“Come on Tommy. You’re such a slowpoke.”
11 year old Jerry McCutchen grabbed the arm of his friend Tommy O’Brien and pulled him toward the woods. The two boys were standing in the backyard of the O’Brien house on a Saturday morning in mid-July. The backyard was long, almost 60 yards in length, and ended at a small hill that dropped off into the Jenkins County woods in southern Louisiana. The boys had explored the woods in the past and had enjoyed a number of youthful adventures while growing up in this rural community. But for some reason, Tommy O’Brien seemed hesitant to go on another exploration of the woods.
“I don’t know Jerry. Maybe not today.”
“What?? Come on. You ain’t scared, are you? Kind of worried that some monster might be in the bayou?”
“I ain’t scared,” replied Tommy. “I turn 11 this Friday and I am plenty brave. Just think maybe we should throw ball today instead of going down in the woods.”
Jerry McCutchen rubbed his right shoe in a bare spot in the grass, making a small hole while he thought.
“Well, I think you’re scared. Mandy told me that you nearly pissed in your pants when watching that horror movie last Saturday.” Mandy Richards was a school mate of the two boys that Tommy secretly liked. He had attended a birthday party at her house last weekend when the movie had been shown. A “B grade” flick about zombies. In truth, it had scared Tommy a little but he didn’t want anyone to know that. Jerry hadn’t been there so why did he think Tommy was scared when watching the movie?
“Not true. Wasn’t anything that scary in the movie. Zombies aren’t real so leave me alone.”
“The ones in them woods are!” replied Jerry, pointing at the woods and speaking in a spooky voice right next to Tommy’s left ear. “And they’ll eat your guts.”
“Stop being a jerk. If you are so hot to go into the woods then let’s go. I just don’t need you giving me a hard time about some girl.”
Jerry McCutchen laughed as he pulled Tommy along toward the woods. The two had been friends since kindergarten and were always on adventures together. Jerry was the pushy one, generally looking for some challenge for the two boys to do. The woods behind the O’Brien home were the latest activity for them.
The Jenkins County woods were an undeveloped public land classified as “forever wild” by the county. 46 acres in all, the woods encompassed some treed bogs in an area that some called the Louisiana bayou. The McCutchen and O’Brien parents had specifically told both boys to not travel into the woods out of concern that wild animals could be present. But the boys had disobeyed their parent’s orders and had a thrill at seeing an alligator in one of the bogs. What else lived there was anyone’s guess. The boys were off again to see what they could find.
At the bottom of the O’Brien hill, the boys found the remnants of a wood fort that they had built earlier in the summer. Using pieces of lumber from the O’Brien garage plus an old window, a closet door and pieces from an old crib, the boys had nailed together a sorry looking structure that they called “Fort Apache”. The fact that Apache Indians never lived in this area didn’t dawn on the boys when naming their fort.
A worn footpath started about 30 feet behind the fort and led into the belly of the woods. The path snaked through a fairly open treed area before finally reaching the first of many small bogs in the woods. The boys had already explored this area extensively so Jerry pushed for them to move on. As the footpath ended, the boys started to make their way through a thicker treed area of the woods that no one had appeared to enter. Animal sounds present all around them stopped as the passed through the area, giving the boys an eerie feeling that someone, or something, might be watching them.
“The zombies want to get you,” whispered Jerry as the boys looked around. “They want your guts for dinner.”
“Stop being a jerk,” replied Tommy as he looked behind Jerry, just to make sure that nothing was lurking in the shadows. “Are you always an idiot?”
“Me not as smart as you,” hissed McCutchen as he intentionally stepped on a dry stick in an effort to make a snapping sound. “What, what was that???”
Tommy flinched and shuffled quickly away from the noise as Jerry laughed. “Stop that. I mean it. You jerk.”
“Yep, you’re brave and strong alright,” said Jerry with a strong laugh. “Just like a wet noodle.”
Tommy regained his composure and moved on as Jerry continued to laugh. “You coming, clown ??”
“Yes sir, Captain Braveheart. Lead the way.”
The woods became darker and even more isolated as the boys continued heading west. Finally, there was a break in the treed area as a large bog came into view. Tall weeds were all around the swamp and decaying logs were present near the one end of the wetland. Animal sounds present when they entered the bog stopped as the boys moved into the area.
“Cool. Look at the swamp. It’s just like that movie ‘The African Queen’,” stated Jerry as he looked around. “This could be a really cool movie set.”
“Hope that isn’t a ‘gator over there,” pointed Tommy as he spied movement in the water. “We don’t need that.”
“Oh, come on.” replied Jerry. “Gators don’t scare real men.”
As they moved on cautiously toward the rippled water area in the swamp, something caught Jerry’s eye in the tall weeds.
“Hey, don’t pick those up,” called out Tommy as he saw Jerry grabbing what appeared to be a large egg from the weeds. “That’s some animal’s nest.”
“Yeah, these are real cool. About the size of a softball.” Jerry tossed the egg lightly into the air and caught it.
“Hey, don’t play with them. If the mother is around, she’ll get real mad.”
“They’re abandoned. Nothing is around.”
“Jerry, just leave them alone. Please.” Tommy had a feeling that Jerry was tempting fate by playing with the eggs.
“Stop worrying so much. Everything is….” Jerry froze as he looked behind Tommy at the creature coming out of the swamp. Covered with mud, the creature looked like an alligator walking on its hind legs. But much larger in size. It was almost human in the way it walked toward them. And now, the creature was bearing sharp teeth as it growled in objection to the boys.
“Tommy, watch out!” McCutchen cried out his warning but it was too late. The creature had O’Brien in its grip and was starting to tear at the young boy. Blood spurted from Tommy’s neck and arms as the creature torn at him. His cry for help was short as the limp boy fell to the ground right in front of Jerry.
Jerry McCutchen didn’t wait around to find out if Tommy was still alive. He dropped the egg and bolted back toward the entrance to the swamp. The trees scrapped at his body and tore his clothes as he fled. McCutchen didn’t care. All he wanted to do was to place distance between him and the creature. Lots of distance.
Jerry’s head became light as he continued to run toward the O’Brien house. Was he following the correct paths? Was he lost? He really didn’t know. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Jerry saw the familiar path that led back to the fort. He keep running, past the fort, up the hill and out of the O’Brien backyard. He didn’t stop until he was back at his own home, leaning against his garage. What had just happened?
Mary O’Brien called the McCutchen’s around 5 PM looking for her son. Jerry explained that he had not seen Tommy all day and that he had in fact been playing with some other friends at Tower Field Park for most of the day. Jerry could not help her with where Tommy might be.
Ultimately, the O’Brien’s called the police to report their son as missing. The police looked for the boy for days before finally classifying Tommy as a missing youth. Did he run away? Was he abducted? Years went by without any news on Tommy O’Brien.
Jerry McCutchen grew up and went on to high school and then college. During this time, his mood became somber for reasons his parents never understood. And he never returned to those woods. That is, until age 41 when for some unapparent reason, Jerry McCutchen walked back into the Jenkins County Woods. It was mid-July, the 30th anniversary of his previous visit to the woods. He felt compelled to return.
McCutchen walked down the backyard of the old O’Brien house (it had long since been sold with the O’Briens moving away from the area). He gingerly walked down the hill to the area where “Fort Apache” had once stood. All that remained of the old fort was a few decaying boards that the boys had nailed to a group of trees that formed the perimeter of the structure. McCutchen walked on, travelling down a now overgrown path, heading west toward the swamps and bogs. In time he found it. The large swamp that Tommy and he had explored 30 years earlier. He stood there and sighed. Could it have really been so long ago?
The movement in the swamp didn’t catch McCutchen’s attention until the creature once again emerged from the mud. Jerry looked over at it, no longer fearful as he once had been as a young boy.
“I know you have come for retribution,” he said in a soft voice. “I didn’t realize what I was doing back then. But I’m sure that doesn’t matter to you.”
The creature moved toward McCutchen as he continued to speak. The creature’s sharp teeth were exposed as it growled once again at the intruder.
“I’m the one you want. Not Tommy. He was innocent. So take me.” McCutchen reached out as if offering himself to the creature.
The creature growled one last time as it bit into McCutchen’s neck and tore at his arms. Blood once again spurted out onto the tall weeds ringing the swamp.
McCutchen didn’t cry out in pain. He simply slumped over and fell to the ground.
Then the creature moved back to the swamp and descended once again into the mud.
Author’s Bio: Tom Schmidt is a Chemical Engineer working in medical diagnostics in upstate New York. He enjoys creative writing and is currently working on the “Paul Garigan Crime Mysteries”, a collection of short stories centered around a Malibu based police detective which he hopes to publish in the future.