There’s Something Strange Lurking In The Marsh Behind Our Houses, And Now Nothing Will Ever Be The Same

A tear fell from my eye onto the page, then another, and another.

They were the first real tears I’d cried in months.

Well, Nina was wrong about one thing. She was pretty good with words, if I do say so myself. She might’ve been a decent writer, if only she’d been given the time.

I shut the file, and slid it across the table to Officer Berwyn. She picked it up and looked at me with grave sympathy.

“Thank you for showing me this,” I told her.

“Of course,” she said. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Brittany?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

She nodded. “I’ll show you out.”

This was the first time I’d talked to Officer Berwyn since she’d questioned me at the hospital, five months ago. Nina, Ashleigh, and Jenna had all been alive back then.

She led me through the hallway past the other interrogation rooms, and paused before we got to the door.

“Um …” she said carefully, “We don’t have to go through the lobby if you don’t want to.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m used to people staring at me.”

“All right,” she said. She opened the door and led me out.

As soon as I stepped into the lobby, people did stare at me. I don’t blame them; if I’d just seen a girl with no face, I’d stare at her too. Yeah, I was supposed to get reconstructive plastic surgery. Unfortunately, our insurance carrier decided the procedure counted as “cosmetic” and refused to cover it. They only provided for basic skin grafts, but since most of my facial muscles were gone, it stuck to my skull like papier-mâché. Also, I had a gaping cavity instead of a nose, no lips, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, and just-barely reconstructed eyelids so that at least I could blink and my eyes wouldn’t dry out. Basically, I looked like I’d just crawled straight out of hell.

I was used to all kinds of reactions by now. Young children would scream or cry, thinking I was a monster. Older kids would point and laugh, and take pictures with their phones. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was in a few cruel memes by now. Luckily, most adults were too polite to say anything.

Needless to say, I’d never want to show up at school like this, so my mom homeschools me now. I haven’t talked face-to-… well, no-face – to any of my old friends since my injury. And yeah, guys liked me before. I might have even had a boyfriend soon. But there was no way I’d ever let them look at me now.

Anyway, I don’t think I’m getting my face back anytime soon, so I guess this is my life. It took me a while, but I’ve had to accept it. I didn’t have a choice.

So, Berwyn led me through the lobby, and I kept my head down. My only defense against the stares was a shoulder-length black wig. It had kind of an emo cut that covered most of my face, which was exactly why I picked it out. Of course, I could’ve gotten a blonde wig in the same style, but that would be too much of a reminder of what I used to look like, and never would again. No, it was easier to deal with all this if the person I saw in the mirror was a complete stranger.

Berwyn opened the heavy front door for me, and the cold March wind stung my face. It always does. By the way, winter was absolute hell.

“You got a ride home?” Berwyn asked.

“I was gonna walk to the library and call my mom,” I said. It was only a block away.

“I’ll drive you,” said Berwyn.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay.”

She walked me to the side-lot where a row of cop cars were parked, with a row of regular cars behind them. She remote-unlocked a burgundy S.U.V.

“We’re not taking a cop car?” I asked.

“Why, do you want to?”

“Nah, this is all right.”

She opened the door, and I got into the front passenger seat.

“You’ll have to tell me where you live,” she said, “because I have your address on file, but it’s not on me at the moment.”

“Sure.” I typed my address into her GPS. The robot-voice was on mute, I noticed.

She backed out of the lot, and we were off.

Normally I wouldn’t make much conversation, but I rarely talked to anyone other than my mom these days.

“So, I’m assuming you’re the one Nina referred to us just ‘Cop Lady’?” I asked her.

“Yep,” she said.

“And the male cop would’ve been …?”

“My partner, Davies.”

“Ah … By the way, I’m sorry about what she said about the makeup. She probably didn’t think you’d read it.”

“Nah, it’s fine. I get that all the time.”

It was still at least five minutes until we got to my house, and silence could get awkward when you’re sitting next to someone with no face. I figured I better keep talking.

“Can I ask you something else?” I said.

“Shoot.”

“I noticed on my mom’s copy of the report that your first name is Dolores.”

“Yeah.”

“I know it’s a long shot, but…do you know of anyone named Dolores Cambrey?”

We got to a stoplight, and the car stopped a little too abruptly.

“How do you know about Dolores Cambrey?” she asked, as if I’d opened a door she thought was locked.

I told her about the article I’d found online, and began to name the girls who’d disappeared or otherwise been victims.

“I know,” said Berwyn. “I wrote that article.”

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah … Dolores Cambrey was my great-aunt.”

And suddenly, it all made sense.

“Oh my god,” I said softly. “So that’s what the deal with the lights was all about. Was Dawn Cambrey…”

“My grandmother. Yeah.”

I sat in respectful silence, unsure of what to say.

“She didn’t tell me and my brother about it until she was getting old and senile,” Berwyn went on, “as I’m sure you’ve read.”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“So, now you know,” said Berwyn. “I would have been taken off your case because of my personal connection, if my boss thought the Cambrey case was related. But he doesn’t. Not at all.”

“Oh.”

We drove past the Meadow Creek sign and into the subdivision. My house was just a few blocks away.

“I guess that’s a good thing though,” I said, “since now you’re allowed to work on a case that has a personal connection to you…”

“Actually, no,” said Berwyn. “The case was closed.”

“What? Why?”

Berwyn sighed, and drove up in front of my house. I could tell my mom wasn’t home, since her car wasn’t in the driveway. The car slowed to a stop.

“This your house?” asked Berwyn.

“Yeah.”

I couldn’t bring myself to get out.

“Look,” I said, “it’s probably classified information or whatever, but three of my friends died. I almost died. And, no offense, but you guys didn’t do shit. So I’m really not okay with this case being closed!”

Just then I realized it’s probably not the smartest thing to yell at a cop, so I quickly muttered an apology.

Berwyn sighed, again. She took a long pause, as if debating over what to tell me.

“Okay…there’s something I think you need to see,” said Berwyn, “but you have to swear you won’t freak out on me.”

“Sure, I swear,” I said. “Besides, nothing could possibly scare me anymore.”

“Well, this just might.”

I laughed a little. “Try me.”

The car started moving again, right past my house.

She took the south road out of the subdivision, the rural route that wound through horse farms and cornfields and patches of forest. I knew the marsh lay somewhere on the other side of those trees, and just thinking about it almost made me nauseous.

“Where are we going?” I asked her.

“My house.”

Sure enough, in just a few minutes we arrived at a farmhouse in front of an empty field. I don’t know much about houses, but it looked like it could use a fresh coat of paint, and maybe new shutters. The whole car shook as she drove up the rough gravel driveway.

“You own this house?” I asked her. Then I worried if that sounded rude. She just seemed way too young to live on her own in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s inherited, actually,” she said. “My mom got it from my grandparents, but she couldn’t stand it after a while, so she moved out, and I moved in.”

“Wait, is this the house where …”

“My great-aunt disappeared. Yeah.”

I wanted to ask, Isn’t it sort of depressing to live here, after what happened? Wouldn’t you rather leave the past behind?

But I’d already asked enough stupid questions. She got out of the car, and I did the same.

“Over here,” she said, pointing to the side of the house. It had one of those outside metal basement doors. The white paint was rusted through, and looked like it had been through years of harsh weather. There was a heavy lock on the double-doors, and she unlocked it with one of her keys. The doors screeched as she pulled them open.

“Oh, and in case you were wondering,” she warned, “don’t tell a single living soul about this. Understand?”

“Yeah. Of course.”

She led the way, and I peered down into the basement. It was dark, obviously. Rickety old steps with a wooden railing led down to the concrete floor.

“The only light’s at the bottom, so watch your step,” said Berwyn.

There was a rancid smell in the air, which my empty nasal cavity could only just pick up on. Still, it was enough to make me gag.

“Sorry about the smell,” she said.

“It’s fine.” It actually wasn’t, but what else was I supposed to say?

We got to the bottom of the stairs, and the smell got even worse. Berwyn switched on the single uncovered lightbulb on the ceiling.

The whole basement was about the size of a living room. The center was mostly empty, while the edges were littered with mostly old furniture and rusted yard equipment – typical old house stuff. Dust and cobwebs covered nearly everything, but I didn’t see any spiders. That was a relief, since they usually spawn like crazy this time of year.

“This way,” said Berwyn. She led me to the opposite side.

There, I saw a relatively new-looking fish tank sitting on the floor against the wall. It was about 3 by 6, the kind that fit a whole mini-aquarium. Except, the thing inside definitely wasn’t a fish. No, it was something else entirely.

Suddenly, I recognized the smell. It was worse than roadkill, and garbage, and shit. It was death.

“Holy fuck,” I whispered. I couldn’t take a step further.

There was a body inside. It had my hair, and it had my face – even though it looked like a rubber Halloween mask now, too eerie to be real. It also had a dried-out torso that looked almost like beef jerky, and mismatched limbs. One of the arms looked decades-old, and had long, looping fingernails to prove it. They were dark yellow, and reached down to its feet. So that’s what I’d seen, and mistaken for extra-long fingers. Because fingernails keep growing, I realized. Right next to where the fingernails ended, there were just a few chips of pink nail polish remaining on its right toes – as if to remove any doubt.

“How did you…?” I tried to ask, but I could barely breathe.

“Well,” said Berwyn, “you can thank your friend Ashleigh’s dog for that.”

“Ida? Why, what happened?”

“Well, I was in the middle of giving…you know, the news…to Ashleigh’s parents. And while the door was open, the dog ran out, just bolted right out the door. So me and Davies went after it on foot, since if we took the squad car, there was a chance we might’ve run it over. And you know, the dog was running through people’s yards, jumping over fences. We felt like idiots running after a dog, but it was kind of our fault the poor thing escaped. Anyway, an hour later, we found its tracks leading into the marsh. Since it’s a pretty big area, I told Davies to go ahead and finish up, I’d look for the dog.”

“And did you find her?”

“Well, that’s the thing …”

I braced myself for the worst.

“I found Ida toward the center of the marsh,” she went on. “She was dead, half submerged in the mud.”

I shook my head. “Poor girl.”

“Yeah,” she said sadly. “I thought so too. So I was about to call Davies to tell him I found the dog, when I got a call from the County Sheriff’s office instead, so I took it. And it wasn’t the secretary, it wasn’t the deputy, it was the Sheriff himself, calling me to tell me they’d closed the case.”

“But why?”

“Well, that’s what I asked him. And he said…” – I could tell by the way she clenched her jaw that she was angry – “that son-of-a-bitch said, that he ruled in the official report that this whole case was just a teenage prank.”

“What the fuck?!!”

“That’s what I said. And I tried arguing with him, and I knew, that he and I both knew, that this was not just a fucking teenage prank. But he gave me all this bullshit about insufficient evidence, lack of witnesses, that whole thing. I wasn’t buying it, I kept arguing with him, until he finally just straight-up said, ‘Berwyn, I’m telling you, for the sake of your career and mine, just forget about it.’”

“Shit…So you think it was a cover-up?”

“I know it was a cover-up.”

“I thought that only happened in movies.”

She laughed. “Oh, it happens more often than you’d think. Whenever the evidence says something that goes against their version of events, their neat little reports that require the least amount of effort … that evidence ‘gets lost’. That’s just the way it works.”

“So then…”

“Yeah, so I was just like, ‘You got it, Sir,’ and he hung up. But there was still this poor dead dog in front of me. But she was stuck in there pretty deep, so I figured, my house isn’t even a mile away, so I went and got my shovel and came back.”

“Geez …”

“Yeah, I was already thinking, How could this day get any worse? But, oh, did it get worse. I dug away the mud around Ida only to find her teeth were biting into the arm of this … Frankenstein monstrosity! ” She angrily pointed at the thing in the fish tank. “And if it was just a nice little inanimate corpse, that would’ve been one thing, but no, it fucking moved!
“Holy shit …” Of course, it’s not like I’d never seen the thing move before.

“Yeah, its creepy little eyes opened and it was starting to lift those freaky-ass fingernails, so I shot it five times in the chest.” She pointed at the thing’s prune-like, mummified upper body. There were five quarter-sized holes around where its heart would be, if it even had one.

I almost laughed. “Well, that’s one way to do it. You’d think the wounds would be bigger, though.”

“Yeah, they were supposed to be! It just absorbed them like a sponge, I’ve never seen anything like it. I even turned it over to check for exit wounds. Not a single one! That thing must be tougher than elephant hide.”

“But … you did kill it, right?”

“Well, it hasn’t moved since, so that’s my best guess.”

For both of our sakes, I hoped she was right.

“So then,” I asked, “You just took the body…?”

Berwyn took a deep breath and calmed down. “Well, the way I see it, I could’ve brought in in as evidence. And they would’ve taken one look at it, said, ‘No, this doesn’t fit into our version of events, or anything we understand about reality as we know it,’ and then they would’ve sent it to the incinerator. And probably suspended me. So yeah, I stole the body. First I buried poor little Ida, because I wasn’t about to show up at the family’s doorstep with a dead dog, they’ve been through enough. Then I dragged old Corpsey McGee here a mile to my house, and put it right here in the basement. So here we are.”

“Well, fuck…” I said.

“Yeah.”

“And you haven’t told anyone else about this?”

“Nope.”

We stood in silence for a moment. I admit, I’ve been through some weird shit in the past five months, but this was a whole new level.

“Do you mind if I take a closer look?” I finally asked. “It is my face, after all.”
“Go for it.”

I took a few steps closer, and noticed several iron locks securing the lid of the tank. It looked like Berwyn had bolted them on herself.

“And this whole time, it hasn’t…”

“Woken up? No.”

She pointed toward the ceiling where, hanging from a rafter, there was a small camera pointing down at the body. The red recording light was on.

“I review the footage every night,” she said. “So far, it hasn’t batted an eye. At least, not yet.”

I moved even closer. As Berwyn said, it showed no outward signs of life. It didn’t appear to be breathing, and its eyelids – my eyelids – weren’t fluttering the way a sleeping person’s would. It might as well have been an exhibit at the Field Museum.

As I looked more closely, I noticed its face and hair – my face and hair – appeared to be glued down with some mud-like paste. The same material was used to keep the stolen arms and legs adhered to the body.

“What’s that stuff?” I asked her.

“Hell if I know,” she said. “But luckily, my brother carbon-dates dead bodies for a living.”

I laughed. “Wait, what?”

“He’s a forensic archaeologist.”

“Oh, carbon-dating. I was gonna say …”

“No, he’s not a necrophiliac,” she said with a smirk. “At least, not that I know of.”

“Has he found out anything so far?”

“Well,” she said with a sigh, “you see that right arm there?”

“Yeah … ?”

The arm across from Ashleigh’s, the one with the overgrown fingernails, definitely looked older, and more discolored. Its bluish, bruised surface looked like wrinkled old paper. Even in the dim light, I could see the top of the arm was covered in fine brown freckles – a lot like Berwyn’s. One of the fingernails, unlike the others, looked like it had about a centimeter recently clipped off.

“I sent part of that fingernail to my brother for testing,” she said, “along with some other samples. Turns out…”

“It’s Dolores Cambrey’s, isn’t it?” I wouldn’t force her to say it.

“Yeah.” From her voice, I could tell she was holding back tears.

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.

She tried to shrug it off. “Yeah, well…I knew it all along, in a way. It’s not like it came as a shock to me.”

A single tear rolled down her unmoving face, and she quickly brushed it away.

Better change the subject, I thought.

“Did your brother find out anything else about it?” I asked.

She inhaled sharply, and regained her composure.

“Well, he determined it was female, for one thing.” she said.

“That bitch would be,” I said with a dry, forced laugh.

Of course, I hadn’t been able to tell before. It had no distinctive male or female organs, at least not that I could see.

“I know, right,” she said. “Anyway, here’s where it gets weird.”

“You mean, it can possibly get weirder?”

She laughed without smiling. “Oh yeah.”

“What is it?”

“Okay, so along with the fingernail clipping, I figured I’d send him one of its teeth, just to figure out how old this thing is. And a month later, he calls me at fucking 3 a.m., and he’s all like, ‘Lor, holy shit, you’re not going to believe this!’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ And he’s laughing like the Joker, totally delirious. And he’s like, ‘That tooth, where the hell did you get it?’, and I give him the whole, ‘It’s from a crime scene, I can’t disclose that’ line – which technically wasn’t true anymore, but I wasn’t going to tell him what really happened, because…”

“Yeah.” Come on, get to the good part! “So what did he say?”

“You ready for this?”

“Yes!”

“He said, ‘It’s 250,000 years old, Lor.’”

That did come as a shock. I almost forgot how to breathe for a second. “What … There were people back then?!” I thought it was just mammoths and weird half-monkeys up until that point.

“Yeah, that’s what I said. He went on to explain that the earliest known hominids are like 2 million years old, but the earliest official homo sapiens humans are 350,000 years old, and they were found in Morocco or some shit.”

“Holy fuck …”

“But yeah, he said nothing that old has ever been found in North America. Nothing human, anyway.”

“Until now.”

“Yep.”

“So then …”

“All this does is change everything we’ve ever known about American history ever.”

I frowned. “Huh. How bout that.”

“Something wrong?” she asked.

I looked down at the body again. All I could think about was my real face framed in my own golden hair, sleeping in that glass coffin like Snow White. I stared at the dead likeness of me, and then at my reflection floating just above it on the surface of the tank. My real reflection now – still disfigured, still hideously ugly.

“I guess this means I’m never getting my face back,” I muttered.

Berwyn sighed. “I know. It sucks. But you know what? You survived. You’re strong. And strong is the new sexy.”

I looked away from the glass. “If you say so,” I said wryly.

“Anyway,” she said, “let’s get outta here. I’m pretty sure John Wayne Gacy’s basement smelled better.”

I laughed, for real, probably for the first time in months. “Good idea.”

Berwyn led the way, back up the shoddy wooden stairs. She threw the metal doors open.

“Hey, could you get the light?” she called down.

“Yeah.” I had to jump, since I couldn’t even reach it on my tip-toes, and solid darkness overtook the space before my feet hit the floor. It was probably some primitive fear instinct left over from the early days, but I half-expected that thing to jump up and grab me as soon as the lights went out. I was honestly relieved when it didn’t.

Still, I hurried my ass up the stairs and didn’t stop until my feet touched the grass. The sun was already setting, disappearing behind a patch of trees off in the west. Across the field, night was already creeping into the marsh, blackening the leafless trees. I looked away.

She shut the metal doors and locked them. We stood in silence for a moment, listening only to the crickets and the wind sighing. Other than that, nothing made a sound.

Berwyn spoke first, and I was almost startled. “So, Brittany,” she asked, “do you like whiskey by any chance?”

“Um…” Was this a trick question?

“‘Cause I’ve got a lovely bottle of aged Kentucky bourbon in the house, and I could go for a shot or two. Or three.”

“Yeah, but…I’m 14. And you’re a cop.”

“I’m off-duty. Besides, I think you’ve earned it.”

I thought for a moment. “Well, I can’t argue with that.”

“Fuck yeah,” she said. “Right this way.”

She started walking toward the front door, and I followed.

“Oh, by the way,” she called over her shoulder, “if you want to mix it with something, I think I got Coke Zero, but that’s about it …”

“Nah,” I said, “I’ll drink it straight.”

Berwyn laughed. “My kinda girl.” Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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