The air in the dense woods was still, thick as molasses, and viciously hot - suffocating even. As a precautionary measure, Julian spent most of his time face down, looking at his feet as he made his way through the nearly impenetrable underbrush. More than once, a thorn-laced vine he’d pushed away with his walking stick had ricocheted back into his face leaving bright red droplets of blood and a wretched burning from the toxicity of the plant. It was not an experience he wished to repeat. But his omnipresent sense of adventure was more than equal to the immediate discomforts the weaponry of the woods could throw at him. He soldiered on with nothing more than a galvanizing need to see where the vague trail under his feet might lead. He dropped down over the edge of a washed out, dry ravine and making his way back up the opposite side, he saw them. A pair of men’s boots facing directly at him, only a few feet from his face. But the thick underbrush was obscuring everything except the boots themselves. No way to tell if there were someone’s legs in them or not. He didn’t dare look up. This was his family’s land and it was posted against trespassing. There should have been no unidentified persons anywhere within the fifteen-hundred acres. In the last 20 years or so, 8 children had simply vanished from the adjacent national forest. Not one of them had ever been found. The speculation regarding who or what was responsible ranged from a serial child murderer to wild animals and even evil spirits. Julian was frozen. His heart was beating so loudly he thought whoever might be standing in front of him must be able to hear it. He tried desperately to control his breathing but he knew with complete certitude his fear would betray him. He raced through every possible scenario he could think of. Reveal himself and find out who it was? Stay frozen hoping the boots would simply move away? Whoever, or whatever it was must know he was there. Was he willing to take the risk? Only one option presented as reasonable if not entirely safe - bolt.
He calculated that given his small size and reasonable speed, he might be able to outrun it. Boots were hard to run in and the thick growth would likely slow a larger person down. So that was it, he’d run. He counted to 10, stopping twice to gather his courage, 8 – 9 – 10 – GO! GO! GO! He ran, crawled, climbed over, slid under, until he broke into the clearing. Stretching out in front of him was 200 yards of pristine, wide open pasture. He ran faster than he’d ever run in his young life, not daring to look back over his shoulder. He was certain he could hear footsteps behind him. Were they getting closer? Was it his own breathing he heard or was that coming from behind him too? The panic and adrenaline obscured from his awareness the lacerations inflicted upon him by the thorns and vines. Blood was streaking all over his small body making him look like some gruesome victim of an unspeakable event. He reached the barbed wire fence, slid under it feet first, and was back up and off like a rifle shot toward the house. He bulldozed through the latched screen door to the porch, the wooden frame exploding into wooden shrapnel, and through the back door of the house. He slammed the sliding bolt shut behind him and reached into the pantry where his father kept a cut-down, 12-gauge pump shotgun chambered with buckshot. He wheeled back around, his eyes ever deepening pools of liquid fear and shock, and peered through the glass panes of the door into the yard. Nothing. No man, no specter, no boots - nothing. He still couldn’t breathe. Had his 9-year-old mind tricked him? Made it all up? Was it just a pair of old boots in the woods and nothing more? Or something far more sinister. The question would branch out in several directions in the ensuing year. Each lacking adequate illumination to drag any real answers out of the darkness. Each pregnant with its own meaning.