Episode 1: The Guild
Written by Joe Mynhardt and Naching T. Kassa
They say you can hear the bay’s heartbeat on a night like this. The dark water lapping at the banks as it desperately reaches out toward the living.
A few hours ago, these very banks entertained fishermen, frisky teenagers, and even hosted a child’s birthday party under a clear blue sky. Not that there are a lot of kids in a place like Still Water. It’s just not that sort of town. Kids don’t ride their bikes down the street here. They don’t play in the park until the sun sets. There are no games of hide-and-seek throughout the neighborhood. Still Water Bay has very few children. Even the teenagers from Peach Blossom, the next town over, don’t swim here at night.
People who decide to call this town home are special, called to it, and if they survive, won’t risk bringing kids into a world like this.
Tonight’s eerily quiet, more so than usual. The forest creatures stay hidden, fish too scared to surface. Most people have already settled in for the night, several watching television, others fast asleep.
Old Man Willis draws his curtains and kneels by his armchair. He pulls a cardboard box from beneath and rummages through the VHS tapes, choosing a worn copy of Debbie Does Dallas. He does not notice the shadow which pauses outside his window. He does not see it move on.
To the right of the town, on the darker side of the bay’s newly built and mostly empty bungalows, the shadow creeps. It glides toward a bungalow with intent, ignoring other lit windows as if called to this specific, unknowing target within. The woman’s voice is soft behind the glass.
“You can’t come home now, Asadi,” Taqiya says into the cell phone she holds in one hand. She paces before the pine cabinets as the microwave counts down the seconds, and the smell of buttered popcorn fills the air.
“It’s ten to nine,” Asadi answers. “The meeting began at eight. It’s probably over.”
“Don’t be silly. You can still go in.”
“I think the library is closed.”
“From what I’ve heard, the library is always open.”
“I should come home.”
“You do and you’ll find the door locked.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“I would so. I’m locking it right now.”
Taqiya strides across the room to the front door and turns the deadbolt. It meets the plate with an audible click.
“You wouldn’t leave me in the cold. Your heart is too pure, eshgham.”
“And yours is too fearful.”
Asadi doesn’t answer. As his silence grows, Taqiya stares at the floor and bites her lip. She strokes her swollen belly.
The shadow shivers at the sight and presses against the window. The woman glances up. If she sees it, she gives no sign.
“I’m drowning,” Asadi says. “No matter what I do, I can’t seem to reach the shore.”
“Then stop swimming. Take the hand offered to you. You’re not alone anymore, and you’ll never be alone again. These people, this group, can help you. All you have to do is let them.”
“I have never asked for help in my life.”
“Perhaps now is the time to start.”
He falls silent again. Taqiya listens. She waits as though she has all the time in the world.
At last, he speaks. “You’re right.”
“And when have I ever been wrong?”
“Well…there was that time at college, when you thought my bottle of Gorilla Glue was a new type of lotion…”
“…and you glued your hand to the doorknob.”
Taqiya laughs. “Aside from that unfortunate incident, have I ever been wrong?”
“Then, why aren’t you in the library?”
“I guess I have no excuse.” Asadi pauses. “What would I do without you, eshgham?”
“You would live. You’d be bitter and useless, but you’d live. Hurry now. Before the meeting ends.”
“I love you.”
“And I you.”
Before he can say another word, she presses the button ending the call.
Shaking her head, Taqiya stares at the door. She grins as she unlocks it.
When she returns to the kitchen and her popcorn, the shadow slinks away from the window. It winds its way toward the door.
Asadi walks in on an awkward silence. A group of five people sit in a circle at the center of the small library, chairs facing each other, one unoccupied. The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee fills the air. The maker sits on the table nearby. A doorway leads to another room beyond the group. It is well-lit, revealing several cooking appliances and cupboards. Books fill the shelves around the group.
The two men and three women stare at him. He imagines the questions in their minds and heat creeps into his cheeks. He clears his throat.
“Excuse me. Is this the grieving group?” he asks.
“This is the group for grievers in search of counseling and support,” a plump, elderly woman answers. Her skin is the color of coffee and she wears a blue cotton dress.
“You’re Taqiya’s husband,” the blonde woman beside her says. “She said you might come. Don’t be shy, sit down.” She motions to the empty chair.
The blonde looks to be in her forties. She wears a pink tank top which reveals well-toned and tanned arms. Taqiya has spoken of her often, but her name escapes him.
He takes a step toward the chair.
“He can’t sit there,” a gruff, male voice says. The owner is a thin elderly man, with wispy white hair. Though the library is warm, he’s dressed in a tan jacket and jeans. He stares with bold, blue eyes. “Let him get another chair.”
“Don’t be such a grouch, John,” the elderly woman says.
“It’s Chuck’s seat.”
“I don’t see his name on it. Not unless he changed it to ‘Property of the Still Water Library.’”
“Chuck always sat to my left. You know that. He could walk in here anytime and—”
“Chuck is not coming back,” a woman speaks up. She is short with black hair which flows over the shoulders of her white blouse. Her quiet comment brings silence to the room. When John looks away, she turns her almond-shaped eyes on Asadi.
“What is your name?” she asks.
“My name is Asadi, and I lost my entire family a little over…five years ago.”
The words tumble out. He doesn’t mean to say them.
Asadi suddenly becomes aware of their judging stares. He feels the need to retreat but bumps into the shelf behind him.
“What’s your surname, son?” John asks, his voice now calm and controlled.
Asadi tries to swallow away his dry throat. He wipes his sweaty hands on his trousers. “It’s just Asadi, sir. I was born in Afghanistan, so...” Recent experiences in the Western world dictate he lower his eyes. Their expressions at this revelation might cut him deeper than a knife.
“Sir?” the older gentleman replies. “Shit, I think that’s the first time in over a year a youngster like yourself has called me sir.”
“Oh, John,” the elderly woman says. “Let the boy speak.” She turns to Asadi. “Forgive him. Sometimes he has no manners.”
“No manners?” John interrupts. “I’m welcoming him to the States.”
“Well, you have a funny way of going about it.”
“If I was trying to be funny, I’d put on my fright wig and clown nose.”
“Ignore him,” she says to Asadi. “My name’s Suzie, by the way. Suzie Jones. The lovely lady over there is LiYang Chen. We call her “Li” for short. The young man next to her is Deontay Lewis, and you already know Samantha Carstens.”
“We haven’t actually met,” the blonde says. “Just call me Sam.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Asadi says. “All of you.”
“Sit down, sit down,” Suzie says.
Asadi takes the seat between John and Deontay. He forces a smile. It’s then he realizes he’s the youngest person there. Deontay, on the left, is the closest to his age. He looks to be in his mid-thirties.
“Tell us a little about your family,” Li says.
Once again, the words spill from his lips.
“My family weren’t what you’d call good people. I was eighteen when I ran away. I heard they died when Iraqi forces took Mosul. They died fighting, the way they always said they would. Except for my mom, of course. She died shortly after I left.”
“How did you get out, Asadi?” Suzie asks, genuine sympathy etched on her wrinkled face.
“My uncle helped me. He’s always been open-minded and in touch with the modern world. He got me a study visa at the University of Alabama, where he works. Asadi couldn’t help but smile. “That’s where I met my wife, Taqiya. We were married the next year, after I became a citizen.”
John, seated in the chair on the right, grunts and checks his watch.
Asadi frowns. He forces himself to continue. “Taqiya and I graduated a few months ago. She majored in psychology and I have a degree in secondary education. I got a job in Peach Blossom, but we decided to move here.”
“Why here?” Deontay asks. His hair is black, his skin like mocha. He wears a T-shirt and blue jeans. “Why this town?”
“This might sound silly, but we felt the place called to us. We feel like we’re supposed to be here. The bungalows and the bay, it’s like home. Taqiya calls it destiny.” He grins. “She wants to raise all of our kids here.”
“How many do you have?” Suzie asks.
“Taqiya’s pregnant with our first. About seven months—”
“Someone is here,” Li interrupts. “Will you excuse me for a moment?” She rises from her chair and crosses to the front desk as the front door opens. An old man enters.
“Sorry to bother you lot,” he says.
“No bother at all, Mr. Willis,” Li replies. “How may I assist you?”
“You got a VCR? The one I had gave up the ghost on me.”
“Certainly. Right this way.”
She leads the man away from them. When they’ve gone, Suzie leans forward and says, “Must’ve been tough losing your family like that. Having to run away.”
Asadi nods and bites his lower lip. “The worst part was knowing my father and older brothers hated me while they were still alive. We never did get along because I didn’t share their political beliefs. The only one who didn’t hate me was my mom. I think she was happy I left. My uncle and she were very close. I know she missed him when he moved to America. Sometimes…I wish I had taken her with me. But I know they probably would’ve killed her other siblings if I had.”
“What happened to your mother?” Sam asks.
“I… I don’t know. My uncle received a message from a friend shortly after I arrived in America. He said she had died but didn’t say how.”
Asadi shivers. Fragments of a nightmare return to him, a nightmare his mother dominates. He blinks away the sight of blood and peeling flesh, struggling to control himself.
“You okay, sugar?” Suzie asks.
Asadi nods. He cannot speak.
Suzie rises and hurries to the coffeemaker. Seconds later, she is at his side. A warm Styrofoam cup is pressed into his hand. He takes a sip.
Mr. Willis returns, a black machine cradled in his arms. He leaves the library without a word.
“Asadi was talking about his mother,” Suzie says to Li as she joins the group.
Li gazes into Asadi’s eyes. His scalp tingles.
“Everyone experiences grief in a different way,” she says. “Some choose to hide from it, drowning their sorrows in liquor or salving the pain with drugs.”
“I don’t drink or take drugs. My religion prohibits such things. It also gives me strength to face my grief head on. To understand there are reasons—”
John snorts and shakes his head. Suzie glares at him. Li ignores them both.
“You seem to have a healthy handle on things. What brings you to our group?”
Asadi lowers his eyes. Again, the words come unbidden.
“I’ve been having these nightmares about my family since I got here, and they’ve only grown worse. Every night, it’s the same thing. I’m standing out near the bay. The moon is full and bright. My family is there, but only my mother stands near me. Then, these creatures appear. They are dark with sharp claws which rend and tear the skin. They pull my father and brothers into the water. Then, they go after my mother.
“I don’t remember what happens next. I know there is blood—but I always wake. I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know why it seems worse now. Maybe, it’s because I’m about to be a father? I don’t know. My wife’s worried about me. She heard about this group from the ladies at Bright Style—the salon. Thought I should share it with you.”
The group smile at the mention of the salon.
“Yeah,” Deontay says. “Folks over at Bright Style think they know everything. And oh, they are so eager to share.”
“If only we could hook their mouths to a generator,” John says. “We could power the town for a month!”
Deontay chuckles and holds a fist out in front of Asadi. John bumps it.
“Hey,” Sam exclaims. “Have you two forgotten I work there?”
Deontay’s grin fades. “Oh—no—you—sorry, girl,”
“You better be sorry, Deontay Lewis. And, you John, you know better than that.” She glowers at both men. “With that many mouths, we could power this town for at least ten years.”
The room dissolves into laughter. Asadi finds himself joining in.
When it dies away, John rises to his feet. He faces Li and points to his watch.
“That’s our time for this evening,” she announces. “I hope you’ll come back next Friday, Asadi. We can pick up then.”
“And we’ll do a welcome dinner for you and your wife,” Suzie adds. “Maybe, this weekend?”
“Taqiya would like that.”
The group moves toward the coffee table to pick up a donut or refresh their cup. Asadi stands by his chair for a few moments and then makes for the door. As he passes the table, Suzie grabs him by the arm.
“Don’t let John bother you, okay? He’s a character, alright, but he means well. He’s just going through a lot right now and he’s not sure how to handle it all.”
“I understand. Chuck must’ve been a good friend.”
Suzie nods. “The best. He and John were very close. What I’m trying to say, is I hope he won’t keep you away. He’s a good man, even though he doesn’t always think so.”
“I won’t let him stop me.”
“Good.” A warm smile curves her lips. “They’re all good people. Every single one of them. Why, they’re just like my own family. Of course, like any family, you have your favorites.” She leans in and whispers, “If you tell Deontay this, I swear I’ll deny it. But that young man is like a son to me.” A giggle bubbles out of her as she nudges Asadi in the ribs.
He looks over his shoulder as she leads him to the front exit. It’s then he realizes the others aren’t leaving and John has resumed his seat.
“The library is always open if you need anything,” Suzie says. “Li is always here. Heaven knows when she sleeps. Or where for that matter.” She giggles again. “You know, I’ve plumb forgotten where she lives other than this building. Must be my age catchin’ up with me.”
“You coming, Suzie?” John calls. “We’re running late as is and our work is far from over.”
“I’d better get home to my wife,” Asadi says. “Thank you for everything, Ms. Suzie.”
“Just Suzie, sugar.” She pats him on the arm. “Stay safe, alright? And, remember. We meet every Friday at eight pm on the dot.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
Asadi exits the library and descends the steps. The pathway leads to the quiet, shadow infested road and he takes it.
The roads in Still Water are narrow, made for pedestrians and bicycles rather than automobiles. He’s seen only a few odd cars in town. Most travel the single main road which passes through. Others are parked and gathering dust.
The farther he gets from the library, the more his thoughts turn to the people in it. They seem kind and yet…
Questions arise in his mind. What kind of work was John referring to? And why were they working so late? Since arriving at the library, he’d felt as though he was keeping them from something. That they, and John especially, were just waiting for him to leave.
Did he really want to share his private thoughts with such weird people?
The cell phone in his pocket chimes. He pulls it out and checks the screen. It notifies him of one missed call from Taqiya.
He dials her number, but she doesn’t answer.
The even narrower dirt road on the left leads to the bungalow area which sits on the edge of the forest, overlooking the bay. Knowing he’ll be home soon, he tucks his phone back into his pocket.
The bay sparkles under the light of the moon as he leaves the trail. A breeze, spiced with brine, wafts toward him. It is a welcome scent, so different from that of the desert. He breathes deep as he approaches the place he calls home.
Warm light streams through the glazed windows which flank the door. Asadi readies his key and reaches for the doorknob.
Something is wrong.
The doorknob is covered in slime. It is cold and slick to the touch. Asadi jerks his hand away and peers at his palm. The substance coats his hand. It appears to be mud. He wipes his hand on his shirt and uses the tail to twist the knob.
It isn’t locked. He steps inside and drops his keys on the table near the door.
There are strange, muddy tracks on the living room carpet. They lead toward the kitchen.
“Taqiya?” he calls. “Taqiya, I’m home. Have you been outside?”
A muffled cry answers him. The sound nearly breaks his heart. He has never heard such anguish, such agony. Not from her. Never from Taqiya.
Asadi runs. His legs carry him into the kitchen and to the sight which will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Taqiya lies upon the linoleum, her brown eyes gazing up at him. Her shirt lies in tatters, revealing her belly.
Something profane pins her to the floor. Part of its body lies across the lower half of her face, neck, and breasts. It is as black as night, black as shadow, the source of the mud which tracks the floor. Strong hands hold Taqiya’s arms. It has no legs.
A long, black tube extends from the creature’s torso. It has pierced Taqiya’s belly, which is shrinking before Asadi’s eyes.
Horror paralyzes him for but a few seconds. Without thinking, he pulls the butcher knife from the rack, races forward, and plunges it into the creature.
The thing squeals beneath the blade. It looks up at him, displaying blank eyes and a mouth filled with blunt teeth. It backhands Asadi and he goes flying. He hits the wall and lies at the foot of it in a daze.
John Walters sips his coffee. The chair, Chuck’s chair, is empty once more.
Suzie, Deontay, and Sam are talking about the kid, Asadi, chattering like excited magpies. Sam says something about how brave he is. She’s heard this from the kid’s wife, Taqiya, when the woman came into Bright Style. Apparently, the kid stopped an attempted rape at the university in his junior year.
“Taqiya says he just rushed right in there,” Sam says. “The guy had a knife and he slashed at Asadi, cut him across the stomach, and came a hairsbreadth from disemboweling him. Do you know what Asadi did?”
“What?” Suzie asks.
“He kept coming. Blood everywhere and he just kept coming. Broke the guy’s wrist when he took the knife away.”
“Jesus!” Deontay breathes. “Sounds like this dude knows how to fight.”
“That’s the thing,” Sam says. “He doesn’t. He used to rough house with his brothers, but that’s as far as it went.”
“I like him,” Suzie says. “He seems like such a good man. I think he’d be a great addition to the group.”
John’s head aches. Chuck has been gone less than a month and they’re already talking about replacing him. He scowls into his Styrofoam cup. When he looks up, Li is staring at him. He avoids her gaze.
“Sorry to break this up,” he says. “But we have business to attend to and I’d like to get home at a decent hour. Sam, what’s the skinny from Bright Style?”
“Just the usual gossip. No unusual sightings or incidents.”
“What about Mrs. Nesbitt’s ghost?” Deontay pipes up. “He still rubbing her feet?”
Sam and Suzie chuckle. Even John can’t help cracking a smile.
“Yes, he’s still at it. Mr. Nesbitt isn’t too happy of course. The ghost won’t touch his.”
“I wouldn’t either,” Deontay says. “I’ve seen Mr. Nesbitt’s feet. He’s got them nasty toes all covered with hair.”
Laughter fills the room. John holds up a hand.
“Could we get back to the meeting, please? I don’t want to spend the rest of the night discussing Mr. Nesbitt’s toes. Any news from the resort, Deontay?”
“Not a damn thing. Some big actor was supposed to come in on Wednesday, but he canceled at the last minute. Otherwise, nobody’s checked in and nobody’s checked out.”
“What about Jackson? What’s he up to?”
“Mr. Jackson played golf with the mayor and town council this week. He never left town.”
“That’s not like him. Something’s up.”
“Oh, John,” Sam says. “Just because he didn’t leave doesn’t mean he’s up to no good. We’ve had quiet weeks before.”
“This one is too quiet. Suzie, did you get to the council meeting last night?”
“Yes, but you’re not going to like what I have to say. They’ve appointed Mason Darrow sheriff until the next election.”
“Darrow! That fuzz-faced reprobate? He wouldn’t know a crime from a hole in his head. He can’t fill Chuck’s shoes.”
“No one can, sugar,” Suzie says. “You have to realize that. You heard Li. Chuck isn’t coming back. Whatever took him…and left all that blood on the beach—well, it must’ve taken him into the water.”
The room grows deathly still.
“He isn’t there,” John replies. “If he were, we’d know it. I’d know it.”
A doorbell sounds at the back of the library, beyond the small kitchen.
“It’s Jonathan,” Li says. She hurries to unlock the door with Suzie and Sam on her heels.
Deontay and John bring up the rear.
“I think you’re right, John,” the young man says in a low voice. “I don’t think Chuck is dead. He wouldn’t just disappear. Not unless he meant to. I think he’s out there, somewhere.”
“The question is where?” John says.
“Chuck’s a resourceful man. He’ll find us when he’s ready.” He pats John on the shoulder and joins the others in the kitchen.
A man is seated at the small table near the stove when John enters. He is clad in a stained gray tee, faded black jeans, and a worn black jacket. Dreadlocks, peppered with gray, hang over both shoulders. A backpack rests near his feet.
“Hey, old fart,” he says, a grin spreading across his face.
“Can’t you two think up some better names?” Suzie says, wrinkling her nose. She and Li bustle about the kitchen, preparing a brown paper bag of cookies and a tall thermos of coffee.
“But he is an old fart, Suzie. And I’m a fuck up.”
“If the name fits, wear it,” Sam says, leaning against the stove.
Jonathan sticks out a hand, palm up. Sam slaps it.
“Don’t encourage him, Sam,” Suzie says. She pauses, her gaze running over his coat. “I thought you were going to get rid of that thing.”
“This is my good winter jacket.”
“You told me you’d buy a new one.”
“I said I might buy one. Didn’t say I would.”
“Jonathan Christopher DeLaurie—”
“You’re in trouble now, man,” Deontay says. “She just busted out the full name.”
Suzie glares. Deontay smiles. With his right hand, he zips his lips.
“And keep it that way,” she says to Deontay. She turns back to Jonathan. “Why a man with your money would refuse to buy a coat is beyond me. You could catch your death in that ratty old thing. You get down to The Wiggly Pig and get yourself a new jacket or I’ll…I’ll do it myself!”
“I can’t do it now. It’s a quarter after ten. The store’s not open.”
“Don’t you get smart with me. You know what I mean. Do it tomorrow.”
“Shiftless bum,” Suzie mutters as she returns to her work. “Rich man choosin’ to be homeless. Can’t even take care of himself.”
“I’m fifty years old,” Jonathan whisperers to John. “She boss you around like this?”
“She can’t. I was there when she learned to walk.”
“Anything going on out there tonight?” Sam asks.
Jonathan pauses and scratches at his scraggly beard. “I think I might have seen something out by the bay. I was half-asleep though, so I’m not sure.”
“What’d it look like?” John asks.
“Sort of like a shadow. There one minute, gone the next.”
“By the old pervert’s place.”
“Old Man Willis?” Deontay asks.
“Yeah. I checked on him before I left, but he wasn’t home.”
“That’s because he was here, renting a VCR. Probably burned the other one out watching pornos.”
“What else did you notice?” John presses.
“Like I said, I didn’t get a good look. It may not have been there at all.”
“Was it tall? Short?”
“Short. It was close to the ground—and it moved in a weird way.”
“It dragged itself along.”
“Like it had arms but no legs?” Li asks. She sets the thermos before Jonathan.
“You said it looked like a shadow. Was it a dull black? Or was it like slick mud?”
“Now that I think of it, it did look like mud.”
“You weren’t imagining it, Jonathan,” Li says. “What you’ve described is an Aswang.”
“Shit!” John cries. “Sam, do you know of any pregnant women in town?”
“Yes, why do you ask?”
“An Aswang is a shape-shifter that preys on pregnant women. It sucks the fetus out of their body, leaving the mother to die. Jonathan, are you sure you saw it near the bungalows?”
“That’s the only thing I’m sure of.”
“Taqiya,” Sam whispers.
“You two, come with me,” John says to Deontay and Sam. He leads them to the far wall of the kitchen and presses a button. A door opens in the wall. Deontay and Sam rush through it.
“You remember how to kill an Aswang, Jonathan?”
“Aswangs are like vampires. You’ll have to stake it. Want me to come with you?”
“No. Stay here with Suzie and Li. I’ll let you know if we need you.”
John enters the small, hidden room.
A bare bulb illuminates the space, revealing the weapons mounted on the walls. Sword blades gleam in its light.
Drawers line the left wall. Sam is already reaching inside one. She pulls out two wooden stakes and hands them to John and Deontay, then takes one for herself. John tucks the stake into his belt, then picks up a heavy, black Maglite. Without a word, he leads them to the door at the opposite end of the room. They hurry through it and out into the night.
The Maglite’s beam is rendered almost useless by the light of the full moon. John clicks it off as they rush down the trail to the road.
At first, John is in the lead. He runs like he’s never run before, legs churning and arms pumping like a much younger man. Then, the weakness slithers in, and with it comes the pain.
He drops back and Deontay and Sam overtake him. They run by, neither noticing he has stopped.
The pill bottle is in his pants pocket. He drops the flashlight, then takes the bottle out and fumbles at the lid. His heart thunders in his chest and his breath is shallow, but neither compare to the pounding in his head.
Two white pills fall into his open palm. He pops them into his mouth and chews. Bitterness coats his tongue. He hurries after the others.
Sam has taken the lead. She bolts down the dirt road to the bungalows with Deontay a few steps behind.
“This one!” she calls, rushing to the right. She and Deontay sprint toward the door of a small, well-lit bungalow, and finding the door open, dart inside.
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