Until There's Only One

By J. L. Thurston

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John Lowe had five children who were always well-behaved. He did not worry when he and his wife planned a weeklong trip for their anniversary. He knew his children would behave themselves. He was only a little perturbed when the company he normally hired to watch the kids was overbooked during his vacation. He scoured the Internet for a nanny to stay in his home and quickly found great success in an older German woman with years of experience. The children took to her right away; she was excellent with stories.

On their first night with the parents gone, they begged their new nanny for a story. All five children slept in the nursery together. Their nanny sat in a rocking chair next to the window. She held no book in her hands. She asked the children what sort of story they’d like to hear. Harper begged for a princess story, but all the others groaned. Jackie asked for an epic journey, but all the others whined. Johnny Jr. suggested that they would all love a scary story, and all the others grew excited. The nanny warned them that she only knew one scary story and she only told it when children were being terribly naughty as a way to punish them. Though the children begged and pleaded, the nanny refused to indulge them that night.

She continued in her refusals all the next day, as well. Johnny Jr. and Elisa both formulated a plan to get their nanny to tell them the scary story. “We just have to be really naughty and she’ll tell us!” they explained to the younger kids.

All the kids agreed to be as naughty as they could, and they were quite good at it. Elisa, Harper, and Kaden broke dishes instead of washing them. Jackie and Johnny Jr. ate up all the sweets in the house and threw up before dinner. They chased the cat, tied string to the dog’s tail, broke a window, and refused to clean up their toys before bed. They ended the long day by refusing to wash up or get into their pajamas. They went to bed fully dressed and dirty, reducing their nanny to tears. Still, they begged for a story.

“You have been absolutely rotten,” she sniffled. “I’m sorry to say it, but you need a scary story.” The children could barely hold their glee. “This is a true story that happened in a forest just outside of my childhood home in Germany. Once, when I was little, my parents told it to me and my sisters. Now I will tell it to you.” She sat in the rocking chair. “Once, five prisoners escaped into the woods. They knew not to go into town lest they be caught, so deep into the woods they went. Right away, they sensed something was wrong with the forest. There was no game, no woodland life to hunt. Weeks of river water and bitter vegetation had sent them into a fierce hunger. On the fifteenth night in the woods, they hunkered together for sleep and just as they were drifting off, they all heard a quiet voice whisper, ‘Until there’s only one…’ Well, they each thought it was the other and ignored it. But even through their exhaustion, they could hear something wet and smacking, like an animal feeding. Frozen with fear, they listened to the sound until dawn. When at last, light filtered in through the trees, the prisoners saw that now only four of them remained.

“They continued that day in fear and hunger, and the next night they slept pressed together. Just as they drifted off, again, they heard the voice whisper, ‘Until there’s only one…’ and the slurping and smacking and chewing and grinding kept them wide awake and petrified.

“The morning came to only three prisoners. Suspicion began to grow and they fought and argued as much as their energy would allow. They went to a cave and pressed their backs to a wall, deciding to sleep in a way that felt more secure. But still, they heard a voice whisper in the pitch black, ‘Until there’s only one…’ The prisoners wept and ran from the cave, away from the sound of feeding. But there were only two.

“They decided it was safer to part ways, each choosing a different direction. Still, when night fell, one prisoner heard the whisper, ‘Until there’s only one…’ and had to suffer through the smacking and crunching.

“The police had been searching the forest for the escaped convicts tirelessly. It was after this night that they finally caught the remaining prisoner. When they found him he was shaking and rocking beneath a tree. He kept whispering over and over again, ‘Until there’s only one, until there’s only one…’ The other bodies were found, eventually, mostly eaten, but not by animals. The surviving prisoner was hanged for cannibalism.

“To his dying day he swore he did not hurt those men. He continued to tell the same story he had told police over and over again, about the voice and the eating sounds. He believed he had walked into a curse. After his death, his gravestone only had his prisoner number, as was the law for criminals of his nature, but in the night, a new epitaph was scratched. It read, ‘Until there’s only one…

“After that, the people in my village believed the prisoner’s story, and everyone avoided the woods at all costs. And, if children were behaving especially badly, their parents would tell them the tale to punish them. And punishment surely comes.”

The nanny’s face was grim as she stared at the children. She rose from her chair and flicked off the light. In the kitchen, she poured a circle of salt around a chair at the table and rested there with her hands clasped in prayer.

Upstairs in the nursery, in near total darkness, the five children were stone-still in their beds. For a long while they were frozen in shock but after a time, sleep began to call and their eyes grew heavy. Just as they began to drift off, they heard a whisper.

“Until there’s only one…”

Harper silently cried into her pillow. Johnny Jr. opened his mouth to scold whoever said such a cruel thing, but the sound of smacking and slurping stopped him.