Birch looked up from the computer and regarded the darkening sky outside his window. The stars were beginning to creep out from behind low-lying clouds along the horizon, hiding the glory of the sinking sun from his appreciative eyes. Unwillingly, he pulled his gaze back down to his screen where the white, empty page before him made his eyes water and teased his strained mind, reminding him of the essay that he had not written.
A few minutes passed, broken only by the monotonous ticking of his wristwatch. Nothing happened; his brain was a churning mess of of random words that were, in theory, meant to reshape themselves into an A grade essay. Running both hands through his ruffled hair in exasperation, he slammed the lid of his laptop shut and got stiffly from his chair. He switched the light off and headed downstairs.
“Birch! Where're you going?” his father called from the living room behind his book.
“Out,” replied Birch, pulling on a coat and stuffing his feet into shoes.
“What about that essay you were writing? I thought you wanted to get it finished tonight?” His father was on his feet now, peering out into the hall through bleary book-eyes. However, the hall was dark, as Birch never bothered to turn lights on when he was in a hurry. The older man could see nothing and soon heard the back door creak open, signalling the boy's departure. Sighing, Birch's father sat back down in his armchair and resumed his book.
Out in the elements, with a strong, fresh wind blowing in his face, Birch felt the churning words inside his head fall away from him, like old leaves from a tree ready to grow newer ones. He felt much better now: the cold, the darkness and freedom of an almost empty countryside could clear anyone's mind.
There was a small, gravel road leading away from the hamlet and down towards the river where, in the summer, Birch and his friends fished. Now however, the river was icy cold and empty of its aquatic inhabitants. It raged loud and fast against boulders and rocks in its path, spewing out onto the surrounding banks and drenching the nearby grass.
As Birch 'rounded the last bend in the road the river finally came into view, and with it, came the distant sound, rushed to him on the wind, of water against rock. Birch picked up his pace, still seeing the path easily by the dusky glow from the sun: he wanted to watch the water for a while before it got too dark to see.
However, he soon realised he was not the only evening visitor to the river and slowed slightly as a bobbing light caught his attention. Squinting, like his father did when having to adjust his eyes from a page font to a member of his family, Birch inspected the figure. It was tall – from what he could tell in the darkness – and was carrying some sort of torch or lantern. For a moment, he wondered whether he should turn back, when the figure lifted his head and waved the torch emphatically towards Birch. Something, that sounded much like, 'Um dargh ere' was hurled at Birch and then swiftly snatched away by the wind.
He couldn't turn back, not now that the figure had seen him. What if it was someone he knew and they teased him later on for being afraid on the dark? “Not in your wildest dreams,” Birch muttered rebelliously to himself and began to trot, fists in coat pockets, towards the river-side wanderer.
“Birch – what'ya din at thi' time?”
“Studying, in theory,” Birch replied. He glanced up towards the stranger's face and realising that it was Glen, the old boy who used to help Birch and his friends at the sailing club in Aisen, five miles eastwards.
Glen chuckled hoarsely, the torch in his hand twitching with each laugh. It lit up the river, the muddy banks and the sporadic trees on either side. “Evidently,” he agreed humorously.
“What are you doing?” Birch asked.
Glen stopped laughing and looked back up at the sky where the moon, almost full, shone bright and clear. A small, glowing halo of sky surrounded it making it appear all the more bright, but the dark backdrop was spoilt slightly by the still sinking sun. “Watchin' the moon.”
Birch glanced up at the sky and then back at the old man beside him. The craggy mouth was slightly open and his eyes were fixed on the moon, in a calculating – almost concerned look. Then Glen swung 'round to face Birch, and all he could see of the old man was his silhouette, against the moon's bright face. “Y'u need to keep 'n eye on 'er,” Glen stated grimly, “al' sorts o' funny thin's happen when she'd full.”
“Like...?” suggested Birch, not quite on the man's wavelength.
However, Glen seemed to regain his former self for he simply chuckled again and waved a vague hand back in the moon's direction. “Oh, al' sorts o' funny thin's – most o' them prob'ly coincidence, like our meetin' 'ere tonight.”
“Oh,” replied Birch, slightly disappointed by the man's obvious aversion to reveal further information.
“Anyway, 'tis a cold night, an' y'u better get back to studyin'.” Glen gave Birch a toothy grin followed by a rough slap on the shoulder before turning, and limping down the road.
Birch turned in the other direction, and began to walk slowly back towards his house. His head was full again; full of ideas and thoughts and superstition. There were many tales of what happened to people under the influence of a full moon, some that Birch didn't want to contemplate out in the darkening night on his own....
He rounded the bend at the top of the hill and his own house came into view, the glowing lights on downstairs where he could see the silhouette of his father through the curtains, still engrossed in his book. He made his way up the garden path and put a hand on the doorknob. And, just as he opened it to go inside, a small howl came whistling to him on the wind from the direction where he and Glen had just parted. It was low and soulful and made the hairs on his arms stand on end, sending shivers down his spine.
It's a dog, he told himself forcefully, not anything else. He glanced down towards the river but could see nothing. The howling stopped and the silence after was even more unnerving. He stepped inside the house quickly and shut the door. Throwing his coat to the ground and leaving his shoes strewn across the hall, he ran up the stairs and into his bedroom.
Birch opened his eyes to sunlight streaming in through his window and his father standing over him holding a copy of the morning's paper. “Mmrgh?”
“Listen to this.” His eyes scanned the copy and then he began: “Glen Wakelen, missing. Known to have gone for a walk to the river Heighton at 4pm yesterday and has not returned. Searches showed finds only of a small plastic torch left beside the river. It was covered in tooth marks, possibly those of a large badger or fox...”
Birch's father looked up from the paper and squinted at him through his rectangular glasses. “You went down to the river last night didn't you Birch?”
But Birch didn't answer, he heard only the blood rushing through his own ears and an echo of that melancholy howl spinning through his mind closely followed by Glen's voice:
“Funny things happen when the moon is full...”