A line of men and women walked carefully in a line through the underbrush. Somewhere in the middle was a boy of twelve named Cadogan on his first time into the ravaged forestlands. He was sweating even though it was just after dawn and still cold. He gripped his rifle tightly with grimy fingers. He had been talking excited about going on the expedition for many days, driving his mother to distraction. But the previous night he fell silent, worried about the tree-eaters.
They walked slowly, quietly, deliberately. There were a few early rising birds flitting in the bare branches of the trees, and little mammals and insects rustled in the leaf litter. Two of the men peeled off to check on some animal traps. They were still in the normal forest, but the villagers had learned long ago it was best not to ever go anywhere alone.
The main line came to a break in the trees. The line of men and women instinctively came to a stop. Ahead was an old freeway. Across the road the trees stood like shattered spikes, nude of their bark, branchless. Even from their vantage point across the road, everyone could see the tooth marks.
A village elder, Phil, standing next to Cadogan, signaled to the others to move forward. They all crouched and crept quickly to the crumbling road embankment. They crawled up it, but Cadogan lost his footing and slid down into frosty grass. The rest of the villagers were already running across the road. Cadogan swore and collected his rifle. He climbed the embankment, embarrassed. The others were already creeping between the dead trees. He looked down the road briefly. He remembered playing basketball here on this stretch of road just a year ago. The old village was about a mile in the direction they were heading. The tree-eaters had claimed so much of the forest so quickly. He wondered why they had stopped so cleanly at the line of the road.
Cadogan ran across, and pushed hard to join up again with the rest. Phil wordlessly grabbed Cadogan by his shirt, pulled tight on the shirt twisting it, then slowly punched Cadogan in the chest. Phil's eyes briefly shot to Cadogan before returning to scan the forest ahead of them. Cadogan nodded when Phil let go. They continued walking slowly. There were no birds or mammals on this side of the road, but bottoms of the trees roiled with insects--termites, ants, and black fuzzy caterpillars, feeding on the sugary tree-eater saliva and the bare rotting wood. Even in the cold the insects were unusually active. Cadogan was glad to have tall boots, an old pair given to him by his uncle on his birthday last week.
Shortly they came upon a steaming pile of masticated wood chips. The air was heavy with the stench of methane. Two of the women took out large cotton bags and started shoveling the chips into the bags with their hands. The excrement of the tree-eaters made excellent fuel. They dug into it with bare hands, scooping out masses of slimy slivers and chips. One of the women suddenly gasped, and everyone looked at her, briefly, before turning back to scanning the trees. She pulled human thigh bone from the pile. She looked over to Phil, her face stricken with sadness. Everyone knew who the thigh bone belonged to.
When the rest of the pile was sorted through, there was half a human skeleton. A child. The skull was missing. One of the men laid out the bones and said a quick prayer, barely above a whisper, then he and another dug a shallow hole with their hands, first digging through the frosty crust with the heels of their boots. The women with the bags laid the bones in the grave and they and the men covered it carefully but quickly with the displaced dirt. The women promptly turned back towards camp with their bags of tree-eater dung slung over their backs.
Phil whistled like a jay to the others. The line formed again, except for Cadogan. He laid his rifle down on the ground next to the grave. Tears started streaming down his face. He knelt down into the dirt. The line started off in their slow creep. No one noticed he wasn't with them.
"I'm sorry," he said under his breath. His chest heaved. He looked up at the clear blue sky. The tears made his vision wobble. He wiped his tears away, leaving grimy streaks. He looked back down at the turned earth. "It was just a stupid dare," he said. "I didn't mean it, I didn't!"
Cadogan fell over the grave. He pushed his forehead into the soil as he sobbed. Then he pushed his fingers in.
"Nobody knew I told you to do it..." he said, sort of squealing at the end. He felt a knot in his throat. He formed fists over the dirt in his hands. Then the air went dark.
Cadogan turned and looked up. A dark form blocked the sun. It was one of them. It towered over him, perfectly silent, cast in its own shadow. Cadogan felt his fingers and toes tingling. His heart thumped in his chest, and glanced to the rifle a few feet away. He suddenly thought what a silly precaution it was against a things so huge. Cadogan froze, hoping the tree-eater hadn't actually noticed him laying there.
Then the tree-eater spread itself, lifting up its several arms, eight in all if you counted the feet which were nearly identical. Brown skin stretched across the expanses between the limbs, sunlit from behind, revealing the veins and tendons, and toothy, scaly ridges. At the ends of the limbs there were large padded paws with twitching claws the size of daggers. It's maw was at the top of its body. It was a slack opening lined with several rows of dry yellow teeth, large and wrinkled like molars, and pitted with many cavities.
The tree-eater folded backwards, pivoting at its middle. Its top limbs fell gently, quietly, into the leaf litter, forming a triangle with the ground. At the apex of its body, a mucousy line opened up. A bulb of pinkish red flesh rose up, protruding. Cadogan started to frantically shuffle backwards, terrified. He bumped into a beetle covered tree stump and struggled to stand.
The bulb twisted and turned. Cadogan lunged for the rifle and picked it up, shaking violently. He couldn't remember if he had loaded it. The bulb turned up, revealing eyes, then a nose, then a mouth. The mouth suddenly gasped, then moaned. The eyes opened. They were green human eyes. They fixed themselves on Cadogan.
"Don't shoot," said the tree-eater calmly.
"You're, you're human?" asked Cadogan.
"Not for a long time," said the tree-eater.
"Are you going to kill me?" asked Cadogan.
"No," said the tree-eater.
"No?" said Cadogan.
"No," repeated the tree-eater.
"Um, why?" asked Cadogan, lowering his rifle an inch.
"I don't eat people," said the tree-eater.
"Yes you do!" exclaimed Cadogan. "My friend--" he pointed towards the grave as a fresh wave of tears threatened to force their way out.
"No," said the tree-eater. "You're friend is not dead."
"We-we found her bones! In your shit! You ate her!" He raised the rifle and pointed it at the head.
"Despite what you may have heard, we can't eat meat. It makes us physically ill. We cannot eat people."
Cadogan stood panting. His finger slid across the trigger.
"But her bones were in your shit!" screamed Cadogan.
"Not mine, hers," said the tree-eater. He stepped closer to the boy. "Put the rifle down."
"I don't understand!" said Cadogan, gulping drily.
"It's all right," said the tree-eater. "Put the rifle down please, Cadogan."
Cadogan cocked his head. His finger slipped from the trigger, and his arms relaxed somewhat.
"How do you know my name?"
"It is you then?" said the tree-eater. Its glistening brow furrowed.
"They said you could read minds," said Cadogan. "You get in our heads. I thought they just told us kids that to scare us so we wouldn't go into the ravaged woods. I never believed it."
"It's ridiculous and untrue. You're village knows very little about us."
"We know you're the work of devils and demons, come forth up from the depths of hell to kill off the human race in a great gradual tribulation."
"My mother told me that there were great cities once, and suburbs, and Walmarts were you could buy anything you wanted for an everyday low price. You didn't have to forage for food or grow it or hunt it. It was just all there in big endless 'frigerated cases!"
"Yes but we're not--"
"And there were cars! Everybody had a great big car. And you could go anywhere on the roads! And the roads didn't have grasses or deer grazing in 'em! That's what my mother told me! You're nothing but pure evil to take all that away from us!"
"Shut up!" said the tree-eater with a roar. Cadogan fell back into the tree and the rifle went off in his hand, blasting a ring of dirt into the air. He dropped the rifle and nervously clutched his hands to his chest. The tree-eater moved closer. Cadogan screamed and ran around the tree, and saw other tree-eaters lurking in a circle. Cadogan stopped and fell to his knees.
"Don't kill me! Please no..." he broke into sobs.
"We're not going to kill you," said the first tree-eater. Cadogan looked back. "Don't you think, if we were as bad as you've been told, that we would have done that already?"
"I don't know," said Cadogan. "What do you want with me then, if you're not going to kill me?"
"Do you have any cuts on you?"
"What?" asked Cadogan.
"Any cuts, or scrapes? Are you bleeding anywhere boy?"
Cadogan looked down at his chest and legs, then looked at his arms and hands.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "But I don't understand."
"We want you to go back to your village. Bath and burn your clothes. You must not get our saliva into any cuts. You've got it on you from leaning against that tree. Tell your people not to come into our forest lands. It's bad enough that you hunt and kill and burn our bodies."
"Burning kills the demon soul that lurks--"
"Shut up. Listen to me. You have to convince your people that we are not here to harm them in any way. We have a contagious disease. None of us really knows how it started, but we have a theory."
"A disease? But diseases kill people."
"Not all. The common cold doesn't usually kill. Diseases need hosts in order to survive. This one needs living hosts. Fifty years ago there were dozens of meteor crashes all over the world, on the same day. We don't think they were just meteors. We think they were ships carrying beings from elsewhere. Beings that look a lot like us, but not quite. Days after that were the first disappearances. We think anyone who came in contact with those beings were infected."
"Space people did this?" asked Cadogan in a whisper.
"Cadogan, this planet is being...prepared. Or perhaps they will leave things just like this. But we have a chance to stop them. As hybrids, we cannot reproduce naturally. So we can limit our numbers if you...humans...stay out of our lands. We can stop the spread of the infection. Do you understand?"
Cadogan stared at the tree-eater.
"Why are telling me?" he asked. "Why haven't you told anyone before?"
"I saw you crying at the grave of your friend. You stayed back when the others went on."
Cadogan looked down, embarrassed to be found crying like that.
"So?" he said, defiantly.
"There are a lot of obstacles. Few of us still have working larynxes. The people we come across usually try to shoot us on sight. It's frightening. Seeing you there, on the ground, distraught, you at least looked like you wouldn't immediately try to shoot at me."
"You get scared?"
"But you're so big."
"Claws aren't really a match for a gun. Anyway, we've been able to tell people in other places. We told your friend. She was going to go back to the village, but it turned out she had a scrape on her knee--and the transformation started before she even got back to the road."
"When the infection takes hold. She's not her right self at the moment. She has to eat voraciously; she is growing inches each day. She is sleeping now. It is the only relief from the pain."
"She's not dead then?"
"Would you--would you tell her I'm sorry? It's all my fault."
"It's not your fault, son. But I will tell her."
The other tree-eaters suddenly became restless. Then all went down on eight legs and ran silently off in different directions.
"What's with them?" asked Cadogan.
"I think the others are coming back. They must have heard the gun go off. I can't believe they forgot you. I have to go too," said the tree-eater. "Cadogan, don't be frightened of us. Not any more."
"No," said Cadogan quietly. "But I don't think they will believe me."
"Maybe not at first. But keep at them." The tree-eater's head started to sink and twist back into it's body. "And Cadogan--"
The tree-eater looked into Cadogan's eyes, then down at its own body.
"Never mind. Stay safe."
The tree-eater folded back upright, then fell forward on all eight paws and loped off quietly towards the west. Cadogan stood up, watching the dark figure until it disappeared. Then he heard footsteps behind him. He turned and saw the line again.
"You're safe," said Phil.
"Yeah," said Cadogan.
"We're going back. I'm telling your mother. You're not tagging along again, at least for a few more years. You're too much trouble. Pick up your gun."
"Don't worry," said Cadogan.