Bobby McFarland stormed out the back door, the hinges squealing, the screen’s frame slamming shut, bouncing open, and slamming shut again. “Bobby McFarland, don’t you slam that door,” his mother called.
“Yeah-yeah-yeah,” Bobby grumbled.
“Bobby McFarland, where are you going? It’s getting dark,” his mother called with the edge of worry in her voice. The same edge of worry she always had when Bobby headed out the back door after dinner.
“To have a smoke,” Bobby said. He said this loud enough so his mother knew he answered, but quiet enough so she didn’t know what the answer was.
“What was that?”
“I’ll be back later,” he called over his shoulder, digging a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket and beating it on his palm. He didn’t really blame his mother for the worry in her voice. How many kids was it now? Seven since his mother was a little girl growing up here on Mystic Island. Three kids missing in Bobby’s lifetime. And throughout all that time, countless rumors had gathered about the disappearances. Rumors continuing to gather like moths on shit. Or was it flies on shit? Moths to a flame. Bobby couldn’t remember the saying, and what’s more, he didn’t care about the saying. Nor did he care about the rumors. Kids have been vanishing in Parson’s Woods since the turn of the century—maybe even before. Why? Because kids are dumb. And Bobby wasn’t dumb enough to get lost in any woods. Especially woods on an island. Just walk in any direction and you’re eventually gonna hit civilization, or water. And don’t bring up the whole “no remains were ever found” crap either. “There’s this little thing called the Circle of Life,” Bobby would say, “Things eat dead things lying on the ground, end of story.”
The mutt from next door, Ginger, came running up to Bobby. The dog always tagged along with him when he went into the woods for his smoke. And, as usual, when the dog trotted up to him, tail wagging, Bobby kicked the thing aside, snarling, “Get lost, you dumb mutt.” And, as usual, Ginger looked up at Bobby as if asking: Why, Bobby? Why me? But even with this nightly routine of boy kicking dog and dog looking distraught, the dog continued to follow Bobby into the woods, its tail wagging as if expecting something new and exciting to happen.
Bobby unwrapped the cigarette pack’s cellophane wrapper and tossed it on the ground. He had swiped three packs right out from under Old Man Wilkins’s nose. The old coot didn’t even notice. He never noticed when Bobby McFarland left Wilkins’s General Store with pockets full of merchandise. Candy, sodas, comics, magazines, cigarettes. “Just put it on my tab,” Bobby would say to Old Man Wilkins. Just loud enough so the old man could hear he said something, but quiet enough so the old man couldn’t tell what it was he said.
Bobby loved that one. Just put it on my tab. He always gave himself a good laugh with that one. He’d walk down the street, chuckling and waving to an unseen audience. He’d curl his lip, and in his best Elvis voice, say, “Thank-ya. Thank-ya very much.”
Bobby flipped a cigarette to his mouth, trying to catch it mid-flight. He missed it and had to frantically rescue it before it fell to the ground. With a second try, he snagged the cigarette like a trained seal catching a fish reward. “Oawh! Oawh!” he barked, clapping the backs of his hands like flippers. He then pulled matches from his pocket and with one hand, opened the matchbook cover, folded over a match, and struck it with a magician’s precision. The match flared with a hiss and lit the cigarette, flooding Bobby’s young lungs with smoke. “Ahh,” Bobby sighed. “Cigarettes, what any thirteen year old needs to grow up big and strong.” Bobby laughed at this. “Cigarettes…” he coughed a laugh mingled with smoke, “…big and strong. I love it.” He stopped, lifted his arms, and with his best Elvis voice and curled lip, said, “Thank-ya. Thank-ya very much.”
Bobby began his evening stroll again, rolling the cigarette pack in the sleeve of his t-shirt. On the t-shirt was the drawing of a bearded man with a beret seemingly orbiting the Earth. A caption read: BEAT-SPUTNIK IS OUT THERE. Ginger continued to follow Bobby into the woods, still with seemingly great interest. Perhaps trying to figure out why Bobby McFarland was just so mean. “Oawh! Oawh!” Bobby barked in his seal voice, bending over and thrusting his freckle-strewn face at the dog, his features cutting into his big, round head like a jack-o’-lantern. Ginger cocked its head in a questioning manner. Bobby yanked his hand up, as if going to strike the dog. Ginger backed away with confused hurt in its eyes. “Ginger’s such a wimpy name for a boy dog,” Bobby said. He then continued deeper into the woods. Ginger following him.
Night had almost taken over the woods. The shadows deepening. Bobby finished his cigarette, flicking it off into the trees, and he said, “Smokey the Bear says, only you can cause good forest fires.” Bobby laughed. That was a good one, he really liked that one. “Only you can cause good forest fires, that’s rich.” Stopping, Bobby lifted his hands in the air, and with curled lip, once again said, “Thank-ya. Thank-ya very much.”
Bobby tried to take his next step, but his foot seemed stuck to the ground. He tried shifting his weight to rewind his last step, but his other foot wouldn’t budge either. He grabbed his right thigh, trying to pull it forward, but it felt as though his feet had sunk into cement. “What the…” he said to himself. He looked at Ginger.
The dog cocked its head.
“What’re you looking at?” Bobby said.
But Ginger only cocked its head again, watching.
Bobby bent over to examine his sneakers. “What’s going on here?” he said, trying to pry his fingers under the soles. He untied the sneakers and attempted to pull his feet from them, but it felt as though his feet had grown right through the sneakers’ bottoms, attaching to the ground. “What is…”
Bobby’s toes shot through the fronts of his sneakers, bursting from the canvass, stretching before him like snakes. Bobby squealed as his toes slithered and writhed, and then burrowed deep below ground.
“What’s happening?” he asked Ginger.
The dog sat on its haunches like a person sitting to watch breaking news on television.
“Oh God,” Bobby said, his knees drawing together, his legs fusing into a solid form, becoming a texture like bark. Bobby gave one, final scream, raising his arms, his fingers shooting out, extending from his hands, stretching and twisting, the top of his head exploding into a bouquet of branches and twigs.
In the middle of the forest stood a new tree. Ginger rose from its haunches, tentatively approached the trunk, sniffed at it, and with a twinkle in its eye and lift of its leg, it urinated on the gray bark before trotting off for home.