Rite
of
Passage

by
Cole Parker

”Come on, I dare you.”

I hated it when anyone said that to me. I especially hated it when Ryan did.

“You’re just scared.”

I hated that even more! Ryan knew how to push my buttons. That’s what Dad always said when Mom was getting him to do stuff he didn’t want to do. He said she was pushing his buttons. Exactly what Ryan was doing now.

I knew it, but it was still hard to just ignore him, which is what I should have done. Oh, man, is that what I should have done!

“Chicken! Chicken! Cluck, cluck, cluck.”

“Quit it! You little shit!”

His eyes opened wide in phony shock. “Jed, you just said ‘shit!’ Now you have to come with me or I’ll tell your mom. You know she always believes me when I tell her stuff on you. You’ll be grounded for a week for saying that.”

“Yeah, well, then who’ll you hang with that week, wise guy?”

“Well, you’re no fun to hang with anyway if you’re too chicken to go camping in the woods.”

“I’m not chicken,” I argued. “I’ve just heard stories about those woods, and they look creepy to me. Guys say they’ve heard strange noises in there. What’d you want to sleep in there for, anyway?”

“What are you, afraid of noises in the dark? Really? You’re older’n me, and I’m not afraid. I don’t sleep with a night light on or anything.”

Yeah, right! As if I did!

“You didn’t answer my question. Why there?”

“I want to do it ‘cause, well…I just want to do it.” His voice changed when he said that; he wasn’t acting then. But he started in again right off. “And we’ll be able to tell everyone we did, ‘cause most of them are too chicken. I didn’t think you’d be.”

Still pushing those buttons. I could feel it working, too. Ryan always had been able to get me to do things I didn’t want to do. He was four months younger than me, but you’d never know it. We were about the same size, but people didn’t think so after meeting us. They always thought he was bigger, because he had a big personality, and I had a small one. I was the thinker, he was the doer. When we met people and were talking, I noticed they always spoke to him, asked him any questions they had, and just sort of smiled vaguely at me if they looked at me at all. What we did together, it was usually because he’d talked me into it.

I was happy sitting at home on the porch in the summer, enjoying the Northern California summer heat, just reading a book, sitting on our old porch glider slowly drifting back and forth, turning pages when necessary. He was always wanting to go someplace, do something, get out away from the house. I liked to read. That old glider was soft and rocking on it of a summer day felt good. Comfortable. Safe.

Not Ryan. He had to be doing something all the time, and the worst thing was, risk was never a factor in it for him. Seemed like I was afraid of most everything, if you’d listened to him. I wasn’t afraid. I just was able to imagine the danger in things. He never seemed to imagine anything. Nothing bad at least.

“My mom probably wouldn’t let me anyway,” I said, looking to shift the blame onto someone else. “She’ll say we have a perfectly good back field and that’s where we should tent out, just like the other times. She’ll say, ‘Why’d you want to go off into those dark, dangerous woods?’ I can hear her now.”

Ryan turned to look at me with disgust. We’d both been leaning on the top rail of the fence running along our rutted dirt driveway, looking over at the Druggins house, away off in the distance. It had been empty for a couple of years now, the paint had gone even before that, and it was beginning to look really run down. The worse it got to looking, the more interesting Ryan got to finding it. He was like that.

“You think I’m dumb or something?” Ryan sounded pissed off, but I knew he wasn’t. He didn’t get pissed off very often, busy as he was thinking up stuff we had to do and making me do it. When you’re our age, and spend all your time together, you just know how the other guy’s feeling. You just know. You know his tone of voice and his body language and what it all means. And I knew it was play-acting pissed off, not real.

“Yeah, you are, but why ask that now?”

“Ha ha. Very funny. I’m not dumb. You’re just making excuses because you’re chicken and don’t want to do it.”

I don’t know why Ryan’s like he is. We’re 11 now, closing in on 12, and for the past couple of months it’s been like he wants to show how grown up he is all of a sudden. Wants to do things to prove it. Dumb stuff like sleeping in a scary woods. I don’t feel the need to do that. I also don’t feel much different from what I felt like at 10, or even 9. Oh sure, in some ways I do, but I sure don’t feel the need to prove I’m older than I was then.

But then, Ryan always was a lot more intrepid than I was. I like that word, intrepid. I came across it in one of my books and looked it up. It sort of fits Ryan. Which might be one of the reasons I like it so much. Ryan’s my best friend. It’s good to have a word that describes him so well.

There are other words too, of course. Annoying. That’s another good one.

We stared at the Druggins place some more, looking through the trees and bushes the best we could. Out where we were in the country, the houses were some ways apart. He didn’t say any more right then. I knew he would, though. He never let things lie, and he wanted to sleep in those woods. To be able to say he’d done it. Or for some other reason, as I thought back to just how he’d hesitated when he’d said it. Maybe it was that proving himself reason.

Hatcher’s Woods was a huge, old growth woods off north about a mile up from town. The ground there was hilly, there were brambles and ground vines and the trees were large and grew densely together, close enough that the canopy above didn’t let much light in, even during the day. It always seemed cooler when you walked into the trees than when you were outside. There was a creepy feel to the place, at least to me. I admit, I do have an overactive imagination, but just looking into the place, you got this feeling. You’d be in bright sunlight, on the edge of the woods, and you’d be looking into the trees where it would be dark, then you’d walk a few feet in and the temperature would begin to drop, and for some reason there never seemed to be any birdsong or scampering squirrels or anything else in there. Just quiet and dark and cold.

I didn’t see any need to sleep there. None at all.

Ryan started up again. “Grant said the place was haunted, that a couple of kids went camping there a few years ago and never came out. No one ever saw them again.”

“What were you talking to Grant for?”

Grant was one of the Cartons. He was a year older than we were. His family lived in one of the shacks down by the river in town. From what I’d heard, his father was usually not there, and when he was, the kids tried not to be. His form of discipline was a hard fist swinging at the end of a brutal arm. Most everything I knew about the Cartons was hearsay, but none of it was good. There were several kids, Grant being the fourth with still more below him. The oldest had disappeared some years ago when he was 18. Some girl’s father was said to be looking for him and he skedaddled. The second one, when he was 18, got sent to prison for aggravated assault. There was one still at home older than Grant; his name was Rodney but everyone called him Rooster, and he was as much of a badass as we had in our town. He ran with another guy, an older one I didn’t know at all. Rooster was 19. I didn’t know about his friend. I only knew you didn’t want to meet up with them. They were often in trouble with the law, too, but so far had managed to stay out of jail, most of the time. There were rumors about all sorts of things they’d done, including supplying pot to the kids that wanted it, but I didn’t know anyone who did pot around here, and thought that was probably just people making up stuff about someone who already had a bad reputation in order to make themselves look better and the bad people worse. People do things like that.

Grant seemed to be following his brothers’ footsteps. He’d been a bully for as long as I’d known him. He was always on the verge of being thrown out of school for fighting or harassing or stealing. The time he spent at school seemed less than the time he spent on suspension. I didn’t know anyone who was friends with him. I had no idea why Ryan would be talking to him.

Ryan didn’t answer right off. Just kept leaning on that fence rail. Seemed to be thinking what he wanted to say. I waited.

“Saw him in town with a couple of younger boys. Wondered if they maybe needed help, so I sort of headed over in that direction. I heard him telling them that about the woods. Probably just trying to scare them.”

“You walked up to Grant? You crazy or something? He’s what, five inches taller than you, maybe thirty pounds heavier? And mean!”

“He was talking to two younger kids.”

Ryan stopped at that. I knew what he meant. He was like that. He seemed instinctively to be protective of those that needed it. But I wondered about something else, too. I wondered if doing that had something to do with this urge to test himself, to prove himself. To show he was older now. That he was growing up.

But talking to Grant was stupid, and I wanted to make that clear to him. “So what if those boys had needed help? What could you do against him? Why didn’t you just go for help?”

“Help? He was just talking to them. They looked a little scared, but probably because they knew who he was rather than what he was saying. He likes people to be scared of him, so he was enjoying himself. I just walked up and stopped, listening to him.”

“Then what?”

“What’d ya mean?”

“Well, you can’t just stop there. You were there, he looked at you. What happened next? Weren’t you scared?”

He hesitated again. If he looked any harder at the Druggins place, seemed he might look right through what paint there was left. Maybe he was just remembering. He answered, finally. “He looked down at me. When he did that, he stopped talking, and the two boys took advantage of that and took off. Which left me and Grant.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I just said, ‘Hey, see ya around, Grant,’ and turned and walked away. Nothing to it.”

“But, but what. . . ?”

“What if he’d done something? Why would he? We were out on the sidewalk in the middle of town, in front of Jensen’s, you know? And Mrs. McCormick was coming up the street, and he had no reason to do anything anyway.”

Now it was my turn to pause. I wanted to word this correctly. “You enjoyed it, didn’t you? You wanted to walk into the lion’s den, see what it felt like. You did it. Probably was scary. And you liked that. Huh?”

He smiled. Ryan’s smiles were always special, even though I got to see a lot of them. He wrinkled his eyes when he smiled, and his face came alive. “Yeah, I got a little rush. I saw his eyes up close, and the meanness in them. He saw my eyes, too. I tried to put a little challenge in them. Just to try it. Must have worked, because I saw him see it. His face changed.”

“You challenged him? You are nuts! What if you meet him someplace where Mrs. McCormick isn’t coming up the street, someplace where it’s just you and him? You don’t want to be messing with him!”

“Why not?

“Ryan! He’ll kick the shit out of you! You know what he did to that Bradford kid. Have some sense!”

“He might. Or I might be able to beat him. You can’t live your life being afraid of everything.”

He turned to look at me when he said that. I looked back, and then decided that the old Druggins place needed more of my attention. We were both quiet for a spell.

“So let’s do it, OK?”

I’d known he wouldn’t drop it. He’d keep at it. But now he had some leverage. He’d taken it out of the realm of calling me chicken. I could ignore that. But what he’d just said, he’d been serious, and though he wasn’t challenging me personally now, it sort of felt like what he’d said, the philosophy of what he’d said, was challenging me, and I got the impression like I’d be letting someone down to refuse any more. I wasn’t sure who that someone was, but, someone.

Or maybe I did know who.

“I’ll ask my mom. OK?”

“Yeah, let’s go ask her. I’ll go with you.”

No, he wasn’t dumb at all.

∫∫∫∫

It was a warm late-summer afternoon, a few days after Ryan had begun hassling me. Mom had just driven away after dropping us off. She hadn’t been in favor of this, but Dad had convinced her it was all right, saying something about a rite of passage that didn’t make any sense to me, but Mom had finally agreed. I still had mixed feelings, and now that we were standing here, just the two of us, the misgivings were outweighing any good thoughts I might have had about it.

We were standing on the side of the dirt road. The sun was well on the way toward the horizon, but we still had plenty of light to get into the woods, find a good place to set up our tent and build a small campfire.

The sunny meadows stretched away from us to the east and west. Birds were singing. A few red-tailed hawks flew overhead, watching below for rodents, snakes and lizards. I saw some black phoebes and tree swallows flitting just over the grass, snatching small insects out of the air. How they could do that, I couldn’t even begin to understand. Well, lots of stuff was beyond me, but some of the things I saw in nature were close to the top of that list.

The dark woods were right in front of us.

Ryan picked up his bedroll and the tied up tent canvas. He already had his backpack over his shoulders. I grabbed the tent poles, stakes and my own bedroll. The food was in his backpack, the drinks in mine, and we shared a lot of other incidentals. My pack was twice as heavy as Ryan’s. He said I’d packed for a hiking trip through Alaska instead of one night in the woods. I told him being prepared was everything.

We entered the woods, Ryan leading the way. Immediately, the light was dim, and we could only see a hundred feet or so in any direction. After that, it was too dim to make out details. The trees grew thick enough, too, to make looking any farther than that impossible. Several feet in, I stopped and just looked around. That was when I noticed the chill. It had been in the mid-eighties when we were standing by the road. Here it had to be at least ten degrees cooler, and the contrast made the low seventies feel chilly.

The bird noises were gone, too. It was as though we’d entered a different world. We’d left the light for the darkness, the warm for the chill, the happy noises of life for the stillness of, of....

I didn’t want to creep myself out, so tried to stopped thinking things like that and hurried to catch up to Ryan, who hadn’t stopped when I had. He was plowing ahead, which was his nature. I thought for probably the umpteenth time how much better it would be to have his nature rather than my own.

He kept hiking farther into the woods. We could no longer look back and see the road. I thought fleetingly about getting lost, but he was following a sort of path. Maybe it was a game trail, it was about that indistinct, but it was there, and we could follow it. If we turned around and stayed on it, it would take us back to the road.

I didn’t know if there was any game in here, however. I’d never heard of any. No one ever hunted in here that I knew about. There was some sort of green vegetation, low-lying and sparse, covering the floor of the woods, but it didn’t look like the sort of thing that would support a herd of deer, and the trees seemed too close together for deer to run through anyway.

There had to be small critters, though. Rabbits, maybe. Raccoons. Opossums. They’d make a trail, over time. I thought. Maybe they would. I realized I didn’t know much about the outdoors.

We’d been hiking for a while, Ryan in front, me trailing behind. I caught up to him. “How much farther you going? We need to get set up before much longer. I don’t know how much light there is left.” It seemed to be getting darker with every step we took.

As well as getting darker, it had been getting colder as we’d been walking. Ryan stopped and looked around. Just ahead there was a sort of clearing. It had some of the green ground cover that I’d seen here and there where some sunlight got through to the earth. There were tall trees around the clearing, and a fallen one on one side, sort of making a partial fence in that section. The last rays of sunlight freckled the ground here and there.

Ryan slung his pack off his back and turned in a circle, trying to decide the best place for the tent. I did the same, and we decided to put it off toward the fallen tree. We’d set up this tent in our back field many times so knew how to go about it. He unrolled the canvas, I laid out and assembled the poles into their pockets in the fabric, and within just a few minutes we were in business. I used the hatchet to pound in the stakes and Ryan tied off the guy ropes.

The few sun’s rays were gone by then. I quickly scouted around for dead branches and twigs while Ryan cleared a spot for the fire. He was lucky enough to find some rocks to build a circle with. We could have built a fire without them as there was really nothing around to catch fire; the ground cover was way too green to burn, and wasn’t heavy enough to sustain a fire even if it did. But being able to enclose our burning wood somehow made me feel better, feel we were more in control.

When I’d collected enough wood, I carried it back to the circle Ryan was laying out and dumped it nearby. I found my folding camping shovel and dug out some dirt inside the circle, forming a depression to better contain the fire, and planning to use the excavated dirt to cover up any remaining embers when we went to bed.

I set some wood up in the shallow fire pit as I’d learned how to do, Ryan got out a pack of matches, and within seconds we had a fire burning.

It’s amazing what a fire will do for your spirits. Mine had been sort of weird ever since we’d left the sunshine and come into the woods. The atmosphere here was somber, almost sullen. This place felt old, very old, and there was an eeriness to it that stayed in the background but was ever-present. The vast stillness of the place got on my nerves and made me want to whistle, or talk, or do most anything to dispel it, yet almost commanded me not to. The silence felt austere; it demanded respect.

The light from the fire brightened the clearing. Well, it really didn’t light it up all the way to the edges, but lit where we were, and was cheery, and made me feel better.

“What’s for dinner?” I asked. Ryan was in charge of the food.

“Why are you asking me? It was your turn to bring it.” He looked at me, and in the dancing firelight his face showed a questioning, somewhat worried expression. That changed to apprehension, and he asked, “You did bring food, didn’t you?”

“Ryan, you were supposed to bring the food! We discussed that!”

He looked at me, frowning, worried, and I returned his look with what I’m sure were the same expressions, perhaps even more so, and then he broke into gales of laughter. “You should see your face,” he laughed.

I could feel my face, could feel it go from worried to pissed. I started walking toward him, and he saw me coming and started walking backwards, his hands out in front of him. “Hey, it was a joke. Just calm down, Jed. I was just pulling your leg. I’ve got the food. Come on now—”

By then he’d backed up till he was against the fallen tree which had a trunk thick enough so that, lying on its side, it came all the way up to his shoulders. He’d gone as far as he could go.

I grabbed him, he tried to get away, and I wrestled him to the ground.

We were best friends, had been for years, and so had wrestled with each other many times. We were close enough in size that we were pretty evenly matched. He had a much livelier personality than I did, had that intrepid thing going for him, and was a hundred times more outgoing, but when it came to wrestling, neither of us had it over the other. I won as often as he did.

And I was going to win tonight because I was still a little ticked. Not as much as I wanted him to believe I was, but I was angry. I’d been feeling the spookiness of the woods for over an hour by now, and then felt better when the fire was lit. For about ten seconds, it seemed. He’d completely taken the wind back out of my sails by telling me we were going to go hungry, which had brought my dark mood and so my uneasiness back in force. Telling me it was all a joke didn’t lighten that at all.

He was still laughing even as I took him down. I got on top of him, spread eagled him, holding his hands against the ground with my hands on his wrists. I looked at him fiercely from a distance of about a foot above him. He looked back, stopped laughing when he saw my expression, then smiled at me.

Damn him anyway.

Unless you’ve been an 11-year-old boy with a best friend, a really truly best friend, you couldn’t understand. But if you’ve been one, if you were one once, maybe you can remember the feeling. I know I had it. I’d never been in love with a girl so didn’t know what that was like. I loved my parents, but the feeling I had for Ryan was different from how I felt about them, so I couldn’t compare the two at all. But, when I thought about it—and I thought about everything, it was one of my faults—when I thought about it, I kind of felt I might have loved him. He was that major a part of my life. When I looked ahead to what I was going to do every day when I got up in the morning, Ryan was always included, always a part of it. I spent almost all day every summer with him. We slept over at each other’s houses. We ate meals together. We walked into each other’s house unannounced, and my parents didn’t think anything about seeing him walk in, or when they were sitting in the living room, seeing him walk out when they’d been unaware he was there.

He counted on me being there for him, and I counted on him being there for me. And we were. We both filled that role.

We were both growing up a little now. I saw it in him more than I felt it in me. He had this bug right now about proving himself. That was new. He was changing physically, too, growing stronger, getting thinner and taller. His face was getting a little leaner. This was probably happening to me, too, but I noticed it more with him. I saw him. I didn’t see myself, except when I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t spend any more time doing that than I had to. I wasn’t ugly, but I didn’t think I was much to look at. Ryan wasn’t exactly handsome either, but his face had character, and as it thinned it had started looking better and better. I had no idea what other people thought he looked like, but I’d started to feel, in the past couple of months, that maybe he was handsome. I also knew that when he smiled at me, his special smile I didn’t see him use with anyone but me, I’d started getting funny feelings lately, feelings low in my stomach.

I didn’t talk to him about them. We talked with each other about pretty much everything, but I didn’t talk about that. I didn’t really know why. It seemed… well, I just didn’t, that’s all.

And he was smiling now. I couldn’t keep being mad if he smiled like that. I had a quick thought, wondering if he knew what that smile did to me. I hoped not. Could he? No, he couldn’t. But he was doing it, smiling. And I couldn’t help myself. I smiled back.

He threw his arm around my shoulders as we walked back to the campfire. I had to shake it off to put some thicker branches on the fire. I trimmed them with the hatchet, then cut them to size. We’d both done this before. We loved camping together. But we’d never come to these woods before.

It was pitch black now. The light coming from the fire was the only light we had. When I stopped chopping the wood and laid some of it on the fire, I noticed for the first time just how chilly it had gotten. When I stepped away from the fire a few feet, I could really feel it. It was cold. Was it the woods, or just what I was feeling, being there?

“Hey, it feel cold to you?”

Ryan looked up. He was making hamburger patties, pressing them into shape. He’d put the metal grate we’d brought with us on the stones so it was over the fire, and then a shallow frying pan on the grate. He was about ready to drop the patties in.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Step away from the fire a sec. It’s weird. I think it’s dropped twenty degrees in the past half hour.”

“Naw, it couldn’t have.” He stepped back a few feet, still carrying his last patty. He just stood for a moment, then said, “You know, it is colder. Weird.”

He stepped back to the fire and dropped two large patties into the pan. There was an immediate sound of sizzling, and then the aroma hit me. My stomach growled.

We ate our burgers with a bag of chips, drank warmish cokes, and had cookies for dessert. I couldn’t believe how delicious it all was. We didn’t have anything to sit on except the ground as there weren’t any fallen branches that were sitting-upon size nearby, and we didn’t want to get very far from the fire. Ryan grabbed a ground blanket from his bedroll and spread it out and we sat on that.

Neither of us talked much, just ate. I think maybe the atmosphere of the place even was getting to Ryan. All we could hear was the crackling of the fire, and it had died down quite a bit by now. The quiet was almost a presence, a force of its own. There were no noises at all except the occasional sizzle or snap of a piece of wood popping in the fire pit. At home, there were always noises. Creaks from the house settling, wind through a leaking window frame, the tick of a clock, someone rolling over in bed, a drip from the kitchen faucet, the furnace or air conditioner kicking on or off, something. I didn’t understand why it was absolutely silent here. There wasn’t a breath of wind, yet the cold seemed to be getting more pervasive. It was summer. Why was it so cold?

When we were done, we put the food things away in sealable plastic bags. There weren’t any bears around that we’d ever heard of, or cougars or other feral cats, but it was just good woodsmanship to pack things up. While we were doing that chore, I felt a slight breeze. By the time we were done, it was more than a breeze. It had grown into a wind. A cold wind. And now there was noise, because it was whistling through the trees.

There was really nothing to be afraid of. It was simply cold and windy in the dark, otherwise silent woods. Why I was feeling so, well, nervous I guess? I didn’t know how I felt, really. ‘Nervous’ didn’t quite do the feeling justice. It was stronger than that. Ever since the wind picked up, the feeling was there, the same feeling I’d had when I first entered the woods but more. I looked around and couldn’t see anything. There were all those woods around us. What was in them? I didn’t know, couldn’t know, but felt the presence of something. My imagination was overworking itself, I knew, but it was unsettling, just being here, surrounded by blackness and the feeling that there was more here than I could ever know.

It was early, but I suggested we go to bed. It was too dark to do anything else, and I thought maybe getting in my sleeping bag would be warmer. Some little part of me that I refused to acknowledge also was telling me that being inside the tent might feel a little safer.

Ryan agreed, although he seemed entirely oblivious to the thoughts and feelings I was having. We got into the tent and began undressing. He had his flashlight turned on, pointed toward one side of the tent. When we got down to our underpants, he looked up at me and got the wickedest grin on his face. Then he shrugged out of his briefs.

We usually camped out in our underwear. This was different. It was also exciting. I grinned, too, and undressed all the way. Then we got into our sleeping bags. Ryan turned off his flashlight. The blackness was immediate and seemed absolute.

The wind had dropped somewhat, but the sides of the tent were still fluttering a little. If anything, it felt even colder now. We were both in our summer-weight sleeping bags. There’d been no reason to zip in the linings before we left home. I lay there for a few moments, then asked, “You warm enough?”

“No. It’s cold. You warm?”

“No. I think we need to put our clothes back on.”

“Uh, Jed? What about if I just crawl in there with you? Being together should warm us both up.”

The excitement I’d felt earlier, undressing, seeing him naked in the dim light reflected off the canvas wall, was back. I probably should have been thinking that this was wrong. I wasn’t thinking that at all.

“OK,” I heard myself say. My voice sounded funny to me. I don’t know that he noticed.

I heard his zipper being pulled down. I pulled mine down too, and then he was next to me, his skin against mine. He twisted, got hold of the zipper tab, and pulled it up. Then he twisted best he could back around so we were face to face, forced together by the tightness of the sleeping bag.

I had a stiffy. He did too. He wrapped his arms around me, and I did the same with him. There wasn’t much room for arms anywhere else. We hugged each other, pulling into each other, our emotions taking over.

Neither of us said anything for a time. My heart was racing, and I could feel his was, too. The chill I’d felt was gone. We were warm together. I had so many thoughts running around in my head, I thought it might explode.

I was startled out of the reverie I’d slipped into.

“Jed?”

“Yeah?” I was whispering, like he was. It seemed right to whisper, somehow.

“Can I tell you something? Something secret?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been sort of, well, looking at you lately. More than before. Different. And it makes me feel funny, sometimes. And I’ve been thinking about you more lately, too.”

I couldn’t pull him tighter, we were already holding on about as tight as we could. I felt him try to pull me tighter, however, after he’d said that. So I tried, too. So he’d feel me try.

“I’ve been looking at you, too, Ry. A lot. And I think I know what feelings you’ve been having. Sort of down low in your stomach?”

“You know! You’ve felt ‘em, too?”

I didn’t answer, just held on. We were both moving a little in each other’s grasp, and I wiggled a little more. I thought that was confirmation enough.

We were silent for a while, both thinking about the other, what we were feeling, and about the other one feeling the same thing. These were new feelings, ones neither of us had had before. I hadn’t known he was feeing what I was. It was a revelation, something brand new, something to figure out.

He was always bolder than I was. He was now, too. “You ever think about us?”

“All the time. Every day.” We were still whispering.

“Not just regular. I mean....” I could tell, even with him whispering, it was difficult for him to say what he was thinking. Even a whisper can have a tone to it. His tone was nervous and uncertain. He tried again. “I mean, well, Jed, I was thinking maybe I liked you. Liked you more than as just a friend.”

I didn’t even pause to let that sink in. I knew if I’d said something like that, I wouldn’t want him pausing. “That’s amazing. I was thinking that same thing, just a couple of days ago. I was thinking that the way I felt about you, it was sorta like love.”

“Yeah! That’s what I meant! Only you were brave enough to say it.”

“You started saying it, or I never could have. You’re always braver than I am.”

“Am not. Just dumber. I don’t think things through like you do. I wish I would. I wish I were a lot more like you.”

“And I wish I were like you. Really. I think that all the time.”

“So do I. About you.”

He smiled then. I couldn’t see him, but somehow I knew.

I felt so good right then. I wasn’t cold, and I certainly wasn’t scared any more. I was holding on to Ryan, and he was holding on to me, and I had a lot to think about. He must have too, because we stopped talking then. We were still holding each other, arms wrapped securely around each other, lying on our sides, his breath tickling my cheek, my hair touching his, our mutual warmth cuddling each other, when we fell asleep.

I was awakened I don’t know how much later. I’d been sleeping dreamlessly, and suddenly I was awake. I still had Ryan in my arms, and he was still dead to the world.

My senses were alert, and for some reason the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I listened intently, trying to discover whatever had aroused me, but could hear only silence. Even the wind had disappeared. Everything was deathly still.

My heart had begun racing when I’d first awakened. Now, not hearing anything, it was slowing back down again. I eased my head back near to Ryan’s again and decided it must have been nothing, and that I should go to sleep again. I was surprised I was so comfortable holding Ryan, and being held by him. I was thinking about that, and had begun to drift off, when suddenly I was wide awake again.

I had definitely heard something this time. I wasn’t sure what it was, but there was something. At first it sounded like a low moan, almost too quiet to hear, but then it got louder, then faded away again. I shivered, and all my senses came alert. While I was trying to figure it out, I realized the canvas on the tent was rippling again. The wind had started again. That must be the reason for the noise, I told myself.

Then there was a different sound. The moaning sound, or wind if that’s what it had been, ceased, and the other sound got louder. I could soon distinguish what it was. Voices.

They sounded a ways off, and like people were speaking to each other. As I listened they grew louder. I decided whoever it was, they were coming closer.

I listened hard, trying to make out what they were saying.

I heard a burst of laughter, and then, “Quiet down you two!”

“What’s wrong with you, Ted? There’s no one for miles around here, and sound doesn’t carry in here anyway, you know that. Listen.” And then there was a loud holler. No words, just a yell. Then–

“See? Nothing. We could scream our heads off out here and no one would know.”

Well, he wasn’t entirely right about that, whoever it was. Because his yell had done something. It had wakened Ryan. He lifted his head from my chest where it had then been resting. I moved my hand and put it over his mouth so he wouldn’t make any noise.

The voices were still a distance from us. I could hear what was being said, but from the thinness of the sound, I knew they weren’t close. Maybe the dead silence of the woods helped their voices carry. Or maybe it was the wind, which was now blowing again. Maybe the wind was carrying the sound to us.

“Shut up! And don’t yell again. You’re stupid, you know that? Both you and this dumbass brother of yours. Why you had to let him tag along, I’ll never know. You know how important it is we keep this secret.”

“He won’t tell anyone. He knows I’d hurt him real bad if he did. Real bad.”

“He’d better know that. If anyone finds out, it won’t be from me, so it’ll be from one of you, and you’ll both be in deep shit. I’m not going down alone. You know that. People find out, it’s both your asses. I mean that. I’ll make sure.”

“Don’t worry so much, Ted. It’s all good. I’ll keep him quiet.”

I guessed they were walking while they were talking, because by now the voices were nearer. Much nearer.

I had no idea what these guys were talking about, but from what had been said there were at least three of them. The two voices I’d heard sounded much older than me and Ryan. I was starting to get scared again. I had no idea what would happen if they stumbled onto our camp, but talking about secrets and getting hurt if anyone found out about them, and there being three of them, and older, well, I was getting really scared. I had no idea if I should have been, but I was.

Ryan was next to me but I couldn’t see him at all, so didn’t know what he was feeling. I really wished I did. But I didn’t want to risk even a whisper now. If their voices carried strangely, mine might as well. I kept my hand over Ryan’s mouth, not tightly, but there, cautioning him without words to stay still.

Maybe Ted’s message, or tone of voice, finally got through to the others, because I didn’t hear anything else. I sat there, holding on to Ryan, and he was now sitting up holding on to me. We both just sat, waiting. Feeling the blackness and uncertainty surround us. As time seemed to stop, and I could hear nothing, my fear grew. I hadn’t heard them walk past us. Where were they? The more I wondered, the more scared I got, my fear becoming terror. That terror became a part of my body, a heavy part, holding me down, making me unable to move at all. So I sat. Holding Ryan. And waiting.

Waiting.

And then it happened all at once. Suddenly, without warning, the entire tent just collapsed on us. Ryan started fighting it immediately, and I did too, fighting at the canvas that was shrouding us. Then I felt something grab my arm through the canvas, and I screamed.

I heard Ryan scream too. Maybe because I had, or for some other reason, I didn’t know, but we both were screaming.

The canvas was yanked off us. Three flashlights were pointed at us, blinding us in the sudden light after the pitch dark we’d been in for about forever.

“Get’um out of that bag.” That was Ted’s voice, but in the glare of the lights, I still couldn’t see anything.

I was roughly yanked, but the zipper was still closed and all that did was wrench my arm. I cried out.

“Open the zipper, dummy!” Ted again.

I heard the sound of the zipper, and then I wasn’t locked in the bag anymore. Now the hand was back on my arm, and I was yanked up onto my feet. I felt Ryan being pulled up next to me.

The next voices came too quickly for me to know who was saying what.

“Damn. A couple of kids.”

“Look, a couple of fag kids.”

“They don’t look old enough to be fags. I doubt they can even squirt yet.”

“Still fags, though. Look at ‘em.”

“Hey, I know these guys.”

“I don’t like fags. Let’s beat ‘em up.”

“Yeah, let’s beat ‘em up. Maybe tie ‘em to one of these trees, too.”

Those voices were from the other two, not Ted. At least one of the lights was always in my eyes, but I’d turned my head away, and my eyes were at last beginning to adjust a little.

I’d recognized one of the voices by now. The one that I hadn’t heard while they were walking. It was Grant’s. That meant probably the one that wasn’t Ted was Rooster. When I figured that out, I was so scared my bowels suddenly started feeling loose. If these guys had us, knowing what the two Cartons were like, we were really in trouble.

Grant and Rooster kept jabbering, and I realized Ted hadn’t said a word since we’d been pulled out of the sleeping bag. Now, suddenly, he did. He not only spoke, he spoke to me. He asked a question.

“You heard us, didn’t you kid? You heard what we said.”

I tried to speak, but I was so scared I couldn’t make a sound. So I shook my head, violently.

He watched me, then said, “Yeah. You heard us.” Then he turned to his friends. “Rooster, I need to talk to you. Grant, you got to watch these two, make sure they stay put. Think you can do that without fucking up?”

“Yeah, these two fags are pussies, both scared as shit. You can see them shake. They’re not going anywhere. I’ve got a score to settle with one of them anyway.”

“Grant!” The menace in his voice was very real, and it wasn’t even directed towards me. “Grant, this is important. This isn’t kid games. Here, you know how to use this?”

As I watched, petrified, he pulled a gun out of his belt that had been hidden by his tee shirt.

“Yeah, I’ve shot a piece before.”

“OK. Your job is to watch these two. They can’t be allowed to get away. It would fuck everything up. Now listen to this real good. This isn’t some macho bullshit where you’re showing them how tough you are. This is a big deal, your chance to show me you’re not just a stupid kid. You can’t fuck up here. You got that? No fuck ups. I don’t want any bullet holes in either of these guys if it isn’t necessary. So don’t shoot unless one of them makes it necessary. I don’t mean if one of them sits down, or scratches his ass. They do that, you don’t shoot. When you shoot is, if one of them tries to either jump you, or takes off. Then you know what to do?”

“Yeah, I shoot him.”

“No, you don’t. Listen good here. What you do then is, you shoot his friend. Got it?”

“Yeah!” I could hear enthusiasm in his voice. The idea of shooting one of us was obviously something he anticipated with some eagerness.

In the bad light of moving flashlights, fighting against the glare of Grant’s light as he moved it back and forth into my eyes and then Ryan’s, I saw Ted take Rooster’s arm and pull him away from us back into the clearing so we couldn’t hear, then start talking close to his ear.

I’ve read in books about people’s hearts being in their throats when they’re scared. I always thought that was just a funny expression, but now I knew why they said that. I was having trouble breathing I was so scared, and I did feel a lump in my throat. I was feeling so much fear because I’d been thinking, and I’d figured something out.

I’d figured they had something to hide, something they were doing in these woods that was secret. I figured they didn’t want anyone to know about it. And if that was true, then how could they let us go? They couldn’t. And I was pretty sure that’s what Ted was telling Rooster. That they couldn’t let us go.

They were going to kill us. Ted had decided that. Maybe what Grant had said about tying us to a tree had given Ted the idea. He was going to make it look like a gay bashing. A couple kids were caught in the act and whoever caught them didn’t like fags, and tied them up and beat them to death. They’d probably use our own blood to write FAGS on our bare stomachs to make the point real clear. That way, the murder would be explained, and no one would have any reason to go looking for anything deeper in the woods.

What could I do about it? I couldn’t think of anything! Even if I were brave enough to try, I was naked in the woods at night, I was only 11, I didn’t have any shoes on, didn’t have a light, and there were three of them, all bigger and stronger than I was. And if I even moved funny, Grant would shoot Ryan. I couldn’t think of a single thing to do to save us.

As I watched, I saw Ted look down at the ground, then lean over and pick something up. When it glinted in the flashlight beam, I recognized it. My hatchet.

They weren’t just going to beat us to death. They’d hack us, too.

I was too scared to think straight. I knew I couldn’t save us. I was going to die. Ryan was, too. Could I save Ryan? That was an idea. But how? If I jumped Grant, Ryan could get away. But for it to work, I needed to explain to him that when I jumped at Grant, jumped at the gun so when he shot he’d hit me, he had to run. In the woods, the ever-so-black woods, he could probably dodge around some trees, stay out of sight of the flashlights, and get away. If he could be out of their sight for only twenty or thirty seconds, he could probably be safe, if he kept going. They’d never be able to find him.

But if I jumped Grant and Ryan didn’t know what was happening, he wouldn’t run. I knew him too well. He’d stay to help me. I had to tell him my plan. How to do that? If I started whispering to Ryan, Grant might react badly, and I just couldn’t chance that. Not with a gun pointed at us. What could I do? I was shaking, I knew I didn’t have much time, and no ideas were coming.

The wind had picked up again, and I realized I was freezing. Standing in the wind, unprotected, just standing there, I was shaking with the cold. I’d been trembling with fear, and still was, but now I was reacting to the cold wind, too. And I could hear that strange moaning noise, too. It was getting louder.

I looked out into the clearing and saw Ted and Rooster start to move toward us, Ted carrying the hatchet. Rooster reached to his side, and then had a hunting knife in his hand.

They were coming to kill us.

That was when the first drops of rain hit me. The wind and the moaning noise had crescendoed into a fury, and then it was raining. It started with first one drop, then two, and then it was as if someone had turned a fire hose on me. The rain was suddenly coming down so fast and hard I could barely see Grant any longer. The rain was being whipped by the wind, and the moaning was now so loud it was almost deafening.

I grabbed Ryan’s arm. I was about to pull him with me and try to escape into the woods, figuring this was our best chance, that Grant would be distracted and couldn’t see us any better than we could see him, when there was a huge flash of lightning. Not a streak, or a bolt, but sheet lightning, giving the appearance of a hundred, a thousand flashbulbs going off at once, illuminating the entire clearing, even through the gushing downpour. The flash stayed brilliant for only about a second, but in that second I could plainly see everything around me, see right through the rain.

It was almost like a strobe light going off, illuminating and freezing the scene. Except the lightning flash lasted longer than a strobe. It kept the clearing lit for just under a second, or maybe even a full second, long enough to see some motion.

What I saw made my hair literally stand up on my head and stopped me in my tracks.

In that flash, I saw Ted half way across the clearing, next to Rooster, taking a step toward us, both with their hands above their heads as if to ward off the rainwater. But what had my attention was what I saw behind them. There was something else in the clearing with us, a sort of figure. It was indistinct. I could only see its shape, which seemed to be shimmering in the lightning flash, as though the static electricity was outlining its presence. I could see right through it; it was wraithlike, but it was there. It was there.

The world was suddenly black again. I pulled at Ryan and stumbled to the side, knowing in the rain Grant would be confused and his eyes would have to adjust to the black again after that lightning flash, and even then he he’d have to focus his flashlight on us or we’d be invisible. I’d moved about five feet when I almost tripped against a pile of rocks. I reached down to feel them and found there were many sizes. This was where Ryan found the rocks for the fire, I thought, and then wondered why I was wasting time on a thought like that.

I felt quickly and found two softball-sized ones, handed one to Ryan, and took one myself. They weren’t much, and I didn’t know how I’d be able to use them, but at least we now had something.

Then there was the second flash of lightning. Again I could see everything briefly. I saw whatever the thing was right behind Ted, with its arms reaching for him. Just before the night went black again, I saw the thing grab hold of the hatchet handle.

The world was black again, but only for a few seconds. In those seconds, I heard a single cry, a cry that was cut short. Then there was a pause and our world was just blackness, rain deluging us, the incessant howling moan hammering at our ears. Before I had time to pull my wits together and do anything, everything changed again. A third flash lit the clearing. In the momentary light I saw two bodies lying on the ground, and I saw Grant standing still, a look of horror on his face, looking down. I didn’t see the thing, but I did see the thing’s arm and hand. They were sticking up out of the ground, and the hand was grasping Grant’s leg. Just as the darkness consumed us again, Grant began to disappear—it appeared he was sinking! It looked like the thing’s arm was pulling him down into the ground! And I heard him scream, over the moan, over the rain I heard him scream, a terror-filled, horrible scream that suddenly, abruptly simply ended.

Then it was black again. The rain continued to fall, but as suddenly as it had started, the wind fell away to nothing, and along with it the moaning. Quickly, the rain slackened, and within moments, was gone.

Soon thereafter, the moon was in the sky, one of those huge, silvery ones, and where the sun had speckled the clearing, now moonbeams were doing the same.

While all this had been happening, Ryan and I had been just standing by the pile of stones, holding each other. We hadn’t known where to run and couldn’t see to do so anyway. So we’d just clung to each other. Now, with the moon giving us some minimal light, I pulled away from Ryan and took a step back toward where the tent had been. I could make out the shape of Ted, still lying where I’d seen him. I saw what was probably Rooster, too, another lump lying on the ground. There was no sign of Grant.

Carefully, gradually, I made my way to where Ted was lying. What I saw was gruesome. He’d evidently fallen, and when he’d done so, he’d fallen on the hatchet. It had cut into his neck, and the gash was clearly visible, looking black and gaping in the silvery light. No blood was coming from it. What must have flowed copiously had been washed away by the rain. But with no blood coming at all now from the wicked wound, I knew he was dead.

Is that what had happened? Had he fallen on the hatchet? The other explanation was simply too unreal. I had to have imagined it. It had to have been some sort of overreaction to my emotions.

I moved toward Rooster. Here too it was easy to see what had happened. He had fallen too, and fallen in just the right place. His head had hit one of the stones surrounding our fire pit. Again, there was no blood visible, but his tongue was protruding from his mouth and his head was at an odd angle. Though it scared me to do it, I felt his neck, and could find no pulse.

I walked to where I’d last seen Grant. There was a depression there, and the ground was soggy. Could it have collapsed under him? Or did I lose sight of him because he’d run away? Everything had been so fast, and seen only in flashes of light. I couldn’t be sure of anything. I couldn’t be sure of what my eyes had seen. My rational mind simply couldn’t accept it.

I realized Ryan was standing next to me. He’d taken my hand, and was squeezing it. I looked at him, and saw he was shivering violently.

“Clothes. We need to get dressed.”

He didn’t say anything, just stood holding my hand, and I suddenly wondered if he was OK. I’d been scared out of my wits, but now was much calmer. Maybe he wasn’t getting over this as well as I was. Maybe he was going into shock.

I grabbed a blanket from under the mess of our tent and wrapped it around him, then pulled one of the still dry sleeping bags out, flipped over some of the jumbled canvas and set down the sleeping bag for him to sit on. I felt I should be digging for Grant, but when I took a step in that direction, I heard a wail from Ryan and he grabbed my leg with a ferocity I didn’t know he had. I sat back down next to him, and he relaxed a little.

Then he hugged me. I unwrapped the blanket, then draped it around both of us and hugged him back. Feeling his body against mine was so good. It warmed me a little, too, although for some reason it didn’t seem as cold now. The wind had entirely calmed and the air was noticeably warmer.

The floor of the woods seemed to have somehow soaked up all the rain because other than the soggy place where I’d last seen Grant, things looked dry to me. I sat holding Ryan as he held me, and I looked around. For some reason I couldn’t even begin to understand, the place didn’t feel creepy any longer. It just felt like an ordinary clearing in the woods, and in the moonlight was strangely beautiful. Calm, peaceful, and beautiful.

I sat there with Ryan, just the two of us, together, until the first faint rays of sunlight began chasing away the deep blackness that had again taken over the clearing after the moon had set.

I needed to pee. Much as I could have sat longer with Ryan, I needed to pee. So, I spoke to him. The first words either of us had uttered for hours.

“You feeling OK now?”

He looked around him, acting like he was coming out of a trance, which he may well have been doing. Then he looked at me. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

He didn’t look it, though. He looked a little vague, as though he couldn’t get whatever fog was in his head to clear.

“I’ve got to pee.”

He looked at me with slightly sharper eyes then, and got up as I did. I felt the urge to take his arm, to help him, but I didn’t.

We moved a tree or two away from the camp, then stood side by side and both let loose. Then we went back to the collapsed tent and began looking for our clothes. I got dressed, waited for Ryan to finish, then told him we had to talk about last night.

He frowned. “OK, what about it?”

“We need to talk about what we’re going to tell people. First, tell me what you saw, when the lightning flashed.”

“I didn’t see anything. Jed, I was too scared. I didn’t know what to do. Grant was shining that light in my eyes, and I was about shitting myself, and my body just seemed to shut down. It was like my mind went blank. I probably saw things, but I don’t even remember. I only remember feeling scared and cold. I seem to remember some lightning, but only that there was some. I don’t remember seeing anything.”

“You know those guys are dead, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I don’t know why they’re dead, though. I saw them in the moonlight, and when they never moved, I decided they must be dead. My mind seemed to be working sort of slow. How’d they die?”

“One of them, their leader I guess, fell on the hatchet and it cut his neck. Rooster fell into our fire pit and cracked his head on the stones there. And Grant, well, he just disappeared.”

Ryan appeared to think about that. He was looking around the clearing, looking from Ted’s to Rooster’s body. Then he turned to me. “I probably should be upset they’re dead, but I’m not. I think they were going to kill us. It felt that way.” He suddenly shuddered, and I put my arm around him. He looked at me with some of the fear of what he was remembering darkening his eyes and continued. “So them being dead doesn’t bother me like I think it should.” He paused for a moment, then asked, “You think they tripped on something, or slipped on the wet ground? Got sort of blinded by the rain, and slipped?”

I didn’t answer him. No, I didn’t think that, but what I did think, I couldn’t tell him. He’d assume I was crazy. What I thought—one part of my mind was trying to tell myself this wasn’t what I thought, but I’d seen what I’d seen, and most of my mind wasn’t letting me just push it aside—was that the thing, whatever it was, had grabbed the hatchet from Ted and chopped into his neck, then pushed Rooster so he’d tripped over the pile of wood I’d dumped near the fire. He’d fallen and his head had hit the stones around the pit because of that. When I’d seen that, that, whatever it was, it’d had its transparent arms extended, and it had grabbed the hatchet from Ted. Now Ted was lying on the ground with a gaping wound in his neck, the hatchet on the ground next to him.

I hadn’t actually seen the thing push Rooster. But I was thinking that it was Rooster’s cry that was cut short, cut short when his head hit the stones. And I didn’t think he’d have cried out like that if he’d just tripped and was falling. He may well have if he’d suddenly felt himself being pushed.

“Ryan, why don’t we just tell people that? We were scared, being in the rain, and were huddled together in the tent and didn’t even know those guys were there. When we woke up this morning, we found them. Dead. That’s all we know. They must have had an accident in the rain.”

“Why not tell the police they were going to hurt us?”

“Because that gives us reason to have wanted to hurt them, too. And now they’re dead. It’s much simpler this way. We woke up and found them. We went and told the cops. The cops will come out and find out Rooster had a knife; if they check they’ll find Ted’s fingerprints on the hatchet. We tell them we didn’t know those guys were there, and the police might begin to think maybe those guys were sneaking up on us. Maybe they were going to do things to us. But it’ll all be speculation. Those guys had reputations; they’d been in trouble before. We’re the only ones who know anything, and we tell them we don’t know anything. We act a little out of it because we found these bodies in our camp. What can they say? And something else. If it comes to that, I can suggest a motive for them being here, and maybe a reason for them wanting to hurt us. I can do that if they ask if those guys had any reason to attack us.”

“What motive?”

”Well, when I was sitting here all night, I got to thinking. I thought about you, some of the time”—I sort of blushed, and he giggled—“but a lot about what had happened, too. And a bunch of things made some sense that I hadn’t seen before. One, I thought about that animal trail you were following when we came in here.”

“Yeah? What about it?”

“I don’t think that’s what it was. I think it was the path those guys had walked on before. And they did it just enough that it had worn down to look like a game trail. But it was their path, and that’s why they stumbled onto us. We set up our camp right next to their trail. And I think I know why they were here in the middle of the night, too.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I think it had to do with this secret I heard them talking about when they woke me up. I think I figured out the secret. I think they have some marijuana growing in the woods here. Remember when you saw Grant in town that time? And he was telling those boys about people disappearing in these woods? You said you thought he was trying to scare them. Well, maybe he was. Maybe he was trying to keep them out of here so they wouldn’t stumble onto their plants. Think about it: we’ve heard rumors that Rooster had pot available if anyone wanted to buy it. I think that was the secret they were talking about. And I think Ted was willing to kill us to protect it.”

Ryan didn’t say anything else for a while, thinking about that. When he did speak, finally, he asked the question that was bothering me. “I don’t get it. If he was going to kill us, why didn’t he? I mean, it was raining, sure, but there were three of them. They had the hatchet. Grant had the gun. I don’t understand how those older two died like that, or why Grant disappeared. It’s freaky.”

I didn’t want to tell him about the thing I’d seen. He’d think I was crazy, and I didn’t want him to think that. Not telling him would mean we were both the same, just confused about why we were still alive, and they were dead. It was better to be the same about that. I wasn’t going to tell him.

That was when the sun must have been at the exact right place in the sky. Because that’s when a sunbeam suddenly lit up the depression where I’d seen Grant disappear. It fell directly on the depression, and then slowly, ever so slowly, as the sun rose up in the sky, the sunbeam settled on a half-moon shaped something that was sticking out of the ground right in back of the depression. It was gray, looked like stone, but was too regular a shape to be a stone. It was about eight inches thick, about two and a half feet wide, and the part sticking about a foot out of the ground was curved so it was higher in the middle than at the sides. Looking at it reminded me of something. I’d seen something that shape before. I tried to remember where. Somehow, I was drawn to it, perhaps just by the way it seemed to be spotlighted by the sun.

I walked over to it, then called Ryan over.

“What does that look like to you?”

He looked at it, then at me. “I don’t know, but it seems to be buried. There is more to it than I can see. Where’s the shovel?”

I scouted around and found it where I’d left it after covering the fire the night before. I brought it over to the still sunlit object, then started digging.

We knew what it was long before we’d dug as much out as we needed to. It was a gravestone. Why there should be a grave marker way out here in the middle of the woods made no sense to us, but that’s certainly what it was. We had to stand in the depression to dig, but the ground seemed plenty firm enough to hold us when we stood on it. I figured I must have been wrong, thinking Grant had been sinking into it. But I couldn’t dismiss what I’d seen. Or Grant’s screams I’d heard. Even if where I was standing was too firm for anyone to sink, or be pulled into it.

Could that thing really have been down below, and pulling Grant down with him. Down into its grave?

After we’d dug down about a foot, we saw lettering on the marker, which of course caused us to keep digging till we could see the entire inscription.

We took turns, and it was while Ryan was digging that I thought of something.

“You know, Ryan, I think this is why all those stones are here. It didn’t make any sense why they were here because we haven’t seen any others anywhere in the woods. But there is a pile of them here. I think they’re here because, when they buried whoever this was, they piled stones on top of the grave to keep any animals out.”

He looked up, stopped to wipe the sweat off his forehead, then said, “I think we’re done. There don’t seem to be any more letters below where we’ve dug.”

I went and looked. The face of the stone had been underground for a long time. It was covered with dirt, and most of the letters were filled with mud and couldn’t be deciphered.

“We need to clean it off.”

I used the shovel and carefully started cleaning the face, trying not to scratch it at all. Ryan got a couple of sticks and sharpened them with his pocket knife. Then he began using one to dig the dirt out of the letters. I took the second stick from him and helped.

It only took about fifteen minutes. Then we could read the inscription.

Here lie the bones of Elias Hatcher

1835 - 1859

Who died of his own hand,

Following his lover Thom Case

Into the hereafter.

“My love for Thom is eternal

As is my sworn vengeance

From beyond the grave

To all who would do evil against

A love like my own” - EH

∫∫∫∫

Excerpts from the Eureka Bulletin:

Turnerville, August 28

Police report that the bodies of Theodore O’Brien, 23, and Rodney Carton, 19, were found in Hatcher’s Woods this morning. Another boy, Grant Carton, a minor, is missing. The bodies were reported by two boys whose names are being withheld because of their ages. Police are investigating the incident, but the initial coroner’s findings are that the deaths were accidental, the result of the men becoming disoriented in a sudden storm. (See: Storm, page 3.)

Perhaps in a related event, acting on an anonymous tip, police discovered a large growth of marijuana plants about a mile from the scene of the death. Police are investigating whether the men were walking through woods in that direction when they fell to their deaths during the storm.

More details will be forthcoming as they are learned.

Turnerville, August 28

A freak storm struck the northern part of the county last night, resulting in intense lightning, high winds and a sudden shower. Meteorologists report that unseasonably cold air at ground level met with warmer air above moving in from the high desert of Nevada to cause a violent but localized tornado and heavy rain, amounting to two inches in only fifteen minutes. Witnesses near the center of the storm, which appeared to be Hatcher’s Woods, reported that the wind was so strong before and during the rain storm, it sounded like moaning.

While such occurrences have been recorded in the past, they are extremely rare. The last known incident was in 1859.

The End