The old woman stood ankle deep in mud, in ground made soft by endless spring rain. Her oldest boy, Charlie, and his friend Gustavo had gone missing a month prior. They’d run with a bad crowd, and she knew they weren’t missing. Those boys were dead. Long dead.
She never liked that boy Gustavo. Too quick with a joke. It was him introduced Charlie to those lowlifes. Those pushers and snakes. Living with her Charlie in that rat’s nest downtown, by the bridge.
She’d pulled off to the side of the road and parked. The headlights of her old Beetle cut through the dark, illuminating the forest to the side of the road. The engine of the car sputtered and spat. The lights flickered.
“Oh, knock it off, you,” she said. “I’ve got no time for your shit tonight, old boy.”
She didn’t get worried when Charlie missed their Sunday breakfast. He’d missed them before. When he missed the second with no call, no letter, no nothing, she got to work. The old woman knew something had happened to her boy, and she had ways of finding out.
It didn’t take long to find the men who killed Charlie. When she tracked them down, they didn’t want to talk. They never did, not at first, not when Anna Silver got her hands on them. They didn’t know any Charlie, they said. Never heard of him, but eventually they talked. They told her what they did, first to Gustavo, and then to her Charlie. They made Charlie watch. It was his fault, they said. He was the one who fucked up.
“Well,” she muttered. “Now your mothers will be looking for you, you rats.”
She was getting close. Anna could sense her son nearby. Could almost feel his presence in her bones. Smell him in the damp forest air.
Anna took a step forward, then another. Her feet sank deeper into black mud, and she leaned against a nearby sapling for support.
“Here you are,” she said. “Charlie boy, here you are. Mama’s here.”
She knelt in the mud, and hitched up the hem of skirt to give her legs room to move. The soggy ground soaked through, chilling her to the bone, but she didn’t complain. Anna Silver had never been one to complain.
She took out a knife and cut her left palm, and made sure to cut deep enough to leave a scar when it healed. The old woman’s blood welled up, black in her shadow. She cleaned the knife, then smeared some of the blood on her face, and squeezed a few drops onto the wet earth. Two drops for her son’s eyes, and another for his heart.
She planted both hands firmly in the ground then, and began to sing. An old song, one whose meaning she had nearly forgotten. Anna hadn’t sung this song since she was just a girl, when her father had been killed in an accident in the factory he worked. A factory now separated from his daughter by an ocean, and decades.
“Charlie boy,” she crooned. “Charlie, come back. Come home. Come home.”
Anna rocked back and forth, on her hands and knees. She sang and pleaded, picturing her voice as a beacon for her lost son.
Behind her, the headlights of her car flickered again, then went out. The old woman knelt in the darkness, in the mud, and waited.
She didn’t have to wait long. The ground in front of her began to shift. To bubble and churn. Anna closed her eyes and sang. She whispered and pleaded as her son Charlie clawed his way out of his forgotten grave.
He scrabbled and dug, half-stuck in the muck. Charlie grabbed at a low hanging branch, and pulled himself forward. After a long struggle, he stood beside his mother on unsteady feet, covered in grime and decay.
The car’s headlights flickered, then came back to life. Her son stood before her, an ugly gash across his throat, eyes gone milky white and sightless.
“Mama,” he said, and his voice was little more than a croak. The tendons in his neck stood out and creaked with the effort. A beetle crawled out of his mouth as Charlie smiled at his mother.
“Charlie,” she said. Her rotting son held out his arm and helped Anna to her feet. “Charlie, my boy. I found you. Let’s go home.”
The pair turned, and began to walk back toward her car. A wet, slurping sound caused Anna to turn around once more. Something else was climbing out of the hole in the ground.
A second pair of arms appeared, and then the face of her son’s friend Gustavo pushed its way out of the wet ground. The handle of a knife jutted out of its left eye. Its right was caked with mud, and the thing paused for a moment to scrape the muck away.
Charlie turned around, the car forgotten. He smiled when he saw his friend, then shuffled closer to help. To pull him out of the ground. The two worked together while Anna walked back down the hill. Her hands clenched into fists, and her left palm throbbed with pain.
“Oh no,” she said. “Not you, you greedy guts. You rat. You did this to my Charlie.”
The thing that used to be her son’s best friend hung its head, as if in shame. The handle of the knife sticking out of its eye socket bumped against its chest, and left an indentation. The flesh beneath his ruined shirt crawled and squirmed, as if it was covered in insects.
“You can just stay out here, for all I care. Or go home to your own mother, if you have one.”
“Not,” he said. “Not my fault.”
“I don’t care,” said Anna. “I came for Charlie, not for you.”
Charlie’s corpse swayed next to Gustavo’s. His gaze traveled between his mother and his friend. Anna began climbing up the gentle slope, back toward her car. Charlie stayed behind, an arm slung around Gustavo.
“Charlie, come along,” she said. “Now. We’re going home.”
She spoke to him as if he was a child again. A child who was misbehaving. Reluctantly, Charlie came along, trudging up the hill after his mother.
Gustavo howled, left alone outside of the grave he’d shared with his friend. Its voice was terrible, and thick with grief.