular band of metal with triangular teeth. A second later she realized it was a bear trap, cartoonishly large.
“Holy shit,” Zach said. “That is some serious hardware.”
He took the flashlight from Ashley and used its beam to trace the chain of the trap. The other end was bolted around a sycamore, which was shedding its bark in such a way it appeared ashen and sickly.
“There aren’t any bears around here,” Ashley said, her voice rising with fear, “so why is this trap so big?”
Zach swung the flashlight from the tree to the trap and back again. On one of the passes he spotted another trap a few yards ahead of the first. It also had a large chain securing it to a tree. Ashley slipped behind Zach and clung to Denise’s arm. She had heard of panic attacks, but never experienced one until now.
The sporadic beam fell short of the pillar at the center of the clearing. Zach said, “It’s like whoever put these traps here were trying to protect that pole up there. Christ, they’re all over the place.”
“Look,” Ashley said, knowing good and well her voice might break at any moment, “I know you guys think I’m the pansy of the group, and I’m trying not to freak the fuck out right now—I really am—but I would love to just get the hell out of here.”
But Zach seemed unwilling to turn away from the pillar, as if it had cast some spell over him. As the girls backed away, he made the weakest effort to follow.
“Zach,” Denise said firmly. “Let’s go.”
“Levi?” Brad called, collecting his clothes as he padded back to the truck. “Where you at, ya dumb fucker?”
The darkness beyond the bulb’s radius was maddening. The lake shimmered and the treetops were faintly visible against the sky, but he was otherwise surrounded by blackness. He was beginning to think Levi was playing a prank on him. Hell, maybe all four of ’em were in on it. Come to think of it, Zach had been suspiciously eager to head out to the middle of nowhere, yet he was typically the voice of reason.
“Alright,” Brad said, plopping down on the tailgate. He grabbed a beer and amused himself with a John Wayne impression: “A man shouldn’t be above drinking alone, pilgrim.”
Brad chugged a large portion of the beer, shimmied into his jeans, and chugged the rest. He belched, dried his face with his shirt, and used water from the cooler to knock the dirt from his feet. In an effort to dry his legs, which dangled over the edge of the tailgate, he swung them to and fro.
These little distractions were all he could do to ignore the feeling someone was watching him from over his shoulder. Sometimes, no matter how silly he felt, he couldn’t help but whip his head around and look. Even though he never saw anything the feeling persisted.
What was watching him wasn’t over his shoulder. It was under the truck.
[END OF SAMPLE]