A Thing Greatly Feared, Chapter 2

Maine Mountains

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“You’re gonna what?

Hank was standing in his brother Darrell’s kitchen that evening, telling him about the day’s main event.

“I think you heard me,” said Hank.

“Yeah, I did, but … are you sure you wanna do that?”

“I know it seems kinda dangerous, but I think he’s old enough to go up there, and he has enough experience– ”

“I’m not talking about him.”

Hank thought about feigning surprise, but he knew that his brother wouldn’t buy it. Instead he stood silent, motionless.

“I’m not concerned about Wade as long as you’re with him,” said Darrell. “It’s you, Hank. You’ve never been back, have you, since then?”

“I … I’ve wandered close a few times, but no, I’ve never actually been back there since.”

“You didn’t figure you’d lose that race today, did you?”

Hank smirked. “No, I didn’t. I’ve hiked those trails to Sandy’s Peak a million times, it seems like, and he even picked what I consider to be the hardest one. But it wasn’t like I got cocky and let up; the kid’s just turnin’ into a man.”

“So you’re okay with going up there, then?”

The memories again, flashing, darting, through his mind: a horrible scent battering his nose, teeth like spikes staring him down. And the eyes.

“Well, I don’t know if I’d say ‘okay’ with it; more like willin’ to do it. And maybe it’s just time, you know? Been almost twenty years.”

“It’d be a big step for you if you did it; I’d be proud of you for even trying, but I just wanna make sure you can handle it.”

“Oh, I think I’m all set.”

“Alright. So when you guys going, next Saturday?”

“Yeah, as long as his boss lets him off for the day.”

“I think his boss can swing it.”

“Good. And as compensation for losing his employee for the day, I promise him I’ll never wager on anything ever again.”

“Well, that’s big of you, but I’m sure you’re doing that more for your sake than for mine.”

“You bet.”

* * *

Next Saturday dawned bright and fair, a sweet morning in late May. Hank and Wade loaded up the old truck and set off down the narrow, winding road to the Upper Basin. It would take a while to get there – it was close by, but the going was rough. Wade didn’t mind, though; most of the route was new to him. As much as his father let him do – camping and hiking and all, for miles around Foster’s Glen – Darrell had ruled the Upper Basin off-limits, because of Hank’s experience there, unless Hank took him, and Darrell had been sure that Hank would never want to go back. The current situation hadn’t disproven that belief; Hank always made good on his word, and that’s the only reason he was going. At least, that’s what Darrell believed.

* * *

“So how’s school goin’?” said Hank as they rumbled down the road, almost halfway there. “Got any big projects you’re workin’ on?”

“Yeah, Miss Kremshaw assigned us a final research paper Wednesday; got two weeks to do it.”

“Now she’s your – don’t tell me – history teacher? From England?”

“Like you don’t know.”

Hank assumed a “whaddaya mean?” expression. Wade looked at him with mock disgust. “Oh, please, Unc. Don’t even try to pretend you don’t like her.”

Hank grinned out his window. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. I barely know her.”

“You might not know her, but you know what she looks like; I’ve seen you gawkin’ at her down at the diner.”

“What are you, spyin’ on me?”

“I’m not spyin’. I was sittin’ right beside you.”

“Well … it was kinda rude of you to not introduce me to one of your teachers when you had the chance. I like to keep tabs on your education, you know.”

“Oh, please. You like to keep tabs on her, you mean – mailin’ address, phone number, favorite color.”

“Alright, alright. Stop changin’ the subject. Tell me about this paper she assigned you.”

“It’s kind of a doozy: ten-pager, gotta have somethin’ to do with local history – an’ there ain’t much of that.”

“Oh, come on; yeah, there is. It’s a small town, but it’s got a long history – loggin’, sawmills, railroad, farmin’.”

“Yeah, I know. But it’s the typical stuff, you know? It’s what the teacher will expect. I wanna do somethin’ different. Besides, the other kids were scoopin’ up the usual topics pretty quick. There might be none of that stuff left, even if I wanted to do it.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. I guess you’ll hafta do some lookin’ around.”

“I was hopin’ you might have a good idea.”

“Me? Nah, I’m pretty much like everyone else around here.”

“But you’ve hiked and camped these woods more than anyone else; I know you know a lot about ’em.”

“Well, I know what they’re like now, but the history … I don’t know any more about that than what any book in the library could tell you.”

“Well … .” Should I ask him? thought Wade.

Don’t ask me, thought Hank. He stared out the window, hoping. Another moment passed.

“Nevermind,” said Wade. “I’ll just hafta take a gander around the library.”

“Yeah,” said Hank, releasing an imperceptible sigh of relief. “Be creative.”

* * *

A short time later they arrived at their starting point – a flat patch of weeds and scrub just off the road – hefted their packs on, and plunged into thickets just beyond the truck. Hank drew in a deep breath and let it out – slowly, so Wade wouldn’t notice – as he took his first steps forward, wary of every spot hidden from his view, fearful that every bush and tree held behind it his nightmare in the flesh. Soon he realized that he’d somehow positioned himself behind and somewhat to the side of his nephew, and he felt his face flush with warmth – shame – for using Wade as a shield, unintentional though it was. He stepped up beside Wade.

“So whaddaya think so far, Junior?”

“I like it. But I’ll like it more when we see some action.”

A flare of anger went off inside Hank: How dare you make fun of what I went through! You have no idea—

“There are supposed to be some kick-ass slopes up here,” Wade went on. “And a few caves, even.” Then he saw the tension in his uncle’s face and halted. “Uncle Hank, you alright?”

Hank swallowed, simultaneously pushing back the anger and chastising himself for jumping the gun. “Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s just keep headin’ straight.”

Watch yourself, Hank. You’re jumpy as hell.

“But do me a favor: keep the cussin’ to yourself; if your dad ever asks, I wanna be able to tell him I never heard you talk like that.”

* * *

The Upper Basin was a paradise in the midst of hiker heaven: tree-clad slopes, narrow ravines running alongside high ridges, spring-fed streams trickling down from their sources higher up. And something else. Something that set it apart from all other places save a few. “Solitude” didn’t quite describe it; it was more a virgin wholesomeness, the sense that Man was unworthy of being there, but that it was made for him nonetheless; and that being there, though feeling like an unjust violation, also seemed a perfect fit, like being home. Hank began to view it that way his first time there, when he was only a boy tagging along with his dad, and the belief had intensified over the years since. The attack had been a blight on that beautiful perception, a stain he’d worked hard to erase, and the handful of hours there with Wade were shaping up as the final polish that would return the full luster. He even saw the same wonder blossoming in his nephew, this day, before his very eyes.

“Come on, Junior,” said Hank as he reached out to pull Wade up over the last lip of a precipice they’d just freehanded. Wade grabbed ahold, Hank pulled; they ended up side by side on the ground above, gasping for air.

“What a climb,” said Wade after a minute.

“It ain’t a cakewalk, is it?”

“No, no it’s not.”

“But you did alright, nephew; not bad at all.”

“Thanks.”

They lie quiet for another minute; their breathing returned to normal, and Wade was the first to get up.

“Come on, Unc. I don’t wanna make you look bad twice in a row.”

Hank began to lift himself from the ground. “Boy, you better remember who it was pulled you up just now.” He nodded towards the precipice.

“You know I would’ve made it on my own.”

“Probably.” Hank was on his feet now. “But you still would’ve been second.”

Wade scoffed playfully. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“Way to change the subject, nephew. Can’t take the heat, get outta the kitchen.”

“Please.”

“That’s all I’m saying. I’m not thinking any less of you; you’re still good … just not as good as me.”

Wade shook his head. Hank laughed. “No clever comeback this time? It’s alright. You can still dream; I can’t take that away from you.”

Hank continued laughing, and Wade tried hard not to.

Kitch.

Hank stopped short, looked over his shoulder, then turned slowly, scanning around.

“What is it?”

“Did you hear that?”

A humorless grin spread across Wade’s face. “Oh, I get it. This is where you make your next Wade joke: ‘That’s the sound of me winning.’ Got it.”

“No. No, I’m not playing around. I really heard something.”

Wade realized he was serious … but probably just seriously paranoid. “We’re alright, Unc. I haven’t seen any sign around.” He hesitated to include the word “bear.”

“Yeah. You’re right.” Hank resumed walking, still searching the bushes all around. “Probably just a squirrel.”

“Or a bird. Hey, maybe we’ll get lucky and spot a deer.”

The shadow that had suddenly clouded Hank’s day now began to dissipate. Cool it, he told himself. You’re in the woods; there’s all kinds of little critters around.

Soon after they stopped to eat and drink, by which time Hank had nearly forgotten the matter. Then they went on, for several more hours, hiking, eating, giving each other a hard time. Hank had chosen a circuitous route, and the onset of dusk found them coming down the foot of the last slope, a mere 10 minutes from the truck and with just enough energy left to reach it.

“Well I gotta tell you, Junior, you’ve gotten to be pretty good.”

“I learned from the best.”

“I appreciate that.”

“I wasn’t talkin’ ’bout you.”

“Get outta here!” said Hank as he gave Wade a shove.

“I kill myself sometimes,” said Wade, laughing.

“I’m glad you’re impressed with yourself.”

They came down through the last of the trees and onto level ground, crossed a short stretch of puckerbrush and reached the truck in the gathering darkness. Wade unburdened himself of his gear, set it in the back of the truck and climbed into the cab; he shut the door and released a heavy sigh.

Hank was doing the same thing, only a few moments behind. He then turned away from the truck to take one last look at the dim landscape before hopping in, and two eyes caught his own: across the road, in the bushes; two slanted, orange eyes. Hank stiffened, then began to quiver. Those orange eyes didn’t blink, didn’t even sway; they seemed, in fact, to be challenging him: Go ahead, tell somebody about me … I dare you.

A few seconds later they disappeared, and Hank heard only the faintest rustle of movement, or so he fancied. He stared into the gloom a few moments more, motionless.

“You comin’, Unc?”

Hank’s head twitched at the sound of his nephew’s voice, and at last he turned, opened his door and got into the truck.

Thank God for redheads.

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