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When the Night Looks Back (Derek's Story) Conclusion
The place looked like it was falling apart. You had to unlock two gates to get to it and go down this steep hill that made the crappy little 4x4 shake. The roof of the cabin was sloping and one of the window panes was cracked but it was where I was gunna call home for the next month. The rest of the places around Uncle Sy’s Cabin looked just as run down, all peeling paint and dull timber.
The cabin was dark when we walked in. Sy moved through the place like a ninja, knowing where each musty couch and threadbare rug lay while I tripped over a footrest and stumbled into the kitchen table. I wrestled my bag off me and saw uncle Sy watching me from across the room. His eyes were haunted in shadow from the light of a Coleman lamp, his white beard almost see through in the white-yellow glow.
“You know how to make a fire?” he asked, his voice tinged with the ghost of an accent I equated with the weird earthy smell of the place. I told him I did. How hard could it be? Matches made fire, and wood burned, easy. He moved the lantern from the counter to the kitchen table. The cabin was small but the light barely reached me in the living room. He told me where the woodbox was and then set the box of redbirds beside the lantern before disappearing into the darkness of his bedroom. He came out fifteen minutes later to watch as I tired for the fourth time to get the stupid logs to burn.
“I think something’s wrong with this thing, it’s busted or something.” I threw the charred useless match to join the three other dead soldiers that went before it.
“You don’t know half as much as you think.” Uncle Sy’s words were as cold as the dead matches. “Wood stove worked before you got here, it will work after you leave.”
“Can’t I just go to my room?” I asked. That’s what mom used to make me do for punishment. What kind of idiot lived without heat?
“First you make a fire, then you make your bed.” I heard from behind me.
By the end of the week I had it down to two matches before the stove was lit. By the time I left I had a whole system for figuring out the damper and getting the airflow just right.
Uncle Sy never aknowledged that I was improving, no matter how hot I made it in that stupid cabin. He just sat at the table looking into the woods beyond the small community. Some nights I could see a light bobbing through the trees but when I asked him about it Uncle Sy either pretended not to see or didn’t answer at all.
Over the weeks I split wood, I cleaned the gutters, and I helped him level the place. I didn’t want to do the last one, the small cavity under the cabin looked like the perfect home for a porcupine or a skunk (or a wolf) and I wasn’t about to be (eaten) sprayed. But I learned quickly there was no arguing with Uncle Sy. He once told me to re-split a pile of wood I’d worked for hours on and when I flipped him off he didn’t do anything until dinner time. He didn’t say much, but the man could cook. He spent half the afternoon filling the cabin with the savoury smell of gravy and roast chicken. It was about damn time the old man showed me some respect. When I sat down to eat he asked me if I knew how to pray. When I clasped my hands together he wrapped one of his meaty fists around it and bound my wrists in twine.
“Hands used in vulgarity are rarely good for much else.” he told me.
“You’re starving me?” I scoffed at him. “You can’t do that. There are like, laws against it.”
“Who is starving?” He asked me, “you can eat all you like.” It was the first time I saw him smile since I got there. He grinned his way through his chicken leg and mashed potatoes.
I told myself I wouldn’t eat. I could wait him out. I wouldn’t let this old man break me and I damn sure wouldn’t let him see me cry. But it smelled like Thanksgiving and my stomach was cramping from hunger. When I started eating I heard a dry chuckle come from Uncle Syman. He cut a small slice of chicken and murmured “good dog.” between chews. I told myself my burning cheeks were from the fire.
When I refused to go under the cabin at first all he had to do was look at me, that was all it took. It reeked under there like wet rot and animal shit, but there was something else, something almost like the locker room in the gym, something approaching fear and sweat. I almost threw up lunch, but we did it, and when we stood back to admire our work he put a hairy hand on my shoulder.
That night after we’d eaten slabs of deer steak Uncle Sy told me he was going out. He didn’t tell me where but he wore his heavy sheepskin coat and a moth eaten toque from the closet. He picked up the lantern and warned me not to follow him like he thought I’d listen. I knew it was about the lights.
I figured maybe they had some kind of backwoods still or grow op going on back there, either way I needed to see it. I waited until I saw his lantern move to the treeline and then cut through a field across from the cabin. There were more stars in the sky than I'd ever seen and the moon looked like a dinner plate hanging orange in the October night.
The forest kind of came out of the gloom all of a sudden and before long there were stiff pine branches grabbing at my coat and other lanterns floating through the darkness. I counted about six coming in from either direction. I could hear voices murmuring, Uncle Sy’s unmistakable accent seeming to cut his words at ninety degree angles.
I waited to smell something, maybe some pot or, I don’t know like a cider smell or stale beer. But as we moved deeper into the woods all I could smell was that same stink from under the cabin. It was awful, the further in we went the worse the stink got until I just about turned around, no homemade hooch was worth tossing my cookies over.
When they came to a clearing I blinked back tears and tried to focus through the pounding headache I had. I heard the rattle of chains before I saw anything. As my vision cleared I saw the metal spike hammered into the soft earth and the ring that held the chain. Both of them looked heavy enough to keep Uncle Sy’s Dakota rooted in place. From under his coat Uncle Syman brought out a package wrapped in butcher’s paper. He unwrapped two hunks of meat and dropped them close to the stake, edging slowly to it and keeping his eyes on the darkness beyond the lamplight where the chain led deeper into the woods. Uncle Sy took a few steps back and the chain began to slacken. A puff of condensation rolled out of the darkness and beyond the small gathering.
The group of men exchanged nervous looks and a murmur rippled through them, this time I caught a few words of the lord's prayer that some of them sent up.
When it came into the light it was the biggest wolf I’d ever seen. The body was a dark gnash of steel grey fur matted with twigs and leaves. The chain prevented it from standing it’s full height but even hunched it was up to Uncle Sy’s shoulder. The thing never took it’s eyes off my uncle and the rage and hatred I saw in them dwarfed anything I’d ever pretended to feel for my mom. Sy stood his ground and watched the thing pick up the meat, using it’s head with unnatural grace. When the lamplight lit up the snout I saw the rows of sickly yellow teeth the size of kitchen knives. Somewhere deep in the place where childhood fear lives I thought of that wolf-crying boy, and I wondered how it would feel having that jaw screaming towards me in the darkness.
I don’t remember bolting. One second I was hiding behind a fallen poplar, and the next the tallgrass of the field was slapping my face while I hitched in great gasps of air trying desperately to run back through my footprints in the moonlight.
I tried to sleep when I got back, I thought I would after I caught my breath and tried to convince myself it had all been a trick of the light, that it was just a normal wolf they had tied up to stop it from eating the livestock. But then I’d remember the eyes, those hate filled and terrible eyes.
Uncle Sy didn’t come back until dawn. I heard him open the closet door and then I heard his bootfalls to the bedroom, and finally his bulk settling on his bedsprings. I must have passed out for a few hours because when the phone rang it sounded like a woman screaming and jarred me out of bed. When my heart rate slowed down enough I walked into the kitchen, and just about into Uncle Sy. He pushed me back into my room, he was as frantic as I’d ever seen him. He kept saying we had to go had to go, that something had happened. My stomach did a lazy flip as I pictured the metal stake in the ground with the chain broken halfway along its length, the wolf pumping it’s way through the trees and tallgrass towards the cabin.
Turned out to be mom. She was cooking breakfast after pulling a double and splashed the grease from the pan onto the stove. A fire wormed its way up her arm and burned her pretty bad. The hospital had her brother as an emergency contact and they were calling to let him know he should get to town.
Driving up the hill towards the two gates I kept looking towards the treeline expecting to see the wolf loping through the morning mist. Sy kept his eyes on the road and we listened to that same radio static, but this time it sounded like howling.
“My mom was ok though, nothing major. She’s still got the scars you can see when she wears her hair up.” Derek pitched the remnants of a birch stick he’d been slowly burning down as he talked into the fire.
“Well that’s a relief.” Willy said with what he hoped was just enough mock sincerity, and rolling his eyes at Brian who sat with his hands on his knees. Suddenly Brian started sniffing hard like a great sneeze was coming. He inhaled three times before looking at the rest of his troop.
“You guys smell that?” At the question, Brayden, Derek and Willy looked at each other smelling the air and shrugging.
“The fire?” Brayden guessed.
“Smells like a buncha bullshit to me!” Brian hit the punchline and three of the four boys' laughter echoed in the night. Derek’s eyebrows shot up along with his right hand “I swear man, hand to god the truth, watch when my mom comes to pick me up I’ll ask her to show you!”
“When my mom comes you’ll see!” Brian warbled in a mocking falsetto that set him and Brayden into a fresh fit of laughter. Willy leaned over to Derek “Hey, don’t worry about it man, it was still a great tall tale.”
“Aw the hell with you Piglet! I don’t need your pity, and it is true! Screw you Brian.” Derek stood up, he had been playing with Brian before but now he was going to wipe that smirk off his face. If that pretty boy thought having a few inches on him meant anything, Derek would gladly show him how little that mattered. Brain saw Derek advancing and stood up too, eager to defend himself.
“Gentlemen.” a booming voice from beyond the glow of the firelight made them all jump. Brayden let out a small scream and then looked from Derek to Brian. Scouter Alan stepped into the light of the fire and regarded all four boys with the stony judgement of one who’s caught young men in the middle of mischief. “If you can’t grow up and talk it out then you should have stayed in beavers, now have a seat Brian. Derek, why don’t you find us a few more decent logs to burn. I thought I’d come over to let you boys know I’ve breached the door. The baseboards are just heating up and the overheads need some time but I thought I’d grab your packs and get our supplies inside before joining you. It’s lucky I checked in when I did before this turned into a UFC fight instead of a scout camp.
“Wouldn’t have been much of a fight.” Brian muttered.
“No huh? You woulda beat the tar outta the guy Bri? Your friend who you've got at least three inches of reach on? Would that have made you proud of yourself?” Scouter Al’s eyes blazed along with the coals. He didn’t wait to hear Brian’s defeated “no sir.'' but trudged into the darkness to pick up the boy’s packs.
Technically he should have had them do it, but he wanted to get a look inside the building first, once the lights came on. As he was trying the keys in the lock he could swear he heard some kind of shuffling on the other side of the door like someone was moving, or listening to his attempt to get in. All rational thought told him that he was being ridiculous, that no one could have hung a padlock on the outside of the doors and then locked themselves in. At least, they shouldn’t have been able to. He gathered the three backpacks dropped in a cluster and made for William’s, taking a step backwards to compensate when he picked it up.
“Whoof Willy did you forget to pack? This thing’s light.”
“My mom - er - I packed light. Be prepared, right?” Willy cast a glance at the other boys around the fire. Brayden looked like he was going to latch on to that one but let it slide.
Al walked by the fire as Derek dumped an armload of decent looking maple beside it. That would keep it going long enough for him to take a look around and confirm they were alone and he was being stupid. Then he’d be able to join the boys to tell an old classic around the campfire. “Maybe even toast some s’mores” he mumbled to himself.
At the fire Derek stood in front of Brian for a few beats before sticking his hand out. They both shook and exchanged mutters that passed for apologies.
“Awwwwww” Brayden clasped his hands to his neck and cocked his head. Derek flipped him off as he sat down. “Well.” he cleared his throat. He’d been dreading this moment, to some extent he figured they all had been.
By order of elimination it was Willy’s turn, and Derek didn’t feel like listening through some complicated campfire story that was probably set in space, or some half baked story that Willy would half squeak out before losing his nerve and going back to looking at the fire like it was his only friend. Willy surprised them all when he spoke up over the crackle of the fire.
“I think you guys are really gunna love this one.”
“Fat chance piglet.” Brayden tossed a pinecone at him but it went wide at the last second. Willy didn’t flinch like Brian thought he would, he probably didn’t see it. He thought. Willy just sat there looking first from one to the other, a strange smile playing across his lips.
“You guys ever heard that misery loves company? Well, this story oughta tell you why.”
Read on next week for Willy's story, will he measure up to the rest of the troop? find out on October 23, 2021