Man in the Woods

October 26, 2011
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The darkening sky disappeared over the hills to the right of our little house on the lake. I stumbled over a few small rocks in the creek and every so often had to catch my balance. I would swing my arms out wide and high, looking up to the bright blue afternoon sky. The air was chilly but smelled of the flowers along the creek. There were so many kinds I couldn’t keep track of all of them. I remembered when my mother and I would come out and sort them. There were so many different ways, I always forgot throughout the long time it had been since then.

The birds chirped softly nearby and I heard our Golden Retriever, Sami, barking at the passing neighbor’s dog. I waved to the old pickup truck driving by and Mr. Frank, our neighbor, waved back out the window of his driver’s side. I smiled to myself and then jumped off the last rock on the trail to the green grass. I began to walk back to the house in my tennis shoes and my jeans, knowing the consequences of staying out and not helping with dinner. My father wouldn’t be happy at all. He would raise his voice and then demand that I return to my bedroom for the night. I would obey, knowing that fighting that argument would get me a nice red mark across the face. Or in even worse trouble if I ducked out of the way.

My mother used to defend me, saying a nine year old should be able to explore and discover the world. My father refused to agree with this. My mother agreed that it was time for me to hang out with my friends from school during the summer. But instead, for the umpteenth summer in a row, my father wouldn’t let me simply bike into town. We lived in a small town. It wasn’t nearly as big as the neighboring town, Hazel Woods, but our town of Oak Creek was small and quaint, barely five hundred people in the area.

I softly opened our old porch door, hearing the sounds of footsteps walking towards the door that I was entering. Just when I thought I was fine, I was wrong. My parents had ears like bats. They could sense anything that happened. I first saw my father barrel into the living room that I had entered and he looked me up and down. I slipped my tennis shoes off and he saw my partially wet shoes and ankles. I heard a softer, lighter pair of footsteps behind him. My mother came in with her inflated belly. She was halfway through her pregnancy. Her face looked grim. I began to smell the aroma of chicken pot pie, a meal we had had already a few times this week.

“Where have you been,” my father demanded. I stood very still. I didn’t know what to say exactly. I couldn’t look him in the eye either. It wasn’t the first—or the tenth—time I had done this. More like the hundredth time I didn’t come in before sundown.
I pulled at my hair, feeling the green ribbon that tied it all into a French braid. He grimaced and then I knew what would happen next.

“I asked you a question, Lily.” I cowered a little and took a few steps back. He took a few steps forward and I looked down at the ground. I pulled at the lucky green ribbon, telling myself in my thoughts that I would be fine. Everything was going to be much better than what it looked like right now.

“I-I was just…exploring.” I knew he hated that word. I knew my mother endorsed it. He frowned and then turned to my mom. My mom and I locked eyes. Her green eyes peered into mine with a look of fear. I nearly didn’t see it coming when it did. I saw a flash of plaid t-shirt come across my vision and ducked, hearing the porch door screen crack and snap into pieces. The pieces fell into my brown curls and I heard my mother gasp.

“Get back here!” I pushed the old porch door open and I sprinted for the woods, not turning back. I heard him yelling and putting on his jacket and shoes. My barefoot feet hit the wet creek hard and I didn’t even think of the rocks and pebbles under my toes. I kept sprinting until I couldn’t see anything behind me. Not one sight of the house was there. I gasped for air. It was the only noise besides the background sounds of the crickets around here.
I fell to my knees and heard footprints. I immediately brought my head up to look around. There was no voice out there. But then I heard it again. The movement in the trees. I whipped my head around to meet a pair of dark brown eyes. I wanted to scream, because I knew it was no one I knew. The hand cupped my mouth. I tried to scream but his other hand grabbed my arm. My arm began to hurt a little.
“Sh!” I shut up and I looked at him as he released his grasp on me. He was no one I had seen before. His hair was tucked all into a cap and his eyes were the color of chocolate, sweet chocolate my mother used to make all the time with her family recipe. We both sat there in silence, staring at each other. I pulled my hair out of my face. My hair had fallen out of its braid. I heard more footsteps in the woods. I felt for the lucky green ribbon in my hair. It was gone. I pulled at my hair every way and it wasn’t there. It was lost in the woods.
I looked up from where I was and saw the man was gone. I was so scared suddenly, thinking of what the man could possibly have been up to. I sprinted back the way I came, running through the woods at the speed of light. I got to the front porch and I saw my mother and her belly with a flashlight at the door.
“Mom!” I screamed to her and came to a fast stop before collapsing into her arms. She held me close as I gasped for air.
“Where’s Dad?” She smiled down at me and pulled me to the dinner table. Dad was cutting the pie. He hung up the phone and grinned a little to me. It was weird. The air in the room seemed to flip flop. My head was spinning until my mother mentioned a small detail. My father turned to my mother as we all sat at the table.
“There’s a murderer in the woods close by. Stay inside tonight, okay?”

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