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In These Woods

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Even with the door open, the station smells of coffee, and Sammy can still hear the machine winding down as he shrugs into his bubble jacket. It is too hot inside but not hot enough when the King Falls a.m. hits his exposed skin. The station is barely more than a shack, one story and low with a single outlying shed. Like the rest of the town, it is wood, evergreen, with great dark hollows and knots.

In the parking lot, as Ben locks the door and peers through the front window to check for lights, Sammy fingers his keys. To call it a parking lot is to be generous; the station has a small plot of dirt which has been leveled by visiting cars, hardened into a plateau of tire tracks. There is space, beside Sammy’s secondhand Toyota for an SUV, if its owner were willing to scrape a conifer with its mirror.

The wild never really left this place; rather, the homes and the people created space in the hollows of the trees, in the ditches, along hillsides so steep nothing but sand grows there and the sky is a mirror you could fall into.

The sun, dark and flat below the treeline, gives them enough light to see their hands. Over the tips of evergreens, the sky is dark grey, inching toward pale, stars still abundant. Sammy cranes his head back while Ben pulls on gloves, the jangling of keys abruptly muffled. Toward the road, a narrow two-lane that winds in sharp switchbacks without guardrails; toward the station, a cleared patch of trees that opens into a meadow. In this light, even the trees are blue, although if Sammy is being fair, the blue never really goes away – not at sunset when orange falls across the mountains, not at noon when the sun pales and the sky is clearer than it ever was in the city.

Sammy’s breath fogs the air and his fingers sting. He opens and closes his fists.

“You coming, Sammy?” says Ben, his voice clear and bright but already distant, the length of both their cars separating them.

“Sure,” Sammy says vaguely and steps closer.

Ben opens his car door and leans against the roof. The lights come on, making yellow the dirt, the pine needles, abrasive after the early morning dark. A thin layer of frost crunches underfoot.

Sammy says, “I might go for a walk. Lovely morning. Kind of want to show myself around the place.”

“Do you have gloves in your car?” says Ben.

“Uh. No. It’s May.”

Ben’s hands start moving. “Here. Take mine.” He lays the gloves on the roof and waits for Sammy to accept.

“Doesn’t it warm up?”

In the clear light, with the station quiet and dark behind them and Ben’s car lit up, Ben smiles. His teeth are crooked, his upturned lips lopsided. He looks eager, like a teenager.

“Sure,” Ben laughs. “By like two. I’m telling you, buddy, you’re gonna get cold out here, and the mountain lions will not leave your frostbitten body.”

“Woah, okay, macabre. But also, mountain lions?”

The gloves hit Sammy’s chest, one and then the other. They fall into the frost-pale glass and Sammy stoops to pick them up.

“And they’re not even the worst King Falls has to offer, but when it comes to nature’s predators, yeah, they’re the worst.”

The sky is paler against the stars, and the light from Ben’s open car spills out across the small lot, hits the trees like traffic signs, casts shadows over Ben’s face.

“I’ll be careful,” says Sammy. “Thanks.”

Ben nods. He swings into his car and starts the engine. Sammy steps back and lets Ben reverse, watches his taillights recede down the long driveway. The wheels crunch, breaking the silence of stars and the breath between them.

When the trees have swallowed the taillights, when the rustle of ponderosas masks the low rumble, Sammy pulls the cold air into his lungs and puts on Ben’s gloves. He zips his car keys into his pocket and turns toward the meadow.

The orange sun brushes the horizon, visible in the triangle-shaped gaps between boughs. The sky overhead is still grey, no trace of black left but Orion still recognizable, his arrow pointing toward the dust still settling behind Ben’s car.

From the top of the meadow, Sammy can see where the winding road enters town. If there are lights on, the sky is too pale to see. All his life, Sammy imagined small towns were sleepy, but this one keeps the nights as full of life as ever the city did.

He steps down into the meadow, turning his back on the waking town.

Frost crunches beneath his shoes. His breath still comes out in puffs, and he pulls his fingers inside the gloves and balls them up. Even considering the altitude, mid-May should be warming, bordering on summer. There shouldn’t be frost, snow on distant peaks, icicles from the station’s roof. He shouldn’t have to set his car in four-wheel drive for a jaunt to the grocery store.

The meadow slopes steeply, and Sammy’s feet skid over pebbles. Small, purple columbines and irises speckle the field; when he steps on them, they pop up again, the way children do. Here the town feels like a memory, the busy hours speaking into a microphone and hoping someone might hear him, but not hear him too well. Here he can see the way the earth dips into a facsimile of a valley, plush with evergreens, and the mountains rising up all around. If he started walking now, would he ever reach its end?

Sammy negotiates his way across the terrain. Above him, in the clear sky, the stars merge with the grey. He could be anywhere, he thinks, with an empty sky like this. He could be anyone. Anyone instead of Sammy Stevens, newcomer from the big city; instead of his hands and voice and trembling teeth.

He could just be a body in space.

At the base of the meadow, the forest rises up without so much as shrubbery to announce its presence. Some of the trees are sickly, bluish – or is it just the light? Sammy follows the flowers into the trees, where they run across the dry soil like wildfire.

He unzips the top of his coat to let the air into his throat and breathes deeply, as though to pull the last of the stars in. He shivers, and his ears sting.

The meadow is split by a ditch. Careful not to get Ben’s gloves dirty, he picks his way into it, following a steep path, the kind children make in the woods without parental supervision.

He loses his footing on the frost-slick path and slides into the ditch. His feet slam into the opposite bank, hand reaching for an uncovered root. He grasps it and thuds against the earth, gasping. The glove snags, holds his hand suspended until he yanks it free.

The sound of his descent dulls to an echo, to a whisper of an absence in the air. His breathing comes like breakers on the Atlantic, a cacophonous shuddering. He looks at the top of the ditch and sees eyes, yellow and round, in the shadow of the sunrise. His heart thuds.

He is alone and the town is not awake.

Get up, Sammy. Get up now and run.

As he rises, he reaches for the phone in his jacket pocket. He brings the flashlight up and shines it on the embankment, but it is empty and the light flattens it out like a comic book. There are no eyes, no residual rustling, no shrubbery quivering. He is alone. And he is sure he is still being watched.

What do mountain lions look like, he wonders, and why didn’t he Google them before heading off?

Because it is morning, even if grey still hangs overhead like a persistent thunder cloud. Because all but the morning star have faded against the allure of the sun, which even now is breaking over the peak behind him. Its light falls on the slope above his flashlight, warming the blue of the trees. Here in the ditch, however, the dark gathers in Sammy’s palms, in the creases of his jacket, beneath the trees bent to hold on to the slope.

A tangle of fallen branches, their needles browning, stretch away down the ditch, framing the sort of shadowed tunnel he would have loved as a child running careless and curious through the woods upstate.

Sammy pushes his phone inside his pocket. He picks his way down the ravine, careful now of his footing. Twigs snatch at his jacket and his hair, press into him. He stumbles over a pile of sticks with peeling bark, feels it give wetly beneath his feet.

He lurches forward and a moment of animal terror keeps him on his feet, a primal recognition of the dark shape beneath him.

And it is skin, of course. As Sammy staggers back, a thistle near taking out his eye in the process, he sees. Hidden by the tangle of shrubbery: a hoof, dark and wet; a slope of cervid legs; a slice of velvet like a carpet flung over a ribcage.

Sammy’s hand shakes as he digs into his pocket, back pressed against a pliant branch; needles and twigs dig into the back of his neck. The woods are keeping him there, holding his rapid breath. The sun barely reaches, but Sammy sees brown and red, the leather of the drying nose. He is not sure he wants to see more, the shape of the thing lying in front of him, in every sense of the word. He is not sure he wants to see its condition: loose skin, viscera, teeth marks.

The phone is cold through the hole in Ben’s glove and Sammy shakes it. The light draws the thing into sharp 3D and flattens it at once.

It is a deer, lying on its side with its head away from Sammy, antlers detached on the ground. The light calls the tufts of its fur into hyperfocus, the pumice-like hollows of its bones. The ground around its body is dark. But it is barely a deer, now. Skin peels off the lengths of its ribs, ligaments clinging to bone. Its stomach is a dark chasm. Sammy cannot even see organs.

He steps closer, careful to avoid its sewing-needle legs. It is hollowed out.

And its face: eye sockets gored, lips pulled back, skull pushing through, darkly.

Nature takes back her own, Sammy things, but then he remembers dogs he’s seen in city alleyways, their fur matted over skeletal frames, snarling.

He stares for a long time before stooping to pick up one of the antlers. He isn’t sure why he does it, why he doesn’t tear himself away, why nausea doesn’t hit him. He isn’t sure why he doesn’t notice a smell. But the antler is light as a bird’s bone, small, boasting three points.

Its weight still in his hand, Sammy rips himself out of the tunnel.

When the open sky is all around him, he looks up. The station sits at the top of the meadow, bathed in sun. He scrambles out of the ditch, muttering, “God, no,” but he doesn’t let go of the antler.

Sitting on the bank, he calls Ben, phone flashlight still on. The thing is down there in the dark, even though the sky is, by now, completely blue. It is watching him with its chewed-out eye sockets.

Frantic, he presses the phone to his ear until he is sure his cheek will bruise, but it doesn’t ring. A flat tone signals disconnect. He holds it up, stands and staggers a few paces. Still nothing.

This is what compels him, on shaking legs, up the hill: the silent phone, the dead tone, the encroaching wild, this place where even with the sun coming up, he is utterly alone.

At the top, Sammy leans hard against the station and dials Ben again. It rings and rings.

“Damn it, Ben, pick up,” says Sammy.

“Hello,” says Ben.

“Thank fuck.”

“You’ve reached Ben Arnold,” the voice continues. “If you’re hearing this message, I’m probably asleep. If your call is of a professional nature, contact me at at-King-Falls—”

“Ben.” Sammy slams a palm against the wood. “Damn it, wake up.”

The secondhand car doesn’t warm up, so Sammy keeps the gloves on. His forefinger pokes out of the hole, and he uses this finger to redial Ben, holding the phone against the wheel. He drives slowly, antler in the passenger seat.

“Hello,” says Ben on speaker, and then his voice, animated, says, “Sammy?”

Sammy hits the wheel and the car beeps. “Oh my God, is it good to hear your voice.”

The sun hits his palms, the wheel, the mirrors. His eyes are dry with exhaustion

“You sound like you’ve seen an apparition,” says Ben.

“Does a whole fucking carcass count?”

Ben’s voice is cautious. “What kind of carcass? Not a—”

“No, not a human one, God. Back in the woods, there was a deer. At least, I think it was a deer. It was kind of mutilated beyond belief. Its eyes, Ben. They were ripped out. Look, can you just—can we get a coffee? I’m not sure if I can sleep.”

They end up a Rose’s Diner. The sun glints off all three cars in the parking lot when Sammy pulls up. Ben waits at the door, earbuds in, head swaying in time. As Sammy approaches, he realizes how young Ben looks. Nighttime, the great leveler, makes everyone look older, and the paraphernalia of radio equipment obscures Ben’s face, microphone and pop filter blocking his mouth.

Ben grins and waves Sammy over, fishing an ear bud out of his ear.

“Thanks for staying up for this,” says Sammy.

“You sure you’re okay? You sound really rattled?”

“It’s hitting me slowly, in pieces.”

Sammy shields the menu in the window with his hand. Rose’s is a low, long building, booths running along the wall of wide windows and a bar with rotating stools. The lights inside are not brighter than the morning.

Quintessential Americana, Sammy thinks.

Inside, Sammy leans his head against the cold window. The waitress sets the menus in front of them, but the words blur when Sammy picks one up.

“If it isn’t my favorite late-night radio hosts,” the waitress says.

“Graveyard shift?” says Sammy.

“Tell me about it. We listen to you guys in the kitchen, and don’t you forget it.”

Sammy looks at her and decides. “Any chance of getting a guy a beer?”

“You find something to eat as well, you hear,” she says, and disappears into the kitchen.

“A hell of a welcome,” says Sammy. The drive to Rose’s gave him time to control his breathing, but his heart still beats too heavily. He takes Ben’s gloves and sets them on the table; the hole has split the forefinger in half.

“Sorry for ruining your glove,” says Sammy.

Ben looks at the black shapes on the table. “Honestly, they were kind of cheap anyway.”

Half an hour later, with his mouth full of burger and beer, Sammy asks, “Could it have been? A human?”

“Like I said, mountain lions. When I was a kid, we had a curfew because they prowled the neighborhood at night.”

Sammy laughs. “Did you actually follow the curfew?”

“Yeah,” Ben says solemnly. “Sometimes we would drive home and see one lying, lounging, between switchbacks.”

“And people still live here.”

“That better not be a question, since you’re living here too.”

“And I’d have reason to leave, after what I just saw.”

“I don’t suppose you got any pictures?” says Ben.

“I was a little preoccupied. But I do have an antler in the car.”

Ben raises his water and Sammy clinks it with the neck of his bottle. “To proof. To journalism.”

“To journalism.”

Ben says, “How about this, how about we drive back up to the station and you show me, see it in the light of day. That way you won’t be spooking yourself every time you come to work.”

Sammy nods.

They leave their jackets in Ben’s car. Ben rolls up his hoodie sleeves, his arms pale and thin.

Footprints and torn earth show the path down to the meadow. Sammy stops a few paces past the station, puts his hands in his pockets, pulls them out. “Okay,” he says to himself. “No big deal.”

The ditch is shallower than Sammy remembers, only two steps down. The tunnel looks less like a labyrinth in the light and more like a pile of snapped branches. It is ordinary, throwaway, casting flat shadows like in Polaroids. Ben stands behind Sammy, doesn’t push.

“It was right in here. I went in, like—” But he can’t fit. Twigs snap against his shoulders, beneath his feet. Needles scrape his bare hands. He yanks himself free, shields his eyes from the sun and peers in.

There is nothing inside but twigs, browned needles, dry earth.

“Where is it?” says Sammy. “Ben, will you take a look? I must be missing something. I must be doing something wrong.”

Ben crouches on hands and knees and peers in, pushing branches just for them to snap back an inch from his face. “Sammy, there’s nothing here. No bones, no blood, nothing.”

“No, there’s no way it could have gotten out of there, not if we can’t even get in. And I’m willing to bet we’re a good deal more dexterous than a mountain lion trying to drag its prey up the mountain.”

Ben stretches one hand out and probes the fallen branches.

Sammy says, “I didn’t make it up. If you’ll just help me move these branches.”

So they do, propping the boughs against the sides of the ditch until Ben’s forearms are slick with sweat, until they have an arch way to walk down. At the far end, there is a small pile of stones that might once have been a waterfall. Nothing could have gotten in or out. Not even the deer could have, but it must have somehow, because it was fresh, its blood still visible on the ground.

“It didn’t just vanish,” says Sammy. “I didn’t make it up.”

“I know you didn’t.”

Ben unlocks the studio. He makes coffee while Sammy leans against the kitchenette counter, turning the antler over in his palms. After just a few weeks, Ben knows Sammy’s coffee order and doesn’t have to ask. Steam rises from the machine, warming the room.

“I don’t know how much of the city makes sense,” Ben begins as he hands Sammy the mug. Sammy takes a sip, then sets it on the counter to cool.

“It doesn’t. We were all just trying to make sense of it, the architects just as much as me.”

“Because nobody tries, here.” There is something odd in Ben’s voice. Morning makes his dark hoodie bright, his curls, his eyes. He looks at ease, at home, as he pours his own mug. “Things happen and we flounder. God knows how much I’ve tried. I’m a journalist, for Heaven’s sake, it’s what I do. What I’m trying to do.”

Sammy takes a sip of coffee and says, “So can you make sense of tonight?”

“It’s King Falls, Sammy. It’s what you signed on for. I’m sorry that it’s scary, but it’ll be okay. Listen, Sammy, look at me.”

With one hand around his mug handle and the other on the root of the antler, while the sun comes in and hits Ben’s face at the coffee maker, Sammy looks.

Ben’s face is grave, but his eyes are warm. “I promise King Falls is a good town. I can only hope that you’ll fall in love with it the way I love it, but even if you don’t, it’ll be okay. I promise.”