In the previous episode, everyone in Rivertown attended Tim’s funeral with one mostly-unnoticed exception: the 13 year old paperboy whose route took him near the woods. The sheriff claimed the bear responsible for Tim’s death had been killed by his hunters, although Mark’s dad didn’t seem to believe it. Mark went back to work at the fruit market, but noticed what seemed to be a hobo’s rustic lean-to between the train tracks and river. Readers voted that Mark picked his way down the hillside to investigate.
The hill wasn’t too steep but I was careful anyway, making my feet as quiet as I could. No point announcing my visit.
The sticks framing the lean-to had branches woven through, but enough space between them that I could tell no one was home. I went in.
It stunk of burning, though I saw no campfire-circle outside. No blankets or belongings inside, either. Only a pile of leaves and some recently sharpened sticks — spears, really.
I turned to leave and standing behind me was a wild man.
His black hair stood out from his head not quite straight up but it might as well have. The effect was the same. It was matted thick with a combination of leaves, mud, and oils.
His skin seemed poorly-dyed leather, one layer of color after another. It must have been years since his body had seen soap. And he reeked of burn.
If he had growled at me and tried to bite me it would have made more sense than what happened next.
He spoke gently:
“You were in the woods some days ago. You found the boy.”
It was a simple sentence. But there was kindness in it. I never saw that coming. There was a knot in my throat.
My mouth wouldn’t work so I nodded.
“Were those your things in the cave?”
My mind was racing now. I was allowing his appearance to startle me into silence. That wouldn’t do at all. I wanted answers. I was supposed to be asking the questions.
I steeled my insides, pushing down any vestige of fear and demanded, “Why were you in my cave?”
He shrugged. “I was looking for something,” then he corrected himself, “Someone.”
He glanced a few feet behind him where a tipped tree made a bench of sorts. He sat and sighed, pulling off both thick black boots. He scrubbed his head with his fingernails and dried dirt, leaf bits, and flakes of skin fell.
He wasn’t taking me seriously enough.
I reached into the lean-to and grabbed one of the spears, pointed it inches from him even though I was shaking. “That ‘boy’ was my best friend. So I’m asking you again, what were you doing in my ca–“
In a flash of movement I’ve never been able to replicate, he slapped the spear from my hands. In the silence that followed, I heard it hit branches, then fall to the ground about a hundred yards away.
I stepped backwards, expecting him to attack.
But it didn’t happen. He spoke as gently as before, as though I hadn’t just pointed a spear at his face.
“How many are missing?”
I had to have misheard him. How many? It was my stupid thudding heart in my ears that made it sound like that, I thought.
I began to answer, “Wha–?”
“How many are dead, Mark?” Vote below on what will happen next or if reading in email click Take our Poll.