AN ALARM CLOCK WENT OFF and Joey slammed the snooze button. He rolled over and watched as the sun peeked over the distant trees of the forest, illuminating the golden grass in the field below. Sitting up, he thought about his father’s warning.
Watchers Woods had always been a forbidden place. Through the years, the stories about why it was dangerous changed. When he was young, it was simple boogie man stuff, progressing over the years to kidnappers, murderers, and pedophiles.
Getting up, he jumped in the shower and got dressed for school. Before leaving, he turned to his nightstand, and glanced at his new gift. After staring at the box for a while, he took a deep breath and opened it. Two 586 Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolvers sat in the box.
He pulled the guns out, one in each hand. He pushed the cylinder over then flicked his wrist, locking it back in. He held them tight in his hand and thought about what kind of recoil they might have.
Then, he noticed a black bag at the bottom of the box and pulled it out. Inside the bag were several black straps with Velcro weaved in and around two holsters.
He stood, put his arms through the straps, and clipped the front straps together over his chest. The holsters fit high on his sides, just below his ribs. He grabbed the guns, slid them into the holsters, and looked at his closet door mirror.
He frowned at the reflection, pushed the mirrored slider across, and pulled his jacket out from the closet. Putting the jacket on, he closed the closet and looked at his reflection again. He moved from side to side, happy to see the jacket almost completely hid the bumps his guns created.
Tiptoeing down the stairs, he listened for his parents—silence. He looked at their bedroom door. It was early, but he and his parents were early risers. When he was younger, he always thought his dad battled the sun to see who could get up first. Maybe last night got the better of him. Joey skipped down the rest of the stairs.
He passed through the living room, still reeking of the beer and dips from the party, and left out the front door.
The smell of oil and soil hit his nose as he stepped onto the dirt driveway. Patches of weeds collected around his dad’s two project vehicles. The grass field beyond the broken down vehicles swayed in the morning wind, kicking up bits of dust and seeds that floated into the Watchers Woods beyond.
Eyeing the gloomy trees, he strained to make out the details. It looked like any other forest he and his friends had been in . . . but it wasn’t. This was the forbidden forest. The Preston Six had played games around the woods; running in and out of the forest’s edge before hearing a cricket or bird chirp, spooking them away. He stared at the distant, dark tree line, summoning courage from within.
He slipped his right hand into his jacket and felt a polished grip. He was only missing one thing, Bull.
“Well, speak of the devil,” Joey said, as his chocolate Lab came running from under the front porch. He smiled and got down on one knee to greet him. Bull’s body shook in excitement as he tried to pet his head.
“It’s the first day of school.” He glanced back at the edge of the dark forest. “Think we have time for a walk?”
“Shh,” he said and glanced up at the second-story window.
He followed the trodden path leading to the edge of the forest, squinting into the sunrays shooting over the top of the trees. A cool breeze swept over the field and he watched the grass sway. Holding out his hands, he let the overgrown grass graze his palms. When they reached the edge of the clearance, he stopped and stared at the forest, building up nerve.
Joey kicked the ground and ran his hand through his hair. Bull sat down and gazed up at him, cocking his head.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t ya?”
Bull had seen him do this every time they got to the clearing, only to turn back. He looked at his house, thinking of sizzling bacon with eggs and an English muffin. No, he had to see what was in Watchers Woods.
“Let’s do this,” he said.
Bull wagged his tail.
As he breached the woodlands, he crunched his head and shoulders together, tensing his body. Keeping a steady pace for over a minute, he finally stopped and relaxed. The thick canopy cast a deep shadow over the forest floor, while the dense trees and foliage made it difficult to see beyond thirty feet. He stepped forward and a fallen branch cracked under his foot. He noticed the lack of other sounds—no birds chirping, no squirrels rustling about, no leaves swishing.
Bull nudged him with his nose.
“Okay, let’s keep going. Just keep an eye out.”
He followed his dog deeper into the forest, trying not to blink, afraid to miss a clue. There was nothing but oak trees and bushes.
Hairs rose on Bull’s back. Joey knelt down, placed a hand on his stiff body and focused on the direction the dog faced.
His dog barked and bolted ahead. Joey startled and chased after him.
“Slow down,” Joey yelled, jumping over a fallen tree, struggling to keep him in sight. After a few minutes, he caught up to him sniffing around a small clearing.
“What’s gotten into you?”
He watched Bull slow his methodical path around the fallen trees, sniffing a place and then moving on. Joey studied the fallen trees. They lined up, as if someone had set them in place. Bull dug on a spot and he moved toward him, trying to pull him back. This was when Bull pulled something free from the soil. He pulled the garbage from his mouth—a cracked, red plastic plate with dirt stuck to the bottom. He shook the dirt loose and tossed it to the ground. Continuing the search, he looked around and saw a row of bushes, almost like a hedge, nearby.
Bull sniffed the thick hedge line, stopped, and stuck his head into it. Then, he barked and pushed through, disappearing from sight.
“Not again,” he muttered and chased after him. The branches scraped his arms as he pushed through the bushes and came into a clearing. “What the hell, Bull?”
The hair on Bull’s back stood up, and he growled at a stone in the center of the circular clearing.
“What is it?” Joey held out a hand and stepped closer. Bull turned toward him, but looked past him, growling. Joey spun around thinking someone would be there.
“Stop it. There’s no one there.” He spoke harsher than he wanted and Bull’s ears lowered.
Joey knelt next to him, patted the back of his neck and looked around the open space.
The trees formed a dome over the circle, but the precision of it looked unnatural. Pacing under the curved canopy, he stopped next to the stone in the center.
The stone jutted from the ground, reaching to the height of his knees. It seemed out of place, as if put there purposely, in the center of the clearing.
He bent over and studied the top of the beige stone. Fingertip-size divots pitted the surface. He rubbed his hand over the rough surface and the stone hummed. Yanking his arm back, he frowned. There was no explanation for the sound, so he stepped back from the stone.
Bull growled at it.
The humming sound grew louder, like a slow rumble growing in speed. A few leafs stacked at the base of the stone shook and tumbled away. He backed up until he hit the shrub line. He turned and pushed through, keeping the shrubs separated long enough for Bull to make it through. After a few seconds, he found a thin spot to see through. Everything in him told him to run, get away from the stone, listen to your dad but he had to know what this was.
He kept his gaze on the stone.
Joey blinked and a man dressed in all black was suddenly standing in the circle. Stumbling backward, Joey barely kept himself from falling. The man turned in his direction and he froze, hoping the man didn’t see him. Bull matched his stillness.
Behind the man, a small silver animal stepped away from the stone. The creature sniffed the air, a dagger hanging from its belt. It bared its pointy teeth. Joey swallowed hard and felt his hands shaking. He breathed hard through his mouth and felt his whole body starting to shake from the fear.
The creature took a step toward him and sniffed the air, looking around and blinking his large yellow eyes. It placed a slender hand on its dagger.
Joey’s body was screaming for him to run, but he felt as if he was stuck to the ground. He didn’t even want to move his arm. Everything told him not to let this man and his silver companion know he was there, but they were moving closer. It wouldn’t be long before something broke free, either Bull or they would finally see his silhouette among the foliage.
“You got something?” the man asked.
“Yes,” the thing hissed out. “They’re here.”
“You sure?” the man sighed and lifted a tablet to his face. “You’ve been wrong before.”
“One is close,” the creature slurred. It inhaled again, walking toward Joey. Its yellow eyes passed over the hedge.
He had to use all his will to move his leg back a half step, then the next. Slow and easy, he told himself.
The silver creature sniffed and moved closer. Its slender fingers grasped the dagger at its side and pulled it out of its sheath. The dirt stirred under its bare feet as it took a few steps, tasting the air with each inhale.
A crow cawed in the sky and the silver thing turned to the bird.
Joey looked at Bull and his brown eyes stared back at him. He wanted to project a single thought into his dog’s brain. Run!
He turned, dug his foot into the dead leaves, and took off toward home. Bull bolted ahead in a second. The creature behind him hissed and he heard a rustling of leaves.
Don’t look back.
He ran as fast as he could, jumping over rocks and fallen trees. Water splashed as he stomped through the shallow creek.
After a few minutes, the muscles in his legs balked at the assault. A few minutes more and he spotted the light shining over the clearance. He kept pace and ran out of the forest. Half way through the field, he slowed and looked back.
He walked sideways, expecting the silver creature to leap from the shadows of the forest. After a few sidesteps, he jogged the rest of the way his house. Reaching the front porch, he stopped and paced, staring at the forest in the distance.
Bull sat at the bottom of the stairs and with his head cocked to the side, watched his master walk back and forth.
“You saw that, right?”
The dog stood and wagged his tale. Joey kept glancing at the forest. It had to be real . . . but how could it? People don’t appear out of nowhere and small silver creatures definitely do not exist. It had to be a trick of his mind.
He glanced up at the second window and smelled the air for his mom’s morning cooking but only came up with the smell of dirt and pollen kicked up from the wind. They had to be sleeping. He knew well enough not to disturb his dad from sleep, let alone to tell him he just gone and done the very thing he told him not to do.
Joey jogged into the house. In a few minutes, he came back out without the guns. He had to tell his friends what happened. He needed someone to laugh at him and tell him he was crazy.
“Bull, get under the house porch, okay?” He glanced back at the forest and sighed. “Dad will protect you from anything, but you better not go to that forest again.” He pointed to the forest. “No.”
His dog eyes gleamed with intelligence but not enough to show him he had any clue what he was talking about.
“Go on,” Joey pointed to the house and Bull trotted under the front porch.
Looking at the clock on his phone, he knew he was going to be late for school if he didn’t move. He jumped on his old bike and pedaled hard down the driveway.
THE BACK TIRE KICKED UP puffs of dust from the driveway as he picked up speed. Relaxing his grip on the handlebars, he slowed his pace, sat on the seat and turned onto the dirt road. It was a four-mile ride to school. He wanted to push it, but after the run back to his house, he had to pace himself.
Under most circumstances, he enjoyed the ride to school. Even as every other kid his age, or younger, seemed to have a car to drive to school, he didn’t mind the time traveling down the unkempt dirt road. However, this morning he dared glances at the forest to his right, expecting things to appear among the yellow trees. Nothing did. He stopped looking once he got to Main Street and the dirt road changed to asphalt.
The school was a block away and the street was crowded with cars, yellow buses, and kids bustling around the drop-off zones. The first day of school was always more chaotic than usual, as parents jostled for positions at the Kiss-n-Go.
After crossing the street, he dodged a couple of kids, and then slid his front tire into the bike rack. The younger kids stared at him. Being eighteen and riding a bike to school was bad, but doing so on a bike that looked like he had pulled it from a dumpster made it embarrassing. He slapped the cable around his front tire, fastening it to the rack.
The school held grades from kindergarten to twelfth; at full capacity, it housed no more than two hundred students. He watched the nervous faces of kids as their parents sent them on their way. They must be thinking about being beat up, picked on, trashed-canned, or many other first-day fears. As a senior, he didn’t have any of these first-day anxieties.
Joey scanned the nearby faces, looking for the Six. He needed to tell someone what he saw. Most of the kids were piling into the front doors. Had the warning bell rung already?
“Joey,” Hank yelled from across the front yard, his large size making him easy to spot. They made their way toward each other. “Been waiting for you. Thought you were going to be late,” he said.
“Well, I have a story for you.” Joey pulled out his cellphone to check the time. “We’ve got a minute to get to class.”
Mrs. Nires didn’t care if he’d seen silver creatures in the forest. She would give him detention if they were one minute late. His after-school plans were forming in his mind and he didn’t want to spend his first day in detention.
The school was a single-story building, and the wood siding’s paint peeled off in large sections, revealing the aging cedar planks. Red flakes clung to the brown shake roof in patches. The cracked concrete steps leading to the front door tilted to the left and the handrail shook loosely as he grasped it.
The double doors stood open to the main hallway of the school. Lockers lined each side of the hall, broken up by the classroom doors. Students bustled in every direction, making last minute decisions in their lockers or speaking a quick word to a friend.
Joey always liked the first day of school—something about the open-ended feeling—as if anything could happen. He nodded to some, and said “hi” to others as he hurried to class.
“Hey, Joey,” the younger classmen said. She positioned herself in front of her friend and clasped her folder over her chest as she gazed at him from under her lashes.
Joey smiled to her and searched for her name. “Hello.” He could see his classroom door behind her, but stayed, not wanting to be rude.
“Ok, well see ya.” The two girls giggled and ran away.
“Day one and you’ve got a harem brewing.” Hank came up beside him, shaking his head.
“They’re just saying hi.”
“Didn’t say hi to me.”
A pretty girl made eye contact with Joey as she strode by. “Hey, Joey.”
“Hey.” He watched her walk away.
Hank gave him an I-told-you-so expression. “You’re just too sexy, Joey Foust.” He batted his eyes at him and Joey jokingly pushed him into the lockers.
Rushing into the class as the bell rung, he spotted his friends sitting in a cluster near the windows. Lucas waved at him and told the kid attempting to sit next to him to move on.
Joey didn’t look at the teacher and quickly took his seat; detention would ruin his plans. Poly sat in front of him and turned to give him smile. Samantha sat next to Poly in her own desk. He took a quick breath and wanted to blurt out everything he’d seen to them right then. He opened his mouth and saw Mrs. Nires rise from her desk.
“Miss, put away that cellphone.” She pointed at Julie.
“Busted,” Lucas whispered to Julie.
She sneered at him and put her phone on her lap.
Joey closed his mouth. Mrs. Nires wouldn’t have allowed the outburst building in him. He swallowed it down and glared at the clock—a few hours until lunch.
The teacher wrote Mrs. Nires in large cursive letters across the dry erase board. She gave the morning orientation and discussed how it was going to be a great year. For the next two hours, she laid out the curriculum for the year. Once finished, she had them get out their U.S. history books and read about what had led up to the civil war.
He wasn’t much of a student—nothing like Julie—but he usually had a deep curiosity of the past.
Staring at the words on the page, he pretended to read, but all he thought of was yellow eyes. It had to be real. Would his friends even believe such a wild story?
He watched the second hand move around the clock. Closing the history book and rubbing his eyes, his stomach growled—two minutes until lunchtime. He wanted to get to the cafeteria first and claim their table. Each year, some under classmen would mistakenly sit at their table. He needed that table if he was going to have any privacy with his friends.
The bell rang for lunch and he hurried to the cafeteria, not waiting for anyone. First in line for the taco/pizza cart, he bought two slices of pizza and a soda, taking his food to their usual table. It was the ideal corner spot with a view of both the outside and the cafeteria. Preston Six was carved into a spot on the table. Each of them took a turn carving in a letter or two.
With the first slice down, his stomach felt better. His friends found their way in and sat down with their trays of food or home-packed lunches. He watched Samantha stride across and take a seat near him. They locked eyes and he smiled.
She grinned and covered her mouth with her hand. She glanced at their friends. He didn’t think she told anyone about the kiss.
Lucas talked with Hank as they sat down next to him. Julie and Poly sat next to Samantha as they filled their table. Joey decided to wait and pick his moment.
“Did you guys know the school went digital this year?” Julie asked. She smiled and held her cellphone. Not that you would ever catch her without it. It was her spirit animal, and she’d probably die if it was detached from her.
“Yeah, thanks for the update there, Julie. They added a new urinal in the men’s bathroom, but I was saving that groundbreaker for a dull moment.” Lucas leaned back.
“Check this out.” Julie held her phone out for them to see. She leaned and whispered, “I hacked their system last week. I have total control over the bells, intercoms—”
“Can you change my grades?” Hank interrupted. Day one and the poor guy was already worried about his grades.
Joey would make sure Hank got the grades to graduate, even if he and the rest of the six had to write every report for him.
“I’d think they’d notice something like that, but we can have a bit of fun with it. Watch this.” Julie held her phone to her mouth and whispered into it. Joey couldn’t hear the words, but her mischievous look as she pressed the button gave him all sorts of ideas of what she had just done.
The intercom crackled to life and the speaker blurted out in a deep, modulated voice, “Attention. Can a Lucas Pratt please come to the front office? I repeat, Lucas Pratt, to the front office. Your mom is here with a pair of underwear and your anti-diarrhea medication.”
The cafeteria broke out in laughter, many pointing at Lucas.
He stood up and waved his hands toward himself as if saying, “Bring it on.” The laughter slowed to a few chuckles and he sat down.
“Oh, no you didn’t.” Lucas said, leaping across the table for Julie’s phone.
She dodged his grab.
“Come on. You have to show me how to use that.” He shook his head and his eyes twitched. “There are a billion awesome things I could do. You’re just going to waste it.”
“You’d abuse it, and you know it. If you can come up with a written request, I may entertain the idea.” Julie held the phone against her chest and gave Lucas a smug look.
“A written request?” Lucas plopped back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“No, really, can you change my grades?” Hank asked again.
“No, Hank, I can’t.”
“Are you Julie?” A different voice drew Joey’s attention away from their circle. A young man he didn’t recognize—maybe a junior—swept his gaze over the table, and then locked his attention on Julie. “I heard you’re the resident computer queen?”
“Well, I guess my reputation has preceded me.”
He stuffed his hands in his pocket and cocked his head. “I was wondering if maybe you could help me with an app I’ve been working on.”
“She’s busy, pal.” Lucas slid his taco plate to the middle of the table and leaned back in his chair.
The new guy didn’t back down. “I think she can talk for herself, and the name’s Brent.”
Lucas rolled his eyes and mouthed the word “Brent” under his breath. Joey reveled in the banter and leaned back in his chair to see what would unfold. Samantha and Poly raised eyebrows at each other.
“I think I can as well.” Julie scowled at Lucas. “I’d be happy to help you out,” she answered the new guy.
“Thanks, Julie. I’ll hit you up after school and we can trade numbers.” Brent paused and glanced over them, his arrogant gaze passing over Joey and stopping on Lucas. “Next time, just let Julie speak for herself, pal.” He turned and walked away.
Lucas stared at Brent’s back. “Who was that? Some new kid?”
“Must be, I think I would’ve remembered him.” Julie fanned her face with her hand.
“Yeah, well, if you’re into looks and stuff.” Lucas folded his arms.
“Too full of himself. The balls on him to come up to a group like us, and hit on Julie.” Poly appeared annoyed. Julie smiled and looked like she just realized she was hit on.
“Yeah, the nerve.” Lucas looked vindicated as Poly took his side.
“You want me to rough him up for you, Lucas?” Hank asked sarcastically.
“Actually, I would.”
Hank laughed. “It’ll be okay, buddy.” Then his attention jerked to Joey. “Oh yeah, Joey has a story for us.”
Joey’s eyes went wide. He took a deep breath and looked at his friends. The more he ran it through his head, the more difficult it was to say aloud without sounding insane. “Something happened this morning when I took Bull for a walk,” he started, and then continued to tell them everything that happened.
When he finished, Lucas’s mouth hung open. “You’re messing with us right? Freaking Gollum is in Watchers Woods. For real?” he asked with skepticism
“There must be an explanation,” Julie said, examining the tater tot in her fingers. “The bean dip looked pretty sketchy last night; did you have a bunch of that?”
“It wasn’t the bean dip. I think that thing was after me—after us. It said, ‘They’re here, one is close.’”
“This is strangely familiar to when you told us about going through Watchers Woods and seeing witches,” Lucas said.
Joey had forgotten about that story. “No, I was like eight when I told you guys that. This time it’s for real.”
“What about when you told us you thought your dad was an alien?” Lucas asked.
Joey sighed. “Can you bring up a story where my age is in the double digits?”
Lucas put his hands behind his head and smiled.
“I’ve been through Watchers Woods several times and I’ve never seen anything,” Hank said. “I’ve heard of vagrants going through the woods though.”
“Maybe it was some homeless guy and his pigment-challenged pigmy friend,” Lucas hypothesized.
Joey breathed in deep breath and blew it out through his nose. “It wasn’t some homeless guy.”
“I believe you,” Poly said.
“Thanks, Poly, but it’s not just the two guys in the forest. Don’t you think our parents are acting weirder?”
They shared uncomfortable glances with each other.
“My dad’s acting stranger than normal,” Hank agreed. “He’s been showing me how to defend myself, like hardcore martial arts stuff.”
“Not sure how that fits in, Hank,” Julie answered.
“Just seemed weird is all,” he said and forked his chicken salad.
Poly leaned forward and motioned with her hand for everyone to do the same. Joey slid his plate aside and leaned forward on the table so he could hear. She brought her backpack onto the table and unzipped the front pouch. Looking around, she slowly pulled out a long knife and set it on the table. There was a collective gasp. Joey could not believe she had a weapon, and at school no less. She would be expelled, if anyone saw.
“What the hell, Poly?” Samantha blurted out.
“Why do you have a knife?” Joey whispered.
“My mom’s been acting strange this summer as well. I hear her talking on the phone with Trip and I think he convinced her to teach me self-defense.” She spun the knife in her hand and slid it back into the backpack.
“With knives at school?” Julie’s mouth hung open and she raised her eyebrows.
“Mom’s amazing with blades,” Poly bragged with a glowing smile. “Who knew?”
Joey stared at Poly’s backpack. “There’s something else.” He hadn’t planned on telling them. “My dad, last night, gave me a birthday present. Two hand guns.” He put his hand on the side of his face, rubbing his temple.
“What’s going on?” Samantha asked.
“You think this has something to do with what you saw in the woods?” Julie asked.
“I don’t know,” Joey said.
“I got it!” Lucas exclaimed. “Last night, Trip said he would never stop looking for us. I bet it’s this guy you saw in Watchers Woods.”
Julie frowned at Lucas. “When did you start to make sense?”
“Hey, I have my moments.”
“Well, what are we going to do about this?” Poly asked, leaning forward on the table.
Joey sighed and looked at Samantha. She’d been quiet since she heard him tell his story. “What do you think, Samantha?”
“I don’t like this. I think there is something bad going on. Maybe we should tell our parents about what Joey saw.”
“What?” Lucas said. “No. All they’d do is freak out and stuff us away in the storm shelters.”
“Lucas is right,” Julie added. “Remember when we were twelve and they got freaked out about some ‘tornado’? We spent the entire day stuffed underground. I checked the weather reports, there wasn’t a chance of a tornado happening on that day.”
Joey remembered it well. His mom wouldn’t stop shaking as she held him. There was not a cloud in the sky, so it hadn’t made sense.
“If we aren’t telling our parents, then what are we going to do?” Samantha asked.
“If this person knows anything about what happened to my dad, I want to find him,” Poly said. “I say we go to this stone tonight. We get our weapons and meet at Fletchers path.”
Fletchers path ran along the edge of Watchers Woods. It would be a good central meeting place. The woods were spooky enough during the day; Joey didn’t like the idea of being there in the dark. If he had his guns loaded, maybe he could protect his friends from that thing. It could be running around the woods right now or waiting for him in his house.
His friends didn’t completely believe him, he saw it in their faces. Except for maybe Poly. If this forest man and his dagger-carrying companion were part of what happened to their parents, then they had to pursue it. He was sick of looking at old newspapers and articles; he wanted to find out what really happened.
“We can tell all our parents we’re staying at Hank’s,” Joey said.
“Fine, but I’m bringing some of the fun to the party tonight,” Lucas said. “You know, just in case this silver thing doesn’t show.”
“I think it’ll show,” Julie said.
“Why’s that?” Lucas asked.
“Joey said it was attracted to scent and your particular odor, carries a long way.”
“Oh, ha-ha,” Lucas rolled his eyes. “I’m going out there to have fun tonight. If we can summon something from the depths of Watchers Woods, great. I’ll bring something to take it down.”
Joey frowned at Lucas. He didn’t know what he meant about bringing something to take it down, but he didn’t think it would be fun if those yellow eyes appeared in the dark.
“Is it cool if I invite Brent?” Julie asked with a poorly contained smile.
“Oh, that’s it.” Lucas flung a tater tot at Julie.
“Ugh, how dare you throw food at me?” Julie played shocked and appalled, but the hint of a smile gave her away.
The bell rung.
“I think we should go right after school.” Joey said in a hurry. Truth was he did not like the idea of being in or near Watchers Woods in the dark.
“Fine, let’s just grab our stuff at our houses and head out.” Lucas said.
“I’ll bring a blanket,” Poly said, smiling at Joey.
“Okay, I’ll just bring my guns because there’s a silver thing with a huge dagger trying to get to us,” Joey said.
Joey shook his head. He was starting to want Lucas to see this creature. Maybe he’d take him right to the circle and have him touch the stone.
The cafeteria filled with the clatter of trays and slapping trashcan lids. Joey stood and tossed his food away. Leaving the cafeteria, a hand touched his arm and he turned to face Samantha.
“I got another present last night,” she said.
“Don’t tell me your mom got you nunchucks or something?”
She laughed. “No, I wish. Nunchucks would be awesome. She got me a car.”
“What? No way. That’s unbelievable.”
“I was thinking, if we have some time tonight, maybe we can skip out on the rest and take a drive to the lake.”
His eyes widened. A trip to the lake, at night, in a car, alone with Samantha . . . that sounded much better than waiting for his friends to decide if he was crazy or not.
“Okay, yeah,” he tried to sound only mildly interested, but failed.
She smiled, reached out and touched his hand. “Well, I’ll see you tonight then.”
JOEY GLANCED BACK AT HIS house. He was far enough away. Pulling each gun from his bag, he holstered them one at a time. The weight of them pulled on the rig over his shoulders.
He almost wished his parents had questioned him about going to Hanks. He hated lying to his parents, and didn’t want to add another layer of sediment to their history of lies. Pulling the bag over his shoulder, he picked up his pace to Fletcher’s Path. It was only a couple miles away from his house.
Approaching the meeting spot, he saw what looked like smoke. It covered a large section of the dirt parking lot and the forest next to it. Joey jogged toward it and heard the roaring motor of a car. The car emerged from the cloud and then turned hard right, sliding sideways.
A person screamed in excitement from inside the car. He squinted and leaned forward, looking at the person driving. Poly had one hand on the wheel and the other sticking out of the window.
The car’s front tires spun and flung gravel and dust into the air, expanding the cloud filling the area. Lucas sat in the passenger seat with a huge grin.
Skidding to a stop, the dust cloud washed over Joey. He coughed and attempted to wave the dust away from his face, as he walked up to the car.
Poly shot out of the car. “That. Was. Awesome.”
Lucas climbed out, reached back and moved the front seat forward. Julie and Samantha stumbled out of the back of the two door Civic. Samantha scowled at Poly as she backed away from the car.
“My turn,” Lucas said.
“Hell, no,” Samantha said. “Poly nearly gave me a heart attack doing that. I can’t imagine what you’d try to do.”
“Hey, guys,” Joey said.
“Hey, Joey, you see my driving?” Poly asked as she skipped over to him.
“Yeah, pretty impressive donuts.”
“I wanted to do some e-brake slides, but Samantha got all motherly on us.”
Samantha crossed her arms. “When you get your own car, Poly, I want to be the first to drive it.”
Poly rolled her eyes so only Joey could see. “You see anything in those woods again?”
“Nah, nothing. But I’m telling you, I think it’s dangerous in there.” He looked at the woods.
“What can stop the six of us?” Poly tapped her fingers on her thigh strap holding a row of thin knives.
Hank walked through the settling dust, carrying a small bag over his shoulder. “Awesome car, Samantha,” Hank called out.
“Thanks,” Samantha replied with a smile.
“Great, we’re all here now.” Lucas pointed to Hank as he approached. “Let’s go check out this circle thingy,” he said. “Oh wait.” Flinging the car door open, he pulled out a bow and quiver. “You’re not the only one with something to shoot. I’ve been practicing all summer with my dad.”
“That’s a cute bow you got there, Lucas,” Poly said.
“Cute?” Lucas studied his bow. “What’d you bring, a bunch of kitchen knives?”
Poly sneered. “These are stainless steel throwing knives and if something gets close. . . .” She unsheathed a dagger from her hip.
“You wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of me with that stuff,” Lucas taunted.
“Well, when one of these silver things comes at us, I’ll leave it up to you to take it out.”
“If it’s real.” Julie looked doubtful. “And how do we even know if they are dangerous? We could be the first people on Earth to respond to an alien visitor. What if we attack and create a war?”
Joey gritted his teeth.
“Let me show you what I’ll do if one of those things comes at me.” Poly slid a knife out from her thigh and threw it. It stuck into a nearby tree.
“Nice, Poly,” Lucas said. He cocked an arrow and pulled back his bowstring, releasing it. The arrow flew into a distant tree. Lucas smiled with a smug face.
“What tree were you aiming for?” Julie asked.
Lucas glanced at Julie and shrugged. “The one next to it, but a tree’s a tree.” He leaned forward and stared at the arrow in the tree.
Joey pulled out his left gun and held it out. Everyone but Lucas watched him. He lined the sights and fired. The sound cracked through the forest and knocked some bark off a tree. Lucas jumped at the sound.
“Holy Christ!” Lucas said, holding his chest. “Don’t just shoot that thing without a warning.”
“You okay?” Poly asked.
“No, I think I need to go back home and change my underwear now.”
“Good thing your mom brought you an extra pair this afternoon.” Joey laughed. “Sorry man. I thought you were looking.” He holstered his gun.
“Freaking ear is ringing now,” Lucas whined, covering his ear.
After the dust settled, they walked into Watchers Woods. Joey kept his right hand near his gun. His friends laughed and joked around as they walked deeper into the woods, but he kept silent, his attention on the edges of visibility.
He led the way toward the stone. On the ground, he spotted a path ahead. It seemed familiar. Was this the path he’d taken this morning?
“I think we should be quiet,” Joey urged.
Samantha nudged up against him. He wished they could have just taken the car ride to the lake and forgotten about the things in Watchers Woods, but he had to find out who the man in black was, and the silver creature with him.
She looked at him. “You think we’re close?”
He looked at those brown eyes. Did he really just bring them all to see what he saw? Panic built as he studied Samantha’s face. He turned back to his friends. Julie typed into her phone, Lucas inspected the string on his bow, Poly raised an eyebrow and tapped her fingers on her knives, and Hank’s head pivoted around as he searched the forest.
“Yes,” Joey said.
He turned back and faced the path ahead. The stone was close and a deep fear had begun to creep in. He thought about taking the path to the right, it led to his house.
“I don’t think we should have come,” Joey spoke out.
“I agree. We don’t get any cell coverage out here.” Julie frowned.
“Oh no,” Lucas protested. “I need to see this circle.”
Joey stared at the path ahead. It would only be a few minutes to get to the circle. “Fine, but let’s be quiet for the rest of the way. That thing could still be around here.” He sighed and walked down the path leading to the stone. He spotted Bull’s paw print over an anthill.
“Hello?” a man’s voice called out.
Joey stopped and looked at the man standing in the middle of the path ahead. He wore a black jacket and jeans. He smiled and waved a hand. Joey adjusted his jacket so the man couldn’t see his guns.
Samantha and Poly stood next to him and Lucas sneered at the man.
“This the guy from the circle?” Lucas whispered.
“No.” Joey didn’t recognize him.
The man approached and stopped within talking distance. “What are you kids doing out here?” His gaze swept over them with a weak smile, plastered on his face.
“We’re hunting rabbits,” Lucas said.
“You look familiar, what’s your name?” The man stared at Joey.
The man winced and looked at the ground. He brushed back his hair, pulled out a tablet from the inside of his jacket, and started typing. Joey spotted it for a split second—a gun, holstered to his side.
With wide eyes, Joey tried to send a warning to his friends. He mouthed the words to Samantha, but she shook her head in question.
“Joey Foust?” the man confirmed.
“Yes. How do you know my last name?”
The man took them in again, passing over each of them. “I don’t suppose your parents told you who I am?”
Joey raised an eyebrow and glanced behind him. This man knew them. This man had a gun. He’d brought his friends to danger. He leaned close to Samantha’s ear and whispered, “Go tell our parents about this. This guy has a gun. Run.”
Samantha looked shocked. She glanced at the man and then to Joey.
He urged her with his eyes to run. “Run,” he said between his teeth.
Samantha turned and ran.
“Wait,” the man called out. “Whoa, Joey, you don’t need to point that at me.”
Joey kept his shaking hand on the gun. The heavy steps of Samantha running faded away. She’d reach the car in a few minutes and get to his parents’ house in a few more. Within ten minutes, his parents should be here. He just needed to keep his gun trained on the man until they did.
The man raised both hands. “I wish I could explain everything to you kids right now, but we don’t have time. They’re moving around us as we speak. We need to get out of here.”
Joey mouth twitched with words. “Who are you?”
“My name is Harris.”