An Incident in Marrow
by Jason M. Tucker
Jason M. Tucker is a full-time writer working in Southern California in the genres of fantasy, horror, crime, and all manner of pulp. He’s the author of the collection Meat City and has been published in many anthologies and magazines over the years including Shotgun Honey, Corrupts Absolutely, Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon, and more. He has an upcoming story for Guilty, and “Greenies”, a short film he wrote based on one of his stories, is currently in postproduction.
His rarely updated website is jasonmtucker.com. His Twitter handle is @rollforgeek due to his love or tabletop roleplaying games. Feel free to follow.
October 1971—Marrow, California
Marrow wasn’t a town. Not really. It was three streets, a couple of stop signs peppered with bullet holes, and a handful of time-worn buildings stuck in the middle of the Mendocino National Forest. There was a motel with a little diner attached to it—The Red Bell—but it didn’t look like it saw much use. Nothing in this place did.
By the time I pulled my Chevelle into the motel’s parking lot, it was well after midnight and perfectly quiet. Both the diner and the motel’s office were closed and dark. The only light came from flickering bulbs above motel room doors and the gaudy, bell-shaped crimson neon sign that was still burning.
I fixed my eyes on the only other vehicle in the parking lot. A sea-green ’67 VW Beetle coated in a layer of California dust.
She was here.
According to the message my answering service had taken that morning, she was staying in Room 4. The message said that she’d figured it out. That she’d found him. I’d been through this with Maggie Belton plenty of times before. She seemed to lose a little more of herself each time. Whenever she needed me, I was there, even if I had to drive most of the day.
I stepped out of the car and lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke into the star-dappled sky. A smoke would calm me before I saw her again. I’d gotten too close, nearly lost myself in her and her… I didn’t want to say delusions. She was worried about her little brother, and I understood that. It was why she’d hired me. William Jann, Hollywood PI, was good at solving problems. It said so right on my business card.
Jake Belton was a problem I couldn’t solve, though. 18 years old with his entire life ahead of him. No drugs. Went to church on Sunday. Good grades, loved to read, swimming scholarship, pretty girlfriend, and a loving family. Dad was a television producer, mom was a writer. Big sister was an actress. Jake and his family were normal. Well, as normal as Los Angeles allowed. At first glance, there wasn’t anything that would suggest he would up and run away.
According to Maggie, Jake found out that he was adopted and it was like a switch inside him flipped. He became withdrawn and wanted nothing to do with the family. Got his own place and then vanished about a month later. Like he just stepped out of existence.
That was when Maggie hired me to find out what happened. I figured it would be easy. Kid probably needed to get a little wild, hang out with some hippies for a bit, smoke some dope, realize he didn’t enjoy living poor, and then figure out who he was. Only he never came back. Didn’t contact anyone, not even his girlfriend.
He vanished, and Maggie and I had been chasing rumors and ghosts since then. I’d been to Massachusetts, Florida, and Mexico based on nothing but ideas and hunches from people that Maggie had found or that had found her. Nothing panned out.
I took another drag off the cigarette, not quite ready to see Maggie. She didn’t wait, though. The door to Room 4 opened, spilling murky yellow light onto the walkway and gravel. Maggie stepped outside. Her dark hair was mussed and her eyes were bloodshot, but she was smiling.
“I knew I heard your car. I’m glad you came,” she said. “Even though you probably think I’m out of my mind.”
“Mags,” I said, tossing the cigarette and stubbing it beneath my heel. I headed over to her. “Nice little town you’ve found.”
“It’s a cult,” she whispered, grabbing my hand to draw me into the motel room. “Make yourself as comfortable as you can.”
I took a seat on the edge of the bed. The blanket was orange and threadbare, covered in countless questionable stains.
The room looked like it hadn’t received an update or a deep clean since the 1950s. The mismatched furniture and wood paneling weren’t kitschy, just ugly. Most of the surfaces looked like they had a layer of dust and grime on them. The scent of coffee was thick, and there were two large pizza boxes on the desk. There were also a few bottles of Coke in a bucket of half-melted ice. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” played softly on the radio.
“We’ve been over the cult angle,” I said.
I’d seen and dealt with several cults in the decade I’d been working as a private investigator. Parents would sometimes hire me to get their kids out by any means necessary. Most of the “cults” were just drugged-out kids looking for a place to tune out from society. Others were a lot more dangerous.
“How long you been holed up here?” I asked.
“Since yesterday morning,” she said, shutting the door behind me.
“What brought you to this place? There’s nothing in this town. I didn’t even know it existed until I got your message.”
“He’s here. It’s a cult,” she said, looking at me as if I’d lost my mind.
“I think you might want to back up a bit,” I said.
“What? Yeah, sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “This place is weird, and I’ve been up for a while. So, anyway, I got a phone call from one of Jake’s friends, Zimm, that was on the swim team with him. He says that he’s positive he saw Jake here in Marrow a few weeks ago. He told me about it as soon as he got back, but he said he thought Jake looked ill, like he hasn’t been taking care of himself.”
“What was this friend doing here? Seems like a hell of a coincidence, Mags.”
“He was passing through, I guess. He was camping or something and stopped for gas. I didn’t really focus on that part. Synchronicity or something. What I’m saying is that Jake’s in Marrow. And I think I know where.”
“We’ve been through this before,” I said.
“This is the one,” she said. “I wouldn’t have called you to come out here if I wasn’t sure. I’m committed to fixing this.” She had that fire in her eyes. I wanted to believe her. She certainly believed what she was saying.
“Okay. We’ll look into it in the morning,” I said. “Just promise me that if this doesn’t pan out, you’ll get some rest and take a break. Your parents are worried about you.”
“I don’t want to wait until morning. Look at this,” she said, pulling out a neatly folded orange flyer from beneath the pizza boxes. I recognized the color.
“Is that what I think?” I felt sick to my stomach. I’d seen a flyer just like it before. In Jake’s apartment.
“Some sickly-looking kid was passing them out yesterday at the gas station at the edge of town. I asked him about Jake, but he got nervous. Said he didn’t know anyone named Jake and then took off in an old pickup truck.”
I reached for the flyer. Written across the top in a plain font was the name of the group and below that its tenets, which amounted to the same nonsense that most groups like it spew.
Children of the Refracted Light
Follow Your Path
Become Part of the Family
Breathe of the New Life
Give Glory to the Father, Give Glory to the Mother
It was indeed the same as what I had found in Jake’s apartment more than a year ago. Even the tacky orange paper was the same. I had looked into the Children but didn’t find anything. None of my contacts knew the name, they’d never heard the litany of commandments. They all agreed that it was probably a dead end, just one of those pop-up groups with a fake guru looking for a good time. That I should probably focus my efforts elsewhere.
So that’s what I did. I let it go. I didn’t go far enough. I didn’t push deep. One of the worst things an investigator can do. A lazy mistake.
“I’m sorry,” I said, looking up at Maggie. She didn’t have any anger in her eyes, just hope.
“We’re here now. We’ll find him,” she said. “But I don’t want to wait too long. I’m worried that I tipped them off when I started asking about Jake. I don’t want them to run.”
“Of course,” I said, fumbling for another cigarette. “Do you know where in town they might be staying?”
“Not in town,” Maggie said. “The old guy that runs that gas station doesn’t like them. Say’s they’re a bunch of weirdos. They live down on Black Road at an old summer camp west of town. Told me not to go out there because it wasn’t safe. They carry rifles, and he thinks they steal cars and strip them.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled. “Okay, that’s where we go. But if he’s part of an honest-to-god cult, it won’t be easy getting him out. He might feel like that’s where he belongs. Trying to get people out can be messy when they don’t want to go.”
“I don’t care. I’ll knock him out and drag him back if I have to,” she said. “And I’m not going to let anyone stop me. We’ll fix him.”
I nodded. I wasn’t going to argue with her. If I’d done my due diligence, maybe I could’ve found Jake a long time ago. This was my fault, and I’d do what needed to be done. “Let’s go.”
Black Road was a rough dirt track about a car and a half-wide. It was less of a road and more of a hiking trail, and my Chevelle didn’t like the ruts and divots. I didn’t want to bring the car into the camp to announce our arrival, so I found a turnaround spot and angled the car back toward town in case we had to get out in a hurry.
“Why are parking here?” Maggie asked.
“I figured it would be better to walk from here. Get a lay of the land and figure out what the camp looks like. We can figure out the best way to handle it then. We could walk in and say hello. Or we find him and grab him.”
“You don’t think they’re going to be friendly, do you?”
“Well, Jake might not want to go. If this is really and truly a cult, and if they do have guns, they might not be willing to give him up. I’d rather we be prepared.” My 1911 sat snugly in my shoulder holster. I reached into my glove box and pulled out a .38 snub-nosed revolver and handed it to her. She took it without hesitation.
The walk to the camp was less than half a mile. Moonlight proved bright enough that we could make out the shapes of a dozen old cabins and one long building that might’ve been a reception hall or a cafeteria. I could see a couple of people near the center of the camp gathered around a firepit.
“Let’s get a little closer. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see him,” I said. “We just gotta stay out of sight.”
We moved as quietly as we could, finally stopping at a decent vantage point in the tall grass about twenty yards from the camp. There were a few old pickups parked in a line near the camp entrance. I could now see that the buildings were all in disrepair, and half of them looked like they were on the verge of crumbling.
“What the hell?” Maggie whispered. “Look.”
Several more people had gathered around the firepit. They were speaking in a language that I’d never heard before, like a series of clicks and groans. All were naked from the waist up, and their bodies looked slick and pale. None of them had any visible body hair, not even eyebrows. Their bulging eyes glittered in the firelight. I didn’t see any that looked like Jake, but to be honest, these didn’t look like any human I’d seen before.
Before I had much of a chance to comprehend just what I was seeing, a sound cut through their jabbering. It reminded me of the deep, bellowing growl an alligator makes. I could feel the sound ripple through me, and before I knew it, my hand was fumbling for my pistol.
“Jesus,” whispered Maggie. “What is this?”
The people around the fire went silent and dropped to their knees, reverent by the looks of it. The bellow subsided and then replaced with chittering and clicks, some strange language that the cultists seemed to understand.
That’s when it all went to hell.
Their heads all turned in unison to where Maggie and I hid in the grass surrounding the camp. In a flash, they began running toward us, eyes wild and angry like territorial animals. I reached for Maggie when I heard the sharp report of two shots from the revolver, which deafened me momentarily.
One of the Children of Refracted Light screamed and fell to the ground, clutching her stomach where the bullets had slammed into her. I wanted to run, to get away from those things, but Maggie was standing her ground. No way was I going to leave her. I pulled and aimed my pistol, firing and taking down another of the cultists before the rest were upon us, hitting, clawing, scratching. I shot another, and Maggie fired off the remaining rounds in the revolver before the Children of Refracted Light overwhelmed us.
My eyes opened to near darkness. Everything ached. I could feel drying, caked blood on the back of my head from where one cultist had hit me. As I acclimated to the low lantern light, I could see that I was in some sort of crude cage. I pushed myself up to a sitting position. The scent of fish, blood, and incense caused my stomach to roil.
“Mags?” I said.
“Will, oh, God, I thought you were dead,” she said. She was in a cage next to mine. Blood and bruises covered her face. I tried to reach through the bars to her. She did the same. Our fingers barely grazed.
“Where the hell are we?”
“Underground somewhere,” she said. “I’m not feeling well.”
“We’ll figure this out,” I said. I didn’t even believe myself, but what was I going to do? “See if there’s anything in there with you that’s useful.”
I did my best to take in the surroundings to see what I was dealing with. The walls looked to be a natural underground cavern. Was it beneath the camp, or had they taken us somewhere else? Rushing water in the distance. An underground river, perhaps. We weren’t too far from the coast. It could run all the way to the ocean for all I knew. There were two passages off of the room we were in, but I didn’t know where either of them led.
One wall had a bas relief. It was hard to make it out in the shadowed light. It looked like a carving of a towering city with some type of massive anthropoidal squid or octopus sitting at the center.
The cage that held me also had scraps of clothing, dirty pillows, bones, and dozens of wallets. In the low light, I made out a few names and pictures on driver’s licenses. Some of them had been issued close to a decade before. All people who had come to a similar end at the hands of the Children of Refracted Light?
My pistol was gone. So were my shoes. There wasn’t much to use in the cage, but I grabbed what looked like a snapped femur bone about eight inches long. I tried not to think about who it had once belonged to. The ends were sharp, and that was a better weapon than nothing.
As I was testing the strength of the wooden cage, I heard feet padding toward the cavern chamber. I looked over to Maggie. She seemed to have heard it, too.
“Take this,” I whispered, passing the femur over to her. She grabbed it in a trembling hand.
One of the Children came into the cavern. This one looked similar to the ones from last night. Pale skin, hairless. I could now see what looked like webbing on his fingers. His feet were overly long, ears shrunken close to the sides of his head. They almost looked like cauliflower ear that boxers sometimes get. His eyes were bulbous and watery. He smiled. His teeth were sharp, and there seemed to be too many of them.
I couldn’t fathom how a body could change like that. It had to have been some sort of mutilation inflicted on them by other members of the cult. Something that would bind them in their hideousness for whatever strange beliefs they held. I wanted to believe that was the case. The alternative was too much to consider.
“Listen to me,” he said. His words were hard to understand. Probably because of all the teeth.
“Jake?” she said.
He smiled. When he tilted his head, I could swear I saw slits on the side of his neck. Like gills. Impossible. There was no way the monstrous thing in front of us was her kid brother.
“Yes. Jake,” he said. “You should not have come. You have angered the Family and the ones from the deep. They want you.”
“The hell does that mean?” I asked, still not believing that this was Jake.
“Jake, let us out of here. We can get you help,” Maggie said. “Mom and dad want you to come home. So do I.”
“I don’t need help. You do,” he said. “The others don’t know my connection to you. I shouldn’t be down here, but I wanted to talk to you.”
“To help us out of these cages?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said, not even turning his face toward me.
“Jake,” Maggie said, reaching her hand through the bars toward his face. He accepted her touch and closed his eyes. “I came to rescue you.”
“I told you. I don’t need help. I don’t need to be saved from my true family. I am one of them. They saved me and showed me the truth of my nature. I am becoming. Faster than most. Other Children take longer to change.”
“What happens to us?” I asked.
“You put us at risk. You killed several of us. You belong to us now, like anyone who learns more than they should. You become useful. Sacrifices. Food. Money. Cars. Some humans willingly embrace us. They help our Family grow. Make more Children.”
“Jake,” Maggie said. “Let us out of here. Please.”
“They said we could keep you,” Jake said, almost lovingly. “You won’t be sacrificed and won’t be food. You will serve the Children and make more of us. The Children serve Mother and Father. Mother, Father, and the Children all serve the God who lies sleeping in the city beneath the waves. This is the order of things.”
“You aren’t going to let us out of here, are you?” I asked. This was the rambling of someone who was out of their mind.
“I don’t know,” he said, holding his sister’s hand to his face. “To be honest, a sliver of me thought about it. It’s why I came down here while the others were sleeping. See, there’s part of me that worries… that doesn’t want to see you harmed, Maggie. But this is all your fault. As much as I want to help, I also believe you have to be judged.”
“You are my brother,” Maggie said.
The Jake-thing shrugged. “We were never blood.”
“Blood means nothing. We were family,” she said. “Please.”
The same bellowing growl I’d heard before suddenly erupted from deeper in the cavern. It sounded like several of the things this time. The sounds came from the passage with the rushing water.
“Those from below,” Jake said with more than a hint of excitement in his voice. He laughed and said. “Revel in their glory. Maybe I’ll get to keep you.”
I saw a sudden flash of white and splashes of red as Maggie thrust the sharp femur up and into her brother’s neck. He opened his wide mouth, maybe to scream or gasp for air.
Maggie reached forward, grabbed him, and pulled him toward the cage even before he fell. She dug into his pants pocket and a second later emerged with the key. She unlocked her cage and then mine. I looked at her and mouthed thanks. I didn’t know what else I could say after what had happened.
The bellowing and clicking grew louder, and I could hear the slapping footfalls as something, the ones from the deep Jake had said, came closer.
“Come on,” Maggie said, heading out the direction Jake had come into the chamber.
I followed as fast as I could. There were more of those carvings in the walls, but we were moving fast and I didn’t care to pay them much attention. We soon came to a sun-filled chamber that had a makeshift ladder leading up fifty feet to the outside. Maggie went up the ladder first, and I was right behind her. My bare feet slipped on the rungs several times and I almost fell. The growls were growing louder. But I didn’t chance to look back into the hole until we were both outside and getting ready to close the hatch. I had just a glance, but it seared into my memory.
Three of the creatures looked up at me. Mottled gray and green scales. Bellies a yellowish-white. Long, spiny fins ran down their heads and backs and on their arms. Webbed fingers, mouths wide and filled with rows of sharp teeth. Gills flared on the sides of their neck. Hate filled their yellow and black eyes. They bore into me in those few seconds that I saw them. It felt like… it felt like they had marked me and Maggie.
We slammed the hatch shut and ran. We were a couple of hundred yards from the camp, so we skirted it and made our way back to where we’d parked my car. It was gone, but at the moment, I didn’t care. We ran back to town. My feet were torn up and bloody, but we didn’t stay at the motel any longer than it took to get into the room and grab Maggie’s car keys.
We left and didn’t look back. We didn’t talk about what Maggie had done to Jake, either. Maybe that’s not healthy, but it was for the best.
April 1972—Las Vegas, Nevada
It’s been almost six months since the incident in Marrow. Maggie and I have been on the move almost constantly. After going back to Los Angeles and getting some things in order, grabbing money from savings, we took off. We didn’t stay in contact with anyone, but we did find out that Maggie’s parents had up and vanished without a trace. We’ve stayed as far inland as possible, but I don’t think that will stop those creatures, whatever the hell they are. I imagine they have more groups like the Children of the Refracted Light that will kill for them. They have our names since they took our wallets. Hell, Maggie was an actress, making it even more difficult to hide. It’s more than that, though. As I said, I also feel like they marked us somehow.
We’re trying to figure out what to do. We’re trying to find others who might have more knowledge about these things and who don’t think we’ve lost our minds. There’s a university in Massachusetts that we’ve heard might have some answers.
But it’s so close to the sea.