Will leaned against a tree trunk, idly picking at the bark. He broke off a small bit and tossed it to the ground. They had been waiting what felt like forever. On a school night. It was getting dark. A few more minutes and they would have trouble finding their way back. He might even miss dinner.
He looked over at Parker, seated atop a rotted-out log, staring blankly into the distance; that same face he had at the end of a math lesson. Will let out a sigh and fished inside his cargo shorts for some gum.
“Shhh,” whispered Dylan, bringing a finger to his pursed lips.
Will got the message, and it seemed the forest did too. The birds ceased their chirping. The wind died down. He almost believed that the woods wanted them to listen.
Parker whined, “I don’t hear anything.”
“Listen,” Dylan hissed.
An otherworldly moan cut through the silence. Will froze.
“I told you,” whispered Dylan.
The cry stretched on for what seemed like hours then tapered off into nothingness.
“Th-That’s a bird,” said Parker, in an unconvincing squeak.
Dylan glared at Parker. “It’s not a bird.”
“You really think it’s a monster?” asked Will.
Dylan didn't say another word after that. They believed.
Will slept with the covers over his head that night. The lonesome call of Dylan’s unseen monster made him more sad than scared, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
The next day was a Saturday. Dylan said the monster wasn’t around during the weekend. He had listened a few times. The call only came during the week. He had never actually seen the creature, but he was the first one to hear it, making him the only “expert” in their group of three. So Will took him at his word.
The boys spent the afternoon playing “Nam” in the park by Will’s house. None of them really knew what “Nam” was, outside of a confusing Google search, but Will’s Pop-Pop, when he was alive, used to complain about the shrapnel in his leg he got “over there.” So Dylan came up with a game where they threw small rocks at each other and made exploding sounds. There wasn’t really a winner, but it usually ended with Parker heading home for a band-aid. This time, they only played about ten minutes, then Dylan got distracted by a squirrel and started flinging rocks at it instead.
Will had known Parker longer. Their moms told them they were born at the same time, but in different hospitals. They even looked alike, sorta. Quiet, brown eyes. A shock of dirty blonde hair. Long, thin noses that always seemed to be stuffed up with mucous. But Will had a few inches on Parker, and he had all the toes on his left foot.
Dylan joined them in second grade. He told them he had been at a different school, in Ellicott City, but he didn’t say much else. Neither of the boys cared. Nothing important happened in first grade anyway, and kindergarten seemed like a distant memory. Dylan lived close by and had a knack for getting into the fun kind of trouble, so they welcomed him into the fold; though, it was more like Will and Parker joined Dylan’s group of one than the other way around.
After school on Monday, the boys went back to the woods. Will told his mom he was going to play video games at Parker’s house; after finishing his homework, of course. Parker’s mother bought his fib about tagging along with Will to Tae Kwon Do class. Dylan just showed up. He never had to explain much to anyone, at least from what Will could tell.
They didn’t have to wait nearly so long this time.
The howl was quieter than before, barely audible over the evening breeze. But it was unmistakeable. Dylan beamed with pride. He had been telling them for weeks about the monster he heard in the woods behind his house. The first time, it could have been anything, maybe a dying coyote, but now, they couldn’t deny it; the monster was real. Parker thought maybe they should tell their parents. Dylan threw a rock at him, not for fun. He made them swear on their lives that they would never tell a soul about the monster. They both swore.
Will didn’t touch his dinner that night. He told his mom he had lost his appetite, but she demanded he take a bite anyway; spaghetti night was his favorite. When he looked down at his plate, all he saw were the disemboweled intestines of the monster’s victims. His stomach grumbled for hours while he lay in bed, trying to sleep. The sound reminded him again of the monster. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to go back. But the next day, Dylan insisted.
Once again, the boys trekked through the forest and waited for the monster’s call. The sun went down, and with the night came the type of chill that makes your eyes water. But no howl. Parker said he had to pee. Dylan told him the woods was one big toilet; they weren’t leaving. Will stared at the shiner above Dylan’s left eye and asked a million silent questions.
It was past dinner and Will had to get back. His mom would start worrying.
“You’re scared,” Dylan seethed.
Will shivered. He shook his head.
“I’m scared,” offered Parker.
Dylan glared at them, his breath curling up into the air like ghostly tendrils. Parker flinched, expecting a rock to come sailing in his direction, But Dylan’s face softened. He kicked a stump with his dirty Vans.
They only visited the forest one other time that winter, but they never heard the monster. Dylan figured it was roaming other parts of the woods. Parker thought maybe a bigger monster had come along and ate it. Will hoped that was the case. But Dylan insisted it was still out there, monsters don’t eat other monsters.
Just before Halloween, Dylan invited the boys over to his house for the first time in their friendship. It was too cold outside to play “Nam,” but Will figured Dylan already had some new game stewing in his brain. He usually did.
They were met at the door by Dylan’s step-dad. Dylan called him “Jeff” and flinched whenever he got too close. Will pretended not to notice.
They drank orange pop around the dinner table while Jeff heated some old queso in the microwave. Dylan kept his eyes on the floor. Parker started to ask what they were all gonna dress up as this year. Maybe they could be a team of soldiers. But then he remembered that they were each doing their own Halloween costumes. He was gonna be Iron Man. Will was thinking of being a mummy. Dylan didn’t answer.
A low moan echoed through the house; a familiar, heartbreaking howl.
“His ma’s upstairs sleeping,” offered Jeff. “She came down with something.”
He took a fresh beer from the fridge and held it against his puffy, red knuckles.
Parker wondered if they could see Dylan’s room, but Jeff said the boys had to stay downstairs.
“Or the basement,” he continued, “But I don’t want you touching the TV. I finally got the DVR set.”
They heard another cry. Louder this time. Jeff excused himself and walked upstairs, taking two steps at a time. He yelled something Will couldn’t make out. A few moments later, the moaning stopped. After a long silence, Dylan finally peeled his eyes from the checkered floor.
“I wanna show you guys something.”
Dylan kept a bucket behind the house, hidden in some bushes that were full of poison ivy in the summer. Inside the bucket was a frozen, dead squirrel. It’s head was cracked open and blood pooled around the ice. Dylan told them he had found it like that, up the road a ways. Probably hit by a car, or maybe it came down with something. He kept the squirrel cold so they could use it to lure the monster the next time they were in the woods. Maybe they would see it this time.