The four kids stood around looking down at it.
“I don’t think we should tell anyone,” David said. He was the oldest of the group, a virtual adult at ten.
“We have to,” his brother Ian insisted.
“They’ll think we did it,” he warned. “We could go to jail.”
The third boy, Nick, youngest of the children, whimpered. He didn’t want to go to jail. That was where they put bad people like Uncle Harvey. Uncle Harvey scared him, a lot. He didn’t want to go live in jail with Uncle Harvey. He started to bawl.
Felicia just stood there next to her little brother Nick, her face ashen, shivering although it was quite warm and sticky with the humidity left by the waning hot day.
The sky grew darker, the sun lowering on the horizon, as they stood there mutely staring like worshipers at a grisly shrine. Finally, they nodded their wordless agreement, turned, and melted into the fast darkening woods, looking more like specters than living children. This would be their secret.
The closing screen door banged loudly behind David. He dropped his school bag, kicked off his shoes, and ran for the television in the living room.
“Don’t slam the door,” a woman’s voice called belatedly from somewhere.
Ian soon came in, more carefully than his older brother, and joined David lying on the floor watching cartoons.
David looked around for the source of the sound.
He got up and walked to the kitchen doorway. Felicia was at the screened door, waving at him with a finger at her lips. He walked over.
“What?” he whispered, a little annoyed. His irritation quickly vanished when he saw her face discolored and eyes red and swollen from crying.
He slipped out the door, careful not to let it bang on its spring-loaded hinges, and pulled her aside, full of concern for both her and their secret.
“I don’t know.”
“Whadaya mean you don’t know?”
“Everybody’s gone crazy,” she whispered. “Mom just keeps crying. Dad is stomping about yelling at everybody, people come and go from the house. They whisper and stare at us with weird looks.”
He arched an eyebrow at her, his question unvoiced.
“Dad’s yelling at someone on the phone, at Mom, at us. The cops were there, outside the house, he yelled at them too.”
David shook his head. This was serious. You didn’t yell at cops, everybody knew that.
“Do they know?” he asked.
“I-I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I-I’m scared. So’s Nick.”
Felicia’s mother’s voice carried to them on the wind, calling her to come home.
“I gotta go,” she whispered.
David watched her run away down the road toward home. She ran with that awkward gait of a girl whose growth needs to catch up to her long lanky legs.
The next day when he went to her house after school nobody was there. The place had an empty feel to it, like it was deserted. The front window curtains were drawn tight. He pulled an old wooden crate that had been left sitting by the back gate to a spot beneath a window. Standing on tip-toes and pulling himself up by the window ledge, he could just see inside.
What he could see didn’t look right. It wasn’t as tidy as usual. His friend’s mother was well known around town for being too neat for the liking of the town gossips. It was nothing major, just little things that were never out of place. The large vase that always sat beside the living room end table with decorative sticks of some kind was tipped on its side. A shirt or something, he couldn’t tell what, lay discarded on the floor. He could just make out, past the doorjamb to the kitchen, one end of the dining table. Flies buzzed about an unfinished dinner there.
That was the last he saw of Felicia and Nick and their family.
The train rattled past the old train station without slowing down. Trains didn’t stop here anymore. The station was nothing more than a wooden platform, partially covered by a sagging wooden roof which now had many large holes and missing boards and a very small ticket office. The rusted old padlock barely held the door closed, its old screws sagging loosely in the worn wood. Two men waited, though no train would come. They were men, barely.
Ian scuffed his toes against the rotting timber of the platform, silently hoping it wouldn’t give way beneath his weight.
David sat calmly on one end of the wooden bench. The other end looked like it had been chewed off by rot, the half-seated frame looking soft and cracked and unlikely to hold a man’s weight. He watched his younger brother pace.
“They’re building homes up there on the old road,” Ian said. “A whole development.”
David looked at him with a surprised look.
“Wow,” he said, “I’d forgotten.”
“Yeah, me too. It’s been a lot of years.”
David shook his head, amused. He chuckled.
“Man, were we dumb.”
“Uh-huh. Bunch of dumb kids.” Ian didn’t look amused. “They’ll find it you know.”
“What if they figure out we were there? Think we had something to do with it?”
“We didn’t. We were just a bunch of kids. Nobody would suspect a bunch of kids.” David shrugged, sighed. “Besides, they don’t throw kids in jail.”
Ian chuckled. It was an unsure and nervous sound.
“Yeah, but we sure thought they would.”
Ian looked at his brother with a dark look.
“But they could now,” he said, “couldn’t they?”
“They wouldn’t. We were just kids then,” David said. “Besides we didn’t do anything. We just found it.”
“Yeah, but it could have been us.”
“It could have been anybody.”
“We were there.” Ian looked tired, almost sick. “Jeese man, it was just a kid.”
They were interrupted by a crashing through the bush. Both men turned to look in the direction of the noise.
“They’re here,” David said.
Ian shook his head, a puzzled look on his face.
“It’s the wrong direction,” he said. “Why would they be coming through the woods?”
The deafening growl of the large machines scraping away at the raw open wounds in the earth couldn’t drown out the sharp cracks of trees being violently crushed and their sturdy trunks snapped. Their large treads left deep patterns in the damp hard-packed mud as they trundled about, unstoppable. The background noise of saws and hammers could barely be heard in the cacophony.
A white dented trailer sat parked haphazardly at the edge of the black scraped ground. A hastily crafted boardwalk lay mud-spattered across the black expanse to a grassy area, populated by thin mostly dead trampled grass, where an assortment of trucks was parked.
On the edge of this parking area, a group of middle-aged and graying suited men stood about looking important, waving and pointing at the construction area with what looked like rolled plans and blueprints in their hands. A couple of them even wore hard hats, a completely unnecessary accessory since they wouldn’t get close enough to dirty their nicely pressed suits, let alone risk bumping their well-coiffed heads.
One of the men paused, looking hard at the young man driving a bulldozer.
“Say, isn’t that Rueben’s boy?” he asked no one in particular.
The man beside him stared, thinking.
“Why yes, I think it is,” he said. “What was his name again?”
“Wow, haven’t seen them in years. Nick, I think. They moved away didn’t they?”
“Or ran away,” the man chortled. “Heard there were some problems with the wife’s brother.”
They were brought back to the conversation at hand by the others of their group, planning the construction of the new development on the Old Mill Road.
The young man driving the bulldozer was completely unaware of the men’s sudden interest in him. He never understood why his family hastily packed a few bags, jumped in the family car, and drove far away after a telephone call interrupted dinner that night long ago. It had been a strange day. He vaguely remembered discovering something bad in the woods with his friends. He didn’t remember what, but he did remember the police, his dad yelling a lot at everybody, his mother crying, and his sister’s very strange behavior. Even now, his dreams were haunted by hazy images, disgusting insects crawling through moss and dead leaves rotting in the dark woods, a face that looked strangely soft and putty-like. A face that wasn’t really a face, a face that wasn’t all there, like it was in the process of being made or un-made by an un-skilled special effects creator. The face would call his name, its dead eyes weeping, mouth twisted in a grimace of pain and fear.
This is why he came back. Something happened to his family that day, something that changed them forever. He wasn’t sure what, but he knew something terrible lay hidden in the woods along the Old Mill Road. He remembered a silent pact of secrecy made by frightened children, a pact his sister’s haunted eyes never let him forget. Whatever it was it had to remain a secret. When he learned of the development being built he once again tossed a hastily packed bag in the car and drove. It wasn’t hard to get a job on one of the work crews. Workers were being brought in from all over for this large project and they weren’t bothering to check backgrounds. Harder was trying to drive a bulldozer he’d lied about knowing how to drive.
A man stood at the edge of the woods some distance away from where the heavy machinery was tearing the woods apart. He was worn and weathered looking, dressed in old clothing that were as old in style as they were in wear. He had the look of a grizzled man who had seen too much, his age lost somewhere in the years of unpleasant experiences. Nobody noticed the man standing in the shadows of the trees. He watched the young man driving the bulldozer with obvious inexperience. He noticed the suited men take notice of the young man, relaxing when they returned to their conversation, ignoring the young man again. He backed away, melting into the woods, and vanished.
David and Ian ran hard down the overgrown road leading away from the old abandoned train station, their breath coming in ragged gasps, legs aching from the effort, faces pinched with strain and fear.
They were so absorbed in their running they didn’t notice the approaching car. It was an older car, well used, and looked filled to capacity with young men. Its tires crunched on the broken chunks cracked out of the old road that hasn’t been maintained for the past decade. The car stopped and waited for the running men. They almost ran headlong into the front grill.
The men inside laughed uproariously at the two brothers.
“Whadaya running from?” the driver called, leaning out his window to address the two out-of-breath men.
The brothers just looked at each other, trying to catch their breath.
“What (gasp) the hell (gasp) was that?” Ian asked between ragged gasps for air.
“Bear?” David gasped.
Ian shook his head.
“That was no bear,” he puffed.
“You being chased by monsters?” the driver laughed at them.
The brothers gave the driver an unimpressed look. They had all heard the same tales as kids. Tales they told each other in the darkened corners of rotting abandoned outbuildings, trying to outdo scaring the wits out of each other. There was one story that has been told for generations, of a strange and frightening creature living in the woods, rumored to be the cause of the occasional mysterious disappearance of backpackers, campers, and children.
Disappearances in the area were almost non-existent, but that didn’t stop the stories. One such story was that the strange creature and some rather brutal unexplained deaths at the old mill at the end of the Old Mill Road was the reason the mill was abandoned many years ago.
A car door swung open with a grinding squeal.
The brothers got in, wedging themselves into the already overpopulated car.
“So, where we going?” David asked.
“Down to the Old Mill Road,” the driver called back as he gunned the engine, turning the car around too fast in the narrow roadway. “We’re going to go check out the construction going on down there.”
David and Ian sat together at a worn table in the dimly lit old beer parlor, the only one in their little town. Glasses of draft beer on the table between them caught the light, making it seem brighter within the confines of the golden liquid.
“I just can’t believe it,” Ian said, “little Nicky, here.”
“And working at the site of the new development on Mill Road.”
“Do you think he remembers?”
David shook his head thoughtfully, his eyes lowered against his own memories trying to peer out through them.
“He was the youngest,” he said, “maybe, probably not.”
“You think it’s just a coincidence then? He suddenly shows up, there of all places, when they start tearing the woods apart?”
“I always wondered what happened to them,” David said.
“When did they move away?”
“That next night; the day after we found it in the woods.” He stared at his beer as if it somehow held the past like a crystal ball.
“She came to the house after school the day after we found it,” David continued. “She’d been crying, said everyone in her house went crazy, cops were there. She was scared. They never came to school the next day.”
His eyes looked hollow as if he’d lost something from sight long ago and has been looking for it ever since.
“I went to their house after school,” he went on, “they were gone. It was like they just vanished, or were taken or something. Dinner was still on the table.” He paused. “I remember that. I’ll always remember that dinner was still on the table.”
“I always thought you’d marry her when we grew up,” Ian said.
They both lapsed into silence.
Someone entered the bar. The brothers looked up to see who it was. Their faces changed, brightened somewhat.
“Hey! Nick!” David called, waving the interloper over.
The man turned, squinting to see who called him, his eyes not yet adjusted to the dim interior after the bright sun.
“Hey,” he called back, waving back at them, approaching uncertainly.
“What brought you back after all these years?” David asked. Something in his friendly expression was off, guarded.
“Work,” Nick said as he joined them.
David looked around, caught the waitress’s eye, and signaled her to bring another round of drafts for the table.
“Just going where the work is, eh?” David said.
“’Bout it,” Nick answered, studying his long-ago friend as if his face might give up some deep secret.
“Hey, look who’s here,” a voice called from across the room. All three young men turned to look at a figure shuffling to them from the shadows beyond the end of the bar lined with bar stools. It was an older man, obviously accustomed to spending a great deal of time here and somewhat inebriated.
“Little Nick,” he slurred, clapping the young man loudly on the back. He cocked his head at him. “You’re not old enough to drink are you?” he slurred with a wink, whispering too loud.
Nick glanced quickly at the waitress as if she might actually kick him out if she’d overheard. It wouldn’t have mattered if he was under the legal age. It was well known they didn’t bother to kick out paying customers, even if they were under-aged.
“Your family move back?” the drunk asked.
“No, I’m just here for the building project, then I’ll be moving on.”
“Un,” the drunk grunted. “Always wondered what happened to the lot of you after that trouble with your uncle. What was his name?”
“Yeah, ol’ Uncle Harvey.”
“What trouble?” David asked; his face unreadable.
Nick shook his head, holding his silence.
“Just got out of jail back then, s’what I heard,” the drunk told them. “Manslaughter. Killed some kid. Didn’t get enough time for it s’far as I’m concerned.” He glared around the room as if Uncle Harvey might appear at any moment.
“Heard he was skulking around your house, making some trouble. Ol’ Joe said he hit your mom, threatened her or somethin’.”
David studied Nick’s face, watching it work, twitching with the effort of holding something back. He exchanged a meaningful glance with Ian, a look that Nick caught and was not happy about.
“Look,” Nick said, jumping from his chair, “I gotta go.”
“We’ll come with you,” David said, getting up to follow.
Nick was not happy about this.
The three men left, Ian running to catch up after hurriedly tossing some money on the table to pay the bill.
“Do you remember?” David whispered harshly to Nick.
“You know what.” He wasn’t buying it. “That day in the woods off Old Mill Road.” They stopped and stared at each other, a stare down to see who’d win where there could be no winner.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nick insisted.
“It’s no coincidence you suddenly appear when they started digging up the woods, and working on the job site. What are you here for?” David demanded.
“Are you trying to find it?” He looked at the younger man, feeling that he was keeping something very important a secret. “To expose your uncle or to protect him?”
“You don’t know anything,” Nick said, angry.
“No I don’t,” David spat. “All I know is that my friend and her family vanish after we find a dead kid in the woods, nobody would tell me anything, and suddenly you come back when the body is sure to be found.” He glared at the younger man, breathing heavily, ready to pounce on him to pound the answers out of him.
“Fine,” Nick snapped at him. “Yes, I’m here to find the body before anyone else does. I’m here to find it and get rid of it. Maybe if I get rid of it everything will be ok again. It has never been ok; nothing has been ok since that day.”
Nick’s mind worked wildly. A body? So that’s what it is they’d left hidden in the woods that fateful day. He’d always known his sister knew more about it than she let on, although she would always only deny it. But he knew she knew more. It was in her eyes.
David stared at him in a mixture of contempt and need.
“Your sister,” he asked, “what’s she feel about all this?”
Nick shifted his stance as if getting ready to make a break for freedom.
“I’ve always wondered all these years,” David continued. “She took it harder than all of us when we found the body. Where is she? How’s she doing?” He studied Nick, wondering why he was so edgy.
“She’s fine, she’s around, not here,” Nick answered, his eyes shifting as if he was worried someone might overhear them.
“What happened?” David pressed. “All those years ago, when your family disappeared? Where’d you go? Why?”
“We just moved, that’s it, we moved.” Nick was being defensive, secretive. He was obviously on edge and becoming more so with the questioning.
A group of young men passing by them stopped and called to them.
“Hey, did you hear?”
“A body’s just been found up at the old Mill Road construction site, a kid or something.”
Nick’s face paled.
In small towns news travels faster than the news happens. At that moment a police cruiser pulled up beside the young men. The driver’s window rolled down and the occupant leaned out casually.
“Know where your uncle is?” he asked Nick, “Your Uncle Harvey?”
“Why?” Nick asked with a tremor in his voice.
“No reason,” the officer said, “just looking for him.”
The officer didn’t have to tell him. He knew. Nick knew they’d found something with the body, something incriminating that would lead straight to Uncle Harvey. He remembered Uncle Harvey well, though he hadn’t seen him in years. He was a bad man who did bad things. He still scared him after all these years.
The cruiser’s radio crackled to life with the news that Harvey had been located and arrested.
“I’ll see you boys around,” the officer said meaningfully, staring directly at Nick. He put the car into gear and drove away.
David turned back to Nick, studying him.
“So, old Uncle Harv maybe is the one that killed that kid we found all those years ago,” David said to him. The statement was so loaded it was dripping with unsaid meaning.
There was something in Nick’s look that told him he was hiding something about Uncle Harvey. As kids, Nick never could keep a secret. His face always gave him away. Apparently it still did. “What are you hiding?” he wondered.
“Look, I really gotta go,” Nick said. He turned and walked away, ignoring their calls.
“He’s hiding something,” David said to his brother. “He knows something about all this he’s not telling.”
Ian shrugged. He couldn’t understand why this was bothering his brother so much, why he felt so compelled to dig it all up again.
“I’m going to find out what it is,” David declared.
“Well, I’ll see you later,” Ian said.
It was dusk and the shadows were deepening across everything. It was that time at the end of the day when frayed nerves jumped at nothing and an overwrought mind played tricks.
David wandered the edge of the woods just beyond where the now idle heavy equipment was clearing brush. Yellow police tape ruffled in the breeze, draped and ugly, marking off the area. He knew he wouldn’t find anything, but he looked anyway.
His eyes scanned the area, seeing trees, rocks, and brush that were no longer there, replaced by the ugly black scar and heavy machine tracks where the ground was scraped flat. He saw the rise and fall of the uneven ground, the shadows cast in the late afternoon sun of many years ago. Slowly walking the area, eyes studying what was no longer there, he stopped with a sharp intake of breath.
It was there, just beyond the edge of ruined ground, a slight hollow beneath the shelter of a downed rotting tree. The body would have been nothing more than sun-bleached bones scattered by animals if it were still there, still exposed to the sky as they’d left it. There was nothing there now, but he could see the body. The face of the child stared back at him, not all there, soft skin covering a section from the nose down on one side of the slack jaw. The rest was part flesh covered, part pale bone. The rest of the body was lost in the dimness of childhood memory, only the grisly face staring at him, clear and accusing. He couldn’t tell if it were a boy or a girl.
Startled, he spun around. He stood staring, silent, and his mouth agape with surprise.
“It’s been a lot time,” a soft female voice came from the shadows.
He stiffened, trying to place the voice, knowing immediately who it belonged to, yet somehow disbelieving it.
She stepped from the shadows.
His eyes roamed over her, absorbing her. She looked even more beautiful than he imagined.
“Felicia,” he whispered.
“What are you doing here in the woods?” she asked, her voice soft, undemanding.
“I-I’m,” he stammered.
“Looking for something?” she asked as she closed the distance between them.
He could smell her now; her perfume was perfect for her. She was perfect. He’d never forgotten her in all those years. There had always been something special between them, something that told him they were meant for more, to be more than just friends.
“What are you looking for David?” His name almost caressed off her tongue. “The body? It’s gone. Are you scared? Worried? Worried they’ll find out we found it all those years ago and kept it a secret?”
He swallowed hard, his throat a large dry knot. He could hardly breathe; it felt like he’d choke on his own throat.
“Are you scared they’ll find out what we did?”
“We-we didn’t do anything,” he gasped.
“Are you sure? Do you remember? Who do you think killed that poor boy?” She blinked at him. Her eyes locked onto his, drawing them, trapping them, trapping his stuttering heart.
“Old Uncle Harvey?” she whispered softly, her breath tickling his neck with her closeness. “Bad, bad, Uncle Harvey? Do you think he did it? Do you think you’ll find something after all this time to incriminate him? We all knew he was a bad man, that he did bad things.”
Her body barely brushed against his as she circled him, her perfume wrapping him in its heady blanket.
He shook his head, unable to think. His heart cried out for her, his hands wanted to reach for her, his lips wanted to ask her a million questions.
She took his head shake as a ‘no’, that he did not think Harvey murdered the child. Her eyes narrowed as she studied him, thinking.
“So, you don’t remember much from that day?” she asked.
“I-I remember we found it. We were all scared and decided to keep it a secret. You came to my house. You’d been crying. Then you were gone …” he trailed off.
“Gone. Weren’t we all gone that day, one way or another?” Her hands were on his shoulders, her body not quite touching his as she stood behind him, whispering close to his ear.
“You remember, don’t you,” she paused, “what we did, what we all did that day?”
“We did nothing,” he stiffened, confused.
“We … did … NOTHING!” she screeched.
She was on top of him now, shrieking, her nails raking at him, fists pounding on him, attacking him in a vicious wild frenzy. He shook her off, turning to look at her, stunned by her unprovoked attack.
Something hit him in the side of the head, hard. His head swam, dizzy, his eyes becoming unfocussed. Pain crashed through his head with a second blow. He staggered; fell to his knees, trying to stay upright. He couldn’t see, just a wild blur, but he could feel the dripping wet of blood flowing from his head.
“I DID IT!” She screamed at him. Even in her fury, her voice was beautiful to him. He blinked, trying to look past the fuzz at his long lost friend and first love. Yes, even at such a young age, unknowledgeable about love, all those years ago he’d known he loved her.
Her voice came at him, sharp, angry, accusing.
“I did it! I killed the boy! It was all my fault!” Her voice rose in pitch as she shrieked at him, her small fists frantically reining blows on him.
Finally the attack stopped. He felt dazed, in mind and heart. He didn’t know what to think, what he knew.
Something bit at him, biting him in the back as he wobbled there on his knees. It bit again, and he cried out with it. He could hear her, see the blurry image of her circling around, stopping in front of him. He looked up at her, pleading with his eyes. It bit at him again. This time from in front, and again and again. He fell backwards, lying on the ground. He could feel a sticky wetness on his back and chest.
She stood over him, staring down at him.
“Don’t you get it?” she demanded quietly. “Uncle Harvey was scary, but not a bad man. He was never a bad man. Poor strange and frightening Uncle Harvey. He went to jail already you know, before the boy in the woods, for killing a kid. But he didn’t do it. He went to jail so no one would find out it was my fault, it was all me. That was the first time. Now he’s going to go to jail again, for this child, to protect me.”
His heart beat, he tried to look at her. His lips moved, trying to talk to her.
She looked down at him, calm now, sad. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Why David, why?” she whispered. He was dying, she knew it and he knew it.
“Felicia,” he whispered her name.
“It’s ok,” she whispered. “Uncle Harvey will look after me again. Look.” She showed him the weapon in her hand.
“This is his. They’ll think he did it. He’ll go to jail for your death too.”
“No!” his mind cried out. His lips tried to cry out too, but they were breathless, dying. She thinks Harvey will take the fall for his death too. She does not know Uncle Harvey is sitting in a jail cell, having been arrested for that long ago murder. He knows. He wanted to tell her, ached to tell her. His mind raced, a million questions running through it, playing back the memories even as the blackness engulfed him. The blackness and the cold. Uncle Harvey, in jail for killing this child long ago, covering for Felicia. But, did she really do it? Or is she covering up for her younger brother?
Ian stepped out from behind the looming bulk of a bulldozer.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
Felicia spun and glared at him.
“He was going to find out,” she said.
“Old Uncle Harvey is in jail, you know. They picked him up this afternoon for killing the boy in the woods.”
Her eyes widened, realization dawning.
“What do we do now?” she asked.