Me and my wife were out doing what all boring couples do in their 30s on a Friday evening: we were out buying new cushion covers. There was nothing wrong with the old ones, the missus just deemed it…
Clark was a dead-end, and our house was just 30 feet from the guardrail.
On this side of that guardrail, a sleepy little neighborhood. Families of boys, girls, bankers, bus drivers, business owners, custodians, mechanics, politicians, policemen, and one rich old lady no one ever saw.
On the other side, a vast forest of wild adventure with a dark and murky river woven through it.
The adults never crossed that guardrail. Not many children did either, especially not the girls. But our little sister Sarah, she wasn’t like the other girls. Sarah wasn’t scared of anything. She crossed over that guardrail almost as much as me and Henry and we crossed over every single day.
The woods felt like home, the only place we felt like we fit, and belonged. We grew up on the banks of its dark and murky river, wandering through the wooded thickets, climbing and hiding in the canopies of its trees.
The river was too polluted to swim in, dead and toxic from all the factories and farmlands upstream. But we skated the river in winter and rode sheets of ice down its churning waters at spring thaw.
To most of the other neighborhood boys, the wooded trails were nothing more than short-cuts; sneaky, adventurous back-alleys from one friend’s house to another.
For us, though, the woods were the destination, a playground full of possibility and adventure.
We came together in those woods, me, Henry, and Sarah, on the other side of that guardrail. It was our playground, our sanctuary. But we did it independently. Never talked about it. Never decided we’d meet. The three of us just always found each other in those woods. And once we were together, together was how we stayed until it was too dark to see, and we had no choice but to make our way back home.
Mom came from a big family, and Dad was an only child.
She wanted a houseful of kids, and he didn’t want any.
I was the first, an accident Mom told me, but she managed two more a couple of years later; my brother Henry and sister Sarah.
After that, Dad was done, he even said so, but Mom was just getting started. She took in foster kids and runaways and brought home strangers with nowhere else to go.
“Don’t let your mother go to church by herself,” Dad would say. “If she goes alone, she’ll come back with another kid under each arm. We got enough mouths to feed as it is!”
I guess Mom meant well, but all those hungry kids meant Dad had to work a lot. And Mom, well she was tired and frustrated a lot.
It wasn’t an awful place to live, but it wasn’t great. It felt like we were all mismatched somehow, like none of us fit, so we wandered.
The older kids, the fosters, and runaways, they wandered the streets.
Me, Henry, and Sarah, we wandered the woods.
I had just crossed over the guardrail after school, still at the top of the hill, but I could see Sarah down there already, squatting in the underbrush just off the trail near the river.
“I’m coming,” I yelled. “What is it?”
I ran down the hill, across the flat, and made my way towards her, weaving, ducking, brushing aside saplings along the way.
“Look, Patrick,” she said, desperate and concerned. “He’s not moving!”
When I finally got a glimpse of it, I yelled, “Snapper! They’re mean! Don’t touch it!”
He was enormous too, size of a manhole cover and the color of old cast iron. Big scabs of sun-baked river mud flaked off his shell with dried algae and stringy moss dangling from its jagged edges. His stumpy, calloused legs were cracked and blistered like worn leather, and his gnarled brown-gray claws curled under his stubby feet.
He didn’t look good. His head was lolled to one side, and his powerful snapping jaws lay open, limp, and loose.
“She’s dying,” we heard.
“Henry?” Sarah stood. “Where are you?”
Henry’s arm appeared through a cascade of lemon-lime weeping willow branches. He was perched up in an old willow above our heads.
Sarah dropped back to her haunches. “How do you know?” she said. “I mean that she’s a girl?”
Sarah leaned in towards the helpless animal, wanting to care for it.
Henry climbed down a few branches.
“She laid her eggs yesterday,” he pointed. “Right over there. Up on the high ground, past those picker bushes. This is far as she got.”
“Can’t we help her?” Sarah said. “What if we put her back in the water?”
“I can try,” I said.
“I tried,” Henry said. “She don’t want to be moved.”
“Will you try again, Patrick?” Sarah pleaded.
I looked up at Henry, frowning down at me. His eyes told me no.
I squatted next to Sarah and whispered, “She doesn’t want to move, Sarah. Maybe we shouldn’t make her. What do you think?”
Henry backed his way down to the lowest crook, gathered a bundle of the stringy willow branches under his arm, swung off the fat old tree, and dropped into the underbrush with us. Wading through the brambles, he kicked aside a patch of tall grass and squatted next to me.
“It’s sad,” Sarah said.
Henry shook his head. “It’s not sad. She was a good mom; she did everything right. She found a safe place for her babies. They’ll be just fine until they hatch.”
“Yeah,” Sarah leaned in closer. “But they won’t have a mom to watch out for them.”
“They’ll watch out for each other,” Henry said. “Just like us.”
The three of us settled in and sat there for a long while, holding vigil, watching the old woman die in her own peaceful, natural way.
We just did whatever we wanted. No rules. No one telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. It was perfect. Not like home or school.
It was fall, a new school year, and I was in junior high now, seventh grade, all the way across town with all kinds of new kids from a bunch of other grade schools, and I hated it. At least in my old school, I had friends and knew my teachers, but now I felt alone, like I didn’t know anyone.
Henry and Sarah were lucky. They still had all their friends. Henry was in Mr. Swinford’s class. Mr. Swinford was my old fifth-grade teacher, and he was cool; he took his classes on field trips all the time.
And Sarah was in Mrs. Hallman’s fourth-grade class. Mrs. Hallman was nice; she hardly ever gave homework.
Those two were lucky, alright, Henry and Sarah, they still had tons of friends-especially Sarah.
Sarah was really special-especially to Dad. He called her Snow White, like in the Disney movie.
And she looked just like her too, just like Snow White; raven hair down to her shoulders, soft chocolate eyes, fair skin, all perfect and pretty, like a little movie star. She took tap, ballet, and jazz classes-mostly to make Mom and Dad happy.
“I don’t like any of that stuff, Patrick,” she told me. “Why do I have to sing and dance and do all those dumb things? she said. “Why can’t I just hang around with you and Henry?”
Sarah loved everybody, and everybody loved her. Animals, they loved Sarah too; they trusted her, I think. She fed squirrels right out of her hand, and hummingbirds fluttered in front of her little face as if they’d never seen a flower so beautiful.
But we didn’t treat her special, me and Henry; we didn’t need to. Sarah could always keep up and do almost everything we could. She never complained. Heck, she was more fun than most of our friends, and besides, she came down into the woods with us, and what could be better than that?
But being in junior high now meant it took me longer to get home, cross over the guardrail and get down into the woods.
I guess I just got home too late or didn’t cross over in time; I don’t know. And I don’t know where Henry was either. All I know is that she was all alone.
My little sister was all alone in the woods the day He found her.
I was on the porch steps tying my shoes, when I saw her.
She didn’t come from the woods, not over the guardrail. She came from the other end of the block in hurried little steps, face down, elbows out, arms stiff and away from her sides, like she couldn’t bear the feel of anything against her.
Something about the way she looked felt weird, so I started down the sidewalk towards her.
When I got close, she flinched, side-stepped me, and stopped.
Her clothes were all messy.
Her raven hair, matted and sticky on one side, had bits of dried leaves ground into it. Her pale blue t-shirt, one of her favorites, was all twisted around her body, twisted with dirt-smeared streaks. Her beige corduroys had mud ground into the knees and all up the side-like she fell and tumbled down a hill.
“What happened?” I said. “Are you all right?”
She wouldn’t let me see her face. I tried, but she just kept shaking her head and looking away.
“No,” she whispered.
“It’s okay,” I said.
But I wasn’t sure that it was.
She took in a long, deep, stuttering breath.
“He lost his puppy, Patrick. He had the leash,” she looked up at me.
“He had the leash in his hand, Patrick, a puppy, all alone in the woods.” She started crying.
“He said it was scared and would I help him look, but we didn’t look, Patrick, he wouldn’t let me look. He just…”
She fell into me and buried her face in my chest,
My little sister just cried.
It made me cry too, but I didn’t know why or what to do, and she was shaking, so I sat down with her. We sat right there under the maple tree in the Johnston’s front yard, and we just cried.
“What’s wrong?” Mrs. Johnston asked me, “Why is she crying?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “A man said he lost his puppy in the woods, but I think something happened.”
Mrs. Johnston stooped over, extending her arm like she wanted us to get up. “Well, let’s get you home,” she said.
“No!” Sarah said, and I said it too -almost at the same time, “No!” we said.
“Okay, okay,” Mrs. Johnston stood back up. “That’s just fine. You two can wait right here,” she told us.
“I’m going inside to call Mr. Johnston home. He’ll know what to do.”
We waited there, sitting against the Johnston’s maple tree until Mr. Johnston came in his police car. Sarah was done crying by then, but she flinched when Mr. Johnston got close. She wouldn’t look at Mr. Johnston either.
Mr. Johnston got down on one knee, looked her over real good, and told her, “No, young lady, you’re not in trouble. Now, why don’t you tell me what happened?”
He pulled a small notepad from his breast pocket and started asking a lot of questions.
“There was this man,” Sarah said. “He had red hair, and he said he lost his puppy down in the woods, over by the dam,” she pointed. “He had the leash in his hand.” She looked up at me. “He seemed nice. At first, and then he wasn’t, and then he told me I better not tell, and then he…” and then Sarah just started crying all over again.
Mr. Johnston asked more questions, but Sarah wouldn’t look. She just kept asking me if she was in trouble and shaking her head ‘yes,’ and ‘no’ a lot -like she wasn’t really listening or maybe wasn’t sure anymore.
Mr. Johnston wrote everything down on his small notepad, stood, said something, closed his notepad then took off in his police car.
Mrs. Johnston just stood there, eyes fluttering, holding her elbow in one hand and covering her mouth with the other. “Let’s get you home now,” she finally said.
Back at the house, Mom and Mrs. Johnston talked on the front porch for a while. When she left, Mom tried talking to Sarah, but Sarah was done talking and wanted to be left alone.
Mom took Sarah upstairs to Mom and Dad’s bathroom to clean up, so I went outside.
I found Henry crossing over the guardrail from the woods, and I told him what happened, as much as I knew, and we both crossed over again and went looking for the redheaded man.
We ran through the woods, both of us running as fast as we could. We ran straight to the spot where Sarah said it happened, and we didn’t stop until we got there.
“He’s long gone,” Henry said. “He’ll never come back here, not to this spot. I never even seen a redheaded man in these woods anyway, not ever.”
We kept looking anyway. We took to the streets and alleys along the edge of the woods. We searched under the bridges and beneath the overpass out by the bowling alley. We walked the railroad tracks leading in and out of the factory, looking for the redheaded man. We searched the parking lots and stores around town until after dark, but we didn’t see him.
Henry was right. The redheaded man was long gone.
We walked home in silence that night.
Sarah kept to herself for a few days, but Mom pushed her and wouldn’t let her stay in the house.
“You boys get her outside,” Mom told us. “Some fresh air and sunshine will do you all some good.”
A few days passed, but Mr. Johnston never came to tell us he found the redheaded man. Henry said the police probably never even went looking, or if they did, they couldn’t find him either because the redheaded man was ‘long gone,’ just like he said.
About a week later, Dad marched down to the Johnston’s house one night after work. He knocked on the Johnston’s door and had a talk with Mr. Johnston out by his police car. The two of them went at it pretty good. I could see them from the porch.
But after a while, I saw Dad get quiet; his head dropped, and he just looked down at the ground.
Then I saw Mr. Johnston put his hand on Dad’s shoulder. Then Dad covered his face with his hands, and I couldn’t look anymore, so I went inside and straight to my room.
Sarah didn’t smile as much anymore. She refused to go to her dance classes and wouldn’t wear anything ‘girlie’ to school. She still crossed over the guardrail once in a while, but only if we asked her and only if we promised to stay right beside her. She skated with us that winter, but only after Henry and I promised to shovel off a section far away from the spot where it happened. Even then, she only skated a couple of times.
Things on the outside -they all changed. The world got busy; we grew up, did different things, found new friends. High school dances, boyfriends, girlfriends, driver’s training. Life took over. We didn’t cross over the guardrail much anymore.
I was a senior when Mom died. She’d been sick for a long time, but none of us knew except Sarah. Sarah took care of her right up till the end.
I couldn’t, I mean, I couldn’t have done the things Sarah had to do. I don’t know how she did it.
Dad was lost without Mom. Now he was the one feeling mismatched like he didn’t fit around the house, so he just worked and stayed gone. He was never around.
The fosters and strays -they were all gone by then too, so it was just the three of us: Me, Henry, and Sarah.
I got into construction after high school, it was back-breaking work, but it paid well and we needed the money with Dad gone all the time. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but it was better than being stuck indoors at the factory like a lot of my friends.
Henry pledged to the Marines while he was still a senior. Mom would’ve flipped. He was shipping out right after graduation. The Marines were glad to have him, I bet. Henry had really grown, shot way past me; high school football star, smart, strong as an ox too.
Sarah was a junior in high school by this time, and still really pretty. All the makeup in the world wouldn’t cover that up. But it didn’t stop her from trying.
She wore heavy black eyeliner, dark eyeshadow, and baggy black clothes most of the time.
Closed up inside her room listening to her dark, angry music all alone, she’d gotten a hold of Henry’s clippers and sheared her beautiful raven hair off half her head, but she kept the rest long and beautiful.
I think Mom would’ve liked it after she screamed for a minute.
All the piercings though, Mom would’ve never understood those. I know I didn’t.
“Where’ve you been?” Henry yelled. “Where’s she at?”
“I stopped off for some beers, with the guys,” I shot back. “Where’s who at? I’m just walking in the door, Henry, give me a break. What’s going on?”
“Sarah!” Henry yelled. “She didn’t come home after her shift. She always gets home by 9:00 o’clock and now it’s nearly 10:00, on a school night, and she still isn’t home.”
Henry and I climbed in my truck and we went looking.
We drove out to where Sarah worked, the diner, down near the dam, not too far from that god-forsaken spot where it all happened.
“There!” Henry shouted. when he spotted Mom’s old car.
Sarah drove Mom’s old car now and we could see it still parked there in the diner parking lot where the employees parked, where the dumpster was, near the delivery entrance, where the cook and the busboys smoked their joints and drank their beers on break.
We were just wheeling into the lot when we saw him.
The diner was all windows and the redheaded man was sitting in a booth. We could see him plain as day. Sarah was there too, pouring his coffee, smiling, nodding, lingering at his table, listening to the small disgusting man make his small disgusting talk.
She didn’t need to tell us it was him. We could tell by the look in those dark hardened eyes of hers.
I’d never seen that look in Sarah’s eyes before. Henry either, he said.
It was him alright, the redheaded man, it was him. There was no doubt about it.
We killed the headlights, pulled around the side, and backed into the far corner of the lot. Our eyes fixed on Sarah in there with the redheaded man.
Not too long after we parked, Sarah came out to the dumpster and looked right at us. She knew we’d come. She knew we’d come looking.
She bit her lip, narrowed her eyes then looked away. Lifting the lid, she dropped the bag into the dumpster and walked back inside.
“I’m going in,” Henry said. “You wait here in case he tries to leave.”
“What are you going to do?” I shouted after him, but it was too late.
Henry hopped out of my truck and shot straight for the delivery entrance, scuffing his boots across the gravel lot.
After a little bit, Henry appeared again, moving through the near-empty diner and taking a seat at the counter between the redheaded man and the front door.
People came and went, cars and pickup trucks trading places in the gravel parking lot. But I kept my eyes on Henry, the redheaded man, and Sarah in there, waiting on tables.
Two older women sat across from each other in a booth on the far side of the diner. Sipping coffee, talking, filling the air above them with curling trails of gray smoke from their cigarette-stained hands. They came separately but parked next to each other. They drove Fords; a Maverick, and an Escort -little old lady cars.
A small family sat in another booth. The mom held a baby in her lap while their boy, standing next to his father on the other seat, pressed his face and little hands to the window, steamed up the glass, then scribbled in the fog. They came in the minivan.
Two guys in baseball caps at the counter. Backs to me. Separated by three or four stools. They drove pickups.
The navy-blue windowless Chevy van backed in where the customers parked. Backed in where he could see it. Backed in so no one could read his plates. Backed in so he could make his quick getaway.
Henry got up and walked towards the restrooms, right past the redheaded man’s table. But the redheaded man never looked up. Too busy reading his sports section, feeding his fat face with blueberry pie, and slurping Sarah’s coffee.
Henry came out of the restroom again, hair all slicked back like he’d splashed himself in the sink. His eyes were wild now, his body electric but he took his time walking past the redheaded man’s table. This time eying him up and down from behind.
Sarah set a white bag down at the counter where Henry was sitting. Henry walked by, grabbed the bag, and just kept moving.
Henry came out the front door, marched across the parking lot, and hopped back into the truck with two Cokes to go.
“She gave us straws too,” he said, handing me one. “You ready?”
I just nodded, but I really wasn’t sure what I was ready for or what we were doing.
Sarah appeared at the redheaded man’s table again, politely engaging, smiling, and listening. A mischievous spark in her dark, sullen eyes. Her head slightly bowed and tilted a bit, exposing the tiny ringlets encircling her ear and the sheared area above it.
With a nod, she pulled the pad from her apron, wrote something, circled it, tore the sheet free, and slid it across the table in the redheaded man’s direction.
The redheaded man reached for her hand, but Sarah feigned a blush and backed away, letting her hand trail across the table just out of the redheaded man’s reach.
Sarah disappeared into the kitchen, then came out the delivery entrance once more, this time wearing her coat.
With keys in hand, Sarah unlocked the door of Mom’s old car. The door creaked open, and she slid inside.
The redheaded man was already out the front door and making his way over towards his van. His ruddy, stubbled face, crooked with a confident smile. Eyes locked on Sarah as he walked.
Sarah stalled, fooling with the radio dial, fumbling to find her twisted seatbelt caught beneath the folds of her coat. Buckling up, she started the engine, turned on her headlights and paused, took a deep breath, and blew it out through pursed lips before finally putting the car into drive and pulling out of the gravel parking lot.
The redheaded man followed her out of the lot in his navy-blue, windowless Chevy van. And we followed the redheaded man.
Me, I was still uncertain about what we were doing. But not Henry.
Henry was certain; I could feel it. And that was all I needed to know.
Sarah drove towards town, across the railroad tracks, past the factories, over the bridges, and the overpass by the bowling alley. She turned down Main Street, past the stores and parking lots, dark and closed for the night. She made a left on Chestnut, past Elm and Maple, before finally turning right on Clark Street.
On this side of that guardrail, a sleepy little neighborhood. Families of boys, girls, bankers, bus drivers, business owners, custodians, mechanics, politicians, policemen, and one rich old lady no one ever saw.
On the other side, a vast forest of unspeakable evil, with a dark and murky secret forever woven through it.
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