I | II | III
Sharp and Sided Hail (III)
by Brat Farrar
John’s sitting with his back to a tree when he hears it, the snap of twigs being stepped on loud against the blanket of nighttime noises. But there are no pale beams of light, no calls of John or Sheppard, so he knows it’s nobody from camp—unless it’s the kids again, trying to scare him.
If so, they’re a bit late. Nothing they could think up would be any worse than realizing he’d been abandoned in a strange forest, and he’d coped with that just fine. Though it took him longer to get moving than his father would’ve liked—John can almost hear his disapproval over the time wasted in hoping someone would come for him.
But no one had, and the trees around him had looked like some giant cat’s scratch-posts, so John had figured that ‘stay where you are and wait for someone to find you’ was a bad plan. That left him with the ‘wander around the woods looking for signs of civilization’ plan, since he had no idea where he was. Still doesn’t, but at least he can now blame that on his current inability to see anything.
More twigs snap, and from the amount of noise that’s being made, there’s either something really big coming or there’s a lot more than one of them, so hanging around probably isn’t a good idea. The night’s dark enough that he can’t really tell what’s tree and what’s mostly-empty space, but he goes anyway, arms stretched out so he doesn’t run face-first into anything, feet feeling for the ground with each stride.
There are no stars for him to follow, no lights to guide him and he might be going in circles but he keeps going anyway. Whatever the thing is, it’s definitely chasing him now, crashing through the brush as if it doesn’t matter that John can hear it.
It probably doesn’t.
John runs faster, heedless of the branches whipping him in the face and scratching his bare arms and legs. Around him the forest stretches away, featureless and unaffected by man, and no matter how John reaches with that odd sense he has, he can find nothing that might be camp or any other human habitation. There’s just him, and whatever’s chasing him, and he can’t stop, no matter how his body wants to. This isn’t anything like a nightmare, because even in bad dreams John can feel the walls and bed surrounding him, and there’s nothing here.
If he were to cry, it would be from frustration at having his summer ruined, not from fear of dying. Everyone dies—he’s known this since he was seven. But it doesn’t seem fair for him to die in this place, in this way, when it’s not even his fault that he’s out here. He won’t cry though, isn’t crying, can’t spare the time to cry, because just over there—so faint he might be imagining it—there’s the flicker of something man-made. The thing behind him is getting closer, moving faster than he can churn his too-short legs, but he’s not alone in the dark anymore.
“Help!” he screams, not caring if his voice breaks—his father was right, the many times he said that staying alive is the only thing that matters. So John screams again, and forces his legs to keep moving.
There is an answering shout and far-off shadows of light that aren’t his eyes fooling him. The thing is on his heels now, close enough for John to almost feel its breath against his neck, and if it weren’t for the hard ground beneath him, he might be flying.
And suddenly the lights are close enough that he can see the men holding them and feel the echoes of the well-used guns in their hands. Someone yells Duck, so John drops, careless of the twigs and stones that bite into his already torn hands and knees. Then there is searing fire down his back and thunder in his ears, and when he looks up, two of the men are lowering rifles.
“Hey, kid—you okay?” One of them asks, and John would say yes, except the blackness surrounding him seems to be pouring in through his back and everything’s fading away and falling apart and all John wants is to be home—
When the world slides back into focus his back has four new seams and he’s still not home—not at the farm, which shouldn’t be home, but is—but his grandmother’s there, knitting something practical in gray wool, and that’s close enough.
She takes him back to the camp to collect his things, and while the camp director’s trying to convince her to let John finish out the session, one of the counselors takes John aside and asks him who did it. John considers asking in return where the counselor had been while the bag was being dragged over John’s head, how the other boys had managed to disappear for so long without anyone noticing, but the counselor is only a few years older than John, and has sweat-stains around his collar, and circles under his eyes.
John’s grandmother comes out of the director’s office then, and rescues John from having to lie. He does know who did it, but he’d rather pretend that it was just a prank gone wrong, rather ignore the flat not-quite-rightness he’d seen in the boys’ eyes before they jumped him. He had thought they were his friends—they had said they were his friends—and so now he wants to just forget he ever met them.
His grandmother asks no questions during the long drive home, and John is glad to sit in silence—a little stiffly, because of the stitches in his back—and watch the trees roll past. If anything, the forest is larger in daylight than it had been in the dark.
The farm looks the same as it always has, scraggly flowerbed behind the kitchen, cats wandering across the driveway, John’s grandfather stretched out under the tractor, trying to coax it into working through another summer. If John closes his eyes, he can feel the claws ripping him open, can remember the shadowy, worried looks on the hunters’ faces, and how he had touched the darkness for an instant. Can remember being led by unkind hands, stumbling, through brush and briar—but he doesn’t, because he’s carrying things out of the truck and into the house, and his hands are full. There’s no room for such thoughts here.
After dinner he goes out on the porch and watches the day dissolve into starlight, and that night he dreams of fields and open skies.
Okay, I think I'm done.