Someone had to go and see the old woman and it was always me.
“Why can’t Richie go?”
I knew it was a waste of time asking her but I just wanted to hear what kind of bullshit answer she could give me.
“Just go. Please.”
She gave me that same tired and worn outlook. She’d been wearing that expression for the last year, year and a half. Like all the town did. Ever since Maddox had laid off half the town.
The bars had been busy for a while. Then they closed. Now the men just sit in their backyards and no one talks about it.
Conservation of the forest, said the mayor and no one believed a word that came out of that fat asshole’s mouth so why start now?
“I got homework, mama,” I lied.
“So go now,” she said. “You can do it when you get back.”
She busied herself in the kitchen.
“Go on now. While it’s still light.”
I cursed none too quietly and grabbed my hoodie. I always wore it to cover my hair. I hated it. Hated people to see it.
Without another word to her, I snatched up the bag for the old woman and left.
Outside it had just started to rain. We never got anything else. And it was never a solid, hard rain. Always a soft permanent drizzle, something to soak the town and make it useless.
I folded my arms, the bag bouncing against my ribs and marched towards Pine Road. Not the quickest route, but I wanted to avoid the forest. During the daytime, anytime before late afternoon and it was fine. But in the afternoon, that’s when the boys would be there. Richie was always down there with Skeet or whatever his name was. And all the rest of them. Getting high and drinking stolen beer.
The boys in the forest and the men in their backyards staring at the uncut grass. All the men drinking and all the women working whatever jobs they could get and keeping the house as together as they could.
I reached Pine Road and looked up at the faded billboard.
The colour stripped from it.
I put my head down, pulled the hood up to escape the drizzle. A lock of my hair escaped and flew in front of my face. I tucked it inside and marched down Pine Road.
Either side, the trees hushed and whispered in the wet wind that slid between them. Their voices undecipherable, their words meshed between each other. But all had the tone of warning.
This town ain’t the same no more.
That’s what the old woman said. I remember her saying it. The only words she had said all day when me and momma were there cleaning up for her.
Something dark in this town now.
Momma raised an eyebrow to me. We knew not to say anything. No one ever did.
Pine Road was empty. Grey light made it all the emptier. No traffic these days. Everything closed and no need for any trucks no more.
Bracken and broken branches covered the road, leaves like little waves between them. Up ahead the road stretched into the distance, disappeared into a fine fog of grey.
I turned with a start to the sound, it came from inside the forest. I edged away from it, into the road.
Again it came.
I stared into the trees, tried to make out a shape. Something.
“Yo, little red,” came a voice.
I let out my breath. That little asshole Skeet. Once I heard his voice, I could make out the others. All of them grinning back at me like retarded dogs. My brother was with them, his back to me.
“Yo, little red, you wanna drink with us?”
Skeet held up a bottle of something and waved it at me. The others cackled beside him like obedient pups.
I turned away from them and carried on walking. My hand raised to my head by reflex to make sure my hair was inside the hood.
A few more drunken howls and something else I couldn’t make out. Like a loud hushing. Assholes. I’ll tell momma when I get home and maybe this time she’ll talk to Richie. But she’s given up on him like she gave up on daddy and everything else.
I stomped ahead and pulled the hood down over my forehead. Tucked my hair inside.
In the far distance, a truck on the road. Right in the middle because why not, nothing to stop it. Not like there was any traffic.
I heard the hiss again. The hushing sound. The wind creeping between the trees. The rain blew into my face and pricked at my skin with its icy needles.
Skeet and his pack laughing about some bullshit but I kept my eyes straight.
The truck driver blared his horn. And birds flew into the air and careered across the tops of the trees. Another blast and the dead branches and leaves on the road shifted in a little dance, moved around in small flurries.
I gripped the sides of my ribs and dug my hands in against the cold.
The old woman didn’t even appreciate whatever we took her. What I took her. She just grunted and stared back out the window. Talked about things in the forest. Things that lived there that no one could see but her.
Another blast from the truck. My stupid red hair fell down and I reached up to push it back.
Then the whispering again. This time louder, almost in my ear.
I turned and something black, a shadow, crept between the trees. I took a breath to call out to Skeet and those assholes with him.
I ain’t scared none. I know it’s you.
But I said nothing. Kept it to myself. If they heard me, they would laugh and get a kick out of it.
I tugged at my hood and thought I saw the shadow again. I bowed my head, stared at the wet leaves under my feet, kicked them in front of me.
The truck horn. This time a long cry, like a howl. The crunch of steel against steel, the groan of metal shifting against weight it could barely hold.
I looked up to see a shape in front of the truck, then the wheels sliding at a sickening angle, coming towards me. I dived towards the trees. The front of the truck twisted like the broken neck of a deer. A final scream into the rain above and the truck came to a stop.
I stepped out from the trees and watched the steam rise from the truck’s engine like breath.
Behind me, running feet approaching.
“The fuck was that?”
The boys ran up, two of them still clutching at bottles.
The truck door opened and out came the driver. He stepped down to the ground and removed his cap. I couldn’t help but look. I was compelled to see it.
I ran up, Skeet, my brother Richie and the rest of them behind. As I ran up, I dropped the bag for the old lady and the food tumbled out on the street. Some chicken, a piece of apple pie.
As I got closer, the smell hit me. The truck driver has his hand over the front of his face and turned away from whatever was under the wheels of the truck.
I got closer and slowed. The carcass in front of the truck heaved up and down as it made its final last gasps of air in the world. A coat of thick black hair covered it. Ears as long as my forearms, one eye dripping blood, but still with the final light of life in it, all yellowy with a black circle deep in the middle. From its mouth a choking sound, and then the teeth. Pearly-white and big as pine cones. A whole row of them grinning back at me like it knew something about me.
“Jesus, what is that smell?”
One of the boys pulled his sleeve to his face.
Skeet, ever the alpha, had to get closer.
“What kind of dog is that anyways?” he said.
The driver shook his head, he lit a cigarette and let a plume of smoke out above his head.
“That ain’t no dog, son.”