A peal of savage barking broke out nearby. We both started then traded a nervous glance. “Or a dog,” I said. The sound triggered a chain reaction across the neighborhood, and soon barks were coming from every direction.
“Could be,” Ricky said, nodding. “I got a .22 in my trunk. You just wait.” And he walked off to retrieve it.
The barks faded and a chorus of night insects rose up in their place, droning and alien. Sweat trickled down my face. It was dark now, but the breeze had died and somehow the air seemed hotter than it had all day.
I picked up the flashlight and stepped toward the trees. My grandfather was out there somewhere, I was sure of it. But where? I was no tracker, and neither was Ricky. And yet something seemed to guide me anyway—a quickening in the chest; a whisper in the viscous air—and suddenly I couldn’t wait another second. I tromped into the underbrush like a bloodhound scenting an invisible trail.
It’s hard to run in a Florida woods, where every square foot not occupied by trees is bristling with thigh-high palmetto spears and nets of entangling skunk vine, but I did my best, calling my grandfather’s name and sweeping my flashlight everywhere. I caught a white glint out of the corner of my eye and made a beeline for it, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be just a bleached and deflated soccer ball I’d lost years before.
I was about to give up and go back for Ricky when I spied a narrow corridor of freshly stomped palmettos not far away. I stepped into it and shone my light around; the leaves were splattered with something dark. My throat went dry. Steeling myself, I began to follow the trail. The farther I went, the more my stomach knotted, as though my body knew what lay ahead and was trying to warn me. And then the trail of the flattened brush widened out, and I saw him.
My grandfather lay facedown in a bed of creeper, his legs sprawled out and one arm twisted beneath him as if he’d fallen from a great height. I thought surely he was dead. His undershirt was soaked with blood, his pants were torn, and one shoe was missing. For a long moment I just stared, the beam of my flashlight shivering across his body. When I could breathe again I said his name, but he didn’t move.
I sank to my knees and pressed the flat of my hand against his back. The blood that soaked through was still warm. I could feel him breathing ever so shallowly.
I slid my arms under him and rolled him onto his back. He was alive, though just barely, his eyes glassy, his face sunken and white. Then I saw the gashes across his midsection and nearly fainted. They were wide and deep and clotted with soil, and the ground where he’d lain was muddy from blood. I tried to pull the rags of his shirt over the wounds without looking at them.
I heard Ricky shout from the backyard. “I’M HERE!” I screamed, and maybe I should’ve said more, like danger or blood, but I couldn’t form the words. All I could think was that grandfathers were supposed to die in beds, in hushed places humming with machines, not in heaps on the sodden reeking ground with ants marching over them, a brass letter opener clutched in one trembling hand.
A letter opener. That was all he’d had to defend himself. I slid it from his finger and he grasped helplessly at the air, so I took his hand and held it. My nail-bitten fingers twinned with his, pale and webbed with purple veins.
“I have to move you,” I told him, sliding one arm under his back and another under his legs. I began to lift, but he moaned and went rigid, so I stopped. I couldn’t bear to hurt him. I couldn’t leave him either, and there was nothing to do but wait, so I gently brushed loose soil from his arms and face and thinning white hair. That’s when I noticed his lips moving.
His voice was barely audible, something less than a whisper. I leaned down and put my ear to his lips. He was mumbling, fading in and out of lucidity, shifting between English and Polish.
“I don’t understand,” I whispered. I repeated his name until his eyes seemed to focus on me, and then he drew a sharp breath and said, quietly but clearly, “Go to the island, Yakob. Here it’s not safe.”
It was the old paranoia. I squeezed his hand and assured him we were fine, he was going to be fine. That was twice in one day that I’d lied to him.
I asked him what happened, what animal had hurt him, but he wasn’t listening. “Go to the island,” he repeated. “You’ll be safe there. Promise me.”
“I will. I promise.” What else could I say?
“I thought I could protect you,” he said. “I should’ve told you a long time ago …” I could see the life going out of him.
“Told me what?” I said, choking back tears.
“There’s no time,” he whispered. Then he raised his head off the ground, trembling with the effort, and breathed into my ear: “Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.” I nodded, but he could see that I didn’t understand. With his last bit of strength, he added, “Emerson—the letter. Tell them what happened, Yakob.”
With that he sank back, spent and fading. I told him I loved him. And then he seemed to disappear into himself, his gaze drifting past me to the sky, bristling now with stars.
A moment later Ricky crashed out of the underbrush. He saw the old man limp in my arms and fell back a step. “Oh man. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands, and as he babbled about finding a pulse and calling the cops and did you see anything in the woods, the strangest feeling came over me. I let go of my grandfather’s body and stood up, every nerve ending tingling with an instinct I didn’t know I had. There was something in the woods, all right—I could feel it.
There was no moon and no movement in the underbrush but our own, and yet somehow I knew just when to raise my flashlight and just where to aim it, and for an instant in that narrow cut of light I saw a face that seemed to have been transplanted directly from the nightmares of my childhood. It stared back with eyes that swam in dark liquid, furrowed trenches of carbon-black flesh loose on its hunched frame, its mouth hinged open grotesquely so that a mass of long eel-like tongues could wriggle out. I shouted something and then it twisted and was gone, shaking the brush and drawing Ricky’s attention. He raised his .22 and fired, pap-pap-pap-pap, saying, “What was that? What the hell was that?” But he hadn’t seen it and I couldn’t speak to tell him, frozen in place as I was, my dying flashlight flickering over the blank woods. And then I must’ve blacked out because he was saying Jacob, Jake, hey Ed areyouokayorwhat, and that’s the last thing I remember.
I spent the months following my grandfather’s death cycling through a purgatory of beige waiting rooms and anonymous offices, analyzed and interviewed, talked about just out of earshot, nodding when spoken to, repeating myself, the object of a thousand pitying glances and knitted brows. My parents treated me like a breakable heirloom, afraid to fight or fret in front of me lest I shatter.
I was plagued by wake-up-screaming nightmares so bad that I had to wear a mouth guard to keep from grinding my teeth into nubs as I slept. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing it—that tentacle-mouth horror in the woods. I was convinced it had killed my grandfather and that it would soon return for me. Sometimes that sick panicky feeling would flood over me like it did that night and I’d be sure that nearby, lurking in a stand of dark trees, beyond the next car in a parking lot, behind the garage where I kept my bike, it was waiting.
My solution was to stop leaving the house. For weeks I refused even to venture into the driveway to collect the morning paper. I slept in a tangle of blankets on the laundry room floor, the only part of the house with no windows and also a door that locked from the inside. That’s where I spent the day of my grandfather’s funeral, sitting on the dryer with my laptop, trying to lose myself in online games.
I blamed myself for what happened. If only I’d believed him was my endless refrain. But I hadn’t believed him, and neither had anyone else, and now I knew how he must’ve felt because no one believed me, either. My version of events sounded perfectly rational until I was forced to say the words aloud, and then it sounded insane, particularly on the day I had to say them to the police officer who came to our house. I told him everything that had happened, even about the creature, as he sat nodding across the kitchen table, writing nothing in his spiral notebook. When I finished all he said was, “Great, thanks,” and then turned to my parents and asked if I’d “been to see anyone.” As if I wouldn’t know what that meant. I told him I had another statement to make and then held up my middle finger and walked out.
My parents yelled at me for the first time in weeks. It was kind of a relief, actually—that old sweet sound. I yelled some ugly things back. That they were glad Grandpa Portman was dead. That I was the only one who’d really loved him.
The cop and my parents talked in the driveway for a while, and then the cop drove off only to come back an hour later with a man who introduced himself as a sketch artist. He’d brought a big drawing pad and asked me to describe the creature again, and as I did he sketched it, stopping occasionally to ask for clarifications.
“How many eyes did it have?”
“Gotcha,” he said, as if monsters were a perfectly normal thing for a police sketch artist to be drawing.
As an attempt to placate me, it was pretty transparent. The biggest giveaway was when he tried to give me the finished sketch.
“Don’t you need this for your files or something?” I asked him.
He exchanged raised eyebrows with the cop. “Of course. What was I thinking?”
It was totally insulting.
Even my best and only friend Ricky didn’t believe me, and he’d been there. He swore up and down that he hadn’t seen any creature in the woods that night—even though I’d shined my flashlight right at it—which is just what he told the cops. He’d heard barking, though. We both had. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the police concluded that a pack of feral dogs had killed my grandfather. Apparently they’d been spotted elsewhere and had taken bites out of a woman who’d been walking in Century Woods the week before. All at night, mind you. “Which is exactly when the creatures are hardest to see!” I said. But Ricky just shook his head and muttered something about me needing a “brain-shrinker.”
“You mean head-shrinker,” I replied, “and thanks a lot. It’s great to have such supportive friends.” We were sitting on my roof deck watching the sun set over the Gulf, Ricky coiled like a spring in an unreasonably expensive Adirondack chair my parents had brought back from a trip to Amish country, his legs folded beneath him and arms crossed tight, chain-smoking cigarettes with a kind of grim determination. He always seemed vaguely uncomfortable at my house, but I could tell by the way his eyes slid off me whenever he looked in my direction that now it wasn’t my parents’ wealth that was making him uneasy, but me.
“Whatever, I’m just being straight with you,” he said. “Keep talking about monsters and they’re gonna put you away. Then you really will be Special Ed.”
“Don’t call me that.”
He flicked away his cigarette and spat a huge glistening wad over the railing.
“Were you just smoking and chewing tobacco at the same time?”
“What are you, my mom?”
“Do I look like I blow truckers for food stamps?”
Ricky was a connoisseur of your-mom jokes, but this was apparently more than he could take. He sprang out of the chair and shoved me so hard I almost fell off the roof. I yelled at him to get out, but he was already going.
It was months before I’d see him again. So much for having friends.
* * *
Eventually, my parents did take me to a brain-shrinker—a quiet, olive-skinned man named Dr. Golan. I didn’t put up a fight. I knew I needed help.
I thought I’d be a tough case, but Dr. Golan made surprisingly quick work of me. The calm, affectless way he explained things was almost hypnotizing, and within two sessions he’d convinced me that the creature had been nothing more than the product of my overheated imagination; that the trauma of my grandfather’s death had made me see something that wasn’t really there. It was Grandpa Portman’s stories that had planted the creature in my mind to begin with, Dr. Golan explained, so it only made sense that, kneeling there with his body in my arms and reeling from the worst shock of my young life, I had conjured up my grandfather’s own bogeyman.
There was even a name for it: acute stress reaction. “I don’t see anything cute about it,” my mother said when she heard my shiny new diagnosis. Her joke didn’t bother me, though. Almost anything sounded better than crazy.
Just because I no longer believed the monsters were real didn’t mean I was better, though. I still suffered from nightmares. I was twitchy and paranoid, bad enough at interacting with other people that my parents hired a tutor so that I only had to go to school on days I felt up to it. They also—finally—let me quit Smart Aid. “Feeling better” became my new job.
Pretty soon, I was determined to be fired from this one, too. Once the small matter of my temporary madness had been cleared up, Dr. Golan’s function seemed mainly to consist of writing prescriptions. Still having nightmares? I’ve got something for that. Panic attack on the school bus? This should do the trick. Can’t sleep? Let’s up the dosage. All those pills were making me fat and stupid, and I was still miserable, getting only three or four hours of sleep a night. That’s why I started lying to Dr. Golan. I pretended to be fine when anyone who looked at me could see the bags under my eyes and the way I jumped like a nervous cat at sudden noises. One week I faked an entire dream journal, making my dreams sound bland and simple, the way a normal person’s should be. One dream was about going to the dentist. In another I was flying. Two nights in a row, I told him, I’d dreamed I was naked in school.