The two people I loved best in the world were my Grandmamma and my cousin Tommy. I grew up in the mountains, way past what most people would call civilization. My old elementary school had eight or ten boys and girls per grade, sometimes pooling two grades together for lack of teachers. It was small and sometimes lonely but it was home.
Tommy was my cousin, two months younger than me but better in every way a boy could be. He was always the faster runner, the stronger wrestler, the nimbler tree-climber, the sharper shot. I had been born sickly and spent the first five months of my life in and out of the hospital. Even when we grew-up, I had to keep my inhaler close just in case. Usually ‘in case’ was because I had tried, and failed, to keep up with or show off to Tommy. I worshiped the kid. We lived way up in the woods, our families the only ones around for miles.
Even though our houses were a country mile away we learned to find our way to each other before most kids learn to read. Tommy would pound me sometimes for being a know-it-all or a wuss but I mostly just felt lucky he was my friend at all. Besides, he made the other boys leave me alone at school and even helped me beat one of them up for calling me queer. The women in our family always told him ‘Be gentle with Evan’ or ‘Look after your little cousin’ even though I was the older of the two of us and I guess he always did that, mostly.
Grandmamma was a brilliant old woman, sharp as anything, and the only person I knew who liked to read as much as I did. She made it no secret that I was her favorite grand baby and Tommy pounded me for that sometimes too. The best thing about Grandmamma was her stories.
The stories old folks tell in the mountains aren’t like the stories in movies where a ghost girl haunts a well because her mother drowned her there. In the old stories there’s never a reason for any of it. There just is. There was Booger Rock that you didn’t dare ride past after sundown because the thing that lived there would jump on the back of your horse and claw the both of you and not jump off again until sunup.
It just was. Haints were a little more like the spirits of the dead but they didn’t call out for release to a better place and no one but a damned fool tried to give it to them. All a haint wanted was revenge or to be left alone or maybe a bit of shine left out for them when you went to their places. The old stories were all about things that couldn’t be understood and couldn’t be resisted.
The worst one of all, to me anyway, were the Old Ones. Grandmamma always told me that this wasn’t their world, they just walked in it when they chose. As pagan as it may have been she’d leave things out for them on special nights like Halloween and New Year’s. She said they took people but she never said where or why. She said that, unlike the monstrous cats or formless beasts, they were beautiful.
I had a pretty good childhood, really. One day daddy and Uncle John started telling me and Tommy about something called a ‘snipe’. Now I guess any boy can just Google ‘snipe hunt’ and know that he doesn’t want to go on one but back then it wasn’t so obvious and me and Tommy were out of our minds about going to hunt one. Uncle John was the best at telling us stories about that stupid made-up bird, talking about how beautiful its feathers were, how it only came out at night, how it could be made into the nicest little pet anyone ever had. The slick bastard even carved us both reed whistles and told us they were special snipe calls.
Tommy and me got into a real competition over that snipe-bird.
“I’m gonna catch one,” Tommy said, tall and smug and brash, “you’re just gonna get scared and run inside and cry on somebody’s skirts.”
“Nobody even wears skirts ‘cept for church!” I was an excessively literal minded child, “And you couldn’t catch a… a…”
“Cold?” Tommy asked, taking some measure of pity on me.
“Yeah,” I agreed lamely, “you couldn’t catch a cold.”
“How could I?” Tommy asked, obviously delighted that I had fallen for his trick, “You snatch them all up before anyone else can!”
That sort of thing went on for days before the night finally came, the night we were going to hunt that snipe and I was going to finally show Tommy up. Normally I was a bit of a coward, so filled up with Grandmamma’s stories that even the daytime woods had me glancing over my shoulder for one of her monsters. On that chilly September evening no power on Earth would have driven me from those woods. I had drawn my line in the sand. I was finally going to beat Tommy at something that a real man was good at.
We set out as soon as it was dark outside, following our fathers into the darkness, too focused on our task to notice their slightly tipsy laughter. At the time I was just mad at them for making so much noise and scaring all the snipes away. Daddy and Uncle John split up and I followed Daddy, both of us quiet in the darkness. I was focused on the yellow beam of his flashlight, my ears picking up every horrible night-sound of the forest. There were rustles in the bushes and cracking twigs and odd sounds I couldn’t place. Now that there weren’t two big men there, laughing and joking, I started to feel the oppressive weight of the woods upon me.
“Daddy?” I said, my voice sounding both inappropriately loud and hopelessly small in the chill air.
“This looks like a good spot, Evan,” he said, pointing me at a hollow by an old oak tree, “that’s right where that snipe will run when me and John run him out. You just stand there with your call and tweet on it just like a snipe would. And hold this bag out, keep it flush with the ground.” He handed me an old feed sack and steered me by my shoulder to the tree.
I stood splay-legged and hunched over, holding the bag out. The whistle was tucked in my mouth and as I breathed out it made a little peeping noise.
“That’s right, boy, just like that,” Daddy said and patted me on the head. Then he turned and started to walk away.
“Wait, Daddy!” I said, keeping my voice a whisper as the call fell from my mouth. “Don’t I get a light?” I asked. There was only a little sliver of moon out and even the sparse autumn leaf cover was enough to make the woods as black as any cave.
“Now, Evan, you know snipes are afraid of the light. Don’t you worry, boy, I’ll be back for you as soon as I’ve chased one out. You just be brave.” He picked my fallen whistle from the loamy earth and tucked it back between my lips. Then he walked off into the darkness, becoming a little yellow glow, and then nothing at all.
I stood there alone trying to be a good hunter and keeping up a sad little ‘peep-peep’ on my whistle. I could imagine the sound attracted every single booger and haint in the whole county. When I closed my eyes it felt like the woods stretched on forever around me, like I was just a tiny speck lost in a great sea of nothingness. Open it was even worse. Half-formed shapes in the almost non-existent light turned into every nightmare I had ever had. A fallen branch became a snarling wolf and a laurel bush was one of the impossibly giant cats from Grandmamma’s stories.
“What shall we do with him?” I imagined it saying to the wolf.
“Let’s wait till Martin gets here,” I could almost hear the wolf reply.
For a long time I was scared too stiff to move a muscle, certain that even the slightest twitch would bring all the fiends of hell straight down on my head. My back ached from being hunched over holding the bag and my legs were trembling in their awkward position. Still, Daddy would be back soon, just after he found a snipe to chase to me. I’d catch the snipe and Tommy would have to be jealous of me.
The fear only got worse and my thin legs started to shake from the cold and the stress. Tears had started to gather in my eyes but I didn’t dare move to wipe them away. If anyone ever found I would be called a crybaby until high school. I kept telling myself that if I just waited another moment then Daddy would come and we could go home and Mamma would have some cocoa or cider hot and waiting for me.
Something rustled behind me. It was probably a raccoon or a possum but as far as I was concerned those didn’t even exist anymore. With one unmanly scream I lost my whistle and started running faster than I had ever run in my life. Branches slapped at my face and arms but they felt more like bony fingers in the nightmare night. The very hounds of hell may have been nipping at my heels for all I was going to stop.
Pain tore through my chest but adrenaline kept it far from my mind. I just ran, single-minded to do that one thing and to do it well. By the time I realized just how hard it was to breathe my legs weren’t underneath me anymore. I was in a wet, slick pile of leaves, something slimy against my cheek.
There was a red hot need to get the bad air out of my lungs but my throat wasn’t half wide enough to force it through so I just kept taking gasping little puffs of frigid nothing, more desperate to run again than I was to breathe. There was light at the corners of my vision. I barely remembered where I was or what I was doing. All I knew was that I was scared. I needed to run. I needed to breathe so that I could run again.
“Thank Gawd, Evan. I thought for sure you were… D’joo see it too?” I had never been more relieved to hear Tommy in my entire life. I looked up at his tousled blond hair, gone silver in the vague moonlight, and he looked back down at me.
"Oh, hell, Evan. You’re dyin’!” Tommy said and bent down, punching me hard in the shoulder before he started to dig at my pockets. A moment later he had stuffed the end of my inhaler in my mouth and pressed down on it. He didn’t time it quite right so I only got a tiny bit but it gave me enough medicine that I wasn’t going to faint. The light at the edge of my vision grew brighter instead of dimmer.
“Wha-“ I started to talk but it turned into more wheezing and some truly pathetic coughs.
“You got a slug on you,” Tommy said, and peeled the slug off my cheek, sticking it on my forehead. He grinned at me as he dropped my inhaler against my aching chest.
The light got brighter and I saw something that hurt. I closed my eyes against the pain and felt something trickle down my cheeks. I groped for my inhaler, now cognizant of awful situation I was in. Tommy had saved my life and I was never going to live it down.
I could hear voices, or something almost like a voice. It sort of had the shape of a voice and it said words but it was sharper and not human.
“-a good strong solider.” That was all I caught and I curled in if on myself, wincing. I felt like the slug on my face if he’d been at the bottom of a salt cellar. Wrong. This felt wrong.
“What about the little one?” another aspect of the sound-that-was-not-voice asked. It meant me. It had to mean me and I twisted myself even smaller, trying to somehow wriggle away from that hurting noise. It was like being a worm on a hook. Something bigger than me was there and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. Even if it knew it was hurting me there was no way it would care in the slightest.
“It’s almost dead. Leave it.” There was disdain in that and I felt it as keenly as I would have a hammer blow to the face. A silent scream bloomed and died in my choking throat, materializing as a rattling gasp.
Mercifully, the light receded and I opened my aching eyes. Tommy wasn’t there. Nothing was there except some rough scarecrow crudely fashioned out of sticks and yellowed grass slumped against a tree trunk. Slowly I stood, finding my inhaler in the dirt and taking a good healthy puff into my lungs. I wiped the slug off of my face and walked over to the scarecrow.
It looked funny, like I should have been frightened of something like that in the woods but I wasn’t. I poked its twiggy arm and pulled a clump of dry grass off of its head, staring at it for a moment before fitting it in my little hand and tucking it into my jacket pocket.
Somehow I stumbled home, my bleary eyes half-adjusted to the night and my head reeling like I had the flu. I pushed the door open and stood there, flinching at the light and almost running from it. That brightness wasn't so awful but it was like... it was like the thing had been.
“Told you! Told you Evan would be first!” Uncle John shouted, slamming a fist on the dining room table, “That’s twenty you owe me, Phil!” And then he went dead silent and a little pale.
Daddy was beside me before I knew what was happening and I pulled away from him at once. My body hurt everywhere and I didn’t want anyone to touch me. I never wanted to be touched again. Every touch felt wrong, like it was going to hurt me. Things were going to hurt me.
“Shh, Evan. What happened, buddy?” he asked.
“I got scared and came inside,” I said. My voice sounded so far away.
“Evan, what happened to you?” he said, louder this time, his voice hurting my head. I pulled my hands from my pockets and pressed them against my ears. When he started shaking me I screamed and I didn’t stop until the world was black again.
When I came too I was in the hospital. The doctor said that, aside from the gash on my forehead they had sewed up, there was nothing wrong with me other than shock. The blood in my eyes had just come from the cut on my head. They didn’t tell me for a week that Tommy was dead.
They said it was a cougar but no one had any explanation for why I had a pocketful of his hair and I wasn’t about to tell them what I had seen. Nothing really went back to normal after that. Uncle John stopped coming over and Daddy didn’t seem to care so much about me. Everyone seemed scared of me after that except for Grandmomma.
She was the only person I ever told about what happened and, when she didn’t call me crazy or act like she thought I was gonna kill her too, I asked her what I should have done different. “Honey,” she said, “I’ve told you ‘bout the world out there since you were a baby. Storybooks make us feel strong, tell that monsters can be beat. I’ve always tol’ you that bad things happen. You can’t stop them, no more than you can stop the wind from blowin’ nor the rain from fallin’.”
After Grandmamma passed, I left that town and I’ve not looked back since. I don’t care what happened. All I know is that it did. Trying to fight whatever happened is like trying to fight the ocean for drowning someone.
Worms don’t live their lives worrying about ending up on a hook as fish bait or wondering about those who did. All I can do is hold fast to the brownstone around me and the constant thrum of humanity, praying that we’re safer together. I still shiver when I cut through the park, worrying that it’s a little brighter between some trees than it ought to be.