It was cold that morning. A biting wind was rolling in clouds up above. It seemed as if weather reporters were right in predicting a blizzard that afternoon, but it surely wasn’t going to be as small as they first thought. These clouds were dark and brooding: blowing in from the east.
After only an hour, the smallest hint of snowflakes began to join those already packed into the ground by the running shoes and winter boots of local citizens. No one was out now, of course. They had all heard the reports; they knew the storm was coming. Parents had pulled their children inside from the streets, cars had been hastily pulled into garages to protect against blowing debris, and all was silent, save for the howling that had now kicked up.
No one was out, except for one young man by the name of Jonathan McGaffery. He was out about his merry way, strolling along the middle of the road. There was no traffic, with everyone already inside their homes. His footfalls, had anyone been around, wouldn’t have been heard from more than a foot away. The bottoms of his pants were beginning to grow damp with the snow melting from his body heat. The wind thrashed against the wetness and chilled him to the bone, but it did not matter to him. He had a place to go; a purpose to fulfill.
He was very ill-prepared; he wore his jeans loosely held up by a tattered brown belt. His white t-shirt was soiled with food and sweat stains along with the slightest hint of dirt. His shoes clearly needed replacing, as they were laced with holes. He wore no socks, so his bare feet often touched the flakes of snow. He could feel himself growing more and more numb as he trudged along, but still, it did not matter.
John paused to look up at the frozen stoplight. It flooded the white ground with an eerie red light. It reminded him of his elementary school days of watching other students perform plays on the big stage. It had many different coloured lights above it, which would change during different moods. He most vividly recalled the red lights reflecting on the polished wooden floor while a young boy enacted the death of Billy Bones from their production of Treasure Island. It was a cheesy performance, with every other character baring a parrot on one shoulder with an eye patch across the opposite eye. But there was always something about those lights that got his attention. Something drew in his imagination the moment Billy fell to the floor and was consumed in crimson light. The way he cried out in pain, as if his heart was being crushed by some paranormal force somehow always caught his interest.
The light then changed to green and he was snapped out of his trance. Just got to keep walking... He said to himself as he picked up his stride again. He continued down the main road until he reached Shady Line and took a left. The wind was beginning to pick up now, and it moaned against his ears. If the sky hadn’t been cloaked in clouds, he would have been able to see the sun starting to rise. But it was as dark as night, and the streetlights provided the only luminosity he needed to get to the end of the street.
He couldn’t tell with the grass covered in snow, but he knew the spot. This was where the sidewalk ended and the grass began. The stores and houses had begun to dwindle out until the only man-made structure that could be seen was the fence. He knew the highway lay just behind it, but no cars were using it. Not a single set of headlights lit up the horizon. All was silent. And all there was in sight was what lay beyond the fence.
The Shade was a wooded area surrounded by a tall, chain link fence. It was new when he first started coming here, but now it was rusted from weather and age. Rarely did anyone come close to it, as they all feared the area because of their lack of understanding. The only people who even came close to the fence were boys and teens – aside from Jonathan himself – who dared each other to touch it as a test of manhood. Most of the older people who ever loitered around the fence were high, drunk, or was under the influence of some kind of drug. Those who came too close never returned home, and search parties sent out were to no avail. The only reason they came close to the Shade was because of their fear and their knowledge of others fear of the same thing.
But John was different. He respected what lay within the Shade, and its territory. He was very observant and noticed that in the summer not even the bugs would go beyond the fence. Not a single one; not the grasshoppers, nor the fireflies, nor the beetles. As far as he was aware, not even the worms lay buried in the soil beneath. He figured that whatever they respected deep in the forest deserved it.
He crouched down in the snow and let the melting slush seep through the knees of his pants. He had to crouch down to reach the spot that he had always used to grasp: six links from the bottom. This spot wasn’t as rusted as the others, as his tiny hand had protected it from erosion. However, it wouldn’t be long until the small area became the same reddish-brown as the rest of the metal. He still recalled so much about the fence. It was just three links to the left of here where he fell and cut his hand on a protruding piece of metal when he was eleven. His mind ran free again as it escaped back to the memory of the world swirling past him until he hit the ground. He recalled the smell of freshly dewed grass and a scent that reminded him of the garbage in his home if he left it in the kitchen too long.
No matter how long he examined that memory, he could never remember why he had fallen. Was it the wind? Had he tripped? Or did someone push him? He could only recall the twirling landscape, smacking into the ground, then pain. His hand oozed scarlet blood that changed to the colour of rust upon dripping to the ground. It stirred up dust and seeped into the earth bellow.
The more he pondered what he knew about the Shade, the more curious he became. Of why his mother told him to never jump the fence, of why everyone seemed to fear it, of what really lay inside the Shade; all such questions passed through his thoughts. His eyes wandered up to the sign placed at the top of the fence. It was such a powerful, yet simple statement: “Shade: No Trespassing.” It amused John to know that it was just a hastily airbrushed “private property” sign.
Jonathan suddenly came up with an idea. There wasn’t much left for him in the town. He never really got along with any of the other citizens, even as a child. His parents were gone, his classmates were gone, and he wasn’t able to write the same best-sellers as he had in mind. Hardly any of the older or younger people knew him, and his peers that did had either moved away or thought he was crazy. Maybe he was a little crazy. But that all lead down to one thing: if he didn’t have anything left to live for here, why not take a look at what there was to see inside the Shade?
It was even colder than before now. The wind no longer seemed to move in the same westward direction it had earlier that morning. It now blew flakes of snow every which-way, making them dance for brief seconds before colliding with the banks that now covered the second link in the fence from the bottom. If John were to step outside of the small hole he had created, he would have soaked three times the amount of pant leg he had by walking through the streets of town by plunging it into snow. Despite the fact that the twirling blizzard now blocked his vision, he looked to either side to be sure that no one could see what he was about to do. He was going to break the single rule that had been engraved into his brain since he was a small child by every adult figure in his life.
Cautiously he stood, placed his foot on the sixth link from the bottom of the fence and began to climb.
He couldn’t feel his fingers now, nor the metal he held between them. He was clearly struggling to get to the top as his movements slowed with each step he took. He stopped about halfway up and braced himself against the chilling wind. For a minute, he considered going back home. His warm bed would be waiting for him, and he’d be able to get a hot cup of Mr. Noodles from the cupboard and treat what was now surely frostbite all over his body. But then he recalled his purpose and continued to ascend.
Jonathan reached the top of the fence and paused a second time. He could feel the metal teetering under his weight along with the force of the wind, which up here blew at full force. He rocked back and forth precariously as he swung his left leg over the topmost bar. That’s when he stumbled, lost his footing, and plummeted from his perch down to the forest floor bellow. His vision grew dark from his contact with the earth and he slowly pulled his body back up again. Now, his vision was pure white from the snow that still clung in patches on his brow. He cried out in pain: he could feel that his ribcage was bruised, and his back ached. He stood, cautiously testing the extent of his wounds and at the misshapen snow angel his body had created. It looked as if the poor holy apparition had fallen from his heavenly post and smashed into the earth.
He looked up. The trees were shielding most of the now howling winds, so he was able to see deeper into the forest than before. However, it was still darker than night only a few feet in. John slipped his hand into his back pocket and felt for his Zippo lighter. Upon finding it, he pulled it out, flicked it on and held it out at arm’s length to light the way and stepped into the forest.
Just the atmosphere of the Shade was odd, and gave John a feeling that made the hairs on his neck stand on end. The forest was completely silent. Not even his own footsteps seemed to make a sound. The ground felt hard, but not as if it was frozen. Snow couldn’t reach the ground, so the bare patches of soil could be seen through the dead and dying grass. And was it his own imagination, or did all the trees look the same?
The yellow-orange flame flickered as he walked between the tall trunks and he coiled his hand around it as best as he could to prevent it from going out. It illuminated the trees close by as well as his hand, bathing everything within a small radius in an insignificant glow. The bark had a rough texture and the leaves had what surely must have been a very distinctive leaf shape. Yet, no matter how hard he looked, John just could not come up with a tree name to match them.
He knew that whatever lived in the Shade would be disappointed in him for invading its home. And that he would be risking everything by trying to meet it, but he continued on, growing colder as he went deeper. He thought he heard footsteps, but the beating of his heart made it difficult to hear.
He pondered more of this creature. Where had it come from? Was it here always, or had it moved from someplace else? Could it be an extraterrestrial being that took its victims to its ship to be probed and examined? Or was it a demon sent from Hell, used to drag more souls into the underworld from whence it came? What did it look like? No one knew anything of what lay within the Shade, so the possibilities were endless. Did it take its victims elsewhere to do whatever it did? Or kill them where they stood? Maybe it didn’t kill them at all. Perhaps it took them to a much happier place to live. Perhaps-
John could feel his eyes starting to close. He couldn’t die here; not now. He would have to pick up the pace if he were to find it before his brain began to stop working.
He heard something. He was sure of it this time. He tried to speak up in the darkness, but the dull pain in his parched throat and his cracked lips prevented him from doing so. All that came out was an “oooo” sound, much like owl, hooting at a passerby. Who’s there, was what he was trying to ask. Who’s there?
He felt something brush by his leg and in shock he dropped his lighter. He heard it clink to the ground a second later. It was useless now that he wouldn’t be able to find it. He wasn’t able to tell what the object that touched him was. Scaly, furry, soft, rough? It was as if he felt all of these textures, yet none at all. As if it was all these things at once. He oooo’d again.
Something brushed by his lips and when he jumped back in astonishment, he tripped over something. If it was a log, a root or it, he didn’t know. It was too late now. Now he felt his back grow sore from the fall and in the dim light from the far off streetlight, he saw a form that both slithered and walked towards him simultaneously.
He felt a sharp pain at the base of his left leg and his voice now formed an “aaaa” sound, like a scream with nowhere to go.
John felt a second pain in his opposite leg and the ground began to grow sticky. He reached up and touched it before his consciousness began to fade out. As his mind died out, his vision faded from black to red and he felt something slither up both of his legs.
His heart ceased beating.
Though no one knew John left, he was the first person to return home from the Shade. He treated his frostbite and had his Mr. Noodles in the end. He never did see what the thing within the Shade looked like, but that was alright. Because it wasn’t in the Shade anymore. It was in John.