Farmer Smithen was a strange man with strange secrets. His land, inherited from his father, was known as the most barren and ill kept in all of Rochford, the ground was a fetid swamp of faecal brown and cadaver grey. A cluster or stalks hung here and there, but they were flaky, diseased things and hummed with the chattering of a million insects.
He lived in the same humble cottage he grew up in, and sometimes still heard his fathers voice explaining how they came into such prosperity.
"I built this with me own two hands twenty years ago, brought it from the old gaffer for a song. Silly old sod, told me nothing would grow here. Well, the first summer, I set down the bricks, tiled the roof, and built us a home. I wish I could see his face now, son. I wish I could tell him what I did, what I grew."
But his father grew nothing, the farm never made an income and his precious cottage, which he loved so much, was crumbling, the bricks slowly turning to dust, the decades of rain and gloom transforming the wooden beams into nothing more sturdy than rotten teeth in blackened gums.
His father had tried tending the land and every day could be seen marching up and down, sowing seeds, uprooting weeds and doing anything he could to make his fortune. When he died, he was a shrivelled nub of a man, lying in bed, still bleating about crops and harvests that would never come.
"It'll be a nice day tomorrow, son, won't it? Sun'll be out, you ought to plant something, I'd do it meself, but I ain't feeling very well, when I'm better we can go out together, grow something, grow something, grow -"
Farmer Smithen remembered the old mans delirious grin, his pathetic optimism, and resolved never to turn out like that. He had never wanted to be a farmer anyway, it wasn't his calling, it was his fathers. So he ventured out of the farm, he gambled, he drank and every night he stumbled back into the cottage, his singing and flatulence waking his wife and son.
When he had died, his father had left behind a sensible nest egg for his only child. Farmer Smithen had squandered it in a few months, on all manner of self-indulgent vices, it wasn't long before the letters started turning up, and when the letters didn't work, the bailiffs generally did.
His wife suffered this with quiet bitterness. She was a rosy-cheeked, overfed creature, fond of pink floral dresses that made her look like a walking jelly. But neither her pink dresses nor her collection of Royal commemorative plates could disguise the sneer that always played on her lips or the dark glint of cruelty in her eyes. She had married beneath herself, and never forgave the stranger Farmer for it.
But that was only one of her grievances, what she really hated was her child. The one thing that bound her to the farm and her lazy wastrel husband. She had wanted a girl, something small and blonde to dress up like a princess and trot out to her parents. What she got was Ben Smithen.
Ben Smithen was not a girl, he was not small or blonde and he was not a princess. He was nearly thirty years old and still living at home. He still slept in his little boys room and still covered himself with the Return of The Jedi quilt they bought for him when he was five. His hair was a black haystack of spikes and tufts, his eyes were two blue marbles goggling out from pallid, slack skin and his voice was deep and booming, the voice of the man he would never be.
Farmer Smithen cared for his son as best he could, he got him a computer and games, he kept watch as Ben ran through the farm, long legs pumping, big hams of hands punching and clutching for any unlucky birds. He even took him down the football stadium, to enjoy the games, at every goal Ben would jump and hoot, drool sloshing from his loose jaw. The other spectators would look at the father and son from the corner of their eyes, whispering and smirking, but Farmer Smithen only clutched Ben all the tighter.
It was a birth defect, that's what the doctor had said. Birth defect, it can't be cured, it's who he is. The Farmers wife wept often at this memory, but always for herself, always for the life Ben had stolen from her.
Ben Smithen's last day of normality began as his days usually did, he woke up at around ten in the morning and lumbered down the stairs in clumsy, noisy strides. Still dressed in his pyjamas.
His mother was sitting on the sofa, The Daily Mail on her lap and a cup of coffee in her hand. Ben ambled up behind her, wrapped his arms around her neck and kissed her on the cheek.
"Morning, Mum. Love you." He bellowed.
"Good morning." She sighed quietly, resisting the urge to shudder.
He cluttered around the small kitchen and made himself a bowl of cereal, the milk splashing out onto the table cloth and leaving dozens of dark little stains.
"Ah, there's my boy!" Farmer Smithen laughed, he'd been in the bath and was washing his thinning black hair with a towel, he rubbed it over his face and dried off his stringy, greying beard. Suddenly he froze and his eyes glared at the stains on the table.
"I see you made yourself breakfast." He murmured uneasily.
"Yep, did it myself!" Ben beamed, gulping down a mouthful of cornflakes.
The Farmer laid a damp hand on his sons shoulder and bent down to whisper in his ear.
"Better not tell Mum, eh? You know how she gets about stains and mess."
Ben nodded, his jaw going in a slow circular motion. Spraying the table with tiny bits of chewed up cereal.
"Awight Dad, I won't tell Mum."
"Looking forward to the football today?"
Ben looked up suddenly and grinned, his teeth and mouth dripping with milk.
"Smouthenn Oonighted!" He gurgled, giving the thumbs-up.
"Don't talk with your mouth full." The Farmer replied, ruffling his sons hair.
After breakfast, Ben had planned to get dressed for the trip to Roots Hall Stadium. He had his prized blue football shirt hanging in the wardrobe and the trainers his Dad had bought him for Christmas laid out beside his bed.
Unfortunately, when he was putting his bowl in the sink, he saw something out of the window and all thoughts of football left his mind.
In the distance was a gnarled old tree, it had been there before the Smithen family ever arrived and bore the nicks and gashes of all the lazy attempts to cut it down. The bark was a dark black and on a cloudy night, the leafless branches looked like a giant claw reaching out from the ground. Sometimes it scared Ben to look at it, but when the sun was shining, it was just a tree again and he forgot he was ever afraid at all.
Today the sun was indeed shining, the sky clear and blue, the air boiling and heavy. But what was that behind the tree? Or rather, who was that? Ben saw a black, cloaked figure hiding behind the tree, bobbing up and down in a frantic spasm.
For Ben Smithen, there was no seperation between curiosity and caution. If he saw something funny in the middle of the road, he'd run up to it, traffic be damned. It was why the Farmer usually watched him so attentively. But as Ben wandered out of the cottage and went happily sprinting to the tree, his father was in the toilet and his mother simply pretended not to hear the door opening and Ben's low, rumbling chuckle.
The sun beat down on his brow and he galloped towards the stranger, shouting and waving his hands.
"Hey!" He cried. "Hey! Whoareya?"
He slowed down slightly as he approached the tree, suddenly aware of a pungent odour. What was that? It smelt like the blue recycling bin his parents kept outside, like something perpetually rotting, something sweetly foul.
"You smell." He grimaced, pointing accusingly at the cloaked figure.
"I'm just old, dearie." Came a fractured, crackling voice, the voice of something that had lived too long. "Surely your Mother taught you to be polite to your elders?"
Ben squinted at the figure, he wanted to get closer, but it kept moving behind the tree and then popping back out, shuffling and weaving like a crab.
"My Dad says old people are scroungers." He smiled, looking quietly proud as he always did when quoting his father.
The figure tilted its entire body to the side, almost in a quizzical gesture, from under the hood, Ben thought he saw a flash of pus-coloured, wrinkled flesh.
"Oh, but I'm so weak, I walked to the shops but got lost, my mind's not what it was, you know. Surely you won't leave a poor old woman out here in the heat? I could faint."
Ben scratched his head and for the first time he could remember felt uneasy, a nervous brew began to bubble and pop in his belly. He wanted to go back to the cottage, something was wrong, the smelly old woman, perhaps. The way she kept moving to avoid being seen, and the stench that hung around her, so heady his legs no longer felt like they could go on running forever. He didn't like that feeling and he didn't like this woman.
"I'm going, I want to go."
From somewhere deep inside her body, there came a sickening crack and the old woman stood up straight. She was tall, taller than anyone Ben had ever seen. From underneath the hood poked out wispy strands of hair, but they were of a peculiar colour, in the light, they almost looked green.
"Don't go, dear." She said in a low, alien voice. "I'm sick, so sick, I just need some water. Take me to that cottage over there, get me some water, don't leave me to die out here in the mud and the heat." Her voice was growing lower and more sibilant with every word, she no longer sounded like a woman at all, more like a beast, a dog with a mouthful of mud and rocks. "Give me your hand, don't let me die."
Ben's skin felt cold, before he knew it, he was walking backwards.
"Want to go home now," he murmured, "going to watch the football with Dad."
But the hooded thing was moving quickly, zigging and zagging like a snake, stretching out a seeping, yellowed hand with three wispy fingers.
From inside the creature came a gurgled, choking rustle and it stopped in its tracks.
"I'm dying, dying." It screeched.
The top half of its body began to shake and the fingers that only a moment before had been reaching for Ben's neck dropped off, turning into mere pulp on the hard mud.
"Are you okay?" Ben asked, smiling nervously.
The only response was an agonised scream, one that sounded far, far too human. It gave one last convulsive judder and Ben heard a snap. The creatures body was collapsing on itself, falling from the bottom like a demolished building. From underneath the black cloak poured out a rancid, mushy soup.
Ben stood there with his jaw hanging open and his hands dug so deep in his pockets his fingers poked through to the skin.
"Dad," he whimpered, looking around helplessly, "Daaaad."
But it was too late to help, the creature had now melted into a small mountain of gloop, the cloak ruffling as the body beneath it began to liquefy.
Ben Smithen stayed for a moment longer, looking down at the black robe and the hideous monstrosity rotting beneath it.
If he had gotten dressed and put on his trainers, this would have been nothing but an incredibly bizarre encounter he would eventually forget. But in his curiosity, he had raced to the tree and the strange beast in his socks.
In the heat, he barely registered that his feet were wet, that the waters and fluids of the creature were spreading out in a giant puddle, moving through the fabric of his socks and deep into the pores of his skin.
By the time of the football game, he had almost forgotten the entire incident, or at least forget enough to enjoy himself. But as he watched his team score a goal and cheered as he usually did, he noticed a tinge of pain in his arm.
When they arrived back at the cottage, Farmer Smithen simply gave his son a few paracetamol tablets and sent him to bed.
"Just a little pain in his arm, probably from all that running he does." He absently told his wife. "A few hours sleep and he'll be fine."