Whose Woods These Are
Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin
You first spot the boy on the industrial side of town, off the highway.
The windows of your old Pontiac are rolled down to the sound of cicadas bouncing off the auto repair shops and plumbing supply stores. The sun-broiled air is humid and hard to breathe.
He’s sitting on a cinder block in front of LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration, which is closed because it’s Sunday. You notice him before he notices you. His shirtless torso is thin and white and his skinny little arms fold across his knees as he watches the cars go by. When he sees you he sits up the way a cat would, expectant and alert. He stands slowly, pulling up the jeans that have fallen low on his hips, and starts walking toward you as you brake for the light.
He’s no more than eight or nine, and to your surprise he extends his right arm and sticks out a thumb, gazing directly at you. The light turns green at the last minute and you coast through the intersection, eyeing the boy.
You drive to the next block and pull to a stop, discomfort in your gut. Why is he trying to get a ride in front of a deserted body shop at the height of the day’s torpor, small and fragile as he is and only half dressed? No kid around here goes shirtless even on a day like today.
You know you can’t pick him up. He could be some sort of setup. And if he is just a little kid hitching, you can’t stop for him. He needs to learn this is a bad thing to do. But how can you just leave him there?
Not until much later do you recall how he seemed to be waiting for you, letting every other car pass until your faded blue coupe pulled close, reaching out with his twig of an arm while pinning you with his stare.
You make an illegal U-turn and head back to LiMandri’s, where the cinder block now sits empty. The smell of tar and cat piss rises off the road. This area is like the one you lived in not long ago, bare and shadeless, harsh to the senses. Pulling into the lot, you decide to wait for thirty seconds. If he doesn’t show up, you can leave with a clear conscience.
Fifteen minutes’ drive from here your cool and shady house awaits you, a Cape Cod with dormers that look out on linden trees. Behind it is state land, an uncultivated swath leading to woods a half-mile deep, a refuge for deer and hawks and Canada geese. At night often the geese set up rowdy parties full of cackling and chattering—and you feed on it, having been starved of nature for so many years.
A shadow at your side makes you jump. The boy is by your window, staring into the car, face smudged and nose dripping. A beaded metal chain with a soldier’s dog tag hangs around his grimy neck. You reach for the box of Kleenex next to you and hand him a couple, which he takes without a word and uses to wipe the offending mucus off his lip.
“Are you lost?” you ask. “I can call your mother or father.”
He continues staring, the dirty tissue clutched at his side.
“What’s your name?”
He uses the snotty tissue to swat at his arm. A smear of black and red appears where a sated mosquito has met its end. You pull another Kleenex from the box. He cleans his arm with it and then swipes it across his nose.
“Don’t do that! Here.” You hand him the box. “Listen, honey—” You can’t help yourself, he’s only a little boy. “I saw you trying to hitchhike. That’s very dangerous.” You glance at the sky. Not a single cloud to impede the white intensity baking your car into the asphalt. “Do you live around here?”
He tugs at the beaded chain as if it irritates his skin. What large irises he has, the color full and deep, hazel burning into gold.
“Can I look at that?” You point at the tag on his chest.
He hesitates, then lets you squint at the single name and phone number engraved on it.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” you start to say, then bite it back because maybe something is wrong with the boy and he doesn’t know what he can or should do.
You key the number into your cell phone, and a man answers on the first ring.
“Is this Mr. Gallagher?”
“Yes?” The voice is guarded.
“My name is Laura Valentine. I live in the Mahogany Run area—”
You pause. “I’m at a place called LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration off exit—”
“I know where it is,” he snaps. “What do you want?”
You take a deep breath. “There’s a small boy here, all by himself, and he’s got a chain around his neck with your name and number on it.”
“Brown hair? Skinny?”
“Yes.” A glance at the boy catches him running the back of his arm across his nose. “He won’t talk to me. Does he belong to you?”
The man groans in an obvious mixture of vexation and relief. “I never thought he’d wander so far.”
“Can you come get him? I’ll wait with him.”
He pulls up in an old maroon Chrysler that looks as if it’s never seen better days even new. The car is familiar.
Gallagher must have come to fatherhood late, or maybe he’s the boy’s grandfather. Or—you realize with a chill that you didn’t establish the relationship between them—he could be a pedophile reclaiming his charge. The boy immediately runs to Gallagher and buries his face in the man’s sweaty tee shirt.
Gallagher offers you a hand slick with perspiration. The thick glasses sliding down his nose give him an abstracted air, and his general scruffiness seems to have little to do with the heat. No wonder the kid is running around half naked.
“I think I know you.” You try to place the face as well as the car. “Where do you live?”
“By the woods,” he mumbles, clutching the boy.
The odd phrasing makes you consider a moment. “You mean Mahogany Run?”
He nods so vaguely it is obvious he’s not happy talking about it.
“Graham Road?” That’s the only street that backs up on the woods. “So we’re neighbors? Left end or right? I’m number 31.”
He shakes his head. The movement is more like a tic. “Other end.”
“Wait a minute—have I seen you walking a beautiful white Husky and a giant schnauzer?”
“I have other dogs too,” he says, averting his eyes. He takes the boy’s hand and they turn away. Gallagher glances over his shoulder at you as he opens the Chrysler door, but his “Thanks again” sounds like an afterthought.
You linger a moment after they leave. You should follow him, but what would that prove? Will it quash the unease bubbling inside, the unmistakable feeling that you’ve done something terrible by handing the boy over? What choice did you have, anyway? The kid went willingly.
You get into the Pontiac and go, half expecting to overtake Gallagher. You arrive home just as a car is pulling out of the garage next door.
The man inside lowers the window and waves. “We just came back from Cape Cod.” Everett Clark is dressed impeccably, as always, shirtsleeves rolled up slightly, silver hair neat. He and his wife are good next-door neighbors, the kind who offer to take your mail in if you’re going away.
“Everett, you know somebody on this block named Gallagher?”
“First name or last?”
Everett thinks. “Oh, him!” he says suddenly. “He’s a real nut job. Why do you ask?”
You tell him about encountering the lost boy and calling Gallagher, but before you can even wonder how to ask discreetly if Gallagher is on the up-and-up, Everett shakes his head and says, “He’s certifiable. I mean it. Ever since his wife died—”
“When was that?”
“About ten years ago.”
“So, no grandkids?” The sweat on your neck feels cold.
Everett shakes his head. “I was going to ask you who that boy was.”
“A nephew, maybe?”
“All I can tell you is nobody around here bothers with him. He doesn’t cause trouble or anything, he’s just weird. No joke.” He makes a looping circle with his finger near the side of his head.
You say goodbye and he pulls off before you realize you should have asked him which house Gallagher is in.
All afternoon you’re uneasy, thinking that maybe you should call the police. And tell them what? Wouldn’t Everett, an upstanding and trustworthy individual, have suggested that if he thought it a good idea? You phone his wife, Joan, but voice mail picks up and you don’t leave a message. You’re left alone with your concerns and disquiet.
After dinner, the August sky darkening, you step outside and walk slowly up the block toward the dead end, feeling conspicuous as you study every house on either side.
Your efforts are soon rewarded. A tumult of yips and baying rises from the very last house, on the same side of the street as yours. A white face with pointed ears stares out from the living room window, ghostly and beautiful in the soft dusk.
For a long while you stand there watching the Husky watch you. A smaller, leaner face appears at the dog’s side, but in the fading light its features are hard to make out. Now what? Now that you know where the man lives, what happens next? If Gallagher were observing you from a window, would you even know? You tell yourself he probably wouldn’t recognize you in this interstice of day and night, when colors and shapes blend.
There is nothing distinctive about the house, nothing that sets it apart from its neighbors or betrays seediness of character—or maybe the gloaming has removed the edges, the small discordances that would indicate unseemly things happening inside.
Finally you turn and head home. Soon crickets will start chirping, spiders will weave orbs in the cool damp of the dark.
Later, you float in and out of sleep, loving the pattern of moonlight spread across the sheets and the way slumber flutters over you like a proprietary bird. When at last it tucks its wings about your head, a sound from outside chases it away.
A yip, downstairs near the back deck—but not a dog’s yip, and you don’t know how you know but you do. It’s followed by a single thin howl, a high-pitched offering that is neither lament nor threat.
The skin on your neck prickles as you swing your feet over the mattress and look out the window. The moon is high and full and everything below is drenched in its light—and there is nothing, no one, there.
Yet you know what you heard. The coyote as interloper, as wild other trying to make its way through the detritus and perils of civilization, holds allure for you. Your sympathies are with the animal, whose only crime is to find itself in a world not of its own making. Who among us is any different?
A ripple of tall grass opens on the left, and a shadow with two bright eyes reflecting the moonlight looks up at you. The eyes burn into yours, and then the shadow leaps away in the direction of the woods, emerging from the grass into the scruffy band that runs along the trees.
When you get back into bed you have forgotten about the hitchhiking boy for the first time all day.
The next morning, as if attuned to some primal resonance in the air, you wake up before the alarm and step to the window. August’s fullness already cradles a harbinger of autumn.
As if on cue, as if you’ve heard their laughter (and maybe you have), two boys burst from the woods at the far right and caper through the grass. Even at this distance you can see they’re barely dressed, and you’re pretty sure one of them is the kid you found yesterday. In high spirits, they head toward the far end of the block, probably the Gallagher house.
Before you can give thought to what you’re doing, you pull on jeans and a tee shirt and rush out the front door. One house from Gallagher’s you cut through a yard, and there they are, right off Gallagher’s back porch—the white Husky, the black schnauzer, several other mixed-breed dogs with vulpine faces, and the two boys. The whole pack of them, dogs and boys, are play-wrestling like a huddle of puppies squirming all over one another.
Gallagher comes out dressed only in baggy shorts and leans over the porch railing. “Get inside! Come on, hurry up!”
No one on the ground listens and, obviously annoyed, he comes down off the porch and grabs the two boys, separating them from the waggling, festive mass. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” His words carry on the stillness of air already dense with humidity.
One of the boys breaks free, howling playfully—and the sound chills you. It’s the boy you’ve met. He bolts toward you.
“Come back here, dammit!” Gallagher stiffens when he catches sight of you.
The boy stops a few feet away and stares at you, not afraid, not threatened or threatening, a little timid but curious. His chest and face are filthy, his shorts tattered, his hair flecked with leaf bits. You intuit rather than smell a feral scent coming off of him. The mucus dribbling down his nose smears across his face as he drags an arm over it. In your head a thousand thoughts jostle. Are these the eyes you saw last night from your window?
The idea is dismissed the moment it forms.
Exasperated and very angry, Gallagher holds the other boy under his arm and yanks one of the vulpine dogs by the collar. The dogs are torn between following him up the porch steps into the house and assessing you. Your vulnerability hits you and you back up.
The boy raises his face and sniffs the air before giving you one last look and loping to the four waiting dogs, who surround him like a wave up the porch stairs.
As they enter the house you remain immobile, half afraid Gallagher will push open the back door with a shotgun in hand. Then you head back up to the street.
Everett Clark is pulling out of his driveway.
“You’re up early,” he says.
“Who lives next to Gallagher?”
He eyes you. “That still bothering you?”
“That why you’re up this way?”
You nod, and he sighs. “Call the police, if it’s going to eat at you.”
“I don’t want to be a bad neighbor, in case it’s nothing.”
“I don’t think you can do that.”
“Yes, you can.”
“People find out. They always do.”
He scratches his chin. “Well, to answer your original question, the Rosens live next door to him.”
“What do they think of him?”
“I don’t know. I never see them. They spend their summers away.”
“So they’re not home now?”
“I don’t think so.”
You let Everett go and rush home to shower and dress for work, which will give you a reprieve for at least eight hours.
That night, after a busy day made gloomy by rain, you fall asleep fast and heavy. There is no opportunity for conflicts of conscience or ruminations over what constitutes good sense.
What dreams! The night is filled with dogs, squiggling pups of every description biting each other’s ears in a tussle of paws and wagging tails, a mound of canine babies playing, terriers and dingoes, jackals and bat-eared foxes and mutts. Twice you get up to pee and twice you slip back into the dreams.
Again you wake before the alarm, this time a half hour before sunrise. The full moon, no longer visible from the window, shows as a faint glow in the contrast of sky and trees. Your gaze lowers to the thicket of long grass.
You sense him, of course, though after several minutes staring into the dark it occurs to you that maybe this is another dream—and then the eyes flicker below, catching the indirect light only a second or two.
You wait. The tops of the trees briefly bloom pink and then it is more day than night and the chirping of birds overtakes the fading bustle of tired insects. You grab the binoculars you placed on the windowsill last evening. A dark little face looks up at you, a triangular shadow in the grass.
You watch each other, not moving, barely breathing. You try to blink away the thoughts of boys and pups, unwilling to acknowledge what you’ve been thinking, what your heart tells you, the thing that defies logic and pulses like a firefly inside you.
“It’s okay, little one,” you whisper.
The coyote looks suddenly to the right at two small animals running out of the far woods, where the two boys emerged yesterday. With the distance and the light you’re not sure but they look like . . . puppies. Pointy-faced, long-limbed puppies.
Of course! Baby coyotes. A foolish relief flushes through you. It’s the mother below.
But why has she been at your window two mornings in a row?
Coincidence, naturally. She runs a circuit each night, hunting for food, and she ends up below your deck just as you wake up.
The mother quickly turns and tries to leap away, but she looks injured. Dragging herself amid the wild tangle, she heads not for the pups but for the trees. You swing the binoculars to see if the pups have noticed her, but they’re out of sight, hidden in the grass and the sprinkle of wildflowers.
The mother is fighting her way through a snarl of stalks and reeds. A sound of urgency escapes her. Pity wrings your heart, for both her and the pups. You glance their way again.
But instead of pups you see two familiar boys wading though waist-high grass and coming out the other end near Gallagher’s house. The dreams, the absurd thoughts of only moments ago, come back, and you keep your eyes on the boys until they’re beyond your vision.
In your heart, the little hitchhiking boy was the coyote below your window.
Clearly you were wrong. But something is not right. You sweep the field with the binoculars. There are no puppies following the two boys home. Baby coyotes came out of the woods and small children appeared in their place shortly after.
The coyote below has shown no interest in the boys and seems to have relinquished its interest in you. Its apparent preoccupation is attaining the woods. It reaches the perimeter of the trees and lies panting, turning its head to look back—at you. The binoculars do not deceive. The coyote is on its side catching its breath and gazing at your window.
You put the binoculars down to process what you think you saw, then hold them back up. The face is now patchy with ragged hair and dirt, revoltingly familiar, attached to a body it can’t possibly be connected to.
The creature rises to its wobbly legs. It tries to push up on its hind limbs but falls. It has no tail. Clearly it is male—and large. It shudders broadly, letting out a groan of anguish that cuts the morning air, and the earth around it seems to quake. The sky and vegetation are the same as before, but the creature’s torment is like an overlay that changes the scene for you. With a rush of forced energy, like the last push before birth, the russet coat blanches and thins in a matter of seconds. You stand riveted in the center of the window.
Several yards before the trees, the rest of its body transforms and a pale, naked man stands slightly hunched until he whirls around and faces your house, your window, you. Gallagher watches you watching him. He makes sure your binoculars have a chance to linger on his scraped skin and flaccid white body. Now that you’ve caught him, he wants you to get a good look. You were not afraid of the coyote, but you are afraid of this man. Your first thought is that he wanted you to observe this display. “I’m number 31,” you’d said to him.
Your second thought is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath: What if he didn’t want you to see it? What if he blames you for distracting him from a discreet metamorphosis in the woods?
Does it matter which is true?
Gallagher turns and disappears into the trees. A piercing sound—half wail, half keening—swells from the dark thicket. It is a taunt, a demarcation of territory. The land behind the house, a restful stretch of nature only moments ago, is now mocking and grim.
You back up into a corner of the room and stand there a long time, unable to think beyond the distress banging around inside you like a ball in a metal chamber. At some point the mechanical impulse to make coffee stirs you downstairs to the kitchen. A few hot gulps and you may see more clearly what to do.
The coffee brews strong and you sip and pace from one end of the house to the other. The white Husky watches your movements through the low window in the dining room, and when you first catch his blue-eyed gaze you start. Only a few feet away on the front walk, he appears to be smiling, or laughing. He turns from you briefly as Gallagher saunters into sight beside him, close enough for you to see the gashes in his wrinkled shorts and dirt crusted around the abrasions on his belly.
Gallagher seems taken aback, as if not expecting to find you at the window. “I want to talk to you,” he shouts.
But you’ve already leaped into the kitchen for the phone, which drops to the floor and clatters across the tiles as another voice sounds outside.
You creep to the window and see Everett on his side of the walk, pressed slacks and crisp shirt a sharp contrast to the other man’s dishevelment. “Did you hear me?” Everett says. “What do you want there?”
“Mind your business, Everett Clark.” Gallagher is stooping slightly and appears to be looking up at Everett even though they’re on level ground. The Husky is gone.
“She’s my neighbor. She is my business.” Everett walks toward him but stops. “Are you in trouble? You’re all cut up. What happened to you?”
“Nothing for you to mind. Nothing’s wrong with me.”
Emboldened by Everett’s presence, you open the front door and step outside. Something grotesquely carnal wafts off of Gallagher and then is gone.
“He’s been watching my house from out back,” you say. “Today and yesterday.”
“That right?” Everett steps closer and Gallagher draws himself up to full height. “You watching Laura’s house?”
Gallagher’s hands wander over the scratches on his stomach, his eyes glued to the other man.
“I asked you a question. What are you doing out back? You watching my house too?”
A mewling sound escapes Gallagher. The insight hits you fast: He’s not a bold man, and whatever he’s been up to is out of character, something that ballooned up fast inside him and could deflate just as quickly.
Your insight also tells you he may be erratic, and you pull back. “Are you trying to threaten me, Mr. Gallagher?”
He glances at you, but his gaze drops to the ground. When he picks it up again his eyes are flecked with the sunlight that’s already heaping itself onto the back of your neck. Your nostrils flare at the smell he throws off.
The white Husky appears suddenly at the end of the walk, accompanied by the little boy you picked up at the auto body shop. Dressed in jeans and a red tee shirt, the boy looks almost clean as they approach. His eyes are on you.
There he is, the child who isn’t yours, the child who could be yours, the one who might have been. And all at once you understand the twisting in your heart.
Everett, sensing your moment, watches the boy and the dog but says nothing.
Gallagher looks at them too, but sideways, as if trying to keep one eye on you. “Where did you get them?” you ask.
Gallagher reaches a hand to the boy, who takes it and stands beside him like a dutiful son, though his eyes never leave yours.
You clear your throat. “Who are the boys? Where did they come from?”
Gallagher hangs his head, chin to chest. “I found ’em.”
You signal to Everett with your eyes and hope he reads them correctly. He does, crossing over and standing near you.
“Found ’em in the woods,” Gallagher mumbles. “Tiny little pups, shivering without a mother.”
“The woods back there?” Everett indicates the direction.
Gallagher nods. “Took them in after a few days. I didn’t know they were little boys.”
Everett’s face registers confusion. You hold up a hand and he says nothing.
“What about you?” you say gently. “What happened to you?”
He looks down at his abdomen, flustered, hands fluttering over the scribble of blood and soil.
“Not that. I saw how that happened. How did you . . . become like the boys?”
At this the little boy reaches for your hand. He is now holding yours and Gallagher’s in a bizarre family tableau, clutching your fingers firmly.
Gallagher looks at him sadly a moment. “Puppies bite.”
The boy lets go of Gallagher and throws his arms around you, burying his face in your tee shirt the way he buried it in Gallagher’s the day you found him. He holds you close.
Automatically you hug him back, maternal instinct warring with prudence as if you’re holding the essence of nature in your arms, a tender wild thing that needs mothering even as it clamps the teat between its teeth and rips it off. He smells of fur and feathers and all things untamed, with a strange maple overlay.
“I knew he liked you.” Gallagher’s voice is resigned. “Animals have their favorites.”
Everett scowls. “What the hell’s going on? Laura?”
The burning in your side takes a moment to register, but when it does you push the boy away, feeling betrayed but knowing it’s your own fault. It’s not right to blame an animal for its nature. You touch the tee shirt and blood sponges through. Not much, but enough for you to understand your whole world has changed.
Everett yells, “Get that kid out of here!” He takes a phone from his pocket and punches in numbers.
Gallagher’s eyes glitter, and for a moment you think he’s crying. He sniffles hard and runs the back of his hand across his nose, pulling the boy close to him. The boy gazes up at you softly, without guile.
“The paramedics are coming, Laura.” Everett puts his arm around you as if to hold you up, but you’re still erect, merely shivering in the sunlight.
Your fingers move as if to touch Gallagher’s arm. “Is this why you came here?” “No.” He looks at you directly now. “I was threatening you. No point in that now, is there?”
Everett’s eyes narrow at the other man. “You are one aberrant bastard, and I’ll see to it that you pay for what that kid did.”
Gallagher ignores him. “If anything happens to me, will you take care of them?”
You glance down at your tee shirt and the red smudges on your hand, and for the first time it occurs to you to lift the shirt and look. It’s not a bad bite, more like a nip. A love nip, you think.
“Yes,” you say as the ambulance wails down the street toward you.
Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin’s short story “Tip of the Iceberg” appeared in Rose Red Review’s summer 2014 issue. Other short fiction of hers has been in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Absent Willow Review, and the anthologies Skulls & Crossbones: Tales of Women Pirates and Hunger: Stories of Desire, Discovery, and Dissatisfaction (a Kindle release from her writing group, the Penheads). She has had some poetry published in Shadow Road Quarterly, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Golden Sparrow Literary Review. Her first novel is due out from Permuted Press in late 2015.