When the Trailer Trash Gang found a tent in the woods - Chap 2
The things that any normal adult would be incapable of forgetting pass from the minds of children like so much ephemera, and in record time.
So it was with the tent in the woods. I don’t remember us ever talking about it after the day it happened. We went home, slept the night through, and woke up the next morning with half of us going to church and the other half doing chores around the house. I chalk it up to the resilience of youth — the mind’s ability to obscure the terrible, to preserve a semblance of normality in the face of the horrific.
I’m recalling all of this now after the package arrived on Monday. Sent to me from Andi’s kids, it looked like any normal package sitting on my doorstep, yet it filled me with a combination of dread, despair, and foreboding. The envelope sits on my desk, next to me, unopened. I know what’s in it, though, and likely what it means.
Of course, children are immune to these feelings, these premonitions, and often to the entire concept of a future. This was particularly so for those of us from the trailer park. We knew deep inside that there wasn’t a future ahead of us like there was for other kids at school, but that knowledge went unacknowledged and simply fed our desire to live in the moment.
We never found the tent again, though we were delving further and further into the woods every year. Emboldened by our age, empowered by the feeling of immortality that only children can feel. Sometimes I’d bring the book with me, still unopened and unopenable, for no reason I could understand. It was never mentioned among us, it simply became another companion piece for our explorations, resting in my back pocket. As much as we ran, fell, and clambered about, it’s a miracle that the book never fell out of my pocket. Or perhaps “miracle” is the wrong word? But I digress.
It was at least six months before we ran into anything strange in the woods again. Most of our expeditions were anticlimactic, the normal wanderings of a crew of kids with nothing better to do and little interest in anything else. As summer turned into fall, the days got shorter and the woods often seemed darker. Half of our time in the woods was usually spent dodging the rain, running from one well-protected copse of trees to another, splashing in the puddles and soaking our jeans with mud. We knew that there would be hell to pay when we got home — inevitably the dirtiest days followed laundry day rather than led to them — but we didn’t care. The four of us were bound by a mutual fascination with the now.
It’s amazing how clearly we can remember certain things that happened so long ago, when at the time we might not have even recalled it the next day. How much of memory is reconstruction of scattered bits of half-encoded neurons, and how much is precise recollection of certain moments in time? Psychologists tell us that the reason things seem to move in slow motion in times of stress and danger is that we become aware of the process of transforming our sensory input into perception, and perception into memory. That’s what it feels like for adults, but are children ever really aware when this happens? Their world moves in slow motion normally, except when in retrospect we see it all in fast-forward. It would be nice if the past would stay in the past, but time is inexorable in either direction.
The day was slowly coming to a close, another in a series of dreary Saturdays in Autumn, the parade of which leads into the countdown to the holidays. I can’t remember the date, but it must have been sometime in early October, as we hadn’t yet gone through the ritual of trick ‘r treating for the year. The weather was bearable — cold enough to require jackets, sprinkling enough to keep the ground and brush damp, but still comfortable enough for us to remain out in the woods for whole days on the weekend.
Surprisingly, we hadn’t gone deep into the woods this time, rather we were circumnavigating the trailer park, maybe a half-mile into the woods. It was a trail we’d carved through the years, clear and direct. It passed by most of our common milestones — the “big rock”, the “hill climb”, the gigantic stump we called “big boy”, and so many others lost to time and memory. We knew this trail like the backs of our hands, we’d trod it so many times.
Which is why the clearing took our breaths away.
We’d been playing a version of “three blind mice”, a game in which three of us put covers over our eyes and followed the fourth by voice or touch or sheer concentration. Andi was the “pied piper” that round, and when she stopped at the edge of the clearing, we all ran directly into each other, resulting in the kind of laughter that comes from sheer ignorance.
“Guys! Take off the masks! NOW!!” she shouted, and we all obediently did so.
The trail, which we knew so very well, ended abruptly at the entrance to a clearing that we had never seen before. It was a nearly perfect circle maybe a hundred feet wide, filled with clean grass with no mushrooms or other impurities. In the center was a large stone of an incomprehensible shape and indeterminate size. It looked as though the rock had emerged from the ground, and pushed the grass outward, holding back the surrounding forest.
Andi held us back at the entrance, as though she could sense that entering the clearing was to trespass on something sacred, something secret.
“Uh…this is new,” observed Teddy in his usual deadpan delivery. Sometimes it was hard to figure out if he knew he was stating the obvious, or if he thought he was being insightful.
“No shit, Sherlock,” laughed Huck as he pushed past the rest of us and into the clearing. He started singsonging his usual incitement as he stepped across the threshold, “Chickenshits, chickenshits, all y’all are chickenshits…”
The moment Huck’s foot stepped into the grass, the world went silent around us. The wind still blew, but the sound was gone. The birds flew overhead, but their calls had vanished. We heard nothing but a still silence underpinned by a dull buzzing sound. That was a sound that you didn’t hear, though — it was a sound you felt. Like the thumping bass in a movie theater vibrates you from the core, this buzz was vibrating in the back of my head. Soft, subtle, enticing.
Teddy burst through first, I think intending to drag Huck back out of the circle. But he stopped when his foot crossed the threshold, the buzz turning up a notch.
His head cocked as he turned back to Andi and me, “Can you guys hear that?”
Andi was next, though whether it was her intent to move forward or a compulsion I can’t be positive. And, sure enough, the buzz stepped up another level when her feet struck the grass.
“It wants us to be here,” she said blankly as she turned to me and put her hand out in a gesture that in other circumstances would have been welcoming, even motherly.
These are the moments in a movie where the hero realizes the danger that’s facing their friends. Where they brilliantly resist the influence of whatever power is playing against their instincts. The moment of truth where they save everyone by rejecting the illusion before them and breaking the spell of the insidious power affecting their friends.
But this isn’t a heroic epic. This isn’t the story of a champion’s journey. This story has nothing to do with Joseph Campbell and his archetypes. Real life doesn’t follow such a predictable model.
I reached out to Andi and took her hand in mine. I wish I could say that she then pulled me into the clearing, against my will — but that’s simply not true. I stepped forward like a gentleman caller in a Jane Austen movie.
And sure enough, as soon as my foot reached the grass, the volume of the buzz increased.
And it transformed.
The buzz wasn’t just a buzz anymore, it was a voice. No, not a voice, an incomprehensible, unintelligible cacophony of voices. They were both soft and harsh at once, loud and quiet at the same time, caring and critical in equal measures.
Acting both of our own accord and at the guidance of whatever presence was there in the clearing, we took each other’s hands and stepped toward the stone in the center. As we moved toward it, the voices grew louder, but less clear. There was a clear element of excitement that not only altered the tone of the voices, but which infected us. Looking around, I could see the idiot grins plastered on the faces of my best friends, and knew that if they were looking at me they’d see the same.
The voices invaded my head, as in turn I heard Huck, then Teddy, then Andi, begin speaking something aloud, echoing a chorus that had begun to form among the voices. I knew that if they were listening, they’d hear me doing the same.
We circled the stone, and began to dance around it. I can only assume that the others felt the same as I did, as though I was an observer trapped within a body that was no longer mine. A voice speaking through me that was not my own. Only my eyes remained in my control, taking in every single moment of what was happening around me.
Watching from within a body that was no longer my own, I lost track of time. It was impossible to know how long we circled the stone, as the voices both inside my head and coming from my friends grew louder and louder. The last thing I remember is a bright flash of light, the sound of an entirely different voice call from the stone, and then — pure black.
The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and seeing brush surrounding me, soft rain dropping from the sky through the trees above me. It was night, but the waxing moon glowed bright enough in the sky to illuminate the area around me. I sat up and tried to find my bearings, slowly recognizing the trail we’d passed a hundred times. I watched as each of my dearest friends sat up and shook themselves, feeling the cold and wet for the first time in who knew how many hours.
We locked eyes with each other, as the memories of our experience drifted away like sand from an hourglass.
Huck was the first to speak, “What. The. Fuck. Was. That?”
Everyone else was speechless, and Teddy pointed out the obvious, as he always did, “Uh, we’re going to get our asses KICKED for being out here this late.”
Andi and I looked around as we stood, trying to reconcile the dissonance in our brains between what we were seeing now and what we remembered experiencing. But the circle simply wasn’t here, and never had been. But it was, and it always would be.
We all stood there as we felt our minds letting go of whatever had happened, if it had happened. It was Andi who first noticed it, asking me “Wait, what’s that around your neck?”
I thought she was joking at first, then immediately leapt to the idea that there was a snake or a spider or some other critter crawling on me. I started frantically brushing my neck and shoulders, as my fingers caught on a light golden chain, snagging it and breaking it as it wrapped around my hand.
“What is your major malfunction, nerd?” asked Teddy as he grabbed me by the shoulders. “She was talking about that,” he said, pointing to the chain wrapped around my hand.
Hanging from it was a small key, maybe a half inch long. It was intricately designed, far more than its small size should support.
My eyes locked with Andi’s, who in turn looked to Huck and Teddy. It didn’t take Teddy’s talent for commenting on the obvious for us to know what lock this key belonged to.