Written by Jordan Serrano
As I came to, I rolled over and felt a shooting pain in my shoulder. I let out what my body intended to be a scream but somewhere between my brain and my throat translated to the whimper of a small animal. The haze slowly lifted from my senses, I was on my back in a strangely familiar place. The trees towered above my frail body, slouching over me as if the woods meant to swallow me whole. The last few autumn leaves were still clinging to the treetops. But the trees just stood there, unconcerned. I imagined them as mothers gone mad, starving their children. Gaining some sort of revolting gratification while they watch their babies waste away.
Beyond the treetops, the stars looked eerily beautiful like a blurry time-lapse photo. A sense of calmness came over me, much the same as one might feel before they freeze to death. I began to
I woke to a frantic rustling; I could just barely make out the silhouette of Ian’s face against the open sky, it was twisted with panic. So much so that I hardly recognized him as he began hurling dead leaves over my body. When I was completely covered he rushed to a nearby tree and plunged his body into a large hole in its hollowed-out trunk. He was gone before I could gather the words to ask what was going on. I quickly realized where I was. Ian and I used to play hide-and-seek here every day after school until our parents forbid it at the beginning of this past summer. That was the same week Ian’s brother ran away.
Ian popped his head out from the hole in the tree and held a single trembling finger to his lips. His eyes were welling up with tears that glistened slightly in the moonlight, and finally overflowed, running down his cheek as he quickly submerged his head back into the darkness of the tree.
Seconds later there came another noise, this time from behind me. I took one last breath and closed my eyes, knowing that I would not be able to turn my body to see the source. It drew closer with each satisfying crunch, like bones snapping under an impossible weight. Each crunch followed by something being dragged across the wooded landscape. I couldn’t stop my body from shaking, causing the leaves around me to orchestrate a deafening static.
The sound continued at an unnervingly calm pace until it came to a halt less than a foot from my quivering body. The air felt noticeably colder. For what felt like hours I lied there pleading with my ten-year-old frame to be still. Just when I was sure my lungs would burst, a worn, bare foot trudged down just inches from my face as the other dragged itself behind, caressing my stick-like form. Slowly, the shape of a man came into focus. His half-nude body was as white as the smoke from my mother’s cigarettes and slouched like the trees into a markedly unnatural contour.
His skin sagged. The soles of his feet were made brown by a mixture of dirt, calloused skin, and dried blood as if he had been walking for a very long time. Searching for something. The wind hushed to a whisper, hoping itself to go unnoticed by the man. I watched, paralyzed, as he headed directly for the tree where Ian hid.
He stood at the tree for some time, staring blankly down into its cavernous mouth. This went on for so long that I began to think the man could not see Ian nestled in the darkness of the tree. This thought, however, was cut short by the man’s sudden spasm. He doubled over, as if he were in excruciating pain; one hand clenched his stomach while the other bolstered his weight against the dead tree. He let out a hellish cry that bled out into the night and faded as quickly as it had come. His hand darted from its resting place on his bloated stomach directly into the tree.
The gnarled hand pulled out an unconscious Ian who was held so tightly in the man’s grip that blood began to drip from his wrist in the spots where the man’s overgrown, yellowed fingernails dug into his flesh. There was no struggle, just a peaceful silence as the man dragged Ian’s limp body across the leafy floor. As the man turned toward me I could see that he was wearing a crude mask. It was faded and red, with a small opening for the mouth and two grey horns. There were holes for the eyes, but the shadows cast by the moon transformed them into lifeless, black pits.
I could hear a soft whimpering, but it was not coming from Ian as I initially thought. It was coming from behind the mask. The whimpering slowly turned into moans as the man gravitated toward me, I was quite certain our eyes were locked but as he drew nearer he passed directly by. I broke eye contact only once to notice the small cross-shaped scar on Ian’s wrist. He’s had it since the beginning of the summer but never knew where it came from.
I waited, motionless until the moaning faded to nothing. When the wind finally picked back up, I felt safe to move. I sprang up from my hiding place beneath the leaves and ran with a slight limp the five minutes back to my house. When I arrived, I woke my parents to tell them what happened. Although I tried my best to stay awake through the commotion, my eyes finally shut against their will. The last thing I remember is Ian’s parents coming over. His mother was crying.
I slept straight through the morning.
When I awoke the next day, my child’s mind decided it had all been a bad dream. I rushed to the bathroom and stopped only briefly to look in the mirror. There was a bit of blood on my right cheek and, although I was prone to bloody noses, the placement threw me off a bit. I began to search for the source of the blood when my eyes fixed upon my wrist, where a fresh scab in the shape of a tiny cross marked my pale flesh.