Light illuminated above him.
A single speck easily mistaken for a star. He craned his neck upward. There it rested against the brooding background. The valley was empty save for him and, under the dark grey clouds covering the area, the black hills loomed like armed walls in the horizon. A swirling breeze flew through the shallow valley, lifting dust and the strangest of scents. He spun around as if in slow motion.
Nothing but emptiness surrounded him.
His mind unable to recall how or why he was there. At his feet, he saw his own shadow grow. Snapping his head skyward, the single drop of light now expanded and forced him to raise his hand to his brow. The breeze now a gust, pushing against him. The empty valley now came alive with the sound of voices. Cries of pain and violence, clashes of metal upon metal, and hideous screams that split his ears all carried on the sudden wind. The horror of the sound crept across his skin. Yet, in the midst of all the war-like noise, he heard a calm voice echo behind the terror. He spun around, enveloped by the sound of phantoms. Indecipherable at first, but then, slowly, the words came to him, penetrating the sound of violence. The whisper rose above.
I am coming. I am coming.
Over and over, louder and harsher, until the spreading light above the center of the valley consumed the sky. No longer a soft, luminescence but a fury of fire. His widened eyes raised skyward and the fire circled and burned above, gathering in ominous power. Unable to move, he watched it funnel to the center, directly above him. The spinning revolved and built, a vortex of flame burning and, in the flash of a lightning strike, the fire streaked from the sky and fell upon him, snuffing the cry from his lungs and blinding him with light.
Trayton’s eyelids shot open, the brightness from the slit in his curtains forcing him to place a protective hand over his face. He rubbed his crusty eyes and then checked the clock, grumbling his way out of bed. He swayed slightly as he stood. His limbs weighed down by the aftermath of the bizarre and terrifying world of his subconscious.
“Thank God that was only a dream,” he said. Such a dream had never remotely been created in his mind. It seemed so real. Tangible. As if he could feel the warmth from that disturbing fire.
Dwelling on how awful the dream had made him feel, a horrid thought struck. One so distressing, he wanted to slink back into bed and gladly experience the valley all over again. He glanced at the calendar and realized the day.
“At least it’s Friday,” he mumbled to himself.
Outside, his dog continued barking. Not an angry, there-is-danger bark but a playful, I’m-starved-for-attention-look-at-me bark. He opened the curtains and looked out the foggy window. The sun just touched the tops of the trees surrounding the farm. Some blue jays cawed as they flew over where the dog was playing. He ran around Jeppy, running in between his knobby legs as the old horse shoved his face in a tattered feedbag.
Trayton smiled. He went to his closet and chose from one of his three shirts. He decided on the one missing only two buttons. Then he slipped into his pair of jeans, grabbed some socks that used to be white, and lumbered into the bathroom down the hall.
He faced the cracked mirror and combed his black hair from his face. On this day, it seemed like nothing worked. Either his hair poked up in the back or it looked pasted flat to his forehead, got in his eyes or tickled his ears. He wished he had a baseball cap on days like these but Frank had stolen it on the first day of school. In his reflection, he saw the necklace his mother used to wear. He never saw her wear it but his dad had always said she never took it off. A delicate, silver chain he had imagined belonged to her mother before her. He felt the cool metal and the pendent that hung at the end. The strange design he had never found anywhere else. He didn’t know what it meant but he knew what it meant to him. Picking it up in his fingertips, he kissed the pendent and tackled his unruly hair.
When he had managed his hair to a reasonable style, he held his breath and walked down the stairs toward the kitchen, each step creaking and whining everytime his shoes made contact with the wood. His great-grandfather had built the house and the stable where Jeppy resided. Growing up in the ancient house, he understood why he was so bad at carpentry. He had heard of homes being condemned and always feared the next visitor was a code enforcement officer. Finally, he reached the bottom and sighed, relieved of a safe passage.
His father stood over the stove, stirring something, wearing the apron he always wore that read, “Dinner is for winners!” Except now, there were so many stains, smears, and spots that the words looked more like “Der is fo winers.”
“Hey, I’m making your favorite,” his father said, smiling, a hint of excitement in the mystery. Trayton sniffed the air.
“Spinach omelet?” Trayton asked with a flat and uninterested tone.
His father turned and gave him a querulous look. “How’d you know?”
“Lucky guess.” Trayton rubbed his eyes and leaned on the table which rocked back and forth. He looked for the old book, indented from the leg of the table, but it had vanished.
There was a clatter of dishes and his father slipped the omelet onto a plate and set it down in front of Trayton. Since the kitchen was so small, whoever cooked could turn around and be seated without taking more than two steps.
“Voila!” his father remarked.
Trayton looked at the plate and then back at his dad.
“I thought you were making me an omelet?”
Trayton glanced at the plate again. “Where’s the egg?”
“A minor detail.”
“Didn’t the chicken lay any eggs?”
His dad shrugged and sat down. “Let’s just say, we won’t be having eggs for awhile.”
Looking at that plate of eggless spinach made Trayton want to skip breakfast. When one is hungry long enough, food seems more like a suggestion. The wilted leaves resembled a curled, pile of seaweed and, from the smell, it seemed the spinach had gone bad. He smiled. “Thanks.”
His dad’s eyes softened and he put his rough hand on Trayton’s shoulder. He noticed that his bushy eyebrows and mustache were beginning to get silver. “I know, Trayton,” he said softly, “I can barely eat this stuff anymore. What I wouldn’t give for a nice bowl of clam chowder or a big, juicy steak. If I could...”
He paused, hand on his son’s shoulder, and choked back the words. Trayton couldn’t look in his father’s eyes. A wave of guilt came over him and he wished he hadn’t said anything. He fiddled with his fork while he said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so picky.”
His father’s eyes glistened and a proud smile lifted the corners of his mustache.
“You are a good kid.”
Trayton gave a reluctant smile then scooped the dark green leaves and took a bite.
“Yum,” he remarked.
They both laughed as spinach dangled from Trayton’s lower lip.
The kitchen door banged open and Dog bounded in, his docked tail shaking at the base. Dog had curly fur and black and white markings and seemed to always get incredibly dirty.
Trayton leaned over and pet Dog’s head vigorously. “Hey, buddy.”
He glanced at his plate then his dad and then took a small clump of wet spinach and tossed it on the floor. Dog put his nose close, sniffed it, and then looked at Trayton.
“So,” his father interjected, “what’s going on at school today?”
The word ‘school’ made all the muscles in Trayton’s body stiffen. He swallowed before he answered.
“The same old same old.”
“Oh, come on, don’t give me that. You gotta be doing something. Why else would you be going there? What are you learning?”
Trayton’s body seemed to respond to this discussion like a body that has worked fourteen hours plowing a field with a spatula. He felt himself slouching further and further down the chair as the clock clicked closer to eight.
“We have a spelling test on Monday.”
“Mmmmm,” he said, chewing on a mouthful of his own spinach omelet. “Didg u stuby?”
Trayton shrugged, leaning on his elbows and twirling his breakfast on his fork before he admitted, “It wouldn’t matter. I’m terrible at spelling.”
His father nodded. “Yeah, me too. I wish your mother was here. Boy, she loved words. She could finish those crossword puzzles in no time flat.”
His father’s chewing slowed and he seemed lost in thought, staring straight ahead where the refrigerator used to be before they sold it. Trayton watched him.
“I better head off to school.”
His dad came out OF his trance. “Yeah. Yeah, you better get going. Don’t want to be late.”
Trayton stood up, put his plate in the sink, and grabbed his backpack off the back of the chair. Dog waddled around at his feet, hopping with excitement.
“Can I take Dog with me?”
He debated, cocking his one eyebrow higher than the other like he always does when making a decision. He swallowed and then answered, “Alright. But send him back once your half-way. I don’t want to go looking after him again, stupid pooch.”
Trayton stepped out the door with Dog right at his side. Just as the screen door slammed, he heard his father’s voice tell, “Go forth and learn, my child.”
Outside, the air was warm and the sun up enough to make the two mile walk to school as enjoyable as it was capable of being. The warmth rested on his shoulders as he crossed the property. Over the years, he had discovered how to arrive at school exactly on time. No earlier, because he loathed the idea, and no later because he didn’t want the truant officer calling his dad. So, he had learned to pace his steps to the precise speed, length, and consistency to accomplish minimizing his time away from home.
He walked by Jeppy, pat him on the side, and then walked past the wide, metal gate onto the dirt road that went between Cribbles and his farm. The big slatted wooden fence ran the perimeter of the house and stable. To the left, past the stable, lay the field where they grew spinach or tried to anyway. Little green heads poked up from the ground in rows. Why did it have to be spinach? He didn’t mind when they tried their hand at carrots, though they tasted like dirt. Nor was he too upset when they planted bell peppers. But, of course, they sprouted and never grew bigger than a golfball. The only crop he had ever been excited about was the apple trees. They were left over from when his great-grandfather had planted them but, no matter how hard they tried, they could not keep the birds and squirrels from picking at the fruit. Others suggested shooting them or traps, but Trayton’s father didn’t have the stomach to shoot another living thing. So, the year before, his father had happened upon some spinach seeds and, now, he was mired in leaves of unappetizing spinach.
Apparently, no one else wanted spinach either. But his father believed in his crop and, at least once a week when Trayton helped him around the house, his dad would hold a bundle of spinach in the air before him like a prize he won at a carnival and predict in a grandiose voice, “One day, people will come from miles away just to get a glimpse of our spinach. Then we will fix up this old dump and have ourselves a proper home.”
Ahead, he could see the forest on either side of the road, just at the top of a small hill. He didn’t particularly enjoy passing the tall shade of the trees and it always seemed colder when he passed, regardless of what time of day it was. Sometimes, he broke his walking rhythm just to get past the trees a little faster.
“Alright, Dog. Let’s go.”
To the right, Trayton noticed a big moving truck parked outside the old farmhouse where the widower, Mr. Widmer, had lived. Though he lived right next to him, he had only once met the cantankerous fellow when Dog had wandered onto his property and chased Mr. Widmer’s cat for acres. Mr. Widmer yelled so loudly that his dentures popped out of his mouth and landed in front of a young and terrified Trayton. Since then, Trayton avoided Mr. Widmer up until his death a month ago and brushed his teeth every morning and night with religious fervency. Since the funeral, that nobody attended, the house had stood empty and, on windy nights, all he could hear was the creak of the For Sale sign staked in the dead lawn.
He watched the moving men hustle tables, couches, and beds down the truck ramp, onto the porch, and through the door. Now he had new neighbors. He wondered if they would be nicer than Mr. Widmer or if they would be just like everyone else. He kept walking as Dog sidled next to him.
They headed up the small hill. Each step Trayton took felt like there were boulders in his shoes. He sighed and looked down at Dog, who barked back.
“Sometimes I just want to run away. Head off somewhere away from here. Away from this town, from school…from spinach.”
Dog cocked his head to the side as if he were really listening.
“There’s gotta be more out there, Dog. More than what this place has to offer. I know Dad is doing his best but this…”
They came closer to the forest and Trayton could almost feel the air get colder. Or was it in his head? He glanced back once they reached the top of the hill. He looked down at his home, nestled in a grassy meadow. The large meadow surrounded by oaks, maples, and firs on the distant horizon, trapping the Meeks farm and Mr. Widmer’s old place.
“What am I saying anyway? I’m just a kid.”
He turned and continued toward school, stepping into the shade of the looming trees. Dog walked closer to Trayton through here. He had always felt uneasy through this pass but never knew why. And the fact that he walked past it every day didn’t lessen his unease. Maybe it was the stories he had heard. The ones his father had told him when he was little. That boys who wandered into the forest were never seen again. Some believed that the strange creature of the wood had snatched them when they entered too far. He didn’t believe this story or any others his father told him at night. But, something, both terrifying and alluring, drew him toward the thick, shadowy woods. He vowed someday to enter there and prove the foolish myth his father told wrong. Yet deep down, he knew he could never make his feet step into those woods without ruining his underwear.
They hurried on a little faster. Trayton couldn’t help glancing to his sides. Was there something there? The walk between the woods was not actually long but it seemed a mile long. The branches above looked like skeletal hands reaching over the road and Trayton’s neurotic eyes looked up, right, left, like a paranoid rodent. The end of the road appeared and his steps quickened. When Trayton and Dog reached the end and left the shadow of the trees, they both exhaled, slightly out of breath.
Atop the small hill, the dirt road wound down toward the town. He could see the brick buildings of the school and the little figures of his classmates scurrying around the playground, shooting hoops, running on the soccer field, walking between the classrooms, and playing “Butts Up.” Even at the end of the bleachers, he could see the goth kids smoking. Seeing the familiar viewpoint, the same image he saw five days a week over and over, caused a gloominess to wash over him.
“Well, Dog, here’s where we part ways for now. I’ll see you at home later.”
Dog, seated by Trayton’s feet, looked up to his master with swollen, puppy eyes.
“Don’t give me that look. Get going,” he said, pointing his finger back toward home. Dog dropped his head and trotted a slow, dejected pace back through the shadow of the trees. Trayton watched him go, wishing he could call him back but knew he had to go home or Dad might sell him.
Trayton turned back to face Cribbles. He shook his head and took a deep breath and adjusted his shirt.
“Just one more day,” he said.