“No!” A swarm of swears bursts through Kevin’s mind, but he checks himself. Mom would lose it on him, especially swearing in front of his brother.
Jesse looks around and crumples to the ground in open-mouthed silent despair.
They are back in the woods next to that ugly goddamned old rotting stump.
Kevin slaps his own head in frustration and anger, spoiled with the loss of hope. A whine escapes his throat, like a small frightened animal.
He slaps himself again and again, harder and harder. It becomes a frenzy. The whine bursts from his throat, moaning and wailing, slipping into insanity.
“Kevin, stop. Stop, Kevin, stop.”
Jesse is on his feet shaking Kevin, more terrified now by his brother’s break into insanity than the impossible madness happening to them.
Through the blood red fog of terror gripping him, Jesse’s cries and shaking him seep through to Kevin.
Jessie is pawing at him, grabbing for his arms, pulling on them, trying to make Kevin stop slapping his head.
Kevin’s head is ringing from his own blows, swimming in disbelief.
He has worn himself out and is worn down. His cries trail off and his hands slip from his head. He finally lets Jesse take his arms and pull them down.
Kevin sags and expels a long deep breath, releasing a world of fear and tension.
He feels empty now.
He inhales, long and slow, trying to push away the panic making his hands and knees shake and his whole body weak.
He is the older brother. The man of the house in the absence of his father. He has to be brave and strong.
He almost collapses, swimming in nausea and trembling weak limbs.
“I can’t do it.”
“What?” Jesse feels a rush of fear that shadows the terror already gripping him.
Kevin shakes his head, shaking it off.
“Nothing, it’s nothing. I’m just talking to myself. Trying to figure things out.”
“What are we going to do?”
“First,” Kevin pauses, trying to think. He can’t. That’s it. They need to think. “First, we need to think.”
They both make faces like they are thinking hard, but really they can hardly think at all. They are stuck in time and in fear.
Kevin tries to put his thoughts into something that makes sense. An order. He tries to put the crazy that has become their world into order.
“Let’s think this out. Everything was normal, good. Mom was going to bake a cake. You got your comic. Then we decided to play outside. We went out, messed around.”
“You dared me to go in the woods.” It doesn’t matter how small and innocent Jesse’s voice is. It rings as an accusation in Kevin’s ears.
“We dared each other.” Kevin isn’t ready to take the blame. “We went into the woods, to the old stump.”
“Now we’re stuck here.” Jesse spat the words out insolently, moving towards the stump and swinging his foot to kick it.
“I don’t think we should-,” Kevin starts, his face going slack and a sickly grey as the color drains away, reaching out a hand as if to stop him.
Jesse’s swinging foot stops just short of contact.
“We shouldn’t make it mad.” Jesse says the words that are in Kevin’s mind. He turns to Kevin, his expression full of loss and despair.
“Why won’t it let us go? Why won’t it just let us go home? I want to go home.”
“It did.” Kevin is back to focussing on trying to think this through. “We don’t even know if it’s the stump. Whatever is happening. We can go to the house. It lets us go inside.”
“It won’t let us leave the yard.” Jesse finishes the thought.
“It won’t let us leave the yard,” Kevin repeats. “Every time we try to leave the yard, we end up right back here.”
“The house is wrong too, and the yard. The snow is gone and then it’s back. The house feels wrong too. Like it died. Kevin, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. Come on; let’s go inside. I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired. I could eat something too.”
Jesse sniffles unhappily and follows, letting Kevin lead the way back, crawling over that fallen tree. They both pause just before going over, before having to touch it. The memory of Kevin being trapped inexplicably under that tree is a raw open wound in both their minds. They both cringe at the thought of touching it, but it’s the only way. They don’t dare venture off that well-beaten path they have taken time and time again trying to leave the woods. The woods that won’t let them go.
“Still snow,” Kevin observes, taking in the snow-covered ground of their yard.
“That’s good, right?”
“At least it’s the same as when it started.”
Jesse pauses and looks back.
“What if the only way out is back? Through the woods?”
Kevin stops, turning and looking at him. He looks at the woods with a faraway look in his eyes.
“We are not going deeper into the woods. Who knows where we might end up then?” His voice has a firm resolve he doesn’t feel. He feels only empty and scared. He wishes their dad is there. He’s tired of having to be strong. So very tired.
“Come on. Let’s see if we can find something to eat and have a rest.”
They return to the house, taking their boots off at the back door. They take their jackets off, tossing them on the couch in the living room.
Kevin heads for the kitchen. Afraid to be left alone, Jesse hurries to follow.
His eyes fall on the comic book splayed out on the floor. The Thing forever locked in battle.
Has it moved?
He shakes it off, jogging to catch up to Kevin.
Kevin is already rummaging in the cupboards. He pulls out two bowls, spoons, and a box of cereal. Count Chocula. The box features the chocolate loving count enjoying his cereal. A cloud in the bottom corner shows a werewolf boy and the offer: “INSIDE! MONSTER DISGUISE KIT AND IRON ON”.
Jesse blanches. “Not that one.”
Kevin looks at him. Count Chocula is Jessie’s favourite cereal, and his favourite cereal character.
Kevin nods, putting the box back and pulling out another. It’s a new cereal, and one neither boy was fond of the taste of. New G.I. Joe Action Stars.
“A hero,” Kevin says.
Jesse nods approval and Kevin pours the cereal.
Kevin goes to the fridge and gets milk. He opens it, sniffing it tentatively before pouring.
“How is there milk?” Jesse has always been the one to pick up on things that seem out of place.
“Dunno,” Kevin shrugs. “Enjoy it while it’s here.”
He puts the milk away and sits down. They both inhale their cereal.
“Let’s try to sleep.” Kevin leads the way to the bedrooms, leaving their bowls and spoons on the table.
“Where?” Jesse, always the practical one too.
They pause in the doorway of the first room, Jesse’s bedroom, and look at each other. Jesse shakes his head.
Kevin already knows where this is going. He knows what Jesse wants and thinks he is too old to admit he wants it too.
They stop at the second doorway, Kevin’s bedroom. Again, Jesse shakes his head.
“Okay,” Kevin nods.
They move on to the last bedroom, their parents’ room. The boys curl up together on the bed, taking that small comfort from the ghost of their parents’ presence even in their absence.
Soon they are softly snoring.