Growing up around here, we heard all the stories. To us, they were tall-tales – passed down through the generations around campfires and told in the dark with a flashlight held under your chin. They weren’t real. I heard so many variations on what was hiding in the woods. In some stories, it was a monster comparable to the abominable snowman. In others, it was a witch brewing stray children in her cauldron. The lesson was the same in each one, though – don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into the woods in the morning or night. Don’t go into the woods with friends. Don’t go into the woods, even a toe over the tree line. We should’ve listened, in hindsight. If I could go back, I’d turn us all around and take us back home. I’d tell Billy he was stupid. I’d take Marla to the movies instead. In hindsight, I wouldn’t come back home, back to the town, back to bed. I would just stay there.
It was the summer of 1972. At the time, I was sixteen. I had a full set of head-gear braces that made me drool all the time. My momma would put a handkerchief in my back pocket before I ran out of the door so I could wipe my chin. As you can imagine, that head-gear didn’t exactly make me popular. I pretended the nicknames didn’t bother me, but they did. I wanted to fit in. That’s how I ended up with Billy and Marla and Lukas – the neighborhood kids. We all lived in the same little cul-de-sac. They knew me before the head-gear, but they still joined in with the other kids when it came time to taunt me. After school, they’d come ride bikes with me, though. I guess their version of “fitting in” involved humor at my expense, at least around the other kids.
Anyway, it was the summer my daddy gave me the old truck to fix up. I spent long days working and cussing away until I finally got it up and running. I had plans to ask Marla on a date. She wasn’t the prettiest girl in school, but I liked that about her. I liked the way she clutched her books to her chest and the big glasses she wore. It was endearing. I had no idea if she would’ve accepted my offer to go to the movies, but I felt like it was worth a shot. We had known each other most of our lives, after all. The braces would be gone within the next year, and then I’d have the straightest teeth in the town.
It was a Thursday night in July. The summers were always humid, and mosquitos blanketed the town. I went out that night on my bike because the truck needed gas, and I hadn’t saved up enough chore money. I met up with Billy, Marla, and Lukas at the park, and we started skipping rocks in the pond. It was Billy’s idea. We were all watching the sun go down, and he said, “I’ll bet you twenty dollars none of you will go into the woods tonight.”
I didn’t consider myself one to give in easily, but, when Marla agreed to the bet, I knew I was going into the woods that night. Lukas was a little wary, considering the stories we’d heard, but we convinced him to join us. We all agreed to sneak out at midnight, long after everyone had been tucked in to bed, and meet back at the park. I half-expected no one else to show up. I don’t even know if Billy had twenty dollars. Looking back, he probably didn’t.
I swear time stood still after everyone went to bed. I stared at the ceiling, counting the grooves, trying not to think about the stories I’d been told. I thought about backing out myself, to be quite honest. If I had, I’m sure none of them would’ve gone through with the plan. It would’ve been another reason to tease me, but Marla and Billy would still be alive. They’d be old, like me. Maybe Marla and I would’ve settled down together after high school – started our own little family, passed down our own versions of scary stories about the woods on the far side of town.
I walked past my sister’s room, and I wished her “goodnight” even though she had been asleep for hours. I made my way down the stairs, past my parent’s room, and out the back door – quiet as a mouse. Once I was outside, I grabbed my bike and started pedaling as fast as I could, hoping to avoid getting caught. I was out of breath when I made it to the park. Billy and Marla were already there. Lukas rode in shortly after me. No one wanted to say it, but we were all a little nervous.
We rode our bikes in silence through the backside of town, trying to avoid being seen by the police or anyone else who would tell our parents we were out way past curfew. I remember Marla looking back at me and smiling. A smile from a girl would’ve been more than enough to make me go into the woods ten times over at that point in my life. It seemed like the only thing that mattered, and, in a way, the only way to get everyone to quit teasing me about my braces. This was my chance to prove myself, once and for all.
When we got to the edge of the woods, Billy set out the rules. We had to go in together on foot, no bikes allowed. We were going to walk as far as in as we needed to until we couldn’t see the line of trees at the opening, sit down together, and wait one hour. Billy had brought his watch, so he could keep track of the time for us. Once the hour had passed, we were going to walk back to our bikes, and he was going to give us twenty dollars to split amongst the three of us. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to put gas in the truck and maybe take Marla out for a ride.
We walked in, sat down, and Billy pulled out some cigarettes he had stolen from his momma’s purse. He offered me one, but I declined. Marla took one, and I watched her drag it slowly and try to hide the cough in her throat. Billy smoked three, back-to-back. Lukas took a few hits off one, but he put it out when he thought we weren’t looking. None of us were talking. I remember looking over at Billy and seeing him start to fidget. He was just as scared as the rest of us, but he was doing his best to hide it.
We were in there for about thirty minutes when we heard the leaves start to rustle, like someone was walking on them – that’s when Lukas took off. Billy called him a chicken, but he didn’t look back. I grabbed Marla’s hand, but she seemed calm. The rustling got closer, and Billy swore it was just the wind. I squeezed her hand tighter, but she looked over at me and grinned.
When the rustling got too close, Billy stood up and lit another cigarette. He started walking a little further in, and that’s when the rustling stopped. I don’t remember if he screamed, but he saw something that made him take off running. Marla stood up, still holding my hand, and we all chased after Billy. They got him first, somehow.
It wasn’t a giant tree-monster or a witch snatching up children. The things in the woods were wolves. I remember seeing one streaking through the moonlight, and it had silver hair that gleamed and shimmered when it moved. It was almost beautiful. There must’ve been about six or seven of them, and we were surrounded. Billy went down first. I could hear him crying and wailing, but the adrenaline took over and I yanked Marla away from him. We ran, hand-in-hand, in the opposite direction of Billy, deeper into the woods.
When one of them grabbed Marla’s foot, she let me go. It dragged her off, and she lost her glasses when her face hit the ground. I grabbed them. I still have them, to this day, tucked away in a box in my closet. I guess with Billy and Marla down, the wolves had enough on their plate. I kept running and turning and winding through those damn woods, too scared to look back.
I came out at the opening, a few yards away from all our bikes. I grabbed mine and took off, yelling for help the whole way. I made it all the way home, into my parent’s room, and I turned on the lights. They woke up, and I started wailing about Billy and Marla and the woods. My daddy called 9/11. My momma sat me at the kitchen table and gave me a glass of milk. I couldn’t drink it. It kept sputtering out of my mouth while I cried and moaned. My sister woke up from the commotion and came downstairs, but they sent her back to bed.
I stayed up the rest of the night while the policemen searched the woods. They found what was left of Billy and Marla. They visited Lukas the next morning, and he corroborated the story. Turns out, pretty much all the grown-ups knew it was wolves in the woods all along, they just wanted to scare us kids so we wouldn’t go snooping around.
They held the funeral a few days later. I sat in the back pew with Lukas. He kept looking over at me, apologizing for leaving us there. He said he really thought it was a witch coming for us. He thought if he left, we’d all go with him. It was a real tragedy. Marla’s parents split up a few months later. Billy’s parents packed up and left town. My parents were just happy to have me alive, but there was a little unspoken jealousy in the air. Lukas and I survived. Not to sound depressing, but people probably would’ve rather had Billy and Marla alive to tell the tale, not us.
School was rough that year. I gained the popularity I wanted – everyone asked me questions about what happened. Some kids spread rumors that I had killed Billy and Marla, even though the whole town knew it was the wolves. I got my braces off, but, without Marla, there was no one I wanted to impress anymore.
I learned about survivor’s guilt in college. I guess that’s what I was suffering from, maybe still am. There are nights, more than I’d like to admit, where I wonder if it would’ve been better if I had stayed there, let myself get eaten. Maybe they would’ve gotten off of Marla and came onto me. Maybe she would’ve gotten out. Life’s funny like that, I suppose. I moved away, understandably so. Stuff like that, watching your friends get eaten by wolves, it stays with you, buries itself in you. Sometimes, I think about going back. Surely those wolves are dead by now, probably killed off by vengeful hunters. But maybe they aren’t. Maybe, if I went back, I could go in and meet the fate I should’ve met when I was sixteen. Maybe cheating death isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.