©2006, 2010 by Stephen Mark
Hard to accept that Rodney was gone, laid underground until the end of
forever. God rest your soul, bud, and all that.
Zack Baird had never been to a funeral before Rodney Lawson's, and he
hoped it was the last, for he could not have imagined a more depressing,
tearful event. He had nearly bawled like a baby, and crying in public
was not something his friends should ever see. Fortunately, most of them
had been sitting behind him, so he doubted they could have glimpsed the
tears that had leaked down his cheeks.
On the good side, he could not complain about school being called off
for the memorial service, and since it was a beautiful afternoon, going
riding on his bike seemed just the thing to turn the whole day around.
He had called Sammy and Chuck, but their parents wouldn't let them leave
the house. Since Rodney's death, his own mom and dad had forbidden him
to ride up the mountain, but unlike his friends, his parents had jobs to
return to after the funeral; he could easily be back home watching TV
and looking bored by the time they got in from work.
But damn! Rodney would never be out here again, hauling ass through the
woods and hitting the jump ramps they had built off Yew Line Road. For a
"little kid," Rodney had sure held his own with the best of the 13- and
14-year-olds. He could ride faster than any of them, and he performed
stunts that none of the others could hope to match. Old Sammy was even
hoping he could talk Ms. Lawson into giving him Rodney's bike, though
Zack had warned him not to go begging too soon; all they needed was a
pissed-off math teacher with a long memory waiting for them when they
got old enough to go to high school.
Yew Line Road was a long, very steep and winding road that went up into
the mountains, but numerous trails through the woods shaved off much of
the distance. Still, many stretches of trail were so steep that he had
to push his bike, and the late April sun had turned the afternoon quite
warm; by the time he reached Greasy Bend-a long curve so named because
it was hard to negotiate without slipping over the edge-sweat had begun
to sting his eyes and dampen his T shirt. Anyway, this was almost as far
as he could go before reaching Barrow land, upon which no soul dared
trespass. Barbed wire blocked the trail at the property line, and the
boys had once seen old Joshua Barrow standing near the barricade,
brandishing his shotgun and looking as if he wanted to use it on them.
They always halted well short of that boundary before beginning the
long, exhilarating ride back down through the woods.
As he started up and around Greasy Bend, Zack felt, before he saw, that
something seemed different about the place. Beneath the freshly bloomed
trees, little sunlight reached the trail, but he knew the ridge as well
as his own driveway. As many times as he had ridden the curve, he should
not have had to draw up short to avoid running into a huge, rough-barked
tree that grew right in the middle of the trail. Nor should he have
found his bike sliding out from under him as seemingly solid earth gave
way to a pit roughly the size and shape of a shallow grave, swallowing
him before he realized what was happening.
He automatically let go of the handlebars and threw out his hands to
break his fall, just in time to keep his head from striking the rocky
edge of the opening. The bike went tumbling away, and he landed with a
heavy thud, his breath whooshing out of his lungs. For second, the
lights went out, and he was afraid he had gone blind. Finally, the
trees, lit by murky daylight, slowly swam back into focus.
"Shit!" he gasped as he struggled to his feet. The walls of the pit were
cold and slick, but with an effort, he managed to reach an exposed tree
root and gradually pull himself up to firmer ground. The first thing he
saw was his new pants covered with mud and the knees ripped. Jeez, that
wasn't good! At least he had escaped being injured. The clothes he might
be able to explain away to his mom, but if he had gotten hurt, he could
say goodbye forever to riding on the mountain. The second thing was that
his bike lay thirty feet or more down the hill, and getting to it-not to
mention back up to the trail again-posed a pretty hairy problem.
But how had he managed to blunder into a tree and then fall into a pit?
He had come this way only a few days ago. No way could a huge tree like
that have grown in such a short time!
He glanced up the trail in the direction of the Barrow property. The
whole place seemed wrong somehow. All the trees seemed too tall, too
luxuriant, even though foliage had started popping out in earnest over
the last few days. And the curve, up near the top-it was supposed to
bend to the right, not to the left! Could he have somehow strayed onto
some side path that was similar, but not identical to the main one? How
could he? He and Sammy and Chuck rode here all the time, rain or shine,
heat of summer or bleak midwinter; he knew every inch of this trail,
every fork, every twist and turn.
Well, whatever, he had to retrieve his bike. He just hoped it hadn't
been damaged going over the edge like that. With a sigh of reluctant
resolve, he started down the sheer hillside, using the smaller tree
trunks as handholds and making short, controlled slides into the larger
boles to keep from careening to the bottom and ending up a pile of
broken bones. With some relief, he saw that his bike looked okay; no
bent handlebars, and the chain wasn't broken.
When he reached it, he carefully lifted it from the ground and brushed
off the clinging dirt and leaves. So far, so good. But now came the real
bitch-getting back up to the trail with his burden. The bike was light,
but not that light.
Then he made his biggest mistake: glancing down the hill into the deep
woods. His breath froze in his lungs because, only a few moments ago,
the bottom had been perhaps sixty or seventy feet below; not hundreds
and hundreds, as it now appeared. And there was supposed to be a small
clearing down there where daylight always shined-not a thick knot of
tar-black foliage that swallowed every ray of sunlight that filtered
through the canopy.
"Jee-zus!" he whispered, utterly disbelieving and, for the first time in
his twelve years, afraid that the world might not be a stable, familiar
place…that a child really could suffer an awful, unthinkable death-a
fact that Rodney Lawson's funeral had almost, but not totally, driven
home. Rodney had been found not far from here. Was this what he had seen
in his last moments-a world turned topsy-turvy right before his eyes?
Then, somewhere above, he heard a loud, very strange clicking
sound-almost like somebody smacking a number of sticks together at once.
A rustling sound crept down from the trail, its source just beyond his
range of vision, but obviously getting nearer. He craned his neck,
trying to detect a trace of movement, some sign of an animal or-God
forbid-a human being making its way toward him. So far, nada.
"Hello?" he called, immediately wishing he had not. If someone was up
there, it would almost certainly be one of the Barrows, and a member of
that lowlife clan was the last person anyone would want to meet out
here. For all he knew, one of them could have even killed Rodney.
The sounds grew steadily louder and more agitated, almost but not quite
insect-like. The rustling, too, became more violent; but he felt certain
that no human was causing it. Not a steady, regular pace like something
on two feet, but an erratic and rapid shuffling-maybe an injured fox or
a coon. If it was just a critter, he probably didn't have anything to
worry about-not from it, anyway. His main concern now was how to get off
this bizarre, once-familiar mountainside, both with his bicycle and in
The rustling stopped on the trail just above, and Zack realized that the
woods had fallen deathly silent, leaving the atmosphere heavy and
horrible, its weight pressing insistently upon him. This felt like one
of his nightmares, in which terror seeped like infection from every
aspect of his surroundings-the dark trees, the patchwork sky, the cold
earth beneath his feet.
Then the rustling began anew, and something lurched over the edge of the
trail and started toward him beneath the thick underbrush-something he
couldn't see, something that raced toward him like a fast-moving snake,
thrashing and clicking with palpable rage. He had only seconds before it
reached him, so in that panicked instant, he opted for the only plan his
terrified brain could concoct: he shoved his bike straight down the hill
and leaped onto its seat, praying he could keep it upright and put
enough distance between him and his pursuer to get out of this tight
Down he went, bounding into the seemingly bottomless chasm at dizzying,
insane speed, somehow maintaining control, veering in and out of the
trees without even thinking of the consequences should he crash. Limbs
slashed at his face, threatening to dislodge him, but his fingers
clutched the handlebars with desperate strength, and his feet worked the
pedals automatically, hitting and releasing the brakes at strategic
moments to keep from smashing into a tree or tangling himself in
undergrowth. He couldn't even think of looking back to see if he had
lost his enraged shadow; one wrong move and he would end up plastered
against a huge trunk or dashed to pieces on the rocks that occasionally
jutted from the ground. Every now and then, he thought he detected a
faint clicking sound behind him, but he mostly heard only the rush of
wind in his ears as his bike carried him farther and farther from the
trail-the one thing out here that looked even halfway familiar.
As he rode on, the light grew constantly dimmer, and tears began to
stream from his eyes, blurring the trees that flashed out of the
darkness like onrushing columns of troops. He needed to slow down before
the bike got away from him-but if he did, that thing would catch him and
butcher him, as it had his friend. The thought sent cold, tingling
tendrils into his groin. Trapped between terrors fore and aft, he kept
going, always descending, farther and farther into the deepening,
seemingly endless gloom.
Finally, he jammed on the brakes, twisted the handlebars, and dug one
foot into the ground, which didn't quite stop him but slowed his
progress enough to take stock of the situation. A few seconds later, he
heard a loud, distinctive click-click-clack, click-click-clack,
more distant than before but undeniably still behind him.
With a cry, he shoved his weight onto the pedals, and down he went
again, deeper into the great gulf, his eyes no longer registering the
obstacles that lay in front of him, his mind no longer an even remotely
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