Uhh... how do I start this? I'm not good at segueing between paragraphs, so bear with me. I'll try and go with some background explanation first, because we all love background explanations, right? Anyway...
We're the Masons, a cutesy, sitcom family comprised of five souls and renowned for producing incredibly precocious children. My father, Robert Mason, has been working as a District Attorney for quite a while now. He's rather calm, collected, but very much capable of drifting into bouts of mania. Trust me. I should know.
Then, there is my Mom, Julia. She isn't as tolerant as my old man, but never quite managed to strike fear in our hearts. Looking back at it, I frankly have no idea why. Ever since middle school, I always thought it's because my Dad's a man and as such is much more competent at being scary, but now, now that all traces of my fifth grade sexist mindset have vanished, I'm not quite sure.
There's also my sister, Alex, currently twenty-one and hellbent on following my dad's footsteps. Simply put, the only member of our family who didn't quite fit was Jeremy, my brother whom I preceded by five minutes. We were twins, yeah, so alike that we even used to complete each other's assignments back in middle school. When I say he didn't fit, I don't mean to imply he didn't fit in our family - no, his weird behavior covered a much bigger radius. He used to walk completely nude around the house, either terrorizing our sister or performing usual tasks. His tasteless jokes always got him in trouble at school and granted him the top spot in a lot of people's shit lists. I mean, I wasn't the most famous kid in school, and I still am not, but unlike my twin, I actually had a couple of friends I could hang out with. He only had me, and even I was seriously taking into account the possibility of disowning his hairy ass. He once accused me for his shitty behavior, claiming I attempted to eat him while on the womb, only to later shrug it off as a joke. If that's not unusual, I don't know what is.
Albeit a little bit late, Jeremy sensed that he was unwanted. That is what drove him to take steps towards a decision which would forever change his life.
Sixteen. That was the age he decided that he was done with Dad's constant rambling. It was a bright Thursday. I came into his room, shuffled through his disarranged "Green Day" posters to find out a little envelope, the letter inside detailing his escape from, and I quote, "the recurring madness lurking around the Mason spot". I have yet to decipher the meaning of that message, but I went on to presume he was referring to Robert's reprimands.
Immediately after he found out of his take off, my Dad went on the move. He was a DA, so money were not a problem for him, for any of us, actually. If there was something we never complained about, that would be money. But I digress. Dad phoned every contact in his phonebook and kept doing that for six months. Six goddamn months it took for him to track my brother down. Turns out he had a couple of cultist friends we weren't aware of, which further increased our belief that he was on serious drugs. He was a recluse when we found him, living alone in a cabin deep in the dense wood, a cabin which only Robert, and now recently, I had the privilege of visiting. Dad went first, in a pathetic attempt to convince my brother to come back. The latter didn't budge, and the whole argument closed with my Dad placing five grand on the table and then quietly leaving the place. The first week after the confrontation was characterized by an awkward silence. Mom constantly asked Dad what went on, Dad refused to answer while me and my then-19 year old sister were left in the middle, having to bear with their wordless scowls.
Now that I'm finally done explaining this strained family relationship, you can only imagine how hard my mom's decision that I should celebrate my 19th birthday with Jeremy struck me. I voiced my displeasure, protested, but it only took one glare from my stern father to force me into obedience. He decided that this birthday wasn't going to be about me, but rather about my not so beloved sibling.
So, I took off. I reluctantly packed my bags, reluctantly called a cab and made a reluctant fifteen minute jog to his place, right after going through an hour long drive. I'm not trying to come off as one of those spoiled, rich kids, but by the end of my mini-journey, I was exhausted. It wasn't like that was the first time I ever stepped into the woods. I was in a summer camp before, and we did all kinds of outdoor activities, but besides that, I'd go for the smell of smoke and garbage anytime over... whatever the woods promise. Jeremy in the other hand; all he lacked were the yellow buckteeth, and a pair of testicles dangling out of his ripped jeans, and he could easily fit the typical profile of a Hollywood redneck.
I climbed the small flight of stairs leading to the cabin's porch, struggling to move my luggage away from the dirt. I must have made quite a noise in the process, but there was nobody to be disturbed, except my brother, undoubtedly. I stood by the wooden front door, letting a soft sigh before tapping into it twice. I could make out a faint noise coming from the inside, sorta like a creak, accompanied by what sounded to be footsteps. After what seemed like forever, someone opened the door. Surely, it was my brother whom I hadn't seen since two years and a half. The neck beard he was sporting rendered him unrecognizable, but not enough for me to not be able to make out his pale, freckly, cocaine induced face.
He eyed me suspiciously, his sight following an invisible trail that started from my luggage and ended into my face. Looking at his expressionless face, I felt like one of those Jehovah's witnesses, that is, unwanted, but his grimace didn't last long. A half-arsed smile is all I could make at first, before I felt his arms wrapped around me and his head resting on my shoulder. Crazy or not, Jeremy could never hold a grudge for long. I admit, his surprise hug really... surprised me, but looking back at it I don't think it should have. That's what two years of avoiding interaction with your siblings does to you, ladies and gents. It makes you lose knowledge on their habits and routine.
"Happy Birthday, bro!" Jeremy excitedly pronounced, finally relieving me from his tight grip. I congratulated him back. He grabbed my luggage and invited me in. I complied.
The second I landed my feet inside the house, I couldn't make myself to look at it. My expectations were a dusty, disorganized living room, a kitchen in the verge of collapsing and a toilet at the far corner which would also serve as a meth lab. But no - the interior of Jeremy's house bore less resemblance to a crack den and more to those cool places in Christmas adverts. There was a warm, little fireplace, a kitchen, adjacent to the living room and, last but not least, a bathroom.
There wasn't a long list of furniture, and I felt that actually added more to the place's family pub atmosphere. There was a couch in the living room, and three stools at the kitchen counter, which was modeled after those cowboy bars you'd see in those spaghetti western flicks. There were a lot of photos and posters pinned in the walls, and there was a huge closet near the fireplace. When it came to the scope of the interior, it was just what I expected. After all, it was a cabin. The lack of a proper bed, a dining table, a TV, didn't go unnoticed by my keen eyesight, but it also didn't pose a big problem. At least to me.
"Woah. Nice place," I said in astonishment.
"I know, right? Lucky for you, I felt motivated enough to do a little clean up today," Jeremy responded, a perpetual smile covering his face, as he dropped my luggage down to a corner. He acted like he was expecting me all along, which I found somewhat odd.
"Did Mom tell you that I'm passing by for a visit?" I asked.
"Nope. It was just a weird coincidence," he responded yet again, his smile vanishing as he did so. I shrugged and just dove into the couch while he made his way into the kitchen, pulling a glass bottle of wine, removing the tap and then handing it over to me. I was not fond of wine, or alcohol for that matter, but I was too dehydrated to object. Emptied that shit in a short span of minutes, much to my misfit brother's surprise.
From then on it was just talk. I updated Jeremy with the latest news that hit the block, he told me about his many adventures with his stoner friends while mashing up the ingredients for a chicken casserole recipe. As expected, our dinner went for shit, so we had to call pizza delivery and make our way towards the nearest crossroad to pick up our food. It was then that it started to rain.
On our way back to the house, I could swear I saw two people entering the denser part of the woods, that one part where you can't see anything but trees and leaves. They seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. I lingered around, curious to know what they were doing, but the rain was getting heavier to the point where I couldn't see anything past my nose. That, coupled with my brother's constant nagging, compelled to make my way back to the cabin. We resumed our conversation there, now twice as soaked and under the effect of vine. I may have accused Jeremy for Dad's unusual attitude and he may have showed me a dragon tattoo he did in his left arm, but other than that I was pretty much shitfaced. All I remember is that, and giving my brother a bong as a gift which provoked a stream of laughter by his side. I never had a reputation for holding my liquor well.
I fell down the couch at about twelve o' clock. I could vaguely recall a voice, most likely Jeremy's, summoning me up for skinny dipping at 3 AM. I disregarded it as simply another joke in his long list of tasteless ones, and told him to whack himself to sleep. One hour later, I bolted awake. I looked around, searching for Jeremy, but he was nowhere to be seen. An air mattress in the floor near me was evidence that he did hang around for some time after I went to sleep, but must have left. Still, after a couple of minutes characterized by me stumbling around like a retard, trying to find a light switch, I decided to check the bathroom just to be sure. No one was there. "Did that crazy son of a bitch really go skinny dipping?" was all I could think. It was early in the morning, and even then, it was cold as hell outside. No mentally stable person would risk catching a flu, or in the worst case scenario, die, just to experience the brief pleasure of skinny dipping. Then again, my brother wasn't exactly stable.
I lazed around for about thirty minutes, I think. I'm not quite sure. All I remember is that I was worried sick. I thought of calling him, only to let out a curse word as I realized I didn't have his number. Fast forward a couple of minutes, and there I was - dressed in a jumper, a jacket, my camo pants and a nice pair of black combat boots, holding a flashlight and ready to conduct a search for my insane brother.
First thing I noticed right after I made my way to the porch was the cold breeze and the fact that rain had stopped. Some might find that romantic, but I sure as hell didn't. It was cold, I was tired and most importantly my brother was missing. I couldn't find pleasure in anything, not implying that there was anything that you could lay your sight on. It was mostly trees with brown leaves and the fading image of the crescent moon, as it got slowly covered by the coal-black clouds. If anything, the place resembled your usual horror setting established in those cliché B-rated monster movies.
I mustered all the courage I could get before soldiering on. My concern for my long lost brother's safety was quickly overwhelmed by the fear surging through my skin, but I couldn't go back. I felt the need to prove to myself that I wasn't some namby-pamby, dickless coward who can't take a hike in the woods. Doing my best to ignore the annoying flapping my boots did due to the mud, I followed a trail of footsteps, what I presumed to be my brothers, till the trail led me to a standstill. There were two dirt roads; one leading towards civilization, the other towards the forest's anus, where a tribe of man-eating mutants were probably waiting for me. I could make out a lot of footsteps leading to the forest, while the other dirt path showed nothing but a string of shoe soles that were mostly covered up by the rain. I concluded Jeremy met with his hippy friends at that spot, then they made their way down the forest to do... whatever those sick, twisted bastards did all morning. With that in mind, I began marching to the forest.
That was my first mistake.
I made my second and most devastating mistake while making my way into that God forsaken place. From there, I could see a shady, pale figure coming out of the trees. At first, I couldn't determine whether it was a woman or a man until I threw a flashlight at it. It was a man, shirtless, barefoot and freezing. He was sporting a pair of pants. I couldn't make out the brand because they were dipped in mud, and because it was too dark. It wasn't his fashion statement that captivated my attention, though - it was his look. He looked a lot like Jeremy, minus the neck beard. He was somewhat dazed, frostbite marks covering his nose, his finger, his lips and his toes. I could barely make out a red marking stretching out from his back, what seemed like a wound or something of the sort.
"Jeremy?" I asked confusedly. No reply. He was either pulling me an elaborate prank, or his skinny dipping session went real awry.
I didn't ask a second time, hurrying to where he was, struggling to take off my jacket while in motion. That's when it hit me. Like, literally. That is when I fell down to the muddy ground. I kind of spaced out at that moment, but from what I could collect, I think Jeremy had just given me a sucker punch to the face. I rapidly scampered out of the ground, searching for my jacket, but to no avail. It was gone, along with Jeremy. The good news, or bad news, is that I still could hear Jeremy's steps crunching in the distance, and I still had my flashlight.
Catching up to my hysterical brother was quite an easy task. His stoned ass couldn't make out two steps without tumbling into the ground. But, instead of slapping him back to consciousness, something in my mind told me to follow him instead, certain that if I do, there will be a bombastic revelation awaiting in the end. Sneaking up on him wasn't hard either, taking into account his senses were totally numbed by the cold. Nonetheless, something had to go wrong, and it did. Half-way through the chase, Jeremy made a series of sudden spastic movements before he drifted away. I desperately tried to catch up yet again, but my boots were made twice as heavy by the dirt sticking down like peanut butter. Fast forward a couple of minutes later, and that's when I realized I lost him.
Hell, I was lost myself. I tried to go back, but the dense terrain coupled with the lack of illumination made it hard for me to distinguish anything. There was this weird sense of déjà vu, however, like I had dreamed this before. It lingered on me for a considerable period of time as I paced back and forth in exasperation. Eventually, I decided to follow the trail of footsteps Jeremy had left, still holding out hope that he'll come back to his senses and escort me out of this goddamn maze.
I could swear I followed that trail for hours, even though according to the police, I had only been out for less than one. My ears were numb at the time, and my other organs were in the process of numbing. I almost freaked out when it dawned on me that I couldn't speak coherent English anymore. I began sounding like Borat, if Borat was struggling to swallow a pair of socks. I tried to speed up my pace at that moment as it occurred to me that I was losing stamina.
It was pointless, though. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't speed up. It was like there was a gigantic fan which was pushing me back. I also began to black out. Not your typical alcohol blackout; it was more like a blackout with activities. My vision would be obscured by pitch black darkness, and then I would find myself doing something weird like caressing a tree or going the other direction. If it wasn't for the trail of footsteps to help me navigate, I would have probably found myself going back and forth until I passed out.
Centuries of trial and error led me to a scent. It was the scent of something burning. Usually fires in the middle of a dense forest mean something bad's happening, but it'd be lying if I said that I wasn't glad. At least there was evidence that someone else, hopefully a mentally stable person, was roaming this damned place. I stumbled and grunted like a caveman, until I found out the source of the scent. What I saw was pretty strange.
The entire place was populated by huge, towering trees, except this one spot. That spot was blessed. It felt like the trees had moved a few feet away just so that they could give you that space, an ideal space to start a campfire. At this point, I had seen enough odd stuff, so I didn't even begin to question how the ashes weren't spreading around and lighting the surrounding trees in fire. I simply peered behind one of the trees and watched as Jeremy got cozy near the fire, wearing my jacket and rocking back and forth like an old man.
"JEWEMY!" I yelled, pausing for a moment upon hearing how raspy my voice had got.
He stared at me for a moment, like a deer caught in the headlights and then jumped away, taking a defensive position. I tried to reason with him, tried to make it clear that I wasn't there to hurt him, but my mouth was nearly sealed shut. I remember Jeremy trying to land a punch, which I easily blocked with my face. We were both tired and getting sloppy as we each wasted our breath. It was obvious that in Jeremy's messed up mind, I was a bad guy and I needed to be taken out of the picture. He had pinned me down to the ground, and tried his best to relieve me of my breathing privileges, but he just couldn't. He kept fumbling and falling face first on the mud.
I took off my boots after concluding that they were no longer wearable, and then I decided to take the upper hand. Without breaking a sweat, I tackled Jeremy to the ground and got on top of him when I realized something. The moonlight and the light that emanated from the fire nearby allowed me to get a better look at Jeremy, and that is when I noticed his dragon tattoo had vanished. Sure, there are such things like temporary tattoos, but not the kind so temporary that they disappear overnight. For a brief moment, I began considering the fact that perhaps that person wasn't Jeremy at all. Maybe it was just my eyes playing games with me. I was dumbfounded, and not-Jeremy used that to his advantage as he pushed me aside and tried to throw me into the fire. I tried to resist, but the fire still caught up and burned a chunk of skin in my back.
I decided I had enough of that shit and threw a punch at his stomach, causing him to back off, and then began pounding him. I beat him to a bloody pulp, and then made sure that he wasn't breathing anymore. Then, I took off my flaming jumper before it did more damage to the already scorched skin in my back. Yes, readers, I killed a man. I couldn't play it cool, either. The minute I saw his motionless body laying near the fire, I made myself scarce. Half-way through, I realized I hadn't retrieved my jacket, but I thought 'screw it'. I was not gonna go back to that place anymore.
I don't know if it was the effect of fear or if it was a divine miracle, but suddenly my strength was replenished. I ran like hell. I ran like I actually knew where I was going, even though I didn't even have the slightest idea. Then, my face lit up with glee at the sight of a familiar territory. I finally began to see the forest exit, the path to freedom, the end to all my torments. I stopped for a moment as my brain took in all of the surroundings. My sight veered at a single person standing a few feet away. I couldn't make out any features, but I could see that he was holding a flashlight. He was checking me out. He had all the reasons to. And then I blacked out. I don't remember much from then on. All I know is that the police found me laying just outside the forest.
Jeremy had indeed gone skinny dipping, and it was actually him who alerted them. He scolded me for going out without him. It was nice to be the crazy brother for a change. The cops took me to the station for questioning. I told them everything excluding the part where I straight up murdered someone. They let me off pretty easily. I was worried that they'd find the body in the forest after one of the cops pronounced that they were gonna conduct a search, but much to my relief and surprise, they found no body. My dad came to pick up both me and Jeremy at the station the other night. He looked at me with concern, but also curiosity as he bombarded me with questions. He wouldn't stop until Jeremy told him to knock it off already. Oh, and I also asked Jeremy if he was the guy with the flashlight. He told me he had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently, he was in the vicinity at that time and heard me calling his name. I couldn't remember that little detail. But then again, I was fucked up at that point.