Summer vacation ended and mother nature knew it. Rain dripped like a leaky faucet from the grey sky. The drops soothed my sunburnt skin as I parked my bike outside the red-bricked school. Usually, the yard teemed with students who refused to enter the stygian halls until the absolute last minute. Now, I saw the bright green grass completely devoid of teenage debauchery. I choked it up to the rain and gloom.
Sure enough, soon as I entered the foyer, I found every living youth in the county reconnecting with their friends. I scanned the sea of familiar yet unfamiliar faces until I found who I was looking for. Becca made eye contact first and eagerly waved me over. Like a salmon swimming upstream, I fought my way to my friends. My ears caught snippets of conversations as I passed, and strangely enough, they all seemed to be talking about the same thing.
“I know! The last break-in was right next door to my house,” Becca was in the middle of talking to Sam, “My dad’s been triple checking all the locks every night.”
“My parents bought outdoor lights, hoping to deter whoever it is,” Sam said.
“Didn’t you hear what Clara said? When it took her bike, it didn’t look like a person at all,” mystery tinged Becca’s voice.
“That’s B.S.,” Sam spat back, “Clara’s not exactly known for telling the truth.”
“She’s not the only one!” Becca defended.
I jumped, thoroughly lost, “What are you guys talking about?”
“You don’t know?” they asked in unified astonishment.
“I guess you do live pretty far out,” Sam noted, “And all the attacks have happened downtown.”
Becca jumped in, “Attack is a strong word. Only one person’s actually been attacked. The rest have just been break-ins and thefts.”
“Okay,” Sam conceded, “It doesn’t make it any less scary. I mean Dad said the police don’t even have any leads.”
“Guys,” I interrupted, “What’s going on?”
“The whole summer some creature’s been stalking the town,” Becca sounded more excited than scared.
“It’s not a creature,” Sam sounded scared, “It’s a person.”
“But a person would leave evidence behind,” Becca said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Plus, even the people who claim to have seen it said it was super fast.”
Becca’s imagination ran on overdrive all hours of the day. She really believed things like the Chupacabra or Mothman existed, or she really wanted them to. Either way, it’s partially the reason I liked her. Not like liked her, but she was definitely the coolest girl I’d ever met.
“What do you think, Ben?” she asked me.
“This is the first I’ve heard,” I said innocently.
“That’s strange,” Sam said, “But we’ll fill you in on everything.”
First period was math with Mrs. Platt for all of us. After that, Becca, Sam, and I didn’t see each other again until lunch. Sam’s dad always packed his, so he had a very important job. No matter what lunch slot we got, the cafeteria always seemed to be packed wall to wall by the time we got our food. So Sam, who skipped the lines, saved us some seats in the far-away corner. Becca and I filled out trays with pizza and the obligatory fruit cup and milk carton. Then we found Sam easily enough and sat down.
They filled me in on all I needed to know about the mysterious figure haunting the town. I learned that, outside of one physical attack (the authenticity of which was called into question), the only thing the person did was break into yards and take things. None of the things were particularly valuable though, old bikes, a shovel here and there, some garden gnomes (good riddance.) They usually struck at night, but people swore they saw them all hours of the day. What came to me as particularly odd was that no one got a clear view, even in broad daylight. Lots of people reported a sighting, but it was always just out of the corner of their eyes. As such, no one had a clear description of the perpetrator.
I don’t know how it got to this point, but by the end of that first day, the three of us had a plan to catch a good glimpse of the Thing. Or at least we had a plan to make a plan to get a picture of the Thing. Sam convinced himself seven ways to Sunday that the thief was a person. Becca refused wholeheartedly to believe that. So we just settled on calling them the Thing. There was no way in hell our parents were going to let us have a sleepover on a school night. Fortunately, school always started on a Wednesday and we wouldn’t have to wait too long.
After the last bell rang, I biked down the school’s street and onto the long and narrow road that transitioned from townhomes to a smattering of rural houses to the forest and eventually, my house. Trees hid my tiny, in desperate need of a wash house and visitors often passed us by one or two times before finding the driveway. My mom had painted the mailbox bright yellow in hopes people would find it easier, but it didn’t seem to work. I pulled onto the gravel where my mom’s beat-up green car was already parked. Mom usually came home early after my first day of school. I glided up to the porch and after everything I’d just learned, I fished my lock out of the garage and secured my bike to a post.
I climbed the rickety porch steps. Only the glass storm door blocked the entryway. I pulled it open and let it swing shut behind me. The whole place felt humid and the scent of sweet cinnamon and apples wafted toward me. As was first-day-back custom, mom sat at the kitchen table with a fresh pie in the center. Even though I’d come to expect it every year, it didn’t diminish how thankful I was for it. We didn’t have much, nowhere near what Becca’s family did, but my parents always made sure we had enough and spoiled me when they could.
I tossed my floppy backpack on the couch and joined mom. Next to the pie, a shiny block of wrapping paper topped with a gold bow caught my eye. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the occasion, but played coy and ignored it. Mom cut us each a piece and asked the usual mom questions: how was school? make any new friends? do you like your teachers? I answered them, then asked one myself.
“Did you know about the thief in town?”
She didn’t look surprised, “Your dad and I have heard some rumors. We don’t really think there’s anything to worry about out here, though.”
She kept her words soft and calm, I knew she didn’t want me to worry. She and dad did their best to keep honest with me, but I could tell she was holding back some fears of her own.
“You know if you ever don’t feel safe, one of us can drive you to school.”
“I know,” I said, but I liked to ride my bike.
“Well, even though you’re turning 14 next month, with school starting up and this shifty character in town, we thought it best to give you this now.”
She slid the slick package over to me and I looked at her surprised. I carefully peeled away the paper, and if I looked surprised before, I didn’t have the words to describe what I looked like now. The box contained a cell phone. Lots of other kids had them, but I knew how much they cost, not just to buy but to use as well, so I had refrained from asking for one.
“This is for me?” I asked dumbfounded.
“Yup. Now it’s not a very fancy one and you’ve got a limit on how much you can use it to talk and text. But we figured it’s a good thing to have in an emergency.”
Once the fog of shock dissipated, I exuberantly thanked mom. I nearly knocked the chair over as I shot up and ran to my room to unlock all the mysteries of my new phone. I plopped down on my bed and lifted the top of the box off like it contained blindingly bright jewels. It was a simple, sleek design. A shiny blue metal protected the inner workings. I couldn’t resist flipping it open. The top held a black screen and the bottom half had the numbers. It was so clean I didn’t want to mar it with fingerprints. I plugged it into the charging cord and turned it on. I figured playing with it while it charged wouldn’t do any harm. I already had Becca and Sam’s numbers written down by the landline in the kitchen, so I copied the numbers into the phone. Once I figured out all the workings and limitations, I texted them both.
Becca instantly flooded me with message after message. Mostly she was excited we could all stay in contact without my parents listening in, but also the Thing had struck again. She and Sam could text all they wanted and I could read them, but I had a limit to how much I could send, so I had to plan my messages carefully. This new development helped us plan our stake-out much quicker. Becca decided to collect information on all the reported thefts and look for a pattern, Sam and I made a list of stuff we’d need. We talked until the sun fell behind the trees and we each had to attend dinner.
Thursday passed us by boringly but brought so many headaches. The real first day of school left us with a lot of homework. However, the three of us preoccupied ourselves with stake-out preparation. By Friday, Becca formulated a map of the Thing’s hits and predicted the best places for us to watch. We all planned to head to her house after school. Sam’s house was closer to our target lookout spots, and Becca’s sat somewhere in between mine and Sam’s. But her parents were heavy sleepers, making it easier to sneak out.
Each location Becca picked wasn’t far from the other. I didn’t much like the idea of separating but figured this gave us the best chance of spying the Thing. Since my phone had limitations, we decided to use our ancient walkie-talkies to stay in easy contact. We worked through our plan one last time at Becca’s house before her parents arrived. After that, we tried to act as normal as possible.
We had pizza and ice cream for dinner and set up our sleeping bags in the living room. We changed into our pajamas and got comfortable watching TV and a movie until we were certain her parents were asleep. Then we set off.
The big fountain in the center of town was our starting point and a meeting spot if things went south. The moon rose high and full into the night sky as we approached. Once there we handed out our supplies before heading off in three separate directions. Security lights from shops and street lamps illuminated the town square, but as soon as I entered the alley between the bakery and pet store, a sudden blanket of darkness enveloped me. A shiver ran down my entire body despite the warm night. Now that I was alone, I didn’t feel so sure about our plan. I debated retreating to the safety of the soft yellow glow in the square. But I didn’t want to let the others down, so I forced one foot in front of the other until I reached the park.
The jungle gym provided a place to hide while offering me a good view of the row homes across the street. I climbed onto the plastic platform and wiggled around until I thought I couldn’t be seen. The park gave me the creeps at night. Shadows covered everything. A light breeze caused the swings to creak, but everything else remained eerily silent. The exact opposite of what a park should be. My walkie-talkie crackled to life, startling me into bumping my head. Sam checked in, letting us know he was in position. I did the same. We sat in silence for what felt like forever. I began to worry when at long last, Becca also reported she was in position.
That was the start of a long and uneventful night. Tired, disappointed, and stiff, we met back at the fountain just before sunrise. The three of us trudged back to Becca’s house and quickly snuck into our sleeping bags. Dad arrived at noon in the truck to pick me up. I put my bike in the back and said my goodbyes. We stopped to pick up deli sandwiches before heading home.
Last night adrenaline turned to fear. Now in the safety of my own home, all I felt was defeat. Most of the day I half-heartedly worked on my pile of homework. My small desk of plastic tubes and pressed wood sat opposite my bed. I switched between staring at numbers and equations on my desk and gazing off into the forest beyond our backyard. Golden sunlight shone down from the cloudless sky coating my desk and the yard. It couldn’t penetrate the forest though. Thick layers of verdant leaves clung to the trees still, shielding the forest floor and offering an ominous contrast to the surrounding world.
After dinner, I made up a fake story about what we did the night before and used my homework as an excuse to head back to my room. Instead of working I laid down on my bed and texted Sam and Becca. Becca expressed extreme displeasure with their lack of victory the previous night. Apparently, she’d spent the day going back over all her notes trying to figure out where she went wrong. Sam and I tried to cheer her up. It was difficult. Sam and I were beginning to think the whole thing wasn’t real. The more we examined it, the more the evidence, or lack of, seemed to point at the whole thing being fake. But we didn’t dare tell Becca that.
Sam and Becca texted back and forth for a bit while I just read. My eyes crossed as I stared at the screen, message after message blurring together. Suddenly, a picture of Becca in a round frame with a phone symbol popped up over everything else. I pressed the phone symbol on the keypad.
“Hello?” I asked curiously.
“Ben! I just saw it!” I yanked the phone away from my ear as Becca shouted the words at me.
“What do you mean?” I asked in return.
“I mean I’ve been staring out my window all day and I just saw a blurry figure. But you have to go outside now! Ben, it’s running through the woods out towards your street.”
I didn’t know what to do, but her energy was contagious. So I did what she said and went outside. The dimming sun turned the air a deep orange and my eyes strained to see. Becca still talked through the phone as I scanned up and down the line between the road and the forest.
“Becca, I don’t think I’m going to -” I stopped suddenly when something on the very edge of my eyesight darted into the forest. On autopilot, I jumped into the forest and tried to head to wherever I thought I’d intercept it.
“Ben, what’s going on?”
“I have to call you back Becca,” I hung up. I shoved the phone in my pocket and waded through the foliage as silently as I could. I tried to listen carefully, filtering out the normal sounds of birds and windy leaves. Then I heard the sharp crack of a breaking twig, and snapped my head in that direction. Trees flanked every step I took. I never got a clear view, but I felt I was close to the Thing. Every now and then, more twigs broke and branches rustled. I caught glimpses of shadows between trunks. Soon, though, these instances began to taper off. Finally, I thought I’d lost it.
Disappointment threatened to well up in me again. But I sucked it up and walked a little longer, pausing occasionally to listen. Then I spotted something that shouldn’t exist. A deer tail, a head of curly hair, and horns. Don’t ask me what compelled me to do what I did next, because for the life of me I don’t know why. It went against every smart thing to do. I bolted after it. The distance wasn’t great, but the terrain was. When I reached the spot I found myself at the door to a dilapidated shed. Grey slats of peeling wood formed a box barely taller than me. Holes and moss adorned the roof and ivy crept up the sides. I grabbed my phone, remembering it had a light, and delicately pushed what passed as a door open.
Inside reeked of musty, dead plants. I pointed the phone’s light around the room. It contained more than what seemed like it should. Broken bikes, rusty gardening tools, and even torn paintings filled every corner. Bottom to top, old knick-knacks rotted and cast crazy shadows. I want to believe that’s what caused me to think I saw what I did. Just a trick of the eye. Something in my brain won’t let me accept that though. Some part of me knows I spotted the stone, unguligrade legs of a statue, that as my eyes wandered up, I saw flesh slowly consumed by the stony material. I followed the consumption as it traveled upward, before landing on a coy face that flashed me a sly grin and a wink as the stone froze it in place.