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"...long scratches in the wood, like claw marks. But much, much too big to be anything... natural. Not a stray wolf, or a bobcat, or even a bear. Something else. Claw marks and blood. But nothing else. No bodies, no evidence. It was like they were just... swallowed up. Maybe... maybe they were."

Uncle Pete was about to say something along the lines of and whatever it was is still out there, when he started getting the cold-bed vibe again, and left it at that.

Before Max could ask for another story, his mom announced that it was time for bed.

"Aw, mom..."

"You're way past your bedtime already hon, we all are."

Max pointed across the lake, to the other bonfire burning quietly on the other side. "But they're still up!"

"Honey, it was a long drive up, and we have a big day tomorrow. Even me and your dad are going to sleep. We'll have plenty of time for more stories."

The rest of the family was all getting up. Uncle Pete stretched, bushed, but quick to ease Max's mind.

"That's right, kiddo. You guys have the whole week up here... I'm sure we'll find time for more. I have plenty, believe me."

"See that?" his mom added. "There you go. I'll tell you what. Let's get some rest, and tomorrow night, we'll let you stay up. Okay?"

It had been a long trip. He was getting a bit sleepy. And he was looking forward to the water park in the morning.

"Oh, okay."

Everyone gathered up their things, Max tucking his rolled-up copy of Splatterhouse into has back pocket, and started their march up to the house. He glanced over his shoulder, and realized that they'd forgotten something.

"Should we put that out?" Max asked, looking back at the dwindling fire.

"Nah, kiddo. It'll die soon enough."

***

The old rag and bone scarecrow sat by the fireside, it's audience hanging on it's every word.

"...hid himself in the bushes, profaned her trust while we defiled her and their child for hours, mere feet away. In a final act of abandonment, he delivered himself to us with the bullet that might have saved her. The betrayal was nectar sweet."

"So he actually got your bag off? Took your bag from you?" asked the raw red man, clicking his knife and fork together in a nervous cadence.

The hulk sitting at the scarecrow's right hand stared at the ground, it's bagged head lolling about, and thumped the dirt with it's rusty sawblade hands.

"Oh, fear not, butcher. Our Kinderhüter did not stand for that."

A hollow laugh.

"He did not stand for that at all."

The scarecrow patted the hulk's sack-head, orange fluid soaking through in the shape of the scarecrow's bony hand.

The old porcelain doll sitting on the raw red man's knee looked up with it's rotting, jawless human head.

"...What's a Kin...Kinderhüter?"

"Ah Sarah, how many times I gotta tell you?"

"What is it?"

"Well, I'm yours right now, little one."

Seemingly satisfied with this explanation, she snuggled up against his apron. "I got a good one," the red man said, "a real good one."

The gathering turned their attention to the new speaker, eagerly awaiting a fresh tale.

"So a couple'a hikers, these kids... Deanna... no, Donna, Donna and Steve, they come wandering into my camp one day. I had a cookout goin', had alla my kids around the picnic tables. Had all the grills goin', had the chitlins and the mountain oysters fryin' up... well anyway, we get 'em tied up at the table, sittin' next to some ol' friends o' theirs no less, but they don't seem hungry. Thirsty's what they looked. They'd hiked a long way in, ya see. So I get some Kool Aid, and mix in some leftover napalm..."

"We've heard this one," sneered the hanging woman, swaying from a nearby branch. "How about the one where the beautiful, strong-willed woman, in the prime of her life, was cut up by a limp-dicked, supposed pro-butcher who couldn't carve a turkey and stay in the lines..."

"You on the rag, bitch? I thought I took your uterus out."

"That's enough," the scarecrow intoned. "You don't see these two fighting, do you?" It gestured to the rotten-headed doll on the red man's knee, and the beast hunched just beyond the campfire's light. It looked over at the doll for a moment, letting out a quiet growl, and went back to chewing the old rib cage at it's feet.

The red man turned away from the hanging woman and slumped, grumbling under his breath. The woman hissed, drawing up into the trees to pout. The little doll put it's glass arms around the red man's waist. He rolled his eyes and sighed, ruffling her sticky hair with a few free fingers.

The scarecrow turned to a small skeleton sitting on a log nearby. Limp seaweed hung from it like soaked party streamers, and water dripped off it's bones, puddling up at it's feet. Several large, triangular teeth stuck deep into it's shin and ankles, one or two stuck in it's shredded swim trunks.

"You, little one, have been on land much too long this night. You wouldn't want to dry out, would you? Into the lake with you now."

"Awww...I wanna hear another story!"

"Now now, you've had enough stories for one night. You'll not have any of your own, if you listen to ours all night. Off you go. Into the lake with you."

The little skeleton looked at the object clutched in it's palm, the pupils on it's enormous, glassy eyes dilating. A large, smooth rock. The scratch it made still fresh on top of it's oversized, mossy skull.

"But... but what about that fire, on the other side of the lake?"

The scarecrow and the others looked out past the trees and across the lake, at the little fire burning away on the other shore.

"Don't worry, little one. There'll be time for that. You go get wet, now. Maybe tomorrow we'll have a look."

The little fire on the empty beach across the lake flickered awhile, and quietly burned out.


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