“We’ll set the traps close to the edge so we’ll be able to watch from the house,” Frankie said, pulling Donnie out of his thoughts.
“I’m scared,” the younger boy whined. He tried not to be, but all he could think about was the look on Momma’s face when she’d spoken of the great beast. Her left eye always twitched slightly, and she had begun smoking again. Donnie also noticed her voice had become a bit deeper, more gravelly.
“Everything will be alright,” Frankie said. “You’ll see.” Then he put his arm around his brother’s shoulder, which made Donnie feel like crying, but he swallowed hard and blinked the tears away.
“Do you think we’ll catch it tonight?” Donnie asked.
“No tellin’. We might. Here, help me with this.”
Donnie took the rope from his brother’s arm and draped it over his own. Frankie carried a shovel and a pick-axe on one shoulder and a pitchfork on the other. As they reached the edge of the forest, he dropped them onto rocky ground where they clattered together like dry metal bones.
It was much cooler beneath the towering trees. The drought hadn’t affected the ancient oaks and maples at all. Daddy always said, their roots ran deep, where the great springs flowed. Donnie imagined a cavernous underground world beneath their feet. He could almost feel the thrum of water below him, and wondered suddenly if that’s where the Roaming Darkness came from.
The trees were packed closely together, shading the pine needled carpet. Deeper in, the forest floor was packed with moss covered stones and seas of lush, green ferns. It was amazing to see so much life just a few feet away from the rest of the world which was now a dying land of dust.
They spent the next few hours digging holes and setting snares, which they triggered with flexible saplings. Frankie had learned how to set such traps from their father. Donnie didn’t remember too much about Daddy, just that he would sing to them at bedtime. Sometimes, Donnie could still hear Daddy’s deep voice while drifting off to sleep at night and he believed this was what protected him from nightmares.
When they finished laying the last snare, Donnie looked up and noticed they had worked through supper. The sun was getting low in the sky. His eyes had adjusted to the gloom and he hadn’t noticed the day was nearly gone. Suddenly, the forest took on an ominous feel. Shadows lengthened, slid into dark hollows and danced through the great oaks like dark spirits seeking shelter.
“Frankie,” Donnie whispered.
“Yeah, what? I’m almost finished. Hand me those spikes.”
Frankie had sharpened several sticks making makeshift punji stakes. He was now standing at the bottom of a three-foot hole they’d dug.
“We gotta go. The sun is going down,” Donnie said as he handed Frankie the sticks.
“Okay, let me get these into the ground”
Suddenly, Donnie caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A shape looked like a gigantic sliding shadow moved through the line of huge trees. The shadowy beast was as long as a car and half as tall. Sticks and leaves snapped beneath its club-like feet. Low branches bent and swayed as it passed and there was a low grinding sound as it rubbed against the tree bark.
Donnie stood frozen, staring at darkness moving against night. It was nearly invisible but had a slight shimmer like heat on a highway. Its breath was ragged and low like a dog after a fight. The beast began to growl and Donnie saw a glimmer that could only be huge pointed teeth emerging from the beast’s cavernous mouth. That was what jolted Donnie out of his stagnation.
“Frankie, get out now! Give me your hand!” Donnie reached down for his brother and he was glad when Frankie’s hand extended upward without argument.
Donnie pulled his older brother out of the hole with more strength than he ever thought he had. The two boys ran for the house, neither one of them looking back. Donnie knew if they turned around, it would slow them just enough for the Roaming Darkness to catch up. And if the creature caught them, it would eat them. Then it would climb the stairs and take Momma back to whatever Hell it came from. Donnie had changed his mind. He no longer wanted to join Momma if the black beast got her. The thought of being carried away in that creature’s tooth-filled jaws made him sick with fear.
They stumbled up the porch steps and burst into the house. Frankie turned and slammed the door behind them then twisted the deadbolt into place. He slowly moved the curtains aside and peered out into the darkening yard.
“Did it follow us?” Donnie asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t see it now, but I did out in the woods. I saw it just as sure as shit. It was fast, God, it was fast. I though it had us. Oh God. Did you see how big it was?”
Donnie just nodded.
Frankie collapsed, his back to the door. They were still both out of breath and panting like dogs.
“I’m scared, Frankie.”
“I am too, but maybe it’ll fall into one of our traps and break a leg. We’ll find out in the morning. I’ll bet it went back into the woods. Are you hungry? I’m starving,” Frankie said, speaking nervously. He realized he was shaking.
“Yeah, we haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
“I’ll make us some macaroni and tomatoes if you go get a jar from the basement.”
“Okay,” Donnie said. Macaroni and tomatoes was his favorite meal. He didn’t think Frankie would make them as good as Momma, but his stomach was still growling loudly at the thought.
He opened the cellar door, turned on the overhead bulb and made his way down into the musty smelling basement. Spider-webs decorated the corners and the dirt floor puffed up dust as Donnie walked, but it was cool down there and he felt safe buried deep underground.
Thanks to Momma’s canning they had enough food to last for months. He grabbed a jar of tomatoes off the shelf and carried them back upstairs. Donnie hadn’t thought much about what would happen if they couldn’t kill the beast, hadn’t thought much about it because it was terrifying. Frankie had said they’d be taken away from the farm, probably separated and put in different homes far away from the farm.
In no time, Frankie had everything cooking. The food smelled wonderful and Donnie’s stomach growled audibly.
They ate in silence, sitting at the splintery kitchen table, listening for sounds from outside. Donnie thought they would hear howls of pain or a roar like a lion if the Roaming Darkness was caught, but the night was silent. His hope faded as the nighttime hours passed and he grew sleepy. In the moments between awake and asleep, he thought about going upstairs and kissing Momma goodnight, but that only made him cry. He fell asleep with tears drying on his dirt-covered cheeks.
The next morning they were both up with the sun, anxious to see if the beast was caught or wounded. The world was red with dawn’s light and a slight breeze rustled the corn plants and stirred up the dust.
They walked out onto the front porch. A crow cawed from its perch on the barn roof. Chipped paint crunched beneath their feet and there was still a slight coolness in the air. Donnie knew it would be gone in an hour, replaced by the suffocating heat and humidity that was now like an old friend who had overstayed his welcome.
“Frankie, look. What is it?”
“I don’t know, come on.”
They jumped down the steps and walked out into the yard. The crispy, brown grass had been worn away, forming a rough, dirt circle that surrounded the house. Clods of soil and sod lay to each side of the channel as if a bulldozer had dug a shallow moat.
“Did the beast do this?” Donnie asked, squinting against the now bright morning sunlight.
“I think so. It must’ve been pacing, waiting for us to come out.”
The thought of the Roaming Darkness circling the house in the early morning hours while they were sleeping, made Donnie shiver. He could imagine it making its rounds, staring into their windows, hoping they would come back outside before the sunlight chased it back into the forest.
“Let’s go check the traps,” Frankie said.
Frankie took the pitchfork and handed Donnie an axe they found sticking out of a tree stump out back. It had last been used while their father was alive and was rusty but the blade was still murderously sharp. Donnie hefted it onto his shoulder, feeling like a lumberjack.
“Do you think we caught it?” Donnie asked.
“It’s too big. I didn’t realize it was that huge when I set the traps.” Frankie said, shaking his head sadly.
They walked through their back yard and stopped at the edge of the forest. There was a thick, pungent odor wafting through the trees. It was sickly sweet, slightly syrupy and coated the back of Donnie’s throat like molasses. He gagged once and his eyes watered. Then he swallowed hard and it became a bit more bearable. Frankie spit in the dirt and coughed once. The sound was very loud in the early morning stillness.
“Breathe through your mouth. It helps,”
“Donnie held his nose and sucked in noxious air past his tongue. It did help some, but now he felt like he was eating the odor, swallowing it.
“What is it?” Donnie asked.
“That must be its scent. Let’s go see if it’s sprung any of the traps.”
They walked between the trees. Donnie listened to their feet crunching on dead leaves and his own heartbeat slamming in his chest. He saw things move out of the corners of his eyes and the trees seemed to crowd him.
As they reached the area where they’d set their traps, it became apparent that they had caught nothing.
The ground in the small space was chewed up, much like the circle around the house. Smaller trees were uprooted, and larger ones were missing their lower branches. The boy’s traps had been destroyed. The saplings now lay broken and twisted on the disturbed ground. The pits they had dug were now filled with boulders. Dead rabbits, squirrels and birds lay on top of the piles, their blood spilling down between the stones like a mock sacrifice.
Frankie hung his head and let out a small, hopeless sigh. Then he kicked at the ruined earth and slammed his small fists against one of the ruined trees.
“Dammit!” he screamed. “It’s not fair.” Then he began to sob.
Donnie put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Frankie, maybe we’d just better just call someone. The police, or Pastor Ringley. “
“No! Screw that! That thing is waiting for us to give up so it can take Momma. We can’t let it, Donnie. We just can’t. Come on. Let’s go get some breakfast.”
They walked back to the house through the rocky, barren field and Donnie wondered how long Frankie could keep up the fight. Would they really be able to kill the monster that stalked their mother’s soul? Would they be able to even keep it at bay, and for how long? He thought about asking Frankie those questions, but he feared that his older brother didn’t know the answers and that scared Donnie terribly.