With that he sank back, spent and fading. I told him I loved him. And then he seemed to disappear into himself, his gaze drifting past me to the sky, bristling now with stars.
A moment later Ricky crashed out of the underbrush. He saw the old man limp in my arms and fell back a step. “Oh man. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands, and as he babbled about finding a pulse and calling the cops and did you see anything in the woods, the strangest feeling came over me. I let go of my grandfather’s body and stood up, every nerve ending tingling with an instinct I didn’t know I had. There was something in the woods, all right—I could feel it.
There was no moon and no movement in the underbrush but our own, and yet somehow I knew just when to raise my flashlight and just where to aim it, and for an instant in that narrow cut of light I saw a face that seemed to have been transplanted directly from the nightmares of my childhood. It stared back with eyes that swam in dark liquid, furrowed trenches of carbon-black flesh loose on its hunched frame, its mouth hinged open grotesquely so that a mass of long eel-like tongues could wriggle out. I shouted something and then it twisted and was gone, shaking the brush and drawing Ricky’s attention. He raised his .22 and fired, pap-pap-pap-pap, saying, “What was that? What the hell was that?” But he hadn’t seen it and I couldn’t speak to tell him, frozen in place as I was, my dying flashlight flickering over the blank woods. And then I must’ve blacked out because he was saying Jacob, Jake, hey Ed areyouokayorwhat, and that’s the last thing I remember.
I spent the months following my grandfather’s death cycling through a purgatory of beige waiting rooms and anonymous offices, analyzed and interviewed, talked about just out of earshot, nodding when spoken to, repeating myself, the object of a thousand pitying glances and knitted brows. My parents treated me like a breakable heirloom, afraid to fight or fret in front of me lest I shatter.
I was plagued by wake-up-screaming nightmares so bad that I had to wear a mouth guard to keep from grinding my teeth into nubs as I slept. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing it—that tentacle-mouth horror in the woods. I was convinced it had killed my grandfather and that it would soon return for me. Sometimes that sick panicky feeling would flood over me like it did that night and I’d be sure that nearby, lurking in a stand of dark trees, beyond the next car in a parking lot, behind the garage where I kept my bike, it was waiting.
My solution was to stop leaving the house. For weeks I refused even to venture into the driveway to collect the morning paper. I slept in a tangle of blankets on the laundry room floor, the only part of the house with no windows and also a door that locked from the inside. That’s where I spent the day of my grandfather’s funeral, sitting on the dryer with my laptop, trying to lose myself in online games.
I blamed myself for what happened. If only I’d believed him was my endless refrain. But I hadn’t believed him, and neither had anyone else, and now I knew how he must’ve felt because no one believed me, either. My version of events sounded perfectly rational until I was forced to say the words aloud, and then it sounded insane, particularly on the day I had to say them to the police officer who came to our house. I told him everything that had happened, even about the creature, as he sat nodding across the kitchen table, writing nothing in his spiral notebook. When I finished all he said was, “Great, thanks,” and then turned to my parents and asked if I’d “been to see anyone.” As if I wouldn’t know what that meant. I told him I had another statement to make and then held up my middle finger and walked out.
My parents yelled at me for the first time in weeks. It was kind of a relief, actually—that old sweet sound. I yelled some ugly things back. That they were glad Grandpa Portman was dead. That I was the only one who’d really loved him.
The cop and my parents talked in the driveway for a while, and then the cop drove off only to come back an hour later with a man who introduced himself as a sketch artist. He’d brought a big drawing pad and asked me to describe the creature again, and as I did he sketched it, stopping occasionally to ask for clarifications.
“How many eyes did it have?”
“Gotcha,” he said, as if monsters were a perfectly normal thing for a police sketch artist to be drawing.
As an attempt to placate me, it was pretty transparent. The biggest giveaway was when he tried to give me the finished sketch.
“Don’t you need this for your files or something?” I asked him.
He exchanged raised eyebrows with the cop. “Of course. What was I thinking?”
It was totally insulting.
Even my best and only friend Ricky didn’t believe me, and he’d been there. He swore up and down that he hadn’t seen any creature in the woods that night—even though I’d shined my flashlight right at it—which is just what he told the cops. He’d heard barking, though. We both had. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the police concluded that a pack of feral dogs had killed my grandfather. Apparently they’d been spotted elsewhere and had taken bites out of a woman who’d been walking in Century Woods the week before. All at night, mind you. “Which is exactly when the creatures are hardest to see!” I said. But Ricky just shook his head and muttered something about me needing a “brain-shrinker.”
“You mean head-shrinker,” I replied, “and thanks a lot. It’s great to have such supportive friends.” We were sitting on my roof deck watching the sun set over the Gulf, Ricky coiled like a spring in an unreasonably expensive Adirondack chair my parents had brought back from a trip to Amish country, his legs folded beneath him and arms crossed tight, chain-smoking cigarettes with a kind of grim determination. He always seemed vaguely uncomfortable at my house, but I could tell by the way his eyes slid off me whenever he looked in my direction that now it wasn’t my parents’ wealth that was making him uneasy, but me.
“Whatever, I’m just being straight with you,” he said. “Keep talking about monsters and they’re gonna put you away. Then you really will be Special Ed.”
“Don’t call me that.”
He flicked away his cigarette and spat a huge glistening wad over the railing.
“Were you just smoking and chewing tobacco at the same time?”
“What are you, my mom?”
“Do I look like I blow truckers for food stamps?”