The new moon was a pale disc, its rays barely piercing through the canopies of frailing deciduous canopies. The forest floor, smattered with leaves still wet from the evening’s rain, caught the moonlight in freckles. The blackened, leathery skin of something wrinkled and folded as it moved between the wood. It trudged almost aimlessly between the trees, claws curling at the dirt and foliage. Its eyesight caught notice of all manner of critter as they scurried through underbrush, but it paid them no mind. Its quarry was not four-legged, its quarry was not to be found in the woods.
Just beyond the tree line, a truck idled in a grassy clearing, far from any road. Music blared from the tape deck, spilling out of the truck’s open driver-side door, and the rolled down passenger window. On the hood lay a man on the losing side of thirty, clutching his fifth beer in his spindly hand. His legs dangled over the edge, in front of the grill, with his neck craned at the bottom of the windshield. He muttered about some “ungrateful cow,” and how he’d “leave town in the morning for any place better than here.” In his swilling he didn’t notice a creature, black as pitch, slowly making its way forward. The creature’s leathery skin drank in the light of the truck’s headlamps, only betraying the thing’s shape as it inched ever closer.
A song on the radio ended, and the tape deck clicked. The man sat, looking up at the stars for a moment before realizing that the music would not continue. He grumbled and rolled over on the hood, his legs swinging up and out of the creature’s gnashing fangs. At the sound of a chomping bit he stopped, staring into the trees around him. The wind blew hard, and the canopies danced in the dark. The man slid off the hood and stumbled past the open door, and up into the driver’s seat. His hand hovered and slapped about the buttons of the tape deck until the tape ejected halfway out like an indignant tongue. The man grabbed the tape and reached for a shoebox on the passenger’s seat, where, out of the corner of his eye, he saw two red eyes staring at him from beyond the window. He looked blearily, and the eyes disappeared between staggered blinks.
The man climbed across the bench seat, knocking over the shoebox of cassette tapes as he peered over the open window to see – nothing. Just more trees dancing in the wind, and grass bending with the gusts. The man sighed deeply, which turned into a bubbly burp, then a chuckle.
“Maybe that’s…enough for tonight…” he said to himself.
A huff came from behind, and then a growl. The man’s grip on the edge of the bench seat tightened, and he slowly turned his head, seeing past his shoulder two red eyes staring back at him from outside the driver-side door. A black mouth opened, revealing a set of shining white teeth in the darkness. It lunged forward. The man screamed when it bit down on his whole right foot, a row of burning teeth clamping his ankle. It dragged him out of the truck and into the inky black night.
“Ryan, Ross, wake up! I won’t tell you again!” Mom’s voice carried to the top of the turning steps, louder than her heals clicking on the wood flooring.
Mom joined dad at the kitchen table, and they both gave each other a beleaguered stare when heavy footfalls came through the ceiling, traveling down the stairs. A younger boy, about ten years old, led his teenaged brother down the flight. The teenager gripped the railing and pressed his feet off the opposite wall, sending him over the railing and stomping onto the hall floor before the younger boy could reach the bottom of the stairs.
“Ross! What did I tell you about jumping over the railing?” Dad said, slapping his newspaper down on the table.
“That I’ll break my neck?” the teenager said stopping at the mouth of the hall into the kitchen.
“I haven’t yet, I’m testing the theory.” Ross shrugged. “I’ll let you know when I do.”
“No, you can keep it to yourself.” Dad covered his view with the paper.
The ten-year-old shoved his way past Ross and into the kitchen, swinging open the pantry door and grabbing a box of cereal.
“Ryan, eat the wheat things today, you’ve had the sugary stuff every day this week,” Mom said.
“We all got butts, yours ain’t special,” Mom cocked her head, loading a stern look to fire off until Ryan got a different box of cereal.
“More for me,” Ross said, lilting and prancing into the kitchen.
“He’s gonna eat it all,” Ryan whined, pulling out a beige box with a giant square made of wheat on its face. No cartoon mascot, no catchy phrase, unless you counted “It keeps you regular!” as a phrase worth repeating.
“I’m a growing boy,” Ross said, reaching far into a cupboard where metalware clanged.
“You know Ross, Mrs. Glaser said she saw you on the roof again the other day,” Mom said as she got up from the table. “If you wanna keep growing you better stay down from there. Just because your window gets to the roof doesn’t mean you should. You’re gonna crack your head open on the driveway.”
“Okaaaaay,” Ross said.
Ryan poured a small helping of wheat squares into his bowl, barely enough to fill it halfway. He stared at the squares in the bowl, crumbling into small flakes seemingly just by a glance, while Ross had dumped his cereal and gone, leaving behind the colorful box. Ryan pulled a spoon from the drawer and tapped the bottom of the colorful box to check its volume – nearly empty. Ross came to the table with a large mixing bowl filled nearly to the brim with colorful, sugary cereal and what seemed a pond’s worth of milk. He pressed a large wooden mixing spoon into the mixture and grinned. Dad looked past his paper and crumpled it in his hands when he saw what his son had brought to the table.
“What?!” the teenager said, holding the spoon to his lips
“You better eat all that,” Dad grumbled.
“You’re like a floppy-haired garbage disposal,” Dad sighed.
Ryan sat down at the table next to Ross, staring blankly at the bowl of wheat squares in front of him.
“Honey, where did you leave the tickets?” Mom asked, standing in the hallway.
“They weren’t on the desk?”
“Maybe they’re on the nightstand?” Dad folded his paper and left the kitchen with Mom.
Ryan had shoved each of wheat squares around with his spoon, hoping they might have disappeared in the milk, never to be seen again. With mom and dad shuffling around upstairs, Ross casually slid his giant metal bowl between him and Ryan, tapping his wooden spoon to get his brother’s attention. Ryan, without missing a beat, began shoveling colorful flakes onto his bowl, over the wheat squares.
“Hurry up with your breakfast, the bus will be here soon!” Mom shouted from upstairs.
Ryan was quick to eat the wheat squares, now covered in colorful sugar flakes, before relishing in large spoonfuls of what he was previously denied. He gave Ross a blissful eyeroll, and Ross chuckled, digging into his own bowl.
“Alright,” Mom said, reentering the kitchen. “We’ll be gone by the time you get back from school. Ross?”
“We’re leaving money in an envelope on the desk, that’s for you and your brother to last you ‘til we get back. No HBO while we’re gone, just go rent some stuff at Muntz Movieland, but don’t go crazy, and – look at me…”
Ross turned his gaze to Mom, wooden spoon clenched between his teeth.
“No R movies. I don’t care if it’s Halloween and Ryan says he can handle it.”
“Mom…” Ryan mumbled.
“Yeah okay,” Ross replied.
“There should be enough to order a pizza too. And if you need more, take it out of your savings.”
“Ha! We’d starve before I dug into my car fund.”
“Don’t starve. There’s plenty of food in the fridge,” Mom said, kissing Ross’s head.
“Yeah right, leftover meatloaf.”
“Bus is coming down the road!” dad called from upstairs.
Ross and Ryan jumped from their seats and headed for the front door.
“Have a good day at school, and do your homework. Just because we won’t be here doesn’t mean you can fool around.”
The brothers stomped the hardwood floor to adjust their shoes, then reaching for their backpacks.
“Okay, bye mom. Have a safe trip.” Ross turned to the stairs to call up “Bye dad!”
Ryan repeated the farewells, and hearing their dad’s “g’bye!”, the two boys rushed out the door and into the early October morning.
“We’ll call you tonight after we land!” Mom shouted out the door. “Don’t forget to turn on my pumpkins at night!”
Ross and Ryan cut through their yard, past the big tree out front, down and up through their ditch, and across the road to the intersection where a group of other kids of varying age gathered for the bus stop. The yellow bus arrived from down the road as the boys reached the stop, and after it consumed the awaiting children, it exited the hill-flanked enclave.
The sky was overcast for most of the day, so even with the afternoon sun setting, it was already getting dark by the time the brothers stepped off the bus for their weekend of unsupervised, pseudo-debauchery. By dinner time, Ross and Ryan had a plate of pizza rolls between them on the couch, and cans of soda stacked up at their flanks on the end tables. Boy Meets World blared on the TV, and Ross threw an entire lukewarm pizza roll in his mouth.
“Maybe I should be a weatherman too,” Ross mumbled.
“Why? Because you and Eric both have floppy hair.”
“No, it’s kinda cool. Remember when grampa used to be able to tell when it would rain? Because of his knee thing?”
“Yeah, go to war and get shot in the leg,” Ryan said, pointing a Nerf gun at his leg. “Wait, I’ll do it.”
With a loud pop, a yellow ball shot from the gun and bounced off Ross’s knee. Ross shouted out and grabbed his knee with both hands.
“That didn’t hurt, you baby,” Ryan said.
“No AH! That really hurt! Now I’ll know when it rains!” Ross laughed, holding his knee.
“Yeah well, tell me when a tornado is coming, then. Sitting in the bathroom at school in that tornado warning sucked.”
“I’ll need a weatherman’s name though, like…Sleet Kensington. or Archer Storm!”
“Sounds like X-Men.”
“Jim Hail.” Ross nodded smugly.
“Chilly Willy!” Ryan laughed.
Ross snorted and jabbed Ryan in the shoulder.
“These’re getting cold,” Ross said, holding the plate of pizza rolls up. “Go nuke ‘em,”
“Why do I gotta?”
“’Cause I’m the boss this weekend, so do what I say fart-knocker, or I’ll make you sleep on the roof.”
“Geeze, power trippin’.” Ryan jumped from the couch and took the plate away with him.
Ross grabbed the discarded Nerf gun and began shooting at the TV’s base, aiming for the volume controls. Four shots later, when the volume bar appeared and increased a tick, he shouted out “Score!” In the kitchen, Ryan shuffled in the dark to open the microwave, sliding the plate of rolls within and rapping on the keypad to start it up. Ryan trilled his lips in boredom, and took to waddling around the dining room table muttering “Chilleh Willeh” with each swaying step.
Ryan stopped his circuit around the table when something outside, past the glass patio door, caught his eye. A chill shot down his spine and planted his feet firmly on the linoleum floor. Something in the backyard was moving around, a form barely visible by the weak light from the living room. For just a moment, two beads of red looked back at Ryan, blinked, and then disappeared in the dark.
“Ross! Ross Ross Ross!” Ryan cried.
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” Ross said, entering the dining room with the Nerf gun in his hand. “What?”
“I saw two eyes out there, in the backyard, on the hill.”
Ross looked out the patio, squinting and then shrugging.
“It’s probably nothing. Remember when we saw those rusty bear traps in the woods and then you freaked out for like two weeks thinking a bear was gonna get in the house?”
“You have a wild imagination, man,”
“I do not.”
“Ryan, you thought a bear was gonna open the patio door, walk up the stairs, and eat you in your bed.”
“Everyone knows bears can’t work stairs.”
Ryan’s eyebrows popped at the incredulity.
“Look you’re freaking out over nothing; it was probably a deer, and those things don’t eat kids,” Ross said, tossing the Nerf gun on the table.
“The eyes were red, Ross.”
“Then it was some kid taking his bike through the yard, and the light just caught the reflectors.”
“Reflectors shaped like two big red evil eyes?”
“Some crud on the reflectors, made it look like eyes,”
“You know how when you move, and like, light hits reflectors and it could look like it’s blinking.”
Ryan saw the eyes again, and slapped Ross in the stomach, pointing past their patio door. There in the dark, two red eyes blinked back at them.
“Alright, that’s convincing,” Ross said.
“What is it?”
“I dunno, let’s turn on the lights maybe?” Ross reached for the light switch next to the door, but Ryan grabbed his wrist.
“No don’t!” the ten-year-old whispered insistently.
“Why? If we turn on the lights, maybe we’ll get a good look at it. Or it’ll run off.”
“Or, it’ll know we’re in here and come eat us. Like a bear would.”
“Ryan, bears aren’t even around right now. They’re hibernating.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well then we…” Ryan glanced into the yard. “…the eyyyyyyesssss. It’s getting closer!”
Ryan flipped the lock on the patio door.
“Oh yeah, that’ll stop ‘em,” Ross said, watching as the eyes approached in the dark. “Hit the lights? Or…”
“Wait…shhhh…” As the eyes grew larger, the brothers could hear heavy footfalls, and deep, gurgling breathing from beyond the door. “I don’t think it sees us.”
Outside, the moonlight caught the bridge from the tips of the thing’s horns, and its head in-between. Its shoulders popped in turn with each step it made.
“Those are-“ Ross started.
“-horns…” Ryan finished. “Bears don’t have horns…”
“Shut up about bears.”
Ryan jolted at the sound of the microwave beeping that it had finished reheating. His knee bumped into the patio door, making a loud, hollow thump, and he looked back at Ross, sighing deeply.
“That thing is getting real close Ryan, I’m scaring it away,” Ross said.
Ross brushed his arm from Ryan’s grasp and then flicked the light switch, illuminating the patio area, giving form to the beast inching ever closer. It was cowed for a second, its head retreating into its shoulders, but then it simply dipped its brow and continued forward.
“Holy crap…what is that?” Ryan squealed.
Ross had no response, he was frozen with his hand over the light switch. He looked the thing straight in its eyes, a red dulled by the patio light, but still piercing. A thin gray haze shot from its nostrils.
“Scare it awayyyy!” Ryan wrapped his hands around Ross’ arm and shook him.
“Flash the lights! Scream at it!”
“You scream at it!” Ross said sharply, flicking the light switch repeatedly.
Each burst of the patio light saw the leathery beast inching closer and closer, unfazed by the flashes.
“Shit shit shit shit!” Ross furiously switched the lights, unable to take his eyes of the thing in the backyard.
The monster continued its approach, and then the phone rang, blaring on the wall above the counter behind them.
“Do somethinggggaaaAAAH!” Ryan started screeching. “More lights! MORE LIGHTS!”
Ross stretched his hand over the light switch, flicking more lights on and off – the patio light; the hanging fixture above the dining table; the hallway sconce; the kitchen lights; and as his panic peaked, Ross’ fingertip found a newly installed switch. The porch was awash in pure white, the pavement and grass lit as if midday. The thing cowered again with each flash of the bright light, before Ross’ finger missed switching it off, leaving the porch covered in a white flood. The monster made a sound like a cough, as loud as thunder that shook the patio door and rattled the house’s aluminum siding, and it exploded into pitch black smoke.
“What the…” Ryan muttered between panicked breaths.
The smoke fell flat to the pavement on the patio and seeped away into the dark beyond the light. The phone continued ringing.
“Musta hated those floodlights dad put in,” Ross said.
“Leave them on please.”
Ross took his hand off the light switches and went for the phone.
“What are you doing?” Ryan asked.
“Phone, numb-nuts,” Ross said, grabbing the phone and pinching it between his head and shoulder. “Hello?”
“Oh…right…” Ryan stared out the patio door, searching the dark for a hint of whatever that was. He didn’t want to find it, but felt compelled to look.
“Hey mom, y’guys made it.”
“Mom?” Ryan perked up, and started slapping Ross’ arm, whispering, “Tell her about the bear.”
“Yeah everything is fine.”
Ryan’s shoulders sank, and he held out his hands in plea.
“How’s Maine?” Ross brushed Ryan’s hands away. “Huh? No, we didn’t get anything tonight, was already getting dark when we got home. Just watching TV. TGIF, right?”
“Bear, tell her about the bear, the bear, the bear.”
“What? It’s nothing. Ryan…thinks he saw a bear in the backyard.”
“Mom! There was a bear! And then it exploded!” Ryan shouted.
“I dunno. Whatever it was ran off when we turned on the floodlight. Yeah, you can tell dad they work.” Ross chuckled. “Huh? Alright, hold on…”
Ross sighed, and then handed the phone to Ryan. Ryan gripped the phone so tight you could hear the plastic crease under his whitening fingertips.
“Mom! There was…what? No. I don’t even know where you hid the candy this year. Mommmmm, I’m not even tired.” Defeated, Ryan returned the phone to Ross.
“Hey mom. Yeah, we’ll get to bed. Have a good time. G’night.”
Ross hung up the phone and took a deep breath.
“What the heck, Ross! Why didn’t you tell her about the bear? Back me up?” Ryan grabbed Ross’ shoulders.
Ross grabbed Ryan’s shoulders in kind. “Because it wasn’t a bear. Ryan.”
“Then what was it?”
Both brothers turned to look out the patio door. The backyard was lit by the intense light of the floodlight, but somewhere in the dark was something. The only thing left of it among the light were two sets of claw marks, carved deep into the pale concrete of the patio, so deep the light couldn’t fill the grooves.