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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
We were having another lockdown drill when I found out about Holly Reyes. I was in Social Studies, third period, when Principal Weston’s muffled voice spat at us from the ceiling. We all sighed and ducked under the long tables, limbs shoving aside plastic chairs as we army-crawled into tucked positions. Mrs. Loew shut the door and sat back at her desk to grade papers.
I remember being glad the drill happened in third period because that’s the class I shared with my best friend Dina. We lay on our arms under the table, glancing at Mrs. Loew, waiting for the unspoken amount of time to pass until we could whisper to each other without getting in trouble.
When we heard a few boys at the table next to us snicker at each other without retribution, Dina glanced around and whispered, “Who do you like?”
Her favorite game.
“No one,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “You have to like someone.”
I shrugged and dug my chin into the carpet, a grumpy blue color with red flecks. “I dunno. I don’t. Who do you like?”
“I’ll tell you if you tell me.”
“But I know you like Tom.”
She held a finger to her lips and glared at me. “Not anymore!”
I looked around the room, trying to think of a reasonable victim for me to “like” so I could learn her secret. I suddenly remembered a moment from the day before: a boy running out of the lunch line to chase a dime and a penny that were rolling away, change I had dropped in an embarrassing effort to get money out of my new Pikachu wallet. He handed the coins to me. His smile was so bright, and he had dimples—
“The new kid,” I said. “I don’t know his name.”
Dina raised her eyebrows. “Ricardo?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
Dina gasped so loudly that Mrs. Loew shushed her. “Oh! No! But you heard what happened to his baby sister!”
I barely knew who we were talking about. “No?”
“Holly, a sixth-grader,” Dina said with a grin that only schadenfreude could build. “Her posters went up this morning. She’s missing.”
I remember feeling the weight of those words like a foot stepping on my back. I remember thinking she was lying, then thinking I was dumb for not knowing until three whole periods had passed, then hearing Dina babble about her latest crush, whose name I forgot immediately because I just didn’t care about that anymore.
The missing posters went on every telephone pole and bulletin board in Hocstat, which turned out to be a lot for such a small town. A few made it onto the trees, even though people mostly avoided the black maples that hovered above all our buildings because the black maple sap in Hocstat was notoriously gooey and hard to get out of your clothes.
I felt a dramatic, overwhelming tug at my heartstrings every time I saw Ricardo in the halls. He had stopped trying to make friends. His eyes had bags under them that I’d never seen on any other eighth-grader. All of his notebooks looked like they’d been yanked from a shredder, and he often trailed pencil stubs behind him. I wondered why his parents didn’t just pull him out of school, but Dina pointed out that they were probably distraught at home, so maybe being at school gave him some peace.
It didn’t take long before the high schoolers started passing down rumors to their siblings in middle school, which then spread around our territory like wildfire. I heard the rumors from my science partner Finn DeCorma, whose older brother said this was exactly like the disappearances of Troy Evers and McKenzie Kentworth, two ninth-graders who disappeared a few years back. I didn’t remember much about Troy and McKenzie; but thankfully, Finn was more than happy to tell their tales while I labeled the parts of a cell in colored pencil.
Troy and McKenzie didn’t disappear together like everyone thought. McKenzie went first, sometime around nine at night. Troy was last seen the next day around three. The gossip mill suggested that they were in a secret relationship and ran off together. But neither seemed the type. Troy was quiet, shy, and small for his age. McKenzie wore blue lipstick and was rumored to be a witch. Finn said people were afraid of her because she cut words in her arms. And everyone knew Troy was in the closet. So no matter what the adults said, none of the kids believed they left together. And no one really believed they left by choice.
“Because my brother saw the monster,” Finn said. “He was trying to convince Troy to play kickball with him, and then he looked at the woods, and the Sap Man was right there.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. It was so like a high schooler to make up something like that so he could be involved in a spooky story. But I also remembered rumors going around that someone’s older sister had seen McKenzie making dolls of the Sap Man out of sticks behind the school. I felt like that had to be a lie. Even though I didn’t believe in him, the Sap Man of Hocstat lore had a very distinct look. He had these long, squiggly arms that would be very hard to make out of sticks, and he had a pale, featureless head. It probably just seemed like a McKenzie thing to do, so people started saying it without thinking it through.
Anyway, no one ever found Troy or McKenzie.
I think it was March when Holly went missing, because the whole Hocstat PTO put on their puffy coats and brave faces for the Find Holly Reyes search party. Mr. and Mrs. Reyes made several TV appearances, sobbing, recalling their daughter’s last whereabouts, begging whoever had her to just return her, please, no questions asked. I noticed Ricardo was never on TV. Soon, people started whispering that maybe, just maybe, Ricardo had killed his sister. Then the whispers turned to roars. Kids at school got mean. Some, not all. Dina and I just felt bad for him.
About four or five days after Holly went missing, all my own thoughts and theories about the case went up in smoke. I’m not sure what would have happened if Dina hadn’t had an Emergency School Council meeting during lunch, but she did, and then… I don’t know, things just started aligning. Dina and I usually sat with a few other friends, but those friends spent much of their lunch reading manga, and I knew I wouldn’t be missed. I saw Ricardo sitting at one end of a table by himself, and I thought about the Sap Man, and I just, I felt angry. I felt like he had to know about the Sap Man from a reliable source (me) before some bullies tried to use the Sap Man to scare him to death. I’d already seen an etching of the Sap Man on his locker, but it was pretty poorly drawn, so I doubted it had clued Ricardo in. Still, it was only a matter of time before the convoluted whispers of “Ricardo the Sap Man” reached his ears.
I plopped my lunch box on the table across from him. He looked up from the carrot sticks he was picking at, but he didn’t say anything.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Rowan.”
I knew I was about to lose my nerve, so I blurted out, “Have you heard of The Sap Man?”
Ricard looked at me like I was both crazy and suspicious.
“Good. If you haven’t, I mean. But you will. And I just want to say, he’s stupid.”
“The Sap Man is stupid,” Ricardo repeated quietly, as though he couldn’t believe those were real words I had just said.
“Yes. But people are going to tell you… and I know because they’re talking about it a lot… people are going to tell you the Sap Man has something to do with people disappearing.”
Ricardo looked straight at me, his eyes brightening. He shifted in his seat. I knew right away that he was desperate for any lead, no matter how far-fetched. And I knew that if those kids and news reporters could see what I was seeing, they would know without a doubt that he had nothing to do with Holly’s disappearance.
Ricardo said, not even trying to disguise his hope, “Who is the Sap Man?”
I knew this conversation was going the opposite direction I had wanted it to, but I couldn’t let this poor kid down now. I stammered, “Well, he… supposedly, he lives in the woods. He’s this tall man made out of sap from the black maples. He has long, sticky arms, like… sometimes LOTS of arms… or finger-thingies… and a bright white head, and no one’s ever seen his face.”
I weighed my words down with a tone of incredulity, trying desperately to convey how stupid the whole idea was. But Ricardo was rapt. He wanted me to go on.
“He’s not real,” I said quickly. “My dad, he works for the town’s historic district, and he said the legend of the Sap Man probably came from when people first settled in Hocstat. He said they would camp out under the black maples, and when the maples lost their leaves, the branches would look like long, spindly arms coming out of the tall trunks. And the sun or the moon coming through the trees would be a big white orb, so like, people thought it was a faceless head.”
“And what does Sap Man do with children?”
I sighed. “Um, well, supposedly, the Sap Man would kidnap them and bring them to this big stone house on a hilly part of the woods, so that the town couldn’t grow. ‘Cause like, if your town doesn’t have kids, then it dies out. But obviously our town is doing pretty well, so.”
Ricardo stared at me. “It’s a small town.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “But it’s nice that way.”
I didn’t know what else to say. Somehow, instead of heading off the dumb legend, I’d given it to him like a gift of hope. I awkwardly unzipped my lunchbox and started to take tiny bites out of my food. Ricardo had stopped eating his carrots altogether. He was staring off into space with narrowed eyes and a bend in his brow.
“Are you thinking about the Sap Man?” I asked through a bite of applesauce.
I remember he looked at me, or through me, and I remember knowing exactly what he was going to ask as the words left his mouth.
“Where is the house?”
I didn’t ask Ricardo what he told his parents he was doing after school because I figured it was a lie, and I did not want to be more complicit than I already was. After the last bell rang, I hurried past the gym to the double doors at the back of the school. I looked around, but I didn’t see Ricardo. One of the gym teachers, who I never had for class and didn’t know the name of, was setting up orange cones on the field. His eyes were hidden beneath a baseball cap, so I wasn’t sure if he knew I was skulking on the edge of his field.
Ricardo soon arrived, no backpack, no coat, even though the late-March wind sliced goosebumps into my arms.
“The house is through there, if you follow the path long enough,” I said, pointing to the woods behind the school.
Ricardo started off towards the path without me, and I had to jog to keep up, my backpack swishing across my shoulders. I glanced behind me to see if the gym teacher was going to try to stop us, but he didn’t. He was watching us, though, so I dashed ahead before he could reprimand us for going into the woods without an adult.
Even though I’d been to the stone house several times with my dad, I felt nervous. It didn’t seem hard to make a wrong turn and get lost. And I definitely didn’t believe in the Sap Man, but I still glanced at every bobbing branch to either side of us with suspicious eyes, almost daring them to be something else. Thankfully, the path never seemed unfamiliar, and we caught our first glimpse of the old stone house after about ten minutes of walking.
“See up there?” I said, pointing above us.
Ricardo squinted. “Up on that ledge?”
“There are some wooden steps to the top,” I told him. “For tours and stuff. It housed the first Hocstat mayor. That’s why it was built well enough to survive.”
Ricardo’s eyes scanned the roof-less building, the crumbled rocks, and the overgrown yard. He mumbled, “Sort of survive.”
We stared at it another minute in silence, taking in the brief period of rest. From where we stood, the limestone blocks looked like they were being held up by a net of dark tree branches, hovering above the winter brush.
And then they moved.
I swear to you, they moved.
Like one of those Magic Eye tricks, or like a leaf bug on a tree that starts to crawl, I went from not seeing him at all to seeing him all at once. His body was humanoid, but about four times the height of a normal man. His face was as blank and pearly white as a tooth, but round and long as an egg. His white neck dipped into a collar— it looked like a suit and tie, but it may have been markings, the same way a black widow wears her red hourglass. And his arms, his long arms, they looked heavy like tentacles, but they moved like gooey black sap.
Ricardo wasn’t going to move. I don’t know if he was in shock or if he wanted to get his sister back from the creature, but he was staying put. So I grabbed his arm and yanked him back down the path. I was undoubtedly slowed down by my heavy backpack – and by the near-dead weight of Ricardo – but I didn’t have time to regroup. I just ran. And when the woods opened back up into the field, I kept running, running to the double doors of the gym.
They were locked from the outside. Because, you know, it’s a school.
I didn’t look behind me. I pounded on the door, over and over, crying, screaming. I felt like the Sap Man was still behind me. I could feel him, feel his fingers on my shoulder—
But it wasn’t the Sap Man, it was the gym teacher, coming from around the corner with another armful of orange cones. He let us inside, then asked us to sit in his office and tell him what happened. He was unlocking his office door when Ricardo shook his head so hard that the tears on his face splashed away.
“I need to see my parents.”
He turned and ran down the hall. I glanced apologetically at the gym teacher, then darted after Ricardo. I found him in the school’s entryway on his cell phone, repeating over and over, “Just pick me up. Just pick me up.”
His right arm was covered in a shiny black coat of something so slick and smooth it looked like oil. The Sap Man must have grabbed his arm while we were running. I felt a sense of unease, like when you see a spider descending from the ceiling and then lose sight of it. I walked to a window and turned around. I craned my neck to look at my reflection. Thick black streaks ran down the length of my backpack.
I was really shaken up, so I told my parents about our excursion into the woods. They scolded me for wandering off when another kid had just disappeared. When I got to the part about the Sap Man, though, I underplayed it, saying things like “it looked like” and “I could have sworn.” I had attributed the marks on my backpack to sap from branches, and I was doubting everything else I’d seen regarding the Sap Man. My parents certainly didn’t try to convince me I’d actually witnessed an urban legend. We were all more than happy to write it off as nightmares, or a stress-induced hallucination. Puberty will do that to ya, we laughed.
I didn’t sleep much.
A few days later, Ricardo pulled me aside. He told me he had tried to get the police to search the stone house for his sister, but they wouldn’t. They said they already did. They asked him why, what did he know? He became even more of a suspect.
“We have to go back,” he said.
But I wouldn’t.
There was going to be a vigil for Holly at Hocstat Middle School. Candles were ordered. Extra parking was roped off in the field. Yearbook pictures were sent to Staples and glued to posterboard. Everyone was ready to say goodbye.
But then someone saw her.
According to the Hocstat Middle grapevine, some sixth graders were kicking a soccer ball during first-period gym when they saw Holly standing at the edge of the woods covered in black paint. And according to the grapevine, the second Ricardo heard about Holly, he hurtled down a flight of stairs so fast that he fell and broke his arm.
I believed all of it. Except the paint part. Not paint. Sap.
She had tried to escape. But that means the Sap Man had kept her alive. Even as my brain slowly accepted the Sap Man as reality, these elements just didn’t want to add up.
No one made it over to Holly before she vanished again.
Ricardo wasn’t at school the rest of the day, but he showed up on the news in a neon green cast that stuck out against his all-black clothing. He and his parents were there to encourage the new team of searchers preparing to do a second scan of the woods behind the school. Reporters interviewed the kids who saw Holly. I got an ugly feeling that no one really believed them, they just liked this exciting new update to the tragedy.
The searchers turned up nothing. They searched the stone house, but it was empty as usual. They searched the woods miles deep but nothing seemed strange. They brought out flashlights to comb nooks and crannies as it got dark, but nothing, nothing, nothing.
By midnight, no one believed the sixth graders. How could a little girl stay alive for a week on her own in the woods, then show up at the school, and then disappear again before anyone could catch her?
I saw the adults shake their heads, fed up with the charade of believing Holly was alive. No one had really seen Holly, they decided. Kids just love attention. Especially middle schoolers.
I lay awake that night trying to piece things together.
The next morning, a body was found.
That gym teacher, the one with the orange cones, was found where the field meets the woods. He had drowned, they said – or choked. It was hard to say which it was when the substance that filled his lungs was sap. Gallons of black maple sap had burst the lining of his stomach, coated his lungs, and sloshed against his brain. It came out of his nose, his eyes, his ears… I saw the photos. With so many eyes on the scene, nothing like that stays under wraps. Not when it happens so close to a lunchroom, which spreads news faster than a telephone wire.
The teacher’s wife said he’d gone out to join the search party. He said he’d be out late, so she had gone to bed alone.
Everyone was still puzzling over the sap-filled corpse when Holly came home.
A day after the gym teacher’s body was discovered, she wandered into the school building, covered in sap. She would hardly say anything. People “gave her time,” but still, nothing. She would murmur a few words here and there, but nothing else. Nothing that answered any of the questions we had.
Until she asked the police if he was really dead.
We thought she meant the Sap Man at first. She didn’t.
They searched the gym teacher’s home. They searched his computer.
They stopped grieving his death.
“I swear I didn’t know,” his wife sobbed in an interview. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
“She’s doing better,” Ricardo told Dina and me at lunch. It had been a week since Holly’s return. “She’s seeing a child psychologist. We’re not sure how much he… how bad it got for her. But we think it could’ve been a lot worse.”
“So that’s why she ran away!” Dina said. “To hide from that creep!”
“Mhm,” Ricardo said. But he glanced up at me, and I knew we were on the same page.
After school, Ricardo and I met behind the gym. We silently walked towards the woods. The weather had gotten much warmer, so I busied myself in the silence by tying my hoodie around my waist.
“I heard those other kids were on a flash drive,” Ricardo said.
I pushed a branch out of my way. “Troy and McKenzie?”
“I think so?” Ricardo shrugged. “And a bunch others.” He then answered the question I didn’t dare ask: “But not Holly.”
“No?” I asked happily. “She wasn’t?”
He shook his head. “If she were, I don’t think she’d be alive.” He looked directly at me. “They’re saying he got them. He— he took those kids. And he took the pictures, and then he killed them.”
I played with the sleeve of my hoodie. “But not Holly.”
We stopped and stared up at the stone house.
“I’m moving,” Ricardo said.
We walked up the wooden stairs to the stone house. Around the base of the stone, the ground felt damp and spongy. It sagged with each step. The feeling was weirdly relaxing, like meditative breathing outside my body.
“Bet your new town won’t have cool historic buildings in the woods,” I said, trying to ease tension.
“I hope not,” Ricardo said. “I hope it’s boring as hell.”
I laughed. We climbed through one of the stone house’s windows. The house was just one large room and the roof had long since fallen away, but there were remains of a chimney in one corner. A few burnt sticks sat inside like someone had recently built a fire.
I looked up at the web of dark branches above us. The Sap Man did not appear. But if I squinted, I could imagine that the wind-tossed branches were his long arms.
Even though I knew the Sap Man had only been trying to protect the kids – including us – I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling I got whenever I remembered seeing those black streaks on my backpack. I didn’t blame Troy or McKenzie for running away from the terrifying Sap Man (and, inevitably, towards a teacher who should have kept them safe). I would have, too. I didn’t know how Holly knew the truth, but I was so glad she did.
Of course, the Sap Man probably didn’t give her a choice. She was just slower than the rest of us.
And I didn’t like that Holly had been used as bait (at least, that’s what I assume she was the time the sixth graders saw her), but I also didn’t trust that the gym teacher would have been brought to justice if she weren’t.
Ricardo picked up a piece of charred wood from the fireplace. He tapped it on the stone, and it left a black streak. He ran it across the stone until he had written the words THANK YOU.
I smiled at the words, and Ricardo smiled, too, but I wondered if they would go unread. There was a relaxed feeling to the woods I hadn’t felt before. Maybe it was just the birds chirping on one of the first warm Spring days or the green buds appearing on the trees. But maybe the Sap Man had moved on. Maybe he had left to consume another predator. To be some other town’s legend by some other name.
Ricardo flung the charred stick into the woods. We leaped down the wooden steps and followed the path out. We raced each other back to school, branches crunching underfoot, the smell of black maple sap on the wind.
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