The Woods

The Woods
by Jacob Stark

Tom took a long, slow pull on the joint, held the smoke for a ten count, and released it to the world through the open window of the pickup. He coughed long and hard before expertly flicking the excess ash from the tip, and passed the joint to the driver.

Shane took the half-burned joint between his thumb and index finger, lifted it to his lips and inhaled deeply. The cherry flared, spitting sparks that danced in the air like hellish fairies before getting sucked out of the window. Shane took two swallows of Budweiser before exhaling, grinning wolfishly at Tom.

“Not a bad way to end the fuckin’ day, eh, Tommy boy?”

Tom nodded in agreement, his own can of suds pressed to his lips, rendering him momentarily mute.

Shane and Tom had grown up together, attending the same schools, ball games, and church functions since they were in the third grade. After graduation, they’d both opted out of college and landed jobs in the pulp mill of the local paper mill. It was backbreaking work, but it paid 18 dollars an hour, practically a fortune to a twenty-something from rural Alabama.

“These damn woods seem like they go on forever, like they could just swallow you up and the world would just forget you ever existed,” Tom said. He stared out the window into the dense pine forest. At just past ten o’clock, the darkness was all-consuming. “Lookin’ in there makes you wonder what’s looking back at you.” The worst part, he thought, is not knowin’ what’s out there. Just that something’s there, always watching, biding its time.

“Ain’t no goddamn monsters out there,” Shane replied, swallowing another gulp of beer. “Probably just deer, maybe a coyote or two.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Tom said.

“Nah,” Shane continued, “real monsters don’t hide in the shadows. They just walk around, blendin’ in with the normal folks. You see on the news where some guy ‘round here’s been cuttin’ girls’ throats? Just grabbin’ them in the dark, openin’ their throats with a buck knife and leavin’ ’em where they fall.” He took one last hit of the doobie and flipped it out the open window. Tiny fireworks exploded in the rearview as it hit the pavement. He replaced it with a Marlboro Red and lit up.

“Yeah, I heard,” Tom said. “Somethin’ that fucked-up, everybody’s heard. Good thing he ain’t going for assholes that think they’re Dale Jr. or you’d be dead meat.”

He gave a little sideways smirk to play off the statement and to conceal the fact that he was actually was a little nervous about how fast Shane was driving. The needle hovered around 75, 20 miles an hour north of the legal limit. The road was fairly straight, having been cut right through the center of the forest, but you never knew when a rogue whitetail would materialize from the darkness like 150-pound roadblock. Just last year, R. J. Conway had been killed when he swerved to avoid a buck, careened off the road, and came to a violent halt against a thick pine.

“Calm down, Nancy, nobody’s out here at this time of night. It’s still ’bout 15 miles to the closest house and we’ve never seen one cop out here in our whole lives, so chill the fuck out,” Shane said, a strange light flickering in his eyes. “When you drive, I never say nothing.”

“That’s ’cause I don’t drive like I got the devil on my ass,” Tom said.

The light dimmed and Shane laughed heartily.

He was a handsome boy with dark chestnut hair and eyes to match, well-muscled from four years of varsity football and the mill. He was one of the more eligible bachelors in town but never seemed interested in girls, choosing instead to spend his free time hunting or drunk, or both. He had been popular in high school, but had always kept himself in some trouble or another, mostly for fighting and booze. Most people had been willing to turn a blind eye after he carried the team to three district championships; the rest had been won over by his undeniable charm. He was charismatic with a quick wit, easy smile, and an uncanny knack for talking his way to just about anything he wanted.

Tom, who had been with him almost every waking minute since they were eight years old, knew a different side of Shane. A darker side.

Shane had been kicked out of Boy Scouts the year after they met. His father told everyone he had hit another boy, but when Tom had asked, Shane had hemmed and hawed until Tom had finally been able to wring the truth out of him.

The Scoutmaster had been leading a hike through the woods when he spied a nest of baby rabbits hidden under a decaying log. He pointed them out with enthusiasm to the boys, who looked on without much interest … all except Shane. The Scoutmaster later said he’d seen him staring at the rabbits with an unsettling, lopsided grin on his face. He had to be called three times before he fell back in with the troop.

Soon after, the Scoutmaster turned and realized Shane was not at the end of the line. He doubled back and found Shane, jumping up and down on the nest of baby rabbits. Tiny screams pierced the silence of the woods like lightning bolts, intermingled with childish laughter. Before the Scoutmaster had been able to pull him off, Shane had crushed every last one. The Scoutmaster stood in unbelieving silence before vomiting.

When he regained control of his bodily functions, he grasped Shane’s arms and shook him, yelling and asking what the Hell Shane was thinking. He’d simply shrugged, stepped off of the path and began to nonchalantly clean the blood from his sneakers in the high grass. The excursion ended immediately and Shane had been asked to turn in his gear and never return.

Two weeks after his 13th birthday, Tom witnessed his friend’s dark side for himself. He had been riding his bike to the vacant lot a couple of blocks from his house for the pickup baseball game that began without fail after the bell rung on those hot spring afternoons. He happened to glance down an alley to his left and saw Shane, crouching, halfway hidden behind a lone dumpster.

He slammed on his brakes, leaving a black tattoo two feet long on the sidewalk, and dismounted his bike. He started down the alley, calling Shane’s name with no visible response. He called again, with the same result. Tom began to doubt that it was him until he was so close he could peer over Shane’s shoulder. He was about to yell in his ear when the breath turned to lead in his lungs. His stomach churned and ejected its contents as Shane finished drawing the knife across the old dog’s windpipe, a stupid, childlike grin plastered across his face.

The sound of Tom retching seemed to snap Shane out of his comatose state and a look of panic crossed his face, but only for a second. He made Tom promise that he would never breathe a word of what he had seen to anyone. “Or else,” he’d said. Tom didn’t know what the Hell “or else” meant, but after seeing that grin, he didn’t think he wanted to find out. He had agreed, hesitantly, and kept his promise in spite of his better judgement.

“You still awake over there, dicknose?” Shane let out a belch, then grinned.

“Yeah, I was just thinking about those pickup baseball games we used to play when we were kids. I miss ’em, you know?”

“Yep, they were a Hell of a lot of fun. You remember when Earl went psycho and tried to kill us all with his Louisville Slugger?” Shane asked.

“Yeah,” Tom replied. He could feel the mirth beginning to pool in his belly. “Holy shit, the look on Earl’s face when his dad came out with that belt and started whoopin’ his ass.”

The two boys howled with laughter, beer spewing from their flared nostrils. The truck roared on, deeper into the woods.

The police cruiser idled on a forestry maintenance road, lights off, waiting. Deputy Nolan sipped from the thermos of coffee his wife had packed and grimaced. It was sharp and bitter with more than a hint of burned grounds.

Jesus. I love her but her coffee would damn near choke a mule, he thought, taking another sip.

The second shift was always a bitch. In small towns like this, the best you could hope for was a peckerwood brawl or domestic dispute to break up the monotony, but even those were rare.

More than anything, Nolan wanted to be home with his wife Anna, who had recently conceived. She was only about two months along but was already in the process of converting her craft room into a nursery. She had told him at lunch that she’d already chosen the different shades of pink and blue. “Now I only need the baby to hurry the heck up and grow so I know which color to use,” she’d said, amber eyes twinkling mischievously, lips parted in a radiant smile.

Nolan smiled involuntarily and swallowed another mouthful of the vile, black liquid. He was jerked back to reality by the sound of a rapidly approaching vehicle. A pickup, with glass packs, he thought. Probably some asshole kid out for a joyride. He was in the process of replacing the lid on his thermos when the truck blew past and something smacked against his windshield, startling him into spilling the remaining coffee into his lap. He let out a howl of pain, rapidly followed by half a dozen obscenities.

“That son of a bitch is about to get my boot up his ass,” he growled. The cruiser’s blue lights illuminated the woods in a 50-foot radius around the car, a soft glow soon swallowed by the darkness. The siren blared and gravel flew as the cruiser peeled onto the road in hot pursuit.

“You gotta be kidding me,” Shane growled. He’d narrowed his eyes and was peering into the rearview mirror. “We’ve driven out here a thousand fuckin’ times and we’ve never seen a pig out this far, not once. Shit.”

The beer and weed had done its work on Tom; he’d been dozing without even realizing it. He raised his head from where it had been resting on his chest. A small drool stain adorned his shirt. He blinked dazedly and noticed, for the first time, the blue lights slicing the darkness. He glanced in the passenger-side mirror and then over at Shane, who was shoving an empty can between the seats with his left hand, desperately fanning the thick marijuana smoke out the window, and wedging his knee against the wheel to maintain their course.

“Shit, man!” Tom said. “I told you to slow down but no, the almighty Shane always knows best. If we go to jail, ain’t nobody coming to bail us out, you know that, right? My dad sure as shit ain’t coming and you’d be lucky if your dad was sober enough to hear the phone ri—”

“Shut up, just shut the fuck up and let me think for a second, okay?” Shane depressed the brake and brought the truck to an easy stop on the shoulder. The cruiser pulled in behind them. “Alright, you just keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking,” Shane said.

Tom felt his spine turn to ice when he saw the devilish twinkle in Shane’s eyes.

Nolan sat behind the wheel of the cruiser and stared at the truck. He’d run the plate and it had come back clean except for a couple of speeding tickets from a few years back, but he supposed that any boy who grew up in this shithole of a town was entitled to a ticket or two. Anything that would get your heart racing was a welcome change from the purgatory that was Newely.

He knew he should get out of the cruiser and get on with business, but a black feeling covered him like a wool blanket. He guessed it was same thing that a soldier experiences seconds before breaching a door, the uneasy feeling that anything could be waiting on the other side. Only one way to find out.

Nolan blinked twice, rapidly, and shook his head in an attempt to dispel the darkness and regain control of his mind. Nothing of any consequence had happened in their podunk town since a drunk had beaten his wife to death with a pot for over-salting his peas, but that had been almost 20 years ago, before his time. There was also the murder of those girls a few towns over, but the closest was more than 30 miles away, across the county line. Legally speaking, it was none of his concern.

You’re being stupid, he thought. The sooner you get your ass in gear, the sooner you can crawl into bed beside Anna. He closed his eyes and let her face flood his mind. He couldn’t have stopped himself from smiling even if there’d been a knife to his throat.

Nolan opened his eyes, rubbed them with his fists, and pulled the door latch. He rose from the seat, braced his hands against the small of his back and stretched. He was rewarded with a series of small pops. Nolan straightened his gun belt and strode toward the vehicle, lightly touching the tailgate as he passed. Four yards away from the lowered window, the raw smell of tobacco smoke intermingled with cheap weed hit him like a sledgehammer. He coughed.

“License and registration, please,” he said, directing the words toward the boy the computer had named as Shane Michael Pace. He bent until he could see the passenger. “Your ID, too.” The boy handed both IDs and the registration papers out the window. Nolan glanced at both, noting that the second boy was Thomas Allen Rhett. “Do you know why I pulled you over, son?” Nolan felt silly using the word since he was only nine years the boy’s senior, but he felt it conveyed authority.

“Well, if I had to guess, I’d say I was goin’ a little fast, officer,” Shane said. He took a long drag on his Marlboro and brew the smoke out of his nose.

“You were going 79 in a 55,” he replied, “and let’s not forget the littering. One of your beer cans put quite a ding in my paint. And put out that damn cigarette.” Shane shot him an evil glance and flicked the butt into the road. Nolan could’ve written him an additional littering ticket but didn’t see the point. They were both clearly drunk, underage, and stoned out of their gourds. They would be spending the night in the jailhouse, if not a little longer.

“Smells like you boys been having a pretty good time out here tonight. Do you mind if I go through your truck, see what I find?”

“Yeah, you’re damn right I mind,” Shane said, a note of anger creeping into his voice. “You got no right to search through my shit. We ain’t done nothin’.”

“You hit my car with a beer can and you just handed me a license that says you don’t turn 21 for another nine months. I can drag your ass out of that truck and search whatever I want, kid. I’m just giving you a chance to cooperate and make this a little easier on yourself.”

“Well ain’t that just downright godly of you,” Shane muttered.

“What was that?”

“I said I guess you’re gonna have to drag my ass outta here,” Shane said, glaring daggers at the lawman.

“Shane, what the Hell, man?” Tom’s mouth hung open in almost comical shock. What does that idiot think he’s doing? That’s a fucking cop out there. “Officer, we ain’t trying to cause any trouble. Yeah, we’ve been drinking a little, but we ain’t trying to hurt anybody.”

It was Tom’s turn to be on the receiving end of Shane’s hellish stare.

“Well, boys, which one’s it gonna be?”

“Fuck you, pig,” Shane replied.

Faster than Shane would have thought possible, Nolan jerked the door open and wrenched him from the seat. In one smooth, practiced move, the deputy spun him around and slammed him into the side of the truck.

“Get your hands on the truck and don’t move them,” he said. “Do you have anything in your pockets that’s gonna hurt me?”

“Guess you’re gonna find out.” Shane looked over his shoulder and grinned.

Nolan swallowed the urge to knock some sense into the boy, took a deep breath and began the pat down. He felt the boy’s torso and each leg in turn, finding nothing but a half-smoked box of Marlboros and a cell phone.

“Give me your hands,” he said.

Shane positioned his wrists behind his back, one at a time, hands balled into angry fists. Nolan closed the cuffs on first the right, then left wrist and sat him in the short grass by the side of the road. He repeated the process with Tom and began to search the truck. It wasn’t long before he had unearthed a half a dozen empty beer cans, two glass pipes, a grinder, rolling papers and the coup de grace, an ounce of sticky Mexican marijuana.

Tom was shaking. He had never been in trouble, not even a speeding ticket. What a fuckin’ terrific way to break bad. He almost laughed. His parents were devout southern Baptists and probably wouldn’t speak to him once news that their eldest son was a druggie circulated through the small town. Not for a while, at least. Shane’s dad wouldn’t care; he was a wino and rarely sober enough to notice the world spinning around him. Maybe he could get his brother to bail him out, but it didn’t seem likely.

“Oh, man, we’re gonna be in jail forever,” he moaned to Shane. “Neither one of us has anybody that’ll post our bail and we damn sure won’t be able to pay ourselves. We’re fucked man, royally.”

Shane’s expression never changed. He was frowning at the policeman, his hands still clenched. Just when Tom was about to repeat himself, Shane spoke.

“Don’t worry, I got a plan. We won’t be going to jail tonight.”

“What the Hell are you talking ab—”

“Just shut up and sit still. Or else,” Shane said.

Nolan ran his hand under the driver’s seat once more, just to be thorough. If there were more drugs in the vehicle and he missed them, the Sheriff would hang his ass on the wall beside his trophy bucks. His fingers brushed something soft, a piece of cloth too thin to be a shirt or a sock. He grasped it and pulled it from beneath the seat, and turned toward the cruiser’s lights to have a better look.

It was a woman’s black stocking, stretched as if it had been pulled onto a leg that was far too large. Or maybe a head, he thought. He was about to turn and confront Shane with the stocking when he felt a sudden pressure on the back of his head, coupled with blinding pain. He fell to his knees.

The letters of his wife’s name lay jumbled on his tongue, and before he could untangle them, the darkness of the woods consumed him.

Tom’s mind was reeling. He tried to convince himself there was no earthly way he could have seen what he had, that it was just a trick of the mind induced by a combination of drugs and the stress of imminent jail time. He wished with all of his heart that he could believe Shane was incapable of such atrocities, but his better judgement won out.

His mind flashed back to that day in the alley, the grin that Shane had worn when he’d opened the dog’s throat. That same grin now graced Shane’s face. He was digging through the policeman’s pockets, presumably for the keys to the cuffs, humming softly to himself. Tom didn’t immediately recognize the tune, but as Shane located the keys, the low, guttural sounds evolved into words. Tom’s blood ran cold.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” Shane cooed, his horrible smile seeming to cover the bottom half of his face. He was waving a bloody buck knife in the air like a conductor’s baton, slinging crimson droplets and hair as he went. “And saved a wretch like you, Tommy boy. What the Hell you think of that?” He laughed.

Tom opened his mouth to speak and vomited. Shane stopped short, his smiled replaced by a disgusted grimace.

“Jesus Christ, get ahold of yourself,” he said. “It’s like you ain’t seen blood before.”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?” Tom screamed. “You just murdered a goddamn cop, and you’re telling me to get a hold of myself? You’re the one that needs to have your fuckin’ head checked, man!”

Shane’s unholy grin reappeared. “Aw, shucks, it wasn’t nothin’,” he replied, faking sheepishness. He was quite obviously enjoying himself.

Tom considered himself something of a horror movie buff, having seen everything from Nosferatu to The Last House on the Left, most of them more than once. He’d always prided himself on his lack of squeamishness when it came to guts and gore, but after what he’d seen tonight, he knew that he had lost his appetite for all things dreadful.

He’d been brooding, pondering the consequences of their imminent arrest when he had noticed Shane squirming out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head just in time to see him slip the cuffs under his buttocks and lean back, balancing until he pulled his legs through the hole so that his hands were once more in front of him. Tom was about to open his mouth, about to ask what the Hell he thought he was doing, but a sharp look from his friend was enough to stay the words on his tongue. Tom had thought Shane had his fists curled in rage, but as the fingers of his right hand unclenched Tom saw that he had palmed the buck knife he’d carried religiously since Tom had given it to him on his 12th birthday.

Tom had tried to scream, to warn the unwitting policeman of the imminent danger, but all that escaped his throat was a feeble squeak. It would have been too late anyway. Four strides and Shane had been upon him, driving the blade to the hilt in the base of the man’s skull with an overhand blow. The man had let out a pained grunt before crumbling to his knees, then toppling into the high grass.

“We have to call an ambulance,” Tom said. “We have to do something. He’s fuckin’ dying, Shane!”

The grin once more disappeared from Shane’s face and was replaced by an expression of pure anger. “He’s already dead, shithead, and we ain’t callin’ nobody. What we’re gonna do is get those cuffs offa you, get in the truck and get the fuck outta here before someone rolls up on us.” He took a step toward Tom, holding out the keys, then stopped. He eyed Tom suspiciously. “You better not turn rat, Tommy boy, or else.”

“Or else what, you motherfucker?” Tom screamed. “I kept my mouth shut after I caught you killing that dog. It was just a fuckin’ stray, so who cares? But you murdered a cop! You killed him in cold blood! I can’t be a part of this, Shane, I can’t. I was drinking and smoking dope, same as you, and I was ready to take my share of the blame for that, but you went too goddamn far.”

“You wanna know ‘or else’ what?” Shane’s voice was low, dangerous. “Or else I kill you. You already seen me do a bitch and now a pig, ain’t nothin’ to end a fuckin’ rat.”

Tom’s mouth dropped open. Again, he wished Shane wasn’t capable of such things. “I ain’t holdin’ my tongue no more,” he hissed. “You’re the goddamn devil and I’m gonna make sure you go to Hell for this.”

Shane let out a furious howl and stepped forward, knife raised above his head, poised for the killing blow.

Tom, still seated, shifted his weight backward and kicked at Shane’s legs with both feet. He struck him in the shins and Shane fell heavily to the earth. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, his hands still chained behind him, and made a mad dash for the fallen deputy. Tom saw that his gun was still seated in its holster and fell on top of the man’s corpse. He rolled and desperately groped for the weapon. He heard Shane struggling to regain his feet, screaming curses as he rose.

Please God, Tom thought, if you’re really up there, please help me now. He felt the worn leather of the cop’s gun belt under his fingers and followed it to the holster. He unsnapped the safety strap and seized the butt of the pistol, feeling the diamond patterned grip of the .38 Special pressing wonderfully into his palm. He wrenched it free, thumbed back the hammer and stood to meet his friend. He hadn’t even raised the gun to waist-level before Shane drove the blade through his right eye and into his brain.

The Pump ’N Go on the edge of town had been quiet all night, unusually so. Walter sat behind the counter, thumbing through the latest issue of Guns and Ammo. He sighed, closed the magazine, and tossed it on the floor beside his stool.

On a normal Friday night, there would have at least been a couple of drunk townies stumbling in for another case before the cutoff time, or a cop on the night shift stopping by for his daily ration of coffee and stale doughnuts.

“Must be a slow night for everybody,” he mumbled to himself. He was about to pick up the magazine and flip through the pages for the hundredth time in the last hour, when he saw a pickup pull into the station and stop by the first pump. A boy in his early twenties slid from behind the wheel and sauntered toward the front door. He was shirtless, but that was nothing new around here. If Walter turned away every topless customer, he’d lose half his business.

The boy was smiling and seemed to be talking to himself. Probably drunk as a skunk, Walter thought, smiling. Still, he rested his hand on the stock of the double barrel sawed-off he kept under the counter. He had never had to pull it out, let alone fire it, but he figured he was better safe than sorry.

The glass door swung open and the boy sauntered in. Walter realized he hadn’t been talking to himself, but singing. The lyrics of “Amazing Grace” echoed in the empty room. Walter again smiled, this time unconsciously, and removed his hand from the gun. It’d been his mother’s favorite song; he’d sung it at her funeral. Tears filled his eyes and threatened to overflow. He quickly wiped them away, embarrassed. The boy was at the counter.

“What can I do ya for?” Walter asked, jovially.

“Just give me $20 on number two,” the boy said. “Oh, and a pack of Marlboro Reds.”

“Those things are gonna kill ya.”

“Not if I kill them first,” the boy replied, a lopsided grin spreading across his face.

“I know what you mean,” Walter said, grinning himself. “I been killin’ a pack and half a day for the last ten years and I’m still breathing. That’ll come to $26.42.”

The boy slid two 20-dollar bills across the counter. “Keep the change. I’m feelin’ pretty generous.”

“Damn boy, you musta got lucky tonight,” Walter said with a chuckle.

“Something like that.” The boy turned and strode out the door.

Walter looked on as the boy fueled his truck and carefully replaced the nozzle. He strolled around to the driver’s side and pull himself up into the cab. Damn nice boy, somebody musta raised him right, Walter thought as he watched the headlights disappearing into the woods.

Copyright © 2015 Jacob Stark