When I was young I lived in a small, isolated town in the middle of the countryside. It was, for a town, quite small but had all the comforts of a city. There were good stores, supermarkets and a library, and one school which taught almost all of the children in the town. There was a residential area, too off to the side, where clusters of houses sprouted here and there, almost sporadically. None of the houses were ever quite perfect. There was always some sort of a whimsical element to them, such as a crooked roof or an oddly position weather vane or an out-of-place 'garden ornament'. Nobody ever thought much of this, and in my opinion it tinged the environment with a sort of child-like wonder.
To the north of the village was a dense forest, with large, towering redwood trees, their trunks covered in moss and smaller parasitic plants and the ground pockmarked with holes and ditches and rocks. It was thoroughly ingrained in our mind, from a young age, that we were never to go into that forest, not even with friends. I never thought of going into those woods anyway; they never presented anything worthwhile and its appearance was quite ominous. It was rumoured that the forest was home to a pack of wolves, and every night, in my bedroom, I thought I heard their menacing howls, just outside my window. I knew it was just the wind, but my ears refused to believe any rational cause of the noise, and so I had to resort to pulling the blanket over my head in an attempt to hide.
My parents deeply cared for my education, and so from the day I turned five years old, I was sent to school. I remember the first day of kindergarten. I woke up with a pounding headache and a runny nose — the result of eating a tub of chocolate ice cream late at night — and found it hard to get out of bed. My mother insisted that I could not miss the first day, so I reluctantly got up and, under the instructions of my mother, only restricted washing up to my face so as not to allow breeding grounds for the cold. I was driven to school, miserable, wretched and sniffling.
It was there on the first day of kindergarten that I met my first and probably only real friend, James.
James and I were friends all through to fifth grade. We played Ninja Turtles through first grade, played with toy 'BeyBlades' through second, Pokémon trading cards through third, and other juvenile addictions that seemingly penetrated and took over our minds. Other kids came and played with us, and we welcomed them, but the two of us were something else. We were the 'dynamic duo', everybody knew that. We were inseparable.
Or maybe, we weren't so.
It was the end of fifth grade, the summer holidays had just started, and I noticed that I didn't see James anywhere. He wasn't at the field like he normally was, playing football or trading cards with other kids until I came. He had... disappeared. I asked some other kids and they all said the same thing. They hadn't seen James around recently. One of the kids told me that he had last seen James near the end of the last term of school.
I went home that day and called James on the kitchen telephone.
"James, you there?" I asked when he picked up.
"Yeah, um, who is this?" he replied.
"James, don't you remember?"
"Oh, yeah! Hey man, what's going on?"
"Where were you for the past week?"
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"You weren't at the fields, man! Come on, what happened to you?!" I yelled at him. I was obviously infuriated by his ignorance of our friendship.
"Oh, um, didn't I tell you?" he mumbled back. It was obvious, by the slight scuffling at the other end, that he had been preoccupied with something and was eager to get back to it, and was not taking our conversation seriously.
"Tell me what, James? You haven't spoken to me for days."
"Um, I'm in Randy's gang now."
I was heartbroken as soon as I comprehended the meaning of the sentence. He had discarded our friendship just to be in Randy's posse. Randy was the most popular kid in sixth grade. Everybody — or every boy at least — dreamt of being in his gang. But everybody could not deny that there was something... odd about him. The way he looked at you, the glint in his eyes and the way he smiled. But those features were overlooked and given no second thought. I had been invited earlier, too, but I declined. For James. In a last, feeble attempt at resurrecting our friendship, I asked James:
"Hey, um... Would you like to hang out, at my place tomorrow night?"
"Oh, um, sorry man, we're going to the woods tomorrow night."
I was more overwhelmed by the fact that he was going to the woods at night than the fact that he denied my invitation, "At night, man? Are you shitting me?"
"The stories about the wolves is just a load of bullshit, anyway. I can vouch for you if you want to come along, man."
"Nah. It's not like our friendship meant anything, anyway," I retorted and cut the line before he could reply.
I knew that the last comment was quite childish, but I was too furious to care. I rushed upstairs and put my head down in my pillow and cried. My mother came up and asked me what was wrong and I just screamed at her to go away.
The next day was a blur. I saw James a few times, and he tried to talk to me but I pretended that I didn't acknowledge him. He eventually gave up and followed Randy around, laughing like nothing happened.
I was awoken the next day to the sounds of police car sirens and blinding blue and red lights streaming through my window. I crept out of my room and saw my mother at the doorway, looking pale, and a grim, heavy-built police officer in blue talking to her solemnly. I hid in the closet, which was near the front door and listened in on their conversation.
At the time, I was too young to connect the gory details to make what had happened clear, but looking back now I understand it all.
The policeman said that Randy's posse had not returned after they had ventured into the forest. All of them had permission from their parents. Their bodies were found deep in the forest, mangled by something sharp, probably a knife, and their bodies had been partially eaten by wolves and some other creature the police officer had mentioned that was spoken too low to be heard. He also mentioned that Randy's body was never found.
I couldn't wait any longer. I stepped out into the hallway. "What happened to James?"
"Honey, what are you doing here—" my mother began.
"It's okay, madam. Son, who is this James?" asked the police officer, his brow creased with worry.
"He's my friend," I said, "He said he was going to the forest with Randy, too."
"Hang on a sec," he said and spoke into his radio and waited for a minute. The radio then buzzed to life once more and an almost undecipherable, hissy voice spoke into the officer's ear.
"James's mother just called in to report her son missing," he said, "He apparently disappeared out of bed last night with no clue of where he was going. I'll tell her what happened. Thanks for your time, madam."
He sympathetically nodded his head at me and climbed back into the police car and drove off. Our eyes followed it until it disappeared around a bend. Then my mother hugged me, and I had never cried so much that day since the day I was born.
The next few weeks were full of mourning. Some of the parents of the victims moved away, including Randy's. Two days after she found her son missing, James's mother locked herself in the bathroom and slit her own throat. She left behind a note that said she wanted to be with her son, even if it meant death. Her husband left shortly after, and was never heard from or seen again. He was presumed dead.
There was rarely a moment when my eyes weren't red and my cheeks weren't tear stained. I hated James so much but at the same time I wanted him back. About a month into the summer break I grew restless. I needed to go into the woods. I needed to see if it was true. I was, at the time, in denial.
I made my move on Monday, when my mother was away at work and I was alone in the house. I pulled on some long jeans and a dark hoodie and grabbed a flashlight and some water just in case.
It was a long walk to the tree line. There was an old dirt path that cut through the grassy land and stopped abruptly at the start of the clusters of trees. Every minute it took to get there, my fear and anxiety increased. What would I find in the woods?
Eventually, I got there. My mind was full of doubt, and I took a look back at the dirt path. But I dispelled my qualms for James, and forged into the foreboding wall of trees. It must have taken an hour or so to trek through to the middle of the forest. Almost no light penetrated the canopy, and low branches clawed and my jeans and hands. I was glad that I thought to wear long jeans and a long-sleeved hoodie.
Finally, I reached a clearing. There was nothing odd about it. I paced around it, and found that in certain areas, the grass made an odd sound. I looked down.
The grass was covered in dried blood. I gulped. Upon realizing this, the putrid smell of decomposition stabbed at my nostrils, and I ran. I didn't care about which direction I went, I needed to get away from that smell.
I was running for five minutes when I heard a stream of water. I edged closer to it and found a new clearing with a small water fall. I dropped down onto my knees and greedily sucked in the water, eager to cleanse my insides of that hideous smell.
I spat it out.
This wasn't water. At least, it didn't taste like water. I examined the stream carefully. My stomach lurched.
At the opposite bank, tethered to a tree root, was the bloated body of James.
He was face down in the water. His hair was wet and slicked back and his flesh was pale and puffy. His clothes were tattered and coated in a layer of blood. His appendages ominously swayed in the water, as if he was trying a last attempt to swim. There were chunks of him missing, especially from the thighs and chest, and those places had teeth marks. Not of a wolf. They were human. There came a rustle of leaves behind me.
So you've found James.
I shot off, not daring to look back. Close behind me I heard rapid footsteps.
I ran as fast as I could. I broke through the tree line, but I never stopped running until I reached home.
The door was open and I flew into the living room into the open arms of my mother, crying and sputtering. "James- In the forest... He's—"
"It's okay dear, I've got you," cooed my mother, picking up the phone and dialing the police.
It's been over twenty years now, but I'll never truly forget. I'll never forget where I found James.