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A Game of Luck
In the light of the moon, the forest yawned, a gaping maw patiently awaiting its prey. William Minyard shivered, averting his eyes from the treeline, digging the toe of his shoe into the frozen ground. He had allowed his two friends, Noah and Jonathan, to coerce him out of the house, but now, with his father’s winter coat wrapped tight around him, he regretted leaving his bed. The chilled air slipped its fingers into the gaping spaces not fully covered by the coat, chasing away any lingering warmth his bed had left him.
“Are you scared, Will?” came Noah’s voice unexpectedly.
He startled out of his daze, looking up into the boy’s bright eyes. He had a slight grin on his face, blonde hair turned silver in the moonlight. Behind Noah, Jonathan stuck out his tongue, just barely visible over the blonde’s shoulder. William straightened, scowling.
“No,” he replied, indignant. “Just wondering when we’re going to get on with it already. You chickens have been dilly-dallying about for an hour now.”
Jonathan honked out a laugh, which Noah quickly shushed, and raised his hands to surrender. “You’re not scared of the Beast?”
“Of course he isn’t,” Noah cut in, slinging an arm over William’s shoulders, as if he weren’t shorter than William by nearly half a foot. “His daddy’s the butcher, so he’s not scared of anything! He’ll chop that Beast up and make it into a nice winter stew.”
“My dad being the butcher has nothing to do with it,” William replied, shoving his friend back towards Jonathan, ears burning. “Everybody knows the Beast isn’t real. It’s just some story they tell kids to keep ‘em outta the woods.”
“Oh, yeah? Then you’re not gonna wimp out on us when we start walking?” Jonathan goaded, shaking off Noah’s grasp. “I mean, I’d hate to have to tell Henrietta that you’re a coward…”
At the mention of his crush, William’s face reddened. He uncrossed his arms in an effort to seem more confident in the situation, though with them hanging by his sides, he probably seemed more awkward than before. Realizing this, William took a firm step towards his friends. Noah’s eyes lit up, a mischievous smile curling at his lips once more.
“First one to turn back has to help Missus Margaret clean the stalls,” the blonde laughed, before spinning on his heel and making a break for the evergreens. William, too startled to react, watched him be swallowed by the darkened forest, disappearing in the span of a second, leaving Jonathan and William standing there in shock.
“Hey!” Jonathan snapped after a pause, shaking off his surprise. He lunged forward.“Wait!”
William tripped over his feet in his haste to follow after the taller boy, reaching out to snag Jonathan’s tattered blue scarf. Jonathan yelped at the sudden weight, reaching back to slap William’s hand away, and then they too were within the forest, racing after Noah and his bright blonde hair. He had slowed down near a rotting tree stump further ahead, face turned back to look for them, and William shoved at Jonathan to go faster so that they could catch up. His heart was pounding, shallow breaths frosting in the air, sweat pooling on the back of his neck under the heavy ruff of his father’s coat. The roaring of blood in his ears was so loud that it almost drowned out Noah’s hushed snicker.
“Took you scaredy cats long enough,” the blonde whispered.
“You hardly gave us any warning before you took off,” Jonathan replied, scrubbing his knuckles over the shorter boy’s skull. William wrapped his arms around his middle, casting a wary glance around them. The path they were on was narrow and overgrown, barely visible through the thick foliage. It was quiet in the forest, dampened, and William worried that even his own heart beating was too loud in the muffled night.
“Come on, Will,” Jonathan said, snagging him by his baggy sleeve and catching his attention once more. “We’ve gotta finish the trail. Unless… unless you’re too scared?”
The thing about Jonathan Barlowe was that he was mean, and he didn’t get any less mean by being friends with Noah and William. The way he looked at William now, with that sly, gleaming look in his eye, William felt small. He knew he was a coward, and knew that the only reason he was out here now was because of Noah’s persistent prodding, but to have Jonathan so blatantly call him out made the anxiety in his gut writhe.
“Nah, Will’s fine.”
Again, just like at the treeline, Noah came to his rescue, shoving Jonathan aside to jostle against William. The anxious boy let out a breath of relief, watching it fog into the air in front of him. With a hum and a shrug, Jonathan turned away, leading the trio deeper into the woods. William remained silent for the remainder of the trek, curling his frozen fists in the depths of his pockets, keeping his eyes on the underbrush surrounding them. He only spoke when they finally pushed out from the treeline, stumbling back onto Old Benson’s property. William studied their footprints left behind in the snow from when they first entered the woods, untouched.
“I guess there’s no Beast after all.”
Jonathan let out his goose-honk laugh. “Of course not. You said it yourself, it’s just some dumb children’s tale.”
“Or we were lucky,” Noah responded, though from the giggle he let out after, he didn’t take his words very seriously. William smiled, relieved to be out of the forest, and waved to his two friends before departing back towards his house.
When William slipped through his front door, his father was waiting for him. William froze, hand still on the handle, halfway turned to look at the burly figure of Kent Minyard seated on the stairs. The man’s broad shoulders were tense, and they did not relax at the sight of his son. With a sinking heart, William noted that his father’s auburn braids had not yet been unfurled, meaning that he had mistakenly assumed his father was asleep when he had snuck out earlier that night.
“Where have you been?” his father asked after a very long beat of silence. William trembled, letting his hand drop so that the sleeve of the oversized coat could slide past his wrists and cover his fingertips. His father’s keen eyes tracked the movement.
“Out with Noah and Jonathan,” William replied, quiet and meek. “We-”
“I didn’t ask who you were with. I asked where.”
He fell silent again, eyes to the floorboards in shame. His father was content to wait him out, elbows braced on his knees, strong eyebrows furrowed. William dithered until the guilt became too much to bear, and when he cried out his confession, the words broke. There was a heavy pause.
“The forest,” his father repeated, slowly. “You were in the forest, with Noah Smith and Jonathan Barlowe?”
“Why in God’s name would you go into the forest?”
His father stood, a sudden movement that had William hunching his shoulders and squeezing his eyes shut. He squeaked when two large hands grabbed his biceps, fingers easily wrapping around his skinny arms.
“William, my boy, you know the Beast is in that forest! What sort of faerie came and stole your brains tonight? You know better than to try your luck!”
“I thought it was just a kid’s story,” William blubbered, limp in his father’s grasp. “The Beast isn’t real-”
“It’s real,” his father thundered. William opened his eyes, focusing on his father’s red beard instead of his furious gaze. “You kids don’t understand. You weren’t there when it happened. The Beast is real, and while you need enough luck to get you through each stupid, hair-brained trip through the woods, the Beast only needs enough luck to encounter you once.”
The terror that welled up in William was overwhelming, flooding his lungs and crowding up his throat. He choked on it, shaking, and when his father let him go, his knees nearly buckled. William was sent to his room, though it was a feat in itself to get up the stairs in the first place, and when he shut the door behind him, he fell onto his mattress, still wrapped in the oversized coat.
Weeks went by, and the terror faded with each story Noah and Jonathan told him of their adventures in the forest--adventures William had been declining. Their excitement and courage made him wonder exactly what he was so scared about--his father’s hot breath on the side of his face, calloused hands on his shoulders, the fear in his father’s voice--and eventually, eventually, he decided to join them once again. It was a full moon, and William had made sure to check that his father was well and truly sleeping before he snuck out with the man’s heavy coat under his arm. Noah and Jonathan met him at the end of the street, leaning on Mister McParth’s fence and cooing at the goats that had come out to greet them, their soft bleating enough to calm William’s anxiety.
“Hey, look who decided to show up!” Noah said, once he caught sight of William coming down the road. His smile was blinding, making up for the raspberry Jonathan blew on the palm of his hand, and William shrugged and went to stand by the blonde.
“Well, you two have been running around in the forest for who knows how long without me,” William replied, “I figured I couldn’t let you have all the fun.”
Jonathan snorted, but said nothing, wrapping his ever-present blue scarf tighter. They waited while William unraveled his father’s coat and swathed himself within its folds, and then they pushed away from Mister McParth’s goats and hurried down the street, snickering amongst themselves. William allowed himself to be jostled by his friends, bantering to hide his nerves, but when they reached the treeline behind Old Benson’s barn, all good feelings drained away. The Beast only needs enough luck to encounter you once, his father had said; but Noah and Jonathan had been going into the woods, anyways, and they hadn’t seen the Beast.
“Come on, maybe we can show you the old bear den we found.”
Noah tugged on William’s arm in excitement, yanking him towards the forest while he chattered about the old animal bones they saw and the claw marks around the roots the den had been made from. Jonathan ambled behind them, content to keep his teasing to himself for once, though William knew his anxiety would’ve been an easy target. In the darkness, all he could focus on was the paleness of Noah’s face.
They arrived at the den after a while of walking, having deviated from the path not long after they broke the treeline. William stood at the entrance to the den as Noah crawled in between the roots and held up bones for him to see, giggling. In the cool air, surrounded by silence, William could almost forget why he was so frightened, could-
“Hey, where’s Jonathan?” Noah asked, peeking out from the roots. He had a larger bone in his hand, the knobs of it stark in the darkness.
William turned around. Jonathan had been quiet for most of the night, but thinking back, he hadn’t said a word since they got off the trail. William couldn’t even recall if he had followed them to the den. Now, where the brunette should have been, there was only empty space.
“Oh, lord,” Noah cursed, clambering out of the den. “We’ve lost the idiot. He’s probably waiting for us back at Old Benson’s farm.”
William hesitantly laughed out, “What a chicken,” though it fell flat. His voice was shaking too much, suddenly overcome with nerves. Noah peered at him, tapping the head of the bone along the ground, as if thinking. They stood in the deadened quiet for a moment longer before Noah put his free hand to his mouth and called out for their missing friend. William hissed at him, slapping at his face to get him to be quiet.
“Who’s gonna hear us,” the blonde said, frowning. The absence of his cheerful smile unnerved William. “We’re the only people out here.”
“Yes, that may be true, but I’ll hear you,” came the reply, all silky and sharp, curling from the underbrush. William’s eyes snapped to their left. In the darkness of the night, the thing’s eyes gleamed bright and whole, its wicked mouth curved to show its bloodied teeth. It moved on two legs, though it should have been on four, some hulking monster made of coarse black fur and jagged claws and too-long fangs and too-big ears. On its back, slung over its thick ruff, was a thread-bare blue scarf, torn and dark with blood.
Their luck had run out. The Beast had found them.
“Oh, lord,” Noah said again, a mere whisper. He dropped the bone at his side. “Oh, lord.”
“No, not the Lord,” the Beast grinned, prowling closer. William opened his mouth to scream--to scream, and scream, and scream, until his lungs ran out of air and he fell to the ground, dead. The Beast is real, his father had said, words clear as day over the catastrophe of noise in his mind. The Beast is real.
It leapt for them, then, jaws parted and hands outstretched. It was not William who screamed, but Noah, high and clear. It rang in the air even after the Beast tore his throat out, fangs crunching through muscle and bone alike. William ran, blind with terror, uncaring of the branches that whipped him and the roots he tripped over. He needed to get out, he needed to get help, the treeline was so close-
Jonathan’s mutilated body was strewn out by the rotten tree stump Noah had stopped by all those weeks ago, grotesque and unrecognizable save for his brown curls. A trail of blood was smeared off into the thicket, chunks of flesh scattered about as if he had been dragged. William shrieked, leaping away from the body, and his back hit something warm and solid and alive.
“Hello, little boy,” the Beast said, reeking of copper. Its massive hands closed around his heaving ribcage, almost gentle, claws glittering in the dim moonlight. Something hot and wet dribbled from above William and into his hair.
Kent Minyard sat up in bed, startled out of his sleep for reasons unknown. He blinked blearily into the darkness of his room, unsure of why he had awoken, but nevertheless unnerved. Something about the scene was off; it took him several minutes to realize what was troubling him.
His coat was missing from where he had left it, folded on his desk. Oh, Kent thought, muddled. William?
No… William would have only taken the jacket if he were going out, and he wasn’t supposed to be going out. Wild panic began to unfurl in Kent’s chest, confusion and desperation alike, only to be crushed by cold certainty. In the absence of the momentary alarm was only an empty cavern, his heart lying still within his rib cage. He knew what had roused him.
Within the forest, the Beast began to laugh.