Kevin and Jesse run, pushing the bike through the snow, counting to five together and skidding to a stop just before the invisible barrier between their yard and the rest of the world. They release the bike at the last moment and its momentum takes it from there. It doesn’t get far, the snow slowing it down. It falls to the ground just inside the barrier.
“That didn’t work,” Jesse says, puffing out his cheeks.
“I know.” Kevin sounds more annoyed than he means to. He is frustrated and lost.
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. Let me think.”
Kevin cuts him off. “Just let me think!”
Jesse shrugs and starts stomping his feet.
“What are you doing? That’s distracting and I can’t think,” Kevin complains.
“I’m stomping down the snow so the bike can go further.”
“That’s dumb,” Kevin is about to say, but stops himself. “No, that’s really a good idea,” he thinks, nodding.
“Good idea,” he says and Jesse grins.
Together the boys stomp down a path for the bike.
“Okay, that’s good. Let’s try this again.”
They pick up the bike, taking it back to their starting point. Bracing themselves, they roll it back and forth a few times in the belief this will give it more momentum.
“Ready, set, GO!” Kevin cries.
They run with the bike, going as fast as they can.
“Ready, let go! Let go! Jesse!”
Kevin drops the bike, leaping and reaching for Jesse, his grasping fingers just missing his jacket.
Jesse lets go a moment too late. He and the bike move over the invisible barrier.
Kevin blinks away the tears burning his eyes. His throat is gripped in a vice-like claw.
Jesse and the bike are gone.
Kevin looks around in a panic.
“Jesse!” He calls again and again. “JESSE!!”
“Jesse, where are you?” he whimpers. “I have to look after you. Mom will never forgive me if I don’t get us both back safe… I’ll never forgive me.”
Kevin stares at the spot Jesse was just a scattering of heartbeats ago. He moves as if to take those few steps forward.
“If I step through at the same place I should end up wherever Jesse is.”
He swallows hard. He can’t do it.
Pasty and pale, shivering and sweating despite the chill air, Kevin feels sick.
He turns and runs, racing for the edge of the back yard bordering onto the woods behind the house. He stops at that invisible barrier where the snow covered mowed grass stops and the tangle of barren branches of bushes and trees begins.
“He has to be there.” Kevin’s breath is coming faster, billowing on the chill air, as much from panic as from his short run.
He peers through the naked branches of trees and bushes. Their twisted spindly splayed out branches seem to be tangled together as if they are creating an impenetrable barrier to stop him.
“To stop me from what? From going into the woods? From finding Jesse?”
“You won’t stop me!” Kevin yells into the empty woods. He can see the stump through the trees, barely, the twisted branches mostly blocking his view of it.
“Jesse!” he screams. “Jesse, where are you?”
Kevin stares at that old stump hard as if that will somehow make it more visible. He imagines it standing defiant and threatening despite its soft rot of decay, beyond the fallen tree lying on the ground slowly being consumed by the plants and insects.
There is no sign of Jesse.
“I’m going to have to get closer to see if he’s there.”
Weak with dread, Kevin takes that first hesitant step across the threshold into the woods. Each step takes him that little bit closer to that stump, and a step further from the imagined safety of his yard.
Kevin reaches the fallen tree. He stops and stares at it. He can still see where Jesse and he clawed at the ground and tree, trying to dig him out when he suddenly found himself trapped beneath it.
“Dumb old tree,” he complains sullenly. “I shouldn’t have dared Jesse to go to it. I shouldn’t have dared him to go into the woods. We weren’t supposed to leave the yard.”
Kevin feels sick with dread at the knowledge he has to go past the tree … alone.
He steps forward; placing his hands on the dead tree, and leans his weight on it as he climbs over it. He feels its sponginess beneath him and for a moment pictures the tree caving in, sucking him into its rotting cavity amid the slithering insects slowly devouring it from the inside.
In his imagination, the inside of that old tree is putrid flesh, not wood, and the insects are corpse white worms, not ants or termites. He pushes the nauseating image from his mind and looks around.
“Jesse!” he calls. He calls three more times. The world seems muted, not even his voice echoing off the sky.
“He has to be here somewhere.”
Kevin can see the old stump now, soft and crumbling with rot; the sharp jagged points of shattered wood sticking up as though waiting to impale any foolish boy who tries to climb it and falls.
“You are lying you dumb old stump,” he says insolently, walking the rest of the way to it. He stops and stands there, studying it. He reaches out and picks at the jagged points of wood that have softened with years of rot.
“You can’t impale anything now. You’re too soft. Soft and rotting.”
Decayed. The thought lingers in his mind.
He looks around.
“Where’s the rest of you? Huh? Where’s the rest of the tree? Rotten to nothing, I bet.”
He looks around again, still seeing no sign of his brother. Cupping his hands to his mouth to make his voice louder, he calls again, “JESSE!”
Kevin stops and listens. There is no sound. Not a single bird or squirrel, not the wind. Absolute, utter, total and desolate silence.
“What have you done with him?” he whispers.
“Do I go back to the house?” He looks through the bare branches to the house. “Every time we tried to leave we ended up back in the woods. Maybe it worked. Maybe Jesse got out.”
He frowns. “That would mean I’m still trapped here… alone.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think the woods will give up that easily. He has to be here somewhere.”
His shoulders hunched against the cold fear gripping him, Kevin does what he did not want to do; he starts making his way deeper into the woods.
“Jesse!” he calls every now and then.
Kevin stops, listening.
“Jesse, where are you?”
“Kevin!” Jesse’s voice cries out again. He can hear the panic in the younger boy’s voice.
“Jesse!” Kevin looks around, moving in circles, searching for him.
Finally, Kevin spots a waving hand.
“Come out of there,” Kevin calls. “Why are you standing behind the tree?”
He arrives at the tree, walking around it.
“Here.” Jesse’s hand grabs his pant leg.
Kevin looks down. Jesse’s hand is coming from inside the tree.
“What?” Kevin looks in disbelief, circling the tree again. It’s a large fat old tree. Its top half broke off years ago in a storm. The branches that remain are smooth and barren of the twigs that live leaves would grow from in summer. The ragged top is scorched and split, possibly from being struck by lightning. Some distance away, what may be the top half lays on the ground amid the bush growing around and up through it, trying to fuse it back into the ground.
The tree is long dead.
Kevin stops where Jesse’s hand is sticking out from a hole in the tree.
“How did you get in there?”
“I don’t know.” Jessie’s voice is small and cracking with fear.
Kevin turns at a sudden cracking sound.
“What’s that?” Jesse whimpers.
“I don’t know.”
The sound repeats and Kevin looks up in time to see the bicycle slipping from the branch holding it above in a nearby tree. The falling bike catches on the branches below it with a bounce of the branches recoiling from the sudden weight pushing them down.
The branches give beneath the bike’s weight with another crack and the bike falls, almost hitting Kevin right next to Jesse’s tree. It hits the ground with a dull thud and the breaking sound of the bushes beneath it made brittle from drying out. The bike settles, one wheel spinning as if it too is determine to escape.
“Kevin?” Jesse’s quiet whimper brings his attention back.
“It’s just the bike. It fell out of a tree.”
“H-how did it get up there?”
“Same way you got in there, I guess. Let’s get you out. Can you move?”
“No. It’s too tight.”
Kevin inspects the hole Jessie’s hand is sticking out of. It looks like an old knothole or maybe a hole dug out by some animal that made the dead tree its home.
“How do you even fit in there? It’s a bloody tree.”
“No cussing Kevin.”
Kevin blinks at him. “At a time like this you’re worried about cussing?”
“It’s all hollow inside here,” Jesse says, wriggling and feeling around inside his wooden prison. “I think something must have been living in here. The wood feels soft too.”
Jesse pulls his hand back inside and starts clawing at the hole.
“Maybe I can dig out,” he whimpers hopefully.
Kevin starts clawing at the hole from the outside, grabbing the edges and trying to break chunks off. When he makes little headway, he looks around for a stick. Finding a thick one, he tests it for sturdiness. He uses the stick as a tool, gouging at the hole and jamming it into the soft rotting wood to use it as a lever to break it apart.
It’s taking a long time with little success.
“Get me out of here,” Jesse cries, clawing frantically at the wood in a panic.
“We’ll get you out,” Kevin huffs, breathing harder from the effort. “It’s just going to take some time.” He increases his efforts, even kicking at the tree to try to free Jesse.
“Come on,” Jesse sobs, trying to squirm out the still too small hole, “let me go you stupid tree.”
“Stop it Jesse, I can’t get my hands in there to break pieces off.”
Whimpering, Jesse stops trying to force himself out and watches Kevin grab at the hole with both hands, pulling and managing to break a chunk off. He goes to work on it again with the sturdy stick until it breaks, then looks for another. He finds two.
He hands one to Jesse. “Here, dig at it from the inside if you can.”
Jesse does his best, unable to move very much in the cramped space.
Softened with disease, rot, and insects, the wood gives a little at a time. The hole slowly grows larger; Kevin attacking it harder when he sees what he thinks is a weak spot.
They finally make a hole big enough for Jesse to squeeze out. He squeezes through with Kevin pulling from the other side, and falls to the ground. He lays there panting as much from stress as from the exertion.
Jesse’s dirty face is streaked with tears and his eyes have a hollowed out look like a piece of his soul was taken by the trauma.
Kevin sticks his head inside the tree, examining the space. He whistles a low whistle.
“How did you get in there?” He turns to Jesse. “Let’s go back to the house.”
Looking pale and weak with shock, Jesse nods. Kevin helps him up and they start their way back through the woods to their yard.
The reach the yard and pause.
“Kevin,” Jesse whimpers.
“Yes, I know. It’s spring. The snow is melting.”
“So why does it look like fall?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s messing with us.”
They hurry across the yard. The lighting is as muted as the sounds are. The dry leaves barely crackle under their feet and the color of everything is off.
The door has an unreal feel to it as Kevin opens it. He holds it open for Jesse so he doesn’t have to touch it. He looks back at the door as he closes it behind them.
Inside the house, Jesse turns to Kevin. He glances at the door as if worried they were followed and something might be eavesdropping.
“I think there’s only one way to get back home. We have to try to trick the woods.”
Kevin studies him for a moment, weighing his words.
Available on Kindle and in paperback on Amazon:
The McAllister Series
Where the Bodies Are
The McAllister Farm
Hunting Michael Underwood
And for the teens and middle years kids who like middle years/teen drama and monsters, a fantasy psychological thriller.