This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Milo Abrams
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
For more information on Milo and his other books, visit www.miloabrams.com
James Callum stared out into the open field and felt like he was on another planet. Having spent the first twelve years of his life in the city, the unbridled expanse of the country overwhelmed him. The city was all he had ever known and the idea of spending the summer at his dad’s newly built house–too many miles outside the city for him to walk–was life changing.
“James, come call your mother,” his dad yelled from the front door, “you promised!”
His dad’s house sat quietly at the end of a long country road without another house for miles. The space gave James the room for his imagination to unfurl. He ran up the gravel driveway, hopping onto the railroad ties that lined the right side nearest the house, and skipped along them like a bridge. He took huge gulps of the unfamiliar fresh air which rekindled the tiny embers of his dormant imagination, waking them up softly into a tiny flame. He stepped across the railroad ties, one foot in front of the other, and pretended he was hundreds of feet off the ground. At the end of his high-wire walk was the front porch which was so new he could still smell where the wood had been cut. It led up to a front door that was grander than any door in his house in the city. He knew it had to be expensive because it was heavy as hell to push open. He grabbed the cordless phone off its charging base on the kitchen counter and stared at the buttons.
“You know how to use that thing?” his dad laughed. “You know, our cell phones used to be that big!”
James pushed the talk button which illuminated the little red light on the receiver and heard a monotone buzz come from the earpiece. “Yeah, I got it,” he said smugly. His dad was always cheerful now, and every time James was anywhere near a cordless phone he commented about how those cell phone generation kids just wouldn’t understand dinosaur technology.
“Good,” he smiled, “you know there’s no cell signal out here in the boonies, so you better get the hang of that puppy—it’s your lifeline to civilization.”
James nodded sarcastically while he dialed home. After a couple of rings his mom answered. “Hello?”
“Could I speak with Margaret Callum, please?” he said, trying to make his voice sound as unlike himself as he could.
“James,” she said seeing through his deception, “I know it’s you.”
He laughed. “How’d you know?”
“A mother always knows.”
“Thank you for calling me and letting me know you made it okay,” she said.
“Did I have a choice?” he asked smiling.
She ignored his humor. “How’s the house? Is it nice?”
James thought he heard a bit of jealously in her voice. “It’s really nice,” he told her. He admired the kitchen that was covered in smooth, shiny counter tops, dark hardwood floors and futuristic steel appliances.
“Good,” she said, “you know, I always want the best for you.”
“I know.” Both of his parents said something similar when they decided to separate. They claimed his dad’s crazy work schedule was putting too much strain on their relationship and that it was an adult issue that had nothing to do with him. They tried to explain it to him but James already understood. Being a doctor isn’t a job, it’s a life choice, and his father was one of the best cardiologists in the country. He had to accept his new life and the changes that came with it. He knew his father was a good doctor, yet somehow, her heart seemed to be the only one he couldn’t fix.
“I bet it’s a big change from city life, huh?” she asked.
James stared out the huge window above the kitchen sink that looked out into the backyard. Out there stretched another massive field that dwarfed the front yard, seeming to stretch for miles with a wall of trees at the very back that ran across the horizon and acted like a natural fence.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many trees,” he said. She thought that was particularly funny and as they laughed something caught his eye. At the very back of the field along the tree line was something sitting at the edge of the woods.
His mom continued to talk but he didn’t hear a word. Transfixed by the strange gray mass by the trees, his mother eventually noticed he wasn’t paying attention and quickly ended their call. To him it looked like a boulder, which weren’t uncommon in the country. Back in the city, the only rocks he ever saw were gravel or the large decorative bastards people with nice houses used to display their addresses. Despite his efforts, the distance from the house to the trees was just too far for his eyes to make out any details. He squinted as he stared, periodically rubbing his eyes every time he thought he saw it move. Just a stupid rock, he thought. Years of schooling and standing around barbecue grills taught him that heat was visible, and like a mirage in the movies or the invisible waves over the dunes of the Sahara, he attributed what he saw to his brain’s inability to process reality correctly. But just as he was losing interest, the photons from the thing at the back of the field smacked against his retinas and delivered a new message about reality to his brain. The blurry gray mass suddenly got up and disappeared into the trees.
He left the kitchen and searched the house for his dad, eventually finding him setting shirts out onto his bed. His bedroom was huge and clean looking with expertly placed crown molding, gray painted walls and the same dark hardwood floors as the kitchen.
“Hey, your mother feel better now?”
“Yes,” James replied staring down at his hands while he cracked his knuckles. “Dad, you’ve lived here a little while, right?”
He nodded. “Couple weeks. Construction just finished, finally! You notice how the porch still smells like sawdust?”
James laughed at the fact that they picked out the same detail. “You ever see anything in the backyard?”
His father hung his shirts back into the closet, arranging them by hue. “Oh, sure. There’s probably all sorts of things wandering back there, and you could even see some deer.” He raised an eyebrow with a grin, “Why, you see something?”
James hesitated, “Yeah, at the very back, near the trees.”
His father put his arm around him then walked with him out to the kitchen. At the window, they stared together across the vast field all the way to the tree line where the reality of his dad’s yard ended and his imagination of the woods began.
“Deer are quite majestic, you know,” he said squinting. James squinted with him, hanging over the sink as he looked. Suddenly something caught his dad’s eye and he yelled, “Look! Look there!” He pointed straight back toward the trees.
James’s hair stood up as he traced the invisible path of his finger until his eyes met with a huge male deer right where he had seen the strange walking rock.
“That’s a buck! Look at the antlers!” He watched his son continue to squint as he cleaned off his glasses. “Maybe it’s time you get some glasses, too.” He patted him on the shoulder then walked back to his room. James stayed at the sink and just watched the deer. It was impressive. He was finding out quickly how exciting nature was and how unnatural his city life had been.
As he hung precariously over the sink in an earnest attempt to really see the deer, the phone rang and interrupted his quietly unfolding epiphany.
“James,” his dad yelled from the bedroom, “could you get that?”
“What am I, a secretary?” James mumbled.
“What?” his dad called back.
“I got it!” He picked up the receiver and his ears met with the smooth canter of a British man.
“Nolan?” the voice asked.
“No, this is his son.”
“Ah, James, right?”
“Say James, is your father around? I’m sort of in a rush.”
James yelled for his dad then set the phone down on the table. As secretary, his job was finished, so he went back to staring out the kitchen window.
“Hello? Hey, Henry!” Nolan’s voice trailed off.
Two more deer joined the buck at the back of the field and James watched as they huddled together. They dipped their heads to the grass, occasionally sniffing and pulling at it with their teeth. They were so caught up in searching for food and listening for danger that they were completely unaware that he was even watching them.
Nolan hung up and put his arm around his son. “Looks like a family there.”
It does, James thought. There was the big buck, a doe and her fawn. While the mother and baby continued to graze, the buck suddenly raised its head as if hearing a distant sound and then bolted off. The mother lifted her head to see that the buck had gone, gently nudged her baby and then they too ran off into the woods. He frowned because it reminded him of his family. Although he couldn’t see their faces, he imagined the look of bewilderment the mother must’ve shown as she realized her partner was gone.
Nolan didn’t make the connection, he just looked out the window blankly. “Hunter, probably,” he shrugged.
“There are hunters around here?” James asked.
“Sure,” Nolan replied,” this property goes really far back, something like thirty acres or better. I wouldn’t be surprised if hunters were wandering through those woods. The yard around the house is just a fraction of the property.”
James opened his mouth to ask him why he decided to build a house in the country but he was quickly interrupted.
“Listen, I’m really sorry but that was work. They need me for a quick surgery. I promise I won’t be too long. I’ll bring back pizza for dinner, okay? Then tomorrow we can go out and grab some binoculars.”
This was a common occurrence in James’s life. He felt like he hardly knew his dad because he spent most of his time at the hospital. In a way, it created an opening for a sort of independence to grow in James to be his own man. Standing there in his dad’s brand new house in the middle of nowhere, Nolan looked at him for some sort of confirmation and it made James squirm. Ever since the separation, Nolan seemed more like a buddy than a father. He stared at his son, waiting for permission to go, even though James had no choice in the matter.
“Sure, I’ll just explore the grounds, sir,” James said, breaking the awkward silence and saluting him in his best soldier fashion.
Nolan smiled, “It’ll be good for you to get outside and away from the TV.”
James watched him leave from the porch, waiting until he was out of sight before wandering back into the house to snoop around. The house was very open, which contributed to the sense of freedom he felt. He was completely alone and free to do whatever he wanted for at least a few hours, but the lack of supervision left him with no idea of what really to do. He wandered around looking at the place his dad had built. It wasn’t a bachelor pad with its four bedrooms, all of which were also spacious. It had two elegantly decorated bathrooms and was furnished with the types of things that seemed very unmanly. It was almost as if James’s mom had decorated the inside.
He threw himself on the couch and bounced around a little. He could do anything and no one would know, so he jumped up and down across the cushions howling like a wolf. At the end of his elongated howling, he caught his breath with wandering eyes to make sure no one had heard him. Of course no one did, he was in the middle of the empty countryside where neighboring houses sat at least a mile apart. Laughing at his foolishness, he turned on the TV only to find out there was no signal. After investigating all the cables and the solid oak TV stand, he realized there was no active cable hook-up. Watching TV was out, but next to the TV stand was a thick stack of magazines. He picked one up.
“Deer Master, huh?” It was an odd magazine to find in his dad’s house, as far as he was concerned, and after a minute of flipping through the pages and looking at all the hunting equipment, supplies, and pictures of deer, he threw it back onto the pile.
Normally, James would let his father have his privacy, but the unusually large stack of hunting magazines made him wonder if his dad was hiding anything. For as long as he had known him, which was his whole life, Nolan Callum was only really interested in one thing: work. The hospital was his life and lifeline for keeping food on the table. He hadn’t become a doctor without genuinely being interested in it. It wasn’t the sort of profession a person could or should take lightly, and Nolan didn’t. He put everything into being the best doctor he could be, often sacrificing more than he should have for complete strangers.
James wandered into his dad’s room. It was too neat and orderly for an avid woodsman. The dirty and wild characteristics of hunting clashed with the near-sterile neatness of his father’s bedroom. Maybe the cleaning habits had carried over from work, but it was how James had always known him to be.
Nothing around the room seemed out of the ordinary. The bed was even neatly made with the comforter tightly tucked to the mattress. The only place out of sight was the closet. As soon as he pulled the closet door open it became apparent that there were some things his father wasn’t telling him. Propped up against the wall, as far from the clean and crisp shirts he had just hung up as possible, were two rifles and a pair of muddy boots just like the ones he had seen in the magazines.
Apparently, Dr. Nolan Callum was a hunter. The irony that he worked so hard to save lives, while simultaneously taking them in his spare time hadn’t occurred to James. His twelve-year-old mind was more of a creek than an ocean—it just wasn’t that deep.
James closed the closet and left this revelation to rest. All that was left to do was to explore outside.
“Over thirty acres, huh?” he asked himself. The idea was daunting and James was too much of a city boy to go wandering through the trees alone without the certainty of getting lost. He remembered seeing a huge barn on the other side of the driveway and decided he’d start his exploration there.
He stopped in the kitchen to grab a bottle of water and as he twisted it open he happened to look out the window into the backyard. Along the tree line sat the blurry gray figure again. He stared at it for a minute, frustrated that the sheer distance made even squinting useless. It was at that moment he noticed that his dad’s laptop was sitting on the table in the kitchen, still flipped open. “Yes!” he yelled.
Surfing the Internet was second nature for him. In an instant, he had the browser up and was ready to search the wealth of the World Wide Web for an answer. He looked out the window again and saw the gray mystery sitting in the same spot, taunting him with its stillness.
“What the hell are you?” he thought aloud. Speaking his thoughts helped him to organize them. “Could it be just a rock? No, I saw it get up and move.” He scratched his head unconsciously, mimicking the traditional thinking gesture while his mind started to flip through the catalogue of every Ohio animal he could think of. He counted them out in his head as he searched. Bears, bobcats, coyotes, and wolves. Wait, wolves! His dad had told him that the woods were deep and all sorts of different animals could be wandering back there. As children, the line between fear and danger is even more blurred than it is for adults, and so the thought of wolves and deer wandering in the backyard was thrilling to James. He had never seen a wolf except for on TV and nothing on TV actually seemed real. His mind lured him into thinking about how he could lure the wolf back for a better look.
“Maybe it’s hunting the deer!” he yelled in revelation.
He had never really been alone for any length of time, and if he was, there was always some way to communicate with other people. Out there though, he was isolated. Talking to himself was the best socialization he had aside from a bloody handprint on a volleyball or drawing a face onto his water bottle.
He looked back into the yard for the wolf but it was gone. From that moment, his plan was in motion. He had to find a way to lure deer into the yard to lure the wolf back. Sick and twisted as it may have seemed to lure deer toward death just so he could see a wolf, James was young and the country was too wild and beautiful for him to resist. The only way he could think to lure an animal was with food. If the deer was going to be the wolf bait, then he needed bait for the deer. Problem was, he had no clue what deer ate. Being strictly a city kid, the only thing he knew how to feed, other than himself, was his dog, Duffy.
He scoured through the cupboards and fridge looking for something a deer might eat. Turning up empty handed and defeated, he slumped back into the chair without a clue. He thought back to watching Bambi, but it was no use. Just as he was about to abort his mission in favor of something that took considerably less effort, the phone rang.
“Hello?” James answered softly.
“James,” the voice boomed through the receiver.
“Oh, hey Dad.”
“I just wanted to call before I head back in. The surgery went faster than expected, but a big accident just rolled in and the ER is short staffed.”
“Aren’t they always?” James asked.
Nolan laughed. “I just wanted to check up on you.”
“Hey Dad, do you have any idea what deer eat?”
“What?” James could hear the background chatter picking up now. “Well I guess they eat all sorts of things, why?”
“I was thinking about trying to lure them into the yard so I could get a better look.”
The pride oozed from Nolan’s voice. “Man, James, what a great idea! I think there are some apples in the bottom of the fridge. You should build a deer feeder and put it out back.”
“How do I do that? Can’t I just throw them on the ground?”
“Well you could, but then they’ll rot more quickly. It’ll also keep smaller animals off the apples. Try finding something to put them in and cutting them up. I’ve got a stack of hunting magazines next to the TV. Look in there for some inspiration. Listen, I have to go. I’ll see you with pizza, okay?”
“Sure thing,” James said.
“Love you, bye!” Nolan hung up. It was weird for James to hear him say that. It seemed that since the separation his father had become a lot more affectionate toward him. A good thing, he supposed. He flipped through a few of his dad’s magazines to get the general idea of what a deer feeder looked like and then decided he would improvise the rest.
On the other side of the driveway was the barn. Every time James had ever imagined a barn in the middle of the country, he pictured a bright red building with a wide front door like a black hole. The old barn at his dad’s house was the ghost of his imagination. It was tall, like he imagined a barn might be, with a wide front and a set of large shutters at the top. Far from being red, it was pale and aged like the bark of a tree that had been dead for a long time with a rusting metal roof that swept down on both sides and curled along the edges. The front doors had rusted completely off their hinges and hung pathetically to each side of its gaping entrance.
He jogged across the gravel to the front of the barn, a nervous sweat starting to build as he got closer. It was the only place that would have something he could make a deer feeder out of. Inside, he was surprised to find a car, which unlike the tin roof, looked taken care of. Along the wall across from the car were two long benches that held a variety of different tools and junk, and in the corner, was a tall metal tool chest that stood up to his nose. He ran his hands over its smooth painted sides, smiling at the fire-engine red color it shone in. His imagination had been somewhat right, there was at least something about the barn that was bright red. Toward the back he saw a rickety looking ladder that led up to the hayloft. It was a good fifteen feet up but for James it might as well have been a hundred. Leaving the ladder behind, he exited out the back of the barn where the grass was overgrown as if it were attempting to eat the whole place from the ground up. It was in this overgrown mess that he found just what he needed for his deer feeder.
Wedged halfway into the ground was a blue fifty-five-gallon plastic drum. He pulled at it with his stick-like arms for a solid minute before deciding to find a shovel to unearth his find. He jabbed the shovel’s blade along the side of the drum and jumped onto it with both feet at once. It was enough force to move the dirt and after a half an hour of repeating the exercise, he managed to get the barrel from the worm-infested earth and roll it around to the front of the garage. His lips were spread thin in a smile of accomplishment.
Although his pride began to show on the outside, his mind was focused like sunlight through a magnifying glass, and time started to slip away as he began to unravel the mystery of how to make a deer feeder with the junk lying around the barn. In a box at the bottom of the tool chest was a brand new sawzall, which he learned to use when his dad had built a picnic table back at his house in the city. It was heavy and impressive, which made him feel all at once dangerous and powerful as he looked at the little serrated blade that protruded from the tip. With a huge grin, he quickly plugged it in and cut the barrel completely in half along its longest side like a hotdog bun. To keep it upright, he ripped an old board from the wall of the barn and cut it into four equal lengths. By nailing two pieces together like an “X”, he turned the four boards into two wooden stands for the barrel to sit on. After a few minor adjustments, it was perfect, and stood on its own without any trouble. James stood in the musty air of the barn dripping with sweat and grinning. His imagination had carried his deer feeder to completion without the help of anyone else, and this fact made him even more proud. Suddenly, he heard a loud whistle rip through the air from outside the barn.
“Dad!” he yelled, “you have to see what I made!”
Once he was out of the barn he noticed his dad’s truck wasn’t in the driveway. He walked up the steps looking around and scratching his head, then slowly opened the front door and stepped inside.
“Dad?” he called again. After nothing but silence he looked around and confirmed he wasn’t home. His mind still focused on the deer feeder, he shrugged then began roughly cutting the apples into irregular chunks. He threw them into the barrel and dragged the three pieces into the backyard to plant the trap.
The ground was crunchy under his feet and he made quick work of hauling everything in just two trips. The front door of the barn faced the backyard and once he had reached the back of the field he stopped just twenty feet from the tree line and looked back. The house and barn looked so much smaller from way out there, and even the yellowing grass in the yard looked different, like a giant scab that clung to the dirt. In front of him the woods were thick and peering into its elusive veil sent a tremble shivering down his arms, causing him to drop the barrel. Something about the woods gave him a bad feeling. Even the trees that faced the open field were twisted as if they had been struggling to escape the darkness behind them, but died trying. James stumbled back a few steps and decided to set up the deer feeder a little more into the yard toward the house for a couple of reasons. One, so he could get a better view of the prey he was luring in, and two, because it scared him too much to be so close to the woods.
Set up and complete, he looked over where he saw the gray figure and traced the line of sight to the back window of the house. I could definitely see it, but could it see me? Looking back at the deer feeder, he couldn’t help feeling impressed and couldn’t wait to show his dad.
His eyes raised up from his accomplishment instinctually as goose bumps swam over his skin. Before he had time to realize what was going on, his brain’s primitive survival programming kicked in the instant the howling whistle cut through the air. He looked back and made a terrifying realization—it was coming from inside the woods. James only took a single step before another sound filled his ears. Twigs snapped and leaves rustled from inside the trees. He quickly realized it sounded like something was running through the trees…and it was running toward him.
It was the only thing James’s brain could process at the moment. There were two choices: stay put and meet whatever was charging through the woods head-on or run. So he ran.
He dug his heels into the dirt and left the deer feeder in the dust of his wake. The backyard was huge and covered with potential ankle-snapping pitfalls. James stretched his legs as far as he could as he ran, feeling the jagged edges of rocks protruding up through the ground. The initial burst of adrenaline ripped through his limbs like a lit stream of gasoline, and his sneakers barely kissing the grass as he flew. Even though he was the fastest runner in his class, a title he held since kindergarten, James was no match for the sheer size of the field. The initial excitement of setting up the deer feeder had played a slight trick on his senses, distorting time and space and making the field look like a quick trip through the yard. That had changed. His legs went from being on fire with energy to burning in pain. Every gulp of air seared his chest and the longer he ran the less oxygen there seemed to be in the air for him to take in. He was running for his life and suffocating in the process.
His ears, somehow still able to pick up sounds between his heavy wheezing and terrified whining, took in the sounds behind him. The rustling and twig snapping that was once deep inside the woods was now behind him at the tree line. A rushing gallop crashed through the trees followed by a loud thump and gurgling scream. James couldn’t stop and couldn’t look back. The low, hollow groan behind him near the deer feeder stole every sound from his throat. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t even see the ground or house in front of him anymore.
His consciousness took a backseat to the automatic primal reaction of his brain. He was lost in a fog of fear, his brain now in complete control as it continued to force his heart to push its limits and pump blood to his legs. The lack of oxygen from his hyperventilated breathing caused him to fall somewhere in the gap between conscious thoughts. His body trucked on to the back of the house, around the side, and up the steps. Fear had sent his head spinning and his body collapsing through the door. He tumbled through the kitchen and let his body fall into the cough where the exhaustion overtook him.
He awoke later with the indentations of the couch fabric grooved into his cheek. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, his arms heavy and tired feeling. But rubbing his eyes and forehead didn’t help clear the fog that had settled between his ears.
I must’ve fallen asleep, he thought. His eyes fell to the floor where he noticed he was still wearing his shoes. He wiped a line through the dust on the side of his sneaker with his finger. On the other side of the house, the door was still partially open, letting the bright sunlight in and the refreshing air-conditioned house air out. The fog of sleep lifted and he remembered the deer feeder, the terrifying noises and running. He sprinted across the house and threw himself into the door, slamming it shut. He twisted the door’s two locks and then backed away slowly. In his blacked-out hurry back to the house he collapsed onto the couch and never closed the door. Whatever was out there could have gotten in.
James wasn’t a dumb kid, but his ability to extrapolate about a wild animal’s possible motivations during a moment of intense fear was useless. He moved to the kitchen quietly then drew a large knife from a wooden block on the counter. Tiptoeing back into the living room, he cautiously checked every nook and cranny for signs of an intruder. He knew that an animal’s priority was food, but as he crept around the house squeezing the knife handle until his knuckles were white, he believed the delusion that it was somehow hiding from him—waiting for the perfect moment to attack. After checking every room and coming up empty-handed, he reasoned that either it never came inside at all or simply let him be.
He replaced the knife back to its rightful place in the block and gazed out the window above the sink. He eyes widened and his mouth dropped a little at what he saw. Expecting to see the deer feeder sitting at the back of the yard near the woods or maybe even the wolf prowling about in the yard, he instead saw nothing. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief. “Where the hell is my deer feeder?”
He ran back to the door and flipped the locks open, prepared to run out to the field when something on the porch at the top of the steps blocked his path. Sitting neatly in front of him was the blue drum with the pieces of cut up apples still inside. Next to it were the two wooden crosses he nailed together for the feeder to rest on.
He scratched his head. “Huh? I know I put this out in the field.” Picking up the pieces, it took another two trips across the same stretch of land that threatened to twist his ankles and subdue him. He set it up closer to the house the second time, taking a minute afterward to look toward the woods, hoping for some sort of explanation as to how it got back to the house. That’s when a small gleam in the grass caught his eye closer to the trees. He approached the tree line to investigate and as soon as he was close enough his hand shot to his mouth to cover his surprising gasp and nose from the metallic smell that filled the air. Just a few feet from where he had first placed the deer feeder was a large amount of blood all over the grass. It shone a bright and unreal red against the dull summer-worn grass. A large streaking trail traced a path all the way back to the woods, leading inside. That was enough for him. Deja-vu swam through his veins as he ran back through the field again. Without the noises, the pursuer, or the threat of possibly being tackled from behind, he ran at a less hurried pace. Once he reached the back of the house he looked back and saw the empty field still silent and mysterious. It now held a clue that a killer was living in the woods.
He decided the best course of action would be to stay in the house for the rest of the day. Ohio summers meant long days where the sun didn’t set until nearly nine o’clock. He made sure every window was locked, secured the only door to the outside and spent the next hour frantically checking outside for any sign of the killer. When checking the window above the kitchen sink one last time, he noticed a blinking red light on the cordless phone’s charging base. On the small square display, the number one blinked for a message aching to be heard. James pushed the play button underneath the display, sending his father’s voice through the speaker.
“Hey James, it’s your dad,” his voiced rumbled through the poor-quality speaker. Typical emergency room noise could be heard in the background. A series of beeps and intercom messages echoed, creating a panicked cacophony. “You must be out exploring the wild. Hope you got something made for the deer. Can’t wait to see it! Anyway, I’ll be home in an hour or so with the pizza. Love you, buddy.”
James breathed a huge sigh at the message. Hearing his dad would be home soon dropped his blood pressure and allowed him to relax a little. He could finally let go of the fear that had gripped him since everything with the deer feeder began. But the fear and anxiety has resulted in a large chemical cocktail coursing through his blood stream, and like eating an entire bag of Halloween candy, it followed with a crash. James plopped down onto the couch, stared at the darkened TV and waited. He dozed on the couch out of sheer boredom, and by the time his dad finally got home it was already dark outside. The clicking of Nolan fumbling with the unexpectedly locked door startled him awake.
Nolan looked at his son with his sleepy eyes and laughed. “All that running around and fresh air wore you out, huh?”
James nervously laughed at the irony of his dad’s words. “Yeah…must have.”
Nolan set two large pizza boxes on the table. “How come the door was locked?”
James fiddled with his fingers nervously while he replied. “Must’ve been habit from living in the city.”
Nolan laughed. “Well, the country is different, you don’t just have people walking into your house out here! It’s nice to not have to worry about strangers creeping around in the dark.”
James wanted to tell his dad the real reason he locked the door. He was afraid that a wolf wandering in the woods was going to come inside and get him. His dad knew the country well, but James had seen the blood for himself. He had seen the killer waiting in the backyard, and he had heard the horrendous sound of life leaving something behind him as he ran. But he was still a child, and as such, he believed that his father knew best. He didn’t quite have the inner strength to stand up against his father’s knowledge or beliefs so instead he quickly changed the subject.
“Well, you are a growing boy!” James smiled at that. “So, how did the deer feeder go?”
There it was again. The day’s earlier events replayed in his mind, distracting him and forcing him to fumble his words. “G…good, I think.”
“Well let’s see it, eh? It’ll only take a sec.” Nolan reached into a cupboard above the refrigerator and pulled out a huge flashlight.
Like a good portion of humanity, James was afraid of the dark. Furthermore, he was new to the countryside, miles from the familiar glow of street lamps and front porches. The idea of wandering out into that yard, toward those already creepy-in-the-daytime woods with the possibility of a blood thirsty wolf stalking the premises, was only plausible with the fact that his dad was there. He couldn’t deny the excitement on his dad’s face, despite his fears. James nodded and they were off.
The moon was nowhere to be seen and the only spot they could see was the small circle from the flashlight that led them along through the darkness. James felt disoriented as they walked along through the field, imagining they were floating through empty space. After a few moments, they finally landed at the deer feeder.
“Impressive!” Nolan hollered, patting James on the back. “I would have never thought to use that old barrel, that’s clever!”
Inside the apples sat untouched. “Thanks,” he said, “it was nothing.” Somewhere in the black nothingness around them the blood still stained the grass. They couldn’t see it and James wasn’t sure he wanted to. He just wanted to get the hell back into the house. He was relieved to hear his dad’s smiling through his voice even though he couldn’t see his face.
“All right, let’s go have some pizza!” As they turned to head back toward the house James heard something behind them. He looked, but he could hardly see his own hand, let alone anything even a couple feet away. He reassured away the anxiety, saying to himself that it was just misplaced sound made by his dad or even himself. He hadn’t told his dad about the wolf he saw, and honestly, he didn’t want to accept the fact that it could be right there watching them, licking its lips and preparing for the kill.
Sleeping in the country, for a city boy, was a unique experience. In fact, it might’ve even been healthy. The air quality was better but the biggest change was the lack of noise. Back home, James let the TV run all night in his room with the volume turned down. One reason was because he was afraid of the dark, even though he told everyone he didn’t believe in monsters or ghosts. Maybe he had just seen too many movies to honestly not believe it. Regardless, experience will always reveal what is truly believed. The other reason was that at his old house there was an underlying hum as if the city itself was alive. James got used to this hum and the constant barrage of noise, and so he had a hard time sleeping when it was relatively quiet. He was always looking for something on TV, a song to put on or someone to talk to. Even at night he couldn’t sleep without some sort of noise to act like a protective barrier between him and the silence of the unknown. If nothing else, the TV was just a city boy white noise machine.
Waking up on the second day was a combination of uneasy misplacement and exhilarating relaxation. The first thing that came to his mind was the deer feeder. James threw on his shoes and bolted out the front door, sprinting through the backyard. He was amazed at the effect a quiet night’s rest had on him. All the anxiety and fear over a big bad wolf completely evaporated from his consciousness. It had instead been replaced by the wonder and hope that something he had made with his own two hands could work. The morning was already warm and it would only get hotter. He didn’t know what to expect, but when he finally reached the feeder he was disappointed and happy. He was happy that it was still full. He hadn’t missed any chance to see the deer or the wolf by running out of bait. It also vaguely implied that with no deer around, the predator was also gone. However, he was also disappointed by the fact that the apples looked untouched, which made him wonder whether it would work at all. Confusion occupied his mind and was only further intensified by the fact that the pool of blood and its trail into the woods was gone. He stared in disbelief at the ground. He was absolutely sure of what he had seen yesterday. Rubbing his eyes didn’t change reality. The blood was gone.
Did it come back and lick up all the blood off the grass? What the hell kind of wolf does that? This gave a whole new meaning to the term blood-thirsty. His head swam as he walked back to the house. Once inside, he saw his dad standing at the counter pouring himself some coffee.
“Nice to see you up already,” Nolan said, blowing into the cup before taking a sip and wincing at the heat. “Want some?”
“Seriously?” James asked.
“You’re a growing man, are you not?”
“I’ll pass,” he said, “it tastes like crap anyway.”
Nolan laughed, “Of course it does,” he said taking another sip, “so, how’s the feeder look?”
“Not great, it’s still completely full. Did I do something wrong?”
“You can’t expect to catch a fish on the first cast, but we could pick up some deer feed when we go out today. I was thinking last night that since you went through all the trouble of making that feeder, we should have binoculars so you could see it better. It’s awfully far away.” He turned toward the stove and plated some scrambled eggs next to some hash browns then put it down in front of James.
“Wow,” he said, “you can cook?”
Nolan laughed, “Hardly! The hash browns were frozen. Eat, I’m going to shower.”
“Okay,” James said before stuffing his face. After finishing one plate he went back to the stove and filled a second. He couldn’t believe his dad had cooked breakfast. His mom had always done the cooking, and even when his dad lived in an apartment, they ordered out for every meal every time James stayed over.
He sat at the table, now full, and thought about how his dad had changed. Now he was always friendly. Before, he was always cranky from work and was quick to snap over a couple of dirty cups in the sink. James didn’t want to admit that his parents’ separation had actually been a good thing, at least for his dad. He didn’t seem to care too much whether his parents were together or not because he had hardly seen them together. If it had affected him, it was below the surface.
After allowing his stomach time to digest, he got up to put his plate in the sink. At the sink, he glanced out toward the deer feeder, and again, the gray creature was out there. He stared but it didn’t move. No amount of squinting could traverse the sheer distance between them.
Nolan didn’t respond. James ran from the sink toward the back of the house. “Dad!”
“Come here, you’ve got to see this!”
“Hang on a minute.” Nolan held his breath as he dragged the blade across his throat.
“I said hang on a minute,” Nolan said, rinsing the razor in the sink. He cupped his hands under the water and rinsed the remaining white mess then patted his face with a plush towel. “What is it?”
Without speaking they walked together back to the kitchen where James stopped and pointed toward the window. Nolan looked around then said, “You cleaned your plate. Good job.”
“What? No, look out the window, at the back of the yard.”
Nolan leaned over and squinted then shrugged. “I don’t see anything.” James joined his side but the figure was gone.
“That buck again?” Nolan asked.
“Yeah,” James said, his eyes darting back and forth in confusion, “that buck.”
Nolan headed back to the bedroom and threw on an old flannel shirt then returned to the kitchen. “Good to see you taking an interest in the outside. You know when I was a kid I was outside constantly. My parents couldn’t find me because I was always out having adventures in the woods and playing in creeks looking for frogs to catch. I used to build little forts in the trees,” he smiled as he peered into his memories, “I spent most of my time fixing them, though. Every time I built one something usually broke. But that’s what you get when trying to piece together something out there. The woods are unpredictable.”
James had to admit that his dad was handy in a mechanical way. He was always able to figure out how to fix or build things around the house, which probably led to him being such a good cardiologist. Looking at his short and clean nails, smooth hair, and flawlessly shaved face, he couldn’t imagine his dad as some sort of woodsman. He even looked strangely out of place in a bright red flannel shirt.
“Isn’t it a little hot for a flannel shirt? It’s summer.”
Nolan laughed as he unbuttoned the sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows. “Just to keep the grease off me when I work on the car. Want to help?”
“Great,” Nolan ruffled his son’s hair, “let’s go get that feed now then we can work on the car when we get back.”
James had no interest in working on cars but he did have an interest in spending time with his dad—all young boys do. James didn’t want to be a doctor, but he imitated his dad in other ways. Starting that day, he vowed to be more neat and orderly and he even have a sip of coffee, even if it tasted like crap.
Nolan had been a successful cardiologist for as long as James had been alive, but he was frugal. The house he had built was very nice, with everything inside and out being brand new, but he still drove the same beat up red truck from the 1980’s. It creaked and groaned as they stepped up inside, flexing slightly to their presence as the rusted frame threatened to give at any moment.
“Dad, why don’t you get a new truck?”
Nolan pressed the radio knob but it didn’t turn on. He smacked the dashboard above it with a closed fist and it sprung to life. “Why?” he asked. “This baby has plenty of life left in her. You never give up on a good thing.”
James tried to hide the sorrowful face he was sure was creeping across the curves of his eyebrows and lips at that moment by looking out the window. He wondered then how his dad could have given up on the family so easily and seem so happy without them.
The dust plumed behind the truck as it bounced violently across the dirt road. James held on to the door frame and seatbelt as his body shook like an astronaut during takeoff. His father seemed unconcerned, bobbing his head and mouthing the words to the classic rock music that was being drowned out by the banging metal and earth noises of the truck as it flew. James was sure the old rust bucket was about to disintegrate, but as they reached the end of the road they hopped onto smooth blacktop and the violence stopped. Like breaking through the atmosphere into space, they continued smoothly and effortlessly.
James observed the sparse scenery as they continued away from the dirt road. The first and only house he saw for the first mile or so was an old farm house set far back from the road by a driveway that seemed to go on forever, with the hollow shell of an old car parked near the sagging front porch. As it scrolled past him he could see a huge tree in the backyard. That would be perfect for a treehouse, he thought. It seemed that maybe some of his dad’s wilderness genes may be in him somewhere, dormant and waiting to be realized. He had never had thoughts about a treehouse before. Following the road, the same woods that grew behind the house stretched on forever like an impenetrable wall.
The crummy radio station Nolan had been singing to faded out and he finally said two words to his son. “Ah,” he inhaled deeply, “isn’t that country air nice? Makes me sad to think you had to grow up in the city.”
To James, air was air, and he could hardly tell the difference so long as he was still breathing. “I’m hardly grown up, Dad. Besides, the city isn’t so bad.”
“I guess,” Nolan shrugged, “but I grew up out in the wild and wish I had never left. You see that?” he asked, pointing out at the open fields. “That is natural, that is peaceful,” he looked out a bit longer and paused, “that is humbling.”
James didn’t know anything about humility, but he did know what it felt like to feel small, so he felt that. “Why’d you become a doctor if you love it out here so much?” It was a question he had never thought to ask.
Nolan’s eyes rolled around looking for an answer. “W…well,” he stammered, “I have always liked helping people, and when you grow up you realize that you have to do things like pay bills and put food on the table. When you have a family it’s your job to do that, and I guess I was good at finding out what made people tick.” He looked at James with one eyebrow raised and waited.
James’s eyes widened in confusion.
“Get it?” Nolan laughed. “What makes them tick? The ticker. The heart.” He smiled once he realized James wasn’t laughing and said, “Well, I thought it was funny. I love being a doctor, I really do, but I hate how much time it takes away from being with everyone.”
James frowned. “I know.”
Nolan messed up his hair, “But hey, it’s all right.” He stopped mid-thought and pointed at a police cruiser on the side of the road where a man was leaning against the hood and cussing.
Even in the bright summer morning sun, the blue and red lights of the cruiser pierced James’s retinas like small colored bursts of electricity. Nolan slowly approached the lights and the details of the scene became a little more apparent. The man leaning against the hood was dressed in filthy blue overalls and stomped his mud-caked boots on the pavement like an angry toddler. All the while, the officer across from him stood like a statue holding a small pad and pen. Whatever he thought of the rampaging farmer, he coolly concealed it behind an impenetrable poker face and dark glasses.
James watched as the farmer threw his arms in the air, his voice inaudible as the words were slurred by the wind coming through the truck’s open windows. The man paced around and pointed across the road and into the trees, then back toward his farm house directly across the street. James followed the man’s finger and laid his eyes on a yard that made his dad’s look like a tree lawn. The countryside held a large farmhouse at the end of the longest driveway in the world that was barely visible from the road. As they passed the police officer and the visibly upset man, Nolan and James looked at each other and shrugged.
Rolling waves of asphalt eventually took them away from Monroe and into an unincorporated piece of land called Bushnell. Bushnell was the last stop between the expansive country of Monroe and the city of Bugby. Bugby was a real in-between city. There were plenty of other cities in Ohio that were better and worse, which allowed Bugby to slip between the cracks of congestive innovation and the sparseness of a town where everyone knew your name, and still wrote checks.
On the corner of the only traffic light in Bushnell, the rickety old truck pulled into the parking lot of Cray’s Hardware, dodging cracks in the sun-beaten pavement that resembled the aftermath of an earthquake.
“I thought we were getting deer feed?” James asked, “The sign says it’s a hardware store?”
“Oh, they have it. Out here, a hardware store does a little bit of everything.”
Right in front of a thirty-year-old ice chest sat a police cruiser that looked out of place in front of the worn-down hardware store. It was shiny with curves everywhere. This cruiser was considerably nicer than the one they had just seen and across the door a decal read BUGBY POLICE in bold bright letters.
“Don’t see many city cops out here,” Nolan said as if he was exclusively from the country now. It annoyed James that his dad had drawn a line between city and country and boasted about his side so openly. The man he used to know as his father drifted further away from who James had known his entire life. He was now different than before, which dashed his childish dreams of his parents ever getting back together.
As they walked in together, an officer passed them and returned to his car. James couldn’t believe how he looked so like the other officer he had just seen. An old man walked around from behind the cash register to greet Nolan and his son.
“Hey Nolan,” the old man smiled, “good to see you again!”
“Hey, Sam,” Nolan said wrapping his arm around James’s shoulder, “my son and I are looking for some deer feed.”
“Of course, got some in the back.” Nolan and James followed in his wake which smelled heavily of medicated ointment and grass clippings. At the back, they reached racks of bagged feed on pallets.
“What happened, Sam?” Nolan asked.
“Oh, you mean the cruiser out front?” he asked as he pulled a rag from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “He was just asking questions about Farmer Dell down the road. You couldn’t have missed him on the way in?”
Nolan and James nodded in unison.
“Dell’s had Route 193 blocked all morning. Apparently, he woke up to find that his prized tractor had escaped from the field.”
“Escaped?” James asked.
Sam shot a glance at him and laughed softly. “Yes, Dell’s had nearly a half-dozen of Bugby’s finest tied up all morning. He insists that someone stole his tractor. Probably just got on it drunk again and drove it off the property. He was always in and out of here picking up things to give it more torque than a tugboat.” Sam laughed at his analogy. “I told him by the time he was finished he’d be able to pull his whole house around the farm!”
James laughed politely along with his father and Sam. He didn’t know anything about torque.
“Well, here’s the feed,” Sam said, “Do you want me to get Charlie to take it to the truck for you?”
Nolan looked down at James and smiled, “Want to give it a shot?”
“Uh sure,” James said. He grabbed the twenty-five-pound bag from the rack and struggled to lift it, sinking down from the force as it landed on his shoulder.
“You got it!” Nolan shouted then walked to the counter with Sam to pay.
James couldn’t carry the weight and quickly dropped it. He managed to start dragging it across the floor, at least. Sweat dripped into his eyes and he stopped for a minute to catch his breath.
“Let me help you,” a shaky voice said. James looked up to see the hardware clerk, Charlie, standing above him. Charlie was a seventeen-year-old senior with bright orange hair that hung in his eyes and the strength of two grown men. His pale frame was splattered with freckles and his muscles bulged beneath a lime green t-shirt. He lifted the bag with ease and offered James a hand up. They walked out to the truck and Charlie set it down in the back effortlessly.
“Thanks,” James said still catching his breath.
“No prob,” Charlie said with a smile. He patted the bed of the truck then walked back toward the store without saying another word. James stood against the truck and watched as the police officer finished doing whatever it was they did in their cars and pulled out. He hit the pavement and sped away. James had no doubts that he was headed back to deal with Farmer Dell. He remembered the look on his face as they drove by, a curious mix of anger and concern. The more James thought about it the more he felt bad for the old farmer. His hysterics were only because something he loved was lost, and that’s as normal a response as he could imagine.
“Ready to go?” Nolan asked as he approached the truck. “I was thinking ice cream, what do you think?”
“Sure,” James said hopping into the passenger’s side.
“Good, we can avoid Dell that way, too.” Nolan threw a bag onto James’s lap. It was heavy.
“What’s this?” James asked before even looking.
“I thought it would help,” Nolan said smiling.
James opened the bag and inside was a pair of binoculars. “Awesome,” he whispered.
After getting the ice cream, James was left with nothing to do except stare out the window. Everything seemed better with chocolate ice cream—that was James’s mantra, anyway. He thought that maybe his dad was on to something when it came to the country. It was only his second day and the hardened shell of city-life conditioning was already beginning to fracture. He didn’t miss TV, large numbers of people, or the constant noise. In fact, he was really starting to enjoy the quiet. He always thought the city was full of life and color, but the countryside was slowly revealing itself to him—and it was amazing. Even the binoculars had given him new eyes.
He stared out the window and licked his ice cream, desperately trying to keep it from melting as the sun turned up the heat. Through the binoculars, he saw trees, rolling hills of grain, and the faces of houses set way back from the road. It seemed to be a trend, he noticed, for a house in the country to have a long driveway and be far from the road. It was as if they were trying to avoid the last lifeline they had back to the city. Most of the houses he saw were much older looking through the binoculars than he first thought and he saw a lot more animals than he thought were out there—even a couple of turkeys.
Nolan took the “scenic” route back home, even though every route in the country was scenic as far as James was concerned. The road curved and then straightened out, cutting right through a green ocean of corn stalks that stretched as far as the eye could see, even with binoculars, on both sides. His father was no farmer, but James hadn’t seen anything growing behind his dad’s house.
“How come there’s no corn or anything behind the house?” James asked.
“What do you mean?” Nolan said, fiddling with the radio for a station.
“Well, all these other houses seem to be actual farms and there’s nothing but grass at ours.” James felt weird calling his dad’s house his own.
Nolan thought for a moment then his face lit up, “Oh! That’s because of the fire.”
“Yes, the house that was on that property burned down, and thanks to the extremely dry summer, the cornfield was so dried out it went up, too. The barn barely made it out, if you look at it you can still see burn marks from the flames.” Nolan beamed, “It’s one of the reasons I got such a good deal on the property. The guy said some chemical accelerants that got caught up in the fire ruined the field and it would have to be dug pretty deep and re-fertilized. You know how it is, the more work something needs, the cheaper it is. I saved so much money on the property it was actually cheaper to buy the land and build a new house than to buy one.”
“Wow,” James said, “why didn’t you just rebuild the barn then, too?”
“I thought it added character. A little charm from its old life. Works out double for me because I don’t have to tend to the field since it takes up most the backyard. I love the country but I don’t want to be a farmer. Funny how things seem to always work out.”
All talking stopped as they turned back onto Nolan’s dirt road and proceeded with the simulation of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. He eventually slowed down and turned into the driveway.
“Why did you build such a big house then?” James asked as he stuffed the rest of his ice cream cone in his mouth.
“The apartment was way too small, and besides, I don’t plan on living alone forever,” Nolan said, winking at him.
That made the rest of James’s ice cream taste sour. He had been seeing hints for a while that his dad was moving on but he didn’t want to believe it. His dad made his way into the house, happy as always and James lagged behind. He kicked the large gravel in the driveway and moped to the steps. It wasn’t until he was in the kitchen, washing away the sticky remnants of his sloppy ice cream eating that he happened to glance out the window. At the back of the yard staring back at him was the gray figure crouching in the same spot it had before. James looked around frantically for the binoculars.
“Oh no, where did I put them?” he said panicking. He frantically searched the table and counters, periodically peeking out the window to make sure the creature was still there. It just sat there, still as the deer feeder in the middle of the field in front of it. “Wait,” he stopped, “the truck!” James sprinted across the kitchen and burst through the heavy front door, jumping clear off the porch, skipping every step and ran to the truck. Still sitting on the seat were the binoculars. He grabbed them and put them to his eyes but all he saw was the house. “Argh, damn house,” he grunted as he made his way toward the back. Clearing the distance between the truck and the front of the barn in seconds, he inhaled deeply, trying to catch his breath while he scanned the backyard through the binoculars. It was gone.
He spent the rest of the day wondering about what he had seen. Losing his interest to help his dad work on the car, he spent the afternoon sporadically checking the kitchen window and lying around. At one point, his dad came back inside pouring with sweat and grease. “I filled your deer feeder with the feed. I saw you forgot to do that.”
“Oh,” James replied, “thanks. I guess I just forgot.”
“It’s okay,” he said wiping grease from his hands on a rag. “Oh, and I also noticed last night that you discovered my laptop. You’re not in trouble and I’m sure this must be quite an adjustment for you. Just don’t delete anything,” Nolan said as he walked to the table then brought the computer back with him and set it down in front of James. “Please don’t spend all your time on here. I wasn’t going to tell you I had internet access, you know, to help you really have an authentic country experience.”
“Don’t worry, Dad, I know how to handle a computer. And I promise I won’t. I’m just going to look for ways to improve the deer feeder.” This made his father smile. He tried to affectionately mess up James’s hair but James ducked out of the way of his grease-blackened hand laughing.
James didn’t want to upset his father. He knew that he could blow his chance of being able to use the computer again for the rest of the summer. After looking at pictures of deer feeders he concluded that the idea was pretty simple and anything more elaborate would require more money and he wasn’t about to ask his dad. He already couldn’t muster the courage to tell him he thought there was a strange animal in the backyard. The idea of a wolf had already unscientifically been disproven, so he searched for animals that might resemble what he had been seeing, but nothing fit. Even looking at pictures of coyotes and wolves didn’t seem right. The shape of the body and how it stood up and walked back into the woods wasn’t the same. He needed more evidence. He needed to see the creature in the woods again because now all his daydreams of deer and wolves abandoned him. There was something in the woods behind his father’s house and it was watching him.
Even that night James’s mind wouldn’t let go of the woods and its secret. The darkness of his room was replaced by the low light conditions of the woods as he slipped from the waking world to a place where he would be thrown face to face with the gritty truth of his fears through his dreams.
James sat in the dirt, with trees twisted around him like a prison. The sound of shuffling leaves startled him and before he could form a conscious thought he was flying through the trees, his feet pounding the ground with the beat of his heart. Ahead of him, a huge boulder worn with deep grooves and pockets where water had eroded its surface sat firmly planted in the ground completely out of place in the dark green of the trees. He ran up to the rock, placed his hands on its slippery surface and instinctively tried to climb up it, but it was too tall and too smooth. Behind him the trees whispered and shuddered with the vibrations of something moving deep within them. James scampered around to the other side, pressing his back up against its solid and reassuring presence.
“Help!” he called out in vain.
Suddenly the large stone against his back shivered. He turned and backed away from it, watching as its round and stable shape began to melt and become fluid. He watched in horror as the bulbous boulder became thin and distorted as it rearranged to take on a new shape. Four long slender legs began to appear, gripping the ground with pointed claws. The backside stretched and twisted into a tail, and the top arched down toward a growing head that grew several rows of protruding teeth. James backed up, tripping over a root, then scrambled backwards as he watched the boulder transform into a wolf.
“No!” he screamed, picking himself up to run.
The trees whipped his body as he ran and he could hear the crunching and crashing of the wolf behind him. He finally came to an opening in the trees that led him to the edge of a cliff. The wind blew hard, making him shiver. Below him was a river and behind him growls rumbled through the trees. As soon as he heard a tree behind him snap from the wolf’s weight, he jumped.
Dreams are complicated things. Some people remember dreams they had the night before every morning, while others may only remember two over the course of an entire month. But everyone dreams and everyone has nightmares. James was one those people who hardly remembered his dreams. His nights were usually blank blinks of being like going through a wormhole from one day to the next. It took a lot for James to remember a dream.
He woke up in the morning of the third day covered in sweat and shivering. The box fan in the corner continued to hum along but it wasn’t blowing on him, he had it on just for noise. James still found it hard to completely adjust to sleeping in the silence without the noise of the city, so his dad gave him an old box fan he kept in the barn to use at night. It was dirty and covered with splotches of paint, but it did the trick. James wiped the sweat from his forehead and stepped out of bed like he had landmines attached to his feet. His dad’s new house had central air, a luxury he never knew back in the city.
Stepping out from the hallway, he expected to see his dad in the kitchen making breakfast. He was torn between wanting to tell his dad all about the dream he had and wanting to forget about it completely. To his surprise, his dad was nowhere to be found in the house. No sizzling skillet, no bubbling coffee pot, and no breakfast. He grabbed a colorful afghan draped over the back of the couch and wrapped it around himself. The hardwood floors felt like an ice rink to his naked feet as he walked to the kitchen window and looked out to the field anxiously. Outside, the dead grass stretched under the morning sun, begging for rain, all the way to the dark wall of trees at the back of the property. He scanned the tree line for his creature but the only thing he saw was the deer feeder.
Nolan opened the door, drenched in sweat and covered in grease and grime. He pulled a red rag from the back pocket of his jeans and wiped his face, took one look at James wrapped in the afghan and hunched over like a wet puppy in a snow storm then burst into laughter.
“What’s so funny?” James asked scowling.
“Look at you,” Nolan said heading for the sink to wash his hands, “you look pathetic. Poor kid, was the air too low for you?”
James tried to act tough but he was too cold. He hadn’t just woken up with sweaty hair, his shirt and pants also felt wet. For a minute he thought he might have pissed himself but thankfully his full bladder led him to believe otherwise. Instead, he was drenched in an anxious, fearful, nervous sweat. There was something in the woods behind the house and he was the only one seeing it. Not only that, but it was now in his dreams, too. “No, it was good. I think I just woke up hot and sweaty is all.”
“You eat yet?” Nolan asked.
“Well, let’s get some breakfast in you, then you could help me work on the car.” Nolan smiled as he began heating a skillet. He pulled a box of pancake mix from the cupboard and poured it into a mixing bowl.
James emptied his aching bladder then changed out of his pajamas and into something dry. He wondered if telling his dad about his dream and the creature in the woods was a good idea. He wasn’t even sure his dad would believe him. Nolan was a man of medicine and science and his logical approach to the world had slipped into the inner workings of James’s brain without him realizing it. As strange as everything had been over the last couple days, James still had a hard time believing that there was a creature in the woods behind his dad’s house.
He reappeared into the kitchen and was greeted with a mountain of pancakes. “Wow, Dad, these look great!”
Nolan laughed, the creases of his aging cheeks gently lifting a smudge of grease below his eye similar to a football player. “It’s instant!”
They sat quietly at the table and James watched as his dad ate, unaware of everything that was going through his mind. He couldn’t tell his dad that he had a bad dream and woke up scared. His dad saw him as a growing man now, at least that’s what he had told him. Although his internal struggle drifted from side to side like a ship on stormy seas, he ultimately couldn’t find the courage to tell his dad about his dream.
“Not bad,” Nolan said, burping loudly. “So, you want to help with the car? You left me hanging out there yesterday.”
“Sure,” James said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Since James never remembered dreaming, it felt like a historic time for him, and he decided to grab some paper and jot it down. He remembered something his history teacher once told him. He said, “The reason we write things down is not so we don’t forget them, but so we remember how important they really were.” To James it sounded kind of sappy but he was impressionable to those sorts of things. As the minutes passed, the strength of his nightmare weakened. It seemed the more he tried to recall every detail, the more it seemed to slip through his fingers like grains of sand. He spoke what he wrote, thinking it may help it stick with him better.
“Okay, what happened? I was in the woods behind the house. It was dark and deep and I felt like I was lost. I ran in different directions but the woods just kept going, and every way I ran there were giant boulders that turned into creepy wolves with long arms like people and they chased me.” He looked down at what he wrote and doubted it for a moment. “That’s what happened, right?” He shrugged and left it. It wasn’t poetry, but it was good enough. He took the piece of paper and shoved it beneath his underwear and socks in his top dresser drawer then ran outside to the barn.
Somehow, writing down his nightmare made him feel better. By writing down what scared him, he distanced himself from it and it no longer felt like it was something that was happening to him. The brain can deal with a memory of trauma much easier than it can an actual trauma, and the nightmare’s effect on James faded. He forgot about seeing a strange creature at the edge of the woods, about the deer feeder, and the idea of luring in deer to see wolves. In his newly found peacefulness, he left his worries behind temporarily and bounced into the barn to help his dad work on his car.
His dad was halfway underneath the car with just his legs sticking out completely covered in dirt and dust when he arrived. James hadn’t paid much attention to the car the last time he was in the barn, mostly because it was covered in a heavy brown tarp, but now it wasn’t and it was impossible to miss. It was old but extremely shiny and bright red. If the barn had eyes and could see the color on the car inside it, it would’ve surely been jealous. With the car safely sitting on rusted yellow ramps, James knelt down by his father. “Nice looking car.”
Nolan’s voice rolled out from under the car even though he stayed under. “Thanks, it has its problems though, ‘cause it’s getting old. Hoping to get it up and going.”
James sat down by his dad’s legs. “So, what’s wrong with it?” he asked.
“The body and engine are perfect, but it had a bunch of wheel problems, you know like wheel bearings, breaks, bad tires…not to mention all the lines underneath were rusted and gone.” James then heard metal hitting metal and his dad yell as the oil pan came off and dumped oil all over him. He slid out from under the car, his face covered in a slimy brownish-black goop and began laughing. He wiped his face. “I got it all pretty much done besides that damn oil pan.”
James moved and sat on a chair at the bench along the wall of the barn. “You’ve been working on it a while?”
Nolan continued cleaning himself up then picked up the oil pan and threw it into the corner. “Yeah, put quite a bit of money into this sucker, too.”
“Why not just buy a new car or pay someone else to fix it? I mean look at your truck, Dad, it’s a piece of shit.” James quickly covered his mouth as soon as he realized what he said. He had never cursed in front of his dad exclusively before, and any time his mother heard him back home, he was instantly grounded. In his family, his dad had always been the disciplinarian. His mother ruled the roost but his dad was her right-hand man. Any justice or punishment that needed dishing out always waited until he was home from work. James winced and waited for the verbal beating he was sure was coming, but it never did. Instead, his dad just started laughing.
“Yes, but that piece of shit,” he said pointing toward the driveway with his thumb like a hitchhiker, “is my little red rocket. I’ll ride that sucker ‘til she dies.”
James was confused and relieved that his dad had taken his little slip-up so lightly. “You laugh a lot more now, I noticed,” James mentioned.
Nolan opened a box which contained a new oil pan and sat back down to slide under the car. “Life’s too short not to laugh more. I always took everything so serious. Speaking of short, I have to get this car running.”
“Why, you got a date or something?” James joked.
“Actually,” Nolan said between ratchet sounds, “I do.”
They said nothing more about it. James finally had the confirmation he was looking for that his dad had moved on. It also explained his new change in attitude and why he had been so happy. For a while, James sat next to his dad while he grunted and swore between deep inhales under the car, but there was nothing really for him to do. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t help fix his dad’s car. Eventually, James wandered away from the car, too bored and hot to sit around and do nothing, and explored the barn some more. What intrigued him most was the ladder that led to the hayloft.
He stood there staring at it for a few minutes, noticing that it looked old and weathered just like the barn itself. Hoping it was strong enough to hold him, he went over the pros and cons in his head and struggled with his desire to climb up and explore. There was a hollow feeling in his gut that told him not to but in the moment, he didn’t care that a fall from such a height could kill him if he landed the wrong way. He grabbed the ladder and placed his foot nervously on the first rung. Just as he put pressure down to lift his other foot off the ground, it snapped and his foot smacked the floor of the barn with a hard thud making his heart thud similarly in the process.
“What was that?” Nolan called out from underneath the car. “James, you all right?”
Wide-eyed and panicked for a second, James replied, “Yes, the ladder broke.”
“Ladder?” Nolan emerged from beneath the car, “Jesus Christ, James, don’t climb on that damn thing. It’s probably as old as the Civil War.”
James looked at his feet, “I just wanted to see what was up there.”
Nolan looked up at the hayloft without saying anything.
“What’s up there?” James asked.
“Honestly, I’m not sure.” He walked to the other side of the barn and grabbed a tall aluminum ladder then set it up next to the broken wooden one. James stepped over to climb it but Nolan stopped him. “Hang on there, buddy,” he said, “let me make sure it’s safe first.” Nolan gracefully lifted all two-hundred and thirty pounds of his body weight up to the top and stepped into the hayloft, disappearing where James couldn’t see him.
After a minute, James called out to him. “Dad?”
“Come on up, just be careful on the ladder.”
James stepped onto the aluminum ladder without the bravery from his last climbing attempt. His legs and hands trembled more with each advancing step. Upon reaching the top, the first thing he noticed was the huge temperature change which instantly sent his sweat glands into motion. The hayloft of the barn was actually more like a second floor with a solid wood floor built into the rafters that extended the entire length of the barn. At the front, there was a large rectangular opening, that at one time, had huge shutter-like doors. Nolan stood by the opening and stared outside.
“Incredible, huh?” he asked as the wind blew the dust from his hair. “Hot up here but the increased elevation brings a nice breeze with this opening.”
James looked to the back of the hayloft and saw there was another opening just like the one at the front, but it still had its doors and was shut. Nolan noticed this and began walking toward the other side.
“Let’s see if we can get this open.” A couple good grunts and the rust from the latch broke free, allowing the huge shutter doors to swing open and bring in a wave of fresh air. “That’s better! Gets some air flowing up here!”
James walked to the front opening and looked outside. He was amazed to see the backyard stretched out before him in a beautiful view. “Wow,” he uttered.
“See?” Nolan said, patting him on the back, “you never know what you’re going to find out here.”
James didn’t say anything as his father retreated back down the ladder to work on the car. At first, he was afraid to get too close to the giant window for fear of falling to his death, but after a few minutes of inching around he took a deep breath and scooted his butt near the edge, letting his feet dangle over. He felt free. His mother would’ve killed him if she saw what he was doing but he didn’t care. The breeze blew through his hair and he soaked up the view as it saturated his vision. Looking out to the back, he could see the treetops of the woods and a brand-new view of the deer feeder. That’s when he had the idea that the hayloft would be a much better place to try and see the creature from. He carefully backed up, and then hurried down to get his binoculars.
As he reached the bottom, his dad slid out from under the car. “Done up there, already?”
“Actually, I’m just going to grab my binoculars.”
“Great idea! Hey, would you mind grabbing us a couple root beers while you’re in there?”
“Sure,” James said, then he was off. He pushed the door open and was punched with a full-body blast of cold air as he stepped back into civilization. The sweat from his face and forearms sent a cool-burst sensation through his nervous system causing him to involuntarily shiver. He grabbed the binoculars, two root beers in icy brown glass bottles, then stepped back out into the heat. As he reached the bottom step, a shrill whistle in the distance made him stop. He looked around for its source but couldn’t find it. Back in the barn his dad was out from under the car, and smiled between greasy cheeks as he took the root beer.
“Ah, thanks,” Nolan said after a couple heavy slugs.
“Dad, you said there could be hunters back in the woods?”
“Do hunters ever whistle?”
It was an interesting question that made Nolan think for a minute. “I guess. I remember when I was a kid, my Uncle Grizzely was an avid hunter, and I remember he used to use a whistle to train and direct his hunting dogs.”
“Oh, okay,” James said taking a swig of root beer. That must’ve been it. The whistling must have been the hunters blowing their whistles for their hunting dogs. James wasn’t sure he fully believed it but it was the best idea he had. He decided to leave the barn and check on the deer feeder.
He knew something was visiting the yard and watching him—or at least it seemed to be. He hadn’t seen any gray hunting clothes in any of his dad’s deer magazines, and it was way too hot to be wearing too much.
Why would hunters sit at the edge of the woods? To rest? It’s not like the yard was overflowing with deer for them to watch or hunt. There were so many unanswered questions and not enough evidence. But soon that would all change.
When James finally got out to the deer feeder he was disappointed to find that it was still full. “Oh, c’mon,” he said kicking the side. That’s when he noticed a half-eaten apple on the ground. He walked over and crouched down to examine the bite marks as if he were a trained woodsman, but he didn’t have a clue what he was looking at. Something was happening in the yard, he thought. Maybe he was right and the creature from the woods was going after the deer that were lured by the feeder. His investigative thoughts were rudely interrupted as the car in the barn roared to life, revving several times and echoing like multiple sonic booms across the countryside. The resulting noise lured James back to the barn.
Inside, Nolan revved the car like a madman. James nervously looked around, expecting someone to call the police, but then he realized they weren’t in the city. Things were different out there.
“Ha! Check that out, huh?” Nolan was beaming.
Nolan walked over and wrapped a sweaty arm around his son, the heat of which made James uncomfortable. “You see that there? A little work and you can accomplish anything. You know that car was what I took your mother out in for our first date?” Not noticing the impact of his words, Nolan pumped his fists in the air and yelled in celebration. “I’m going to grab a shower,” he said heading for the house.
James was stunned. His dad just wouldn’t let up with rubbing his new life into his face. Didn’t he realize that the separation did hurt James after all? Up until he came to his dad’s new house, James hadn’t even realized it himself.
“Hey, James,” Nolan called from the door, “your mom’s on the phone!”
Once in the house, James picked up the phone. “Hello?” he answered with zero enthusiasm.
“Hey, sweetie,” his mother spoke, “how’s it going there?”
James couldn’t bear to tell his mom what he was thinking or feeling. He didn’t want to embarrass himself or hurt her feelings, but he wasn’t much in the mood for talking. “Things are going good,” he managed to mutter out.
“So, your dad tells me you built a deer feeder, huh?”
Jesus, he thought, my dad’s playing both sides of the field! This made him mad but he wasn’t about to show his feelings. He was a growing boy, becoming a man, and that’s just something he thought men didn’t do. “Yeah,” he said, “it was no big deal.”
“No big deal?” she laughed, “I’ve never seen you build anything here!” He had so many thoughts running through his mind between a deer hunting monster in the woods and his dad’s selfish behavior that he wasn’t paying much attention to the unintended nuance in his mom’s words. “So anyway, the reason I called is because Owen and Jack are here.”
James had nearly forgotten about his two best friends back home in the city. They were a regular set of musketeers. He had grown up together with Jack living right next door and Owen just a few blocks away.
Jack was the timid intellectual, with dark hair and dark eyes. He found joy in calculating the success rate of their adventures while Owen, the youngest of the trio, was the bravest. He often told people he was raised by wolves and was stocky, loud, and always the first to rush into things.
“What do they want?” James asked.
“Just to see what you were up to, they forgot you were spending the summer at your father’s house. Typical preteens. Anyway, the other reason I called was I thought it might be fun for you to have them out there for a night or so. I already checked with your father—he has no problem with it.”
James was surprised at the amount of behind-the-back communication there was between his parents. He felt betrayed in a way, like he wasn’t in the loop about what was going on. Despite this, he did miss his friends and thought it would be nice to have someone around to relate to about the whole creature in the woods business. “That sounds great,” his tone changed, “when can they come out?”
“Well,” she said, “I haven’t actually asked them.”
“Ugh,” James sighed.
“I just wanted to make sure you wanted to have them over first.”
“Of course, Mom! Ask them, please?”
“Okay. They’re still here, hang on.” She disappeared for a minute then Owen answered the phone.
“Yo,” he said.
“Hey,” James replied, “you guys coming out or what?”
“We could, Jack just got a sweet new MMO you have to see,” Owen said.
“Oh, well there’s no internet out here,” he lied. His dad didn’t have Wi-Fi and James knew that he would never let them spend their time inside playing games.
“What? Oh, man.”
“Yeah, no cell service either,” James said.
Owen paused for a second. “Dead zone, bro.”
“Yeah, but there’s something I have to show you guys,” James said as his dad walked in, “it’s uh, the deer feeder I made.” The words stumbled out of James’s mouth and his dad looked back at him and smiled, proud that his son had a little country in him after all.
James feared that if his dad found out that he was interested, not so much in seeing deer but in seeing a monster, then he would shut down every plan he had to see it. The worst-case scenario, of course, was being sent back home to the city before he figured out what it was. What started as a mild curiosity and bad dream was now an itch that James had to scratch. Owen immediately seemed to lose interest—the lack of Internet and cellular network was a blow that his city-boy brain couldn’t quite handle.
“Have to pass, man,” he said. Owen was always sure of himself, even for a twelve-year-old. When he made up his mind he was hard to convince otherwise, which made him both a pain to parents and a great friend.
Disappointed, James hung up the phone and slumped into the chair at the kitchen table.
“Friends on their way out?” Nolan asked.
“No,” he said as he spun the cordless phone on its back across the table like a top. “You know Jack and Owen, they’re straight city kids. Once they found out there was no cell signal out here they bailed.”
Nolan was sad for his son but proud at the fact that he had separated himself enough from his city life to call his friends straight city kids instead of identifying with them. “That’s okay.” He didn’t know what else to say.
James wandered back to the barn and up into the hayloft where he left the binoculars. He looked around and thought how it would make a really cool place to hang out with his friends. He imagined setting up desks with computers and a big TV on the wall. They could get a couch and make it like a secret club. He sighed, realizing it was a stupid idea and that his friends had no interest in him so long as he was stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Carelessness set in, bringing with it a dullness to his fear of heights which allowed him to sit at the edge of the hay door. Maybe my friends didn’t even like me at all, he thought, maybe they only liked me when I had games and stuff around.
His sudden introspection made him all at once sad and mature feeling. He looked at the cascade of clouds scattering across the sky and tried to remember their names. Up there, everything looked more beautiful, and he felt like he could almost touch them as they rolled down from the heavens. Slowly, his eyes dropped to the deer feeder where they picked up new information. He fumbled his arm behind him as he reached for the binoculars. Something was behind the deer feeder and he didn’t want to miss it. He turned around and grabbed the binoculars and put them to his face. Neck-deep into the feeder was a small deer. He exhaled in defeat, thinking maybe it had just been deer all along. Then without warning the deer ran off across the yard, parallel with the woods and disappeared out of James’s sight. Looking back at the woods he saw something gray sitting at the tree line. Quickly flipping the binoculars toward the woods, what he saw nearly made him fall from the hay door. The distance was too far for the focus of the binoculars to allow any detail, but crouching by the trees was a slender looking gray figure.
James quickly jumped up, “Dad!” he called out to the house. Doing a double-take, he put the binoculars back up to his eyes and watched as it stood up—like a human.
“DAD!” James yelled as he ran for the ladder and nearly fell as he scurried down it. He ran through the crunchy gravel driveway and tripped with a loud thud as he tried skipping up the steps. Nolan opened the door and helped him up.
“Are you all right? What’re you running for?”
“Dad,” James said out of breath, “there’s something in the woods.”
Nolan looked at him strangely. “Okay? What do you mean?”
“I saw a deer,” James huffed, “at the deer feeder and then something at the edge of the yard scared it off. Dad, there’s a monster in the woods.”
Nolan put his arm around his son and smiled. “Probably just a hunter. There’s some pretty creepy camo outfits that could make them look strange,” he said. “There are no monsters in the woods or anywhere else.”
It was no use. Nolan’s logical brain would never be persuaded of a strange creature lurking in the woods behind his house—not even by his son. James realized his dad wouldn’t believe him and gave up the fight immediately. “Right,” he said, following him back into the house.
It bothered James for the rest of the evening. He didn’t talk much and then spent the rest of the day in his room, which was smaller compared to the openness of the rest of the house. With only one single window, James felt a sense of security in there. He took one of his blankets and hung it over the curtain rod to block the light, then emptied the dresser of all its drawers and clothes before pushing it in front of the window. Flipping the mattress off the bed, he dragged the frame as far from the window as possible to the opposite wall. Nolan walked in to see his son working.
“Hey, what’re you up to?” He looked at the blanket that darkened the room. “What’s with the window?”
“Just doing a little rearranging. Uh, it’s really bright in the morning and so I figured moving the bed and the blanket would help it from blinding me,” he lied while forcing a smile.
Nolan fell for it. He had no reason to suspect anything weird from his son. His mind was too busy with the thoughts of his upcoming date and work to piece together his son’s strange behavior earlier that day. It wasn’t until he turned to leave that some insight flashed across his mind.
If James honestly believed there was a monster in the woods, he might just be afraid. He tried to not be too tough or too soft with his son because all he wanted was to mold him into a dependable and independent human being. “Hey, if you need anything tonight you can come get me, you know.”
James wasn’t sure what he meant by that. His mind was also busily racing with his own thoughts. “Thanks, Dad,” he said, and went back to setting his bed and rearranging his room. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about all the fantastic things he had heard, mostly through the Internet, about creepy things that lurked in the dark or went bump in the night. He remembered his Uncle Fred telling him about his supposed encounter with the elusive Bigfoot. This intrigued him enough to leave his room and ask his dad about it. In his own room, his dad was sitting on his bed and working on his laptop.
“Hey, Dad,” he said knocking on the door.
“What’s up, bud?” Nolan wasn’t surprised his son had come to see him.
“You remember that story that Uncle Fred told us once? About the Bigfoot? Do you remember what happened?”
Nolan took off his glasses and chuckled. He enjoyed being right, which made his success as a doctor quite the ego booster. He knew that he should soothe his son’s fears. Smiling, he said, “Oh yeah, I remember that one. Supposedly, when he was a young lad he went on a camping trip with his troop as a Boy Scout. They went to some reservation so they could experience the culture and outdoors of the Native Americans. Honestly, I think it was just an excuse to learn woodsy stuff. But anyway, he said that they camped deep in the forest on the reservation and one of the guides would tell the boys stories about Mountain Devils that would come down into the forests and kill game with hypnosis. They said what the white people were calling Bigfoot was actually an ancient tribe of giant Native Americans called the Seeahtik.”
James sat completely absorbed in his dad’s words. He didn’t remember ever being told this by his uncle. Nolan was getting enthusiastic in his recalling of the details because as fantastic as it was, it was interesting to him. So much so, that he forgot he was supposed to be easing James’s fears instead of painting the picture of a terrifying creature in the woods.
“As I said,” Nolan continued, “the Seeahtik would kill game with hypnosis. The guides told the boys that there was even some who could imitate any bird call and whistle. Anyways, Fred said that night they bundled down in their tents to sleep and he woke up because he had to pee. He went to get up when something whistled real loud and started banging on the tent. He jumped out of the tent screaming when one of the chaperones saw him running and stopped him. He told them it was a Bigfoot but no one else heard or saw a thing.”
Nolan could see his son didn’t feel any better about monsters in the woods and interpreted the look on his face as the wheels turning in his little brain. “But listen,” he said, “there are no mountains and those things are all just stories. Make believe. Nothing to worry about. Monsters, Bigfeet and giant super natural Native Americans are all fake, okay?”
Nolan was right about one thing, the wheels in James’s head were turning, but he didn’t believe that his uncle was scared by a Bigfoot. “Okay, Dad,” he said. He was young but he wasn’t stupid. He knew kids went out of their way to scare their friends all the time. “Anyways, thanks. I couldn’t remember his story.”
James smiled, “Yes sir.” Then he went back to his room to ponder over the new information he had just gathered.
He started thinking about everything that happened over the last couple days and tried to put the pieces together. He wasn’t sure about the existence of Bigfoot or the Native American guides’ claims of supernatural powers, but one thing that did stick with him was the ability to imitate any bird. James thought about how his dad said the Seeahtik would kill their game with hypnosis, and the noises he was hearing from inside the woods. He knew from school that Ohio had a rich Native American history, but trying to draw parallels left him coming up short. It was a long shot to connect Ohio’s history, ancient Native American Bigfeet, and a monster living in the woods behind his house. But the one conclusion he had made was that there was something eerily similar with all three.
That night, James had another nightmare but this time he wasn’t lost in the woods—he was in his room.
He sat up and gasped for breath. It was the sound of pounding that startled him. He could hear it off in the distance, through the walls and out into the field. It pounded like thunder slowly rolling in but in a rhythm. He stood up in the dark and tried to move the blanket covering his window but it wouldn’t move. He pressed his ear up against the wall, knowing it was an exterior wall of the house and listened.
Boom boom, he heard.
He started counting three seconds between each set of two booms.
It was dull like thunder, but it didn’t crest or roll down into a low growl.
The sound was steady and hollow.
It started getting closer.
It sounded like it was just outside and it sounded like…drums.
Immediately Native American drums came to James’s mind with their animal skin stretched tops tied around dark wood centers. Suddenly the sound stopped. It was replaced with a faint whistling noise like that of a tea kettle. It sounded like it was coming from the other side of his bedroom door. He walked to the door and pressed his ear against it to hear the whistling sound better. That’s when there were two large bangs on the door.
The door shook from the impact but stayed shut. Banging and howling started coming from the walls, leaving James screaming as he jumped into his bed and pulled the covers over his head.
James didn’t sleep well that night. By the time he woke up, his dad was already gone, and a note on the fridge said he was working at the hospital all day and would be back late that night. These sorts of notes were necessary because Nolan’s work schedule was chaotic and James was too young to care about when his dad worked. He poured himself some cereal and sat at the table to eat. In the corner by the door he saw the feed bag which was still half full and had an idea.
Obviously, the deer feeder was attracting deer with what he saw the day before. Without any way to know whether the blood was from a deer the creature had killed or not, having seen the creature along the tree line while a deer was at the deer feeder gave James hope that the previous plan to lure wolves was working with the creature. If monsters are anything like animals then this should work, he thought.
He finished his cereal and grabbed a large kitchen knife and the bag of feed. Now half empty, he could easily carry it. The knife was solely for protection—just in case. He carried it down the steps and past the barn, but the distance to the deer feeder at the end of the field was more than he had anticipated. He set the bag down several times to rest before he made it to the feeder, and to his surprise, it was empty. Completely empty. Not a single apple core or grain of feed was left inside. He gripped the kitchen knife in his right hand so tightly his palm ached. He listened but there was nothing except the eerie quiet of the wind.
He left the deer feeder for the tree line. At the edge of the field he stood between the familiar and the unknown. Standing there peering into the impenetrable green of the woods, he couldn’t explain the unsettling tingle that caused the hairs on his arms to stand up. It was as if someone was watching him. The feeling seemed to conflict with reality as he looked down the wall of trees that stretched for miles and saw nothing. He peered as deeply into the woods as he could from the edge of safety but saw nothing. It seemed too quiet. No twigs snapping, leaves rustling, or strange echoing whistles. At that moment, it looked like any other stretch of woods in any other place in the world, and James would have felt like a normal boy had he not had been standing there gripping a kitchen knife for dear life with a gnawing feeling inside his abdomen that left him feeling hollow and afraid. He watched and waited but nothing happened. There was no monster to be seen or heard. He slowly backed up, walking backwards until he reached the deer feeder and took the bag and emptied it into the plastic barrel. Today he had nothing to do but watch and wait.
He went back to the kitchen and gathered some snacks, a couple bottles of water and root beer, then put them in a cooler he found in a cupboard. His day was going to be spent in one place so he needed everything within arm’s reach. Like a great many detectives before him, James was prepared to spend the day gathering evidence of the monster on a stakeout. Forgetting that cordless phones aren’t cell phones, he brought it with him not knowing the hayloft of the barn would be out of range for the phone signal to its base. He made a second trip to bring a blanket to lay on and settled in.
Luckily for him, it wasn’t as hot as it had been and so being up at the top of the barn wasn’t unbearable. A refreshing breeze periodically blew through the hay door, bringing with it a reassuring comfort to a very uncomfortable situation. He was impressed with his set up, and had enough jerky and root beer to last him the whole day. But he didn’t like the danger of the hay door since it opened from the floor. It was more danger than he was comfortable with, so he rummaged around the barn for a hammer, nails, and some boards. Again playing carpenter, he placed two boards across the bottom of the hay door so that he couldn’t accidentally roll out. He positioned the first board in line with the floor with enough space between the top of it and the bottom of the second board so he could be on his stomach and still be able to peek out with his binoculars into the field. After finishing he sat back and bared nearly every tooth in pride.
“This isn’t half bad,” he said to the empty barn. His new habit of speaking to himself out loud in the absence of other people was hard to break. “I’m really starting to change my mind about this country thing. You never get to see clouds like this back in the city! Everything is so gray and blah!”
He studied the tree line for a long time but couldn’t find any places where it looked like something had obviously come from. Everything was quiet, and after a couple hours and too many root beers later, James was starting to realize that being on a stake-out wasn’t nearly as glamorous as he had imagined. He rubbed his eyes and yawned.
“Maybe I’ve just been seeing things,” he said mid-yawn as his head drifted down to rest on his arms, “maybe my dad was right.”
James was surprised that there hadn’t been a single deer in the yard all day. With no idea that they were nocturnal, he was left with nothing to look at but the empty yard and the trees. He did notice that since he could barely see over the tops of the trees, the woods stretched much further back than he thought. His dad said that the property encompassed many acres of wooded area but James didn’t realize that it was more like a forest. He was unable to see an end to it and assumed it was the very same stretch of trees he saw on their way to the hardware store. His imagination started to run away with his thoughts, and soon he was thinking about the tales of giant creatures living in the vastness of the planet’s oceans. Because of the amount of space under the water, their existence was—at the very least— unable to be disproven. To James, the immense expanse of greenery perfectly fit in with the seemingly infinite countryside, and behind his dad’s house was a big green ocean of trees. “Who knows what could be living in there,” he said.
James was nearly a teenager, and being as such, it was easy for him to fall asleep. Just sitting in the car too long and he was out in minutes, drooling with his head drooped to one side in a position that would surely be uncomfortable for anyone who was awake. The combination of an uneventful day in the field, a belly full of junk food and root beer, and the perfect mix of warm weather and cool breeze was a coma inducer. After just a few hours, James fell into a deep fatherly snore.
The nap allowed his body to make up for the lost sleep from the night before. He simply blinked out of existence without the presence of dreams or thoughts until the loud noises of metal banging below him suddenly woke him up. The world was a messy blur as his heavy lids shot open mere inches from a small puddle of drool on his blanket. Below him in the barn, sounds of the drawers in his dad’s tool box being opened and closed along with the clanging of wrenches banging together filled the air. It took him a minute to really wake up and as he sat up on the blanket, the wood floor underneath him creaked. He jumped as a loud bang came from below.
“Dad?” James yelled. He stood up and rubbed his eyes. He wondered how long he had been asleep. Looking out the hay door, he saw the sun was lower in the sky toward the horizon. At noon, the sun was nearly straight above him, meaning he had been asleep for a few hours.
He slowly walked to the ladder in the middle of the hayloft and peeked down. “Hello?” he called down. There was no answer. Slowly, he started to descend the ladder and at the bottom he saw his dad’s tool chest tipped over with tools lying all over the ground.
“Dad?” he called out again, running out of the barn and into the driveway. His dad’s truck wasn’t there. A shiver of fear rippled up his neck and he ran into the house, locking the door behind him. Terrified, he closed all the curtains and blinds, made sure the windows were locked, then huddled in his room, afraid of whatever was in the barn with him. He tried not to think about it but a gnawing suspicion had him thinking the very creature he was looking for all day snuck right under his nose.
James had holed himself up well in the blankets in his room. So much so that he fell asleep again. Since living out in the middle of nowhere without anyone around meant you didn’t have to lock your doors or windows, Nolan was surprised when he gripped the door handle to come in and walked straight into the door face-first. He fumbled for his keys in the porch light, eventually finding the right one. It was one of a couple times he had ever actually unlocked the door. Once inside, he was bewildered by all the lights being on.
“James?” he called out. “What’s with all the lights?”
James finally awoke in the muffled cave of blankets when his dad opened his bedroom door.
“Hey, what’s going on? Why’d you lock the door?” he asked concerned.
James groggily unearthed himself from the blankets, relieved to see his dad was home. “Someone was here,” he said.
“I was up in the hayloft all day looking for…deer. I fell asleep and woke up to someone in the barn below me.”
Nolan’s face turned serious. “What? What happened? Are you all right?” He grabbed James’s shoulders and began looking him over.
“I’m okay. By the time I climbed down no one was there,” a look of panic filled James’s face. “Dad, I think it was the monster from the woods.”
Nolan stopped, closed his eyes and sighed. “James, there are no such things as monsters. C’mon, let’s go check out the barn.”
“No!” James screamed, “I’m not going back out there!”
“I need to see if anything is missing,” Nolan said, waving his son along to come with him. “I need you to show me what happened. Did you call the police?”
James eyes darted from side to side. He looked up mid-thought, “No, I didn’t think to. But, I did leave the phone up in the hayloft.”
“Why did you take the phone out there?” Nolan asked.
James shrugged, “In case anyone called.”
“James, it’s out of range of the receiver. Even if someone did call, you wouldn’t have heard it, and you wouldn’t have been able to call anyone either. It’s not like a cell phone. Dinosaur technology, remember?”
James felt stupid not knowing that and at the same time anxious at the fact that if the monster had decided to come up after him he wouldn’t have even been able to call for help. Nolan opened the front door and grabbed James’s hand. James quickly pulled it free and froze.
“C’mon James,” he urged.
“I’m not going out there, there’s a monster out there!”
Nolan knelt down to meet his son face to face, “Listen, there are no such things as monsters, especially not around here. I’m sorry I told you that stupid story about your uncle and the Bigfoot. None of that is real. These woods around here have been surveyed and explored many times, I’m sure. We aren’t really in the middle of nowhere here and there are no dangerous animals out there. At most there would be a bear, or maybe a bobcat, but I promise there are no monsters. This isn’t the Amazon rain forest, it’s Ohio. It’s okay, I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Nolan had managed to reassure his son. “Okay,” James agreed.
They walked outside together, the pitch-black night still and quiet beyond the protective glow of the porch light. Rod shaped insects buzzed around at inhuman speeds like little rockets as they walked from the gradually fading light of safety toward the thick blackness of the new moon night. The barn had two lights connected to the same switch on the inside of the big door. One hung above the car and the other was at the back end of the bottom floor connected with a line of metal conduit between them. James stood before the barn opening squeezing his hands into anxious fists. He looked out into the backyard and saw nothing but black emptiness. The feeling of being watched crawled up his neck and down inside is skin, finally settling into a sour ball in his stomach. He tried to look through the dark and wondered if they were alone. His fear acted like a paradoxical magnet toward the woods, creating a strange curiosity that simultaneously pulled him toward what his fear was pushing him away from.
Is there something there staring back at me? Is there something there waiting for me?
Nolan reached into the dark mouth of the open barn and fumbled around for the light switch. James watched nervously, imagining the monster in the dark barn getting ready to reach out and snatch his father. Eventually, Nolan found the switch and flipped it on but only the back light came on.
“Damn it,” he said, “blown light bulb.” The light from the rear of the barn was enough to allow them to see Nolan’s large tool chest still lying face down on the floor with wrenches and screws scattered around it.
“See?” James said pointing at the floor. “The monster was in here going through your tool box. I must have spooked it or something when I moved up there.”
Nolan looked over the tool box with a skeptical eye. “What a mess. James, monsters aren’t real, but this does look like an animal was in here.” He pointed out how the tool box had fallen face down and hadn’t been thrown or really moved. “Probably raccoon or groundhog or something looking for food. You’re right,” he put his arm around James, “you probably spooked it and that’s what caused it to knock the tool box over. It’s too late to be cleaning this up now. I’ll get it in the morning.”
He flipped the light off and they walked back to the house. James eyed the backyard as they walked.
Inside, Nolan noticed the bag of feed missing. “You fill up the feeder today?”
“Yeah, “James said as he sat at the table, “I went out there and it was completely empty, but I didn’t see a single deer all day.”
“No worries. They’re probably feeding at night. We can always get more.”
James was torn between his curiosity to see the monster in the woods and avoiding it at all costs. His fear told him to tear down the deer feeder and not try to lure anything around. Let it be, his dad’s old records said. Maybe if he would just let it be then it would go away and not come back. On the other hand, his dad didn’t believe him and he couldn’t deny what he had seen. His curiosity ate at him and he not only wanted to see it better, he wanted to prove it was real. Otherwise, he thought he just might go crazy.
He just shrugged at his father’s comment about the deer feed, but Nolan wouldn’t give up that quickly on the one country-type thing his son had ever taken interest in. “All right, well how about this, tomorrow we’ll head into the city and pick up one of those game cameras?”
James looked at his father with a raised eyebrow.
“You know what I’m talking about?” Nolan asked.
James thought for a moment, “I don’t think so?”
“It’s great,” Nolan said excitedly, “you strap the thing to a tree and it has a sensor on the front and anything that walks within so many feet in front of it will set off the motion sensor and it snaps a picture. Doesn’t matter if it’s night or day because at night it’ll take it with infrared night-vision. You know, when it’s all green?”
Of course James knew about night vision and IR cameras, it was a popular feature in the computer games he played. “That would be awesome! But, aren’t those expensive?” He felt bad about all the money his dad was spending on his little project. When the family was together, they lived well and never went without. With Nolan being a successful cardiologist they made plenty of money but he never made extravagant purchases or bought more than they needed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Nolan said, “we’ll get one. It’ll be great, you’ll see.”
It would be, James thought. He finally had a way to spy on the woods without having to stakeout from the barn all day, and he would finally be able to see the monster in a way he never could have before. At night.
James hardly slept, but it wasn’t because of nightmares. They seemed to vanish as quickly as they had appeared. He woke up the next morning bubbling over with excitement over the game camera. Crawling out of bed, he made his way to the kitchen to get an early start to the day, but of course his dad was already awake. It seemed he never slept.
“Morning,” he said setting the newspaper down. “How’re you feeling? You look like you didn’t sleep well.”
Surprisingly, James didn’t feel tired at all. “I feel pretty good.”
Nolan didn’t believe that James’s sudden onset of fear and paranoia had disappeared so quickly. He also didn’t know the sense of security that the game camera brought to his son. For him, it was like having eyes in the back of his head—eyes with night vision.
“You sure?” his father asked, “you were pretty shaken up last night.”
“Dad, I’m fine. Really.” James wasn’t a morning person and his dad’s insistence that something was wrong was wearing on him. He decided to change the subject. “Do they deliver papers this far out?”
Nolan laughed, “No, this is yesterday’s paper. I’m always about a day behind. I picked it up last night on the way home.”
James laughed and went to the cupboard to grab some cereal.
“Don’t bother. I was thinking we should start early and get breakfast. We could get some more feed, then head into the city to get the game camera. You know, get lunch, and make a day of it.”
James smiled, “Sure!” It sounded like a fun idea. He loved spending time with his dad, at least when they were doing things that weren’t “dad things” or work related.
“Well let’s get going. I’m on call again tonight.”
James’s head sunk. “I hardly see you out here, either.”
Nolan got up from the table and messed up his son’s hair. “I know. But I’m taking some time off. This is the last day. Plus, I have a big surprise planned for this weekend.”
As much as James could remember, it was very uncharacteristic for his dad to plan surprises. He thought that this new change in his dad might be good after all. “What is it?” he asked.
“I’m not going to ruin the surprise yet!” Nolan slyly smiled. He started to walk back to his bedroom and stopped. “Hey, could you do your old man a favor?”
“Sure,” James said, “what is it?”
He put his hand on the small of his back and mimicked an old man with a cane. “Would you mind grabbing the phone out of the barn? You know, in case anyone decides to call.”
“Oh yeah,” James smacked his forehead. “Forgot about that. Yeah, I’ll grab it.”
“Okay, hurry so we can get going. Oh, and could you throw that red gas can in the back of the truck? Running low and not sure if we’ll make it to the gas station without a little boost.”
James nodded then ran out the door and down the porch. The barn looked a lot less menacing in the daytime. He looked out into the field toward the woods and everything looked like an oil painting of the countryside. It was so easy for him to forget his troubles out there. Things seemed light and airy, unable to bury him beneath the weight of worry. It amazed him how all the space gave him more room to breathe. That extra breath gave him the stability to walk into the barn and jump over the fallen tool chest without hesitation or fear. Swiftly, he scaled the ladder and pushed himself up into an ocean of warm air. It was hot and soon the whole countryside would be sweltering in the same heat.
As mercury was filling thermometers, James’s mind was filling to the brim with thoughts of the game camera. He could spy with the binoculars from the comfort of the air-conditioned kitchen window instead of sweating to death in the hayloft. And the greatest benefit of all: he could watch out for the monster while he slept.
Sweat dripped down the sides of his face as he did nothing but stand there. He wouldn’t find himself hanging out up there that day. He swam through the thick air to the hay door then grabbed his binoculars, the phone, and the cooler. “Crap, I completely forgot about this,” he said as he opened the cooler lid. Inside, a few bottles of water sat warmer than bath water.
He dragged everything to the ladder and slowly made his way down. Once he got to the barn door he saw his dad sitting in the truck.
“C’mon James! I’m hungry!” He playfully beeped the horn.
James threw up his index finger as he ran inside and dumped the phone and binoculars on the table. His stomach growled as the cooler hit the floor. He was hungry too. The smile plastered across his face triggered a bigger smile from his dad as he jumped into the truck. A nervous excitement rose within him. He couldn’t wait to finally see what was staring back at him from the woods. His dad had no idea.
The rusty Red Rocket blasted through the countryside leaving the creepy woods and any monsters deep inside it behind. Nolan was back to mouthing along to classic rock songs while James stared out the window, watching the world fly by. There wasn’t a soul on the road but them, and they resisted the wind like lords of the asphalt. Their first stop would be Cray’s Hardware to pick up another bag of feed. Nolan was efficient and planned everything out ahead of time.
After a couple miles, though, the Red Rocket began to sputter and slowly coasted to a stop. Nolan put both of his hands-on top of the steering wheel and turned his head sideways toward James. “I knew that would happen.” He chuckled a bit then said, “Well, I better go get that gas can and fill her up a little.” He exited the truck, playfully running his hand against the burning black snap-on cover that enclosed the bed.
James’s heart dropped and his mouth went dry. In his wandering ways in the hayloft, he had completely forgotten to grab the gas can and put it in the back of the truck. “Shit,” he whispered, “what am I going to do?” He sat there looking at the floor completely still for a minute until he heard his dad open the tailgate.
“Uh, James? Did you forget to put the gas can back here?”
James leaned his head out the window and squeaked, “I’m sorry Dad, I completely forgot! I just got the stuff from the barn when you were already in the truck.”
Nolan came up to the window and rested his arms on the hole in the door frame. He looked at the sun, wiped his forehead and smiled at James. “Preteen brain. Well, looks like we’re walking. Maybe old man Cray can help.”
His dad wasn’t mad but James was. Walking for miles in over ninety-degree heat with no shade was hellish. James hated the heat as it was.
They started off down the road and slowly the truck sank into the hazy horizon behind them. James handled the first mile well enough, but by the time they got through the second mile they didn’t even bother trying to talk. All energy was used to walk, sweat and breathe.
“Man,” Nolan said, “there is just no shade to rest in, huh?”
James looked back at him, beet red and pouring with sweat. He was too tired to talk. He had heard news stories about people dying in the summer heat but he never took them seriously. Cray’s Hardware was only about five miles from the truck, but it was a long way to walk in such extreme heat.
The thought had crossed Nolan’s mind that maybe this had been a bad idea, but he really didn’t have any other choice. They were closer to Cray’s than to home and while they had walked past a couple of houses on their way, he was too embarrassed to stop and ask to use someone’s phone or ask them for a ride. There was no one he could call but Margaret, and he wasn’t about to look like a weenie in front of his wife.
James knew none of this, of course, because Nolan wasn’t about to show him such weakness. He already blamed himself for James’s dependency on technology and his apparent lack of independence. James was a sweet boy and he just wanted to toughen him a little bit. Nolan knew that the world could be a cold place and sometimes you needed thick skin. But the world wasn’t cold during their walk to Cray’s, and seeing his baby boy suffer in the heat so much broke his heart. He waved James to the side of the road where they sat down to rest.
James tried to cover his eyes from the sun. “How much to go?” he asked.
“Not too much further,” Nolan lied. He knew they had only gone about two and half miles. “We’ll be there before you know it.” He wished he had brought some water or something for his son. Their fun day was turning out to be terrible, if not dangerous.
“You hear that?” James said suddenly.
James looked around. “That humming. A car maybe?”
They looked down the road and sure enough there was a car heading their way. A truck to be precise.
“Should we try and stop them?” James asked.
Nolan’s pride conflicted with his common sense. “They might just keep going. People don’t like hitch hikers.”
“Oh,” James said. He really wasn’t up for walking the rest of the way.
Nolan struggled with his pride over whether to try and stop the stranger and ask for a ride. They were headed in the right direction. By the time he finished compiling a list of pros and cons in his head, the truck rolled up to a stop in front of them. It was white and real beat up with a faded decal of Richard Petty’s racing number on the side. The window rolled down and a voice rolled out with it.
“You aren’t going to walk any further, are you?”
Nolan looked up to see Charlie, the clerk from Cray’s hardware sitting happily in the air-conditioned truck.
“Charlie!” Nolan said jumping to his feet.
“Hey Doc. I saw your truck back there. Break down?”
“Nah, just out of gas. Can you give us a lift to Cray’s?” He waved to James to get up.
“Hop in!” Charlie said smiling.
There isn’t much that compares to hopping into cool water or an air-conditioned room when you’re on the verge of heat exhaustion. The temperature difference was so drastic that Nolan and James felt a chill upon stepping into the truck as the icy air blasted across their sweating bodies.
“Lucky seeing you,” Nolan said resting his head against the back of the seat.
“Glad to share the luck today,” Charlie said, “was on my way back from Kellogsville to pick up parts and just back there I almost hit a bunch of deer.”
“Oh yeah?” James looked at Charlie.
“It was crazy. A whole flock of ‘em came running out of the trees and just flew across the field. The brakes might be good on this thing but it takes a bit to stop and I was going about fifty. Almost plowed into them. Had to be like a dozen or more.”
“You were lucky,” Nolan said. “Sounds like they were spooked.”
Spooked. James didn’t know how far from his house this had happened, but he wondered if the monster in the woods had anything to do with it. It made him nervous thinking that it might not just stay behind the house but maybe went all over. The more he thought about it the more frightened he was. If the monster that lived in the woods only stayed behind his house then that meant it was always there, but if did leave then it could be anywhere.
They pulled into Cray’s parking lot and went inside. “Look who I found walking,” Charlie said to old man Sam, who was counting the money in the cash register.
“Nolan! James! It’s an awful hot day to be walking?”
Nolan played it cool, “Truck ran out of gas before I could get it into town. Do you have any, or maybe a can I can buy?”
“Of course,” Sam said walking out from behind the counter. “Charlie, we have any gas in the mower can?”
“Sure do, just filled it up yesterday.”
Sam’s smile hinted at pain. He walked behind the counter to close the register when Nolan picked up on it.
“Hey Sam, everything okay?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” he said. He put his hand up as Nolan pulled out his wallet. “Please, it’s just a little gas.”
Charlie came back carrying a large bright yellow can that had the word DIESEL etched into the side. “Don’t worry, Dr. Callum, it’s unleaded. I just use this one because it’s the biggest can we’ve got.”
“Great,” Nolan said pulling out his wallet, “I need another bag of deer feed if you would, please.”
Charlie nodded then disappeared again. It was then that Nolan looked around and noticed more empty spaces along the shelves and walls than he had ever seen before. He turned back to Sam, once again withdrawing his wallet.
“Selling a lot? Looking pretty bare in here.”
Sam sighed. “Actually, we had a break-in last night.”
The concern covered Nolan’s face the way India Ink bleeds into a bright white cloth. “Jesus, Sam, what happened?”
Sam sighed and rubbed his forehead as if he were having trouble remembering the details. “I had to come back here last night to pick up a few things for some projects at home. It was late but I’m old and stubborn and I wanted to get it done. It drives me nuts to try and carry something into the next day. Anyway, when I pulled up something just didn’t feel right. I got inside and the place was as you see it now.” He walked out from behind the counter and pointed at the walls as he talked.
“There were all sorts of things missing. Chains, tow straps, and tools. That’s why I had to send Charlie down to Kellogsville this morning to pick up some stuff.”
Nolan frowned. “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said as he reached underneath the counter and pulled a rifle up onto the counter. He patted it gently. “I’m going to be spending the night here tonight and let’s just say I hope whoever it was doesn’t come back—for their sake.”
Nolan looked at his son and chuckled to lighten the mood. “That’s country justice for you.”
Sam put the gun away and dabbed the sweat from his forehead with a rag. “You know, at first I thought old Dell was just a drunk, but after last night I think he’s a drunk who had his tractor stolen.”
“Do you think it was the same guy?” Nolan asked.
James felt bad for what happened as much as a kid could. His mind was still laser focused on the game camera and he was restless standing around in the old hardware store. After a few more minutes Charlie emerged from the back with another bag of deer feed and put it in the back of the hardware store’s truck. They bid their goodbyes to Sam and were off again with Charlie, back to Nolan’s empty truck.
The day hadn’t been ruined after all. With deer feed in the back and an air-conditioned ride back to the rusty Red Rocket, James was again excited about the day ahead. Saying goodbye to Charlie was bittersweet for James because, unlike his dad’s truck, Charlie had air conditioning.
They would have just enough gas to get them to a truck stop just outside Bugby. James spent the ride thinking about what happened to Charlie and hoped the monster wasn’t following him.
It obviously isn’t afraid of the daylight, he thought. The more he thought about it the more unreal it seemed. Maybe it isn’t even there at all and I’m just crazy.
Nolan finally turned down the radio as he pulled into the truck stop’s gas station sputtering. “The food’s pretty good, plus I can fill up the truck while we’re here,” he said.
James thought the place was sort of strange. The truck stop had a whole mishmash of things all in one elongated building. There was a buffet restaurant next to a small arcade, next to a half convenience store, next to a gas station. They ate first, and while the food was questionable in quality, they served breakfast, lunch, and dinner food all day, no matter the time. They stuffed their faces and then walked the length of the building.
“Is this like a gift shop?” James asked.
Nolan laughed, “Yeah! This place has been around forever. I used to come here as a kid and look through all the junk. The food was a lot better then, too.” He picked up a black and white magazine with a UFO on the front. “Look at this. The Daily Spill. I used to read crap like this, too.” He handed it to James who flipped through it seeing headlines like, BIRTH OF A CENTAUR, and GOVERNMENT REPTILE ALIENS.
“These aren’t real, are they?” James asked squinting at some of the black and white pictures.
“Nah, it’s all made up funny stuff. Entertainment.”
After filling up the truck, they were back on the road. James hadn’t been back in the city for the better part of a week and the first thing he noticed was the smell.
“Wow, what is that?” he asked plugging his nose.
“That’s city living,” Nolan replied.
James tried unplugging his nose and breathing deeply, allowing the stink to swim up his nostrils and desensitize his olfactory receptors.
Nolan laughed at this and for the first time in a good long while he saw his son as the little boy that he was. He had forgotten in his absence how small he still was and the way his hair behind his head curled like a baby’s when it was wet. This realization allowed his mind a good clear conscious moment, and he thought that maybe the fake news magazines about monsters and aliens might have stirred up some fear in his son. “Say, I have an idea. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to work tonight, so how about we swing by and grab Duffy to stay with you?”
This caught James off guard. “Really?”
“Yeah, Duffy deserves to experience good country living too, I’d say.”
James wondered why he hadn’t thought of that sooner. No one really had. Maybe his dad was just afraid that Duffy would ruin his new house.
“Just don’t forget to take him outside.”
“Dad,” James said with sass, “I’ve had that dog as long as I can remember. I think I know how to take care of him.”
“I know, I just think about the gas can,” Nolan joked.
As they pulled into the driveway of James’s house, he noticed how much different his dad’s house was to those in the city. The first thing he noticed was all of the wires. There were cable and electrical lines everywhere as if all the houses were hooked up to life support. For a lot of city folks, that’s how it was, too. The city and its electricity was their lifeline and without their modern-day conveniences they would just stand around like dead leaves at the mercy of the wind. Some people, like James’s friend Jack, couldn’t imagine a day without their cell phones.
James was surprised to see his mom’s car in the driveway. “Weird, Mom’s home,” he said.
“Yeah, she’s taking vacation from work, you knew that right?” his dad said.
James hadn’t paid attention to much around him, especially not his parents, but they obviously were telling each other a lot more than they were telling him. Thinking about his mom taking vacation while he was gone for the summer made him sad. His dad was moving on with a big house in the country, with dates and work, and his mom preferred to take vacation without him there. He felt that if he just up and disappeared then they wouldn’t even go looking for him.
“Does she know that we’re coming?” James asked his father bitterly.
Nolan didn’t pick up on the layers of dissatisfaction in his voice. As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t some secret communication loop that James was out of. “Nah, this was kind of a…last minute idea.”
Nolan went in ahead of James, and as the door opened, Duffy came barreling out in a fury of fur and tongue. He jumped onto James and began mauling him with love. Nobody knew what breed Duffy was, Nolan brought him home as a birthday present for James’s fifth birthday, and the short-haired pile of pudge had been in love with James ever since. Although no longer a puppy, Duffy thought that he was and often jumped on everyone’s lap for a little extra attention.
After a minute, Duffy was satisfied and relinquished his attack on James. As he recovered and wiped the drips of slobber from his face, Duffy ran behind him, disappearing behind the driver’s side of the truck.
“Ahh!” a scream echoed through the yard.
James followed the scream to the other side of the Red Rocket and saw Duffy lovingly smothering his neighbor and best friend, Jack Reeves.
“This is why I never come over!” Jack yelled beneath Duffy’s furiously licking snout. James stood and laughed until Duffy had his fill and settled down enough to pee and eat some grass.
“Guard dog,” James said pointing at Duffy who sneezed out a mouthful of grass, leaving a few blades hanging from his nostrils.
Jack wiped off his shirt as he got up. “I thought you were at your dad’s for the summer?”
“I am. We’re just stopping in to pick up Duffy. So, you guys still don’t want to come out and check out the place? It’s pretty great.”
Jack raised one eyebrow at James as his fingers flew across the screen of his smartphone like hummingbird wings. “You’re really that bored, huh?”
“No, I mean it. The place is all brand new and super nice. There’s a ton of a space, no neighbors and an awesome hayloft in the barn.”
“Yeah, Owen said it’s a total dead zone. He’ll be over in minute, by the way.”
James’s mom, Margaret, came outside with Nolan. “Hey, boys,” she said.
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Callum,” Jack replied.
“So, James, you homesick already?”
He started to answer her but then Nolan interrupted, “No way, James is a natural born hillbilly. We just figured it would be good for Duff to get some fresh air, too. You know, run around and wear himself out.” He didn’t dare mention that he thought it would be a good idea because James was having fears of monsters in the woods. He didn’t want to simultaneously embarrass his son and ruin his summer vacation in the country.
“That sounds like a great idea,” Margaret said smiling. To James, she seemed much happier than normal. She was getting along with his dad and being very nice to him, too. It made him a little suspicious. Both his parents were being extremely nice to him as if they knew something he didn’t.
“Jack,” she said, “why don’t you go spend a night out with James and Duffy? It would be good for you to unplug, too.”
Jack hesitated but he could feel the pressure of everyone’s eyes on him. He was very impressionable, and without the stronger and more rebellious Owen there to back him up, he caved. “Sure, sounds great,” he said with an unsure tone.
The awkward moment was interrupted by the obnoxious dragging sound of Owen’s back bike tire as he slammed down the pedals to skid across the driveway.
Owen looked up and saw everyone staring at him—he loved being the center of attention. “Hey Mrs. Callum.” He looked over at Nolan and pretended to tip an invisible hat. “Doctor,” he said with a smirk.
Everyone laughed. “You know, Mr. Sawyer,” Margaret said, “I don’t appreciate you skidding across the driveway like that. It ruins the curb appeal.”
“Sorry, Mrs. C.”
Owen was not only the youngest of the three boys but also the shortest. He made up for his lack of height with his attitude, which was reflected in the hot pink baseball cap which he always wore backwards.
“What’s up, bros?” Owen asked as he rolled over to Jack and James.
“I got sucked into exile, that’s what,” Jack whispered to him. This upset James but he wanted to impress his friends.
“Seriously guys, I have to tell you something,” James whispered. He knew that if he told them about the monster in the woods they would come over in a heartbeat. Especially Owen, who was obsessed with adventures and evil creatures. He didn’t know how to say it so he just he pulled them to the back of his dad’s truck.
“What’s up?” Owen asked.
“Guys, there’s something in the woods behind my dad’s house.”
Jack and Owen both stared at James. “Okay?” Owen asked.
“I mean something weird. A creature. A monster.”
Owen leaned in closer. “Monsters aren’t real, James. Man, you’ve really lost it out there in B.F.E.”
“No,” James snapped, “I’m serious. I’ve seen it.”
James looked back toward his house to make sure no one was watching them or within earshot. “I’ve seen it every day since I’ve been there. The backyard is nothing but a huge field and behind that are some woods. Every day I’ve seen it out there, staring at me.”
“Are you shitting me?” Owen asked, extremely excited.
“Swear to God. That’s why I’m in town, my dad’s getting a game camera so I can get a picture of the thing.”
“Your dad knows about it?” Jack asked.
“Well, not exactly. He doesn’t believe me. I tried to tell him but he won’t listen. He thinks the camera is so that I can watch deer.”
“I’m coming out too then!” Owen yelled. “Hey, Dr. Callum, is it all right if I come stay the night too?”
Nolan smiled, “Of course. Slowly converting you city boys, one by one.”
“Wait,” Jack said, “how are we all going to get out there? There’s not enough room in the truck for all of us, plus Duffy.”
Margaret looked thoughtfully at Nolan. “He’s right. Take my car, you boys shouldn’t be driving in that thing anyway. It could fall apart at any minute!”
“The Red Rocket? Never!” Nolan slapped the hood, knocking some rust onto the driveway. “It’s settled then. Get your stuff boys, we’ll run up to the sporting goods store then we’ll grab some wings for dinner and head out.”
James ran into the house and grabbed Duffy’s leash while Jack ran home to pack a bag. Owen didn’t bother, he figured it was one night and anything he needed he could get the next day. It seemed everything was coming together for James. His best friends would see there was a monster in the woods, and then maybe he could catch it on camera and prove he wasn’t crazy.
Everyone piled into Margaret’s four-door sedan while Nolan took the bag of deer feed from his truck and put it in the trunk, then they were off. Nolan drove his wife’s car with a lot more care and finesse than he did the Red Rocket. Duffy manned the passenger seat with the seatbelt strapped across his chest, sitting still and letting his tongue fly with the wind out the window. The boys didn’t say much in the backseat but they all were thinking about the same thing: a monster in the woods.
As they pulled into the parking lot of the sporting goods store, James was surprised at just how many people there were around. Being exiled, as Jack called it, in the country for days with hardly any human contact really allowed him to notice the subtle details of the city. It was crowded and extremely noisy.
“I’m just going run in here really quick and grab the camera, all right? You boys stay out here and manage the Duff-Meister.”
James nodded as his dad hurriedly closed the car door before Duffy could wiggle out.
“So what does it look like?” Jack asked after Nolan left.
“I don’t really know,” James said.
“What do you mean, man? You said you saw it!” Owen’s eyebrows furled.
“Calm down, I did, I did. But it was at the back of the property, like I said. It’s really hard to see something that far away. But it looks gray and kind of human.”
Jack sat there thinking while Owen burst open with excitement. “That’s fucking awesome!” he said hopping around in his seat.
“Wait a minute,” Jack asked, “you sure you didn’t just see a person? I mean, details get fuzzy and colors can become distorted over large distances especially near the horizon. Look how light scatters at the horizon during a sunset and looks red and orange.”
Owen raised one eyebrow at him. “C’mon Brainiac, you really think someone’s been coming around to his yard every day just to stand and stare at him?”
“Actually, most of the time it’s squatting down. I only noticed it looked human-like when it got up and went back into the woods.”
“My point exactly!” Owen yelled. “Who’s going to stop around every day to pop a squat in someone’s backyard?”
“You do have a point there,” Jack said.
Nolan came back to the car and tossed a bag into the back. “Here you go, James. Guy said it was a good one.”
If there’s one thing those boys loved, it was a new piece of technology. They quickly pulled it from its packaging and looked it over. It was flat, camouflage colored and only a little smaller than a school textbook. James smiled, he now had the thing that would prove there was a monster in the woods without a doubt.
Nolan pulled into a local beer and beverage drive-thru to get the wings. Inside was a tunnel of freezers and coolers full of hundreds of different types of beer, wine, soda, and juice that reminded James of the diversity and availability of city life. On the driver’s side was a break in the freezers where a wooden counter sat with a cash register on it. At the register, a boy who looked way too young to drink put down his phone and lazily walked to Nolan’s window.
“May I help you?” he asked in an uninterested tone.
“Picking up an order for Callum,” Nolan replied.
“Hang on a sec,” the boy said rudely, disappearing somewhere behind the counter to a hidden kitchen area.
Nolan turned around toward the backseat full of boys and smiled. “This place has the best wings around,” he said, noticing that they were checking out the camera enthusiastically “So you boys are really getting into this nature watching stuff, huh?”
They all looked at each other and smiled. Now James had his own little secret club with information his parents didn’t know. He felt very disassociated with what was going on with them but having the secret about the monster in the woods unknown to them stroked James’s ego enough to make him feel better. “Yeah,” James said stretching out the word, “watching deer is pretty cool.”
While there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice, James had honestly found joy in watching deer. He was surprised how much fun it was to just sit and soak in the beauty of the world around him. It was a different kind of fun than going to a waterpark or playing laser tag, but fun nonetheless. Jack and Owen were still country virgins, completely institutionalized by the trappings of the city, while James was beginning to break free of his shell. Like a caterpillar, his old life and persona were starting to melt, and change inside, and he was becoming a newer and more evolved version of himself.
In true preteen-fashion, Jack and Owen dozed in the back seat from the monotonous hum of the road flowing beneath them. James mirrored Duffy with his head out the window, sucking up the fresh country air as they drove on further from the city. Duffy became more excited, and yet more still as he too broke away from the confines of the city into wide open spaces he had never known. Before long, the large mass of trees that made up the woods behind Nolan’s house became visible in a tentacle arm of green that grew thicker and thicker as they drove. It stretched behind houses and farms, and James wondered if anyone else had ever seen the monster, since the woods stood like a great forest in the middle of the countryside. Surely, he couldn’t be the only one. It can’t be all in my head, he thought. As they pulled into the driveway, Duffy’s stillness evaporated.
“Home sweet home,” Nolan said, unbuckling Duffy’s seatbelt and opening the door.
James panicked, “Dad, wait! What about—
“Ah James, he’ll be fine, this isn’t the city. The distances here are so great that Duff can get all the exercise he needs without the worry of running away. There is more space here than he’s ever known.”
James relaxed a little, watching Duffy run around like a lunatic with a jet pack through the backyard. Despite what his dad thought, he knew there was something in the woods that could jump out at any moment and go for his dog. As terrifying as the thought was, the reality was that Duffy zipped up and down the open field without incident. As everyone got out of the car and grabbed their bags, Duffy whizzed by like a fighter jet.
Owen laughed, “Man, look at him go!”
“You watch,” Nolan nodded at Duffy as he circled around for another pass, “he’ll be a completely different dog after he’s done.”
“What do you mean?” James asked.
“Well, he was always jumping all over everyone because he had all that energy with no outlet for it. You watch how calm he’ll become,” Nolan laughed.
Nolan took the wings inside and James led Jack and Owen toward the barn where they could see the open field behind the house, and the great wall of trees in the distance.
Jack squinted, “Oh, now I see what you mean about not being able to see detail. The distance is much greater than I thought!”
“You need four wheelers,” Owen suggested.
“Boys, come get wings before they get any colder,” Nolan called out. As if on cue, Duffy came ripping back through the yard and up the steps, panting like a steam engine. He bounced around excitedly as if Nolan had been talking to him, too.
Jack and Owen couldn’t believe their eyes once they were inside. “Wow,” Jack said, “this place is like one of those places you see on TV.” Jack and Owen also lived in nice houses, but nothing had the clean sharp lines of being new. While both boys’ families were middle class, most houses in Bugby were built between the ‘70s and ‘80s, and newer constructions were located along the lake. James and his friends all lived in the heart of the city.
Owen sat down at the shiny wooden table and took off his hat. “You know, I thought this place was going to be like some old farm house or something creepy like you’d find in a horror movie. Especially when you said there was a big old barn but holy sh—
“Well thanks, Owen,” Nolan said cutting him off and grabbing plates from the cupboard, “see, you never know what you’ll find out here!” Owen put his hat back on, embarrassed at almost swearing in front of the good doctor.
The words sent a shiver down James’s back. The recognition of unlimited possibilities made James think about the monster in the woods even more. What was it? Where did it come from? How long had it been there? What was it planning to do?
As they ate, the phone rang.
“Hello?” Nolan answered. “Yes. Oh, you did? I must’ve forgotten to grab it. Yes, I’ll be there shortly.” He hung up and sat back down at the table.
“Back to work?” James asked in a low tone.
“Yeah, apparently, they tried to page me but I forgot my pager.” He made quotation marks around the word forgot. “I had a day planned and while I knew they were going to call I didn’t want to be interrupted. They can handle things for a bit without me, they’re going to learn to have to.”
Nolan finished eating then got up to get ready. The boys cleaned up then headed out into the field toward the deer feeder.
“This place is huge,” Owen said pushing ahead of the other two, “it’s even bigger than it looks. You could have like a whole baseball diamond out here.”
They reached the deer feeder and to James’s surprise, it was completely empty.
“Whoa,” he said. “I just filled this thing yesterday.”
“Definitely have some visitors, which is good. That means the camera will be put to good use.” Jack looked over the deer feeder carefully, “I don’t see any place for the camera to hang.”
“No? Well where should we put it? I was really hoping to attach it to the deer feeder.”
“Let me see,” Owen said, “I’m good at rigging shit.” He took the mount and straps and tried to reach around the blue barrel bottom of the feeder. He stood up and handed it back to James. “Hmm, I don’t know, bro. What about putting it on a tree facing this way?”
James quivered at the thought. He didn’t want to go anywhere near the trees, but he also didn’t want his friends to think he was a wuss. Luckily, Jack chimed in.
“That won’t work, Owen, it’s too great a distance from the trees to the feeder for anything to set off the camera. The only way anything would set it off would be for it to pass directly in front of it on its way to the feeder.”
“There’s got to be a way to attach it,” James said.
“We could move the feeder closer to the woods?” Owen suggested.
James hadn’t thought of that. He could see his plan was falling apart and this new suggestion was forcing him to face his fear and get closer to the woods. “That might not be a bad idea. Now that I think about it, I’ve never seen it come over to the deer feeder. It’s always just stayed back at the trees. Except…”
“Except what?” Owen asked.
“Except for yesterday. I was up at the top of the barn,” James pointed toward the hay door, “and I fell asleep until, I was woken up by it going throw my dad’s tools in the barn underneath me.”
Jack’s eyes widened. Owen jutted his jaw forward, “No fucking way!”
“I’m serious,” James replied, “and I don’t know if it knew I was up there but when I got up it knocked the toolbox over and was gone by the time I came down.”
“Obviously, it has no problem leaving the shade of the woods so it’s not a vampire,” Jack reasoned.
“Vampire?” Owen threw his hands up, “Give me a break. Vampires aren’t real!”
“You just don’t want them to be because blood freaks you out,” James retorted.
Owen raised an eyebrow at James, knowing he was right. “Listen,” he said, “we have to get this thing moved then and get the hell out of the field. Okay, it’s not afraid of daylight—vampire or not. That means it could come out here after us at any time!”
The three boys looked at each other as his words started to sink in. Owen was right. James had never even thought about all the time that he had spent out in the field setting up the deer feeder or checking on it, and how he could have been watched the whole time. Stalked. Hunted. He was playing Russian roulette with the paranormal every time he came outside. Then there was the blood in the grass. How could he be so blind to ignore the fact that the creature wasn’t docile? It had killed something or at the very least injured it.
He panicked as the anxiety rendered his mind no longer able to think about rationality or logic. “Jesus Christ, c’mon let’s get this thing moved!”
James’s sudden panic spread in an invisible wave outward infecting both of his friends. Owen quickly grabbed the barrel and rolled it off the stand. Jack grabbed one side of the stand and James grabbed the other. They ran the rest of the distance across the lifeless dirt until it gave way to grass just before the woods. Owen made it to the tree line first and stood there waiting for Jack and James to catch up. “C’mon guys, hurry up!” he screamed to them.
He looked into the woods and felt the fire of adventure. His childish brain was too underdeveloped to properly assess danger and he imagined for a moment that he was a great adventurer at the front of a haunted forest. He imagined going deep into the woods and slashing through monsters as they jumped from behind trees and under bushes. He was unstoppable.
“What’re you doing?” Jack squeaked, breaking Owen from his daydream.
He threw the barrel back up on the stands and the three boys stood there looking at each other.
“Who’s going to put the camera on the tree?” James asked.
Jack backed up, “Not me. I’m not going anywhere near there.”
Owen looked at James. “It’s your camera,” he suggested.
James began to tremble. He imagined walking around the tree to secure the mount straps and seeing the monster on the other side waiting for him.
“Ah!” he yelped, dropping the mount and straps. “I can’t do it.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Owen picked them up, “you guys are both older, even.” He walked over to a tree directly in line with the deer feeder then stopped, turned his head and smiled slyly. “Weenies.”
He stretched the straps out and hesitated before walking around the tree. James and Jack watched as he walked into the woods and disappeared. After a minute, they began to panic when he didn’t come back out.
“Oh my God,” Jack said, anxiously squeezing the camera.
“Owen!” James yelled. No response. “Oh my God, we have to go after him.”
“I’m not going in there!” Jack yelled.
“He’s our friend, Jack!”
Jack put his hand over his face.
“What are you guys doing?” Owen yelled from behind the tree. “Bring the camera here!”
James grabbed the camera from Jack and walked to the tree as if the ground would give way at any moment. “Jesus Christ, we thought it got you!” he said.
“Not yet,” Owen winked, “you have any idea how hard it is to strap that thing with a million mosquitoes buzzing in your face? I could hardly breathe without eating a bunch of them.”
James put the camera on the metal stand that was connected to the straps. The camera was now securely mounted against the tree. He angled it as straight as he could. “How’s that look?” he asked.
“It looks too low,” Jack said quickly,” c’mon, just point it up a little bit, turn it on, and let’s go!”
As soon as James turned the camera on they ran back through the field, terrified to look behind them. They stopped at the entrance of the barn when James had a revelation. “Shit,” he said in a breathy panic.
“What?” Jack asked with his hands on his hips. “What?”
“The feeder. We forgot to fill it.”
They hurried back into the house and sat at the table to catch their breath. Nolan was putting on his shoes and was just about to leave.
“All right, guys. Remember the three B’s.”
“What?” James looked up confused.
“No beer, no babes, no bombs,” he said with a serious face. The three boys looked at each other. Owen mouthed “what the fuck” to Jack.
“Uh…” James scratched his head.
Nolan laughed, “Guys, I’m kidding! Don’t make a mess okay? I might not be back until morning.” He walked out the door and they were finally alone. Duffy sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, his tail swinging back and forth like a windshield wiper on its highest speed.
“Okay,” James pulled a nickel from his pocket, “one of us has to go fill the feeder with feed. I think this is the fairest way.”
Owen slapped the table in protest, “Whoa, wait a minute. Not fair, I already did my part. I took one for the team by strapping that damn thing to a tree. This is between you two.” Owen tried not to show it but he was just as afraid as they were.
Jack looked at James, “While I understand Owen’s point, I have to point out that this is hardly fair. A nickel has a one in six-thousand chance of landing on its side when flipped due to its size and shape. You really think both sides are equal in weight? Look at the size of Jefferson’s face!”
James looked at Jack with a blank stare. “We don’t have time to debate the science of coin flipping. The longer we wait the closer it gets to dark, and I don’t know about you but I’m not going out there at night. The camera is set up; we just need the bait for the deer. I really think the feed lures the deer and then the deer lures the monster.”
“Wait,” Owen interrupted, “so you’re saying that it’s not eating the feed?”
“I don’t know,” James said looking at the floor.
“That’s a lot of feed to be missing overnight, unless you have a shitload of deer in your yard.” Owen’s eyes rolled up as he was thinking before speaking—a rare occurrence for him. “Besides, you said that thing was in the barn with you. There was no feed in the barn, right?”
Owen made a good point that got James thinking. “Well, no, but I did see a deer earlier that day. I don’t know, maybe the deer led it there and it was in the barn looking for more food or even more feed. I fell asleep.”
“So, maybe the feed isn’t necessary at all then?” Jack suggested.
“Yeah, maybe we should have just put the damn camera on the barn or the house!” Owen yelled.
“Okay,” James said, feeling ganged up on, “but the point is, it’s already on the tree and it’s pointed at the deer feeder. We might as well fill the feeder. I just think it’s the greatest chance we have to get a shot of it.”
Owen tilted his hat down over his eyes. “Flip away, I’m out. I did my part.”
James shrugged at Jack. “Heads or tails?”
“Let me do it,” Owen said, grabbing the coin from James. “I’ll just spin the damn thing.”
“No!” Jack yelled, “there’s an even greater bias toward one outcome by spinning. Just flip it and catch it so it doesn’t hit the table and spin.”
Owen looked at Jack and said, “You know, you’re a little weird.”
“Heads or tails?” James interrupted.
Jack thought out loud, “Well there’s a higher probability of tails landing face up on a penny and the Lincoln Memorial is—
“For fuck’s sake, you get heads!” Owen yelled and flipped the coin.
Jack held his breath as the nickel flipped in the air and landed into Owen’s hand.
“Not to be pessimistic, James, but surely you run faster than I do,” Jack said like a nervous mouse.
Owen rolled his eyes and put the coin down on the table. It was tails.
“Shit,” James said.
“If it means anything, bro, it is your deer feeder.”
James looked at Owen like he was an idiot. He got up and grabbed the feed bag. The bag wasn’t as big as the last one, allowing James to carry it without too much difficulty. He had so much adrenaline flowing through his veins as he stepped onto the porch that he thought he might pass out. As he started to walk toward the backyard, Owen screamed out the door, scaring him.
He turned around to see Owen letting Duffy out the door. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Dogs hear better than us,” he said, “so, you know…give you a heads up in case something happens.”
“In case something happens? Well thanks for being optimistic!” Duffy jumped up on James and licked his face. “C’mon boy, let’s get that feeder filled up.”
James walked as fast as he could while carrying the bag of feed. Even though the bag was significantly lighter, carrying it over such a large distance was hard on James’s twelve-year-old body. The feeder was also twice as far as it was before. He got halfway through the field where the feeder used to be and stopped to rest. He looked back and saw Jack and Owen in the kitchen window. Duffy sat next to him panting and wagging his tail, oblivious to the fact that they were being watched. After a minute of catching his breath, James started to stand up when Duffy hunched down and started barking behind him. He froze. Instead of catching his breath, James was now panting heavier than before strictly out of fear. Duffy pounced forward and ran behind him barking. James took a deep breath and quickly stood up and turned around to see Duffy chasing a couple of Canadian geese across the field.
“Ugh,” he said picking up the bag and pressing on. By the time he finally reached the deer feeder his initial wave of adrenaline was wearing off and he felt too tired to run even if he had to. His arms shook as he ripped the bag open and lifted it into the feeder. He emptied the entire bag and then turned around and walked as quickly as he could without looking back. Duffy lost interest in the geese and returned to his side, but he was too focused to care. He kept his eyes on Jack and Owen who were plastered against the kitchen window. He studied them for any sign of trouble that they might see behind him that he couldn’t. The day was quiet, the air was hot and James just couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. The feeling crawled up his back bone and pressed against the back of his head. The fear got to him and he started to run. Even when he felt like he couldn’t run any further, he kept running until he rounded the corner of the house with Duffy on his heels. Struggling up the porch, he stumbled through the door and into the living room, collapsing onto the couch and cried into a pillow.
It was awkward for Jack and Owen to sit in the kitchen and hear their friend cry. As twelve-year-olds, they were in the cusp of puberty and becoming adults, and because of this, they felt an overwhelming desire to be more grown up than they really were. Often, they tried to act like they weren’t affected by physical or emotional pain but underneath the facade they were still little kids. Even tough-ass Owen bawled like a baby when he flipped over the handle bars of his bike and came down elbow first on the pavement, effectively turning his elbow into powdered sugar in his arm. He tried to make up for it by acting tough even though his pain was more than just in a cast.
The boys didn’t say anything about James crying because they completely understood. Neither of them wanted to go back out in that field after all James had told them. And they believed him, of course, because he believed it himself. What reason would James have to make it all up?
After he calmed down he went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face to help hide the puffy red cheeks he acquired from the tears. When he reappeared in the kitchen Owen and Jack were back to eating wings and no one said a word. One defense of the human psyche is to try and distance oneself from tragedy because a memory can hurt the same as trauma itself. The brain doesn’t know whether the person is experiencing pain or simply the memory of pain. To distance themselves from the sheer terror of a monster in the woods behind the house, they locked all the doors and windows, then retreated to the living room to watch movies.
Nolan didn’t have any sort of TV service at the house but he did have an extensive movie collection. They wasted the evening away depleting the house’s root beer supply and they managed to eat the better part of the five pounds of wings between the three of them.
Once it started to get dark outside, Jack looked over at Duffy whining at the door. He patted James on the shoulder and pointed to his dog.
“Oh no, I completely forgot!” He jumped up and ran over to Duffy who was jumping and scratching at the door to try and get out to go to the bathroom. James hesitated as he looked out the kitchen window and saw that the darkness of night had taken over once again. Jack and Owen were so absorbed in the TV that they didn’t even notice. James walked back into the living room and put his hands on top of his head, interlocking his fingers.
Jack looked over and saw Duffy still pawing at the door. “What’s the matter?”
“I can’t go out there,” James replied, “it’s dark.”
Owen and Jack looked at each other. Owen shrugged and said, “Just let him out. He doesn’t run away so he’ll come back to the door when he’s done, we do that with our dog in the backyard all the time.”
The last couple of hours had caused Owen to forget the fear they all had shared over what may be lurking in the darkness.
Jack looked at James, “Just let him go in here and clean it up.”
“Ugh, no way,” James said, “that’s sick and my dad would be pissed if Duffy went in here.”
“Okay, just do this,” Jack walked over and grabbed the retractable leash off the counter, “take this and wrap it around the porch through the loop in the handle and hook him up, then you can let him out but you can quickly bring him back in.”
James looked at the leash. He knew Jack was smart—way smarter than the two of them together. He also knew that Jack wouldn’t suggest something unless he honestly believed in it, which made him the most mature of the group. James carefully opened the heavy wood door, and then pushed the thinner screen door open as if it were made of sand and would collapse if it moved too quickly. The air was muggy with an electric feeling of a cold front moving in from the west. Crickets chirped and fireflies danced in rhythmic bursts past the edge of the porch light’s reach. Duffy tried to break free of Jack and Owen’s grip on his collar as James scanned the darkness. Duffy was restless, his full canine bladder combined with his instinct to rip into the open fields like a jet plane through the clouds caused him to bounce around furiously.
“Hang on a sec, Duff!” James pushed his leg in front of him to keep him from running outside.
“C’mon man,” Owen barked, “we can’t hold him much longer.”
James’s skin rippled with goose bumps as he stepped out on to the porch, fully in the night and vulnerable to pounces from the shadows. He took a deep breath and quickly wrapped the leash around the railing as Jack had instructed and dropped the handle, dragging the end of the leash back into the doorway. He knelt down while Duffy twitched and moved around erratically as he tried to hook the leash onto his collar. James’s heart rate increased with every second that passed with his back facing the darkness behind him.
“C’mon Duff. God damn, stay still!”
Finally, he was able to hook the leash and everyone let go as Duffy exploded into a leap off the porch into the grass, quickly reaching the limit of the leash’s length with an awkward and uncomfortable stop that choked him and left him coughing. Recovering quickly, he stood tall and barked as a dark shadow skirted the porch light. James jumped as the shadow skimmed his peripheral vision.
“Did you guys see that?” Owen yelled.
“Move! Let me in, let me in!” James screamed, pushing Jack and Owen out of the way and closing the door behind him. In his panicked state, he had left Duffy outside all alone.
“Shit, what about Duffy!” Owen pulled the blinds apart in the window next to the door.
James grabbed his hair and pulled, “Oh my God. What was I supposed to do?”
The three boys crowded the window and peeked out the split in the blinds, which was now permanently bent. Outside, they saw Duffy standing still in the grass, illuminated by the spotlight of the porch light and staring into the dark.
“Jesus Christ, what do we do?” James asked between biting his nails.
Duffy hunched lower and then barked as two more shadows darted around the porch light and into the driveway. Three deer walked into the light, out of Duffy’s reach and looked at him before casually walking away.
“It was just some deer!” Jack yelled in relief.
They watched as Duffy’s distraction left and his demeanor melted back into its original focus before going outside. He quickly squat in the warm grass a few feet away and emptied himself near the foundation of the house.
“Nothing like watching a dog crap, huh?” Owen said elbowing James.
Duffy paced around and ate some grass, then walked up onto the porch and sat down to rest.
The boys peeled themselves away from the window and sat at the table. The tension of the situation melted away and Owen leaned his chair back on to two legs. “You know, bro, I’m not trying to sound mean, but we haven’t seen anything yet.”
James looked up at him. “What’re you saying?”
Owen shrugged, “I’m just saying that we’re taking your word for it. We haven’t seen any monster and well, nothing has happened at all.”
“He has a point,” Jack chimed in, “I’m not calling you a liar, James, but as far as we know the monster in the woods is pure speculation.”
James was irritated at his friends’ disbelief. “What do you do, read a dictionary for fun?” he snapped at Jack. “Listen, I know what I saw and I’m not lying.”
“That’s cool,” Owen said, “I’m just saying if there really isn’t a monster and you saw something else, then that kind of makes sense, too.”
“Irrational fears in an open field over something that wasn’t there, and now with Duffy,” Jack thought aloud.
James felt like he was being ganged up on. The peer pressure made him start to doubt everything he had seen and thought. Was he going crazy? Was the wild country air and the disconnection from people making him imagine things? He hadn’t even considered that his life was changing so dramatically that it could be affecting him in such a way. For most people, routine is all they have, and when that’s broken, they are often so lost without it that they lose a couple marbles here and there.
“I say we go into the woods,” Owen smirked.
“No way,” James protested.
“Why not?” Owen leaned forward on the table, putting his chair back on the ground, “If there’s no monster then it’s just a bunch of woods. Nothing to worry about. I’m just saying it might be fun—we don’t have woods that big in the city.”
“Well I’m definitely not going in the dark,” James said looking at Jack for support. Jack just nodded. “I mean, tomorrow could be a different story. My dad would be home, too. If we needed help, you know.”
Owen laughed, “You’re still assuming there’s a monster out there. I mean, I would love nothing more for there to actually be one. Life is a boring snooze-fest. Makes me wonder if your dad is right about it not being real.”
James, in a moment of self-denial, got up and went to the door and opened it. He poked his head outside and saw Duffy back in the grass sniffing and ripping blades out with his teeth. When Duffy noticed he was there, he lifted his head and began wagging his tail. Everything seemed normal. James stepped out on the porch and looked around at the darkness outside the safe glow of the porch light. Bugs buzzed and collided just as they always had. The wind blew and trees swayed back and forth as they always had. He looked up at the stars, which shone more brilliantly out there—just as they always had. Maybe things weren’t changing, he thought, maybe it’s all me.
He left Duffy to do his thing and went back into the house where Jack and Owen sat there looking at him.
“I’m not saying I told you so,” Owen sneered, “but you didn’t get eaten and neither did Duffy, right?”
James sighed. “Right.”
Such an intense moment of introspection was way too serious and heavy for a twelve-year-old boy to maintain for long. If everything in the universe was moving toward equilibrium, then to counteract such an intense adult moment there needed to be an equally intense moment of childish behavior. James looked down and saw the empty wing boxes full of sauce and chicken bones, plucked one out that was buried in sauce and threw it at Owen, hitting him right in the face. His delayed recoil was too late to prevent the bright orange sauce from splattering all over his face and shirt.
“Ah!” he screamed. He wiped the sauce from his eyes and saw James doubled over laughing. What had started as an expression of anger and frustration had become a playful outlet for their bustling potential energy. Like Duffy tearing through the open field, they let loose just like children—without a care in the world.
Owen grabbed a box and quickly began rapid-fire-throwing chicken bones and finger-dipped globs of sauce at James. Caught up in his own laughter, he was left completely without defense. Some of the bones and sauce bounced off his chest and hair while others flew directly past him splattering all over the kitchen floor. Jack put his hands over his head and dropped down off his chair, ducking under the table as Owen and James exchanged shots of sauce and laughter. After a few minutes and a lot of mess, they both noticed Jack under the table and Owen pointed down at him. James smiled and said, “All right, truce, truce! Jack, you can come out.”
Poor gullible Jack slid out from under the table and as he was standing up, Owen took the last entire box of mostly leftover sauce and poured thick, oozy waterfalls on top of his head.
“NO!” Jack screamed as the yellow orange sauce dripped through his hair and down his cheeks. He slumped back down to the floor and curled into a ball while Owen and James fell down in laughter. The couple minutes of fun faded and they realized they had a big mess to clean up in both the kitchen and themselves.
“Crap, didn’t your dad say not to make a mess?” Owen asked smiling.
“You guys are jerks,” Jack said, slipping on sauce as he stood up.
“Sorry Jack,” James laughed. “Yeah, we have to clean this up.”
Jack went to his bag and pulled out a clean outfit, then looked at Owen and sneered, “Sucks to not have anything, huh?”
“Don’t worry,” James said, “I’ve got stuff you can wear. We can throw all this in the washer.”
Owen looked up at James and their tiny feud had ended. “Thanks,” he said.
James washed his head off in the kitchen sink and after an hour of cleaning up chicken bones and wing sauce, the boys collapsed on the couch to watch another movie while their clothes were in the washer. The monotonous drone of the television quickly lulled the boys to sleep. James hadn’t fallen asleep to the sound of a TV in nearly a week and something about the familiar glow brought with it a nostalgic warmth. A couple hours later the movie ended and the boys exchanged shots in a battle of snores instead of chicken bones.
Eventually, James felt Duffy’s pain when his full bladder woke him up. The living room was dark with the TV only displaying a generic DVD menu. He looked over to see Jack huddled in a ball on the couch and Owen completely sprawled out with his arms and legs hanging off the recliner like a skydiver in free fall. Getting up was uncomfortable and he quickly hobbled to the bathroom to pee. After he finished, he came back to the living room and crawled back onto the couch to go to sleep when he heard Duffy barking outside.
“Shit,” he whispered, “I forgot to bring Duffy in!”
Just as he was getting back up he heard a loud bang on the wall from the hallway which scared him enough to jump back onto the couch. “Oh my God,” he whispered. His mind immediately went to the monster. It’s in the house, he thought. He remembered how Duffy would be a heads-up if anything happened. Oh my God, Duffy must have seen it breaking in!
He wanted to wake Owen and Jack but he couldn’t move and his ability to speak escaped him. He sat and listened as another bang on the wall in the hallway was followed by a grunt.
Nolan stumbled out of the hallway holding a laundry basket. “God damn it, how’d that get there?” Duffy continued to bark wildly outside.
Dad! James screamed in his head. It was just my dad. He watched as his dad stumbled into the kitchen.
“Shut up Duff,” he grumbled.
James realized that Duffy was barking a lot. It must be outside, he thought. He couldn’t move and his lips had turned to stone. He watched as his dad opened the door and stepped outside.
“C’mon Duff, for Christ’s sake,” Nolan yelled as the door closed behind him.
James sat and waited, barely breathing. Duffy stopped barking. He waited for his dad and Duffy to come back in, but time was frozen. He looked at the clock and two minutes had passed and they hadn’t come back in.
C’mon, what’s taking so long?
Another minute passed as his body began to thaw. His imagination spun out of control as his level of worry had gone through the roof. He was sure the monster had killed his father and dog on the other side of that door, or maybe he dragged them back to the woods. He couldn’t bear to think about it. He got up and walked slowly into the kitchen toward the door. Everything was completely silent except for his pounding heart that beat against his eardrums as he reached out for the door knob then gently squeezed it. He slowly turned it until he felt the latch recede back into the door and then he took a deep breath. Pulling quickly, he yanked the door open which scared his father who had just opened the screen door to come in.
“Ah!” Nolan screamed, scaring James, causing him to scream too. “Jesus Christ, James! What’re you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” James said retreating into the kitchen, “I…I didn’t mean to—
“Leave Duff outside? Oh, it’s okay,” he said letting Duffy loose into the house. “I saw him outside when I came home and he was just rolling in the grass loving it. Doesn’t hurt to leave him out, it’s nice and warm and he can crap anytime he wants. I should have known he’d start that shit though with all the things out there.”
“What?” James asked nervously.
“What?” Nolan asked in reply.
“You said all the things out there…”
“Yeah,” Nolan answered, “there’s got to be deer, raccoons, cats…all sorts of shit out there.”
“Get some sleep, son. I don’t know about you but I’m tired. Got a big date tomorrow!” Nolan bounced as he walked into the dark hallway back into his room.
James sat on the couch for a while and wondered if the monster was all in his head. He had been the only one to see it, and he had seen it every day since he had gotten to his dad’s house—except for that day. He realized he hadn’t seen it at all that day, even though he hadn’t been spying out the kitchen window or the barn and was gone most of the beginning of the day. Was it all in his imagination? Could he even conjure up such a thing?
To continue the story, get Part Two, or read the complete story in The Woods Omnibus by following the links.
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-Part One of Three in The Woods Series- Is there something looking back at me? Is there something there waiting for me? At the edge of the woods behind his father's house, James Callum thinks he sees a monster. His father thinks he's interested in watching the deer, but James is more interested in what's watching him. For a twelve-year-old city boy, the intense openness of the Ohio countryside is like another world. The fields stretch forever, the summer heat is unrelenting, and the thick woods at the edge of the property hide untold secrets. When no one believes he's seeing a monster, his entire world unravels, leaving the frayed strands of his identity entangled with the mystery of the monster in the woods. With the help of his friends Jack and Owen, James risks his life, family, and friendships to prove the monster is real and uncover the truth behind it. In THE WOODS, Milo Abrams pierces the veil of curiosity with an almost unbearable build-up of suspense and emotion. Don't go outside. Don't look into the backyard. There's something in the woods.