Overnight, the boys had turned on every single light inside and outside of the house, with Ross being the one to brave the garage to turn on the lights in the front and back. The brothers stayed up in the living room watching TV, wired on sugar and fear. Both had fallen asleep by 2am however, the unease they felt over whatever they had seen that night losing out to fatigue and a glucose crash. Ross awoke the next morning leaning on one arm of the couch, cuddling the barrel of the Nerf gun. His eyes fluttered in the morning light while the long droning tones of a phone dial whispered in the other room, slow and methodical in their crooning between the sound of a finger running over a thin piece of phonebook paper.
“Hi, I’d like to report a bear,” Ryan said. “Yeah, at my house. It was in our backyard last night.”
Ross jumped from the couch and stomped into the kitchen. There, Ryan stood next to the counter, phone to his ear, his arm draped over the yellow pages. Ross held out his hands in frustration.
“I’m at 2588 Breezy Hill Court. Yeah.” Ryan spooled the phone cord on his finger. “And I only think it was a bear, but I dunno for sure. It had red eyes, and horns. Yeah. Come to think of it, y’know the dog things from Ghostbusters?”
“Hang up the phone, you little mutant,” Ross whispered through gritted teeth.
“Yeah. Thank you! Happy Halloween!” Ryan hung up the phone. “What?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Animal control said they’d look into it.”
“Ryan this is Wisconsin, calling animal control about a bear is like calling MTV about music videos – they know they’ve got ‘em.”
“Yeah, and now they know there’s one in the woods.” Ryan plunged his hand into an orange bag of candy. “They said they would go and catch it.”
“I’m sure they’re gonna get right on that, after you told them it had red eyes and horns.”
“Gotta make sure they get the right one,” Ryan said popping an entire peanut butter cup in his mouth.
Ross shook his head and sighed.
“Are you eating the Halloween candy?” Ross asked.
Ryan said nothing, and only chewed on what was already in his mouth, staring at Ryan.
“Where was it?” Ross pressed.
“Lazy susan, behind the pots.”
“Aw man, that’s a good one,” Ross said, going to the kitchen and taking the other unopened bags from the cupboard. “Hey you wanna go to Muntz Movieland today?”
“I don’t wanna go anywhere with that thing outside.”
“C’mon, don’t be a baby. What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid,” Ryan pouted. “I’m cautious.”
Ross rolled his eyes. “I wanna get Chrono Trigger.”
“Why don’t you just buy it? Then you don’t have to worry about other kids saving over your file.”
“I don’t mind starting over,” Ross said with a shrug. “And I don’t have the money.”
“You’ve got plenty.”
“No I don’t, that’s all for the car. I can’t spare a penny.”
“Oh sure, that makes sense…not.”
“Whatever, you wanna go or not?”
“What about that thing we saw?”
“Animals don’t usually show up in neighborhoods during the day. And that thing didn’t like the light, so daytime is probably when it hides out.”
“You don’t know that.”
“True, I don’t, but we’ll be on Velp like the whole way, too.”
“Animals don’t hang around on Velp either, if that thing ever went on the road people would see it and it’d get taken care of.”
“Deer cross on Velp all the time.”
“You afraid of deer now, too?”
“What d’you think the antlers are for, butt-munch?” Ryan snapped back, condescension bobbling his head.
“For show, paramecium brain,” Ross countered.
“Ross I dunno…”
“C’mon, I’ll let you get whatever you want. Mom and dad aren’t back until Tuesday, so we’ll just make sure to return the rentals before they get home.”
Ryan stared at the backyard, green and full of life in the daytime, and then turned to the candy on the countertop. “Can we rent The Crow?”
Ross smirked. “Hell yeah, we can. Grab the Twizzlers, we’ll take ‘em for the road.”
Velp Avenue was a long stretch of road, a two-lane route that cleaved the area, yet connected everything as an important vein that most other backwoods roads found their way to. Ross and Ryan coasted down one of its hills, plastic bags holding rented video games and movies hanging from their handlebars. As they turned off to a less busy road, Ross called back, “Hey, Ryan. If you’re so freaked about that thing last night, we should go find it.”
“Are you nuts?”
“We don’t have to get near it, we just kinda look for it, and then head back before dark. We find something, or we don’t. Like when grampa took us hunting.”
“I hated that hunting trip though,” Ryan swerved his bike side-to-side in a smooth, curved wave, deliberating between the crests and troughs as he stared at his front wheel. “I dunno.”
“Don’t you wanna know where that thing is? If we find out where it is, I can call animal control again, give them more specifics. Then we won’t have to stay up in the living room with all the lights on until we pass out.”
“You’ll call them?”
“Yeah, they get another call, I won’t mention that it’s some weird thing, and then they’ll take it more seriously. C’mon, don’t be scared.”
The common Big Brother play. “Don’t be scared” was the call to action for any younger brother, and Ryan couldn’t resist it.
“I’m not scared…I’m cautious.” Ryan muttered.
“So you wanna, or not?”
“Fine, but can we watch a movie first?”
After getting hopped up on sugar from candy, and adrenaline from watching something no one under the age of seventeen should probably see, Ryan and Ross strapped themselves for adventure.
“Alright, armor’s on,” Ross said, adjusting the collar of his red and black flannel jacket.
“You think mom would let me get a coat like The Crow’s?” Ryan wondered, shoving his arms through his jacket.
“What, you don’t like the red flannel, Mr. Borland?”
“Tired of looking like you. Why did mom get us matching jackets anyway?” Ryan mumbled, smoothing out the jacket that was clearly two-sizes too big for him.
“I dunno, maybe if she didn’t shop exclusively at Fleet Farm, there’d be more variety. But, she can’t resist a two-for-one sale.”
“Should we bring flashlights?” Ryan asked.
“Nah, we’ll be back before dark.”
“I’m bringing flashlights.”
Ryan went to the back room and grabbed two flashlights, flicking them on and off to test their power before setting them on the kitchen counter.
“Hey, check it,” Ross said, pushing aside the bottom of his jacket to display a white-handled knife in a leather sheath.
“Grampa’s hunting knife?” Ryan asked, letting a twizzler dangle from his lips.
Ross brandished the blade, and it shined in the fluorescent light. “Silver blade, grip made from a twenty-pointer’s antlers, and the sheath made from the same buck’s skin.”
“Big whoop,” Ryan said, pointing his finger in the air and tracing a circle.
“Gotta be prepared, Ryan,” Ross said coolly, sheathing the knife. “Just in case we find anything in the woods, y’know?”
“What? What do you mean? You said if we found something we’d just leave,” Ryan said, scowling.
“Quit being afraid,” Ross said, unlatching the patio door’s lock.
“I’m not afraid! I’m cautious.”
“And the knife is a precaution,” Ross said, stepping out of the patio.
“Then I’m getting something too,” Ryan said, rushing out the patio and into the garage.
The ten-year-old soon emerged with a hockey stick, old and yellowing sports tape wrapped on the shaft, and a chip in the toe. It had seen its fair share of scrapes already.
“Hockey stick?” Ross said.
“I’m ten, I’d rather keep my distance. You can get up close with your knife, Rambo.”
Ross scoffed. “Let’s go.”
In their petty arguing, neither boys notice they had left the flashlights standing up on the kitchen table.
The two brothers had trudged all over the forest that stretched northward from their backyard. Their neighborhood was already nestled within two hillsides, but the expanse of forest beyond brought the feeling of isolation home. They knew there were other neighborhoods that stretched into the periphery of the wood, and it was so easy to accidently wander into someone’s backyard, so they made sure to steer themselves back into the thick of it, where anything, animal or otherwise, would be. In their search they passed a smattering of the known curiosities throughout the woods – a shack that was a good breeze away from falling over; a long forgotten Ford from the 50s, rusted in place; a few crabapple trees that made a stroll through their area fraught with rounded footing from fallen apples; the giant rock that changed colors with the seasons; the big tree that bleeds (it was just sap, but that doesn’t sound as cool); an old, stonework storeroom that was most likely the foundation for a house that no longer existed, filled with dead leaves and smashed jars of expired things, the victims of adolescent destruction – but not Ross and Ryan, of course.
When they reached a hill steep enough to pass as a cliff, they had no choice to turn back.
“Well, I guess that’s it for this direction,” Ross said, staring out past the hill, at a shallow patch of swampland where, at night, you could hear all the frogs chirping.
“It’s getting really dark,” Ryan said, gripping the wrists of his flannel as they hung to his knuckles. “And shoot! I forgot the flashlights!”
“We’re fine dude, it’s just a cloudy day.”
“My watch says it’s ten after five. Ross, I wanna go home and play Bomberman.”
Ross turned from the hill to Ryan, leaning against his hockey stick like a walking staff.
“Alright Gandalf, let’s go,” Ross said, passing his brother into the woods.
Ryan shuffled behind, staring at the grass, no longer able to discern the shadows of the trees cast from the sun and the darkened forest floor. He yearned for a flashlight to appear in his hand, as if at no other point but now magic would deliver him from the unease the darkness brought. After a few minutes of winding through the trees, Ross slowed, and then stopped altogether, looking around.
“What? Let’s go, it’s getting darker,” Ryan whined.
“Okay…don’t get mad, but I’m not entirely, 100%, completely sure where we might actually be exactly, at this current position.”
“Oh great, genius!” Ryan slammed the butt of his hockey stick into the grass.
“I said ‘don’t get mad’!”
“I didn’t agree to that! You got us lost in the woods, and there’s some evil bear out here!”
“We’re not lost, Ryan, we’re practically in our backyard.”
“Okay, then which way do we go?”
“I know where we are, the old shack was just over there, and we already passed the big crabapple tree.”
“The big crabapple tree is farther from the house than the shack, you moron!”
“What…uh…” Ross caught himself confused.
“We are lost! Ross!” Ryan said, a tinge of fear tightening his throat.
“Would you calm down, it’s not like we ended up in Narnia,”
“I don’t care about where we are, I care about the freaking monster that we have no idea where it is!”
“I’m sorry, okay! Quit spazzing out. Where’s the sunset?”
“Light was coming from that way,” Ryan said, jabbing his finger to the failing light of the sun.
“Alright, the sun sets in the west, and the house is to the south, so then we just go this way.” Ross started walking.
“Ross…” Ryan whispered.
Ross turned to see Ryan frozen in place, a black smoke slithering over the grass and between the trees and shrubs. The smoke began to bubble up, climbing over itself in the vague shape of something hunched over on all fours. A wisp stretched outward from the mass, forming into a hazy claw that tore at the foliage underfoot. Ryan swung his hockey stick, the blade passing through the billowing body, what smoke was brushed away swirled back into the mass.
Ryan swung again, this time, the stick catching on something within the smoke.
“I…can’t get…” Ryan tried to pull the stick back, but only the sound of scraping, bending wood left the smoke.
“Let it go Ryan!” Ross yelled, running up to push Ryan away.
The hockey stick jumped from Ryan’s hands, snapping into splinters as a snarling jaw formed from the smoke, and the pieces bounced errantly over a thick, leathery hide stretched over grotesque, strained muscles. Black horns peaked from the smoke, the tips leaving a trail like the tips of lit cigarettes, The thick smoke became a thin haze, barely hiding the full form of what was very clearly not a bear. The last of the light receded from the woods, and the monster let out a thunderous cough, expelling a pillow of black smoke from its maw.
“Run, run away…” Ross squeaked.
Ryan found the spirit to move and grabbed Ross’ jacket to pull him along. Ross watched back as smoke crept from the beast’s eye sockets, peeling away to reveal the red eyes from the night before. It shook its body and stretched as if from a long nap, and then saw the boys shrinking between the trees. Its claws buried themselves into the dirt, and like a thick, leathery spring, it shot into the woods and gave chase.
The sound of air rushing past the boys’ ears drowned out their labored breath, the snapping of branches and brushing of leaves, and their footfalls on the forest floor. The only thing the boys could hear otherwise was the monster – its heavy breath, its body striking trees as it passed, its clawed feet digging deep into the dirt.
“Should we climb a tree?!” Ryan screamed.
“Pretty sure a tree won’t stop it! Just keep going! Don’t! Stop!” Ross yelled ahead.
Ross flew forward, hopping shrubs and an overturned log. The momentum would have been exhilarating if it hadn’t felt like the only thing between him and the monstrous locomotive lumbering behind him. The teenager raced past the giant boulder that changed colors with the seasons, and it was then that he remembered where they were, a stretch of Velp Avenue wouldn’t be far, it was just past a somewhat steep hill.
Ryan couldn’t remember the last time he had run this fast in all his life, not since the time him and some other kids tried to race down a hill on foot, with extra points for not tripping. Ryan slowed when he realized that hill was around here. The clearer path, with less trees, was further north, however.
“Ryan we need to be careful!” Ross shouted.
As Ross caught up to Ryan, the two slipped down, screaming as the ground sloped beneath them. The monster followed, tumbling behind them like a leathery ball of gnashing fangs and tearing claws. Dirt and leaves kicked up while all three fell, rolled, and slid through the incline. The monster dug its shoulder in and snapped its mouth as Ross flew past, missing his scalp by a hair’s breadth. Ryan, in a panic, reached out for something, anything to slow his fall, and wrapped his fingers as tight as he could around a sapling. Unfortunately, the sapling was quickly uprooted, and Ryan found himself tumbling directly onto the monster’s side, then barreling over it to send them both further down the hill. The monster righted itself long enough to reach out and catch the hem of Ryan’s jacket with a claw while its momentum dragged it forward. Ryan was nearly yanked into the spiral of claw and sinew until the base of a shrub caught his leg, flipping him out of the tangle of the monster’s claw.
The monster spun forward, its hind legs whipping into the ground just next to Ross, who bounced onto his arms and managed to propel himself to the side, missing a tree by mere inches. The monster fell on the tree and its body curled around the trunk as it snapped. Ryan and Ross landed at the foot of the hill and groaned, trying to get up. Ross rolled over onto his back, looking to Ryan who screamed and curled into a ball. The top of a tree scraped through the forest canopy and came down on the brothers, the trunk slamming between them, along with the monster. The two boys scrambled beneath the snarled branches and patches of nearly-dead leaves. Ross was the first to emerge, and the monster jumped to the fallen treetop, clawing through the wood for Ryan.
“AAAAH! ROSS!” Ryan screamed, crawling through the branches as the monster dug beneath them.
Ross pulled the hunting knife from the sheath and ran for the monster and his brother. He jumped over the fallen tree and brought down the blade, shining silver in the failing light. Ross buried the knife to the hilt into the monster’s shoulder, and almost immediately a harsh stream of smoke shot straight from the wound. The monster let out another thunderous cough, like it had last night when they shined the floodlight on it.
“Ryan run! Go!” Ross yanked the knife from the monster’s shoulder and stabbed again, accompanied by another pained roar and a spew of black smoke.
Ryan scrambled out from the fallen tree, and Ross quickly gave chase, his pace slowed by gingerly trying to replace the knife in its scabbard without stabbing himself in the side.
“Keep going!” Ross shouted ahead, seeing Ryan slow.
“Ross, I’m…getting…” Ryan stumbled and fell against a tree, but Ross was right there to pick him up a second later.
“We’re almost to the road, you can do it!” Ross pushed his brother forward and turned back to see the monster closing in.
Ross dove away as the monster barreled into, and then through, the tree ahead of it. Ross climbed to his feet and picked up his pace, not daring to look back. The sounds of the monster’s resumed trampling was all the indication he needed to keep moving. Ryan broke from the tree line, and his head darted from left to right, some headlights in the distance on the left, but he was safe. The boy crossed the two-lane backroad in three large steps that slapped on the concrete. When he reached the other side, Ryan slid into the ditch and lay ono his stomach.
Ross, somewhere in the woods, screamed in labored breath, with the monster’s heavy footfalls following. When the teenager emerged, he made a mad dash across the pavement. Ryan called for his brother, but it was drowned out by the sound of a diesel-engine refrigerator truck barreling down the road. As Ross appeared in the headlights, the horn blared, and the lights flashed brighter. Ross cleared the truck’s left fender and stumbled into the ditch near Ryan like a marathon runner crossing a finish line. What chased Ross, however, was caught in the middle of the lane. Lit up by the truck’s high beams and taking the right fender into its shoulder, the monster’s backend was swung into the truck’s front wheel, into the spinning blender that was the axle’s bolts.
A cloud of black smoke exploded over the truck’s right side as it slammed on its brakes and skidded to a stop in the road.
“Holy crap…it’s the Schwan’s Guy!” Ross said, looking up at the road from the ditch.
“Oh man, I could…really go for a push pop…” Ryan said.
The door of the truck opened and a man in a dark blue jacket hopped out in a panic.
“Hey! Who’s there?! Are you hurt?!” the Schwan’s Guy called.
Ryan and Ross climbed out of the ditch and onto the road.
“Hey uh…sorry,” Ross said, still trying to catch his breath.
“You guys? What’re you doin’ out here? I almost hit you.”
“Yeah I uh…we were in the woods, and something chased us. Got scared.”
“You can’t just be runnin’ into the street. You get hit by this thing you’re dead meat.”
“Yeah I know, we…uh…we think it was a bear?”
The Schwan’s Guy eyes widened. He moved to the front of his truck, lit fully by the headlights. Ross and Ryan shuffled over to look with him. No blood, or anything, remained of the monster, although the right end of the bumper was bent in.
“Well, whatever I hit must’ve run back into the woods, I don’t see nothin’.”
Ross waved his hand dismissively, finally taking a deep breath.
“You shouldn’t be out this late on the road. You boys need a ride?”
In the cab of the truck, the Ross sat in the passenger side, staring out the window and into the blackened woods. Between Ross and the Schwan’s Guy at the wheel, sat Ryan, licking the orange ice cream that popped up from the top of a can-sized cardboard cylinder. His hand was shaking, but not because the ice cream was cold. The sugar took the edge off the chase that pulled at his nerves.
“Silver,” Ross said.
“Huh?” Ryan said with a mouthful of ice cream.
“It doesn’t like bright lights, and the knife really hurt it. Grampa’s hunting knife is made of silver.”
Ryan didn’t know how to respond, and just looked ahead over the dashboard at the road, lit by the truck’s high beams. The truck pulled up their long driveway a few minutes later, and Ross hopped out, holding the door for Ryan, who refused his hand as he climbed down from the truck. The truck was simply held on its brake, so the red brake lights cast an unsettling crimson light across the driveway, fading into the dark.
“You boys gonna be okay? You look pretty roughed up,” asked the Schwan’s Guy.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine. Just messing around in the woods, you know how it is. Thanks for the lift,” Ross said.
“Alright, no problem. Have a good one.”
Ross closed the passenger door and the truck rolled down the drive. Ross squinted through the headlights and waved, and then shuffled up to the front door. In the house, Ross kicked his shoes off, and turning to the interior, Ryan was there in front of the steps to push him as hard as he could. Ross stumbled back, his socks slipping on the hardwood for a moment before the sweat caught him.
“Hey, what the hell you little mutant!” Ross snarled.
Ryan pushed him again. Ross pushed back, and Ryan fell over onto the carpeted staircase. That was when Ross saw the tears in the corner of Ryan’s eyes, his jaw quivering. The boy sniffed hard and it was a wet one. He was about ready to pop like a water balloon.
“What?” Ross demanded.
Ryan’s face twisted with anger and sorrow in equal measure. “Let’s go to the woods! Let’s go look for it! ‘Don’t be so afraid, Ryan’! That’s what you said!”
Ross’ shoulders sank. He opened his mouth, but it hung open, as he had no comeback.
“Well I am afraid Ross! I’m sorry I’m not some cool teenager like you. I’m just a kid and things scare me! I’m scared of normal stupid stuff like tornados and dangerous animals all the time; I know those things are like a one in a million chance, but this is freaking me out! We were nearly monster chow tonight and you dragged me right onto the dinner plate with you!”
“Hey you didn’t have to come!” Ross snapped.
“Yes I did! Fuck you, Ross!”
Ryan stomped upstairs and slammed the bathroom door. Ross bit his lip when he heard the shower turn on, and Ryan cried out, just loud enough over the sound of the rushing water that Ross could hear. His heart sank. When Ryan finished his shower, he went to his room and slammed that door too. The two didn’t speak for the rest of the night.