My mother tried her best to keep me and my brother, Miles, out of the woods behind our house. It was too dangerous, she’d say.
We could trip and fall and hurt ourselves.
We could get lost.
Two little boys could get into all kinds of trouble out there.
She went so far as to have an eight foot fence erected around the backyard and she padlocked its gate. For some, that may have been enough, inconvenience killing curiosity, but for me and Miles, it only made what laid beyond all the more tantalizing.
It was weeks before we finally got our chance to slip out the front door unobserved. Mom was distracted with an overflowing toilet and Miles nudged me with a conspirator’s nod over his shoulder, signaling the time had come. We crept along the hall, down the stairs, and across the foyer, where we grabbed our hats and jackets before making a break for it.
It was a cool autumn day and the leaves crunched noisily beneath our feet as we rounded the house. We were moving fast, nervous that Mom would realize we’d disappeared, and we crossed through the tree line at a near sprint. The late afternoon sun spilled through the leaves in glittering columns, casting the woods in a golden glow, and I followed Miles with a wide eyed grin, both nervous about breaking the rules and mesmerized by this forbidden place.
My big brother took the lead, carelessly stomping his way through the underbrush. We ran and climbed over fallen trees and laughed, unconcerned with the passing of time or that Mom might become worried. We were too enveloped in our mischief.
A gentle incline took us down to a stream and we trailed along beside it for a time, pausing occasionally to skip any suitable stones we found along the way.
“Do you think Mom’s gonna be really mad?” I asked.
For the first time since we’d made our escape, I’d taken a good look around while Miles lined up another rock and realized that our house and its fence were no longer in sight. I wasn’t even certain which direction we’d come from. The woods suddenly seemed so much bigger, intimidating, even, and I felt very small.
Miles clapped me on the shoulder and grinned with all the confidence of a ten year old boy who knew he was up to no good, but was certain he could talk his way out of it. “It’ll be fine, Warren, we’ll go back soon. She probably hasn’t even noticed we’re gone yet.”
I nodded, smiling as well. If Miles said it was ok, then it had to be, and onward we went.
But Miles hadn’t taken into account just how far we really had wandered or just how late it really was.
We had just started talking about turning around when the sun, and the temperature along with it, began to sink. As the shadows began to grow around us, I grabbed Miles’ hand and clutched it between my own. Usually, he never would have let me do that, but just then, he held on as tightly to me as I did to him.
“C-come on,” he said, the bravado from earlier fading as quickly as the light around us, “it’s this way.”
We doubled back, following the stream until we reached its head again, and he started to lead me up the slope.
Behind us, twigs snapped.
I whipped my head around, but I couldn’t see anything in the gloom that had settled across the woods. Miles gave my arm a tug.
“It’s nothing,” he assured me. “Just a squirrel or something.”
I nodded, not entirely convinced, and we started to climb again.
Another twig snapped, this one closer.
“Miles,” I whispered nervously.
“It’s nothing,” he said again.
The crunch of leaves being crushed slowly beneath a heavy footfall sounded right behind me.
I screamed and Miles yelled for me to run. He hauled me the rest of the way up the incline and threw me in front of him. I scrambled, found my footing, and I was off. I could hear my brother clamoring behind me, his panicked breathing, and I dared to look back at him. His face was pale, his eyes dark saucers, and over his shoulder, outlined against the night, something was following.
I turned back around and shrieked again. My legs pumped furiously beneath me, but I still felt slow, sluggish, and I kept stumbling on the uneven ground. Miles shoved me along more than once, shouting for me to go. Over our frantic cries, I could hear the thing behind us, its ragged, deep breathing, it’s leaden, pounding footsteps. And the smell! A cloying, rotting odor that stung my eyes and made it harder to breathe.
My chest burned, my eyes stung with tears, I wanted to scream for my mother, but nothing would come out. Low lying tree branches, invisible in the dark, clawed at my clothes and upturned roots threatened to send me sailing headlong into the ground. If Miles hadn’t been behind me, forcing me to keep going, my terror might have kept me rooted in place.
I might have given up.
It seemed like such a distant call, but we both recognized our mother’s voice instantly.
“Mommy!” I screeched, “Mommy, help!”
Up ahead, still a fair distance away, I could see red and blue lights flashing through the trees. I could see the lights from the upstairs window of our house!
“Mommy!” I screamed again.
“Mom!” Miles joined in.
Beams of light turned towards us from either side and a radio crackled. “We’ve found them,” a man’s voice said.
We collapsed into our mom at the edge of the woods and all three of us fell to the ground, clinging to each other.
“We’re sorry!” I sobbed into her shoulder.
“We were being chased, something was after us!” Miles said at the same time.
The cops Mom had called to look for us, who had gathered nearby and were within earshot, immediately turned their flashlights back towards the woods. They shined them slowly across the trees, their eyes narrowed slightly, but all they found was empty forest.
“Oh no,” Mom breathed softly.
“Mommy?” I looked up at her and was confused by her expression, a thin lipped, tight mask of fear.
Wordlessly, she gathered us up and half dragged us back towards the house, leaving the police still searching the darkness.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” Miles asked pleadingly.
“Why couldn’t you do as I say?” She moaned. “Why couldn’t you stay in our yard?”
“W-we’re sorry,” I said. “We won’t do it again.”
“Oh, baby,” she glanced down at me, “you don’t even know what you’ve done. It wasn’t you going into the woods that was the problem.”
She hurried us inside and slammed the door behind us, turning the deadbolt into place before looking at us again.
“It’s what you led back out.”
Outside, just beyond our fence, the cops began to scream.