This story was originally published in Daily Bites of Flesh 2011 from Pill Hill Press. (January 7th)
James looked up at the slate-grey sky as he walked, at the bare branches of trees that meshed overhead like a tangle of beetle legs. They rubbed against each other as the wind rushed through the woods and in the sound of the bark rubbing together James could almost hear that word again, spoken in fear by the trees themselves. Hooknail.
"Hooknail isn't real, right Brian?" the words were almost swallowed by a sudden gust that threatened to pull James' jacket clean off, but his brother still heard and stopped for a moment to answer.
"Oh, it's real all right. Just like I told you at the campfire. With those long black curved fingernails that tear into your skin and hold you still while it eats you. Piece. By. Piece. In fact..." Brian leaned towards James and whispered in a conspiratorial way, "... it lives under those rocks, right up there." He gestured just forty feet up the path, at a jumble of glacial boulders.
"Does not," James said without conviction. "You're fibbing."
Brian shrugged, and started to wander closer to the dark shadow of the rocks. "Okay," he said, "Come over here then. Come take a look."
James took a shaky breath. He wanted to go back to the campsite, to the warm fire and the faint mildew smell of his old tent. He knew Brian would tell the other kids, though, and they would make fun of him for the rest of the trip. Pastor John would say "boys will be boys" rather than doing anything.
Closing his eyes, he forced himself to inch forward until he could sense the boulders right next to him, hear the wind whistling between them, feel the warm breath of something on his ankles...
It flew out from between the rocks, a shape like a human but impossibly tall and skinny. One horrible hand grabbed Brian by the face, talons digging in to his cheeks, while the other seized James by the leg. Brian's scream was muffled against the monster's palm as he flailed uselessly. The creature leaned in close to James, watching him curiously.
"You have quite the imagination, child." The beast's voice was raspy but still human, its breath reeking of spoiled meat. "I suspect I didn't even exist a moment ago. Fascinating, to have form granted by mere belief!"
James shut his eyes tight and tried to ignore the burning pain in his leg. "I don't believe in Hooknail. I don't believe in Hooknail."
"Oh yes you do, child. Now I'm going to keep a hold of your leg while I eat your brother - try not to make too much of a fuss. Don't worry, I would never eat you. I want you to stay with me forever, to believe in me."
Hooknail started to force Brian, still weakly struggling, between two boulders. As if in thought it paused for a moment, and then looked back at James appraisingly.
"Well... maybe a finger or two."