Find Him

There are stories of a tortured soul that roams those woods. Tales shared around spooky campfires, devised under blanket forts with a flashlight below the chin, spun by elders that find joy in scaring young children senseless.
Surely, nothing but ill-founded stories...of which he and his son had not known.
—A short story I wrote for my Creative Writing class

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1. Find Him

                “H—Hey, buddy.”

                The child turned to find a hunched stature and sweaty face. In the blink of an eye he had gone from bored to ecstatic. “Hi, Daddy!” he exclaimed, as if his father had just returned home from the war. He disregarded the stick he had previously discovered upon the ground and had been swishing around in the air. Not that his “lightsaber” was in any way unique; the campsite was littered with dozens upon dozens of them. It had made setting up a campfire rather easy to perform, and had kept the little boy thoroughly occupied while his father had been away.

                The man winced at the shrill greeting that he should have grinned back at. The child noticed the absence of such a gesture. Yet after a moment his father forced that smile that he obviously did not feel like giving, and he clamped and rubbed his hands together. “Yeah, um…hey, bud, uh…” he flustered. He had no idea what he was to say, or how to say it at all. Should he even? Must he explain? No, there was no time to explain. He might have taken too long already.

                “Daddy?” the little boy squeaked, his expression dwindling like the dying sunlight.

                His father tried to keep collected, though whether or not he was succeeding lay beyond his realm of care. “Hey, Joshua,” he said, in his current interpretation of what he thought was reassurance. “We have to go, okay?”

                His son said nothing, and stared with blank eyes.  

                “Joshua,” he said again, “we have to go now.”

                “But…but we just got here…”

                His father sighed. It was true that only an hour had passed since the glossy tent was erected and the campfire set ablaze. The sun had now just begun to hide behind the ancient oaks and pines, for its work for the day had long been complete. The sky was already washed in deep shades of orange and red like a Bloody Mary.

                The alcoholic beverage, mind you.

                “I—I know, buddy,” he staggered, noticing how heavily his heart was pounding at his ribcage. As if his vital organ wanted out, and it wanted out now. “But we really need to leave.”

                Joshua had officially forgotten the permanence of his special branch.  “Why?” he finally asked, the harmless word his father had been hoping wouldn’t come up in this conversation. Yet its articulation was inevitable; his hope had been quite in vain. A terrible dread had made itself at home in him, and entangled his chest with its thorny vines more and more as time progressed. He couldn’t outright tell Joshua, lest he acquire the state of panic that his father was trying to suppress himself. Something in him knew that his son wouldn’t be as discrete in his alarm as he. 

                They could not afford to be found.

                “I don’t know why,” he slid on past the question altogether. “Please, Joshua, listen to m—“

                “Stop saying that, Daddy!”

                His father clenched his teeth, yet knitted his brow. That was not a confirmation, nor was it a denial. He was a bit thrown by this statement. “Say what?” he found himself spewing.

                “You don’t call me that!” the boy corrected, his lower lip protruding farther than the upper. “You call me Josh!”

                The man put a hand to his head and exhaled. He never called his son by his real name; no wonder the boy was concerned. Only in dire urgency would he think to use the title he and his wife had given their youngest upon birth.

                Like now.

                He had never been so urgent in his entire life.

                “Yes, yes, Josh,” the man restated, his hand fiddling with the collar of his red and black flannel. The boy seemed content with his victory, and intended to return to his realm of imagination. Where he would save Princess Leia from the terrible Darth Vader and bring peace to the galaxy with a sole wave of his weapon, just like in his favorite movie.

                It would have been quite adorable in literally any other scenario.

                His father felt he would burst. “Josh, we need to go!”

                Joshua whipped his head back around, his cheeks baking like hot coals. “No!” he shouted, as he crossed his arms over his Star Wars shirt. “I don’t wanna go!”

                His denial had left an uneasy feel in the air, and all seemed to go quiet. This allowed another unexpected sound to be acknowledged. The breeze howled as it blew, tree trunks acting as a perfect substitution for reeds. Leaves rustled like maracas and branches were claves, and the pine needles silently applauded. It was as if Mother Nature were conducting a symphony Herself, preparing for an uproar that was about to take place in the very next scene.

                Dammit, Mother Nature.

                “Please, buddy,” the man begged once more out of sheer desperation. Yet the pouty face remained, and so did Joshua’s seat on the unfurled blanket. His father huffed. Joshua was undeniably a spoiled brat. He blamed his wife for that fact, and she knew that he did. That biddable woman lay in wait to the child’s beck and call, giving him everything he so desired and more. The man had watched such docile acts occur before his very eyes, mother groveling before her own child. It was pitiful to watch in those few moments he was home from work, and his children were actually awake. Yet he loved his wife despite her cowardice, and his little boy as well. If something had ever happened to Joshua, he couldn’t ever forgive himself.

                 Yet that didn’t fix the fact that the child was as stubborn as a mule. He reckoned that Joshua wouldn’t budge for the second-coming of Christ. If Jesus couldn’t get this child to obey, then what chance did he have at getting him out of these woods?

                Only one: persuasion.

                Now, what he wanted to spill was that while he had been away from the campsite, looking for a lake that the two of them could go fishing at tomorrow morning, he had encountered another person amongst the woods. Suddenly and without any signal of presence, as if it had just appeared. That this figure wore a tattered white shirt and beige pants, fringed at every cuff. Skin ashen, eyes pinkish, hair resembling a muddy haystack. Like an extra that had escaped the set of The Walking Dead, with a prosthetics job that would put the world’s greatest make up artists to shame. That this figure upon being discovered by him had only stared, and projected a voice like the rasp of a toad.

                “You have a boy. You should find him. Before I do.”

                The man didn’t believe in the supernatural, or in any sort of life after death. But that thing had cast around it an aura that could unsettle the most grounded of men, could debunk the stubbornness of any skeptic. As if the air around it, the very air he breathed, knew what it was capable of, and warned of what could become reality if he didn’t heed its advice.

                The man wanted to say all these things right then and there. But he would never.

                Persuasion was all he had left to try. And by “persuasion” he obviously meant “lying a little bit more.”

                “Hey, you know what?” he whispered as he crept toward his disgruntled son, twigs and leaves crinkling under his hiking boots. “Did you know there’s an ice cream place really close by?”

                The lightsaber rejoined its kin. Joshua’s eyes widened. “Really?”

                His attention had been caught. The man sighed relief. Now he just needed to real him in.

                “Yeah!” he said, just loud enough to sound excited, but soft enough to blend with Mother Nature’s ensemble. “There’s one back in town! If we go now we can get there before it closes.”

                This wasn’t a complete lie; there was indeed a place to get ice cream back in the nearby town. Although more accurately, it was a roadside diner that doubled as a bar, and its doors were open twenty-four-seven. But it was close enough; Joshua wouldn’t know the difference. But just in case, his father had woven a meticulous tale of sugary dairy goodness in that very moment, and he stood at the ready to reinforce his claim if the need should arise.

                It didn’t.

                “Yeah!” Joshua exclaimed, yet as of then his father did not mind the volume. “Let’s get ice cream!” The boy burst from the ground, his smile having returned. He dashed to the edge of the clearing and about disappeared into the leafy clutter before the man could catch up. Leaving the tent and fire and supplies right where they lay. Their stuff was not worth their lives.

                “Wait up, Josh!” he called, in a minute coming upon the child and in time the truck he had driven here. Its navy coat shimmered in the scant light that could squeeze in through the trees. The man reached into his back pocket for his key fob and haphazardly thumbed the unlock button.

                “Can I sit in the front?” Joshua begged.

                The child was seven years old, and 3-foot-4.

                “Yeah,” he said. “Just get in.” He didn’t have time to argue.

                The doors slammed shut and his key flipped out from the loop. The metal was inserted to the ignition and turned away from him. The truck revved for a moment, and then made a grinding noise. But when he released the key, all went silent.

                There was a diminuendo, and his heartbeat kept tempo. The next scene had arrived.

                Certainly he tried again. And again. And again. Revving and grinding and then silence, over and over. Nothing was happening. They weren’t going anywhere.

                “Daddy?” Joshua said.

                The man was breathing much faster now, and beads of sweat formed upon his exposed forehead. The occasional glance reassured that nobody was outside the truck. The figure hadn’t found them yet. Thank God.

                “Daddy, there’s something—”

                “Please be quiet, Josh,” the man shushed, in his desperate attempt at getting this truck to start.

                Rev. Grind. Quiet.

                Rev. Grind. Quiet.

                “Work, damn you!” he yelled and slammed on the dashboard.

                “Daddy?” Joshua whimpered. For a moment his father forgot that his child was young, and was starting to realize that maybe his proposition wasn’t entirely out of a yearning for ice cream.

                Rev. Grind. Quiet.

                Rev. Grind—

                “You found him.”

                He released the key, and gazed out the front window. No one was there, or around the vehicle anywhere. And he knew that; his glances had been thorough. Yet the voice, that could not be identified as his or little Joshua’s, was not muffled through glass. It had been made loud and clear, traveling straight through the open air and into his ears.

                “But I found him too.”

                He breathed in short controlled huffs. His heart pumped so hard it throbbed. In his rearview mirror he could glance all he wanted, but the image would not disappear. The very same figure, in its white and beige attire and zombie skin, seated in the rear of his own truck. Its eyes staring directly at him just as before, blood vessels giving them a nice pop of color. But this time a smile stretched over each decaying cheek. There was no way that thing could have gotten in there. Neither father nor son had heard those backdoors open.

                “So I guess I win.”

                The man made a reach for the door handle and pulled, and his heart dropped at the sound of a click. The click of a rod at the door’s top ledge, indicating that this truck was now locked. But he hadn’t touched anything.

                The entity chuckled where it sat, while the man scrambled for the unlock button. But no number of jabs could make that same click again.

                “I like it when I win.”

                Joshua screamed at the top of his little lungs, as the figure broke out into a horrible fit of laughter. His father finally gave up on unlocking the door seeing as there was no use. He turned his head to the back of the car to look this figure in its dead eyes, to ask who it was, to demand what it wanted, to attack if needed. But once he did so, that single turn and nothing more, he didn’t see anything.

                Nothing but a splash of red, like a Bloody Mary.

                You may decide which one.  

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