It’s a simmering morning in Boca Raton, Florida. The sky is bluer than the ocean – much bluer, in fact, as the Atlantic is about as green as Dallas Hinton’s gills when it comes to flying – the clouds are whiter than the yolkless fried egg Dallas had for breakfast, and the tarmac is the skillet upon which that egg was fried. Dallas and his uncle Darrel are walking towards the private aircraft together, but only one of them has luggage.
“Thanks for carrying my suitcases, Unc’,” Dallas says, trying to break the silence and distract himself from what he’s walking towards.
“Sure thing, kid. Sorry again that I’m making you fly alone. I just… uh, I don’t…” he sighs. “Well, I’ll be honest with ya, John: I just don’t want to go back to New Jersey. You see, I love myself, buddy, and New Jersey is the land of the self-haters. If you love yourself up there, you’ll just get pushed over and kicked when you’re down, because what right do you have to be happy when everybody else forces themselves to wallow in their own misery?”
“Uh… my name’s Dallas, Uncle Dee.”
“Oh right, John’s the one who died. Whoops!”
Dallas Hinton has only flown once in his twenty-one years on this planet, and that flight was the one that brought him down to Florida in the first place. He wasn’t of legal drinking age at the time and his parents were real sticklers about making Dallas sit through the three hours sober whilst they got blasted and talked shit about his Grandmother, whom they were on their way to visit. Little did Dallas know, his parents secretly made arrangements for them to permanently move in with his Grandma; the only reason Johnny didn’t come along was because he was still mourning over the loss of his friend George. The parentals saw George as a bad influence on their Johnny, and when their Johnny chose to be sad over his dead best friend rather than celebrating life in the present moment with his very alive parents, they decided to issue a little payback in the form of letting Johnny take care of himself. He’s a grown man with grown man feelings of his own, now, the mother Hinton slurred to Dallas on the flight to Boca. He can clearly take care of himself.
But Dallas wasn’t aware of his parents’ little plan, not until the third week of living under the golden umbrella of his loaded Grandmother. That’s not to say he was exactly unhappy about it, either – living in Treeburg got pretty lonely for Dallas when high school ended. Johnny was the only human Dallas really had to talk to, as most of his friend group split off for different corners of the country after graduation, but Johnny was usually busy with his own friends, anyway. Dallas didn’t have a lot of ambition, didn’t really have any plans for his life; so, when the Universe brought him to Florida and let him live on his Grandmother’s dime, he accepted it, just like he accepts everything else that’s handed to him. After a few years of it though, he’s grown tired. The well has dried up, so to speak, but not the well of the Hintons’ money – that well will never bottom out… until it does, anyway. But regardless, it’s the well of Dallas’s patience that’s gone empty, and now he’s off to find a new hole to dig.
When he first came down to Florida, Dallas thought the flight itself was the cause of his massive anxiety, nausea, and inability to sleep through the night, but the flight was only a few hours long. The flight happened over the course of hardly a quarter of a day and then ended; the trauma, however, only got worse as the clock ticked on and the days turned into weeks into months. Dallas now understands it’s his family that’s the problem, and so he’s going back to Jersey by himself to get away for a little while and pay his respects at the grave of his late older brother. Little does the rest of the Hinton clan know, Dallas isn’t planning on coming back, but they can figure that out for themselves after three weeks or so. They’re grown men and women, after all, and they can take care of themselves. Clearly.
The jet, a Citation CJ4 with a shining white body and deep streaks of navy rising from its belly and running from its nose to the base of its tail, is all prepped and ready to go; all it needs is its single passenger. The pilot takes the luggage from Darrel Hinton and climbs into his flying tube, giving the man a moment to pass some knowledge on to his sister’s only living child. He wraps a sweaty arm around Dallas’s shoulder and walks him a few steps away from the airplane.
“Listen buddy, I know you can’t stand flyin’, I know it makes you wet your pants or whatever, but trust me: it ain’t that bad. I was originally plannin’ on comin’ back with ya, as you well know, but… well, plans change. I figure, since I’m down here, I might as well spend some time in my Mom’s mansion with my sister and her boyfriend,” he says, referring to Dallas’s father in the same way he usually does: jealously. “You can drive, right Dally? Well, regardless, my car’ll be waiting at the airport for ya, so just don’t crash it and you’ll be fine. Here, I got somethin’ for ya, too.” With his free hand, Darrel slips a bundle of plastic into Dallas’s pocket – deep into Dallas’s pocket, like, a bit too deep for comfort. “Don’t you open that ‘til you’re up in the air, and don’t let the pilot see it. I don’t trust his face, his hair looks like a mane for God’s sake.”
With that, Uncle Darry abruptly walks away with a skip in his step. Dallas just shakes his head. When he turns around, he sees the pilot standing at the top of the plane’s steps.
“Sorry, my Uncle uh… wanted to say goodbye.”
“It’s all good, Dallas,” the pilot says with an easy smile. “I’ve worked for your family for a long time, I know how they are. You all ready to go?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Dallas says. The pilot ducks inside the jet and Dallas climbs up the stairs, then looks back at Boca Raton one more time before ducking in and leaving it behind him.
The Baked Good
The familiarity of the jet’s cabin sinks in just as soon as Dallas’s eyes adjust to the artificial light. There are six cushy chairs, two of which have a table between them. Each seat has a cup holder to either its right or left, depending on which way they’re facing, and each also comes with a little television screen.
“You can sit anywhere you like,” says the pilot in a friendly tone. He drops a reassuring hand on Dallas’s right shoulder. “I remember flying you and your folks down here a few years ago; I have a feeling the return trip won’t be quite as stressful for ya.”
Dallas smiles. “Yeah, I don’t think so either.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the sketchy gift his uncle deposited there. Contained within the plastic wrapping, which only gets greasier the further Dallas unwraps it, is a single brownie. “Hey, you want this? I’m more of a peanut butter cookie kind of guy.”
The pilot takes the baked good and sniffs it, then breaks it in half and gives half to Dallas. “I think you’ll want to eat this one anyway.”
“Why?” asks Dallas, the only twenty-one-year-old in America who’s yet to feel the loving touch of intoxication.
“Just trust me, buddy,” says the pilot of the private jet. He pats Dallas’s shoulder and disappears into the cockpit, leaving Dallas to explore the cabin.
Dallas doesn’t do much exploring because there’s not much exploring to be done – he’s in the cabin of a private jet; it’s cool and all, but it’s not that big, just a few seats and whatnot – but he does sit down and eat the brownie in two bites. It only serves to remind him why he prefers cookies: brownies just taste weird, this one especially. Oh well. He leans his head back and lets his mind take a swan dive through the reflective surface of the cool pool of unconsciousness; he’s out before the pilot gives his takeoff spiel. If Dallas had managed to stay awake, he’d hear the pilot giggling like a little girl over the intercom, but he didn’t so he doesn’t and the wheels of the jet fold into its navy blue belly just as soon as they leave the ground.
When Dallas opens his eyes, it’s safe to say he’s airborne.
The plane is gliding smoothly through the air at what Dallas assumes is thirty thousand feet. Looking out the window, Dallas can’t tell exactly where they are – or in other words, how long he was asleep for – as all he can see is a deep ocean of puffy white clouds. They could be anywhere right now, and despite that fact, Dallas only feels calm. He’s comfortable, even; zero anxiety, zero stomachache.
On wobbly legs Dallas walks up the aisle and knocks on the door to the cockpit. No answer. He knocks again, then a third time, and gets the same response.
“Captain? Uh, I mean, Pilot? Hello?”
Nothing but the hum of the engines. Although he’s sure the door will be locked, Dallas tries it anyway. It slides right open, but that’s not what surprises Dallas; what surprises Dallas is the fact that the cockpit is stark empty. Nobody is sitting in either seat; the steering wheel (which looks like it belongs in a car rather than an airplane) is turning all on its own.
“What the fuuhhhhck?” Dallas says as he backpedals into the cabin. He trips over his own feet and falls down on his ass, which certainly doesn’t feel good. It’s all right though, somebody offers him a hand to help him up.
“Hey, thanks man,” Dallas says as he’s pulled to his feet.
“No problem, bro,” says Johnny with a bright smile. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”
Dallas nods, smiling. On the inside he’s exploding, he has so many questions, he wants to jump and dance around and sing; on the outside he stays cool and collected, almost as if his body is just a meatsuit, one preprogrammed for this interaction specifically.
“Well shit, pop a squat. I have a favor to ask you.”
Johnny and Dallas Hinton sit down facing each other.
“Well, before anything else, how’ve ya been, dude?”
“I’ve been… all right,” Dallas hears himself say, his mouth moving by its own accord. “It’s been kinda hard ever since… well, ever since… you know. But uh, I’m getting along. I’ve been living down in Boca with mom and dad and Grandma and all them. It’s uh… well, it certainly is.”
Johnny’s left eyebrow rises. “Is it now?”
“It is… I mean, it was. I’m coming back up to Jersey right now, like, for good. I didn’t tell them though. Just like they didn’t tell me they were moving me down to Boca when we left. It all comes around eventually, I guess.”
“That it does, Dally. That it does. You look good, man, you’re really grown up. But, listen… it’s really good to see you, and I wish this could last longer, but uh, you only ate half the brownie. So let me cut to the chase.”
“Cut to it, then,” Dallas’s mouth says as his mind struggles to comprehend the reality around him.
“Well… do you remember that old bat dagger I used to have? The one I got from the online auction when that auction hall down at the far end of the Montane Deli plaza opened?”
“Yeah I remember it. I didn’t know you got it from the auction hall, though. I didn’t know where you got that thing.”
“Oh… well, yeah, I got it for a few bucks in an online auction. I thought I told you, but I guess that was George… but you and me went hiking and carved shit into trees with it together, right?”
“Nah, I think that was George, too. We didn’t really hang out a lot, man. We just talked… sometimes.” Even that’s stretching it, though; it occurs to Dallas that, after living with his parents for the past few years – his incredulously annoying shit-talking parents – that he may have put Johnny on something of a pedestal, a pedestal made of toothpicks that doesn’t necessarily support his weight. “That wasn’t your fault though, I’m kind of a loner. But uh, never mind all that. What about the dagger?”
Johnny’s hands disappeared into his pockets at some point. “Um… so mom and dad told you about what happened, right? The burglar?”
Dallas nods his head solemnly.
“The uh, the bat dagger was among the stuff stolen, I think. Or it might not have been, I never exactly got a chance to catalog what was missing.” He spits a dry sort of laugh, then, “So, could you, um… could you look around the old house to see if you can find it?”
A shrug of the shoulders. “Sure, I was gonna go over there anyway. Mom and dad sold the house, but they made the guy who bought it promise not to throw anything out until they could get someone up there to make sure nothing important got trashed. I’ll see if he kept his word.”
Sweet relief sweeps over Johnny’s face. “Sick, thanks a bunch dude! I appreciate the hell out of that.”
“Sure.” Silence. “What do you want me to do if I find it?”
“When you find it – and um… could you leave it at my grave? I’m buried in that long graveyard on the side of Treeburg Ave, in a plot down on the back end, not the end next to the Quick Check. Midvale Cemetery, I think it’s called. Just leave the dagger behind the headstone, I’ll be able to take care of it from there.”
“Yeah man, I can do that. But it might not be in the house, I don–”
“You’ll find it, trust me. I mean, you’re right, it might not be in the house, but you’ll find it. Also, and this is probably a long shot, but look under the fridge and see if you can find a black Lake George coaster, too. I’d really love to giv–”
Turbulence slaps the plane around, tossing both Johnny and Dallas out of their seats.
“Shit, I think that’s our time, little bro.” Johnny stands up and offers Dallas a hand, but Dallas doesn’t take it. Dallas stands up all on his own this time. “I um…” Johnny starts, then looks down to the carpet, then back up at his little brother’s eyes. “I miss you, man. I know we weren’t really close, but… but I…”
Dallas closes the gap and hugs his brother. Johnny flinches a bit when Dallas’s arms wrap around him, but then he cautiously returns the hug.
“I miss you too, Johnny. So do mom and dad, even though…” he sighs. “I knew, John.”
Johnny’s grip loosens, then tightens back up. “You uh… you knew?” The hug breaks. “What did you know?”
“I knew about it all, I just… I never brought it up, I… I didn’t know how to. But… you probably don’t want to hear this, but they loved you. And I loved you – I love you.”
Tears well up in Johnny’s eyes. “I… I love you too, Dallas.”
Dallas smiles. “Rest in peace, big brother.”
Torrents of light flood in through the windows of the CJ4. Another round of turbulence bashes the plane, knocking Dallas off his feet, but this time, he doesn’t land on his ass; he just floats up and up and up, and the light engulfs him completely.
When Dallas opens his eyes, the plane is no longer moving. He’s belted into his seat, a stream of dried drool is crusted to his cheek, and his head feels all kinds of fuzzy, but fuzzy in a good way. It’s like someone ran a feather duster through his brain and cleared out some nasty old cobwebs, cobwebs which haven’t been inhabited by spiders since before Dallas got dragged through the clouds to Boca Raton with his folks. He looks over his shoulder and sees into the cockpit – it’s empty. Dallas is alone on the plane.
‘Huh, I guess I was dreaming,’ Dallas thinks to himself as he unbuckles. ‘There’s not even a door up there, how did I not notice that when we took off?’
As he’s stretching his stiff back, Dallas hears footsteps behind him. He turns just in time to see the pilot boarding the plane. “Ah, hello Dallas. Ready to take off?”
“What?!” Dallas says, his facial expression dropping as fast as the pitch of his voice rises.
The pilot grins the most dastardly, toothy of grimaces. “Only messing with you, Dallas. You slept straight through the landing, so I figured I’d take care of the formalities inside and get your luggage and whatnot into the car before I woke you up. You’re all set to go.”
“Oh. Word. Thanks, Mister… uh, what’s your name?”
The pilot says, “You can call me Mister Kyng,” then drops a wink and sits back down in the cockpit.
Dallas thanks Mister Kyng, then exits the Citation and walks off the runway without going through the airport, as the pilot took care of all the formalities for him. He finds his uncle’s car waiting for him in the long-term parking area and climbs in, thanking God it’s not a manual.
A long stretch of gradual downhill road takes Dallas through the forest to County Road 511. He takes this first leg of the drive slowly so he can take in just how green everything is up here in north Jersey. It’s literally a rain forest; well, not literally, as it’s not raining and these woods aren’t quite as impassable as a jungle, as far as Dallas remembers, but still, compared to the golf courses and ocean views of Boca, north Jersey may as well be a different continent.
The drive down the county road is much faster, as the other Jersians on the road with Dallas threaten to rear-end him through the guardrails if he doesn’t drive at least ten over the speed limit, but that’s fine. He’ll have plenty of time to reacquaint himself with the area after he’s found his brother’s bat dagger.
“Wait, am I really gonna go looking for that thing? That was just a dream… wasn’t it?”
Maybe, or maybe not; still, he was planning on going to the old house anyway, so he might as well look. Even if he doesn’t end up putting the dagger behind his brother’s gravestone – if he finds it, and that’s a big if – it would be a nice little memento to have.
Dallas was planning on stopping for a quick walk across the Monksville Dam before heading over to the old house on Fricker Drive, but the moment he turns off the county road, dark clouds move in from the south and the air temperature drops ten degrees. It appears as if a storm is coming – to avoid setting himself up to be struck by lightning on his first day home, Dallas keeps driving. The rain starts a minute later when he turns on to Fricker Drive and matures into a torrential downpour when he pulls into his old driveway, which is empty.
‘Huh, I guess the owners aren’t home. Looks like I’m breaking in, then. Hope they don’t have any security.’
Having missed out on feeling the rain on his skin for the past handful of years (nobody living in the Hinton Boca compound was allowed outside during inclement weather, because what do they need to go outside for? There’s an indoor pool, a movie theater, a bowling alley, I own a greenhouse the size of your parents’ old house for Christ’s sake, Dallas! Why do you want to leave your poor Gram’ma to suffer the pain of her arthritis all by herself?), Dallas gets out and walks calmly through the refreshing storm to the front steps. The front door is locked, but the new owner never got rid of the spare key his parents kept under the mat, probably because his parents never told the new owner about it in the first place. One man’s inconvenience is another man’s convenience, what more is there to say?
Dallas tries the spare key. It doesn’t work. ‘Fuck. I guess I’m going around back.’
Around back, between the old turquoise deck and the kitchen, is a sliding glass door with a faulty lock – if one works the door with enough determination, the lock will loosen and the door will open just wide enough so something skinny (like a spare house key, for instance) can fit into the gap between the door and the catch, thus allowing a burglar the opportunity to get in without breaking any windows. Dallas is no burglar, neither potentially nor actually, and though he successfully breaks in to his old house, he makes one mistake that no self-respecting burglar would make: he triggers the silent alarm which is advertised by the stickers in the corners of the front windows of the house, the very stickers he didn’t notice because of how feverishly the stormy sky is wetting the Earth. Oh well, what you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?
Dallas doesn’t give the kitchen so much as a passing glance as he flies through it; it may as well be a hallway. When his parents told him about Johnny’s demise at the hands of the burglar, they didn’t tell him all of the grisly details – how his head was caved in like a feral caveman swung a wooden club into it, how a bit of his hair was missing and likely stuck on the murderer’s weapon, how he showed no signs of fighting back because he was so piss drunk – only that he died right here on the dirty kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator. Johnny spent a lot of time on that kitchen floor, more time than he knew Dallas knew about. Dallas spent a lot of time locked in his bedroom when the Hinton family lived in this house, but the walls aren’t soundproof. He heard the yelling and the screaming. He heard the hitting and the whipping. He heard the falling, and the kicking which usually followed it, and then the weeping which usually followed them both.
With one foot on the first basement step, Dallas remembers that he was supposed to check for the coaster, too. He turns to go back, then asks himself, “Am I really going to do favors for my dead brother I saw in a weird dream? Is that really what my life’s come to?”
With the coaster in his pocket, Dallas stands up and brushes the dust off his knees. It falls to the floor in clouds – apparently the new owners of this house don’t clean up much. Whatever, not Dallas’s problem. Dallas’s problem may or may not be waiting for him in the basement. Off he goes.
Boxes are stacked from the floor to the ceiling. Unlabeled, partially collapsed cardboard boxes packed like a hoarder packs plastic bags into a drawer, each and every one of the things full of Johnny’s old belongings, plus whatever crap Dally and his parents left behind before the surprise move.
“Jesus, I don’t even know where to start…” Dallas mutters to himself, but it comes out louder than he meant it to. Just loud enough to be heard by the presence at the top of the stairs.
“You can start by getting the fuck down on your knees. Now!” Dallas starts to turn around, then he hears a course “STOP!” slap across his face like his father’s belt across Johnny’s shirted back, usually when Johnny wasn’t looking. “Don’t turn, don’t you look at me! Get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head!”
Dallas stops and gets down on his knees, then puts his hands behind his head.
The man comes down the staircase slowly, exaggerating every step. He walks like he’s at the end of a long journey; each time a foot lands on a creaky wooden stair, Dallas can somehow feel the metaphysical weight of it. A lot led up to this man walking down these stairs on this stormy afternoon, probably just about as much as what led Dallas to kneeling down on the floor.
“I got you now, you son of a fucking bitch. Fourth break-in in a row and you come back to the scene of the second – you must think you’re pretty clever. Let’s see how well your brain works when I bash this bottle against the back of your head!”
“Wait!” Dallas screams out, keeping his hands firmly clasped behind his head. “I’m not a burglar, I used to live here! I’m just… fuck, I don’t even know what I’m doing here. Just… please, don’t hurt me! I’m not trying to steal anything!”
The footsteps abruptly stop. “Turn around. Stay on the floor, as you are, but turn around. Slowly.”
Investing a bit of effort into it, Dallas turns himself around whilst staying on his knees. He sees a silhouette of a man dressed in dark gray sweatpants and an even darker hooded sweatshirt. One of the man’s arms ends in a bottle, the other ends in the hem of the sleeve, as if he only has one hand.
“What’s your name, son?” the man asks calmly as the tension begins to thin.
“Dallas,” answers Dallas with a wobble in his voice. “Dallas Hinton. M-my family used to own this house, my um… my older brother is the one who got murdered. But I suppose you already knew that.”
The man folds his arms. The bottle sticks out of the top of the fold like a cigar out of a seedy businessman’s mouth. “I should, I’m the one who found him. What are you doing here? And don’t lie to me, Dallas – I’m a world-renowned psychologist, I can tell when I’m being lied to.”
After gulping loud enough to send a chill down his own spine, Dallas says, “Well… this is probably going to sound really, really crazy, but I… I had a dream. A really strange, vivid dream on my flight up here. I saw my brother, he asked me to come back here and look for a couple things for him, a coaster and a uh… and a dagger. I found the coaster – it’s in my back pocket, I’ll show you if you don’t believe me – but not the dagger. He said it might not be in the house, but that I would find it.” Dallas sighs. “Whatever that means.”
“Where was the coaster?” the silhouetted man asks, keeping his arms folded.
“It was underneath the refrigerator. I’m not a criminal, Mister, I just…” he sighs again, the air heavy with defeat. “Even before I had the dream I told myself I was going to come back here, but now that I’m here, I’m not even sure why I came. I’m just a kid, man, I’m just a lost kid in a young adult’s body. Until I came back to Jersey today I’ve been coasting by on my parents’ dime because that’s all I know how to do, that’s all they taught me. Honestly, that’s all they know how to do, my mom’s Mom is loaded. After they got married, my parents never had to work a day in their life. I don’t know what I’m doing, man, I… please don’t hurt me or call the cops, okay? I’ll leave, I’ll even let you keep the coaster if you want it, I just…”
Dallas doesn’t continue, as he doesn’t know what to say.
The man doesn’t say anything either, at least not at first. He merely stands there with the lost boy in his shadow, letting his overworked and exhausted brain process all this. Then, “All right. Get up.”
When Dallas looks up, the man’s already climbed two stairs. “Wait, what?”
“I said get up,” says the man without turning around. “Come with me, I think I know where your knife is.” He stops walking. “Your dagger, rather. Now come on, we don’t have much time to waste. Not much at all – if it stops raining before we get there, he might hear us approaching.”
One thousand three hundred and thirteen individual questions swarm through Dallas’s mind like the bees hived up in the attic that the current owner will probably never get taken care of (this is the first time he’s come to this house since he bought it), but he gets up without a word and follows the man upstairs. They walk out the front door into the rain, and then head up the street, passing by Dallas’s car without giving it a single thought. Where these two are going they won’t need a car, not that Dallas knows that. All Dallas knows is to follow this man, and so follow the man he does, his mind as silent as his mouth.
The Old Logging Road
Neither of the men share a single word as they bumble up Fricker Drive through the pouring rain. At first Dallas was enjoying the sensation – down in Florida (in the rare event his Grandmother was asleep and he could sneak outside and experience it), every rainstorm that wasn’t a full blown tropical hurricane felt like a warm, steamy shower – but up here in the Jersey jungle, it’s cold. It was nice at first, but the novelty’s worn off. Dallas is definitely going to be sick tomorrow.
If he makes it to tomorrow, that is. After all, Dallas is blindly following a stranger up the backwoods road he used to live on, a stranger whose house he broke into, an unhinged stranger armed with a breakable glass bottle. All Dallas has is a dusty coaster.
At the top of the steep hill at the back end of Fricker, the bottle toting man goes left and starts across the saturated lawn between the street and the algae-laden pond. Dallas follows. When they’re halfway across the concrete path running alongside said pond, Dallas finally speaks up.
“Excuse me, Sir?”
No answer. He probably just didn’t hear, the rain is pouring pretty hard.
Still nothing. Dallas looks to the pond, then back at the man. He’s not that big, if Dallas got him by surprise he could probably shove him into the water. That’d give him plenty of time to get back to his car and drive away forever… but let’s be honest, Dallas doesn’t want it to come to that. Dallas doesn’t like violence, he doesn’t even like thinking about violence. So he tries again, this time tapping the man on the shoulder, the right shoulder, the one with the bottle gripped below it.
“Hey man, hold up. I have a couple questions.”
The man holds up, but he doesn’t turn around. “What? Speak loudly, I can hardly hear you.”
Dallas hustles in front of the man, thinking it’ll help him hear better. It probably won’t, as the man’s hood is plastered to his head from the rain, but now that he’s up front, it would be dumb if he jogged back around. “Well first, what’s your name?”
The man blinks. “Hilter Odolf Williamson. I have a question for you, too: how well do you know the trails back here?”
“Uhh… well enough, I guess,” Dallas guesses. “Where are we going?”
“Somewhere I’ve never been to before, but I have it on good authority that the place does exist. Somewhere back along the old logging road there’s a junction that’s rather muddy – if you follow it one way it’ll take you to the Wanaque Reservoir, and if you follow it the other it will take you to a ratty wooden shack with a door made of plywood. From what I understand, it’s quite easy to miss the turn if you’re coming back from the reservoir in a hurry. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
A blank look is all Dallas can muster. Raindrops pour down his cheeks in deep rivers. “I didn’t know there was an old logging road back here, Mister Williamson.”
Hilter blinks again, three times in rapid succession. “It’s just another name for the wide trail, this one right ahead of us.”
Dallas turns and looks into the forest. The low branches of the trees give the mouth of the trail the appearance of a luscious green cavern. “Oh, you mean the quadding trail. Yeah, sorry, I should have known. Nothing else leads to the res’. I think I know the turn you’re talking about.”
“Good. If it’s not obvious to me, you’ll have to point it out. Remember, we don’t want to go to the reservoir, we want to go the other way. The way to the old ratty shack.” Hilter then resumes his plunge into the drenched forest.
“What’s at the ratty shack, Mister Williamson?” No answer. “Do you think my brother’s dagger is really out there?” Again, no answer. Dallas jogs to catch up, then falls into pace with Hilter.
They march past the heads of the trails which zig and zag back and forth through the shallower parts of the forest. They carefully march down the rocky hill, trying not to twist their ankles on the abundance of loose rocks. At the bottom of this rocky hill are three trailheads, two of them much wider than the third. Dallas suggests the rightmost, as the left leads back to Stonetown Road.
The rightmost trail is excruciatingly muddy, as muddy as the hill was rocky, muddier even. Dallas said this is a quadding trail, and that explanation will have to do – the ATVs tear up the forest with their tires, converting well-walked trails into impassable pits of mud which will eventually turn into ponds like the bend they just trailblazed around. Eventually, Hilter imagines, when enough time has passed and enough rain has fallen, these quad trails will become ruts through which rivers flow. That’s all well and good, just as long as they find the ratty shack before it happens.
Both men are covered in mud up to their shins by the time they come to the junction. Dallas doesn’t need to point it out to Hilter, but he does anyway. Hilter ignores him. Pulling down his hood so he can think clearly, Hilter surveys the area – the left bend of the junction is a pool of thick, brown water, while the right is rocky enough to walk through without having to dip off the trail.
“We should go right, correct?” Hilter asks without turning to face Dallas. Dallas hears him clearly, as the rain is much quieter in the woods what with the canopy catching the drops and all.
“Yep. You want me to go first?”
Hilter answers by proceeding over the slick, mossy rocks. He almost loses his footing a few times, eight times to be specific, but he manages to cross the steppingstones without breaking his legs. Dallas follows suit, albeit much more gracefully. They continue along the old logging road, neither party making mention of the thick track running down the center of the trail, a track reminiscent of the shallow rut left behind from the dragging of a body bundled up in blankets and duct tape. Dallas doesn’t notice it – he keeps his eyes on Hilter, just in case the dude decides to turn around and bring that bottle down on his head – but Hilter does, and Hilter knows exactly what made that track. He once saw the serpentine creature in a dream, and though it was under the surface of some cloudy water and he couldn’t get a good look at it, he’d very much like to never see it again.
This last stretch of the old logging road is fairly flat and solid. Dallas and Hilter walk side by side up until the very end, where they both stop in unison. Standing in a clearing twenty feet ahead of them is the ratty wooden shack.
The Ratty Wooden Shack
It stands about twelve feet high from the mud-splattered base to the point of the mossy shingled roof. The door is an old sheet of plywood, likely no more than a half-inch thick considering how warped it is, and covered in a rainbow of molds; fuzzy blues, oily greens, hairy whites, slimy oranges, a disconcerting brownish-yellow splotch about three feet off the ground. The walls are made of boards of varying ages and colors – some a faded gray, some a rich dark brown, the rest lost somewhere in between. Some are missing, leaving gaping holes, and some have been reinforced with small squares of plywood. Some have been reinforced with branches, too, and some with tree bark. To the left of the door is a dirty glass window.
“Does… someone really lives here?” Dallas asks, shuddering at the thought.
“You’d be surprised, Dallas,” Hilter answers slowly, unable to take his eyes off the ratty shack. “The human body is a resilient organism; I know a young man who survived on nothing more than weeds and water tainted with lead paint for the better part of his life.”
They stand there as the forest drips rain on them. The ratty wooden shack has an air of death around it; this is a place where the damned come to die, where the lost souls of the world wander to find out just how lost they really are. To enter the ratty shack is to leave the world behind; to leave the ratty shack is a promise to return to it in worse shape. The thick dragged body track leads right to the moldy plywood door.
“Well,” Hilter says, then nervously gulps. It gets caught in his throat like a wad of hair in a shower drain. “I suppose we’d better knock on the door, then. I’ll go first; follow my lead, Dallas, but be prepared to run.”
“No,” Dallas says.
“This is where the guy that killed my brother lives, isn’t it? The burglar?”
Hilter studies Dallas’s face, then nods. “I believe it is. And if my hunch is right, your brother’s dagger is probably in there, too.”
Dallas nods. “Then I’m going first. All my life I’ve just done what I was told, I was always the follower, the quiet one, the kid who stayed in his room unless I was told otherwise. I’m tired of being that guy, I’m sick and tired of it. My brother’s murderer is shacked up in that ratty shack, and I didn’t walk all the way out here through the pouring rain just to let you go first, Hilter. I need to do this. Not just for myself, but for my brother. For Johnny, I need to do this.”
Without a word nor a moment of hesitation, Hilter steps aside. Dallas stands there for a bit, surprised the words came out of his mouth the way they did. Then, he begins to walk. With every step towards the shack Dallas takes, his heart beats harder and harder. Flocks of butterflies take flight in his stomach, his arms tremble like branches in the wind, his teeth chatter like the bones of the restless dead, but still he walks forward.
Suddenly, Dallas is at the door. He places a hand on the handle – it’s soft, much softer than it should be, but it’s still solid, like a fuzzy can of beer – and then closes his eyes. Takes a deep breath. Opens his eyes.
Then, Dallas opens the door.
“Ohhh what the fuck?” Dallas spurts as he stumbles backwards and falls on his ass. “Fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck this is fucking bad, dude, ffuuhhhck…”
“What is it?!” Hilter shouts as he runs over to help Dallas up. Dallas doesn’t take the help, he just keeps crawling backwards away from the shack, his butt tracing along the track left by the dragged body. “Dallas, speak!”
But Dallas doesn’t speak, he just puts more distance between himself and what he saw inside that ratty wooden shack.
Gripping the bottle tightly in his hand, Hilter approaches the shack and throws the door open. He raises the bottle above his head, ready to bring it down on the ski mask burglar like the ski mask burglar brought his gun down on Dallas’s brother Johnny, but the bottle just hangs there in the air for a moment as the reality of the situation is processed. Hilter lets his arm fall to his side and he drops the bottle. It lands on a rock but doesn’t shatter.
The ratty shack is a hoarder’s den, there’s no doubt about that. Miscellaneous knickknacks and mundane decor pieces – all stolen from houses on White Road, Barnstatter Path, and Fricker Drive, no doubt – are stacked up haphazardly in the corners and scattered about the uncovered muddy floor. A few things were even hung from the ceiling by thin brown vines, including a handgun which doesn’t seem to have a magazine loaded into the handle. In the center of the shack is a pillar which stands to the height of Hilter’s hip – likely a sawed section of a log the man found along the trail, because there’s no way he could have chopped it himself; hell, Hilter can’t fathom how the man even managed to build this shack – covered in a red tablecloth. At the base of the pillar lies the ski mask burglar, except he’s not wearing his black ski mask. He’s not wearing anything, unfortunately, but his filthy, bulbous body is slathered in a thick coating of mud, so there’s that.
The man is also missing his head, along with a semi-circle of flesh and bone between his shoulders… so… there’s also that.
“What… what in the name of God…” Hilter whispers under his breath, but he knows the answer. The boy who told him about this shack, Cooper, his name was; Cooper told him there was a monster living in the Wanaque Reservoir, a massive mutant thing he called The Serpent which screams a banshee’s wail. Cooper said he found The Serpent’s egg and he stole it from the nest, that he ran and ran and ran with the egg in his arms, he ran so fast he missed the turn that would have taken him back to Fricker Drive, and he wound up here. And the ski mask burglar stole the egg from him.
And apparently, The Serpent stole it back.
“This must have happened recently,” Hilter says as he walks into the shack, letting the door slap closed behind him. He bends low and touches two fingers to the ragged bite mark – it’s still wet, but of course it is, it’s pouring right now, the air is easily moist enough to bring a flow to stagnant blood. “This either happened last night or early this morning… but I suppose it doesn’t matter.” Hilter cleans his fingers with the cloth draped over the log – the altar, as the man who once wore a ski mask surely considered it – and then stands up.
Then, he sees the stone sitting on top of the altar. It’s shaped almost like an egg, probably measures about half a foot long and half as wide. It’s not just a rock though, it’s a white crystal, a white quartz crystal with a small growth of lichen sprouting from one edge. Hilter can’t take his eyes off it.
The room begins to sway around Hilter Odolf Williamson. All the knickknacks expand and contract in their own independent rhythms as if they were breathing, and a mad rush of lightness and pleasant euphoria sweeps through Hilter’s troubled mind. He feels a pinpoint pressure an inch above the bridge of his nose, as if a finger reached out from the center of his brain and pressed against the inside of his forehead, it feels… it feels like the touch of God. The Universe has been speaking to Hilter Odolf Williamson ever since he bought his first house on Fricker Drive, She has spoken and sang and told him all sorts of tricky riddles, She has brought him here to this ratty wooden shack in the middle of the woods for a reason, an unknowable reason, the understanding of which has eluded Hilter for days and weeks and months, which has haunted his dreams and kept his mind spinning wildly out of control like a tornado. But now, after all the turmoil and cognitive dissonance, now that Hilter is standing here in the ratty wooden shack with the moldy plywood door, he finally understands: he’s meant to take this crystal. He doesn’t know why, but he knows he needs to take the crystal, and so he does, and as he slips it into the right pocket of his wet sweatpants, the hallucinations abruptly cease. Hilter is alone, standing here in a moldy wooden shack with a dead body on the floor and a rock in his pocket. And the rain pours and pours. And the wind continues to blow.
And now that he’s fully aware of the present moment, Hilter notices just how pungent the reek of death is inside this old ratty shack.
But still, he stays inside for a few moments longer. He bends back down to the disgusting headless body of the ski mask burglar, but not to speak to it, not to pay any final respects. Laying in the burglar’s open left hand is a leather sheath attached to a loop so one may dangle it from a belt. Hilter picks the sheath up, then steps over the body and crouches down to the right side of the ski mask burglar’s soulless corpse. Here, clenched tightly in the burglar’s rigor-mortified hand, is a black dagger with a partially serrated blade. The hilt of the weapon is designed to resemble a bat; there’s even a little bat head at the top of the handle. It takes some doing, but Hilter wedges the handle of the dagger out of the man’s hand, then sheaths it. Then he leaves the ratty wooden shack through its moldy plywood door, never to return.
Dallas is still on the ground when Hilter walks briskly out of the ratty shack. He approaches the boy and slides his finger through the belt loop of the dagger’s sheath, then lets it dangle so Dallas can see it. “Is this the dagger?”
“Holy shit,” Dallas says as he picks himself up. He takes the sheathed weapon off of Hilter’s finger and looks at it like Hilter looked at the white quartz crystal a moment ago. “Yeah, this is it. Where–”
“It was in the man’s hand. It seems he brandished it against… well, against whatever it was that removed his head.”
Dallas swallows a mixture of dried saliva, thick mucus, heated fear, and cold rainwater. “What… what could have possibly done that?”
“Well, we can’t really know, but… oh who am I kidding, isn’t it obvious?” Hilter points towards the long smooth track running along the center of the trail. “It was The Serpent.”
“Yes. It lives in the Wanaque Reservoir.” Hilter puts an arm around Dallas’s shoulder and they begin walking back down the path. “I haven’t lived here long, Dallas, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the town of Treeburg – about the road called Fricker Drive and the forest around it, specifically – it’s that this is a very strange place, a place where the inexplainable happens. No, not even that – a place where the explanations behind the odd happenings are as inconvenient to the average human mind as the occurrence of the incidents themselves are convenient to the more enlightened mind… or, or rather… ack, I don’t even know. This is a weird place, Dallas. I’m starting to see the reason why all the residents decided to move away and sell me their houses.”
Dallas doesn’t say anything to that, but only because nothing comes to his mind. Eventually Hilter takes his soggy arm off of Dallas’s soggy shoulders and they walk back to Fricker Drive in soggy silence.
The rain stops as they’re walking up the driveway of the house Dallas’s parents used to own. Hilter invites the boy in to shower and get a dry change of clothes, and Dallas takes him up on it, but he doesn’t stay for long, not even when Hilter offers to order them some pizza. Dallas says he’s had about enough of Fricker Drive for a while, and that he has one more thing to do before he can go back and crash at his uncle’s house.
“Very well, then,” Hilter says, walking him to the door. “Well Dallas, it was nice to meet you. I’d like to humbly apologize for my unruliness when we first met, I–”
“Oh, no worries man,” Dallas says, wanting to leave. “I mean, this is your house now, I was breaking in. I don’t blame you for thinking I was the burglar.”
Hilter smiles. “Even so, I eh… my mind was not in the right place. I had yet to connect some dots, in a way; I was looking at a series of lines, but now I see the full picture. Do you know what I mean?”
Dallas doesn’t, but says he does, and so the men shake hands and part ways. Dallas gets into his uncle’s car – no, it’s not his uncle’s anymore; Uncle Darrel isn’t coming back up from Florida anytime soon, the car belongs to Dallas now – and backs onto Fricker Drive, then peels the fuck out, leaving black skid marks in front of his old driveway. Hilter stands by the door and turns off the outside lights when the car is gone. Then he locks up, walks to the house that was once owned by Cooper’s family, and heats up a couple slices of pizza left over from his last therapy session with the boy who saw The Serpent. As he’s eating, Hilter types out an email for the boy Cooper detailing his findings at the shack today, including all the details about The Serpent’s trail and the headless corpse of the burglar, but as he’s about to send it, he decides to delete it instead.
“The dagger is sheathed now, Hilter,” Hilter says to himself between bites. “Best to leave it that way.”
He closes his laptop, then goes into the kitchen and cleans up from dinner. Then – after placing the crystal on the nightstand next to his bed – Hilter goes into his bathroom, takes a shower, brushes his teeth, and goes to bed. And he sleeps.
With the dagger finally sheathed and the crystal sitting next to his bed, Hilter Odolf Williamson sleeps soundly through the night.
Ignoring the stop sign at the end of Fricker Drive, Dallas bangs a mad left and tears up Stonetown Hill. After the shit he saw today, Dallas won’t be coming back to Stonetown for a very, very long time – so he might as well take one last drive through the old stomping grounds, right?
Of Treeburg’s four districts, Stonetown is the most isolated – whether you drive in from the Monksville side or the Wanaque side, you have to cross a bridge over a reservoir. That has its ups and its downs – on the downside, living back here puts you at a distance and a half from the rest of society, if you’re kind enough to call Treeburg and its few neighboring towns the rest of society. There are no grocery stores (or any kind of stores, on that note) back in Stonetown, just residential houses, a sketchy group home everybody likes to pretend isn’t there, and a few soccer fields; the running of any errand, whether important or remedial, will include a fifteen-minute drive at the minimum. On the upside, the chances of running into police officers are slim to none and, as such, you can pretty much do whatever you please when you live back here. In Dallas’s case, this means shredding down the backwoods road pushing sixty miles per hour (that’s twenty over the speed limit, thank you very little) en route to Treeburg Ave.
He comes to the junction at the end of Stonetown Road (lots of junctions back in Stonetown, it seems) and takes a left rather than going straight and continuing on to Snake Den Road. He kills his speed as he carefully maneuvers around the breakneck turns along the shore of this end of the Wanaque Reservoir, then keeps his speed low going over the bridge. He’s out of the woods now, and cops love to hang around Treeburg Ave. It doesn’t help that the Wanaque police station was built on this road, but Dallas isn’t going that far down. Chances are he won’t run into any trouble, but… better safe than sorry, right?
Dallas rolls along until he comes to the stoplight at the mouth of the road which leads to his old high school. “Yikes, can’t say I miss that place.” The light turns green and he drives for another ten seconds, then pulls into the Quick Check he used to go to when he’d sneak out of lunch period. The school’s food was not food, and to be fair, the food Quick Check sells isn’t really food either, but at least Quick Check’s faux food has some taste to it.
But Dallas didn’t come here for food tonight, he only parked here because the store is open twenty-four hours a day and he feels like he can leave the car here while he does what he needs to do. He parks next to a big black pickup truck with an American flag sticking up out of the bed. Yeah, this works, it would look more suspicious if his car was sitting alone; even if a cop pulls in to get some coffee and a donut at three in the morning, he won’t notice two cars parked next to each other, that won’t stick out to him… right?
“Jesus Dallas, relax,” Dallas says to himself as he parks next to the pickup. “You won’t be here that long, stop second-guessing yourself. You know why you’re here, that’s enough. That should beenough.”
With both the coaster and the dagger tucked into the spacious center pocket of the sweatshirt he got from Mister Williamson – a sweatshirt he likely won’t be returning, now that he thinks about it – Dallas walks out of the parking lot and down the sidewalk that runs along the roadside graveyard. Midvale Cemetery, it’s called, and it stretches from the Quick Check parking lot down to the road leading to the high school, then keeps on going. Dallas follows the sidewalk all the way to the back end where the gravestones aren’t nearly as cluttered together. These plots aren’t as desirable as the others; this is where Johnny is buried, back away from the street. At least his parents had enough decency to put him away from the sidewalk and out of the dogshit zone.
Dallas walks up to the gravestone. It’s plain, the standard gray kind. The engraving looks nice enough, still fresh, but it’ll erode eventually. “Here lies John Hinton,” Dallas reads. “We loved him dearly and will miss him even more.” Dallas spits into the grass to the left of the dirt in front of grave. “You two don’t even know what love is…”
Dallas stands there for a few moments in silence, hands tucked in his pocket and wrapped around the dagger and the coaster.
“Do I even know what love is?”
Dallas sighs, then puts the bat dagger and the coaster behind the grave, just like Johnny told him to in that weird dream he had on the plane. Then, he sits down in the dirt and leans back against the headstone.
“I guess I have an idea… I mean, if I didn’t love ya, Johnny, I don’t think I would have come all the way out here for ya. I don’t know, man… nothing in this world makes any sense to me. I just go where I’m told to go. You didn’t do that, you always did what you wanted to do. You made sense to me, Johnny. I didn’t know you well, but you still made sense to me…” He sighs again. Closes his eyes. Gives Johnny a long moment of silence, a moment his folks probably never gave him. A moment that stretches on as the moon continues to rise.
‘I’m never going back to Florida,’ is the last thought to cross Dallas’s mind before he falls asleep.
A kick to the thigh jolts Dallas awake. “Gah!” he grunts groggily, blinded by the sunlight. “What the hell?”
“I could ask you the same thing, kid,” says the man standing over him. Dallas looks up and locks eyes with him, half expecting to see Hilter Odolf Williamson, or worse, the pilot of the plane, but it’s neither. It’s just some dude without any hair on his head. Or self-respect, evidenced by the sleeveless tee and boxer shorts he’s wearing whilst standing on the side of one of the busiest roads in the area, in broad daylight no less. “Do you usually fall asleep in graveyards?”
Dallas stands and tries to bat the mud off the back of his pants, but it’s caked on pretty good. “No I, uh… no. I just… my brother Johnny is buried here, this is the first time I’ve been able to come and see the grave. I guess I fell asleep.”
“Ah. Well, you’re lucky I’m not the groundskeeper, he’d have called the cops on you.”
“Oh… thanks. Who uh, who are you, then?”
The man makes a thumb and points it over his left shoulder. “I live right back there, first house next to the cemetery. I know, it probably seems weird, I got it at a fuckin’ steal, though. Made out like a burglar. You have someplace to go?”
Dallas nods. “Yeah, my… I have a place up in Treeburg.”
“You have a way to get there?”
“Hopefully. I parked at Quick Check, you think I got towed?”
“Nah,” the man bleats, then turns away and walks back to his house. His work here is done, it seems.
As is Dallas’s. He starts to walk away, then doubles back and looks behind the gravestone to see if the dagger and coaster are still there.
“Son of a bitch,” he says, then starts running towards the man who lives in the first house next to the cemetery. “Hey, wait up! Hey, dude!”
The dude turns around. “What?”
“Did you…” Dallas starts, but then sees the man has empty hands and no pockets. “Did uh… this is gonna sound stupid, but did you take a Lake George coaster and a… a bat dagger from behind that gravestone I was sleeping against?”
“A bat dagger?” the man asks incredulously. “No, but I wish I did. I love Batman! Never heard of a bat dagger, though.”
“No, it’s not…” he sighs. “Never mind. Sorry. Have uh, have a nice day. Thanks for waking me up.”
“Anytime,” the man says with a questioning grin. “You too, kid.”
Dallas walks back to Johnny’s gravestone and hunkers down in front of it. “Well Johnny, I did you that favor. But I guess you already knew that. Um… I don’t really know what to say now… I hope you and George are doing well, wherever you are. I know you’re happier now, you guys were brothers. I mean, you and me were brothers too, but… you know what I mean.”
Dallas stands up and looks at the gravestone for a few more seconds, then turns and walks back to Quick Check. His car is still there, but the pickup isn’t. Oh well, Dallas guesses it all worked out anyway… right?
“Right,” Dallas confidently says to himself once he’s behind the wheel. He drives to his uncle’s place – his place – in Treeburg without looking back.
Even as he passes Johnny’s grave, Dallas doesn’t look back.