My first horror story. Happy Halloween, my friends!
“You’ll wanna stay out of them woods.”
I nodded. I’d spent the last twenty minutes listening to a litany of advice from our new neighbor Mr. Gagnon, a hunched-over old man who looked like he’d spent most of his life outdoors.
“The woods,” I repeated. “Stay out. Got it.”
I glanced toward the house, where the kids raced their bikes up and down the driveway. The trees beyond our backyard did not seem particularly ominous; they were just spindly oaks and maples, probably growing on land that had been logged at least half a dozen times. What was his problem? Lyme disease? He didn’t look like the sort who would be worried about ticks.
“Uh, thanks for all the advice,” I stammered. “Listen, I’d better go help with the boxes. Lots of work, moving in.”
The old man grunted and offered his hand. His handshake was surprisingly firm, like gripping solid oak.
I almost told Leslie what Mr. Gagnon said about the woods, but she was on the phone with her mother, arguing, so I kept my mouth shut. We were so busy over the next few months I forgot all about Mr. Gagnon’s bizarre warning.
Until the cat disappeared.
Sylvester was a fat, old tomcat, only good for shedding on the couch and spitting up hairballs next to the bed. He’d developed diabetes, and Leslie gave him insulin shots every morning. Stupid waste of money for a damn cat, if you ask me, but of course nobody asked me.
“Have you seen Sylvester?” Leslie asked, her brow furrowed over the kids’ lunch boxes.
I shook my head.
“You don’t think he got out?”
“I can’t imagine him moving that fast,” I said, but all I got was a thin, pale smile.
“I let him out.”
We turned to see Sarah, our nine-year-old, in the doorway. She met our gaze with her new defiant frown, an expression that made me dread the next ten years.
“Oh, honey, you let him out? Why?” Leslie said.
Sarah shrugged, climbing into her seat at the kitchen table. “He wanted to go out. He was meowing at the door.” She added a few mewling cries of her own, for emphasis.
“Don’t worry,” I said, wrapping my arm around Leslie’s shoulders. Of course, telling Leslie not to worry was like telling fire not to burn. “I’m sure he’ll come home soon. He knows where his food is.”
I was backing out of the driveway when I remembered Mr. Gagnon, and what he said about the woods. I glanced at the trees behind our house. The maple leaves were just turning, tinged with red and yellow in the bright September sun. Just trees, I thought. Not even woods, really.
Sylvester did not come back that night, nor the next night. After a week we had a little funeral service for him in the backyard, at Leslie’s insistence.
“It’ll be good for the kids,” she said. “It’ll help them process.”
Timothy didn’t seem to need much help processing. He was only four, and he spent most of the service hitting the fence with a stick. Sarah took it harder. That night I told Leslie over and over that Sarah would be fine, she’d get over it, and Sylvester was an old cat anyway. But that night I stared at the ceiling, remembering the look in Sarah’s eyes, and I wasn’t so sure this was the kind of mistake a kid got over.
Two weeks later we lost the dog.
The cat was old and sick. But the dog… She was only four, a young, healthy, painfully stupid springer spaniel named Daisy. Both kids were crying by the time I got home, and Leslie was beside herself.
“She just ran off for a second, I swear,” Leslie told me, her voice trembling and her eyes red-rimmed.
“Just into the woods. You know, like she always does. But she always comes back, Mike!”
I glanced through the living room windows at the woods. Almost all the trees were bare, now, their black branches scraping the evening sky. The shadows pooling around their trunks did seem very dark, almost thick.
I swallowed my apprehension. “She’ll come back,” I said, knowing full well the goddamn dog was gone forever.
One month later Mrs. Lindley called me out of a meeting, her pink lipsticked mouth pressed into a tight line. “It’s your wife,” she said, gesturing to my phone. “At least, I think it’s your wife.”
I picked up the receiver. It was Leslie, sobbing hysterically. I could barely make out her words, but it hardly mattered. I knew what she was going to say.
The children had gone into the woods.
It was dark by the time I got home, and it shouldn’t have been dark. I left the office as soon as I hung up the phone. It was too early for the sun to set. I slammed the car door shut and listened. I could hear Leslie’s voice, echoing through the woods.
“Timothy!” she screamed. “Sarah!”
I followed the sound of her voice. There’s only a quarter mile of trees before Elm Street; we saw the survey maps when we bought the house. Only a quarter mile of oaks and maples. That’s not enough space to lose someone.
The ground beneath the trees was dark. Very dark. I followed the sound of Leslie’s voice, but it got fainter and farther away. And the trees got bigger, much bigger, so big I couldn’t wrap my arms around them. Some dim, distant part of my mind realized the woods behind our house should not hold such mammoth trees, just as it should not be this dark.
Only a quarter mile.
I should be able to hear Leslie’s voice.
I stopped, panting, staring up into a tangle of dark branches soaring far overhead. The woods were silent, absolutely silent, a tense, waiting, hungry sort of silent.
“Leslie!” I screamed. “I’m calling the police!”
I would like to say I did not run out of the woods, but that would be a lie.
The house is still dark. Far too dark. The sun should have come up by now. My cell phone claims I have no service, and the internet is out too. The darkness presses against the windows, rubbing its shoulders.
I wonder what happened to the damn cat.
I wonder how much longer I can stay here before I too go into the woods.
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