In response, police have issued a full-scale search in the Mill Valley area. The boys were last seen by the bus driver after getting dropped off at the corner of Grove and Desjardins Avenue. It’s the same stop the boys get off at every day and is less than two full blocks from their home. The brothers are seven and eight years old–
I switched the radio off as I pulled into the driveway. The resulting silence was a welcome change. I didn’t need any more mindless dribble coming over the airwaves. I had listened to enough of that at work all day.
I put the car in park, pulled the keys from the ignition and sunk back into the seat. I stretched my arms forward and coiled my neck back until my face was parallel to the roof.
It had been a long eleven hours at work. Above everything else, I needed to relax.
Sadly, the rest was momentary. Soon, the thoughts started to creep their way in.
Was Kyle’s homework done and checked? Were the dishes done? Or, were they stacked in around the sink, waiting patiently for someone (me) to come and clean them?
Staying in the car a little longer felt like a good idea. I looked towards the house and took note of which rooms had the lights on.
I remembered back to when April and I had first met. Back in the glory days at Cal. She was still in her third year and I was just a couple months from graduating. She was the pretty business major who seemingly had endless amounts of free time, while I was always the one stuck in the library with my nose glued to a textbook.
It was amazing the parallels between then and the present. Somehow, I had become the sole breadwinner of the household while she stayed home, getting herself into a good head space, before looking for her next job. She had to leave the old one because she didn’t feel comfortable around her boss in one-on-one situations. It couldn’t be pushed off until she found another job though. She needed to quit right away.
Now, I found myself privileged to stay extra late for the both of us. She even had the nerve to suggest I consider picking up some freelance work for my downtime. Computer programming is very flexible and in demand, according to her. And it would only be to make up some extra cash until she was ready to get back in the workplace again.
The joke was on her. I didn’t even know what downtime was anymore.
I looked down at the pack of American Spirits I picked up on the way home. They leaned halfway up against the rounded walls over the cup holder.
April had driven me to quit in the first place. She nagged at me for two years about quitting before I finally gave in. And now, more than ever before, they beckoned me to spark one up. Not because needed or even wanted one, but because smoking felt like an act of defiance against her.
I played with the idea of pulling one out for a few minutes before ultimately deciding against it. There was a more important matter to address. A big confrontation with my wife was forthcoming. I needed every argument in the arsenal ready to go.
I stepped out of the car and headed for the house.
I unzipped my jacket and slung it over my arm. As I slid my shoes off, I noticed that the kitchen table was empty. That was out of the ordinary. It surprised me to not see any half-assed meal sitting there cold and waiting for me. Perhaps a meal had already become too much to ask for.
An odd sound came from the living room around the corner. A whimper. It was faint and not followed, but definitely there.
I stood still for a moment, listening for more. I heard quiet voices in conversation. April’s was one of them. I couldn’t put my finger on the other two.
That’s odd. Wasn’t expecting any company. Perhaps a new issue for me to deal with shortly?… Probably.
I kept my steps light as I made my way towards them. As if I didn’t want them to detect me and I could catch them in the middle of a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. The moment I was in sight of the living room, I realized something serious was taking place.
April leaned forward on the edge of blue Lazy Boy recliner. She grasped the limp hand of our neighbour, Mrs. Wellwood on the couch next to her. Mr. Wellwood sat beside his wife. His face flushed red. He held his fogged glasses away from him while ran two fingers of the other hand down the sides of his nose.
I met April’s eyes and she shot me a look that said something was terribly wrong. Immediately, the vision I had for the night playing out had evaporated.
“Reggie,” she said. “Come sit down. The Wellwoods need our help.”
“Alright,” I answered as I dropped my coat on the kitchen table behind me. I turned one of the table chairs around in their direction and sat down.
The Wellwoods both looked up at me and flashed a smile masking obvious distress.
“What’s the matter?”
April’s eyes widened like she was shocked I had the audacity to even ask such a question. She shifted uneasily in her chair and crossed one leg over the other.
“Jeremy and Jason never came home after getting off the bus today. The police are searching all over the area. Didn’t you see any of the cruisers on your drive home?”
I thought back and did, in fact, remember that I saw a couple cruisers on the way. But I hadn’t really thought anything of it. I was too preoccupied with my own battle to wage. One that was clearly going to be delayed because of this incident.
I looked back at the Wellwoods and saw that their gazes were now fixed on the untouched water glasses in front of them. The gravity of the situation started to dawn on me. These neighbourhood kids were seriously in trouble.
I knew that they were both close in age to Kyle. But, they didn’t go to the same school. They were private school kids. Their bus stopped at a different point further down the street. That, I figured, was the reason Kyle didn’t hang around with them all that often.
A terrible thought crossed my mind. Had Jeremy and Jason gone to public school and gotten off the same bus stop as Kyle, and it was some sick bastard hunting them… would he have been targeted by proximity as well?
I minimized my shudder as best I could.
Nobody said anything for a little while. The silence wasn’t broken until Mrs. Wellwood released a whimper. It was the exact sound I had heard from the front hall.
Mr. Wellwood brought a hand up and rubbed his wife’s back. He looked back at me like he expected me to have some insight into making the problem go away.
I tried to think of something to say. Nothing came. I couldn’t even remember either of their first names.
“Not like em to not come home without saying anything,” he said. “We called the school, we called all their friends’ houses, we searched all over the neighbourhood. We don’t know where else to look.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I really wish there was something I could do to help. I should have a look myself. Maybe take a flashlight out into the woods or something?”
“The police are doing that now.”
“Well, I can still take a look. Wouldn’t hurt. I’m sure they’ll turn up. They probably just got carried away playing in a reservoir or something. It’s not like kids really think about the consequences of these things.”
He flashed me the same broken smile as earlier before turning back to his wife. She hunched further forward and began to shake.
I had both taps rotated all the way. Water streamed from the faucet and onto my open palms.
I brought up wave after wave of water against my face until shivers ran down my body. It didn’t do much to settle me down. The day had been too chaotic to let me unwind.
April and I had spent the better part of three hours consoling the Wellwoods, assuring them over and over that their sons would turn up. It was a safe neighbourhood. They were sure that there was no deranged family relative or friend who would be after them as well.
It was ultimately decided to just let the police do their job.
My idea of going out to check the woods myself had slowly faded away as the conversations carried on. I didn’t bring it up again. Guilty as I felt, I was happy to let the topic die.
I squeezed a glob of toothpaste onto my brush. My stomach gurgled as I brought it up to my mouth. A dull ache in my gut followed and I remembered I had never gotten around to eating dinner. I still hadn’t had anything since I squeezed in enough time to eat an apple on my way from one meeting to another sometime around noon.
I paused outside the bathroom door before heading back downstairs. I looked down to the far end of the hall. Right at the end, the doors to both the master bedroom and Kyle’s bedroom looked directly at each other.
I was the one who finally tucked Kyle in (no surprises there). But, for some reason, I felt compelled to reaffirm that he was in there.
Tiptoeing, careful not to wake anyone, I made my way in that direction. I opened Kyle’s door and looked in. A lump was in his bed, facing the far wall.
Relieved, I closed the door gently and turned towards the master bedroom. April had left the door open a crack. She lay in bed with the covers pulled below her waist. Her eyes were absently surveying the pages of one of her You can overcome adversity self-help books. I could tell she wasn’t taking anything in. She was too preoccupied thinking about the poor Wellwoods.
I wondered how much the trauma of someone else’s issues could have a long-lasting impact on her. The job search was sure to be pushed further down on the back burner because of this one. Maybe now she could only withstand doing half the work around the house.
I decided to let her be. It was going to take a lot of social finesse to steer the conversation back to the confrontation I had planned. The impact wasn’t going to be as critical in the wake of the recent news anyways.
By the time I was halfway down the stairs. I had already decided the argument was best left for another night.
The bulb from the open fridge was the only thing lighting the kitchen.
It was mostly picked over. In terms of what I could use to make something quickly: a full loaf of whole-grain bread, a quarter block of old cheese and some assorted cold-cuts wrapped in white paper.
It had probably been five days or more since April had last made a trip to the grocery store to spend my money.
A quick sandwich was going to have to do. I grabbed the three ingredients available along with a jar of Hellmann’s mayo. I flicked the kitchen light on as I dropped two slices of bread in the toaster. I grabbed a cutting board and knife and started slicing the cheese on the counter.
Something caught my eye as I slid the knife down for the third time. It was from outside, through the window and on the far corner of my peripheral vision. Something lit up in the backyard. It was faint and lasted for just a second. But I was sure it was there.
I set the knife down and looked out the window. I saw it again. The glint of two sets of eyes. Right at the edge of the property where the Redwoods started.
Raccoons. Bet they like the heaps of compost we drag out there for them.
I turned the backlights on. They lit up the patio and the closest patches of grass. No raccoons came into view.
Before returning back to the counter, I noticed the compost bin next to the back door. It was overflowing. Not a shocker. I couldn’t help a little chuckle. It wasn’t even worth allowing the frustration anymore.
I figured the view of old lettuce leaves and cracked eggshells wouldn’t be pleasant for eating. Before going back to finish the sandwich, I picked up the compost bin and slid the glass door open.
The air outside was cold. Colder than I remembered when coming in from the car a couple hours earlier. The grass crunched below my feet as I strode towards the edge of the property.
The garden stretched nearly all the way to the far most point of the yard. Some of the flowers April had planted months earlier were still alive.
She wanted the garden to extend further. Keep in the same line, right along the fence and towards the trees. There’s good sun near the back of the yard, she said. It will be a perfect spot for me to grow tomatoes next year.
At least we would save a little on the grocery bill.
I was almost to the dumping spot when I saw the glints again. All four spots were visible. Except, now that I was closer, I saw they weren’t on the ground. They were higher up. The little bastards must have been clinging to the tree trunks, waiting to see if I was bringing out any goodies for them.
I flipped the bin and let the contents slide out to the ground. All the while, I kept my gaze fixed on the tree line a few feet away.
My eyes started to adjust and make out the shapes. Something didn’t sit right with me.
I turned back to the garden and shook the bin until everything had fallen out. I started to jog back to the house, happy the task was done.
The voice cut through the silence. The sound was so sudden and startling it made me freeze in place. The pitch was high, unmistakably the familiar voice of a child no more than ten years old.
I looked back at the trees, seeing a little more than I had before. The outlines of individual trees, rocks and scattered shrubs were visible. A low fog started to creep out of the thicket.
Four lights flashed again. This time, they stayed in focus. I could see exactly where they were coming from. Two faces were a couple feet apart, both in the thickness of one of the larger bushes, right where the grass ended.
They were not the faces of raccoons like I originally imagined. They were the recognizable faces of two young boys in the neighbourhood. The same two who had gone missing earlier in the day.
I stumbled back. I looked back up at them in disbelief that Jeremy and Jason Wellwood had wandered to the edge of my backyard. It was no lie. They were really there, staring back at me in the darkness.
“Help us, Reggie,” one of the said. “It’s cold out here. We need to go inside.”
There was a shiver in the voice. It was the sound of a child in distress.
“W-What are you boys doing out here? Your parents are worried sick. Police have been looking for you all night.”
“We got lost on the way home, Reggie. Come, help us find our way back.”
I squinted harder into the darkness of the woods. There was something about the way they spoke that wasn’t natural. Their words were stilted. Like they were reciting lines from a piece of paper.
“Why aren’t you helping us, Reggie?” they both said together. Their voices were in perfect unison.
With arms out, I cautiously stepped towards them. As I got closer, the paleness of their skin almost glowed. I could see the white in their eyes. They looked blank, like the pupils and retinas were missing.
The fog grew thicker. It spilled out of the woods and over the grass and flowed around my ankles.
I pulled my arms back and tensed my legs, ready to turn and run if I needed to.
“Come out of the bushes, boys,” I said. “Let’s get you inside for some cocoa. I’ll call your parents and let them know you’re alright.”
“But we’re stuck, Reggie,” they said, again together. “Our shoes are caught in the mud and we can’t get them out. Come back here and help. It’s not just us. Kyle’s stuck too.”
An icy shiver ran from head to toe. The words stung like a raw nerve. I thought back to when I had checked Kyle’s room and saw the lump in the bed facing the other direction.
I was so sure it had been him. But I hadn’t actually checked. Why would I? I didn’t expect to get caught up in whatever sick game I found myself in.
I stared back hard at the two pale faces in the shrub. They swayed gently back in forth, like their bodies were having trouble supporting them.
Then, it appeared that they did not have had bodies at all.
Instead, I saw two bony arms, holding the heads up like miniature puppets. They were impossibly long and partially covered by what looked be the tattered threads of a ripped suit jacket. The exposed skin was the same pale white colour of the Wellwood boy’s faces.
The way the arms bent up… it was like a spider upside down with its legs dangling up towards the sky.
“What’s the matter, Reggie? Why aren’t you helping us? You can’t leave us out here. Kyle will freeze to death.”
That was enough. I started to sprint back towards the house. As I did, a new voice called out behind me.
“Dad, please don’t run away. Come back here and help me.”
Even in mid-sprint, with the adrenaline coursing through my veins, I knew was something wrong with that voice. It wasn’t genuinely believable like the Wellwood boys voices. This one was off. It was like an out of tune falsetto. The horrible sound of someone failing to mimic Kyle’s voice.
I slammed the back door shut as hard as I could. I locked it and checked it twice. When satisfied, I continued my sprint into the darkness of the house.
It was the longest night of my entire life. After checking both Kyle’s and April’s rooms as many times over as I possibly could, I went and triple checked that every door and window in the house was locked tight.
I called the police and tried to explain to them what it was exactly that I witnessed. Their presence was already all over the neighbourhood. A few officers simply walked over and started a sweep into the woods.
I sat on the floor at the end of the upstairs hallway. My back rested against the far wall that sat in between Kyle’s and my bedroom door. The aluminum bat I found in the basement passed between either hand as I stayed there, wide-eyed until the sun came up.
Even with the cruiser parked outside, and my family sleeping peacefully as if nothing happened, I couldn’t allow myself a moment of rest.
I checked April’s phone (which I had stolen from the night table on her side of the bed). It was finally 8 AM, and therefore at the point in time I felt it appropriate to make my call.
I scrolled through the contacts until I saw Cheryl Wellwood.
Cheryl. That was her name. I felt guilty for not remembering the night before.
The phone rang once before she picked up.
“Hi, Cheryl. It’s Reggie.”
“Hi, Reg.” Her voice sounded tired and irritated. Like she couldn’t believe I would have the nerve to call her so early.
“Sorry for calling at this hour… but I have something that I need to tell you.”
“You saw our boys in the woods last night?”
My mind struggled to process her response. I lost grip on the phone and it fell to the hardwood floor. I fumbled with it as I struggled to pick it back up.
“H-How did you know?” I said as I brought it back up.
It sounded like she set the phone down on the table the moment I finished speaking. There were a few moments of silence before I heard her whimper in the background. It was the exact same one she had made on multiple occasions the night before in my living room.
I heard a crumpling noise on the other end as someone picked up the phone. Mr. Wellwood’s voice came through.
“Is that you, Reggie?” he said.
“Yes. Is something wrong over there? I just told Cheryl that I saw your boys in the woods behind my backyard last night.”
“Not surprised to hear that,” he said before letting out a sigh. “We’ve been getting the same call all morning from folks all over the neighbourhood. Seems like pretty well everyone who’s got a lot backing up onto the trees thinks they saw em.”
Over a week later, we were still at April’s sister’s place in Sacramento. Like every other night since I saw the boys (or whatever it was exactly I saw) in the backyard, I lay sleepless in bed.
The three of us shared the extra room. April and I slept out on the pullout couch, while Kyle slept on a cot beside us.
I checked both sides and saw that my son and wife slept comfortably. They probably wondered exactly when it would be that we would return home. My vacation days were running out and Kyle had missed too much school already.
I was mostly mum about exactly what it was I saw that night when asked. I could feel the resulting pressure to bring us back home and get back into the routine of normal life. Nobody likes to leave home for some crazy ghost story.
My call to the police was one of many from the neighbourhood that night. Each one, someone claimed they saw the Wellwood boys in the trees, but couldn’t get them to come out.
That’s all there was though. They still hadn’t been found and no more reported sightings. Bruno Valejo, who lived around the corner from us, also went missing. He went out to his backyard in the evening and was never seen again.
I got up from bed, trying to cause minimal disturbance. I shuffled towards the window and looked out.
The house backed up onto a little brush. It was nothing more than a cluster of trees. You could see all the way to the other lot backing onto the same ones. The streetlights illuminated throughout.
Somehow, they still made me uneasy.
I reflected on everything that swirled around my mind that night. All the problems that occupied my thoughts until I stepped out to the backyard. How worked up and pissed off I had been. It was so damn important to confront April, it’s all that I could see.
Somehow, none of it mattered anymore. All was forgotten and left behind as a distant afterthought.
I left the window and sat at the bottom corner of Kyle’s cot. I imagined his voice from when we said our good nights. How different it was from whatever falsetto I heard calling for me as I desperately ran for the backdoor.
I couldn’t help the smile that rose to my face. I forced it back down as quickly as I could. Like there was someone awake in the room that I was trying to hide it from.
My head dropped to my hands. In the strangest way, I had never been so grateful. It was wrong to feel that way, and I aware of that. Because, the happiness I experienced came as the result of someone else’s misery.
I couldn’t help it. It was genuine gratitude.
I still had everything that I held dear. Nothing had been taken from me. Not like what happened to the poor Wellwoods.
It’s like those times where you narrowly avoid a car accident because you’re not paying enough attention. Or when you see a news report about some pedestrian getting smoked on the same corner you pass every day on your way to work.
Sometimes, life is generous enough to serve you a lesson at someone else’s expense. One of those rare times you get a harsh reminder about what’s important without having to pay the fee.
I smiled at Kyle again before returning to bed.