Estimated reading time — 24 minutes
“Can we go on the roller coaster?”
“Sure we can,” Kent assured his son, whose eyes brimmed with hope and enthusiasm. Little Brian ran ahead towards the ride as his father walked quickly behind. It was one of those old, rickety coasters that won’t keep you from falling out unless you hold on for dear life. Kent was always too scared to ride them as a child, but as a father, it was his duty to be brave.
“Hold on there, kiddo. Ya gotta be at least this tall to ride,” proclaimed the ticket taker, thumbing towards the height requirement standee.
“I am! I grew two whole inches this summer!” Brian boasted, then stood next to the grinning cartoon bear to prove himself.
“Looks like you juuuust made it,” the man said with a grin and gave a little wink to Kent. “You two have fun.”
“Hooray!” shouted Brian. “Come on, dad!”
Brian grabbed the cuff of his father’s coat and gleefully led him through the entrance to the ride. They climbed into a coaster car and Kent taught Brian to hold on tight to the bar. He put his arm around his son, and they smiled at each other. Soon, the coaster began moving—creeping up into the sky. Kent felt the anticipation slowly billowing inside him, Brian giggling excitedly by his side.
“This is gonna be so awesome! Right, dad?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Kent replied, trying to seem convincing. He was having second thoughts, but it was too late for that. They were at the top now, and were about to descend. Kent felt the terror of that brief moment before the coaster picks up speed, then the fun began.
Brian and his father howled and laughed as the coaster went up and down and all around; no loops, of course. Kent knew he made the right decision, and it was a great bonding experience for the two of them. In his mind, he patted himself on the back. But as the ride came to an end, Kent was hit by a wave of nausea, rushing to vomit just once into a trash can. The ticket taker looked irritated as he put his arm out to stop Brian from exiting the ride.
“Who told you you could leave?” he snarled in a sinister voice. Brian looked shocked, until the boorish gentleman smiled and said, “Just kiddin’, little guy.”
Kent ran over to protect his son from the inappropriately sarcastic man, but Brian was fine so he let it go.
“You okay, dad?” Brian asked in an adorably concerned fashion.
“Yeah, kiddo. I just got a little sick, that’s all.”
“Were you scared?”
“Of course not! Were you?”
Brian didn’t want to answer right away. He just looked around like he didn’t know he was being asked a question, so Kent tickled him until he cried, which left him with quite the appetite. Kent wasn’t hungry after getting motion sickness, but he bought Brian some sweet carnival bread. Brian took a few bites and said he wasn’t hungry anymore. Kent rolled his eyes, knowing this was a common occurrence for kids.
“Save it for later, okay?” Kent requested, and Brian wrapped up the bread and stuffed it in his knapsack.
“I knew I was going to need this!” he declared triumphantly.
“My son, the psychic,” Kent joked, and they both chuckled. Brian was ready for another ride so they walked around the carnival looking for one they hadn’t tried yet.
“I wanna go in there, dad!” Brian hollered, running towards a spooky-looking funhouse. It had a spider motif, and an equally attractive name: Spiderland Fun House. Kent stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh God,” he muttered. Ever since he was a boy, Kent had a paralyzing fear of spiders. He hated all creepy crawlies, but the idea that spiders trap things in their webs and then slowly suck the life out of them was more than he could handle. He prayed he could get his son to change his mind.
“Brian, I don’t think this is such a good idea.”
“What? Why not?” Brian had nary an inkling of why his father would object to a funhouse.
“What’s wrong?” interrupted the ticket taker, who seemed just as surely as the previous one. “Afraid of spiders?”
“No way!” Brian shouted defiantly. “I’m not afraid of stupid bugs!”
The ticket taker motioned to Kent. “I was referrin’ to your dad there.”
Kent was a little ticked off at the employees of this particular carnival, but he tried not to show it. He turned to Brian, who looked hopeful that his father would insist he wasn’t afraid.
“Of course not! But it doesn’t look very safe. It looks really dark inside.”
“Nah, it’s perfectly safe,” assured the ticket taker. A group of harmless-looking teenagers walked up, wanting to go inside.
“Dad, let me go in, please? Those other kids are going in!”
Kent gave in to his son’s desire but asked the group of kids if they could make sure Brian didn’t get hurt inside, to which they obliged.
“You’re not coming in?” Brian asked, a little confused.
“I’m probably too big,” Kent replied. “I’d just get in the way.” He didn’t want his son to see him squeal like a little girl if a fake spider were to pop out of nowhere.
“But won’t you get bored waiting?” It was just like Brian to be concerned about other people having fun.
“I’ll be fine.”
But Brian couldn’t let his father stand around doing nothing at such an exciting place. He looked over at a tent that sat next to the funhouse. A glowing sign read: Fortune Teller.
“Look, dad! You can get your fortune told!” Brian shouted, pointing at the tent.
“Son, those things aren’t real. It’s just a scam.”
Brian looked as if he’d just found out there was no Santa Claus. Kent quickly backtracked.
“I mean, the real ones wouldn’t be at a cheap carnival. They’re too busy helping the police solve crimes.” Kent was quite satisfied with his brilliant save.
Brian saw through his father’s ruse, and cleverly played on his skepticism. “Just try it, dad. It’s just for fun, right?”
“Well, you do have a point. It’s just for fun, so why not?”
Kent gave his son a hug and left him in the care of the harmless teens, the ticket taker, and the spider-themed funhouse. It wouldn’t take very long to have his fortune told, since there was no one in line. He walked slowly towards the tent, with a strange feeling in his stomach; attributing it to the earlier motion sickness. As he pulled back the curtain and entered the tent, he knew he had made some kind of fatal mistake.
“I- I’m sorry, I changed my mind,” he said, turning to leave.
“Nonsense. What are you afraid of?” inquired a wispy voice from behind a round table.
Kent had been accused of being afraid several times that night. Even though the accusations were valid, he wanted to prove them wrong.
“I know, I know. It’s just for fun, so why be apprehensive?”
“Precisely. Now sit down and I will tell you what you need to know.”
Kent reluctantly sat down at the table which, to his surprise, was absent a crystal ball.
“Wondering where is my crystal ball?” the woman asked wryly.
“I read palms,” she informed him, and took his right hand into hers. Tracing the lines on his palm with her pointer finger, the fortune teller began to divine Kent’s destiny. “Hmm… very interesting,” she mused.
“Of course. I’m an interesting guy.” Kent smirked at his charming reply but the fortune teller paid no attention, continuing in a stern voice.
“You should stop looking for what you have lost.” Kent was a little confused. As far as he knew, he hadn’t lost anything. “Haven’t lost anything? I assure you, you have.” She looked directly into Kent’s eyes, giving him a shiver.
“I don’t remember losing anything, so how can I be looking for it?” It was a perfectly logical question.
“I’m sorry, but that’s all I can tell you. Your lines speak few words.”
Kent had more than enough of the fortune teller’s suspicious ramblings. He handed her two tickets and bid her farewell. The teenagers were just exiting the funhouse, so Kent trotted over to retrieve his son. However, Brian wasn’t with them.
“Is my son still inside?” he asked them politely.
“Who?” one of them inquired, to Kent’s surprise.
“My son,” Kent replied firmly. “You guys were going to stay with him inside the funhouse. I asked you to keep an eye on him.”
“Um, we’ve never seen you before, dude.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Kent growled. “You think this is funny? Is my son still inside or not? Where is he?”
The teens looked at each other in amazement of the stranger’s sudden rudeness.
“Look, dude… we’ve never seen you before and we don’t know your son, so just leave us alone.”
Kent stood dumbfounded as the group strolled away, joking about how crazy he seemed. Before he could begin to wrap his brain around what had just happened, the ticket taker called to him.
“Hey!” he shouted, “Everything okay?”
Kent ran up to him, assuming he would be more cooperative.
“My son, Brian. He went into the funhouse. Did he come out?”
“He wasn’t one of those kids?” the man asked, motioning to the teenagers.
“No. Why would I be asking them where my son was if he was one of them?” Kent asked angrily.
“Hey, calm down, sir. How old was he?”
“What are you talking about? He was about this tall. You saw him go in. You asked if I was afraid of spiders!” Kent was furious now.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir, but if your son went inside and didn’t come out, just go in after him.” Kent pushed past the ticket taker, who then grabbed his arm and jerked him back. “That’ll be four tickets, please.”
Kent threw his remaining tickets in the man’s face then bolted up the ramp. He stopped short, recoiling in fear, once he noticed the entrance was through the mouth of a giant tarantula, its eight hairy legs looming over him like a mother reaching for a child. Its red eyes looked hungry and its white fangs looked real. Kent was overwhelmed with anxiety, but if Brian was in there then he had no choice other than to go in after him. He glanced sheepishly at the ticket taker, who was facing the other way, and shuffled inside.
Kent could hardly see a thing inside the funhouse since there was just enough light to accent the artificial webs lining the walls. His heart was beating so hard it hurt. The air was thin, and the temperature felt like it was slowly rising.
“Brian!” he called out sporadically, his lone voice reverberating through the cold iron walls.
Exploring further, Kent thought he saw something move, but it was just his warped reflection in the funhouse mirrors. He continued cautiously past the bouncy bridge, past the moving floors, past the rope net, until he came to a spinning corridor. Kent could see light coming from an exit at the other end, but the hypnotic effect of the lines painted on the cylinder corridor created a vertigo effect. He tried to turn back yet had no idea where he was anymore.
“Brian…” he managed one last time, and fell unconscious.
The sun shone through Kent’s eyelids as the chirping of birds coaxed him awake. He lay on the ground near a single tree, his body aching all over. The carnival was gone. All that remained was an empty field of dirt and scattered patches of dead grass.
“Brian,” Kent whispered. Where was his son? He wanted to cry, but it was too soon. Brian could be safe nearby. Someone must have noticed that he was alone and brought him to safety. There was a village in sight so there could be a police station. Kent stood up and started towards the town. As he stumbled through the field, he tried to piece together why he passed out and how the carnival could have vanished overnight.
The town was small but spread out. Houses were a little run-down but charming with their white trim and pastel paint jobs. Kent couldn’t immediately see if there was a police station around, so he decided to check out the local eatery to ask where it was. As he walked through the entrance, a little bell rang and all the patrons turned to see who was coming in. They didn’t seem happy to see a tourist.
Kent wasted no time. “Can someone tell me where the police station is?” No one answered. In fact, everyone put down their forks and knives, their glasses, their sandwiches. They all looked at Kent with dissatisfied eyes. Even the waitresses were staring daggers at him.
“I’m sorry, I just need the police. Please,” Kent said as politely as he could under the circumstances.
“The police, huh?” a gruff old man grumbled. “You have an accident?”
“No. My son is missing. We were at the carnival last night and…” Kent wasn’t sure how to finish his sentence but—as it turned out—he didn’t need to.
“What carnival?” a waitress chimed in. “The one last weekend?”
“Last weekend? No, no. The one last night.” But just as he said those words, Kent realized that he didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious.
“Sorry, son, but the only carnival around here took off three days ago,” the gruff old man assured him.
“You on drugs or something?” asked a young, homely girl. “You city people always on them drugs.”
Kent lost his patience. “Just tell me where the police station is. I need to go there right now.”
No one spoke. They just picked up their forks and knives, their glasses, their sandwiches… and went on with their business. A waitress finally replied, “Ain’t no police station here.”
“What kind of place IS this?” Kent shouted. “How can you have no police station?!”
“Don’t get your britches in a bunch, mister,” said the waitress. “This here a small town. We don’t get many problems. If we do, we handle ‘em ourselves.”
“Of course you do,” Kent rebutted. “Can I use a phone then?”
A different old man chuckled lightly before replying, “Ain’t had no phone service in eight years, friend.”
Kent was stunned. He stared at the old man in disbelief, then at the waitress, and then at a payphone on the wall at the back of the restaurant. Pushing the waitress aside, he marched to the phone and picked up the receiver with determination. There was no dial tone. He hung it up, and hung his head in despair. No police. No phone. How could he take Brian to a place like this?
“Told you so,” the old man called to him. “Storm knocked out the power lines eight years ago. Town don’t got money to fix ‘em. Nobody to call, anyhow. Small town we got here.” Some of the patrons nodded in agreement at the old man’s sentiment. There was no concern for the outside world in this town. Perhaps, there was no concern for a missing boy.
Kent walked slowly back to the front door in defeat and placed his hand on the knob. He had to make sure there really was no police station, as well as no working phones. The carnies weren’t exactly trustworthy, and Kent was hesitant to believe what he was being told. He turned around to say one last thing before leaving.
“If anyone sees a little boy they don’t recognize, please keep him here until I come back.” No one paid much attention. As Kent turned to leave, he was accosted by a sickly, bearded man tripping through the doorway.
“They took her!” he cried, “They took her!” He fell to his knees, grabbing Kent’s pant leg and looking up at him meekly.
“Get him the hell out of here!” a voice shouted from behind the counter. “We’ve had enough of this!”
The man trembled as he attempted to stand, relying on Kent’s arm to pull himself up. Kent just stood there wondering if he should shake the man off or let him continue. Soon their faces were right up close to each other.
“They took her,” the man whispered, sending a chill through Kent’s veins.
“Get off him, ya nut job!” a large man yelled, pulling the sickly, bearded fellow off of Kent and throwing him against the door. “Now get outta here!”
“Hold on a second,” Kent interjected. “Let’s just hear him out.”
The large man scowled at Kent. “He’s crazy. There’s no sense listenin’ to him.”
“Please, help me!” cried the sickly man, grabbing the front of Kent’s jacket. “They won’t help me. No one from this town will help me!” He began shaking Kent vigorously, forcing him to push the man away. He fell to the floor, sobbing.
“I don’t know what’s going on here,” said Kent, “but my son is missing, and this man seems to be missing someone too. Let him speak.”
“They took her!” the sickly man cried once more.
“Shut the hell up,” the large man said calmly and sternly.
“Who took her? And who did they take?” Kent asked.
“My daughter. They took my daughter. They took Charlotte!” cried the sickly man.
“Who?” Kent demanded, “Who took her?”
The sickly man’s eyes grew wide, then he closed them tight. The patrons all paused for a moment, and continued their business. Kent waited for the man’s response but it never came.
“You’re wasting your time, buddy,” the large man said. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
Kent knelt down and put his hand on the sickly man’s shoulder. “Do you know where they took her?”
Again, the man’s eyes grew wide, and wider still. The large man’s face became cross, and the tension became thick. The sickly, bearded man spoke softly and with little strength.
“Past where the river bends…”
Kent stopped breathing for a moment when he heard those words. The sickly man spoke again, but with more volume and vigor.
“Past where the silo stands…”
Some of the patrons began to grumble and mutter inaudible things. Kent was completely entranced by the terror swirling in the sickly man’s eyes.
“Past where they paint the houses…”
“What… I don’t understand,” Kent whispered. The sickly man looked directly into Kent’s eyes, his face trembling.
“Past where they paint the houses… past where they paint the houses…”
Kent suddenly agreed with the locals that this man must be insane, and backed away a few feet. But the man continued to stare into Kent’s eyes, repeating himself louder and louder.
“Past where they paint the houses… past where they paint the houses… PAST WHERE THEY PAINT THE HOUSES!”
Kent was petrified by the sickly man’s mantra. He looked around hoping someone was going to do something, but they didn’t need to. The sickly man began to choke and gasp for air. In moments, he was on the floor—motionless. No one batted an eye.
“Finally,” sighed the large man.
“Finally?!” Kent shouted angrily. “That’s what you say when this man seems to have had a heart attack?!”
“He was the local nut, and now he cracked. Let it go. You have a son to find, don’t you?”
Kent knelt down again to check if the sickly man was breathing. His heart was beating so Kent propped him up into an empty booth.
“This man needs medical attention.”
“He’s fine,” the large man insisted, and he and everyone else ignored Kent for the duration of his stay at their fine eatery. Storming out the front door, Kent resolved that the large man was right. He had a son to find.
Kent wandered through town, up and down hilly dirt roads, looking for the police station. He kept recalling the waitress’s words, “Ain’t no police station here.” Was that really true? Occasionally, he’d find a remote cottage and ask the residents if they’d seen Brian, but none were any help and all without phones. Discouraged by his futile search, Kent knelt at the river’s edge to rinse his face. That’s when he noticed something significant: the river took a sharp turn near the horizon.
“Past where the river bends,” Kent whispered. Was the sickly man insane? Or was he on to something? Kent decided that without hope he had nothing. The bend in the river gave him hope, so he followed it. As it got closer, he looked out at the forest and up to the mountains. A few houses were scattered here and there, but mostly it seemed that wherever he was headed would be quite a hike. He reached the river bend and sat down to mentally prepare himself for the journey, not knowing how far it would take him or where it would lead.
Kent took a picture of his wife and son from his wallet and held it tightly in his thumb and forefinger. “Carol,” he said softly as he touched her face, then Brian’s—his only family. He wondered what Carol would think of him now.
As he walked up the dirt road, Kent’s face was warmed by sun rays coming through the trees—his ears serenaded by birds, insects, and the movement of the river. It was almost peaceful despite the worries swarming in his mind. Would Brian be down this path? Had he been taken, or just ran off? If so, why? He kept thinking that he may be walking away from Brian, rather than towards, but he just couldn’t turn around; the sickly man’s words wouldn’t let him.
The dirt road twisted and turned until Kent wasn’t sure which direction he was headed. A house here and there provided no respite, as there seemed to be no one home. He was becoming exhausted due to the constant slight incline of the road so he stopped to rest. He was just high up enough to see the village over the trees. It made him feel alone. It was then that he noticed something hanging from a branch that looked like a knapsack.
Kent walked towards the dangling bag, then jogged, then ran. He stopped just short of it, recognizing it was indeed Brian’s. Yet somehow it seemed old and worn. He grabbed the bag and looked inside—it was empty. Various questions entered Kent’s mind, but he dismissed them knowing he wouldn’t have any answers until he found his son. There was no doubt anymore that he had been down the same road and that Kent was going in the right direction. That’s when he noticed something else in the distance—a silo.
“Past where the silo stands,” he spoke aloud with both confidence and fear. Letting out some more slack on the straps, Kent swung Brian’s knapsack onto his back and continued hiking up the road. The sun was just above the trees, getting ready to paint the sky. Night was coming.
As Kent grew closer to the silo, a deep sense of foreboding began festering inside him. Finding Brian was becoming a reality, and now Kent couldn’t help imagining what might happen when he finally found him. Would he have to tangle with Brian’s kidnappers? Kent repeated the words, “I know he’s alive,” over and over until he no longer realized he was saying it.
Kent stopped and looked up at the silo. Time had surely forgotten this majestic tower with its cracked concrete, rusted ladder, and the last remnants of spoiled grain seeping through an open hatch. Moss and vines had gradually worked their way up over the years as if trying to hold the cylindrical structure—prevent it from moving. It almost looked like a living creature, standing tall and wise, watching over the village. Kent took the picture from his wallet once again and held it to his heart, taking multiple deep breaths. “Just a little further,” he thought, and continued his journey.
The road was now a path, overgrown in some areas, making progress a little difficult. Kent felt as though the forest was watching him—with malice, perhaps. He could tell that no one had walked this path in quite some time, which bothered him in a way he couldn’t quite understand. As he traveled further, the trees gradually went from grand and full to sad and lifeless. The sunset was in full effect now, but Kent wasn’t sure he wanted to rest again just yet. He changed his mind upon spotting a building among the branches.
The shack was of modest size, with scattered patches of chipped blue paint, peeling off and hanging like a willow tree. It looked sturdy and seemed as though someone was keeping up with repairs. Kent stepped lightly up the creaky porch steps and knocked on the door, simultaneously realizing that Brian could very well be inside and that his knock could be met with violence. He took a few steps back and the door opened. A man in a dirty cap and hunting vest greeted him with a grim scowl.
The two men glared at each other. Kent could tell by the man’s eyes that he was disappointed to see a stranger. He was about to slam the door without a word when Kent finally spoke up.
“I’m looking for my son.” He gave his voice a tinge of aggression in an attempt to show no fear. “Have you seen a little boy?” The man looked down and sighed as he stepped out onto the porch, closing the front door behind him.
“Go home,” he said in a stoic tone.
“Not without my son,” Kent replied, insinuating that the man standing before him might have taken Brian.
“Let it go. There’s nothing you can do. Just forget about him and return to your life.”
Kent grabbed him by his vest and slammed him against the door. “You’re crazy if you think I’m afraid of you,” he grunted into the man’s face, then turned and threw him down the porch steps. He charged through the door and darted around the house, opening every cabinet and closet and flipping every table looking for his son. It didn’t take long to register—there was no one else there.
“I’m just trying to help you,” the man insisted, appearing in the doorway.
“You want to help me? Then tell me where my son is.”
The man sighed once more, his demeanor becoming more sympathetic. “I can’t.”
Kent stepped outside and sat on the porch steps, holding his head in his hands. ”You know where he is, don’t you?” he pleaded, hoping for a less cryptic answer. Maybe this guy didn’t know where Brian was but he obviously knew something that he couldn’t tell Kent directly, perhaps because he was afraid.
“We both know where he is. But you can’t go there. If you do, you’ll regret it.” He sat down next to Kent and looked him in the eyes. “Your son isn’t coming back, and you won’t be able to rescue him.” His words were painful to hear but they slowly settled in Kent’s mind, becoming a sort of comfortable truth. Still, he tried as hard as he could not to believe.
“Wait here,” the man said and walked back into the cabin, leaving Kent alone to ponder his plight. He recalled the scenario thus far, evoking vivid, yet detached memories. The coaster. The fortune-teller. The funhouse. The restaurant. The crazed man who lost his daughter.
“Past where they paint the houses,” Kent said without thinking. “I have to keep going. I have to find him. I’ll bring him back. I’ll save him.” With that he stood up tall and turned around, only to discover the man had returned holding a pistol. Kent’s face turned red.
“You son of a bitch! I knew it!” he shouted.
“I’m not going to shoot you,” the man said, turning the gun around so the handle was facing Kent. “You might need this.”
Kent reached out and accepted the gun. It felt cold, dangerous and unfamiliar.
“Know how to use it?” the man asked, then gave Kent a short lesson when he didn’t respond quickly enough.
“I don’t think I can kill anyone,” Kent said as he swung the pistol around in a cumbersome manner.
“Don’t worry. When the time comes, you’ll do what you have to do. Just remember, there’s only one bullet. So make it count.”
Kent tried to imagine himself firing a gun as he ran his thumb over the pistol hammer. He nodded in acknowledgment, then turned his eyes to the setting sun. “Can I stay here ‘til morning?”
“I’m sorry,” the man replied with grave sincerity. “You can’t stay here.”
Kent wondered if he should press the issue or continue on through nightfall. The man must have had his reasons for not letting Kent stay, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what those reasons were. The look on the man’s face suggested that he probably wouldn’t have a reply. Instead, he thanked the man for the gun and put it into Brian’s knapsack. The two shook hands and Kent’s journey resumed.
It was getting darker, and soon would be too dark to see. Kent couldn’t have known there would be no moon that night. Darkness wasn’t a particular fear of Kent’s but it was making him anxious knowing he was in such foreign surroundings. The sky’s crimson backdrop was fading to black as Kent came upon a small clearing. He decided to sleep there, lest get lost in the night. The insects chirped a soothing song as Kent drifted off to sleep, holding the picture from his wallet.
Kent felt something. It was still pitch black so he knew he couldn’t see what it was. He lay on his side, sensing a presence behind him. A hand came over his body and clutched him tight. It was Carol.
“Where is our son?” she whispered in a labored monotone. “Where is Brian?”
“I don’t know,” Kent replied in shame. There was a long pause as he focused on Carol’s warmth covering his whole body, her embrace filling him with both hope and sadness.
Carol spoke again, even weaker this time, “Please bring him home.”
The sounds of the forest drifted away until there was nothing, as if Carol had banished them. Kent tried to speak but the silence was so loud it bound his lips. Then, as if someone else was speaking through him, he whispered unknowingly, “Promise me… the sun… will rise again.”
Kent awoke with a start, not having perceived he was dreaming. It was daylight and reality was setting in once again. Brian was gone but could be nearby; he could feel it. It wouldn’t be much longer now that they would be reunited. He was prepared to do whatever he had to. He would bring Brian home and no man would stop him.
As Kent looked around to see which way to go, he noticed there were multiple paths—eight distinct paths going in all directions. He had no idea which one to take, nor which one he had taken to get there. He turned slowly in a circle, trying to decide what to do. Unable to make a decision, he fell to his knees in frustration. That’s when he saw something at the entrance to the path in front of him—a trail of breadcrumbs. Brian must have kept the carnival bread with him despite losing the knapsack. Kent smiled at the thought of his son being brave and resourceful in the face of danger.
“Like father, like son,” he said to the breadcrumb trail, and started down the path.
The trail was straight at first but soon became full of twists and turns, unnecessarily so. Kent was getting frustrated at the illogical way it had been made and began to just push through the brush. Eventually, the path was impossible to navigate, but he felt compelled to head in one certain direction which eventually led to the edge of the forest where he found more scattered breadcrumbs.
Mountains embraced the horizon, coddled by green fields. A winding path led down the hill from the forest to a valley where sat a seemingly deserted village. As the houses got closer, Kent saw how dilapidated they were. The windows were filthy, the roofs slightly concave; some houses were missing boards in the outer walls. If there was anything that stood out to Kent it was that none of the houses looked as though they had ever been painted.
The town was laid out in a circular shape, with rows of houses revolving around one central building. There was no grass anywhere in town—dirt clouds drifting in slow motion. Time seemed to stand still. Kent could feel Brian nearby. It was the strongest gut feeling of his life. He clenched his fists and stepped into the village.
As Kent explored the town, he looked around for signs of life. He could sense other people, but saw none. Glancing at a house, he spotted a face behind a cracked, cloudy window. It was a little girl.
“Hey!” Kent shouted, running towards the house. The face calmly moved away from the window as he approached.
“Please! I need help!” Kent vigorously jiggled the doorknob but it was no use. He desperately banged on the door, then tried to break it down but was too weak from hunger. Slowly collapsing on the doorstep, Kent begged the girl to acknowledge him. There only came silence in return. He rose to his feet and peered in the window. It was hard to see clearly through the filth, but there seemed to be something moving in the background.
“Hey!” Kent shouted again, banging on the glass which broke easier than expected. He tried to climb through the window but just couldn’t manage, so he gave up and continued to stumble through the empty town. Brian had to be in one of those houses, but which one? He wondered how many of them had children inside.
As Kent walked towards the center of the town, the dust clouds parted to reveal the central building. It was even more run-down than the rest of the village. Boards were hanging by singular nails; windows were broken—the roof nearly caving in. Kent didn’t notice at first but the house had an octagonal shape. He walked around it looking for a door, but there were only windows.
A strange curiosity overcame him and Kent was compelled to look through one of the broken panes. There were slivers of light coming through cracks in the ceiling, revealing broken furniture and dead rodents. In the center, a single beam illuminated a figure sitting on a small stool. It was a little boy.
“Brian!” Kent shouted. The boy slowly raised his head, bringing his face into the light. His eyes were swollen and his cheeks were stained with tears. His body shook and his lips quivered as he spoke.
“Brian! Are you okay?!” Kent had a rush of adrenaline. He could surely climb through the window this time.
“Dad…” Brian whispered sadly.
“It’s going to be okay, son! I’m coming!” Kent smashed the remaining glass with his fists and attempted to hoist himself up into the window.
“H-h-… h-help m-me…”
Kent couldn’t bear to hear Brian so frightened. It was driving him mad with concern. All this time he wasn’t even sure if he would find his son, but seeing him now was tearing his heart in every direction.
“I’m coming, Brian! I’m com-”
Kent froze at the sight of something coming into the light that shined on his son. A finger, perhaps. No, a paw? Another appeared. They were long and dark—covered in fur. Was there a wild animal threatening Brian? A third appeared. They waved hypnotically in the air in front of Brian’s face. Then one gently caressed his cheek. A voice spoke—a hideous, slow voice—sharp and full of treble.
“Weee looove hiiimm…”
Every muscle in Kent’s body stiffened at once. Every hair stood up. He watched the waving appendages and listened to the horrible voices, unable to react.
“Heee iiiss deeeaarr tooo uuusss…”
“Yesss… weeee loooove hiiimm…”
“Weee cheerrrisshh hiiimm…”
More slender, furry appendages danced into the light around Brian. They covered him—touched him. Soon, the figures moved closer, allowing Kent to view their previously shrouded forms. Their bodies were furry as well—the size of a large dog or wolf—but segmented and with too many legs to be a mammal. Kent then realized what they were: his darkest fear.
“D-dad…” Brian managed to whimper through his intense fright. Kent couldn’t move or respond. He was paralyzed. His most horrible nightmare was standing before him, larger than he could have ever imagined. Brian began to sob, but he had no tears left.
As the creatures continued to surround Brian, their faces finally revealed themselves. They looked almost human, almost familiar, but with eyes all over their foreheads and two large, wet fangs. Their hideous visages sent Kent into a complete state of shock. Again, they spoke.
“Woooonnn’t yooouu joooiiinn uussss?”
“Yeesss… jooiiinn uusss… ffooorrr diiinnerr…”
Suddenly, multiple bodies started to move towards Kent. The nightmare was closing in. He snapped out of shock and fell from the window onto his back, scrambling like a cat who didn’t land on their feet. Once he got his footing, he ran away as fast as he could without looking back.
Kent ran harder and faster than he ever had before. Despite being hungry and exhausted, he ran. He ran up the winding trail to the forest, through the impossible path, and to the eight-way intersection. Kent didn’t even think about which way to go, he just ran. He had no idea where he was going, but he couldn’t stop. Why was he running? He couldn’t remember. He just knew he had to run, and couldn’t stop until he knew he was safe.
Nothing looked familiar. It was all a blur. Kent’s legs moved on their own, bringing him farther and farther from that awful place. He had no idea how long he had been running, when he finally spotted a building. It was the restaurant.
Kent burst through the door expecting to see a room full of people but the place was empty. The door slowly shut behind him, leaving him alone and afraid. His knees buckled. His hands quivered. All the energy he used to run was gone and he soon stumbled into a booth, attempting to catch his wind. The grotesque faces stared him down in his mind. Had he really left Brian with those… those things?
Kent sat up and looked around. The restaurant was dark and dusty, as though no one had been there for a long time. He took the picture of his wife and son from his wallet and held it tightly in his fingers. Guilt and pain enveloped him in an almost comforting way. He was finally able to cry. As he wept, Kent removed the knapsack from his back and hugged it like a teddy bear. But it wasn’t soft like one, for there was something inside: the pistol.
He recalled the man’s words, “You might need this.” Kent inspected the gun in his hand, then opened the chamber.
“One bullet,” he whispered. Was this the man’s intention? Again, he recalled the stranger’s words, “When the time comes, you’ll do what you have to do.”
With tears streaming down, Kent closed the chamber and held the gun to the side of his head. Shutting his eyes tightly, clenching his teeth, he prepared to pull the trigger. He didn’t know what fate lay in store for his son, but he couldn’t bear the weight of his own cowardice. Before he could end his life, the phone rang.
Kent sat there frozen, still holding the gun to his head.
He recalled the words of the old man, “Storm knocked out the power lines eight years ago.”
Kent placed the gun on the table, and slowly got up.
He walked towards the payphone in a trance.
Reaching out, he felt as if the phone was pulling him closer.
Kent reached for the payphone, his hand shaking as he picked up the receiver. There was no sound so Kent spoke first, his voice trembling.
“They took him… They took our son…”
After a moment of silence came a woman’s voice, “Where is Brian?”
“I- I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t save our son,” cried Kent in shame.
It seemed like forever before the woman spoke again, this time more somber, “Please bring him home.”
Kent couldn’t bear to listen. Each word cut him deeper than any blade.
“I couldn’t save him. They took him. They took Brian!” Kent burst into tears, more intensely than before. All his regret seemed to be coiling around him, squeezing him, suffocating him.
“It’s all your fault,” the woman said scornfully. “You coward.”
“Carol…” Kent whimpered.
“You don’t love our son. If you did, you wouldn’t let him go so easily.”
“Carol… please… I’m sorry…”
A click was heard, then a dial tone, then nothing. Kent dropped the receiver and fell to the floor. He couldn’t save his son, and he knew he couldn’t kill himself. He didn’t deserve the warm, gentle embrace of death. Curling up into the fetal position, he gave up everything and completely shut down.
Kent lay motionless as a creak came from the front door. Several bodies scuttled inside and surrounded him. His vision was blurry and his body unresponsive. He could feel things grabbing him all over, then dragging him across the floor and through the doors of the restaurant. They dragged him through the streets towards the edge of town. They dragged him past where the river bends. They dragged him past where the silo stands. They dragged him past where they paint the houses. They took him home.
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