There in the realm known as the Woods, four young boys sat beside a campfire, staring in awe at the blue mist rising above the nearby pond. At that moment in time, they were fifteen-year-old boys, camping out in the country, trying to remain unafraid of the darkness as blue moonlight turned the wooded grove into a mystical wonderland.
In two months, however, one of them would put a .45 to his head and pull the trigger. One week later, one boy would smoke a joint laced with PCP, and never be the same. Six months beyond that, one of them would die of cancer. And eventually, one of the boys, forever changed by the tragedies of the other three, would begin to write stories that would impact the lives of other kids.
But that would be in the future. Tonight, they were living in the moment. And unaware of the trouble coming their way.
Reason Nelson stood up, peering into the surrounding shadows. Small and slender with dark, shoulder-length hair, he wore a smug look on his face as he picked up a stick and hastily sat back down.
On the opposite side of the fire, tall, lanky Craig Cline slipped long strands of brown hair behind his ears. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Gettin’ the creeps?”
Reason shrugged, silently staring at the clouds of mist drifting above the pond at the edge of the black trees. “Those,” he said, “are the ghosts of Pawnee warriors who died in tribal warfare.”
Skinny, red-haired Joey Tate scrunched up his nose and said, “For real? Did Indians really die here?”
“Yes,” Craig replied. “They were savagely slaughtered, too.”
“You’re so full of crap!” said Trent Petraza, his shaggy, blond bangs bunching up on the rim of his glasses.
Pawing at his glasses as they slipped down to the bridge of his nose, Trent said, “Tell us about that ghost you saw out by the Nightmare, Reason.”
Joey warily asked, “What ghost?”
Craig said, “Reason saw the ghost of Bobby Cooper!”
“There ain’t no such thing as ghosts!” Joey blurted.
Trent teased, “Joey’s making butter-brickle supreme in his undies.”
“Shut up, Trent!” Joey snapped. “Who was just telling Reason to quit talking about that thing that lives out by the Nightmare? Who was whizzing in their pee-stained crusties, then?”
“Shut up, Joey!”
“Bite me, Trent!”
“I am not!” yelled Joey, causing Craig and Reason to laugh because Trent had scored a direct hit.
Craig then looked at Reason. “Go on, dude! Tell them about the white dove with its beak stuck in its chest!”
“Breast,” Reason corrected him.
But he remained silent, refusing to talk about what he’d seen as he’d rode his cycle through the haunted ground known as the Nightmare. He was relieved when Craig said, “Well then, tell us another story. Tell us about Bloody Mary.”
The howls of coyotes erupted in the distance. Ghostly shadows gathered beyond their campsite. Reason waited. One second. Two seconds. Three. Four. The coyotes howled again.
Reason then said, “They called her Bloody Mary, because she blew some kid away with a shotgun. One blast to the face and he was dead. A damned serious consequence for a stupid prank. Kids had harassed her for years. Shooting her goats. Hooting at her from their cars. Sneaking up to her house to bang on her windows. Just bored kids driving out to the country to scare the defenseless old lady.
“Someone had a real dumb idea that night. Sneaking into her house would be the ultimate prank. Halfway through her kitchen window, the kid froze in terror as Mary pointed her shotgun at him. She then pulled the trigger, and that unlucky kid was blown into the next life. The thunder of that blast echoed across Lincoln, and a legend was born. And no one screwed with Bloody Mary after that.”
Pausing for several seconds, Reason then said, “Mary had a guardian, though. Some thing that stalked the banks of Salt Creek near the Woods. Two kids on dirt bikes claimed they saw it one July evening. Glowing green eyes. Gleaming white fangs. The face of a demented baboon. The deformed body of a massive dog.
Rumors soon began to spread that it was a beast bred by scientists at Ag. College. And seen or unseen, it was no longer fun to go anywhere near the old lady’s house. Someone named it the Salt Creek Creature, and . . . another legend was born.”
The coyotes stopped howling. Silence settled on the Woods. Craig startled them all as he said, “Tell us about how you saw Bobby Cooper’s ghost out by the Nightmare, Reason!”
“God!” Joey blurted. “I don’t wanna hear that one!”
“Pussy!” Trent taunted, his twin lenses reflecting firelight.
Reason grinned, but remained silent, refusing to tell the story about the night something had chased him along the banks of Salt Creek.
A light breeze spiraled down through the leaves of the trees, causing embers within the fire to whiz through the air like tiny zephyrs. In a nearby tree, an owl hooted softly. Out by the creek, its mate responded with a muffled murmur. The steady croaking of frogs drifted from the pond at the edge of the Woods. Reason peered down at the embers glowing like magic gems and thought, This is a good night to be alive! An even better night to be sharing a fire with friends. Does life get any better than this?
Reason Nelson had once been a delinquent on probation with the juvenile court system. In past months, however, he’d steered clear of serious trouble and had overcome a major problem with substance abuse. And though he now considered himself recovered, his former probation officer still met with him on a weekly basis. It was she who claimed, “Reason, you are a rogue at heart. A shaggy-haired Puck. A mischievous, modern-day Huck Finn. And boys like you always need someone to watch over them.”
Reason didn’t think so, though. He figured he was doing fairly well on his own. He’d quit using drugs. He’d stopped drinking. And he hadn’t been in any kind of trouble with the law for several long months. For him, this was a major accomplishment.
Getting up to toss a stump into the fire, Joey said, “Don’t talk no more about Bloody Mary and that Creature, okay?”
“Why?” quipped Craig. “Whazamadder, Joey? Think it might be out there . . . watching us?”
In a bold move, Craig walked away from the fire and into the woodland blackness. Spinning around, he aimed his butt at the shadows beyond, then shouted, “Hey, monkey balls! Come kiss my pale white butt! Hey, Mary! You can come kiss me, too!”
Joey whimpered, “Reason, get him to stop!”
Craig then spun his butt in their direction, saying, “Wonder what happens when the Creature sees a full moon?”
Reason said, “Quit being such a stupid peckerwood.”
Craig opened his mouth to respond when suddenly, a loud, deep Huff! echoed through the Woods.
Trent hissed, “It’s him! It’s the baboon thing!”
Joey said, “It’s Bloody Mary!”
Reason narrowed his eyes as he detected movement beyond the firelight, less than fifty feet away.
A dark form then came down the trail directly toward the boys.
Wailing like a banshee, Joey sprang up and darted to the nearest tree. Muttering garbled words, he clawed his way up into the lower branches. Trent’s glasses flew off as he crashed to his knees and crumpled to the ground. Reason watched the shadowy form as it drew closer. Standing there frozen, he completely forgot about the stick in his grasp.
But when Craig boldly yelled a challenge at the oncoming danger, the dark shape darted into the undergrowth and faded between the trees. “Did that look like a cow to you?” he whispered.
Reason whispered back, “It was a deer.”
On the ground beside the tree, Trent turned his head back and forth, resembling a mole in bright sunlight. “I lost my glasses, you guys. Come help me find them.”
Ten feet from the ground, clinging to two branches, Joey hissed, “Hey, you guys! I see headlights coming down the service road!”
Reason and Craig peered up to see the smaller kid staring in fierce concentration at the service road to the north of the Woods.
“Whoa, you guys!” said Joey. “There’s a car coming up the road toward the Woods!”
Craig said, “A car coming up the service road? Great! Joey, stay put! See which way the car goes!”
He then dashed over to their gear stashed beyond the fire, excited about the prospect of bushwhacking.
High in the tree, Joey said, “The car’s pulling off into the Turn Around! Shouldn’t we hurry and get to the edge of the Woods?”
Grinning like a wild imp as he scrounged through his backpack, Craig said, “We’ve got time. The whole idea of bushwhacking is to wait until those two in the car are heavily engaged in necking. Then we sneak up and lob eggs at the car!”
Joey asked, “So what’s with the light bulbs?”
Craig said, “The light bulbs are filled with gobs of florescent paint! They not only splatter-paint windshields, but they sound like gunfire when they shatter!”
Joey shimmied down from the tree, and a loud Crack! startled them all as he landed directly on top of Trent’s glasses.
Trent cried out, “Nooo!”
“I didn’t mean to!” Joey nearly cried himself. “I’m sorry!”
“God!” Trent growled. “You moron!”
Carefully withdrawing a carton of eggs from his pack, Craig snapped, “Would you two just shut the hell up!”
“You shut up!” Trent responded. “Just go screw yourself!”
Moving toward their motorcycles parked nearby, Reason glan-ced back to see Craig charge across the clearing. Before Craig could punch him, Trent bawled, “Joey broke my glasses! I’m deader than a cadaver beneath the Dental building’s tombs!”
Sullenly examining the glasses in Trent’s grasp, Craig flicked the cracked right lens with one finger. “Quit whining! Just close your right eye and you won’t know the difference.”
Trent looked down as if he were holding a dead roach in his hand. “But my dad will kill me!”
“Enough!” snarled Craig, raising the glasses and placing them on the bridge of Trent’s nose.
Joey looked over at the egg cartons. “What if we egg this car, and some psycho jumps out with a knife or a gun?”
Moving methodically among their four dirt bikes, Reason said, “That’s why I’m opening the gas valves. If some nutcase chases us back here, we escape on our bikes! Besides, I’m gonna take my bike down the road to scout out the situation. If we’ve got lovers necking at the Turn Around, then I swing back here and we bushwhack them. But if I spot some psycho parked down there, we call off our raid, Joey.”
Craig scooped up several egg cartons and started off down the trail. “Get going, Reason! We’ll move into position, and you can meet up with us at the edge of the Woods.”
Joey scooped up three egg cartons and followed behind Craig. Mounting his 250 Kawasaki, Reason grinned as he watched Trent peer through his cracked lens and stagger down the trail.
Reason revved his bike and zipped out onto the service road beyond the Woods.
Three hundred yards from their campsite, he zipped past the Turn Around, a small parking lot to one side of the road. A car was parked there, two shadowy forms visible in the front seat. Which was a good sign. Two people parked there meant some kid had brought his girl out there to spend quality time with her.
In the past, Reason and Craig had gone on dozens of raids, rudely interrupting make-out sessions between unsuspecting lovers. Tonight, Reason figured would be no different. But first, he would scout out the place. They had to choose their victims wisely. It was safe to lob eggs at the cars of wimps. Wimpy guys were too terrified to play hero by chasing them into the Woods, unaware that it had been a bunch of wimpier kids who had nailed his car.
If Reason, however, discovered a tough guy and his girl making out, they would call off the raid. Tough guys made bushwhacking way too dangerous.
Reason rode past the white Cadillac parked at the Turn Around, and kept going down the road, planning to ride another hundred feet, and then ride back to the Woods.
Suddenly, he gasped as another dirt bike appeared on the road before him. “Asshole!” he cursed as the other rider flew past him.
Reason glanced back, catching a glimpse of the man’s long, black hair trailing over his shoulders. He groaned as the unknown cyclist then spun around and came flying back in his direction.
Wishing now that he hadn’t mouthed off to the guy, Reason headed north down the road, hoping to lose the biker on one of the side trails ahead. He didn’t want to ride too far down the road, for directly ahead of him was Bloody Mary’s house.
The rider behind him, however, was closing in fast.
Reason swerved off the service road and headed up a trail snaking its way along the banks of nearby Salt Creek. Whipping his bike back and forth on the zigzagging trail, Reason thought maybe if he was lucky, he would lose him in the thickets ahead, and the biker would continue on to get blown away by Mary.
After long moments of hard riding, Reason looked back to find the rider gone, but suddenly an owl swooped down from the branches above him and glided away like a winged ghost. A second later, a dark form exploded out of the bushes beside the path.
Viciously clawing at his throttle, Reason sent the battered 250 Kaw shooting forward like a rocket, its back tire spitting dust at the shadowy figure. Speeding through the next S-shaped curve, Reason whipped the bike through the tight switchback. Far ahead, he could see an opening between the trees, marking the path known as the Fat Lady’s Nightmare. The trail there snaked down between a dozen trees, then looped around a deep ravine. Years ago, Bobby Cooper had attempted to jump his bike over the ravine, only to crash and die sixty feet below in Salt Creek.
Reason twisted his throttle and sent the bike soaring toward the Nightmare. As he shot down the slope, he looked back to see the black figure scramble out of the trees behind him.
At the bottom of the steep incline, he slammed into a fence post. The Kaw’s front tire popped, its headlamp shattered, and Reason flew over the handlebars. He landed at the edge of a small pond, skidding crazily across slick, mossy ground, scattering frogs in all directions. Blackness then attached itself to him like an anchor and he began to tumble into the murky waters of the pond.
Suddenly, Reason felt long, bony hands grasping at his shoulders, pulling him away from the moonlit black waters. Sucking in gulps of air, he drifted in and out of consciousness.
When Reason opened his eyes, he saw fireflies shimmering above him like tiny green jewels. He gave a low moan. Nothing seemed to be broken, but his head hurt like hell. Trying to focus, he peered up at the wrinkled features of what looked like a large monkey. Still fighting to remain conscious, Reason focused on its protruding lips and its large, yellow eyes.
It was then gone, fading into the shadows like a swift wind. He thought it crossed the pond. If so, the ape-faced creature must have floated, for it made no sound with its passing.
Then, a second figure kneeled beside him.
Reason felt a hand on his brow. He stared up into the piercing green eyes of an old woman. Silvery-white hair trailed over her shoulders and she wore a long, snow-white dress. It was the Lady of the Woods. The legendary Bloody Mary, who despised kids. Certain she was preparing to blast him with both barrels, Reason fearfully asked, “You going to shoot me?”
A smile creased the ancient lady’s weathered face as she patted Reason gently on one cheek.
“Foolish child,” she said. “I just saved you.”
She then vanished like mist in the wind.
When Reason fully regained consciousness, he found himself alone at the edge of the pond. He groaned when he saw his ruined cycle. There was no way he would be able to ride the battered Kaw back to the Woods. The bike would have to be hauled out of there in pieces.
Still slightly baffled by his encounter with the old lady, Reason clambered up and hastily headed toward the nearby service road. As he trudged along, he swore that he would not tell the other boys about anything that happened after he’d crashed. They would scoff and laugh in total disbelief. Especially if he told them he’d actually been rescued by Bloody Mary.
Once Reason reached the service road, he ran, trying to make up for lost time. He assumed that the others had abandoned the bushwhacking raid by now. More than likely, they had probably returned to the campfire, wondering what had happened to him.
Thirty minutes later, Reason came within sight of the Woods.
Surprised to see the Cadillac still parked at the Turn Around, he kneeled down and slipped into a row of hedges on the north side of the parking lot. Before peeking through a gap in the bushes, he listened to determine if anyone in the car had seen him.
Finally, hearing nothing to indicate anyone had climbed out of the Cadillac, Reason peered through a break in the hedges. Thirty feet in front of him sat the car. Thirty feet beyond the car lay the lip of a ravine lined by the dark trees marking the north end of the Woods. If indeed the other three boys were hiding there, he couldn’t see them. Which was a good thing. Because that meant the two people inside the Cadillac couldn’t see them either.
Reason looked to his right toward the service road and Salt Creek. He then studied the open field stretching to his left. To get back to the Woods, he would have to crawl through the field, then climb down into the ravine beyond. He knew that the ravine separating the Turn Around from the Woods was at least twenty feet deep. To cross it, he would have to stealthily climb down its steep sides and avoid making any noise.
He was about to crawl out of the hedges, when the front doors on the car swung open and two men climbed out, the cherries of their cigarettes glowing brightly in the darkness.
The men walked around to the trunk of the car. One was short and heavyset with a buzz cut and an ample beer gut. The other man had short, dark hair and a mustache, and he was tall and muscular, and built like a bear.
The short, pudgy guy asked, “Can I do the shooting, Beck?”
Car keys jangling in his meaty grasp, the bigger man snarled, “Shut up, Rawlins! Get out your lighter and help me find the hole for this damned key!”
A flicker of flame came from the hand of chubby Rawlins, and Beck slid the key into the slot and raised the trunk lid.
Rawlins asked, “Is he awake? I ain’t touchin’ him if he is!”
Beck snatched the lighter away from Rawlins, flicked it on, and stepped back to the car’s open trunk. “He’s still pretty groggy. Get over here and help me.”
As Beck scooped up a dark, bulky shape from the confines of the trunk, Rawlins joined him. The two men grunted as they moved away from the car and placed their burden on the ground.
Beck retrieved a rifle from the trunk and said, “He’s too doped up to do anything but sit there!”
He fumbled with the bolt of the rifle. When the shadowy form at his feet moved, he cocked the weapon, pointing it down at the black Labrador sprawled on the ground before him.
Beck then froze as a noise came from the field forty feet to the left of the Turn Around. Both Beck and Rawlins stared at the gray shapes floating toward the Woods.
“Deer!” hissed Beck, causing a buck and six does to stop in the middle of the field. Seven sets of eyes locked on the two men standing in the parking lot. The buck then ran toward the Woods, followed by the does.
Hidden behind the hedges, Reason watched the herd of deer leap over the ravine and bolt toward the Woods. He then looked on in amazement as Craig, Trent, and Joey sprang up in front of the swift-moving deer.
The buck plowed into Joey, sending him tumbling to the ground. As Joey fell, he tossed two paint-bombs high into the air, causing them to look like white doves taking flight. The paint-bombs struck two of the oncoming does and exploded, splattering them with bursts of glowing paint, sending red and green streaks streaming along their shoulders and flanks.
At the Turn Around, Beck and Rawlins ran to the lip of the ravine to get a better look at the scene unfolding before them. The two men collided and Rawlins fell down into the ravine.
Ignoring the fat man’s bellow of pain, Beck glared at the three boys on the south side of the ravine. “Hey, you kids! What the hell you doing over there?”
Raising the rifle, he aimed it at the boys and fired. The report of the .22 rifle sounded like thunder in the night air.
As the lead slug whizzed into the trees at the edge of the Woods, the three boys dove for cover behind trees and bushes.
“Stay where you are!” yelled Beck, starting down the steep slope before him.
Seconds later, he climbed up the slope on the opposite side of the ravine, staring in confusion at the paint-streaked does swiftly moving off into the trees in front of him.
He then ran down the trail, past the hiding place of the three boys. A moment later, Rawlins clambered out of the ravine and ran down the path behind Beck.
Reason sprang up and ran to the edge of the ravine.
Craig madly dashed out of the Woods and slid down into the ravine. Scrambling up and out of the deep gully, he joined Reason in the center of the parking lot.
The two boys approached the dazed Lab sprawled on the ground beside the car. But the dog remained motionless as Reason kneeled down and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “Is he still alive?” Craig asked. Before Reason could answer, Trent and Joey slammed into the bumper of the nearby Cadillac. Hearing the loud Thunk! made by the two boys, the black Lab peered up at Reason with a curious look in his dark eyes.
Gently petting the dog, Reason hissed, “Hell, you guys! Could you make any more noise?”
Next to the car on his hands and knees, Trent pawed blindly at the ground. “Joey knocked my glasses off! I’m dead if I lose my glasses!”
“We’ll all be dead if those guys come back!” growled Craig.
Reason attempted to raise the dog. “Help me get this thing on its feet! We gotta get it across the road and over by the creek! Those guys were going to shoot him!”
Craig slid his hands beneath the dog’s hindquarters, and they lifted the Lab up and held him in place. The dog attempted to gain his feet, but weaved awkwardly and crumpled to the ground.
“Joey! Trent! Help!” Reason grunted.
Still pawing at the ground, Trent whimpered, “Help me find my glasses! Then I’ll help!”
Joey scrambled up from the ground and Crunch! suddenly echoed across the parking lot. “My glasses!” Trent howled. “You stepped on my glasses! God, you’re such a moron!”
Reason slid both arms beneath the Lab and pulled his limp form against his chest. Craig kneeled on the other side of the dog, and the Lab spastically worked his back legs, then collapsed.
Craig swore in frustration. “How we gonna get him over to the creek? He can’t walk, Reason! And he’s too heavy to carry!”
“Hey!” said Joey, pointing at the raised lid of the trunk. “Keys!”
He snatched up the ring of keys and jangled them in the air. “Let’s drive him out of here,” Craig said, rising to his feet and ripping the keys out of Joey’s hand.
Shocked by the suggestion, Trent gasped, “Steal a car?”
Craig said, “Either that or we let those guys shoot this dog!”
Placing his glasses on the bridge of his nose, Trent looked at him through the spider-web cracks in both lenses. Turning his head at awkward angles and doing a zombie-like shuffle, he walked toward the car, asking, “What if we get caught?”
The sound of gunfire erupted from the south end of the Woods, and Joey slammed the trunk lid closed and Trent opened one of the car’s back doors. Joey and Reason began pushing and shoving to get the Lab onto the backseat. Scooting himself in first, Reason held the dog against his chest and fell backwards inside the car. The Lab raised his head and licked the side of Reason’s face.
Trent clambered in through the front passenger door. Joey jumped in back beside Reason and the dazed dog.
Craig turned the key in the ignition slot and quickly took them soaring down the gravel road leading away from the Woods.