by John L. Harmon
Young lovers, dressed in matching white shirts, khaki shorts, and brown hiking boots, stroll hand-in-hand through Stickler Woods, basking in the sweet afterglow of sharing a glorious sunrise. The young man and young woman had spread a soft blanket on Stickler Hill and breakfasted as the dawn broke, splashing the valley below with warm, vivid color. Each building in Sturgeons radiated with the promise of a new day, full of new experiences. In the distance, on the opposite side of town, Lake Pontoon shimmered like liquid gold, somehow appearing more tranquil than ever, despite the crazy story that had circulated throughout town by yesterday evening.
The strange disappearance of Bob Kinney barely registers on their youthful minds, for it was an odd tale involving old people. All they can focus on is the sumptuous experience of their sunrise breakfast.
“Thanks for making it with me, Tracy,” Tommy Schroder expresses his sincere gratitude, giving his girl’s hand a gentle squeeze.
“You’re welcome, Tommy.” Tracy Newcastle smiles warmly at her beau and adds, “Thank you for bringing the bananas.”
“No. Thank you, Tracy,” Tommy corrects. “The bananas were your suggestion and they fit in perfectly.”
A comfortable silence settles between the young soulmates as they continue their woodland stroll to their respective homes. He swings the picnic basket, in his free hand, a little higher. She cuddles the rolled-up blanket, tucked under her free arm, a little tighter. The sun shining, the birds singing, and the heavy, sweet smell of Stickler Woods seem to reflect the feelings they share for one another.
Tommy Schroder and Tracy Newcastle are, for romantics, the epitome of High School Sweethearts. Dating since 8th grade, the inseparable lovebirds are still going strong during this summer before senior year. For cynics, the quarterback and the cheerleader are vomit-inducing plastic dolls with perfect blond hair, empty blue eyes, and lightly sun-kissed skin.
“I’ve gotta take a leak,” Tommy crudely interrupts their pleasant stroll. Releasing hands and giving Tracy the picnic basket, he kisses her cheek, as if in fond farewell.
“Hurry back,” Tracy chuckles outwardly, while grimacing inwardly at his choice of distasteful phrasing. She loves this man to the point of firmly and foolishly believing he will lose his crasser ways after senior year, college or finally marriage.
Tommy, having so sense of appropriate distance, chooses a tree ten feet away to eliminate behind. The obvious sound of his zipper shooting down, proceeded by the heavy splattering of a steady stream, and his relieving sigh, reverberates through the woods.
Tracy, slightly irritated at Tommy’s urination proximity, turns her back on the hidden scene and silently wishes he would have picked a tree farther away. Attempting to focus on anything other than the offending noises, she notices something odd. Something wrong. Something missing.
Just moments before birds were joyously singing, providing a natural soundtrack for their love. Now there is silence, except for Tommy’s never-ending leaking and sighing. This sudden realization invokes a physical sensation of nameless dread in Tracy Newcastle, as if all of her childhood fears were just proven true.
“Tommy…” she begins, facing his direction, but is drowned out by a bone-chilling clamor.
Initially it sounds like another of Tommy’s relieving sighs but it escalates into a baritone scream of horror. Tommy charges from behind the tree in a dead run and then trips as his khaki shorts fall around his ankles. The football player scrambles to erect himself, but his scoreboard clock has hit zero.
Tracy watches in frozen terror as something black and formless emerges. It’s as if the air itself has darkened, moving with purpose and thought. The darkness grabs at her screaming and struggling beau, viciously yanking him off the ground and pulling him behind the tree.
Tommy Schroder’s anguished screams abruptly die and this spurs her into action. Dropping the items from their memorable sunrise breakfast, Tracy Newcastle runs silently for her life, shrieking on the inside and failing to notice the birds of Stickler Woods resume their cheerful singing.
Click CHAPTER FIVE to continue.