All posts by williamrayne

Lost in the Woods

“Lost in the woods,” was a phrase my father used a lot. When I was young; should we be out in the world and witness someone acting out in any way,

“That boy’s lost in the woods,” he’d say, shaking his head in that parental disappointment sort of way, even if they weren’t his child.

When I reached my early teens, struggling to find my place amongst my peers,

“You’re lost in the woods, kid,” he’d say, in a far more sympathetic and compassionate manner.

I endured some hard times over the years, while I tried to find where I belonged in the world, but my dad was always there for me. Though I wasn’t exactly an outdoorsy type, his words were always reassuring, even if I hoped to never be caught dead in a forest, let alone lost in one.

We would inevitably talk about my problems after he would diagnose my symptoms in his own special way, but I learned to understand how the same saying would read differently, depending on the situation.

Even during those last few weeks, he battled against the cancer devouring him from the inside out, he too was ‘lost in the woods’. I like to think that when he passed; when his suffering reached its end, he finally saw what lay beyond the trees.

I suppose it was only fitting that it was as I drove home from his funeral that I found myself in a far more literal version of his all-purpose metaphor. Over that time, I became certain I would be joining my old man outside the borders of the forest, so soon after he made the trip himself.

I had chosen not to ride with my mom and stepfather, Dale, as I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I didn’t have a problem with my mother’s husband; he’d always treated me well enough. My parents had remained close after the divorce, as they both agreed they were always better friends than lovers.

Dad got along with his replacement better than most under such circumstances, but it always felt like Dale tried a little too hard when my old man was around. It may have been nothing more than the inherent jealousy a man feels towards his significant other’s ex. Maybe he had some insecurities about the situation, but Pop and I would laugh about it when we were alone.

I was always tight with my dad; far more so than anyone else in my life. With him being the one I would turn to when I needed to talk, I wanted to be alone on this one. I think I needed to. Had I ridden with my mom, Dale would’ve likely tried his damndest to get me to talk about how I was feeling, which was not remotely ready to do.

Even when the rain began to pour down from above, I was mostly mentally checked out as I guided my car from one road to the next. The spot in which my dad wanted to be buried was some miles into the next state over; the one he grew up in before relocating, back in the day. While the path I traversed that day was somewhat unfamiliar, my subconscious was able to focus on the road while my mind drifted beyond the confines of my old Chevy.

I suppose that’s why it took me a moment to register the truck ahead of me, sharply veering into the other lane. By the time I noticed where the road had split, opening a wide fissure in the tarmac, I didn’t have a chance to miss it. The collision, for lack of a better term for skidding into a large gap in the pavement, happened so quickly that I was only vaguely aware of what was happening before everything went black.

The heavy rainfall we had been experiencing, off and on, for weeks, had led to a few of these fissures forming across the state. Be it from poorly maintained roads or simply years of water seeping between the cracks, I couldn’t say. It wasn’t exactly my area of expertise or anything.

I remember my dad saying, sometime over that previous month or so, that the cities would be buried beside him by the time the dust settled. Maybe it was the medication talking, but he feared that Hell itself may be reaching through the cracks; stretching its tendrils through the very foundation of reality, to claim this world for its own, one stretch of road at a time.

When my eyes blinked back to awareness, my dramatic shift in surroundings caught me off guard, at first. While I had been at the helm of my old Chevy when I blacked out, the fact that I found myself laying splayed out on the floor of an unfamiliar forest took me a moment to fully grasp.

The rain had stopped, leading me to believe I must have been out of it for a while, but when I pressed my palms to the ground to find it wasn’t even damp, I began to question my sanity.

“You’re lost in the woods, kid,” I heard echoing from the back of my mind as I hesitantly raised from the dirt to trembling and weakened legs.

Attempting to rationalize my relocation while I slept, I assumed that someone must have pulled me from my likely crumpled car, before dragging me into the middle of the woods that stood beside the road I was traversing. Why anyone would do this, I couldn’t quite fathom.

“Maybe,” I thought, “more cracks opened up, so someone carried me in here. Perhaps they thought the road wasn’t safe, so they dropped me off before going for help.”

Not the most likely rationalization, but it was something.

While I gazed around my newfound surroundings, seeking out any indication of which direction would lead me back to the road, I became more aware of the unsettling silence. Being the middle of winter, the bare, skeletal trees, and dead leaves lining the forest floor didn’t feel out of place, but I could find no evidence of anything else alive out there.

Glancing upward, the blank and gray sky appeared as lifeless as the world around me. I couldn’t even feel a breeze. While I still wore the suit I donned for my father’s funeral; one that wasn’t exactly made for winter weather, it wasn’t as chilly as I would’ve expected. It wasn’t warm either, mind you, but everything felt wrong, somehow.

The colors looked muted, in a way. The bark of the trees was an almost sickly, grayish brown. The discarded leaves scattered across the ground were more yellowed and diseased looking than what I would’ve expected. Even the drab sky felt more like a ceiling over the woods, than a vast emptiness, adding a strange sense of claustrophobia to my already scattered senses.

While all I could hear was my heartbeat against the inner walls of my ears, the crunching beneath my feet when I finally took a step almost caused me to recoil. Being out in the wilderness, surrounded by such emptiness and quiet was far more unsettling to me than how I ended up here in the first place.

I was in a daze while I trudged onward in no particular direction. With only more stripped-down trees being all I could make out in any direction, I had no way of knowing which potential path would be the right one. Regardless of my uncertainty, I knew I had to keep moving. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I had the strangest sense of urgency, assuring me that I must reach the border of this forest as quickly as possible.

The scenery remained unchanging, even after walking for what felt like a few hours. At the beginning of my stroll, I’d fished my phone out of my pocket, only to see the broken screen and the absence of any backlight or life behind the shattered glass. Given that the last thing I remembered before waking in this place was crashing into a damn hole in the world, it wasn’t hard to accept that my device had not survived, even if my body was somehow unscathed.

I have no idea how much time had passed when the humming sound began. That’s about the best way I can describe it; a hum that started soft, growing steadily louder, as if something was approaching. Had it not been for the almost suffocating quiet of my surroundings, I likely wouldn’t have even noticed it until it engulfed me, if that was indeed its intent.

For all I knew, the unsettling vibration that accompanied it, was something good; something I should approach, rather than run from. Ultimately, I wasted no time deliberating the options, opting to transform my stroll into an outright sprint for my life. With the noise originating from behind me, I could only hope that speeding away from it was the right call.

To fully illustrate where my head was at the time, I think I assumed that I had landed in some sort of purgatory, somewhere between life and death after the accident. Being that I saw no sign of the road I had quite literally crashed into, it seemed a reasonable assumption.

With that working theory, that I must escape these woods to reclaim my mortal shell, my immediate fear was that the sound belonged to that which would send me to whatever afterlife awaited me. That, or it was something far more sinister, perhaps intent on leading me to the gates of Hell itself.

When a subtle mist joined the ambient and elevating hum, gently caressing the forest floor beneath my quickly tiring legs, I grew far more certain I had to escape whatever was happening. While I ached from head to toe; something that somewhat contradicted my theory of being absent of living flesh at the time, my frenzied thoughts were interrupted by the ground shifting to a steep downward slant.

For the briefest moment, I felt weightless as my feet found nothing to land on, slipping on the dried leaves when they finally did make contact. I was so caught off guard, having been otherwise occupied by both my surroundings and the oncoming storm, for lack of a better term, my mind fought as much as my flailing limbs while I tumbled towards more uncertainty.

If nothing else, when my fall came to an end, with my body splayed out, face down on another unfamiliar bed of dried leaves, the humming vibrations felt further off, again. My mind fought to remain conscious as the dizziness of my quickly paced descent caused the world to spin around me, but I could not allow myself to pass out here, not with whatever was pursuing me.

As I pushed my palms against the ground, struggling to get somewhat upright before the darkness could swallow me whole, something happened that most certainly brought my wavering consciousness back to my dire circumstances.

“Stay down, friend,” the stranger, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere said, pushing me back down by the shoulder.

Regardless of his encouragement, I landed hard, having completely lost my footing being surprised by the unexpected touch.

“What? Who the fu…”

“Shhh,” he said, crouching down beside where I now sat, “just let it drift on by.”

I followed his gaze back up the steep hill I had tumbled down, to see that dense, white fog lining the woods above like a cloud.

While I had assumed the unusual mist to be something chasing after me, the full weight of that irrational thought didn’t sink in until I watched it shift directions, some thirty feet above. While it was so thick, it almost reassembled an enormous, sentient, cotton ball, it had ripples throughout, like waves running against the direction of a stream, spiraling endlessly as it hovered in place.

It was somewhat confusing to look upon, the way it jerked one way, with the bizarre rapids flowing backward, but it was clear that some sort of consciousness guided it. After it pulled to the right and left, swaying this way and that, it finally came to a halt, spinning around and around, as though waiting for something, or someone, in this case.

While I didn’t know whether or not I should trust my new companion, his reassuring grip on my shoulder helped more than I could understand at the time. Though I hadn’t looked at him yet, just having someone by my side, after hours of solitude, trudging through this seemingly never-ending forest, encouraged me to remain as still as possible.

We both continued to glare upwards, even after the fog began to dissipate, before drifting back the way it came. For some minutes after its retreat, I was scared to move a muscle, even after the stranger let his grip on my shoulder slip free.

“Should be okay. For now, anyway,” he said, lifting himself back from the ground.

“What was that?” I asked, getting to my feet.

Finally having the opportunity to take in the appearance of this man, I felt a little more at ease, noticing the uniform he was wearing. It was similar to a police outfit, but one I recognized as more of a Park Rangers garb. I hadn’t spent a lot of time in such places over the years, but I was certain that’s what it was, plus it fit, considering our location.

He looked a little older than me, thin, but in decent shape. He pulled his wide-brimmed hat from his short, brown hair, wiping his sweating brow with the back of his forearm. He had a neatly trimmed beard, a few shades darker than his hair, and stood a couple of inches taller than me.

“Nothin’ you wanna get caught up in,” he said, placing the hat back in place, “that’s a damn fact.”

He looked back at me, giving me a small smile. It was then that I noticed that his eyes were an almost translucent, sky blue. Though I assumed he was likely wearing some sort of novelty contacts, or something, they were still almost mesmerizing.

Of course, given the fact that everything around us was so lifeless, drowned in muted, depressing colors, it may have been nothing more than the stark contrast of something so lively amid everything else appearing so lifeless and cold.

“Tucker,” he said, holding a hand out, “Maxwell Tucker; Ranger Tuck, ’round these parts.”

“Nathan Solomon, um, Nate,” I replied, shaking his hand.

“Nice to meet ya, Nate. Let’s get movin’, yeah?”


The more we talked as we walked onward, continuing in the direction I was going; something I wasn’t entirely sure of, considering that my tumble had potentially altered my trajectory, the more I felt comfortable with the guy.

His voice had a friendly tone. There was something warm and inviting about it, like I was chatting with an old friend, rather than someone I had only just met. He spoke of strange occurrences in these woods; woods I had apparently been alongside when the road swallowed up my car.

While I didn’t want to get into said strange occurrences, being that I was already freaked out by everything, I still couldn’t figure out how I had ended up here, so far from my likely totaled Chevy.

“Likely,” Ranger Tuck said, “it dragged you in here, deep into the heart of it. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“It? I mean, it, who?”

“Folks ’round here just call it the Gray. It seems to enjoy messin’ with folks; the ones it don’t finish off right away, anyway.”

“Wait,” I said, stopping in place, “so, some guy screws with people, leaves them for dead, or just straight out kills them!?”

He just tilted his head with a shrug.

“And that’s okay? Like, the police won’t do anything about it? You Rangers just let it continue? Some sick bastard is loose out there, and you guys…”

“Never said it was a man. It ain’t exactly somethin’ that fits into normal conversation, y’know? Naw, friend; this ain’t nothin’ natural, sneakin’ through the cracks. Can’t say what it is, but it ain’t bound by our laws.”

“Okay,” I said, attempting to push aside my disbelief for the time, “why all this then? Why drag me, God knows how far into this damned place, only to leave me to wander around?”

“It likes games, for whatever reason. It enjoys the hunt, the chase. We’ve been able to save some, but most end up the same way, whether it does it right off the bat, or after makin’ them think they got a chance. S’pose it depends on what kinda mood it’s in at the time. Could be you just got lucky.”

“Lucky? Are you serious? I crashed my car, ended up in the middle of this dismal freaking forest, and damn near broke my legs running from a cloud, which I can’t even believe I’m saying with a straight face. What the hell should I feel lucky about!?”

“You found me,” he said, with a smirk and a wink, “so, you ready to get outta here, or what?”

While I can’t say this especially put me at ease, his carefree expression did make me feel better about things. Yes, it would seem I was only one of many to fall victim to ‘the Gray’, whatever the hell that was, but Ranger Tuck had seemingly witnessed what this thing was capable of and lived to tell the tale. I had to believe I was in good hands.

I still didn’t speak much as we plundered onward, but I did feel hopeful that I would see the other side of this. Given that neither the accident nor the tumble down the hill left me as beaten and bruised as they could have, maybe my wandering companion was right; perhaps I was lucky.

That’s what I began to believe, anyway, right before the fear took hold of me once more.

“Run!” Tuck said, having noticed the approaching fog before I did.

When I grew aware of that humming sound once more, my heartbeat quickened faster than my feet, at first.

Though we did as he demanded; both of us sprinting as hard as our legs were capable of, those smoky tendrils began to wrap around our surroundings, weaving between and around the trees on both sides. It almost felt as though it was attempting to flank us; to force us forward, rather than allowing us to veer or separate.

“Don’t slow down!” the ranger called out, noticing the power behind my strides dwindling.

I was doing everything I could to force one leg in front of the other, but when the sound of the thick bark cracking and splitting reached my ears, it took everything I had to remain upright, let alone continue charging onward.

I felt the fingers of my companion wrapping around my wrist, as he pulled me alongside him. How he still had so much strength in his extremities, I had no clue, but his encouragement and support succeeded in filling me with more purpose and drive to keep charging toward the hope of freedom.

“Don’t let up,” he said, not so much as glancing from the path ahead, “we can make it, just keep pushin’! You can rest when we get outta here.”

Regardless of his determination, the sight of those wispy tentacles now weaving themselves around the trees ahead assured me that our options were running out.

As the misty fingers entwined before us, sealing the path ahead shut, we both practically skidded to a halt, falling back to the forest floor. The white smog formed a dense, misty wall in a circle around where we lay, leaving only the ground and sky free of its grasp.

It was over.

Whatever game it had been playing had reached its conclusion. The time had come for it to claim its prize.

There was nowhere to go; not unless the ranger who already saved me once, had a set of wings or a fast-acting shovel he hadn’t informed me about.

“I’m sorry, friend,” he said, glancing back at me as we lifted ourselves from the ground, preparing to meet our shared fate.

As the flowing rapids within that ivory smoke continued to spiral around us, I felt my heart racing so quickly, I feared I may pass out any second. While the idea of not being conscious to experience whatever was to happen next did seem an almost welcome sensation, my mind and body were scattered to the four winds at that point.

“It’s not your fault, Tucker,” I said, attempting to fend off the trembling in my voice, “if it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead already.”

The cylinder of dense fog began to shrink, closing in on us from every angle, stopping its approach only feet from where we stood.

“You’re not followin’ me,” Tuck said, slowly drifting his head all around.

It looked as though wispy feet were stepping from the fog, as though a ghostly army was hidden away within. More mist flooded upwards, forming some sort of spiderwebbed dome above us. As legs began to trail out, followed by almost translucent bodies, the smoke peeled away between each one, like cotton candy being separated.

“That ain’t what I’m sorry about…”

As the arms reached from each misty torso; every one of them with elongated fingers, ready to snatch us up from where we stood, my companion moved so quickly, my mind hadn’t a chance of understanding what was happening.

“I’m sorry I can’t go no further with you,” he said, gripping my shoulders in his hands, “just keep runnin’, and don’t look back…”

Before I had a chance to protest, or otherwise argue against it, I felt my feet lifting from the dried leaves, as my body was launched through the gap ahead, tearing through the already torn strips of dense, stringy fog.

“GO!” I heard screaming out from the strange ball of wispy energy, as a light began to illuminate from within.

While I wanted to fight back; to free the one who had thrown me to freedom as effortlessly as if he were tossing a towel into the laundry hamper, I wouldn’t even know where to start. While the ripples of smoke encased him, the high-pitched, shrill squeal that accompanied the vibrant glow damn near turned my hair white.

“GO!!” his now almost tortured voice shrieked once more, sounding as though he was experiencing a pain I could barely fathom.

Whether it was simply my desire to escape that inspired me to do as he commanded; to get off my ass and run even harder than I had before, or just that I knew there was nothing I could do to help him, I can’t say, but I was ashamed of my actions, nonetheless.

Not only had he saved my life twice by this point, but I had to believe he was sacrificing himself to save me. Given the tortured howl that wailed out from behind me as I sped onward in search of safety, I was certain this was the fate met by those other poor souls who encountered the Gray.

When the agonized scream bled into an explosion, sounding as though it fragmented those trees surrounding where the Ranger made his final stand, the shockwave tossed me back to the forest floor like a ragdoll.

As I lay there, feeling my consciousness slipping back into the black, I couldn’t tell what sort of condition I was in. My mind slipping, I tried to push up from the dirt and dead leaves, but that concussion had drained every ounce of strength I had left.

Before my eyes closed, dropping me back into almost blissful darkness, I heard a familiar voice; one that was almost surprising enough to keep me from drifting away.

“You’re gonna be alright now. See you ’round, friend.”

The hospital bed I awoke in felt heavenly after passing out in the woods, or so I thought anyway. When my mom came running up to my bedside, with Dale smiling down at me by her side, I was still out of it. Be it from whatever they fed into my veins to take the edge off the pounding in my head, or simply whatever damage lay beneath the gauze around my scalp and forehead, I had no clue.

We talked a little while we awaited the doctor, my mother trying to fight back the tears that streamed down her face, with my stepfather’s arm wrapped around her midsection. Though what she told me didn’t quite match up with my recollection of things; that it took the firefighters and paramedics some time to pull me free from the wrecked car, halfway swallowed up by the fissure in the road, I didn’t fully register the implications at the time.

When my doctor arrived, stating that he was confident the surgery performed on my cracked skull had been a success, I still assumed the injury to have been caused by the shockwave, throwing me to the forest floor. The cast around my left leg, as well as the bandages around my left wrist and both hands, would take less time to heal than my fractured dome, but he felt certain I would make a full recovery in due time.

Over the months that followed my short stay in the hospital, I went through a good deal of work to retrain my broken body and mind, once I had healed enough to do so. Before long, I was cleared to return to work, having made a full recovery from my injuries, as the doctor had predicted.

The three-inch scar across my hairline isn’t too noticeable, and neither are those across my wrist, but the marks on my hand from the mincemeat left in the wake of my windshield crashing down on it, stand out like a literal sore thumb. Still, some battle scars are a small price to pay, all things considered.

Once life returned to normal, I took a short trip one weekend, back to the woods I had crashed alongside. It took me a while to locate the Ranger station, but I had to find out if Maxwell Tucker was real or just a figment of my fractured mind. While I hoped this could provide some answers about what I truly experienced that day, I also wanted to be able to thank him for what he did for me.

When I pulled up beside the quite lovely log cabin that appeared to house the Rangers of this slice of the forest, a uniformed man and woman, leaning on one of the jeeps gave me a wave. While I thought about beginning with a little small talk, as I climbed out of my dad’s old truck to approach the two wearing friendly smiles, I thought it best just to get right to the point.

“Hi,” I said, tipping the brim of my baseball cap, “would you happen to know if Ranger Tucker is around?”

“Tucker?” the tall, broad-shouldered guy asked, glancing at his associate.

The woman, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, or early forties, with her dark hair tied into a ponytail beneath her wide-brimmed hat, formed a strange sort of scowl as she blinked from her colleague to me.

“Only Tucker we had around these parts ain’t around anymore,” she said, squinting her eyes as she studied me.

“Oh. Maxwell Tucker? Is that him? Ranger Tuck?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, giving me a very strange look, “he used to work with us, some fifteen years back.”

“Oh, wow! I could’ve sworn he was around my age,” I said with an awkward laugh, “do you happen to know where he is now?”

“Same place he’s been for a decade and a half, son,” she said, gesturing to the left with a tilt of the head.

When I turned to see the small cemetery, up on the hill, I felt all of the blood drain from my face, my legs giving out beneath me.

“Woah, now,” the woman called out, she and her partner catching me before I hit the ground.

After they carried me inside, laying me on a lumpy, yet comfortable couch, the tall man fetched me some water, while one of the others laid a wet towel across my brow. After my heartbeat regulated, Ranger Angie Temple, who had helped me inside, accompanied me on a stroll up to the old boneyard.

We talked a good deal over the hours that followed. While I was hesitant to tell her about how I met Ranger Tucker, she told me a good deal about the man who consequently saved both of our lives.

She was still ‘green around the gills’ back then, with Tuck being her trainer. One day, some six months after she joined the Rangers, they responded to a call about an attack out in the woods; those that ran alongside the road that swallowed my car.

Assuming it to be a bear, or some other wildlife having jumped some innocent campers, they headed out to the scene, armed and prepared.

“I felt like my damn heart was about to burst through my chest, but Tuck looked just as calm as if he was walkin’ to the kitchen to fetch a snack,” Angie said with a chuckle, running her hand across the tombstone bearing his name.

When they arrived to see a large, shaggy-haired man with a pistol trained on the crying teenage girl he held, and a butane torch in the hand wrapped around her, she was uncertain if this was something they could handle. The boy around her age laying on the ground, bleeding upon the leaves, looked like he was long gone, but all of this was enough for the fear to almost paralyze her where she stood.

Again, Tuck still wore that carefree smile as he tried to calm the situation, attempting to convince the disturbed man to release his hostage.

“For a second there, I thought he was gonna pull it off,” Angie said, a tear leaking from her right eye, “but when the big guy raised the gun, pointing it right at me, pushin’ the girl he held to the ground, I knew I was done for.”

She lowered her head, still caressing the gravestone like a dear friend. The sadness etched into her gaze almost inspired my own eyes to leak as hers did, but I tried to fight them back.

“As soon as he raised that pistol to me, Tuck jumped right in front of me, knockin’ me outta the way. How he knew he didn’t have time to get a shot off before the gun on me discharged, I’ll never know, but it all played out in seconds, right in front of me.”

“When the bullet dropped him to the ground beside me, I’d already fired off three rounds myself. At least one of the shots hit the canister the bastard held, blowin’ it apart and lightin’ him up like Joan of Arc in seconds. He still tried to fire off the shots he had left, while he screamed out from the well-deserved pain. I jumped towards the girl, to pull her away before she got caught up in the flames or the gunfire, but It was too late for Tuck. He was gone before he hit the grass.”

We stood in silence for a moment, both of us staring down at the headstone. When she spoke again, I once more found myself lost for words; bewildered by everything she shared with me.

“The man we took down that day turned out to be one foul son of a bitch. Seems he’d been killin’ folks for years until Tuck and I put an end to him. If nothin’ else, I take some solace in knowin’ that Tuck was the last victim of Jeremiah Gray.”

“Gray?” I said, almost more to myself.

“Yup,” she said, crouching down to wipe some dirt from the tombstone, “won’t see no grave for him, though. Don’t know what they did with what was left of him after the fire died down, and don’t give too much of a damn either. He took Tuck away from us, and he deserved that agonizing end. When the law arrived, all that was left was a crispy frame billowing plumes of thick, white smoke.”

“Accordin’ to Stacy, the girl we saved that day, Gray had kidnapped her about a week before. He tortured her some, over that time, finally settin’ her loose in those woods. He told her he’d let her go free if she got to safety, but if he caught up to her, he’d put her through hell.”

“The boy bleedin’ on the grass was the one who called it in, havin’ witnessed what was happenin’ while he was takin’ a hike. Poor kid didn’t know what hit him when Gray got there before we did.”

I never told her the full story about how I came to meet Maxwell Tucker, nor the implications of what or who we perhaps both faced between those trees. We talk a lot since I joined the Rangers soon after that meeting. We still talk about Tuck, as well. While I may never have had the opportunity to really get to know the man who saved me from a potentially grim fate that day, those who knew him in life have shared with me a great deal about him.

Over the years that followed the death of both Maxwell Tucker and Jeremiah Gray, there had apparently been some strange occurrences out in that forest. Someone would go missing from time to time, others would turn up dead. Now and then, though, one of those presumed dead would turn back up, confused about what happened.

Even after they closed that section of the woods to the public, it wasn’t easy to keep those curious enough to enter from sneaking in. A forest isn’t something easily blocked off completely, but they still did what they could.

While those who survived these strange occurrences had no recollection of how they made it out alive, I know how they reached safety, or who led them to it anyway. Whatever the case, ever since my encounter with the Gray, these unsettling events seem to have come to an end.

I like to think that Tuck finally finished that son of a bitch off for good, that day. While I want to believe that this may have allowed him to move on to whatever lies beyond this world, I have a feeling he’s still out there watching out for us.

I spend a lot of time out in those woods. It’s a strange sensation, how vibrant and alive everything appears on this side of the looking glass. Still, should I ever have an opportunity to thank Maxwell Tucker for what he did for me, my best chance would be out there. Plus, if he is still out there, it’s only fair that I keep watch on this side, just in case our old friend returns.

I still miss my dad. I suppose I likely always will. That’s the nature of loss, after all. Now that I feel like I’ve finally found my place in this world, I just wish I could tell him, you know? I wish I could let him know that his son is no longer lost in the woods but found where he belongs within them. I doubt that either of us could’ve predicted that one.

The Night I Met Santa Claus

It has been said that you should never meet your idols. It was the Christmas of 2005 that I came face to face with mine; someone the majority of people don’t believe in, after a certain age, of course. I was ten years old at the time and still held on to my beliefs, regardless of the inherent mocking it would earn.

Joanna, my older sister; Jo, or Jo-Jo to her friends and family, outright laughed at my insistence the man in the hat was real, but she was always a logical thinker. Even when she was much younger, while I was only three or four, she rolled her eyes at my excitement about the arrival of Jolly Old Saint Nick, having never bought into it even when she was just a little girl, according to our dad.

‘That’s fine,’ I thought, ‘don’t matter if you believe in him, ’cause he believes in you.’ Not the most well-thought-out inner argument, but it was good enough for an imaginative kid who couldn’t stand the thought of his sister ending up with a stocking full of coal, even if she was being a jerk about the whole thing.

When that December dragged by at a snail’s pace, or so it felt to a kid eagerly anticipating whatever new goodies may be awaiting him on the morning of the 25th, I forged together my plan to prove her wrong, once and for all. Sure, I can’t deny that the satisfaction of having a well-deserved ‘I told you so’ to greet Jo on Christmas morning wasn’t at least a little bit behind my motivations, but I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet the fabled jolly man in the red suit.

My dad chuckled at my insistence that I would be camping out in the living room that night of the 24th, while my mom only shrugged with a smile.

“Just be sure to get some sleep, kiddo,” dad said, still laughing at my eagerness mixed with exhausted yawns.

I held the small camera I’d received a Christmas or two back clutched in my hand beneath the blanket, prepared to take a few shots as soon as St. Nick made his appearance, but as the house fell still, I found it far more difficult to keep my eyes open. While the couch wasn’t nearly as comfortable as my bed on the second floor, the excitement of the season, along with a good deal of playing out in the snow, left my eyelids far too heavy to battle against.

I can’t be certain how long I was out for, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the living room around me, but when the creaking of the floor and jingling of the decorations hanging from the tree caused me to stir back to awareness, I instantly felt my fingers tingle with anticipation. For my plan to prove fruitful, I would have to keep up the act of a sleeping child; one fully unaware of the visitor I could vaguely see through my half-shut eyes.

From the angle I was laying in, I could only make out from the waist down of the man who fished goodies from his hefty bag, laying them gently beneath the tree, but I had no doubt I was witnessing the actions of the very man I hoped to see. With his back to me, I softly, but hastily searched my fingertips around for the camera which had fallen from their grip, after I knocked out, but I attempted to keep my actions unnoticed.

I slightly gasped aloud when my hand wrapped around the plastic shell, causing the man by the tree to spin in place, almost catching me red-handed. I snapped my eyes back shut, rolling them from side to side beneath their lids to imitate the rapid eye movement I had read about online. Whether or not I was overdoing it, acting as though I were erratically scanning them in every direction while still firmly closed, I had no way of knowing, but when I felt the air shift as the man drew closer to where I lay, I found it more difficult to hide my excitement.

I breathed in the scent of freshly baked cookies and peppermint, convincing me that I truly was in the presence of the fabled gift-giver himself. There was something else beneath the more inviting smells; something musty and aged, but I assumed the big guy had worked up quite a sweat, given his laborious profession. After a few moments, I felt the oxygen around me regulate as the light footsteps sounded as though they moved away from me again, so I took a chance on cracking open my eyelids.

Sure enough, the man in the red suit was hunched over by the tree again. I knew I had to make it quick, or I would lose this small window of providing evidence to my sister. In one swift, but silent motion, I pulled the camera free from my blanket, aimed it at the man who still faced the tree and snapped three pictures, back-to-back, moving my finger so quickly I didn’t have time to register the bright flash.

I felt my breath catch in my throat as he spun to face me; something I could barely make out through the lingering effects of the blinking bright lights on my eyes, which had grown accustomed to an otherwise darkened room.

“That’s against the rules, little boy,” his deep voice said with his posture unchanged, from what I could tell.

“I-I’m so sorry,” I stuttered, feeling my eyes well up, “I j-just wanted to prove….prove to my sister that you’re real!”

“You’re not the first…unlikely to be the last, but it is still forbidden, I’m afraid.”

I could see the silhouette rising back to his feet, with the blotches of lingering light still blocking most of my view. He moved closer to where I lay, only slightly raised with the camera clenched between my trembling fingers.

It wasn’t fear that caused my extremities to shiver, but that sensation of guilt and embarrassment from being caught doing something I shouldn’t have. Were this any other man, I would likely be so scared that I couldn’t even form the stuttered words I managed to utter, but I was comfortable in the fact that Father Christmas would never harm a child, regardless of how naughty they were acting.

“Give it to me,” he said, holding his padded mitt just beneath my face.

I gently raised the camera, placing it in his waiting hand, keeping my guilt-ridden gaze fixed on my wrinkled blanket.

“There’s nothing to feel bad about, my boy,” he said, sliding the camera into his pocket with one hand and tousling my hair with the other, “go back to sleep now.”

“B-but…will I…I mean, does this make me naughty?”

“No, young mister Cobb, you have graced my nice list exclusively for years,” he said with a hearty chuckle, “I was a curious child myself once, so very long ago.”

Finally feeling comfortable enough to raise my eyes to meet those of the man who stood beside the couch, I found my voice silenced when I met his smiling face. While things were still somewhat out of focus from the lingering effects of the camera flash, what I saw through the haze was far from what I expected.

Whether it was the fact that the skin tone of the left side of the face was not the same as the right, the green and red threads holding the mismatched flaps of skin together, or the two different colors and sizes of the eyes were what caught me more off guard, I didn’t know. Whatever aspect of this crudely priced together thing, for lack of a better term, I was certain that this could not truly be who I had expected a visit from this snowy Christmas morning.

As my jaw fell open; a scream caught in my throat as the creature in the red suit swiftly and firmly placed a hand over my mouth.

“Now, now,” he said, smiling so widely that a few stitches popped where his mouth was hemmed on the left side, “there’s no sense in allowing your curiosity to wake everyone else in the house.”

I was frozen when the sight of this patchwork man caused my guilt to be replaced with a fear I had never known. My whole body trembled as the one green and one hazel eye glared into mine. Tears were streaming down my face and over the padded glove that rested over my mouth while my mind fought to wrap around what I was looking at.

“There’s nothing to fear, my boy,” he said, winking the brown eye; his words now accompanied by a whistle through the gap on the side of his mouth, “I may not look as you imagined, but I assure you I am who you sought to meet this night.”

“Wh-what are you?” I asked, pulling the hand from my mouth with my shivering fingers.

“You know who I am, Edward.”

“No…you can’t be…” I shook my head almost violently as I pushed my shoulder blades against the back of the couch, as though this would somehow grant me freedom from this hideous thing.

The smile faded from the patchy bearded face as those opposing eyes glared down at me. While he hung his head, turning away from me, he strolled to my father’s recliner, which sat diagonally across from where I lay. When he spun again to face me, lowering himself into my dad’s favorite chair, we just glared at one another; my eyes still filled with terror and his with something resembling shame.

“I have been doing this for a long time, Edward,” he said in a strangely compassionate voice, “immortality, I can assure you, does not come without cost.”

“You can’t be him…I won’t believe it,” I said, still shaking my head in denial.

“I am, young Mr. Cobb. I am so sorry that I am not what you expected, but I assure you there is no need to be afraid…I would never hurt a child.”

“N-not even the n-naughty ones?”

“Not even…not when they’re still young enough to change, anyway.”

“Even if…if they’re really bad?”

“No. Not ever. Never a child; not if I can help it. Besides, that’s what the train is for.”

“Th-the train?”

“Nothing to concern yourself with, my boy; I can promise you that much.”

Again, we gazed at one another for so long that my eyes began to burn from my refusal to blink. Not only was I still so horrified by what sat across from me, but I dreaded to think what he might have done if I took my eyes off him for a second.

My whole body continued to tremble while I still forced my back against the plush cushions of the couch, with my blanket pulled up to my quivering lower lip. Every fiber of my being was in complete denial of what I was looking at, regardless of the fact he clearly had no ill intentions at the time; a fact I grew steadily more uncertain of after what came next.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he said, barely louder than a whisper, both sides of his uneven brow pinching tightly on his upper eyelids.

I didn’t stop; I couldn’t. I had no control over it at the time. He may as well have asked me to levitate three feet above the cozy sofa with how much I was able to manage what my body and mind were going through at the time.

“Stop it!” he repeated, leaning forward to lean his elbows on his knees, “Do you have any idea what I have endured over the centuries!? Do you have the slightest semblance of appreciation for what I put myself through to continue to give you ungrateful children a happy Christmas!?”

I shook my near-spasming head; not in response to his question, but in further denial of what I was witnessing.

“I turned myself into an abomination, for you! You and all of the other kids out there! Is that not good enough!?”

I turned away from him, finally allowing my gaze to drift from his.

“LOOK AT ME!” he shouted, reclaiming my unyielding attention, as he practically leapt to his feet, whipping the hat from his scalp and tearing open his coat.

The scars and stitched together, mismatched shades of flesh across his emaciated chest almost caused me to scream out so loudly, I may just wake the dead, as well as my sleeping family. The stringy and matted, patchwork hair and mangled scalp looked as though the thread holding it together would pop apart any second, unzipping the seams to reveal little more than the skull beneath.

“This is what I had to become to continue on my chosen path,” he said in a cracking voice, pulling his coat back shut, “I became this…monstrosity…for you; for all of the children of the world.”

He paced closer to me again, inspiring me to attempt to force myself deeper into the cushions. As he crouched down to look directly into my eyes, my tears let loose, transforming from the trickling stream to a veritable hurricane.


He gripped his fingers around my shoulders so tightly, I thought he planned to claim my arms; to stash them away for a rainy day. While I became aware of the fact that one of the hands felt so much larger than the other; far stronger as well, that only drove the madness of it all so much deeper into my brain.

“Look at the wonders I brought you,” he said, removing one hand to gesture to the pile of neatly wrapped presents, “is it too much to expect a little gratitude?”

The mismatched scowl softened to reveal his own glassy eyes, glistening in the soft illumination of the festive lights upon the tree. In that moment, even through my horror-stricken vision at the time, I could finally make out the melancholy and hurt-filled expression of the kind face, hidden away behind the grotesque patchwork flesh.

“Th-thank you,” I said, my tears finally dissipating, “and I’m sorry…sorry I got scared. It’s just…”

“No,” he said, his grip softening on my shoulder, “it is I who should apologize, my dear young man.”

His hands fell limp to his sides, tracing his padded gloves across the carpeted floor. As he hung his head, shying his eyes away from mine, I let the blanket slip from my fingers, raising my hand to his cold and wrinkled cheek.

“It actually feels kinda neat,” I said, running my no longer shivering digits across the seam holding the upper flap of his face to the lower, “does it hurt?”

He just shook his head, still seemingly studying the floor beneath his knees.

“Only at first…goes numb after a time…”

“I bet that’s a good thing when it’s really cold out,” I said sincerely, shifting myself closer to him, “I played in the snow today, and my skin felt like it was on fire after a while.”

“Is that right?” he said with a chuckle, raising his eyes back to meet mine, “it has been a long time since I felt anything like that.”

“It really sucked, ’cause I wanted to stay out there, but I couldn’t even make my fingers move, they were so cold! When I came back inside, I got crazy pins and needles!”

Though the smile he returned seemed to lighten up his face, a few more stitches popped loose on the side of his mouth, almost reawakening the fear I had begun to bury away. When he raised a gloved hand to the loose thread, I could see that shame returning as he turned his gaze from mine once more.

“Want me to help you fix it? My mom showed me how to sow a bit when I kept tearing up the knees of my pants.”

“No,” he said, with a half-smile on the side of his mouth that wasn’t affixed with thread, “but I certainly do appreciate the offer, young Edward.”

With that, he got back to his feet, smiled back down at me once more, and walked back to where his bag lay beside the tree.

“I’m afraid I must be going, my young friend. Many more children on my list, before the sun rises.”

I pulled back my blanket, jumped to my feet, and approached the man in the red suit, no longer afraid of what he had in store for me.

“I really am sorry, Santa,” I said, feeling my back tense again from my guilt.

“No, my boy,” he said, turning to face me, “it is I who owes you an apology. It has been many years since I have allowed…this,” he held his hands to his face, “to be seen by anyone, aside from those I work alongside. I almost forgot how jarring it can be to the unsuspecting.”

I reached up to wrap my fingers around the puffy mitten of his left hand. He winced at first, as though shocked by this act, but when I tightened my grip to reassure him, I felt my heart skip a little when my hand closed around the empty section of padding.

I looked up at him, as though wordlessly asking if it was alright before I slipped the glove from his hand. I felt my jaw fall loose when my eyes met the sight of the three missing fingers, leaving only a forefinger and thumb in their stead.

“W-what happened?” I stuttered; not from fear this time, but from the sadness awakening within me.

“A small accident some weeks back,” he said, almost dismissively, “nothing to worry about, young lad.”

“Can you get new ones?”

“Soon enough, my boy…I just need the right donor,” he replied with a warm smile.

“But…you said you wouldn’t hurt nobody…” I said, feeling my heartbeat quicken again.

“I would never hurt a child, dear Edward,” he said, pulling the mitten back over his hand, “but a few lumps of coal are not quite as effective to a naughty adult.”

With that, he gave me a wink, tousled my hair again with his fully fingered right hand, and picked the large bag back up again.

“You had better get some sleep now.”

While I was still pretty freaked out by everything that night had presented me with, I no longer felt afraid of the patchwork man in the red and white suit. Before I walked back to the couch, I wrapped my arms around him, apologizing one last time for acting like such a jerk. He just laughed, gently returning my hug.

“Merry Christmas, Edward Cobb,” he said with a slight crack in his voice.

“Merry Christmas, Santa,” I replied, finally releasing my grip to head back to my warm blanket.

When I climbed back under the covers, I glanced back to the tree to see no trace of jolly old Saint Nick, but I think I expected that. I heard no hooves stomping across the roof, high above, no jovial chuckles as he rode out of earshot, only the silence of the house at rest.

By the time I awoke the following morning, greeted by my loving parents, excited sister, and a good many presents to open up, I had already convinced myself that I had eaten far too much junk food the night before. That was always a safe enough explanation for my more bizarre and far-out dreams. I even found my camera hidden away beneath the blanket, with not even one picture having been taken.

After Christmas morning proceeded like normal; well, normal from what I had experienced over my handful of years by that point, my father received a phone call. He looked almost puzzled when he glanced at the caller ID before answering, but the confused expression on his face quickly turned to something more concerned and uneasy.

He whispered to my mother words I could not make out, causing her face to mimic his at the time, but he turned down her offer to accompany him as he threw on some warmer clothing, almost sprinting out the front door.

“Where’s dad going?” Jo asked, turning her attention away from her new iPod for the first time in hours.

“He has to go meet your Uncle Bob,” mom replied, appearing uneasy about this rendezvous.

I had only met my father’s brother once, some four or five years before that Christmas day, if memory serves. Even back then, I could tell that my mom didn’t think too highly of the man, but he was only at the house for maybe ten to twenty minutes at most.

I overheard my parents arguing that night, with my mother insisting that dad’s brother was not welcome in our home. While dad seemed pretty agitated by her words, he didn’t put up as much of a fight as I expected, but the more they talked, after the yelling calmed down, the more I understood.

I would find out some time later that Robert Cobb, who was two years older than my dad, cared more about the bottle than his brother’s family. He prioritized his addiction over his own wife and kids as well, for that matter. Having only met him that one time, I had no idea I had three cousins: a boy around my age and two daughters, three and five years my senior.

With those facts in mind, when my dad showed back up two hours later, accompanied by Uncle Bob, I could understand why my mom looked fit to burst. As my father looked back at her with his eyes quivering with burgeoning tears, she looked completely lost for words when Robert threw his arms around her, apologizing for being such a terrible brother-in-law.

It was at that point, while I was completely distracted from all of the goodies I had unwrapped that morning, gazing up at the adults who were acting so strangely to my youthful eyes, that I noticed something that caused my breath to catch in my throat again.

Some minutes later, Bob would explain the bandages wrapped around his left hand; how he had awakened that morning with a wide red ribbon where the gauze now sat. Being still hungover from the binge drinking of the previous night; the same way he had ended just about every day since his wife left him, taking their children with her, he had no memory of how he had lost those three fingers, nor why he had encased the bloodied stumps in a festive ribbon.

Seeing this as a much-needed wake-up call to finally put in the work to attempt to get his life back on track, he headed straight to the hospital, placing the call to my father when he arrived. When my parents escorted him into the kitchen, pretty much ordering my sister and me to stay put, we couldn’t help but listen from the other side of the door.

Though I was still far too young to truly understand a lot of what was being said, what Uncle Bob was confessing to, Jo attempted to explain it to me later in more child-friendly terms. Essentially, Robert admitted to the abuse he had inflicted on his wife and children. While he had only gotten physical with his spouse, he was just as ashamed of that as the years of verbal abuse.

Over the following months, my father stood by his brother’s side while he fought to get clean, with the full support of my mom. Sometime down the line, his estranged wife gave him a second chance. Ultimately, they could not save their relationship, but remained friends, even when she remarried. He would; however, become far more involved in the lives of his children, as well as his niece and nephew.

To this day, Uncle Bob keeps in touch. I don’t see him as much as I used to; him or my cousins, but that’s just part of getting older, I suppose. We all still get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas; the latter being more important to my uncle than any other holiday, as that is the anniversary of when he realized the monster he had become.

Oftentimes, I allow myself to believe that the memories I still hold of the man I met that early Christmas morning are nothing more than an especially vivid dream that sticks with me to this day. The fact that the patchwork individual in the red suit was missing the same fingers my uncle lost track of some hours after that bizarre dream, I just chalked up to that unexplainable coincidence of a strangely prophetic flight of fancy of the sleeping mind.

Of course, there are those other times when I fully and truly believe that I did uncover the truth behind the mythical saint of the season; the extreme measures he took to be able to continue his mission through the centuries. Not only that, but I think it is very likely he had a fully fingered left hand by the time the sun set on that Christmas day.

Though I never saw him again after that night, I believe it was that experience that drove me to at least attempt to grow up to be a good man; that, as well as the lessons my parents taught me. Yes, there have been hard times that almost inspired me to stray from that path, as life does tend to toss a few curve balls at even the most prepared for the worst, but I have always been able to find my way back.

Perhaps it’s not the most honorable motivation; the fear of having bits and pieces of myself cut and stripped away to fix up a broken fender or two on Santa’s sleigh, so to speak, but it’s something at least.

Believe my story or not; it’s pretty far-fetched; I can’t deny that. All I ask, when all is said and done: just try to be good, for goodness’ sake.

A Fright Before Christmas

We had a fright before Christmas, while all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring; well, maybe a mouse.

The stuffed stockings were hung on the mantle downstairs,

I hoped they’d remain; it was in need of repairs.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of virtual warfare danced in their heads.

With my wife in my t-shirt and me in my skivvies,

We were both tuckered out from exhausting activities.

When out on the lawn, I could hear a strange sound,

It was a little unnerving, with no neighbors around.

Away to the window, I shuffled my feet,

Peeled back the curtains, afraid of what my eyes may meet.

The moon beaming down on the new-fallen snow,

Highlighted the trio who crossed the lawn below.

This was no friendly visit; that much I could see,

With each of the men, locked and loaded with glee.

The tall man in front moving silent and quick,

I could tell right away he was likely a prick.

As they moved to the back door, their weapons in hand,

He whistled, and spoke, and gave his demands:

“You take the ground floor, and I’ll take the stairs,

Then head to the basement and see what’s down there,

If you see anything move, you put it down quick,

Not one of them lives; they make me fucking sick!”

He then fidgeted softly with the lock of the door,

I gave a wink to my wife; the one I adore.

Sneaking out of the bedroom, I asked that she stay,

She smiled warmly back at me, “have fun while you play,”

There was no reason to doubt I would return in a while,

With blood soaking my fingers and smearing my smile.

As I reached the ground floor and was turning around,

Through the backdoor, they entered, barely making a sound.

They were all dressed in Kevlar, from their heads to their feet,

It was clear they were prepared; in case we should meet.

A bundle of stakes stashed away in their pack,

Caused me briefly to worry I could not push them back.

Their eyes—how they twinkled! They were all I could see!

Through the darkness, they were far less likely to see me.

The drool leaked from my mouth to the carpet below,

At the thought of their bodies dripping blood on the snow.

I would silence the one to the front of them quickly.

Gush his fluids across his friends’ faces, so slickly.

He was barely aware when I sank my teeth in,

The shock and horror in his gaze; I couldn’t help but to grin.

He was stocky and muscled, but I drained him down fast,

And I laughed when I saw his friends looking aghast.

With a wink of my eye and a twist of his neck,

I moved on to the next one; it scared him to heck!

He spoke not a word, while I took care of my work,

While the last one turned tail; what a cowardly jerk!

This attempt to flee did not go as he planned,

As I leaped right upon him, turning his kneecaps to sand,

“I cannot let you leave, but you won’t die just yet.

My family hungers as well; you best bet,”

I dragged him down to the basement, and into his cage,

He had not a chance; not given my rage.

I gave him one final glance as I cut out the light,

“Happy Christmas to you; until tomorrow night.”

Late-Night Cravings

I was not planning on facing my potential demise when I started on my stroll, that chilly late December night. My intention was no more than to find something to quench my very pregnant wife’s cravings, along with some desperately needed solitude for myself. 

I don’t mean to sound insensitive by any means; I do love my Christine very much. I think I fell for her within the first few moments of the initial meeting that brought us together. I had been alone for many years before my friends took it upon themselves to arrange the blind date. I had never cared for such things, but even an introvert such as I could be consumed with loneliness from time to time. 

She was truly a delight to be around, and it amazed me to find that we had so much in common. I consider myself to be of fairly unique taste, and it has always been difficult for me to form relationships. My small circle of friends had been in my life for what felt like centuries sometimes, but I never could have predicted they would be the ones to introduce me to my soulmate. 

We married within mere months of being together. I worried we were rushing things a bit; that perhaps we had not yet outgrown our honeymoon phase, but I had never been so happy in my life. Over the years, our love for each other never grew stale or predictable, and when she became pregnant, we were overjoyed at the thought of bringing a new member into the family. 

Unfortunately, my poor Christine endured some complications over the last few months and has found herself mostly bedridden. I have done my best to be the loving and supportive husband she has needed over this troubling time, but this has left little room for me to be alone with my thoughts; a necessity for the introverts of the world. So, when she had a late-night craving, I was more than happy to take it upon myself to head out for a spell. 

She was hesitant to let me leave, as it was getting quite late, and surely few stores would still be open. I assured her I would be able to track something down, but she still practically begged me to stay home. There had been a rash of killings of late in our humble little town, but the victims had primarily been brunette women. Four dark-haired ladies, and three men of no distinct pattern, to be precise. 

Our local sheriff feared a serial killer was at large, but I presumed he had just watched entirely too many crime shows. Perhaps I was too quick to dismiss his suspicions, as well as proving a little too eager to escape the house for a bit, but I understood Christine’s concerns. I promised her I would keep my phone handy should she need me, before I kissed her on the forehead and made my way out into the night. 

It may have been wiser for me to arm myself with something more intimidating than my trusty pocket knife, but I wasn’t overly concerned. This wouldn’t be the first time I had braved the brisk night air for a midnight snack for my love, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. So, I left out for my stroll, leaving the snow-covered car parked. It would have obviously made my trip faster had I chosen to drive, but I wasn’t the biggest fan of driving on slippery roads. Plus, the walk would allow much more time for me to enjoy a bit of solitude. 

Once I was far enough away from the house, I lit a cigarette. My wife wasn’t exactly fond of the habit that had been a part of my life since my teen years, but that wouldn’t stop me from sneaking a few in when I got the chance. This was another thing that was far more rare of late. There are worse things people do behind their spouse’s back, so I wasn’t exactly burdened with guilt over it. 

She does have an uncanny sense of smell, though. I always keep hand sanitizer and a small bottle of cologne in my jacket pocket for such occasions. Normally, on nights like these, she would be too distracted by whatever goodies I brought her, to be concerned with whether or not I had snuck in a smoke or two. 

Within fifteen minutes, I was pushing through the door of the Gas ‘n’ Sip. It was a decent little convenience store, which they had all decked out in Christmas flare. I toured the snack aisle while the Little Drummer Boy echoed from the speakers above my head. I always looked forward to hearing the festive music in the stores, this time of year, though many would just have the droning elevator-style tunes for ambient, background music. Fortunately, my old buddy Eduardo, behind the counter, made sure to provide songs from his own playlists. Many gas stations wouldn’t provide such things for their guests’ brief visitations, but I think Ed did it more for himself than anyone else. 

There were only two other people in the store at this hour; an older gent scratching lottery tickets up front, and another guy in the back, sporting a brown hoodie, and a thick winter coat. I couldn’t see his face, but he appeared to be just aimlessly window shopping. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was just waiting for the place to clear out so he could pull a gun on Ed, but he’d only have himself to blame when my friend would inevitably draw the twelve gauge he kept under the counter. 

I shouldn’t just presume anyone’s ill intent just because they seem to be trying too hard to be inconspicuous, but the world has become a crazy place. Finding nothing to fit my wife’s cravings just right, I just delved into the snack cakes. I dropped my armful of Twinkies, ding songs, and donuts on the counter, to which Ed chuckled. 

“Want some insulin to go with that?” He laughed. 

“May not hurt to grab a shot or two,” I replied with a smile. 

“Chris about ready to pop?” Ed asked.

“You have no idea!” I laughed. 

We had been frequenting this gas station for some time, so Ed was more than familiar with us. He had even been by the house on the rare occasion he had a day off, but he stayed extra busy of late since his father retired. The store was family-owned, but he hoped to be able to hire a few more hands after the first of the year. God knows the poor guy needs a break. 

“You know that guy?” I asked, nodding my head to the man in the brown hoodie, who still stalked the rear aisle. 

“Never seen him before,” Ed replied, handing me the double-bagged sack of goodies. 

“Just be safe, man,” I said. 

“No worries, brother.” My friend said with a wink, knocking the barrel of his sawed-off shotgun against the back of the counter. 

I just gave him a smile as I took the bulging plastic bag from him. 

“Merry Christmas, Ed,” I said with a wave while I headed for the door. 

“Back at ya, man,” he replied. 

The cold breeze practically smacked me in the face when I pulled the door open. It was almost stiflingly hot in the gas station, and I had almost forgotten how chilly it was outside. Though I was sure the snacks I had gathered would suit my own sweet tooth, I hated the idea of disappointing Christine. Even with how miserable her advanced pregnancy had been, she rarely asked for anything. The only other store that may be open at this hour was a good couple of miles away. Perhaps I would take a drive tonight after all. 

Having decided to return to my house to grab the car, I turned my back to the Gas ‘n’ Sip and began my trip. I figured I’d check back in on my wife before heading back out into the cold, though I was sure she would try to talk me out of it. Still, I would be damned if I was going to let her down, so my mind was made up. I dug my earbuds out of my jacket pocket and queued up my own Christmas playlist to guide my path home. 

Perhaps it wasn’t the best choice to tune out the world around me. I likely should have been paying more attention to my surroundings as I traversed the snowy sidewalk to my festive melody. It was my own fault that I didn’t even see it coming. Whatever it was that struck me across the back of the head immediately knocked me unconscious. I can’t be sure how long I was out, but when my eyes opened back up, I found I was strapped down to a frigid, metal table in a darkly lit room. 

Leather belts were buckled around each wrist and ankle, and my coat and shirt had been removed. It was freezing, to the point I could see my shaky breath exiting my mouth while my heart thumped so hard, I could see my chest bouncing. After a moment, fluorescent lights flickered on above me, causing my eyes to burn slightly. 

“Wasn’t sure if anyone else would be out this late,” a voice said from behind where I lay. 

“I was about to settle for the old guy before you walked in,” he continued as he strolled around the metal table. 

He pulled down the brown hood to reveal a thin face with dark beard stubble. I’d say he was maybe early thirties at most. Thick, shaggy hair, long pointy nose, pale skin, and immaculate white teeth, from what I could tell. He appeared taller now than he had at the convenience store, but that could just be the effect of my being strapped down to a slab close to his waistline. 

“Didn’t wanna grab the guy behind the counter. He’d likely be missed, plus the security cameras would surely catch me draggin’ him out. Ain’t never seen you before, though,” he said, nonchalantly as he unlocked the large closet at the back of the room. 

The double doors opened up to reveal an assortment of especially nasty-looking bladed weapons. Some were long and curved, some short and serrated, but all of them looked sharp enough to slice through a Thanksgiving turkey with little to no resistance. Were I to wager a guess, my body would be taking the place of the traditional birdie in this case.

“Ain’t as easy to snatch folks up this time of year,” the stranger, who was now slipping out of his padded coat said. 

“May have to move to a more populated town soon, y’know?” He continued, unzipping the hoodie. 

“I try to keep movin’. Ain’t too smart to linger anywhere for too long, with hobbies like mine.” He lay the hoodie over the desk that sat against the rear wall while reaching for the apron that hung on the inside of the cabinet door.

“Couldn’t resist tryin’ to get one more before the end of the year.” He tied the apron lace around his waist before studying the contents of his well-armed closet. 

“Bein’ Christmas and all, I’ll show you a bit of compassion. What do ya say?” He asked, turning to face me for the first time since our, well, introduction. 

“Want it quick and easy, or want me to take my time a bit?” He was speaking as casually as if he was asking what side I wanted to go with my burger. 

“Can I think about it for a while?” I asked, shrugging as much as I could while strapped to a cold ass table. 

“That’s a big nay-no, partner, but can’t blame you for tryin’!” He replied, bursting out laughing at the end. 

“Worth a shot,” I sighed. 

“So,” he continued, drying his eyes with the back of his hand, still chuckling slightly. “What’s it gonna be?” 

I adjusted my head as much as I could, to look the man in the face. His dark eyes had a certain hunger behind them. I thought I may attempt to stall him a little. At least give me some extra time to come up with some semblance of a plan to get out of this.  

“I can’t say I’m pressed for time, or anything,” I replied, “I’m sure my wife is getting worried by now, but I assume you’re not planning on letting me head home any time soon.” 

“Of course, I imagine it’s safe to say that ‘taking your time a bit’, as you said,” I waved my fingers in air quotes, which were far less effective while strapped down, “would be a good deal more painful for me, though I would think far more satisfying for you,” 

“On the flip side,” I continued, “what you call ‘quick and easy’, is sure to kick my bucket far sooner than I’d like, so….”

“You gonna drone on all night!?” He whined, interrupting my train of thought. 

“Well, it’s a relatively big decision,” I reasoned. 

“Jesus Christ! Just gimme an answer, or I’m gonna choose for ya!” He belted out.

He was glaring at me with his hands on his hips and head tilted to the side. It felt similar to the time I accidentally chucked the baseball through the windshield of my dad’s truck. That ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed’ sort of look. The idea of someone I presume to be a serial killer being let down by my actions almost made me feel like giggling a bit. 

“Well!?” He yelped. 

“Um, I don’t know,” I retorted, “what would you choose?” 

“Huh,” he said, instantly calming from his previously aggravated state while forming an expression that almost resembled a poor attempt at a Robert De Niro impersonation.

“Guess I never really thought about it from the other side of the table.”

He grabbed the armrest of the chair which rested in front of the desk and glided it across the floor to my bedside. He rubbed the back of his neck while taking a seat next to where I lay. 

“I mean, I get what you’re saying now,” he said, “it really is a tricky situation.”

“Right!?” I replied, feebly shrugging again. 

“Sure, quick wouldn’t hurt nearly as bad. Wouldn’t do a whole lot for me either, to tell ya the truth” he continued, showing almost exaggerated effort on his face. 

“Slow would definitely not be a walk in the park for you, but I’d sure as shit have a good time,” he was rubbing his hand across the stubble on his chin. 

“That way is a hell of a lot more tiring too, and it’s been a long friggin’ day.” We glared at each other, each of us puzzling over both sides of the equation. 

“It’s a conundrum,” he said, shaking his head with a half smile. 

“A dilemma, even,” I remarked. 

The room fell silent as we considered our options. Though I wouldn’t say I was in a particular rush to come up with whatever would qualify as a mutually beneficial selection, I would imagine we each had a different desired outcome in mind. 

As I lay there considering my next move, I became aware of the lump in my back pocket. The stranger had apparently not thought to remove my wallet as he stripped down my upper half in preparation for the night’s activities, and it would appear he had also neglected my trusty pocket knife, which felt like it still lay snugly in the other pocket. 

“Flip a coin?” I suggested, breaking the silence in hopes of distracting the pondering man for a moment. 

“Now, that’s a good idea!” He exclaimed, holding his pointer finger up, as though were chanting ‘Eureka!’

He quickly got to his feet and practically sprinted the small distance between the chair and his jacket. He rummaged around in the pockets, while I gently slid my left butt cheek in the direction of my leather-bound wrist. 

“I’m gonna say, heads we make it a quickie, and tails we go all night. Whatcha think?” He asked, spinning in place to look me in the eye. 

I was attempting to be as discreet as possible, but I was almost caught red-handed when he turned. Luckily he appeared too distracted to notice what I was attempting to do. 

“Sounds fair,” I said, tilting my head.

He grinned like a madman and went back to digging through his coat and hoodie. Before I felt secure enough to get back to my quest, the man dropped his hands to his side dejectedly and turned to face me again. 

“No coins! Goddamnit!” He said, shaking his head from side to side. 

“Well shit,” I agreed. 

He glanced around the room, as though there was a secret stash of quarters he had neglected. 

“Be right back,” he stated, before heading towards the door he had previously entered through. 

“Don’t go anywhere!” I heard him chuckle as he darted up an apparent stairway. 

With the door ajar, I could make out the sounds of the odd individual rummaging through drawers, seemingly right at the top of the flight of stairs. I wasted no time in continuing my efforts to free my knife from my pants. I finally gripped onto it with my fingertips while I heard items heavy and light scattering across the floor above. 

I pulled my weapon of choice free and flipped the blade open. I slipped it between the strap and my wrist and quickly began carving through the belt. Just as a jubilant yell echoed from above, followed by excited footsteps thundering down the steps, I managed to break my left hand loose. I gripped my knife underhanded and prepared to strike as soon as he got close enough, when something happened I don’t think either of us saw coming. 

Given the fact the cold, steel table I was propped up on was facing away from the entrance to the room, I can only speculate what occurred based on the noises I heard. The hammering footfalls seemed to come to a halt as soon as the man hit the threshold of the room I occupied. There was a loud snapping sound, followed by the beginning of an f-bomb leaving the man’s lips, accompanied by a screeching ‘oof’. I then found myself able to view the shaggy dark hair of the man, as he slid face-first across the floor to my right, while a shiny nickel rolled toward the cupboard full of nasty carving tools. 

The complete absence of anything audible afterward left me to conclude that he had knocked himself out cold. I took the opportunity to unbuckle the belts around my other wrist and ankles, before heaving the man from the ground to the table I had previously occupied. Unfortunately, by cutting through the left strap rendered me unable to buckle all of his limbs, so I simply sliced through a few tendons in his forearm while he slept. 

I managed to locate my shirt and jacket, which had been tossed on the plastic-lined floor in the corner of the room. Once I felt the warm blood make its way through my extremities again, I dug through the stranger’s jacket in hopes of finding a phone to call my wife. I could only assume my own device was still on the side of the road I was abducted from, but I had committed Christine’s number to memory since our first official date. 

Not only was my search successful in locating a phone, but I also recovered a set of keys. I had absolutely no clue where I was at the moment, but I should be free to use whatever vehicle these operated when I was done here. With his device in hand, I was finally able to check on what time it was. Seeing that it was a little after four in the morning, I had little doubt that my love would be bordering on frantic at my delayed return home. 

Even though I was calling from an unfamiliar number, she answered within two rings, and, as predicted, she was bordering on tears when she heard my voice. I informed her what had happened, and assured her I would be home as soon as I was able. Even though I had little choice in the matter, I still apologized for not being able to track down what she had a hankering for. Still, I promised I would bring her home the heart of the dark haired man who now lay strapped to the cold metal table. She had been craving nothing but brunette women for a while now, but she still sounded delighted when I promised to bring her the tasty snack momentarily. 

It wasn’t always easy being married to a werewolf, but my own unique talents paired with hers quite nicely. Even more so since her pregnancy rendered her unable to hunt for the last few months. I must say, the wealth of tools I now had access to would make things much easier for me. Though I was very skilled with my trusty pocket knife, it’s always a bitch to get through the sternum, especially on these cold nights when I can barely feel my fingertips. 

“I’ll be home soon, baby,” I said to Christine, making kissing noises into the phone, while the man bound to the table was moaning himself back to awareness. 

He spilled a mass of profanities and grunts when he realized that we had switched positions. I pulled his apron over my head, and tied the cord around my waist while he writhed and shouted.  

“So,” I said, interrupting his alarmed curses when he realized he could not control his left arm.

“Would you like it quick and easy, or should I take my time?” I asked. 

His reply was not very helpful, as it only concerned the variety of things he would like to lodge between my buttocks. Fortunately, while the stranger continued to rage on, I noticed the light reflecting off the shiny nickel that lay at the base of the tool closet. 

“Heads!” I exclaimed, retrieving the coin from the floor. 

“Looks like ‘quick and easy’ for the win!” I continued before reaching for his phone once more.

I made a quick search for a festive playlist to provide a joyful soundtrack for the work ahead. I smiled as I shuffled through the vast menu of Christmas tunes, with the knowledge I would be back in my wife’s loving arms soon. 

Fish in a Barrel

Daniel Truman was an older guy I used to work with. All things considered, he was a decent person, though he was one of those folks who had a story for about any occasion. Almost anything that anyone else may have experienced; he had a tale to top it. It could be annoying at times, but I don’t believe he ever meant any harm. 

Perhaps he only craved being in the spotlight for a while. Maybe he had a few insecurities which could potentially have been momentarily eased by making himself the center of attention for a time. Regardless of his reasons, little to nobody actually believed his supposed recollections, as the majority of them sounded to be quite fictional. 

Oftentimes, he could successfully gain the respect of the new hires, or even some who had worked there for a while, who may not be all that familiar with him and his ways. Though he could tend to spin a well-crafted yarn, I would feel my eyes rolling when he would take it upon himself to repeat the same tales over and over again, depending on his respective audience at the time. 

He was getting up in years, so it could not be denied it was somewhat impressive that he would recite each one verbatim, whether he had only told it the day before, or half a decade ago. Still, I highly doubted he truly had done everything from thwarting an attempted bank robbery with no more than his expertise in the martial arts to guide his actions, to witnessing an extraterrestrial ship crashing down near his old workplace; something he was forced to swear on a stack of bibles that he would never speak of. 

I can’t say I didn’t have a fondness for the old guy, though. Sure, his ways could quickly get under my skin when I was simply not in the mood for his endless rambling, but I would just sneak away when I wasn’t feeling it. It wasn’t hard to get away when things were quiet at work, but those were often the times he would feel inspired to talk the most.

More often than not, I would humor him with the mandatory one-word replies, or the occasional, “oohs,” and “aahs,” as his tales would reach their climax. I may even grant him an enthusiastic, “holy shit,” if I was in the mood to butter his popcorn a bit. He was harmless, really, and he would get a glint in his eye like a kid on Christmas morning when any of us would eat up the crap he was attempting to feed us. 

It wasn’t until the day I returned to work after a two-week sabbatical due to my father’s passing, when he told me a story I actually believed. On any normal day, he would practically perform his tales; darting his eyes between each person in the room, gesturing with his hands to increase the intensity, while dramatically pausing, in between raising and lowering the tone of his voice to fit the subject matter, but not this one.

On this occasion, he didn’t so much as glance in my direction while he spoke in an almost monotone voice. Another unique component to this one, was that he would actually pause when anyone entered the office. Generally, he would backtrack, to catch the new audience member up to speed, but it would seem this one was for me, and me alone.

I wasn’t exactly in the best mindset when I arrived back to work that day. Though my father had battled cancer for the better part of three years, it was still a shock when he finally lost the fight. I had always been close to my parents, so I had spent the majority of those fourteen days off the job, caring for my mother, while taking little time to allow myself to face my own grief. 

She was slowly coming back to herself, but she had suffered almost as much as her husband over these past years; perhaps more so. In some ways, she was actually relieved the fight was over, but she was still without her soulmate, regardless of the fact he would no longer have to suffer. 

My fellow employees from the previous shift were still in the office when I arrived. Each gave me their sympathies, while making the token inquiries as to how I was holding up, and such, but I wanted little more than to be left alone. Though I appreciated the well wishes and condolences, I was not in a mood to talk about it.

After they filtered out; leaving me alone with Truman, I just headed to my desk, keeping my head lowered in an attempt to convey how much I didn’t want to talk about things. For the first few hours, he respected my need for silence. It wasn’t until I returned from a bathroom break, that he began to speak. 

“I was just twelve when I lost my Pop…”

I felt my neck tense up; instantly feeling anger pulse through my veins. ‘Surely he didn’t feel the need to one up me on something like this!?’ I thought, while keeping my back turned to the man in an effort to encourage him to cease his desire to get a win on something like this. 

“I know you’re hurtin’, kid. Just tell me to shut the hell up if you don’t wanna hear me ramble on.”

There was something sincere in his voice; something compassionate and genuine I had never heard from him. I turned my chair around to face the man, only to find he still had his back to me. Though I truly had no desire to hear some far-fetched yarn; perhaps concerning how his youthful frame was far too weak to successfully wrestle the alligator into submission, as it chewed on his daddy’s throat, his tone and mannerisms were far from the norm. I found myself growing quite curious to what he had to say. 

“Ramble away,” I said with a very false and forced chuckle. 

He returned an equally imitated laugh, before he began to speak again. The story he shared with me that day has stayed with me these past few years; a tale I would like to share with you now, should you have interest in hearing it. 

I will try to the best of my ability to recount the words as he spoke them, though I can’t promise it’ll be a hundred percent to the letter. Still, I will not exaggerate, nor will I inflate his words to anything more grandiose than they were. The following is the last story Daniel Truman ever shared with me:

It was a small town I lived in with my folks back then; far smaller than this one. Little place called Rimrose Fall, couple of hundred miles to the south of here. Wasn’t nothin’ special, but I hadn’t never been nowheres else, when I was young. Momma had some ailments ain’t no need speakin’ about, but she’d have need of goin’ into the city every few weeks or so, to see some better doctors than the one we had back home. 

My Pappy had been promisin’ to take me fishin’ for the last month or so, but it’d been hard to find the time, ‘tween Momma and his work. We’d go from time to time, but it was a good drive to get to the lake he favored, so he’d always have to plan it out pretty good.

I’d ask him, sometimes, why we couldn’t just head up to Boulder Creek, bein’ that was just a couple of miles from where we lived, but he’d tell me we had no business goin’ there. He said there was some local fisherman types that didn’t take too kindly to others takin’ up their spot, though I hadn’t never seen no-one else when we’d pass by it in Pappy’s truck.

He wouldn’t hear it, though. Made me swear I’d never even think about goin’ out there, but I didn’t understand at the time. You know how it is when yer that age; got everythin’ figured out by then and can’t nobody tell you otherwise. 

That Thursday, May sixteenth, nineteen sixty-eight, Pop set it up where he was gonna spend the whole day with me. He was gonna take off work, and said we’d go fishin’, and just have a good ol’ time, just the two of us. He was even gonna let me skip out on goin’ to the schoolhouse, just so as we could get some father/son time in. 

I was plumb thrilled, and it was all I thought about for the two weeks that went by after he told me. Momma had seen her doctor the week before the sixteenth, so she shoulda been good while we was gone. ‘Course, her situation was a might unpredictable, so when we got to that Thursday and she took a turn, Pappy didn’t have no choice but to take her back into the city. 

He told me he was sorry, and I could tell he meant it, on account of how much he was lookin’ forward to catchin’ some fish too. Still, I can’t say I wasn’t none too thrilled about how it turned out. I didn’t pitch a fit or nothin’, but I didn’t exactly put on an understanding face, neither. 

Pop told me I didn’t have to come with ’em to see the Doctor, even though I’d already taken the school day off, but he promised we’d get that trip soon; just had to prioritize the important things. He could tell I was upset, but I didn’t take no measures to convince him or Momma otherwise. 

I know it wasn’t her fault, and I knew she was in bad shape when she took a turn, but I musta come off like a damn brat at the time. Pop looked plumb sad when he helped Momma to the truck, and I’m sure I coulda made him feel better if I’d made some sorta effort, but I didn’t. Still feel bad for that to this day, but I know I was just a kid. Don’t make it no better though. 

I was still mopin’ around the house a good hour after they took off. It’d been some time since I last got to go fishin’, so when I looked back at the tackle box we’d already set out by the front door, I just about had my mind made up before it even registered. 

Boulder Creek was only a ways from the house and, if I could load the box and fishin’ pole onto my bike, I coulda been there and back ‘fore anyone was the wiser. I knew my folks weren’t likely to be back ’til after sundown, so I could surely catch a few and still be back before they knew it.

I reckon I was about as stubborn as a mule, and hardheaded as an ox, so I didn’t care that Pappy had made me promise never to go there. I figured he just didn’t trust me enough to be able to get around all the wild brush and such out there without hurtin’ myself, so he made some stuff up to keep me from goin’. 

I strapped the tackle box down to the back of my bike with some old belts I’d done growed out of, and used some twine to tie around the pole, to sling over my shoulder. Even strapped the Bowie knife I’d gotten for Christmas to my belt, just in case I had to scare off some critters or somethin’.

It was a bit awkward to ride with the box and rod, but it wasn’t nothin’ I couldn’t deal with. The trail was rough, and I damn near tipped over on some of the lumpier parts, but ‘fore I knew it, I was clearin’ the trees that surrounded the creek. I hadn’t never seen it up close before; only from the road up on the hill. 

It sure was pretty. It was an almost perfect circle, with thinner streams branchin’ off here and there. In the middle, there was a small mound of dirt, with giant rock stickin’ out of it. I s’pose that’s how it got the name, Boulder Creek, though it’s a might unoriginal, given the island made of stone. 

The water looked as clear as if you’d just poured it from a jug, and I could see the fish ziggin’ and a zaggin’ under the surface. Weren’t no wild underbrush neither. I couldn’t see no bottom to the lake, but the water was clear as far as my youthful eyes could see. Still, I wasn’t the best swimmer, so I wasn’t about to let myself get too close to it or nothin’. I wasn’t that curious to see how deep it went. 

While I got to unloadin’ the tackle box, pullin’ the twine from the rod, and baitin’ the hook, I kept lookin’ around for any sign of the locals Pop warned me about. Given this was only a short ways from the house, I didn’t see no reason why I wouldn’t be considered a local, but I still didn’t see no trace of anyone besides myself. The grass was overgrown, in between patches of flat dirt and rocks, and it didn’t look as if nobody had been out this way in weeks at least. 

Wasn’t no bent blades or footprints. Hell, I couldn’t even hear no sign of wildlife nearby, ‘cept for the fish under the water. Weren’t no crickets chirpin’, or squirrels runnin’ up and down the trees. No birds flappin’ around in the woods or up in the sky above me. It was kinda peaceful, but a bit eerie too, everything’ bein’ so quiet, but me. 

Still, I went ahead with what I was there for and cast my line out into the creek. I could see the fish scatter as soon as the hook dropped in on ’em, so I just took a seat on the tackle box and stayed as still as a deer in headlights. I figured they’d gather back up, once they felt it wasn’t nothin’ to be scared of. I was gonna toss back whatever I caught anyways; couldn’t go bringin’ any back to the house when I was done. I didn’t want Pop to know I disobeyed him. 

He wasn’t never one to tan my hide unless I really had it comin’, but I figured this’d get me a good whoopin’ on account of how he made me promise and all. My boots were gettin’ good and muddy too, so I figured I’d either clean ’em up when I got back, or just tell him I was playin’ around outside. Surely, he’d have no reason to suspect otherwise. 

When I finally got my first bite, I swear I had to wrestle that sombitch for a good ten minutes straight! When I reeled her in, she had to be a good six pounds at least; maybe a foot and a half long too. That might be no more than average for some, but it was the biggest sucker I’d ever seen at that age.

After I let that ‘n’ go, I didn’t have as much luck. Biggest I reeled in after that was maybe a pound or two, but I’d pulled a good five or six from that lake before the sun started to sink. I knew I had to be gettin’ back, but I wished I coulda told Pappy about how many I’d caught. I just knew if I could convince him to come out, we could have supper for a month. Still, I wasn’t about to confess I did what he said not to. 

After I got the tackle box strapped back down, and I was tyin’ the twine back to the fishin’ pole, I heard a whimperin’ comin’ from nearby. It’d been so damn quiet, I had taken to keepin’ my breathin’ shallow, and damn near tiptoein’ around. You know how it is; even if you got no reason to be quiet, you kinda act like it when there ain’t no sounds other than you.

I s’pose that’s why the sound damn near caused my heart to skip. Like I said, the grass was growed out pretty tall, and nothin’ had been cut down or maintained, so I couldn’t see nothin’ from where the whimperin’ was comin’ from, even though it sounded like it was just some yards behind me. 

Bein’ as curious as any kid that age, I had to see what was causin’ it. Closer I got, the more it sounded like another kid cryin’. I hadn’t seen no-one else the whole time I’d been there, but I hadn’t looked around much neither. It scared me somethin’ awful to think there mighta been someone hurt and passed out while I was havin’ a good ol’ time, none the wiser. 

Could be they’d just started to come to, as I was gettin’ ready to set off back home. All manner of things was goin’ through my head the closer I got. Wasn’t ’til I was right on where the whimperin’ was comin’ from, that it stopped. I swatted at the tall grass, and was cuttin’ my eyes this way and that, but weren’t no sounds no more, but me.

Soon as I shrugged the whole thing off, and made to head back to my bike, I noticed I couldn’t lift my legs no more. I looked down, pushin’ the grass away so as I could see my feet, to see some sorta light shinin’ from beneath me. Damn near pissed my pants when I saw the shadowy hands gripped around my shoes too. There musta been five or six of ’em. Just tiny little hands grippin’ onto my feet and ankles.

I hollered out as loud as I could, while I was pullin’ at my legs; tryin’ to break ’em free of the tight gripped fingers, but I couldn’t so much as yank my feet outta my shoes. I didn’t stop screamin’ out with every bit of my lungs, even when the hands pulled me down into the other place. It didn’t even feel like I went through grass and dirt, as much as there just wasn’t no ground ‘neath my feet for a minute. Knocked myself out cold when I hit the other ground that was under the one I was on before. 

Soon as I come to, I started hollerin’ again. I didn’t know if I was still asleep and dreamin’, or if the giant shadow man who stood over me was real. He was bigger than anything I’d ever seen before, with bright red glowin’ eyes. That was the only thing I could make out on him, on account of the rest bein’ no more than a shadow. I didn’t see no sign of the little ones whose hands pulled me through from up top neither, just the big ‘un, starin’ at me. 

I was still whimperin’ some, even after my yells gave out. The thing still looked down on me, tiltin’ his head from one side to the other, but I don’t think he was the one that was makin’ the other sounds I was hearin’. It was some sorta clickin’ or snappin’ in a way. It was dark and kinda foggy all around me, but I could still make out a little. 

The walls almost looked as if they was wood, but the grains didn’t flow like no wood I’d ever seen. It ain’t easy to explain, but things wasn’t shaped like they are here, y’know? It looked like there was four walls, but also as if there was more. I couldn’t see no sorta ceilin’, and the ground I was layin’ on, didn’t feel like nothin’ natural or man-made. 

The clickin’ sounds was all around me and, no matter where I turned my head, I couldn’t see where it was coming from, even though it sounded like it was right beside me. Soon as the shadow thing wrapped its hand around both my legs, and lifted me from the floor, my bladder couldn’t hold back no more.

The thing had to be ten times my height at the time. I was kinda small for my age, but I still hadn’t never seen nothin’ this big. While I dangled in front of the shadow man’s red eyes, I could make out more of its features, though that ain’t sayin’ much. It had jet black skin, and a sorta plain face. Normal enough nose and mouth and all but, when it licked its lips while it stared me down, I could see that even its tongue and teeth were black. It was like lookin’ at a negative of a picture, or somethin’. 

On top of that, from up high where I was hangin’, I could make out more of what stood under me. This’ll likely sound even crazier than a twenty-foot shadow man, but I swear to the good lord they looked like man-sized prayin’ mantises. They was hidden behind that odd haze that made the one that held me look like nothin’ more than shadow at first, so it was hard to focus my eyes on ’em. 

Could be they was nothin’ more than some menfolk in costumes, but they didn’t move like no man I’d ever seen. Can’t rightly say whether the one that held me, or the giant bugs clickin’ at each other had me more unsettled, but I was sure I was done for nonetheless. 

It felt like the big ‘un moved in slow motion almost, but it still hurt somethin’ awful when he slapped my body onto some sorta hard slab that growed outta the ground before my eyes. Knocked the wind outta me too. When he stood back up, he looked like nothin’ more than a shadow again, but the mantis things moved in closer to where I was layin’. 

One of ’em was holdin’ some sorta chains or straps or somethin’, and the other had some odd lookin’ tools of some kind. One of ’em looked kinda like some pliers my Pop had in the garage, and the other reminded me of the needles the Doc would stick in Momma’s arms, but they wasn’t made of no metal or glass I’d ever seen. I was shiverin’ from my head to my toes, and squallerin’ as loud as I could. I was sure no-one or nothin’ could hear me, but I was screamin’ for help anyways. 

When I heard what sounded like a blade bein’ sharpened from somewheres in the darkness, it dawned on me I still had my Bowie strapped to my belt. Pappy had told me to be extra careful when he’d give me it for Christmas, on account of the edge he’d ground onto it. He shaved the hairs off his arm to show me how sharp it was. Sure ‘nough, it left a shiny bald spot on his forearm in a second or two. 

Soon as one of the giant bugs made to pull a strap over my chest, I pulled my blade and swiped it across its arm, or leg or whatever it was it held out. Whatever it was, I cut it short, and it let out a squeal like I ain’t never heard. The other one came at me, and I stuck it with my blade too; carved into whatever sorta flesh it had like a hot stick of butter. 

Both of ’em were hollerin’ themselves now, and the big ‘un came reachin’ for me. Soon as I dodged to the side, which weren’t none too hard on account of how slow it moved, I heard a sorta muffled yell comin’ from outside of that room. It was hard to tell, with it comin’ from what I supposed to be the outside world, but it sounded like someone was callin’ my name.

I didn’t see no doors, or much of nothin’ else, and I couldn’t tell what direction the voice was comin’ from, so I just screamed out, “I’m in here,” as loud as I could. I just kept hollerin’ out the same words, over and over, while dodgin’ the big guy and swattin’ at him with my Bowie. 

Soon as I run the blade across the hand it’d stretched out, causin’ it to squeal out in another unsettlin’ sorta sound, I saw somethin’ else that damn near turned my hair white. Maybe ten feet over the spot I was layin’ on when I come to, I saw a normal enough, human lookin’ arm reachin’ through a sorta blue glowin’ hole. 

The mantis whose arm was a bit shorter now, was helpin’ the other one back up from the floor, so I knew I didn’t have long. Without even thinkin’, I run for the hole. I leapt for the hand, ‘soon as I got within range, but I missed it, and fell back onto the ground, damn near knockin’ the wind outta me again.  

I ain’t sure if this’ll make any sense; hell, I ain’t sure if none of this makes any kinda sense, but that clickin’ sound was a lot more aggravated than it was before. They was both comin’ at me, and the big ‘un was comin’ back into view behind me too. The one I stuck wasn’t movin’ fast, and neither was the shadow thing, but the other was chargin’ pretty good. 

I jumped up again, but I couldn’t get within a shout of the hand that was danglin’ down from elsewhere. I was gonna have to get a runnin’ start if I hoped to get close enough. With the big ‘un on one side, and the bugs on the other, I was runnin’ outta options. 

I just run straight at the mantis that was chargin’ me, swingin’ my blade from side to side, just hopin’ I could get it to back off. My pants were still soaked on account of my bladder givin’ out, but my tiny legs was still scurryin’ like a mouse. Soon as my Bowie made contact with the gut of the giant bug, it hit the ground, clutchin’ at its middle. 

The other wasn’t far behind it, but it stopped in place while I was still wavin’ the knife around like a madman. I saw the big ‘un reach for the arm that was pokin’ through the hole, so I didn’t have no more time to waste. I just run as fast as I could. When I got close enough, I jumped as high as my legs could take me. 

I grabbed onto the arm with both hands, lettin’ my knife hit the ground. I didn’t mean to drop it, but I didn’t wanna risk not holdin’ on tight enough, and I sure ‘nough didn’t wanna poke it into the one that was tryin’ to pull me out. ‘Fore I knew it, I was lyin’ in the tall grass, pantin’ and a wheezin’ worse than I did the first time I smoked a cigarette. 

While I lay there catchin’ my breath, my Pappy pulled me in close, grippin’ me tight and not lettin’ go. Soon as I realized it was his arm what poked through the doorway ‘tween this place and the other, I got scared he’d holler at me for not listenin’. Seemed all he cared ’bout at the time was that I was alright. 

I was still shakin’ all over, and crying my eyes red; so was he, truth be told. I was sayin’ I was sorry over and over, but he just held me tight, rubbin’ my back. I think he was tryin’ to calm me down, but he was as tore up as I was. It was dark out, by this point, so I didn’t know how long I’d been down there, nor how long he mighta been lookin’ for me. I figure he got home and seen the tackle box gone. Likely didn’t take him long to put together where I’d got off to. He was always a smart one; my Pop. 

Once he got me calmed down, he patted me on the back and told me to go on and get to my bike. I held up for a minute to wait for him, but he told me to get on home and he’d be there shortly. At first, I thought he was fixin’ to jump back down that hole and show them monsters a thing or two, but even as strong as my Pappy was, I thought that’d be a bad idea. 

Wasn’t ’til I got close to the edge of the creek, when I looked back to see him just watchin’ me with a smile on his face. It wasn’t his normal smile, though. He still had tears drippin’ down, but there was somethin’ else in his face I couldn’t figure out. 

We just stared at each other for a minute or two, before he just closed his eyes. Soon as it hit me what was happenin’, I charged back over to where he stood; rooted in place. I was maybe a few feet from him when he got pulled under. I dug around the ground where we’d sat huggin’ and cryin’, but it was only dirt and grass. Weren’t no sign of any sorta hole or entrance to the other place. 

I still clawed at the ground ’til my fingernails bent back and my skin tore. I was hollerin’ and wailin’ again, but there weren’t no sign of him, nor where he’d went. Seems whatever door he pulled me out of had closed ‘soon as he went through it. 

I rode back home faster than I knew I could. Maybe took me half the time to get back than it had to get out to the creek in the first place. I told my Momma what’d happened, and she was all kinda shook. She called the sheriff to come out, but I didn’t know if he could help with somethin’ like this. He was an older feller; likely as old as I am now, but he didn’t seem to think too kindly ’bout goin’ out to Boulder Creek. 

I was pitchin’ a fit and Momma was causin’ a fuss too, so he finally give in and headed up the trail with Deputy Mills. He was half the age of the sheriff, but he come off like his shit smelled pretty. Looked down his nose at me and Momma as if we ain’t have no right to call ’em. Still, he didn’t look none too thrilled about goin’ up to the old creek neither, but the trail was wide enough for the car to get ’em close, ‘fore they’d have to go on foot the rest of the way. 

They wouldn’t let me or Maw come with ’em, on account of it bein’ unsafe if a crime had been committed. I still wanted to go, but I couldn’t leave Momma alone. She was all manner of upset, and I was still tore up myself. I didn’t think they would even know what to look for, but I didn’t trust ’em to put a lotta work into lookin’.

It was somewheres ’round midnight when they come back, but they didn’t turn nothin’ up. I figured they wouldn’t, but they had dried mud and dirt all under their fingernails, and coverin’ their shirt and pants, so it looked as though they’d at least tried; more ‘n I thought they would anyways. Both of ’em looked plumb rattled, and the deputy was white as a ghost. 

They had me fill out some paperwork, but it read like I was all kinda crazy when I read it back. The Sheriff told me he’d get together a search party, and do what they could to find Pop, but they never did turn nothin’ up. Weren’t no body found or nothin’. It was like he just vanished from this earth all together. S’pose that’s about the truth of it anyways.

He warned me never to go up to Boulder Creek again, but I still would from time to time, when my uncle would come to take Momma into the city to see the Doc. I never found much of nothin’ neither, but every now and then; when I would just sit still in the quiet of the place, I could swear I’d hear someone call out from somewheres far away. Coulda just been my mind playin’ tricks though. 

I always told myself I’d go back up that ways again someday. It’s my fault he got pulled down there in my place. I shoulda listened to him when he told me not to go there, but I was just too damn hardheaded to hear it. I know I ain’t got no-one to blame but myself for what happened, but Momma never blamed me; not once. She mourned for my Pop, but she still loved me with her whole heart until it give out.

I still hold onto the hope that Pappy found my Bowie knife and hacked them things to bits before they could strap him down to that slab. I know I left ’em hurtin’ a good bit, but I don’t know about that big ‘un, nor whatever them little hands was neither. Could be he’s still down there, lookin’ for a way out. Even if he would be pushin’ ninety by now, he was the toughest sombitch I ever knew. He wouldn’t never go down without takin’ them with him.  

I know this story likely sounds like the ramblin’s of a mad old man. Lord knows I’ve told you more than my share of wild ones over the years, and I ain’t got no doubt you know I was full of shit on most of ’em. You was always kind enough to play along when I’d spin the same old yarns time after time, and I can’t thank you enough for that, kid.

I was never the same after I lost my Pop, and I s’pose I still got a screw or two loose, but you never made fun or showed me no sorta disrespect. You’re a good kid, and I appreciate you humorin’ me this one last time. 

With all the crap I’ve fed you over the years, I can’t neither ask, nor expect you to believe this one to be true, but hand to God, this one may be the only truth I’ve ever told you. I ain’t never seen no aliens, and I for damn sure couldn’t fight off no armed robbers to save my life, but there are some things out there, kid; some things we weren’t never meant to see or meet. 

I can’t rightly say where that creek sent me that day, nor where my Pappy ended up but, to this day, I still wish I had answers to it all. I’m sure I ain’t got too many years left ahead of me, and I sure as hell ain’t gettin’ no younger. 

Always wondered what I’d find if I just kept diggin’, though I don’t think they was so much under the earth as under the world. Somewheres under the surface of what we know to be. Maybe, though; maybe I’ll…

We were interrupted by the graveyard shift coming in, and I never had a chance to find out where that sentence would lead. Before he headed out for the night, Truman clapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand. He said he was truly sorry for my loss and told me to take care of myself. 

There was something more genuine in his voice than I had ever heard. Somehow, I think I knew that would be the last time I saw him. That one final story almost felt like a confession he needed to get off his chest, and I feel proud that he entrusted those last words to me. 

He never handed in any notice, nor did he just outright quit the job he had held for the better part of twenty years; he just didn’t come in the next day, nor any that followed. There was no obituary, no funeral; simply no sign of where he went, but I had a feeling I knew what his destination had been after he clocked out that one last time. His wife had died some years back, and his two sons had moved away after college, so nobody knew much of anything about where Daniel Truman’s future carried him. 

Some time back, I considered taking a trip to his old homestead to look for answers, but I could find absolutely no information on the town of Rimrose Fall, let alone the creek which sat just a way behind it. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough or didn’t entirely want to be tempted to follow up on where such a quest could lead me. There are some mysteries out there that are best left unsolved.

Still, as completely out there as his story was, I believe every single word to this day. It could be that he just changed the name of the town to prevent me from temptation. Of course, it most certainly could have been no more than just another tall tale he told me that day. One last bizarre product of an imaginative mind. Just one more for the road…but I don’t think so. Not this one.

I like to camp and fish from time to time, but I never retreat to the more secluded spots of the world anymore. Maybe I’m just a gullible idiot, or a little bit intimidated by the possibilities, but maybe not. Perhaps we are little more than fish in a barrel to those who dwell beneath, should we be unfortunate enough to cross into their territory. I did purchase a fairly hefty Bowie knife for when I do take those trips out into the woods; that along with my pistol. It never hurts to be prepared, after all. 

I truly hope that Daniel Truman is still out there somewhere; bending the ear of many who may have grown as tired of his tales as I had, at one time. For most I have crossed paths with over the years, I would wish them well, and hope they find what they are looking for in life, but not Truman. I hate to think what he may have found, if he did go in search of it.