The moment Jake stepped off the trail and onto the narrow path, he felt a sense of foreboding. His brother, Simon, close behind, laid his hands on Jake’s backpack. Drawing short, quick breaths, his dark brown eyes like saucers as he glanced about with uncertainty.
The thunderhead in the distance was reshaping in slow motion. The encroaching storm ate up the color of the horizon, more ominous with every passing second. The full moon cast long shadows across the way ahead. Overhead, a malignant sky becoming darker by the minute. Fractures of lightning like tines of a pitchfork scurried inside the swirling mass.
In a matter of minutes, he realized that what he thought to be a short-cut back to camp was twisting deeper into the dark woods. Behind, a spinning eddy of leaves erased their way back. The storm’s wind swirled through the tops of the trees. They swayed in unison like a graceful ballet line. Then, as if a staged breakaway for the entrance of the lead dancer, a blast of heavy frigid air flowed downward. It scattered onto the ground and washed over them like an icy river, chilling them to the bone.
Goose pimples popped on to Simon’s arms and legs. His hiking shorts weren't adequate against such an arctic wave. He rubbed his hands together and on his thighs, “Are we lost? Are you sure this will lead back to camp.”
The encroaching storm had stolen the remaining moonlight, leaving them shrouded in darkness. Fishing out his flashlight from his backpack, Jake shined it ahead as he peered around in slow motion. The light beamed through the dark woods. Simon followed along, clinging tight to his brother’s shoulder.
An odd shaped figure darted among the stand of trees. It moved at an unnatural speed, darting from one side to the other of the crooked track. Jake staring into the emptiness, “No Simon, we’re not lost. This is a shortcut back to the trail head.”
Heavy drops like lumps of melted wax began to plop onto the surrounding ground. The fallen dry leaves rustled like footsteps of someone or something moving through the dense woods, “Jake, Are you sure we’re safe.” The pace of the downpour picked up, making it sound as if they were surrounded by a stalking predator. Jake turned in a quick circle. The weather swiftly switched into a torrential rainstorm. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled above.
Jake’s blond hair was saturated, strips fell across his eyes and onto his cheeks. Heavy drops of water trailed down onto his face. Simon’s chestnut brown locks were soaked and stuck to his forehead. They were both totally drenched. Jake shined the light in the direction they’d come. Raindrops darted through the horizontal beam of the flashlight like falling stars. Jake leaned forward and put his hand to his brow. He strained to see through the increasing deluge.
A gravelly, dry voice directly behind spoke to them, “There you are, boys.”
Jake and Simon jerked around. Simon held tight to Jake’s shoulder. Jake shivered and his teeth chattered. He clutched the scout light at his side. A curmudgeonly old man stood with a wooden staff and a dark metal lantern. It swayed in the wind as a candle flickered inside.
Rain dripped from the brim of his pointed gray hat. The wet tip of it tilted back slightly. His white beard glistened with water droplets in the soft glow. Thin strips of stringy hair hung to the shoulders of his long robe. Surprisingly, a startling flash of lightning, which was quickly followed by a bone–rattling clap of thunder. Jake dropped the flashlight.
Simon blurted out, “We’re lost!”
The old man smiled, showing his jagged yellow teeth, “I’m Tobias, sent to lead you through. Follow me.”
“To where?” Jake whispered.
Simon peered into Jake’s eyes, “Jake?” Jake put his index finger to his lips. Tobias turned and lifted his staff. A translucent shield appeared above, protecting them from the onslaught of the weather. Simon locked his focused on Tobias. Jake glanced up and all around. The rain cascaded across an invisible barrier in clear sheets. As they trudged through the wet leaves and thick grass, the protective cover reseeded behind them.
The undergrowth was soon replaced by a well-worn path, slippery with a thin layer of dark mud. Lightning flashed, showering the surrounding terrain in a bath of light. The trailing thunder, far away, was barely noticeable. They were walking single-file along a narrow trail notched into a steep embankment covered with gray moss.
Below, to their right, was a raging stream being fed by the deluge of the thunderstorm. On the left, an incline stretching to the sky scattered with trees, stumps, and sharp stones. Ahead, in the distance, a thatched roof cabin with a porch and a candle flickering through one of the windows.
Jake held tight to Simon’s hand who was close behind on his heals, “I’ve got you little brother.”
Simon stumbled. One foot slipped, and he grabbed Jake’s arm with both hands, “Mom said not to wander too far, we might get lost.”
“We’re going to be okay,” Jake whispered.
Tobias led the way with his staff outstretched in one hand while holding high his lantern with the other, “Quiet boys lest you arouse the beast. He always listens and will devour you.”
Simon squeezed Jake’s hand. He responded with a reassuring, tightened grasp. He glanced back, putting his finger to his pursed lips.
They stepped onto the porch, Tobias removed his pointed hat and shook the remaining rain from it, “Now come inside where it’s warm, and take off those wet clothes.”
Simon flashed a gaze at Jake for a second. He returned a concerning glance.
Stepping inside, the scent of a welcoming fire greeted them, soothing their anxiety for a moment. Logs crackled as orange and yellow plumes pattered through them. The light danced across the rough plank floor. An iron bracket hinged to the jamb of the fireplace suspended a boiling pot.
Tobias removed his cloak and tossed it over one of the wooden chairs. A square timber table stood in the center of the room, with a single candle in a brass holder. He swung out the crane holding the kettle, raised the lid and stirred the contents. The aroma of steeping stew filled the air.
“Now let’s get you boys out of those wet clothes and have something to eat,” he stepped into the adjoining room, “I’ll be right back.”
Lightning flashed and at one of the back windows, the shape of a man with the face of a wolf stared in at them. His eyes white, a snout of gleaming teeth, and shoulders covered in dark coarse hair. With hard reddish almond shaped nails, he clawed at the sides of the window. His breath fogged the glass.
Jake and Simon locked eyes, “Jake?” Simon whispered.
“Just do whatever Tobias says. When the storm passes, let's make a run for it.” He pointed to what appeared to be a backdoor.
“But the beast?”
“Maybe he’ll be gone.”
Tobias came back carrying two long white linen night shirts, tossing them over another chair, “Now get out of those wet clothes and into these. We’ll hang yours by the fire to dry whilst we have some supper.”
They looked at each other and started unbuttoning their shirts. Pulling them off, they handed them to Tobias. He had strung a rope across the front of the fireplace and tossed on their shirts. “Go ahead, take everything off. You’ll catch your death in those soaked clothes.”
Jake glanced at Simon, “Go on, do what he wants.” he began to unfasten his shorts.
Simon glanced from Jake to Tobias. “Mom’s says never talk to strangers and never––never let any grown-up see you naked.”
Tobias pulled three wooden bowls from the shelf, “Boys, I’m not a stranger, I was sent to save you,” with his back to them, he swung out the pot, dipping stew into one of the bowls.
Jake, fourteen and Simon, twelve, were mature enough to be embarrassed. Kicking off their boots and stripping down, they tossed their wet socks, shorts, and briefs toward the fire place. Tobias sat the bowls on the table and grabbed three wooden spoons. The boys stood with their hands cupped over their privates. Simon shivered as Jake stood still as a statue.
Tobias looked up. He glanced from one to the other of them. Chuckling, he threw the night shirts to Jake. Jake caught them and handed one to Simon. They both held them in front to cover themselves. “Go on, put those on and let’s eat before the stew gets cold.” They raised their arms and slipped on the night shirts.
Tobias hung their socks, shorts and underwear, in front of the fire. Sitting down at the table, Simon sat across from Tobias, with Jake to his left. Tired and hungry, the food was warm and tasted delicious.
A pounding at the front door, followed by a deafening howl. Jake dropped his spoon, splattering stew, and turned to look. Simon covered his ears and sat frozen. Tobias jumped up, his chair fell back and slammed onto the floor. He grabbed his staff, and struck the door three times. The wooden latch rattled.
“Begone! You beast of the devil and ruthless hunter of innocent flesh. These boys are mine!” The howling trailed off into the distance, growing faint before going silent.
When they finished, Tobias washed the bowls in a bucket of water. Simon laid beside Jake with his head on top of his folded arms and stared into the fire. Jake sat cross-legged. Simon wiped and closed his eyes. Jake shook him, “come on Simon, stay awake,” he reached up and touched his shorts, “Our clothes are almost dry.”
“Time you boys were in bed.”
Simon sat up, “What do you mean? We have to leave.”
“Not whilst it’s dark. Morning will be here soon enough. Then I’ll take you the rest of the way.”
Tobias picked up the candle and led them into the adjoining bedroom. A massive cedar log feather bed with fluffy pillows, white linens and two side tables sat majestically against the back wall. Along the facing side wall was a tall double door armoire. “Here you go boys, a safe place to sleep.”
Jake paused and cast a glance at Simon. Their eyes met for a second before they both ran and jumped onto the bed. “This is wonderful,” Simon said, slipping under the comforter and pulling it close under his chin.
Jake nestled in alongside him, “Perfect.”
Tobias sat the candle on the side table, “Blow this out when you’re ready to sleep.” Rain peppered the roof and lightning flickered outside. The storm was regaining strength, with a second onslaught building in the distance. With each burst of light, the windows on either side of the room lit, revealing the front and backyards.
Tobias moved a chair into the bedroom doorway, put on his hat and robe. He sat facing the room with his staff in hand, “I’ll stand watch whilst you boys sleep.”
“Stand watch?” Jake questioned.
“Yes, the beast will not rest. And, neither shall I.”
Jake looked over to Simon and their eyes met before both laid-back staring up at the roof. The pattering of the rain started to pick up. The sound of the thunder grew closer. A draft swept out the candle. Only a silhouette of Tobias was visible, with the glow from the fireplace behind him.
Jake whispered, “We’re okay, Simon, just sleep and I’ll keep an eye open.”
“Okay,” he said softly, “Jake, we’re going to be alright? Aren’t we? I bet mom is worried, and dad too.”
“They’re looking for us. I can feel it. Now get some rest. We’re okay.”
Simon wasted no time falling asleep. Tobias, like a statue, sat silent. A blinding flash of lightning, followed by a horrendous clap of thunder, jarred Jake back from a near dream state. He glanced out the window and saw the beast standing about a hundred feet away.
He was clearly visible in the flashes of lighting. Each one followed with total darkness surrounding the cabin. With each additional flash, the beast grew closer. His arms hung to his knees, covered in wet course hair, his eyes were a glow and his claws appeared daunting.
Simon was sound asleep. He drew soft deep breaths and laid perfectly still. Tobias never moved. Then a flash and the beast was at the window peering in, gazing directly at Jake only feet away. Long course hair along its neck and down its spine stood up like sharp tines. Jake’s pulse raced, and the shackles of his neck stood up. In the next flash, the beast was gone.
Laying back, Jake stared up, listening to the wind and rain as it pelted the roof. It howled and hissed as it whipped about the corners of the cabin. Then a creek on the floor. Jake sat up. Tobias sat frozen. Another sound like a footstep in the dark. With a flash of light from the window, Jake saw the tines of the beast alongside Simon. The storm ragged outside with a relentless furry.
A jolt of the bed shook Jake to his very essence. His eyes wide, he looked at Tobias, who sat like a statue at the door. The beast was under the bed. The low rumble of a growl and another bump lifted the bed. The bed posts hit the floor with a loud knock. Jake felt the shape of the beast as it slid under him. He watched as Simon slowly rose and fell, undisturbed as the beast passed beneath him.
In the quiet of the room, the panting of the beast was clearly audible. The stench of its breath, disgusting. Jake laid frozen in fear. He gently pulled down the comforter to peer over. Tobias was gone. They were alone. From under the bed, the claw of the beast reached up. Jake cut his eyes over to watch as it rose and slowly moved toward him.
In the next instant, the doors of the armoire burst open. Tobias stood inside with his staff extended, elevating the bed. He raised it toward the roof, leaving the beast exposed.
“What’s happening!” Simon cried sitting up in the bed.
Jake threw his arms around his brother and held him tight, “We’re going to be okay.”
The roof and walls of the cabin began to disintegrate into dust. A blast of wind swept it away. The sky cleared and it was morning. The orange glow of the sunrise crested the horizon as Jake and Simon woke to the sound of a helicopter above. Their night shirts gone and in their dry clothes. They laid in tall damp grass in the daylight. A man wearing only a pair of jeans crumpled and unconscious in a fetal position next to them.
“Is everyone okay down there?” a man shouted through a megaphone from the helicopter.
Another man dangling on a rescue ladder just overhead yelled back, “They seem fine, and it looks like their father’s with them.”
Copyright © 2023 by Chandler Wilson