“Accept that there have been no remains found or any reason at all for that matter to believe mom’s–dead?” said Ronnie, looking out of the window into the thick woods across the yard. “Sorry, but I refuse to give up and honestly I can’t believe any of you could just quit on mom like this. She loved you guys more than you know,” said Ronnie.
David advised his wife to take the children and wait in the car while he spoke to his brother. He didn’t want them to see their uncle like this.
“She was old. She wasn’t magic. She didn’t just vanish,” said Ronnie. “And ninety-year-old women don’t just up and run away to California. It just doesn’t add up and I’m tired of everyone acting like–“
“–She was old! You said it yourself,” yelled an irritated David. “She was delusional. She got confused often when she didn’t take her medication. This house is surrounded by two hundred acres of woods on every side. If you would have been here like you were supposed to and not out drinking with your loser buddies, then maybe she’d still be here. Did you ever think of that? Look at you. You’re drunk right now!”
Ronnie grabbed his brother by the collar of his shirt and drove his back against the wall.
Ronnie was much scrawnier than his older brother. He was far from intimidating, with his freckled face under his boyish blonde hair, swept to the side.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to look your own mother in the eyes and her not know your goddamn name every single day? You have no fucking idea, because you and your family are too busy pretending to be perfect. I guess it’s just easier to ignore problems if you can’t accept them.”
“Those are your nieces who think the world of you,” snapped David, forcefully removing Ronnie’s hands and shoved him away. “I’m going to go home and pretend now,” said David, opening the door, pausing before he got both feet out. “I’m afraid you’re the one pretending.”
Ronnie watched his brother’s blood red Volkswagen disappear down the long, dirt drive between the changing trees. He pulled his flask from the back pocket of his jeans and took a long pull as he turned back to the thick woods across the field. They were rather eerie this evening. A heavy fog was sifting through the trees, like one big conscious creature, capturing the woods in its grasp.
He was exhausted, but couldn’t rest easy without having at least made an effort towards understanding his mother’s disappearance each day. He retrieved his old hunting rifle from the cool, unfinished basement covered in cobwebs, threw on his flannel jacket, and ventured towards the woods.
He turned his head to a loud beat up Cavalier riding down the long gravel rode at the end of the drive, screaming and laughing as the car full of teenagers shattered a bottle of beer off the stop sign.
“Hey! Hey, you slow the fuck down, you damn kids!” yelled Ronnie, casting a rock at the car as hard as he could, which only made in a quarter of the way across the long front yard.
The late October air chilled the back of his neck. He pulled the collar of his jacket up as he took a seat on an old, fallen tree and a tear fell from his face to a red leaf on the damp ground.
“I’m sorry, mom. I miss you so much. David’s right. This is all my fault. If I would have been there with you then none of this would have happened. Where the Hell are you, huh?” he called to the woods, wiping more tears from his face.
There was a ruffling through the leaves behind Ronnie. He sprang to his feet and waved the barrel of his rifle back and forth. “Hello? who’s there?”
His heart was pounding as his thumb slowly pulled the hammer until he heard a “click.”
Again, the leaves ruffled as something scurried towards him. He aimed and prepared to fire as a black squirrel rushed past his feet and up the tall oak tree behind him. He had never seen a black squirrel, other than in pictures. Ronnie laughed, gripping his tight chest. He thought he nearly dodged death, a heart attack, or both.
“You got me, you little fucker,” he said, taking another pull and pointing with his flask in hand to the black squirrel hanging on the side of the tree. “You got me good.”
He walked the woods until the sun began to fall behind the hills for the day, and decided he better return to his mother’s house. He walked the upper hallway of the old, two story farmhouses, pausing in front of every photo on the wall. He came to the room where he and his older brother used to play for hours, smiling at his old posters and the memories that came with them.
He continued down the hall to his mother’s room and pulled the string of the small lamp on the nightstand to reveal her covers that were still unmade from the night she disappeared. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the photo on her end table from when he and David were just children in their baseball uniforms, posing with their mother.
More tears fell from his eyes. He wiped them away and took himself another drink of whiskey. He held it upside down and watched the last drop fall onto his white sock. He sat rubbing the toes beneath his socks together, reflecting on the past when he was distracted by the lamp as it flickered a couple times before leaving the room pitch black, except a dull light from the moon shining through the trees outside the window. He walked to wiggle the cord and couldn’t help but notice a quick movement, like a body zoomed past the second story window. He raced to the lamp and frantically tapped it until it flickered back on. He turned and faced the window with the light like it was a sword, only to find the source of his scare gone.
He decided he had been drinking and not to let his imagination get the best of him. Ronnie never cared for the solitude of his mother’s home. He felt a tightness in his chest and became short of breath, so he laid onto his mother’s bed trying to relax. The doctor told him stress was going to kill him, and that was before his mother went missing. He took deep breaths like the doctor showed him and tried his best to relax. He had only been sleeping a couple hours each night for the past week or two.
Ronnie dozed off in his breathing exercise, sound asleep until the morning sun hit his eyes through the window. His Sundays usually consisted of drinking and watching football with the guys, but he could not do anything besides search for his mother without feeling guilty. He showered in the old basement shower that he used when he stayed there. He put on his same flannel and jeans from yesterday and again he headed into the woods. After hours of searching, the sun again fell behind the trees, this time accompanied by a light rain and soft thunder.
He walked to his car, but decided he wasn’t feeling a three-hour drive after a day of alcohol and searching. He thought he would stay again and leave early in the morning. He wiped the mud from his boots on the doormat when suddenly he remembered the movement outside his mother’s bedroom window from the night before.
He rounded the house, looking for any possible causes, but the only thing within view of the window were the branches of a buckeye tree. He saw where she had hung an old yellow bird feeder on the branches. They were her favorite species of bird. She felt at peace when she watched them from the comfort of her bed in the mornings.
He concluded its cylinder body must have been blowing in the wind the night before. It looked rather old and so he decided to do his mother a favor and repaint it. He rounded the house to retrieve the ladder from the old barn that nobody had stepped foot in for over a year. Everything was covered by dust and cobwebs.
“Look at all this junk,” he said, picking up an old watering can that had a three-inch hole rusted in the bottom of it.
He cast it aside when he spotted the ladder hanging from the back wall. To his displeasure, there was an old lawnmower, a shovel, a rotted picnic table, and an old dryer sitting in his way.
It was getting darker in the old barn by the second, but he decided he had already put his mind to it and needed to retrieve the ladder.
The junk rumbled as he pushed his way through, throwing his old bicycle onto the plastic furniture to his side.
“Come on you son of a bitch,” he said, brushing the tips of his fingers against the ladder with his arm fully stretched and body laid across the old dryer.
He had it in the grasp of his right hand when suddenly there was a loud crash behind him. The noise startled him so much that he fell, but at least the ladder fell with him.
He jumped up, looking around for the accuser of the noise.
“Who—who’s there?” he nervously muttered, looking around the dark barn, but there was no response.
He listened to the darkness and counted to thirty.
“You’re losing your goddamn mind,” he told himself aloud.
He grabbed the ladder and made his way to the house, but not without glancing over his shoulder at the barn one last time. It had to have been him moving the junk, right?
He went inside, this time locking the door behind him. He again found himself in his mother’s room, longing for her presence. He sat on the corner of her bed apologizing to the empty sheets until the pink swirly sky had fully turned black, with the yellow moon in its center.
He laid in a state of repose with his eyes closed and his hands crossed on his stomach, listening to the rain tap the old roof. He didn’t even move to turn on the lamp. He thought about David’s wedding day when he and his mother got into a terrible fight over his drinking. Ronnie wanted to amend every little quarrel. He just wanted to tell her he loved her.
His thoughts were soon interrupted. Even though his eyes were closed, he could tell the room had gotten darker. He opened them to find that the moonlight shining in the window was blocked by the black silhouette of a broad shouldered being. His heart pounded at the sight. He was on the second story. A person couldn’t physically be standing outside of the window.
“Hello?!” he called, his pulse racing.
He slid his shaking hand from his stomach to the string of the lamp, without taking his eyes from the window, but he knocked the lamp onto the floor in the process, shattering the bulb.
He closed his eyes, counted to three, and made a dash past the window and out of his mother’s room. He raced down the hall and was certain he heard footsteps racing behind him. He didn’t stop or turn to look until he had made it down the stairs to retrieve his rifle he sat next to the front door. He grabbed it and spun around as fast as he could, falling over the couch behind him and accidentally firing a shot into the ceiling of the living room.
“What the fuck?!” he cried, holding the weapon against his beating chest as he laid on the living room couch.
“I’m going crazy. I’ve officially lost it.”
He looked to the empty cans he left sitting on the table earlier in the day, and swiped them onto the floor, blaming the alcohol for his current state of mind.
He laid on the downstairs couch with the television on until he drifted off to the background noise. The next morning, he awoke to a knock on his mother’s door. He had a headache as he did most mornings, struggling to find his way to the door through the bit of light, nearly falling over his own boots at the entrance, before opening it to find Mr. Anderson.
“Oh, uhm—hey Mr. Anderson. Long time no see.”
Mr. Anderson was an elderly man that lived down the drive. He was the only neighbor within walking distance of his mother’s house on Pigeon Point. He wasn’t as old as his mother, but his mother would tell it that he was crazier than she was, always coming around and filling her head with nonsense.
“Shouldn’t be here,” he said, waving his shaky old finger at Ronnie from the other side of the screen door.
Ronnie could barely see the oranges of the rising sun shining over the hill.
“Wha—what time is it?” asked Ronnie, peeking in at the clock hanging on the kitchen wall that read 6:20.
“It’s six in the morning, Mr. Anderson. What on Earth are you doing going around beating on people’s doors at this hour? Come on,” he said, grabbing his keys from the end table. “I’m giving you a ride home.”
“It’s not safe around here. I told your mother it isn’t safe around here.”
Ronnie sat in the driver’s seat of his car and turned the keys, but nothing happened.
“What the Hell?” he said, slapping his hand against the dash as if that was going to fix it.
Again, he tried, but again his car would not start.
“I just put a new battery in this piece of junk!” he said, getting out and furiously slamming his door.
“I’m gonna call David and see if he can’t give me a ride to the shop. We’ll drop you off at your house on the way,” said Ronnie, turning to find the yard empty.
“Mr. Anderson?” he called, looking in every direction, but he was nowhere in sight.
“What a strange old man,” he said, shaking his head and walking to the house, checking the yard for him one last time before closing the door.
He opened his phone to call his brother, and soon remembered his phone didn’t pick up reception deep in the backwoods of Somerton.
“Great,” he said, flipping it shut and tossing it onto the couch. “Guess it’s you and me again,” he said to his rifle. “And you,” he said to the bottle of whiskey next to it.
He put on his flannel jacket and out the door he went, back into the woods, this time starting behind the house and working his way to the East. The birds played their symphonies, the briars snagged his jacket, and the occasional critter shot out from under a rock to scare the life out of him.
“Jesus Christ!” he yelled.
Nearly falling over his own feet, he caught himself on the nearby tree with one hand. He held his racing heart with his other. Again, he laughed that a black squirrel could give a thirty-four-year-old man such anxiety. He thought it strange that he saw another black squirrel just two days after seeing the first one he had ever seen. Was it the same one, or different? Was God sending him a sign? Regardless, he chose to move in the direction the critter scurried.
He carefully pinched a vine full of briars between his thumb and index, moving it aside as he slid past, snagging his coat on the briars behind him.
“God damn it,” he said, ripping off the hanging string.
Something caught the corner of his eye. A black shape raced past the nearby trees, accompanied by the sound of twigs cracking on the ground.
“What the Hell?” he said, squinting, looking in the thick wooded area up the hill.
He made his way towards the movement. That’s when he saw the prints in the soft forest floor. Of all the years he spent hunting with his brother, he had never seen anything quite like them. They resembled long, imperfect upside-down triangles. At the wide top of the foot were four toes, and at the tips of the toes were four marks where claws would be. He followed the prints. Whatever made them walked upright on two feet.
“What the fuck?” he kept repeating, following the trail of clues. There was a muddy footprint on a fallen log that the creature had stepped onto and over.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he would stumble upon next.
There was a campfire, still burning. Next to it were logs that something was using to feed the dying embers. There was a stick with animal’s blood, where something had been cooked over the fire. Then he heard it. The call of something he had never heard before.