“What’s this?” Molly asked, shielding her eyes from the sidelong rays of the setting sun which shot through the gaps in the trees. Brent approached the small clearing in the woods where they had been walking to get away from the rest of Brent’s suffocating family. He loosened his funeral tie a bit more and squinted as he looked around.
“Well, my old elementary school is off that way,” he pointed the opposite direction they had walked from his parent’s house. “I’d walk through here on my way to and from school. Kids said this patch of woods was haunted so I walked through here to keep away from them.” Molly’s face darkened at this. “Oh,” she said, “I see.”
In fifth grade, the year 1974, Gerry Blaines and Tom Goodall were his arch-oppressors. They called him names, shoved him when teachers weren’t looking, surreptitiously tried to trip him as he walked by. After school they chased him home. If they caught him, like they had just done, it was gut punches and several minutes of humiliation.
“Yeah, we can’t leave any marks or bruises as evidence,” Tom said. Jerry, the bigger one (the fat one) held him down with his arms pinned behind him, said into his ear, “That reminds me: next time I’ll bring my dad’s rubber hose. That won’t leave a mark, either. And it hurts like hell.”
“Oh, you mean the one he beats your smelly fat butt with?” Brent had said the words before really thinking through their consequences. Oh no, now he was going to get it.
“That’s the one, nerd-boy,” Gerry said cheerfully. He grabbed the carry strap at the top of Brent’s backpack and began yanking on it, jerking Brent backwards and sideways. Brent was only just now starting to get his breath back from being punched in the solar plexus a minute ago. He managed to take in a dry breath as tears streaked down his cheeks.
“Hold him still so I can fucking hit him,” Tom whined at Gerry. Brent had never heard that word before. Fucking. It must be a swear. Jerry waved his slab of an arm in Tom’s face, his icy eyes glinted as he spoke, “Well maybe I want to hit him, too,” he said.
Oh please oh please oh please no.
As Jerry swung Brent swung around, Brent’s right shoulder and arm became free of his backpack’s shoulder strap. Without word or thought, he slipped his other arm out, too, and ran. He saw the haunted woods up ahead. Normally, he’d go around them but the desperate hope burned within him that they wouldn’t follow him in, so he ran straight into the haunted woods, running along what seemed a thin trail, seldom used.
The light around him darkened and greened, coming through the leaves. He stopped for a moment to listen and heard the sound of his pursuers crashing through the branches behind him.
“Hey, nerd-boy, you forgot something!” called out Tom.
“Hey, look, Tom, I found a new backpack,” said Gerry.
“A baby backpack,” said Tom.
“Guess I’ll take it home and use it for a toilet!” said Gerry, “We decided your new name is TURD-boy!”
“Hey uh.. Ger, aren’t these woods supposed to be haunted?”
“In the middle of the day? You a pussy now, too?”
Brent ran again a ways further into the woods where it was darker, the trees older, denser. He came upon a small clearing and stopped. At the clearing’s edge was a small camper trailer, covered with branches and grime. It had a broad horizontal mustard-colored stripe across its side and a small slatted window. In the center of the clearing a small fire burned atop a couple of cracked cinder blocks. It had burned low and was now mostly a few glowing coals.
Behind the fire but in front of the camper was a folding aluminum deck chair, the kind with a woven polyester back and seat. Sitting in the chair was an older man in a faded fatigue jacket and dark jeans. Long dark hair hung in front of his face and he grew the longest beard Brent had ever seen outside of a TV show. The beard had a silver-gray streak starting right at his lower lip and going all the way down the center of it, like a skunk’s tail. The man ate something from a can with a spoon. He stopped, and stared at Brent, still chewing.
“Oh, nerd-boy! Turd-boy!” Tom singsonged somewhere behind him. The man lifted his gaze from Brent and looked out into the woods in the direction of Tom’s voice. Then he looked at Brent again.
“They chasing you?” the man asked, in a quiet but amazing voice. Not raspy or old-sounding at all, but melodious and soothing, like the announcer of a TV commercial speaking normally. Brent nodded, his eyes wide and round.
The man put his spoon in the can, reached out with a long, thin arm, and opened the door to the little camper without getting up. He flicked his head towards the open door. Brent obeyed and stepped up onto a rusted metal waffle-grate step, then into the camper. It creaked and rocked as he entered. The camper smelled like his grandmother’s house: like dried herbs and spices and must and old sweat. Piles of paperbacks and magazines lay scattered everywhere, some of which had pictures on them of women without any clothes. Strings of twine ran across the ceiling from which hung tied bundles of dried plants.
It got instantly dark as the door behind him swung nearly shut. Brent started and gasped. Through the crack in the slightly open door behind him, he heard Gerry and Tom still calling after him loudly. Tom stopped mid-holler. Brent turned around and peeked through the crack, trying not to get too close lest he be spotted.
Brent couldn’t see the man’s face, only the back of his head. For a long moment, Gerry and Tom stared at the stranger agog and the man sat there staring right back at them in his cheap aluminum folding chair. The man said nothing. He just sat there.
“We, uh…” Gerry began after a long moment, and as soon as he began speaking, the man lurched forward in his chair. The two boys dashed away, priceless looks of terror on their faces, arms and legs jerking like overly-wound toys. Gerry dropped Brent’s backpack during his first few steps.
The man did not get up, but rather only leaned forward and shifted his weight, then he settled back and crossed a leg over a knee. The chair made a thin screeching sound as he sank back into it. The man continued to sit there, saying nothing. After a moment, Brent stepped out, picked up his backpack, and hoisted one strap over a shoulder. He placed himself in front of the remains of the fire and looked down at it.
“I been in ‘Nam and done plenty of fighting,” said the man in that unexpectedly rich voice, “Come here and let me tell you how to deal with people like them two little cocksuckers.”
Brent wasn’t sure what that word meant but he was sure it was bad, bad enough that there was no way he was going to ask anyone else he knew what it meant. He came closer and looked at the man’s tanned, lined face. The man’s eyes were as summer grass, his pupils like portals into outer space.
“I’m listening,” said Brent. Or at least, he thought he remembered saying it.
About ten minutes later Brent went home. A few days later Tom and Gerry accosted him once more. It was the last time they did.
And somehow, without really thinking about it, he’d found his way back to this spot, all these years later. He’d returned home to put his father into the ground. The Hermit’s camper (for that is what the man came to be called in Brent’s mind) was now nothing but a fragile and collapsed rusted shell atop a rust-eaten metal frame and wheel rims. The cinder blocks had crumbled into large chunks. And yet from somewhere he swore he caught the scent of dried herbs and musty magazines.
“Why did you come out here?” Molly asked. She looked at him intently, trying to read his face, figure him out, be what she needed him to be at that moment. Or maybe what she was really asking was why did he drag her out there.
“I don’t know. Memories,” he said. “A childhood mentor. Gave me the most important advice I’d ever received.”
“What was his name?”
“I have no idea.”
“He was a stranger. Didn’t know him. Never saw him again.”
“What did he say?”
“Come on, let’s go.”