Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
I can’t stand to be back here.
This tiny, rural town I grew up in, it makes my skin crawl to see everything around me. I’m well into middle-age now, but it’s like this town has been frozen in time since I was a teenager. And the older I get, the more things that in childhood seemed warm seem to radiate a freezing cold. The more things seem to hide teeth and claws and menace.
I’m standing in these woods, the ones across from the house I grew up in, and I fall back into memory so easily. Everything is frozen. Everything is the same. Just a little more…
It’s like something’s wrong with the daylight here.
My brother James likes things from the woods.
Animals. Birds especially. When we were children, we used to go out into these woods almost every afternoon, looking for them. Birds. We’d just watch them. And he was so amazed, so in awe of these creatures. He never even got too close. So gentle. He’d just… look up at them. Appreciate the fact that they were there. And then he met Billy and Michael. And Peter.
And then he started shooting the birds.
My mind goes back almost thirty years. I feel like I’m right there. Like I’m right there. These woods will do that to you. I think back to that night. The first night that James…
I’m sitting at the family dinner table. I’m seventeen. I count the plates. One two, three, four, five, six. Count the chairs. One, two, three, four, five, six. Count the bodies. One, two, three, four, five.
Where’s my brother? Where’s James? My sister says he went out with his friends. To the woods, she thought. My mother says she doesn’t like him out after dark, thirteen-year-old boys should be home eating their dinner and not out in the woods at night.
The food’s getting cold as the air outside the house. Still no James. It’s getting late. It’s getting later. No one’s seen him.
I breathe in and out and in and out and in. Hold my breath. Time crawls. No James.
I walk to Peter’s house. The wind is picking up. The night is black, no moon, no nothing. My sister thought he was with his friend Peter. “In the woods, in the woods,” Peter said. “We were running, laughing, we were in the woods, and trying to catch rabbits. We were in the woods trying to shoot a deer. We were in the woods, but then we left the woods,” he tells me. “We parted ways, and I went to baseball practice, and Billy went to the store, and Michael went home to his mother, and I don’t know where James is,” says Peter. “I don’t know. I don’t know. But he’s not in the woods.”
The sheriff is called. They’re all looking. Mother is sobbing. Father is drinking. My brothers and sisters are in and out, and in and out of the house looking. “Help them,” father says. “You’re seventeen. You’re a man, almost. Look with them. Help them.” But I’m stuck to the chair and I’m staring out at the trees. I’m looking out to the part of the wood I can see from our window, and I hope to god. I hope, I hope, I hope that he is not in the woods.
He knows these woods. He knows them.
One day gone and I look out at the sun starting to bleed through the trees. No sleep. Eyes open. Mocking sun in the morning teased, “One night gone, one night gone.” One night gone and no sign of James.
The things in the woods. My mind cycles through the things in the woods. It cycles through everything soft and sweet. Everything that eats plants. Everything harmless before I think of the wolves. Oh, god. The wolves.
I stand out at night yelling. Staring at the woods. Staring at the trees. Maybe if I squint my eyes, maybe if I look closer, I’ll see him there, waiting. “James, James, James, James!” I call, every “James” echoing out into the black night. Where has the moon gone? Dogs bark and wolves howl. No one stops my own howling. I yell until my throat is raw and red and slashed up inside, until I fall asleep in a bed of dying leaves that crackle as I shift in the night.
Two days gone, taunting sun following me all day, saying, “Two days, two days, two days, you’ll never see him again. Your brother’s eaten up, your brother’s eaten up, the wolves will come for you as well when I set.”
They comb through the woods and I wait and wait. Nothing. It’s been too long, he knows these woods. He knows them. The wolves know them, too.
Peter is helping us search. I ask him which way James was headed when he saw him last. Home, he says. He was headed home. Peter ducks behind a tree and starts crying. I know he’s scared. I leave him there. I come back in ten minutes and his eyes are dry and he’s ready to press onwards. But we see no sign of James.
That taunting sun dies on the evening of the third day, and the moon comes out. The moon we haven’t seen for days. In the darkness, I can just make out a shadow coming toward the house. The outline of a person. Walking strangely. Limping. Staggering. James? James, is that you?
No. No. Not James. It’s not James. It’s a woman. The strange woman that lives in the decaying cabin on the other side of town. People come to her when they can’t find things, rings or keys or books, and she closes her eyes and she draws a map, and the people always find their rings or keys or books. Sometimes people ask her what their futures will be. When they will die. And she says she doesn’t know, she can’t do that.
She says all she can do is find things.
Years ago, people say, she saw three drowned children. In her mind. Drowned in cold, deep Echo Lake. All young. But she didn’t know who. And she didn’t know when. And she tried to warn the town, she tried to warn them all, but she didn’t know who, and she didn’t know when, and no one listened. And they let their children play in the lake. And the children were fine. And then one night, Mae Jackson, the preacher’s wife, dragged her three children down to the lake. Said she had the voice of God in her ear, telling her to bring her children to him.
The next morning they found them, all three of them, drowned in that cold, deep lake.
But the strange woman that lives in the decaying cabin on the other side of town says all she can do is find things. She staggers up to our doorstep and hands me a crudely-scrawled map. The woods. And an “X,” deep in the heart of the woods. She walks away toward that moon as it crawls up the night sky. That same staggering, hunched movement.
She turns back.
“Don’t go alone.”
I race into the house and breathlessly show the map to my brother and father. To the sheriff. No words — we all tear through the woods, branches breaking, flashlights dying, running, running, running, running, and I can’t breathe, and don’t let him be torn apart, and I can’t breathe, and don’t let him be… and don’t let him be… and don’t… and don’t… and don’t… and please… and no, no, no, no, no, no, and—
Oh, my god.
There he is.
It wasn’t wolves.
Bullet through his chest.
I didn’t realize I had run ahead. And my father and brother and the sheriff are still running, and it’s just me, and it’s only me, and I’m holding him, and everything is so, so, so, so cold, and the ground is red, red, red, red, red, and—
Lung punctured, he didn’t… when the doctor comes, he tells me James didn’t die right away.
Catching rabbits. Hunting deer. Guns.
Peter is crying in our living room. “It was a mistake,” he sobs. “All the other boys had left. The gun went off. It was a mistake, and it hit him through the chest, and he said get help, but I knew he was… he didn’t have much time, and… and… and… and… and I didn’t want to go to jail, but he said please help me, and I didn’t know what to do. And he was already cold, getting colder. And the ground was so red. And I didn’t know what to do. And I… and I left him there.”
Baseball practice. Peter left and went to baseball practice. He was in shock and he left James there to die, to soak the ground blood red, and he picked up the baseball bat and he left him there, and he ran the bases, and he left him there, and he hit the ball and he left him there, and he left him there, and HE LEFT HIM THERE.
I leave Peter there. In the living room.
My hands are shaking and I can’t be in that room. I can’t. I don’t know what I’d do to Peter. But I… But I can’t be in that room. And everything is red. And everything is cold. My brother. Thirteen. My brother. My brother. Gone.
Something shifts in the trees next to me. And just like that, I’m back, back in the present. Back in this strange, fading daylight, thirty years of time crashing back onto me like brackish waves.
Nothing happened to Peter. Peter grew up, and Peter found himself a wife, and Peter had himself some children, and Peter found a job, and Peter bought a house, and Peter grew up. Peter gets to grow up.
I get to grow up. I find myself a wife, I have myself some children. I find a job, I find a house. I grow up. I grow up, and James is in the ground.
I move away. I can’t stand to be near those woods. I grow up. And I stop believing in people that can find things they’ve never seen by closing their eyes and drawing a map. But I think about that woman. And I think about James. And I think about Peter.
And it brings me here. Back to these woods, back to this place, as the strange daylight dies through the trees.
Wolves got him, I thought. Wolves got James. Before I knew about what Peter had done. I thought wolves got him.
I wasn’t entirely wrong.
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