The Boy in the Woods
The story I am about to tell you is not a happy story. This is not a tale of redemption or closure or bravery. It is about pain and fear and strange friendship and escape. This is a story, told very often now, around fireplaces not so different from this one—around dinner tables and old, creaking rocking chairs—about a boy who was lonely, and treated too poorly, so he ran away from home.
To everyone else, the boy disappeared. His face stared out from newspapers, now yellowed, with a buzz cut and big eyes and a half-grin that looked at once mischievous and so, so lost, marked with inexperience and misplaced, stolen time.
The boy’s name was Cole, and he was just twelve years old when he left us.
Even though he didn’t get very far, Cole was, somehow, never heard from again.
Nobody mentions the ghost in the woods.
But before we get there, let’s retrace. This all started on a cold day, on a graveled road.
Cole stood outside and wiped the blood away from his nose. He didn’t turn back to the house, the house that was his, the house that stood right behind him. He concentrated on the road ahead, Hilltop Drive, and imagined it shooting up into the sky and taking him far away.
The crunchy, dying leaves fell from thin branches and scraped across the rough gravel like paper-thin, decaying hands. There was a smell of spice in the air that day. Cinnamon, almost. A subtle sweetness too. Like vanilla. Vanilla and burnt wood from distant fires.
Hilltop Drive wasn’t really a hill at all, just a slightly inclining road, and Cole’s house stood at the highest point. In both directions, the road curved downward. One end led to a park. The Borough—with a fishing pond and a creek and fossilized rocks. You could always find a few if you looked hard enough, if you flipped the stones over, but you had to be patient. You had to wait and keep looking. Cole usually did. He came back home with two or three heavy rocks in his pockets and lined them along his bookcase or used them as paperweights for his drawings so they didn’t blow away when he left his window open.
The other end of Hilltop Drive, shaded by trees, led to the woods.
On that October day, the wind rose and fell. The chill felt good on Cole’s face, on his open, bleeding wound. He smelled the blood and thought of old pennies as it dribbled out from his nose and out from the cut just under his right eye.
His father wore a ring, his old Fairvale Class of ’85 pride and joy with a green jewel in the center. The silver edges were slightly pointed.
Cole wiped at his face and the blood stained him, stuck to his skin, and he could see every crease, every line on his thin arm, on his small hands. Even as he wiped, even as he tried to stop the bleeding, it fell onto his white t-shirt. He had left in a hurry and hadn’t grabbed a jacket.
As he stood in the front yard that afternoon, Cole knew he was in plain sight—that anyone who looked out of their window, anyone who stepped out for a cigarette or to rake and burn leaves, would see the streak of crimson. But his neighborhood was small. He only had a handful of families to worry about, and most everyone was at work or prepping for trick-or-treating.
I should mention now that it was Halloween. Orange and black streamers wrapped around lamp posts. Blow-up ghosts with vacant, dark eyes whipped and turned in the wind. A wooden, black cat stood in its arched way in a neighbor’s dead, tangled garden, red-mouthed and crazy-eyed.
If anyone came outside, Cole would tell them that he tripped and fell.
He thought he heard the front screen door squeak on its hinges behind him, so he turned and found nothing but the wind as it rushed over the tops of the bushes. He stared at the chocolate brown, front door, eyed the gold-colored 323 at the top center. His address. The site of his memories. Within 323 was his growing height, year after year, penciled on the dining room wall which had stopped abruptly after his birthday three years ago. According to the cream paint, according to the graphite, Cole would forever be aged nine and fifty-four inches tall.
They say the smudged scrawl is still there now. Even this many years later, with Cole’s dad dead and gone himself, but nobody knows for sure. The current owner is so strange, so reclusive; she lets nobody inside because, according to her, the house is haunted. She says, with wild eyes and dove white hair, if she even answers the door at all, that the house is cursed and darkened by spirits. She feels Cole’s presence, back after a lifetime away, and claims that he likes to run from room to room and poke her when she’s trying to sleep at night. Sometimes, she even hears his father slam doors and holler down dark hallways in the early hours of the morning.
The old lady says she wouldn’t dare erase the pencil markings or paint over them for fear it might upset Cole. But Cole was not a troublemaker and would not retaliate; he was not an angry boy. He was quiet and afraid, always so afraid.
Because that’s what happens when your daddy beats you. It follows you and never lets you go.
Cole knew, on that day in his front yard, that his dad was in the house, on the other side of that brown door, maybe even passed out against the same wall he was measured against—or maybe passed out in bed. It didn’t matter. When he woke, he wouldn’t remember what he had done.
Another breeze and Cole shivered; the autumnal gust carried the scent of ice. It would be an early winter, he thought then. Snow on Thanksgiving, covering the sidewalks. Someone would trip and drop a bottle of champagne, spill a soupy casserole, lose an apple or pumpkin pie. Candles would glow in the windows. Chimneys would smoke. Early Christmas songs, Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Away in a Manger, would drift out from cracked doors, out of car stereos as the tires crunched on the road and slowed to a stop. Families would sit around tables, in red turtlenecks and heavy, white sweaters, and drink hot cider and rose-colored wine. Grandfathers would cut the turkey, mothers would set out napkins, forks, and spoons. Together they would look outside and see snowmen standing in the yard, motionless, save for a checkered scarf blowing in the winter wind.
Cole had been right. After he disappeared, the very next day, it snowed at dawn. When the sky was still pink, still dotted with heavy, purple clouds, the snowflakes danced silently downward and covered the ground in a sparkling white. November had come. Everything was new and everything was different.
A small, navy car turned onto Hilltop Drive that afternoon and crawled closer toward Cole. Dead leaves fell on Mrs. Witherson’s windshield like raindrops. Cole could tell it was her by the vanity plate at the front of the car—a painted image of the Earth with the word PROTECT beneath in a large, yellow font. She worked for the science museum in town, just past the library, and yelled at Cole once for leaving a Coca-Cola bottle outside on his driveway instead of recycling it. It had only been there a few minutes; he had planned on coming back for it. Her voice, he remembered, had been venomous. His hair stood up on the back of his neck as her words shot through him.
Tires ground on stone. The car engine rumbled. In a moment, Mrs. Witherson would see Cole standing there, frozen, unsure of what to do. She’d crane her neck from the car window and lock her beady, spectacled eyes on his. She’d see the blood. She’d ask questions the way adults always do with kids. Especially twelve-year-old boys, assuming they have been up to no good.
And so, Cole ran away, down Hilltop Drive, away from Mrs. Witherson and in the direction of the woods.
The sun was high in the air as he ran, with only a few stark, white clouds floating across the deep blue sky. Leaves hit his face as they fell from above; he kicked sharp gravel as he put one foot in front of the other. He felt his heart beat fast, then faster, as he pumped his arms and turned off Hilltop Drive. Just a slight veer to the right. He was relieved to find the adjacent street quiet with no cars coming either way, so he crossed the road and ran through a small bunch of withered trees.
Branches knocked into each other in the cold wind like phantom applause and cracking bones. Above, a bird screeched, its call high and hoarse. As Cole looked up, he saw only a pair of black wings fly away, on a journey to some other far off tree in some other far off town in the south to escape the winter. The next gust of wind brought with it the scent of old corn stalks. Cole thought of the farmland around Fairvale. Houston’s Farm to the west, with Jimmy-boo, the elaborate scarecrow they put out every October, standing guard. Sometimes, on clear nights, he walked to see Jimmy-boo. It was easy enough. His window opened out to the front yard—all Cole had to do was climb out.
The Houstons used spotlights to illuminate Jimmy-boo in the dark. When Cole visited for the last time, just a week before he left us, Jimmy-boo had looked angrier than he remembered. His mouth was wide open, his eyebrows slanted downward harshly. Poor Jimmy-boo’s flannel shirt had holes in the arms from birds snapping and pecking and little bits of straw poked out everywhere. Jimmy-boo was getting old, Cole had thought. The least the Houstons could do was buy him a new shirt.
Years ago, the Houstons used to do hay rides all around their farmland. Mrs. Houston would collect the money and give Cole and his dad hot chocolate or cider or tea or whatever they wanted and they would climb up the wobbly wagon and sit and drink and breathe out and watch their hot breath dance on the cold air like smoke from flames. Cole’s dad would chew tobacco and spit every once in a while and wipe his chin clean, then take a sip of his tea. He always brought a blanket in case they got cold, and they always did.
Afterwards, they would stop at the pumpkin patch and pick out a pumpkin each to carve later. In the kitchen they’d spread old newspapers on the floor and take serrated knives and cut open the pumpkins and remove the guts. Then they’d work like sculptors.
On the front steps they’d set out their toothy, smiling jack-o-lanterns and light candles and plop them inside, facing the road, for their neighbors to see. Having saved the pumpkin seeds, Cole’s dad would place them in the oven and roast them in olive oil. Once cooked, they’d put the greasy, salted seeds in plastic bags and snack on them for a week.
But that was a long time ago, when his dad didn’t get so mad and still wrote Cole’s age and height on the wall.
Cole walked slowly, deeper into the woods. Every tree began to look the same, tall and thin and windblown. The branches curved and drooped. As he took a side step to avoid a small, dribbling stream, a twig snapped beneath his foot and he realized he was lost.
“What are you doing out here?”
The biting voice came from behind him. Cole whirled around to see Kyle Graham seated on his bike. He wore his football jersey and clutched his shoulder pads in one hand and his cleats dangled around his neck like a chunky piece of jewelry. When they made eye contact, Kyle spit.
“What’s wrong with your face, freak?” he asked.
Cole had nearly forgotten. He touched his face and felt the hardened blood.
“I—I tripped. Over there,” Cole said, pointing to a mess of roots on the hard ground.
Kyle Graham lived just three blocks over from Cole on Maple Street. He had two dogs and a mom and a dad and an older sister named Becky. Cole had always liked Becky. In the spring and summer, Cole would walk by and see her lying outside on a blanket reading or sketching. She would always wave, and he’d wave back. One time he stopped and almost told Becky that he drew too, but when she looked up and smiled and he saw the light in her eyes he walked off with clammy palms and a dry throat. The words were stuck, somewhere down deep, and he knew he’d never find them.
But he’d still think of her from time to time, out there, scribbling, with colorful flowers dotting the walkway and the bushes behind her.
If Kyle was outside with Becky, Cole kept his head down and did not wave.
Kyle spit again and tightened the grip on his bike. Then, the whiz of tires and the chiming of a bell. Jake Tyzinski, Kyle’s best friend, came into view over a small hump of dirt and sped up to do a wheelie before coming to a rest at Kyle’s side. Unsettled dirt drifted up and clouded around him.
“Just out here with all your friends, huh?” Jake asked.
Cole looked down at his feet and thought of running away again.
“Look at us, you faggot!” Kyle yelled.
Cole obeyed and crossed his arms, attempting to look tough, but he felt his body shake, the way the leaves did on branches right before separation, right before they let go and floated away.
“I say we hang him from a tree,” Jake said.
Kyle gave Jake a sideways glance and nodded, his mouth pinched up into a grin.
The two boys dropped their bikes to the ground and walked over toward Cole with clenched fists. Kyle chewed bubble gum. A bead of sweat dripped down Jake’s throat, somehow, even in the cold. Everything slowed down. Cole took a step back, then another, then another, before the ground gave way and there was nowhere to step and Cole fell backward and rolled down a muddy, steep hill. He felt his shoulder dislodge as his back crushed into a rock jutting from the side of the hill. Bringing up his other arm as quickly as he could, Cole shielded his head.
Eventually, Cole came to rest in a small field. The grass, browned from the cold, scratched at his skin.
An explosion of laughter. Kyle and Jake pointed from above and jumped up and down. Bending over, Kyle clutched his stomach.
“Look! He fucking pissed himself!” Jake yelled. “Oh my God! He fucking pissed himself!”
Cole looked down and saw the darkened circle at his crotch, felt the warm wetness on his inner thigh.
They kept laughing, kept nudging each other and pointing. Cole closed his eyes, tried his best to ignore them. He turned over on his side so his back faced Kyle and Jake, and felt the hot prick of tears.
“Aw, he’s mad at us! Poor baby!” Jake yelled. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“Bye, Cole!” Kyle called.
Cole heard their footsteps from below, thumping on the earth. He heard the trill of Jake’s bell as he picked up his bike, heard them shift gears, heard the chain snap as they planted their feet on the peddles and rode away. All the while, they were laughing, and their laughs carried on the wind and danced through Cole’s ears in harsh echoes.
The leaves were cold on his face as he lay on the ground. He smelled dirt and grass and water somewhere. There was an enormous ache inside his head, a crushing, throbbing pressure. It pounded, repeatedly, like a hammer on wood.
And so, Cole curled up into a ball and cried.
He cried hard into the ground, saw his tears fall on the leaves, on the dead grass. Taking a sharp breath in, he inhaled dirt and coughed. It unsettled his stomach and he gagged. He punched at the ground with his good hand, his fist aching as he repeatedly brought it down, blow after blow. His other arm lay limp at his side, dislocated. It ached, sent a shock through his back, every time he smacked and clawed at the ground.
Then he saw his father in flashes. His large, calloused hands, his face blood-red and twisted in anger, the veins protruding from his neck, and this stopped him.
Cole turned on his back and stared up at the sky, heaving as he wiped tears away from his eyes and watched as the clouds hurried below the sun. As he lay there, motionless, he realized how cold he was. His hands were reddening, almost numb. He tried to forget, tried to ignore the icy wind, the pain in his shoulder. Watching the branches sway, back and forth, Cole remembered the bird that flew away. It all seemed cruel. The bright blue sky and the multicolored leaves, shades of reds and yellows and oranges and purples and browns. The bird’s escape. The kids who would come outside later, with their mothers and fathers who loved them and old pillow cases and buckets for candy.
Perhaps he fell asleep then for a moment, or maybe for an hour. It doesn’t really matter, but when Cole opened his eyes, there was a boy there, a boy who grabbed his hand and helped him to his feet.
“Come on,” he said. “We should leave.”
The boy was William, the ghost, and he was completely, miraculously dead.
But William did not, at all, possess ghostly powers in the way we think of them today. He could not fly and he could not disappear. He was just there. Just dead.
William wasn’t rotting away, with a dangling eyeball or a partially disconnected ear, nor was he angelic. He was not translucent, did not sparkle, did not glow in an effervescent light. I will only tell you that this young boy looked nearly normal. A bit tired and a bit pale, but normal nonetheless. It was evident, to Cole, that he had been out in the woods a long time. Twigs stuck in his hair, heavy circles were visible beneath his dark eyes. Strangely, he wore no shoes. William’s outfit consisted of a blue coat, worn, grey slacks and a white collared shirt. It looked too old for him, like he wasn’t quite the right age to be wearing it yet. Cole thought of old photos he had seen in history books, of boys holding muskets and staring at the camera with wide, distant eyes. They wore clothes like that.
The only real giveaway, the only indication that William was dead, was a large, deep laceration along his forehead, but the bleeding had stopped a long time ago. It was just slightly raised and nude-colored by then.
And sometimes, while deep in thought, William’s face would shift. It was such a subtle thing, gone almost as quickly as it came, that it was barely noticeable. But it was a change.
“This way,” William whispered.
He walked briskly for a short distance, to a crumbling stone structure with a missing roof. Cole followed and cradled his arm carefully as his shoulder throbbed in pain. William stopped and looked back at him, and Cole realized he was whimpering, his own breath tired and uneven. He sat down on the ground.
“You’re hurt,” William said.
Cole gave no reply. William knelt beside him and touched his hand.
“I’m going to pop your shoulder back into place now, okay?”
Cole looked at the boy, at William, at his pallid face and slight smile.
“It’ll be alright,” William said. “Don’t worry.”
He put a hand on Cole’s shoulder and told him not to move.
“On the count of three, okay? Just breathe. Relax.”
And then William counted and Cole bit down on his tongue and shut his eyes; William pushed up, fast and hard, while he kept Cole’s back straight and still, and for a brief second Cole felt only the fiery jolt, the heat, and he yelled and tears filled his eyes.
But then there was relief and William let go.
“Nothing to it,” William said with a grin.
“Thanks,” Cole said.
The boys stood and William gave Cole the coat that he wore, as a coat wasn’t much use to a dead boy, anyway. It was just for show.
“Who are you?” Cole asked as he buttoned up the heavy coat.
“Name’s William,” he said, extending a hand.
Cole sniffed and shook the boy’s hand, surprised at how frigid William’s skin felt.
“You’re freezing,” Cole said.
William sighed and sat down on a nearby stump. He dug his bare feet into the ground and looked at Cole.
“I got lost in the woods a long time ago. It was very cold. Nobody came for me. I fell asleep and never woke up.”
After a moment, after staring at William’s dark eyes, Cole only nodded. He did not question William’s history, but only asked him why he had grabbed him off the ground and took him away and William said, with a shrug, that Cole looked like he needed help.
The boys sat together out in the woods as the sun fell, as it set behind the high heads of the trees, and William asked Cole for a favor. It was simple enough, really. He told him that his house was not far from there, from where they sat. That he wanted, desperately needed, to get home. That he had been wandering around the woods for such a long time, and that he was tired and very, very sad.
“I can’t do this alone,” William told Cole. “The first time I tried to go home it was early summer and there were hikers and runners and dog-walkers all over the woods, so I had to be very careful. I was afraid of them, can you believe it? I’m the ghost, but I was afraid of those people, who were alive and who belonged.”
Cole was still, silent, watching. William laughed.
“I don’t even know what year it is,” he said.
“2016,” Cole replied.
“It’s been that long?”
And Cole saw William’s face fall. He frowned and brushed dried mud off the bottom of his trousers.
“It’s been so long,” was all he said, barely above a whisper.
“What happens when you try and leave?”
“When I reach the end of the trees, something happens,” William said. “I get very confused. My eyes—everything gets blurry—and then I black out and find myself back where I started. In the dead center of these woods. At first I didn’t believe it. How could I? I tried to leave again and again. I tried walking other routes. I tried finding different ways out, but every time, it was the same. But with you, with the help of someone still rooted in time, rooted in life, I think I can latch on. I think I can go home.”
Cole kept quiet and stared at the ground. He heard William shuffle his feet and sigh. When he looked up, William’s head was bowed and his eyes were closed.
“Don’t you want to go home?” William asked then, with eyes still shut.
Cole considered this. He thought back to his small, yellow house with the matching yellow mailbox. He thought of the high hedges around the back yard and the pine tree in the center. He thought of his room, filled with pictures and magazine clippings and scattered books and sketching pads. He thought of him, that ring, and he agreed to do what William asked. Because boys like Cole, boys who are wounded and ruined from reality, boys who are defeated every day by the cruelty of their lives, have no choice but to believe in magic. What else is there other than to fall through the cracks, to trust, to believe, over and over again, in something fantastic? In something better. In something unreal and frightening. That is all they have. They would rather stand in the cold and believe in ghosts from shadowed woods than go back to warm, comfortable houses accustomed to hiding their darkness.
And he agreed mostly because William had helped him.
“Okay. Let’s go,” Cole said.
“Really? You’ll help me?” William asked, jumping up from the tree stump.
“I’ll help you.”
Cole took William’s hand in his as the sunlight from the dying day fell away and dimmed; it streamed through the trees in a deep, rust color.
“It’s just that way,” William said, pointing. “I’ll lead. Hold on tight and don’t let go.”
In that moment, Cole thought he heard someone calling for him. He turned in the direction of the sound. A voice, a yell, all too familiar, over and over again, urging him to come back. To go home.
But Cole only turned back to William and ignored the voice behind him. Together, they walked on.
Time passed. Stars appeared above their heads and blinked at the boys as they traveled through pale moonlight. In the distance, they heard laughter from little children—from princesses and superheroes and witches and vampires—as they rang doorbells somewhere, in another world, under bright porch lights and with smiling parents behind them.
“Don’t worry,” William said. “They can’t see us. They’re much farther away than they sound.”
Cole closed his eyes and listened to them, to the way their giggles and playful yells simply floated on the air, but he never stopped; he just kept moving. As they walked even deeper into the woods, their voices and laughter faded and Cole could barely hear them.
I could say that they spoke, that they shared things with each other. That Cole told William about the bullies at school, about his father, but he stayed quiet. They only held onto each other and walked on as owls watched them silently from high branches, hoo-hooing as twigs cracked beneath their feet.
As they traveled, the voices of the children fell away completely. The moon rose higher. It got late. Cole imagined the children retreating inside and pouring out their candy, swapping Kit-Kats for Snickers and M&Ms for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as fires were lit and porch lights were clicked off and Michael Myers cut up his sister on basic cable television. Cole felt, as he looked up at the shining moon, now half obscured by a blanket of heavy clouds, that he was the only boy really alive and left in the world.
The sky was brightening on the horizon as the boys passed a final clump of trees. As they stepped out into a small, mowed field, William looked back at Cole and pointed ahead to a white, shingled house with a brick chimney. Leaves strewn across the walkway, up to the front door.
“That’s it. Just ahead,” William said.
The dead boy’s eyes filled with tears and his skin glowed in the moonlight. As he turned to Cole and smiled, there was a touch of color in his cheeks. He reached out and hugged Cole, nearly causing him to lose his footing. Cole laughed, out loud, and it sounded strange, somehow out of place, in the dark field. He tried to remember the last time he had really laughed as he tapped William’s cold, hard back.
“Thank you,” William said.
“It was nothing.”
“You helped me. You did what friends are supposed to do,” William said. “I hope that, from now on, your father is kinder to you.”
How did he know? Cole wondered, but he didn’t ask. He remembered the power of the unknown. Of magic. Of the life that continues, right next to ours, a mere breath away, just under our noses. A world that we can’t see, but one that is there, nonetheless.
Cole knew his own, little world all too well.
And then there was a shift in William’s expression, as if somehow, he had read Cole’s mind.
“Would you like to come with me, Cole?” he asked.
“You would be safe. Nothing can touch you where I’m going. Not anymore.”
“But I’m not dead,” Cole said.
William shrugged and smiled, as if to say that did not matter.
“I got to say goodbye. It’s time for me to go,” he said. “Do you want to leave with me?”
Cole could make out the white, lace curtains in the window and a few pumpkins on the stoop of William’s house. He wondered who lived there now. Who was inside, sleeping under warm blankets and dreaming, drifting?
The sky, the white, twinkling stars, continued to blink overhead. The cut below Cole’s right eye stung in the chill air and his nose ached. He thought of how his face would swell; he thought of school on Monday, of the whispers from his classmates, of the explanations—the lies—he’d have to tell.
A snowflake fell from above and touched his cheek. Clouds rolled in as the sky began to shift from navy to a soft pink. Morning.
The image of Christmas trees dressed in lights entered Cole’s mind. He thought of the snow again, of Kyle and Becky sledding down a hill. He didn’t know why he thought of Kyle, why he thought of them now, rushing over some shallow slope. But he did; he thought of them smiling and laughing and falling gently into soft banks of snow.
And then Cole nodded once to William. William took his hand and, together, the boys walked on, through the snow that would continue to fall all morning.
Cole did not go home; he did not make things right with his father. He did not seek help from neighbors. His bones had been broken one too many times, and a heart can only take so much before it gives in.
There are always speculations, always questions, and I should tell you, that I am not the most reliable narrator. I’m just someone who saw Cole and then never saw him again.
But his face, those eyes, the way his body always shook from cold and fear, the way his shoulders reached upward as if in a perpetual defense, stuck with me. He always looked too small, no matter where he was. Perhaps that was what saddened me the most. He always looked so small and swallowed up.
Maybe Cole did run away from home and meet a dead boy. Or maybe he ran away from home and got lost and froze to death. Maybe he never met William, maybe he never made a friend. Maybe, when he fell down that small hill, away from Kyle and Jake, he didn’t make it. Maybe he snapped his neck on that rock. Perhaps another man was in the woods that day. A mean, scary man, who found Cole bloody and promised him safety but did not mean it. Or, maybe, Cole never left his house that Halloween, and inside, his father got too angry. It went too far.
But these are just the stories we tell ourselves in the face of tragedy, to make sense of things that happen. We never want to believe the things that can rock a small town, but they are there, chained up and breathing.
Cole ran away from home and left with the boy in the woods. That’s the story I tell.
Nora Shychuk grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania before she hopped across the pond and earned her MA in Creative Writing from University College Cork in Ireland. Her work has appeared in The Quarryman Literary Journal, The Rose Magazine, and The Lonely Crowd. More of her work can be found at thinkbreathewrite.wordpress.com.