A Novelette By Robert Swartwood

Chapter 3

Behind our house there’s this trail that snakes through the woods, one almost everyone in town uses for their walks and biking. It’s the main reason Ty and I both own mountain bikes, and it’s these bikes we now use to ride farther and farther away from home. Under the trees, over the rocks and vines, I follow my brother as best as I can. He’s at least twenty yards ahead of me, pedaling as if he’s in a race.

I tried asking him questions before we left but got nothing out of him. All he would say was there was something in the woods. Nothing else, but my mind played out the rest: something in the woods—something that changed Laddie. Something that forced Ty to kill his beloved dog.

We ride for maybe five more minutes, going up and down slopes, until suddenly Ty veers off the path. He stops at a wall of bushes and sets down his bike.

“Through here,” he says, and starts right into the brush. I want him to explain more about what’s going on, but instead I follow. The brush claws at my hair, my skin and clothes, and a thorn somehow gets lodged into my left palm. I curse, try to pull it out as I continue through, and then manage to dislodge it just as I come out on the other side.

It’s a small grove, enclosed by more bushes and trees. In the middle is a hole in the ground, almost like a gofer’s hole. Only this one’s much bigger. A wide, thick board that looks like it’s been decaying for years lies to the side, flattening a clump of wildflowers.

Ty, staring at it, clears his throat again. “I don’t know what happened, Josh. I’ve taken Lad way out here a bunch of times, and I never had a problem before. He’d follow me, run around and do his business and all that stuff. But today something must have caught his attention. Before I knew it, he started barking and took off into here. I thought maybe it was a squirrel or something, you know? But when I caught up with him, I found him clawing at that board.”

He walks forward until he’s standing right over the board. He kicks it as if it’s the cause of all this trouble.

“I should never have taken this off the hole. Once I did”—Ty shakes his head—“he went straight down there. I called after him, but he didn’t listen. Can you believe that, Josh? Lad always listened to me.”

I say nothing. I hadn’t realized it, but the forest sounds I’d always taken for granted—the birds chirping, the insects calling—have gone silent.

“So I went down after him,” Ty tells me, and I can almost picture it in my mind—my fearless brother, who has more than once stood up to bullies and has never hesitated to speak his mind, as he lowers himself down the hole after his dog.

“And?” I say, because the picture ends there with Tyler disappearing down the hole, and even though a part of me knows it’s a bad idea, I ask, “What’s down there?”

My brother looks at the hole and shakes his head. He says nothing. This is so unlike him, it scares me. But what also scares me is how pale his face is, how drained his eyes have become. The idea of what’s down in that hole terrifies me more than anything else, because my eyes keep returning to his shirt.

Ty could just tell me, but he doesn’t. Instead, he picks up a stick lying on the ground and says, “I’ll show you.”

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