In The Rain

The burial was over. Leonard Keeley glanced one more at the dirt-covered indentation. He felt nothing, and that shamed him. Couldn’t he muster up even a shred of sorrow for the woman who had given him birth?

     Kate was standing beside him, and she silently took his hand and squeezed it.  Evening was coming, and a cool breeze lifted his hair and cooled his skin, drying the beads of perspiration on his forehead. It had been a hot, oppressive day, and now it was cooling rapidly.   He turned his face towards Kate; her eyes held a depth of sympathy that almost seemed to mock his lack of feeling.

     “Are you okay?” she asked softly.

     “I’m fine,” he replied. He paused. He wanted to tell her how strange it seemed, how anticlimactic, as if his mother had died long ago and this only certified it. But Leonard seldom shared his feelings, and Kate was close to her family; he didn’t think she’d understand.  The minister nodded at him, his face as bland and generic as the brief service had been. Except for the three of them, the cemetery was empty. A couple of strangers had shown up at the wake, but no one else had come to escort Martha Keeley to her final resting place.

     “I’m ready to head back,” he told her.

     As they walked to the car, the sky darkened, and a light rain began to fall. The wind picked up.  He could smell the rain, and the scent lingered in his memory as they drove away.  By the time they reached the broken down, faded-blue house, it was raining steadily.

     They walked up the porch steps together. Leonard didn’t feel much like talking, and Kate seemed to realize his mood. He opened the door, walked into the house’s dusty interior. The house smelled like old dirt and cobwebs, mixed with a heavy smell of smoke.  His mom had chain smoked for as long as he’d known her; the smell had been a constant as far back as he could remember, right up until the divorce, when he had left with his father, never to return to his mother’s house.

     But it was not the house that called to him now.

     “I need a minute,” he said to Kate.

     He walked to the back door, opened it, and stepped outside. Kate had receded into the background completely; he barely registered her presence behind him. He was plagued by memories, memories which did not make sense.
     It was in the summer, in the rain. He turned looked up at the clouds, let the drops fall on his upturned face. And remembered…

 

     Branches rubbed and scratched against the outside walls and windows.  To Lonnie, they sounded like clawed hands trying to force their way in.  He turned on the television, but the rain and wind was interfering with the antennae and every channel was showing fuzz.  He looked sadly at the water droplets that trickled down the windowpane.  He went into his room.  His mother didn’t really seem to care how he kept his toys, but Lonnie liked things neat.  He picked up a Transformers toy and fiddled with it for a few minutes.  Then he dropped it.  A few He-Man action figures lay on the floor where he’d left them.  He picked up Skelator and Teela and put them back in their box.  What fun were toys, when he had no one to play with? 

            He could hear his mother in her room; could hear the loud click-clack of the big metal and chrome typewriter she was using.  She was writing again; she’d been at it all day.  He’d been hungry that afternoon, but had to fend for himself. Unable to reach the peanut butter jar, he’d eaten two plain slices of white bread for lunch. He knocked on her door, knowing he would get yelled at but feeling that anything was better than sitting alone watching the rain.   The click-clacking stopped and the door opened.  His mother stood framed in the doorway, her frizzy brown hair pulled back, her expression harried. She was wearing a brown bathrobe that reached partly down her hairy legs. A cloying sourness wafted from her, discernable under the stronger smell of tobacco.   

     “Lonnie,” she said. “Can’t you find something to do for one afternoon?  Go watch TV.”

     “There’s nothing on,” he mumbled, looking at his feet, feeling ashamed though not quite knowing why.  “We need to get cable.”

     His mother’s face twisted.  “You always want something,” she said. “Well, I want a lot of things too. I want your father to come home from work on time and tell me the Goddamn truth for once.  I want him to pay some fucking attention to me and not be banging every slut he can get his hands on.  We can’t always get what we want.  Go play with your toys. You have a whole room full of them.  Why do I keep buying them for you if you don’t play with them?”

            “I’m sorry,” muttered Lonnie.  His mother was already turning away.  When Lonnie didn’t move from the door immediately she turned for a parting shot.  “When are you going to stop being a baby, Lonnie?  You’re going to be seven.  Do I have to be with you every second of the day?”

            Without waiting for an answer, she closed the door and left him alone in the hall.                                                                                                                   

            Feeling his eyes burn, Lonnie wandered over to the window again.  Drops of water still ran down the windowpane, but the little puddles on the ground outside were almost still. The rain had lightened to a drizzle.  Lonnie looked back at his mother’s door, still closed.   He wasn’t supposed to go outside without permission, but he didn’t want to knock again.  Quietly, he snuck out the door. 

            Lonnie didn’t like his new home.  The house itself was nice, but they were so far out in the country and there were only a few other houses around.  The kids here were all really little or too old to have anything to do with him.   School was okay, but the summer was turning out to be no fun.  It was lonely, and his mother didn’t seem to like the place either, because she was always in a bad mood. 

            Lonnie walked over to the sandbox in the backyard.  His mother had told him it was dirty and not to play in it.  But he needed sand.  He filled his little plastic bucket and headed over to the paved driveway.  He walked up and down the driveway, picking up worms and putting them in the bucket.  As he watched them tunnel gratefully into the sand, he felt a moment of happiness.  Some of the worms he let wriggle in his hand for a little while before putting them safely in the bucket.  He picked up one worm and twined it around his finger, making a ring.  His attention was so focused on his new friends that he didn’t notice a shadow stealing up behind him.

            He heard a noise that sounded like a low, throaty growl.  Startled, he turned around.  Watching him from a few feet away was a little girl.

            At first he had to squint to see her face; the sunlight framed it in brightness as if she had a halo, while he was cast in shadow. Then he could see more clearly. Her hair was sandy brown, her face pretty, her eyes a strange shade of yellow.  She looked about Lonnie’s age, but he had never seen her before.  She was wearing a plain shirt, colored grey, and nondescript pants.  Lonnie hesitated a minute. If the other boys at school knew he was trying to make friends with a girl, they’d tease him.  But his loneliness won out.

            Hi,” he said.  “My name’s Lonnie.  I live here. What’s your name?”

            She smiled back.  “Hi Lonnie,” her voice was soft, and sounded strange to him, although he didn’t know why.  “I live up there,” she gestured with her hand, toward the tree-covered hills in the distance.  “I’m here with my family.”

            Lonnie digested this.  He asked again. “What’s your name?”

            She frowned.  “I can’t say.”

            “Is it a secret?” Lonnie asked. He had never met anyone with a secret name before.

            “No. I just don’t know how to say it right. Like this, I mean, with words.”  She gazed at him with curious eyes, soft brown, which golden specks. He must have imagined the strange yellowness before.  He didn’t know why she wouldn’t tell her name; maybe she was playing a game of some kind. 

            “Want to see my worms?”
             She crept up beside him and peered into the bucket.  Her.

 wet, sandy brown hair brushed his cheek.

            “I rescued them,” he said proudly, as she gazed down at the moving sand.

            She smiled.  “Want to play?”

            Lonnie found a battered, partly deflated volleyball in the woodshed.  Normally, he didn’t like the woodshed because it was musty and smelled bad and was home to many spiders.  But in the presence of the girl he felt brave.  They kicked the ball back and forth through the wet grass and took turns chasing each other around the yard.

            But after a little while she frowned and turned to look at the hills, becoming still as though listening to a sound Lonnie couldn’t hear. 

            “I have to go,” she said.  “Do you want to come see my family?  They aren’t very far.”

            Lonnie knew he shouldn’t leave the yard without permission, but he was curious and deep down, he was angry at his mother and wanted to disobey her rules.

            He took the girl’s hand.  It was smooth and cool and somehow soothing to hold. He picked up his pail of sand and worms. He would take them with him, to show her family.  Together, they headed off into the woods.

      Trees closed behind them.  The little girl’s feet seemed to make no noise in the grass.  In contrast, Lonnie seemed to stumble over each irregularity of ground and step on every twig strewn in his way.  He blundered along, breaking off branches from bushes and getting caught on stickers. As they kept walking, Lonnie began to feel more and more nervous. He could no longer see his house and had no idea how to get back.   Besides, he was starting to feel cold.  Damp, slimy branches stuck to him. He wished he had worn his jacket.

     Through the corner of his eye, he saw a squirrel scamper partway up a tree near them and stare curiously.  In one incredibly smooth, fast movement, the girl darted at the little animal.  With a gesture so swift Lonnie couldn’t even see it, she grabbed the squirrel.  He saw her eyes sparkle with delight as she raised the squirrel to her mouth and bit off its head.  Blood trickling down her lips, she smiled at Lonnie.

     Lonnie screamed. He turned and ran.  The forest was an enemy now.  Tree branches and sticker bushes tore at his clothes and tried to hold him back. His feet slipped on the wet grass, and he almost fell.  He had no idea where he was going; he only knew he had to get away.

    He heard the girl call his name, but he didn’t dare look behind him.  He struggled, batting away branches.  It was raining harder and starting to get dark. He wanted to go home, but everywhere he looked there were more trees and bushes.  Behind him, branches snapped.  A flicker of lightning, and he thought he saw something huge, moving in the bushes ahead of him. Something huge and hairy, like a monster from his nightmares, and then it was gone.

    Lonnie whimpered, trying not to scream again, and ran off in the opposite direction.  He thought he was running back the way he came, but he didn’t see his house anywhere, only more trees, swaying in the wind, which had picked up dramatically. The monster was behind him, he knew. As he paused, he heard a branch snap to the left of him, bushes rustle to the right of him. Something was there; or maybe many somethings, there in the forest with him. Panicked, the boy didn’t know which way to turn. Crying now, he stumbled through a line of trees- and onto a smoothly paved road. There was a blue car, pulled over on that road. Lonnie staggered toward it, expecting at any moment to feel hot breath in his hair, feel claws catch on the back of his shirt.

     He staggered up to the car, crying; his hair wild around his head, his heart pounding.

     The car door opened, and a man stepped out.

     “Whoah, there, little guy. What’s wrong?”

    Lonnie forgot everything he had ever heard about not approaching strangers. Dropping his bucket, he flung himself into the man’s arms. Lonnie pressed his face against damp leather and sobbed. The rain fell down all around him.

     The man stiffened.

     Lonnie continued to cry.

    “Now there boy. Come with me. I’ll take you home.”

     There was a hint of something odd in the man’s voice, and it tugged at Lonnie for a moment. But then the man had put his arms around the boy and was hugging him back, and it felt so good to be held that Lonnie forgot his uneasiness. The stranger began to rub the boy’s back. He began to breath heavy, as if he had been running, and his hands lowered, cupping the child’s buttocks. Lonnie squirmed. It was good to be comforted, but the man was holding him too tight. He felt something hard press into his stomach.

   Then the stranger drew back. Lonnie smiled up at him a little uncertainly.

   “It’s ok kid. Don’t be scared. Hell, where are my manners. I’m Dave. Come on in the car, I’ll take you home.”

    The man grinned. He had yellowish teeth. “It’s ok.”

    Lonnie had never had a grown-up tell him to call him by his first name before. It made him uneasy. He began to back away slowly.

    Then he heard bushes rustle behind him.

   Scared, he moved to get into the man’s car.

  “I saw monsters in the woods,” he said. He looked up at Dave, and saw the man’s eyes widen, his mouth open, his face transform into a mask of shock and growing horror.

    He didn’t see the animal until it slammed into them. It was grayish brown, and huge. That was all Lonnie saw. He was knocked against the car and slid to the ground. He curled up into a fetal ball, whimpering, afraid to look.

    He heard screams. A rending, tearing sound, and the screams grew louder.  He had never heard anyone scream like that.  He knew it was Dave screaming. Something terrible was happening to him. Lonnie huddled on the ground. He scrunched low, trying to disappear. He heard a low, guttural growl, and then the screams abruptly stopped. Dave stayed where he was. He heard the click of claws on pavement, heard the heavy pant of the creature’s breath, and then he could smell it, a thick feral odor. He knew it was close, so close he could touch it.  Frozen with fear, he hid his face.  Sobs rose in his chest, but he battered them down, convinced that if he made any noise at all, the beast would rip him apart.

    And then a voice spoke. A woman’s voice, surprising in its gentleness.

  “Little one, get up.”

   Trembling, he lifted his head.

   Standing over him was not a monster, but a woman. Her dark hair framed a face that seemed younger than his mother’s. The face was kind.  “Don’t be afraid,” she said, her tone soothing.  She reached out, her cool hand cupping his chin.  Her other hand brushed away the tears that he hadn’t realized were trickling down his cheeks.

    “He’s dead, Mother,” came a voice behind the woman. She stood and turned, allowing Lonnie a glance of the man who had spoken.  The man was young, dark haired, and tall, but all Lonnie could see was the sticky redness that coated his chin and ran down his neck, diluting in the rain. More red liquid coated the man’s hands. It dripped slowly, with the rain, to the ground.

     “Clean yourself, Rendell,” said the woman, with some harshness.  “We are not beasts. Have you taken the head?”

   “Yes, my elder.”

    “Then we are finished here.”

    Lonnie looked past the woman, into the forest, where more people were walking towards them.  There were two other men, their features similar.  They were accompanied by another woman, and beside her, his friend, the girl. She smiled at him, but did not approach.

    “What will we do with him?” asked one of the men. “He has seen us turn.”

    “He is a child,” said the woman, the one called Mother. “He will not be believed.”

    “They may believe,” the man persisted. “When they see what we have done.”

     “Let that be my concern.  He will go home.” She paused. “Unless, perhaps…”

     Her eyes gazed into his.  He felt her probing him, fingers gently brushing aside his thoughts, her essence weaving into his, as she gently sorted through his memories.  Her eyes were deep and golden, all seeing. Then she pulled back from him; he felt her leave, and for an instant he felt loss, felt abandoned, wanted to feel her in his mind again.

    She looked down at him. “You may come with us,” she said softly. “If that is what you wish.”

    A voice, behind her. “But Sabine-“

    “Hush.” Her voice was soft, but held an unmistakable command.  The man fell silent.

    Lonnie looked up at her. He knew that something very big and important was happening, something almost beyond his power to understand.  He could go with this strange woman and her family, and he knew, with a child’s absolute certainty, that if he did, he would never see his mother or his schoolyard friends again. He was about to say yes.  Then he stopped. “I have to put back my worms. They can’t stay in the bucket.”

   He walked towards the car. He saw the woman stiffen, take in a breath, move to block his view. For a minute, she stood between him and the car. Then she stepped out of the way.

   Dave was lying in the ground.  It had to be Dave. But Lonnie couldn’t really tell, because the man’s head was gone. The blood was being washed away by the rain, but there was an awful lot of it, and it still stained the pavement a dark color. The body was contorted, the arms flung out. The flesh of one arm was torn and the white bone showed through the jagged wound. Lonnie’s mind froze on what he was seeing, horror burning the scene into his consciousness, a snapshot that would be with him forever. He saw the man’s fingers, curled in death like thick fat worms. He saw the brownish, clumpy stain on the back of Dave’s pants, shiny with rain, running in brown trickles into the grass. He squeezed his eyes shut and began to scream.

    He was still screaming when the police found him.

 

     So many years later, Leonard looked out over the yard, into the woods, past the woods.  He knew these memories were not true, couldn’t be true. Like the nice doctors and nurses said, they were memories his mind made up to protect him, hide what he had really seen.  He had believed them.

     As the years went by, more and more memories were acquired, leaving the town with this father, his new school, high school, college, meeting Kate and falling in love- all layers covering this one, pivotal memory like sediments covering a decaying, fossilized creature, a monster, sharp toothed and once so powerful.

     They had searched the woods, of course. Brought dogs, guns, and flashlights. But they had found no trace of the animal or animals responsible for the attack.  Lonnie had been insulated from most details of the investigation, both by his doctors and his father; it was not until much later that he found out that they had never found the head.  Local felon, three times convicted sex offender David Lowell had been buried without it – another detail the young Leonard had been spared.  Not surprisingly, tales had grown around the incident; local teens still dared each other to sleep alone in the woods at night. Leonard had heard that the police dogs had been impossible to handle, that they had whined and whimpered and wet themselves with fear, refusing to go into the woods.  But that may have been just a story.

    There had been times throughout his childhood, and through his teenage years, and even, though he would not have admitted it, up through his adulthood, that Leonard woke in the middle of the night, and, whether in the city or the country, whether in the old moon or the new, thought he heard a distant howling, the full-throated echo of a dozen voices, singing as one, baying to the distant skies. And he wondered- what would have happened if he had gone with them? Where would he be, what kind of life would he have lived? And he would feel cheated, suddenly, angry at himself, dissatisfied with the endless droning quality of his life, of bills needing to be paid, trains needing to be caught, deadlines needing to be met. These times he would wonder.

   Leonard felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. He turned to Kate, lost in the memories, and he was about to tell her his story, and then stopped. Her eyes held a tenderness deeper than any he had ever seen or imagined. The words died in his throat. He gathered her into his arms, held her close. His cheeks were wet, and not with the rain. He loved her, and he was happy, and he was home.

And beyond the boarder of light from the house, the woods were still there.  Deep and impenetrable, they held their secrets.