[Parts 1 and 2 of this story were previously posted individually. Now that the story has been expanded and completed, it is posted below in its entirety and the previous posts have been deleted. Hopefully this continuity makes for a more enjoyable read.]
It was early and the morning mist still hung low to the ground, obscuring his view and preventing him from seeing what existed on the other side. It was an enticing mystery, the kind that young boys venture into full of curiosity and imagination and not enough thought. The boards beneath his feet were rough and Kenny was suddenly aware of the absence of his shoes. He didn’t remember leaving home without them, but then he didn’t exactly remember leaving home at all this morning. The thought stayed with him for only a moment, replaced quickly with anticipation that was infinitely more interesting and he stepped lightly across the wooden bridge, tiptoeing into the unknown.
The air was crisp and smelled of fallen leaves and damp earth and the sound of water trickling over rocks rose faintly from below, growing louder as he neared the middle. He could almost make out the other side from where he stood and for a single moment fear flashed through him from somewhere deep inside, primal and exciting. His heart pounded in his chest and he moved forward eagerly. As he neared the other side he heard it, barely, the sound reaching his ears from a great distance…someone was calling his name. Kenny stepped off the bridge, his bare feet crunching into the leaves that littered the ground. Something slithered over his toes and before he could wonder what it was he felt it again, cool and smooth, and it wound itself around his ankle. It was then that Kenny wished he’d remembered to put on his shoes, and then that he looked down to his ankle and discovered he was wearing his flannel pajama pants. Startled and confused, Kenny leapt from the leaves but the smooth slithery thing was tangled around him now and he stumbled, scraping his knee on the edge of the bridge as he fell. He heard it again, his name drifting on the breeze from the other side of the bridge, oddly familiar and he wanted to run to it. The slithery thing was slowly working its way up his leg now and Kenny struggled to get up, to get away. Suddenly everything was in slow motion. He freed himself from whatever it was and got up to run, but the air felt like quick-sand and his legs moved fast and hard, getting nowhere. He heard it again, calling to him. He opened his mouth to call back but nothing came out. Terrified, Kenny screamed in silence. He felt something brush his forehead and he jumped and suddenly he was flat on his back staring up at his mother.
“Sorry, Sweetie, I didn’t mean to startle you. You must not have heard me calling…time to get up or you’ll be late for school.”
Kenny, groggy and disoriented, looked around his room but didn’t respond.
“Come on now, Kenny. Hurry up. Get dressed and come down for breakfast. Cereal or waffles?”
“Cereal, I guess.”
“Ok, hurry up. And don’t forget to brush your teeth,” she called, already on her way back down the stairs.
Kenny sat up and got out of bed, uncharacteristically happy to leave it this morning. As he brushed his teeth he recalled the dream and, from the safety of his own bathroom, he wondered what else was on the other side of that bridge. It seemed silly now, being so afraid. He spit and ran the water to rinse the foamy glob from the sink and down the drain before going back to his room to get dressed for school. Kenny didn’t notice the tiny tear in his pajama pants but he did feel the sting in his knee as he pulled on his jeans…but Kenny was a young boy and he thought nothing of skinned knees and he hurried down the stairs for breakfast.
The waffle pretty much said it all…this was going to be one of those days. It sat on his plate, too cold now to melt any butter he’d spread on it. An empty bottle of syrup sat beside his sister’s place at the table.
“You snooze, you lose, buddy.” The words came from behind the newspaper sitting across from him, punctuated by the clinking of spoon to bowl as Jack finished off the last of the cereal. Jack was his mother’s boyfriend and although his presence at the table this morning was unexpected, it wasn’t entirely surprising. He had inserted himself into their lives a few months ago, not long after his mother decided it was time to “get back out there”, as Aunt Jenny put it.
Kenny glanced at his mother, washing dishes at the sink, and wondered what she saw in him. He wasn’t all that different from their father, although he’d yet to hit any of them. Still, Kenny wondered what about someone like Jack was appealing in the first place. He was rude and too comfortable in this place that wasn’t his, and although his mother sometimes came home laughing from their dates, Kenny often heard her crying in her room at night and suspected it was because of Jack.
“OK. Grab your stuff and let’s go.” Jack folded his paper over and stuffed it under his arm as he got up from the table. Kenny and his sister looked at each other. “C’mon. You’re gonna make me late for work. Let’s go!”
“I told Jack he could use our car while his is in the shop. He’s going to take you both to school today.”
Reluctantly, Kenny and his sister gathered their things and followed Jack out the door.
At school, Russell waited for him by the water fountain outside the classroom. Kenny handed over the brown paper bag containing his lunch from which Russell extracted the chips and Twinkie before crumpling the bag around the peanut butter sandwich and thrusting it back at Kenny with a shove for good measure. It was their typical morning routine.
Kenny made it into his seat just as the bell rang. Retrieving the notebook and pencil from inside his desk, Kenny noticed it wasn’t their regular teacher at the front of the room. He hated substitutes. They never did anything interesting…sitting at the teacher’s desk doing nothing while the class worked on some stupid assignment to keep them quiet.
“All right, settle down now,” said the man at the front of the room. He was tall and thin and his clothes were rumpled, as if he had worn them the day before and picked them up off the floor before putting them on again this morning. A piece of his hair stood up straight from the back of his head and Kenny wondered if the man realized it. He handed out a worksheet and instructed them all to get busy as he sat down at the teacher’s desk and busied himself with his iphone.
Kenny breezed through the math problems with ease. Numbers made sense to him when so much else in the world did not. With the worksheet done, he raised his hand. The rumpled man, busy on his phone, didn’t notice. Kenny’s arm grew tired and so he put it down, flipped his worksheet over, and began to draw. It started out as just a scribble but Kenny soon realized he was sketching the bridge from his dream last night. He closed his eyes and tried to picture it in his mind, to remember exactly how it looked.
It was long, he recalled, but not too long. Just long enough to feel like it had a middle, and he stopped there, in his mind, in the middle of the bridge, and listened to the water trickling over the rocks below. It sounded faster than it had last night, he thought, and the air felt damp around him; it had rained here. Kenny looked down at this feet…he had on shoes this time. He moved across the bridge, eagerly, toward the other side. When he reached the edge, he backed up slightly and took a running leap over the leaves littering the spot where the bridge rested on the earth. He looked back. The leaves sat, motionless. If anything was still underneath them, it was not coming for him. With a sigh of relief, Kenny turned his attention to the woods around him, getting his bearings and looking for some suggestion of which way to go.
Though most of the leaves were gone from the trees now, the branches reached low to the ground and vines, old and snarled, hung tangled from above like wooden webs. But there, just to his left, was a small patch of dirt, barely free of leaves. It appeared as if it might be part of a long forgotten trail and, with no other obvious options, Kenny headed in that direction. He followed the path, pushing his way through the forest, keeping to the places where the ground was free of leaves. The rain had muddied the dirt but mud was preferable to what might be lurking under the leaves and he continued until he was able to see a slight clearing ahead. As he drew closer, Kenny saw what looked like an old house in the clearing…or perhaps a shed…it was small and he couldn’t be sure until he noticed the stone chimney and saw the thin wisps of smoke beginning to rise from it. The smell of a wood fire permeated the air, a cozy aroma that Kenny found oddly welcoming the stronger it grew. The front door opened and someone (or something) emerged carrying a canvas satchel into which he (or it) placed several logs from the woodpile at the corner of the house. Kenny ducked quickly behind a tree, suddenly thankful for the dense cover of the forest. He stood, frozen in fear, but the damage had been done. In his haste to hide, he strayed from the path and his footfalls crunched the leaves and twigs underfoot. The thing stopped on its way back inside and turned toward the forest in the direction of the path, searching for the source of the unexpected sound. It placed a hand (or was it a claw?) above its deep black eyes and peered in Kenny’s direction, squinting as it strained to see into the forest. Kenny held his breath.
The tapping on his shoulder startled him so completely that for just a moment, time stood still. He had been so sure he was alone here in the forest. But then he hadn’t expected to find a house in a clearing here either, much less one occupied by whatever that was. The tapping came again…three taps on his shoulder – rapid and insistent. He was afraid to turn around and equally afraid not to.
“Mr. Wolfe.” Tap, tap, tap. “Mr. Wolfe.”
Kenny opened his eyes to see the rumpled man standing over him, the classroom empty.
“Mr. Wolfe, may I have your worksheet please?”
“Yeah, sure,” Kenny replied, quickly fumbling for the completed paper and handing it to him.
“Better get going. The bell rang and you’ll be late for your next class if you don’t hurry.”
The rumpled man seemed not to care that Kenny had fallen asleep in class. After all, he was just a substitute and Kenny had finished the assignment.
Kenny grabbed his backpack and headed for the hallway, hurrying toward his next class.
“Young man!” shouted a hall monitor. “Young man stop right there!” Kenny looked back and saw that she was yelling at him. He wondered what he was in trouble for this time. She curled her finger, calling him back toward her, her voice booming as she pointed toward the front door. “Young man, go to the front and wipe off those shoes and do not come in here like that again!” Kenny looked down at the trail of muddy footprints he had left in the hall but before he had a chance to try to make any sense of it, she had him by the arm and was leading him out the door.
Kenny returned to the bridge that night, and twice more the following week, and every night the week after that. He’d asked his Mom if people could die from what happened to them in nightmares but she dismissed his question so quickly he wasn’t sure she’d given the answer any real consideration and he didn’t bother to talk to her about it anymore. She was too preoccupied with Jack anyway. Jack was there most nights now and the cycle of their bickering and reconciling took most of her time and attention away from Kenny and his sister.
The dreams grew in their intensity, more vivid and a little longer each night, although time was difficult to judge. Kenny returned to the little house in the clearing often, drawn by the smell of the wood fire and an inexplicable feeling of comfort mixed with unease that felt a bit like the twisted pleasure of picking at a scab. The creature sniffed at Kenny’s scent in the air but had so far made no moves in his direction as he spied on the house from behind the trees. Kenny watched it retrieve logs for the fire and return from the stream with stringers of fish. Sometimes it would come home with the lifeless body of a rabbit swaying gently from a stick, or a duck gripped by the feet swinging limply at its side. Each time the creature sniffed at the air and peered into the woods before heading inside. At first, the creature’s gaze raised the hair on Kenny’s neck and made his heart leap within his chest. But over time, the ritual began to feel like an unspoken greeting that fell somewhere between a welcome and a warning and Kenny’s fear slowly gave way to cautious respect.
There were other things to explore in the forest as well. Kenny learned that the vines looked like webs for a reason and to stay out of reach of the longest branches with thin, finger-like protrusions that grasped at the ground. He learned that the water in the stream tasted sweet and that the fish would tell you secrets in exchange for freedom if you caught them. He learned that the red berries made you sleep and the purple ones made you sick and the black ones killed anything that ate them….the birds told him so. The toads warned him to keep his feet out of the fallen leaves, although this he already knew, but they refused to tell him what lurked there. The creatures of Kenny’s dreams were fantastical, impossible beings that both terrified and delighted him and Kenny soon began to look forward to his nightmares. He had the bridge, after all. Whenever his heart raced up his throat and danger stepped so near as to almost grasp the life from him, someone would call him back over the bridge to the safety of his “real” life. It was something to which he’d grown so accustomed that he now relied on it and braved further because of it. And so it was this morning, as his sister roused him from a fitful sleep and pulled him back to reality.
“Dad’s back,” she said.
Kenny was groggy, his mind not fully on this side of the bridge just yet.
“He’s in the kitchen with Mom and Jack. They told me to come and get you.”
Kenny rubbed his eyes and picked a leaf from his hair. His sister didn’t seem to notice. Lisa was three years older than Kenny and never paid him much attention. She had her friends and her own problems to deal with and Kenny was merely her annoying younger brother. But this morning she lingered in the hall and waited while he pulled on his jeans and they walked down the stairs together. In the kitchen, their mother stood while their father and Jack faced off from opposite sides of the table, trying, barely, to remain civil. As they entered, Kenny noticed Jack slide an envelope across the table toward their father who quickly snatched it up, inspected the contents and stuffed it into the pocket of his pants.
“Good morning, Sweetie.” His mother greeted him nervously with a quick kiss to his forehead as she handed him a doughnut. It was powdered with sugar that stuck to his fingers and coated his lips and bits of it fell to the floor as he ate it. He preferred chocolate but a doughnut of any kind for breakfast was not something he would turn down. Lisa refused the one offered to her and pulled away as their mother reached over to straighten her hair.
“We’ve got some good news,” Jack said, getting up from the table. Kenny noticed his mother glance uncomfortably at the floor before Jack put his arm around her and her eyes moved up to meet his and she smiled with excitement, forgetting her unease.
“We’re getting married!” she said. The words bubbled out of her and she giggled as if they tickled on their way out. They floated up into the air and hung there, like lead balloons over Kenny and his sister and it took several seconds before they burst and their meaning seeped in.
Lisa broke the silence, “When?”
Kenny thought it an odd thing to ask, more interested in why, but decided to keep his question to himself. So little of what adults did seemed to make sense to him.
“Today, actually,” said his mother, again appearing both giddy and uncomfortable as she broke the news. Lisa turned from her mother and looked at her father who offered no comfort, or concern for that matter, as he glanced at his watch. “Why is he here?” she asked, her voice guarded and thick with disdain.
“Your mother and I leave for our honeymoon tonight,” replied Jack, attempting to maintain control of the situation.
“So we’re staying with him?…For how long? When will you be back?” Lisa glared at her mother, everything about her demanding an answer. Tina looked at her daughter. The situation had escalated faster than she had hoped and she struggled unsuccessfully to find words to soften the blow of the news she was about to deliver.
“Well, actually, Jack got a new job and, well, we thought it would be easier for you to stay in Virginia and not have to move across the country.” She smiled as if she believed what she was doing was in the best interest of her children, but her eyes betrayed the truth of the matter and Kenny now fully understood the choice she had made. He leapt from the table and ran to his room and locked the door. He heard the commotion downstairs…the crying and the yelling and he covered his ears and tried to block it out. It wasn’t long before his father was at his door. Kenny ignored his demands and the pounding began.
“God dammit, you little shit! Open the god damn door!”
It was all too familiar.
“OPEN”…bang!…”THIS”…bang!…”GOD DAMNED”…bang!…”DOOR!” There was a loud crack as it gave way from its hinges and his father barreled into the room, a look of rage in his eyes. Kenny knew that look. For a long time it had only been directed at their mother but then, just before she left him, at Kenny and his sister too.
He grabbed Kenny from the floor and pulled him to his feet. It felt surreal, as if the distant past had somehow caught up with him and snatched him back to a time he had tried to forget. And then he heard it….
It was low and throaty at first. A slow growl, barely there under all the yelling. It sliced almost imperceptibly through the chaos, sounding as if it were ripping its way past teeth as sharp as blades. Was it calling his name? He heard it again…more insistent this time. Was it threatening or calling to him…Kenny couldn’t be sure. He looked up and caught sight of his father’s raised hand, poised in mid-air and time stood still for a brief moment. He heard it again, this time clearly as it snarled and howled his name and he closed his eyes and willed himself toward it just before the first blow landed.
It was the smoke he was first aware of. The smell of wood burning. Kenny opened his eyes and found himself on the ground beside the bridge, the creature standing over him. Grasped firmly in the creature’s claw was a torch, burning furiously. Kenny could still hear the yelling from the other side of the bridge…his father and his mother and now his sister too…yelling and pleading and crying and Kenny just wanted it all to stop. The creature’s jet-black eyes peered curiously into Kenny’s soul and then, as if it heard his wish, it handed him the torch and nodded slowly. Kenny stood and moved closer to the bridge. Although he held the torch at arm’s length, the heat of the flames licked dangerously at his face and the smoke stung and burned in his eyes. He inched toward the middle of the bridge before lowering the torch, touching it to the weathered wood underfoot. The flames jumped eagerly from plank to plank, consuming the bridge and filling the air with the comforting scent of a wood fire. Slowly, the sounds of chaos from the other side began to recede – muffled at first then choked out completely by the flames that burned brightly, their reflection flickering orange and red on the surface of the stream below. Kenny watched briefly from the bank, careful to avoid the leaves and what lurked under them, transfixed by the fire as it danced across the bridge, devouring it. Darkness descended upon the forest, time passed differently here, the flames more brilliant against the black of night. And then he heard it…the low, throaty growl that now knew his name and he ran, his body instinctively reacting to the hunt. He belonged to the realm of his nightmares now and he had no delusions about the nature of its inhabitants.
Moonlight filtered through the dense forest, touching down upon the path in places and lighting Kenny’s way. The faster he ran the louder and more sinister the growl became, inescapable and so close now that it seemed almost to emanate from within his own head. His breath scorched his throat, now parched, as he panted and gasped. Still he ran. When he reached the clearing, the intensity of the moon above stunned him and burned his skin until suddenly he was aware of every strand of hair on his body, growing denser and more coarse as he watched. A strong scent filled the air and his nose twitched, drawing it deep inside, igniting a hunger within him. He raised his hand (or was it a claw?) above his eyes, now jet-black, and peered to the other side of the clearing, deep into the surrounding forest where the scent of fear permeated the air. His legs, now muscular and strong, sprung into action and the hunt was on again.
© Kelly Rainey and 500wordsandcounting.wordpress.com, 2015. Photo by Leszek Bujnowski.
**This story inspired the creation of more art. Take a look. But first…
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