The following is the first chapter of my new book, Search the Woods, which is coming soon:
The woods spoke to him, to some quiet part of his soul he wouldn’t have known existed if not for it echoing through his bones. It was this way as long as he could remember. Dustin could not bear the four walls of his room or the comfort of his home for very long. So as the sun began to peek over the tops of the tall pine trees that grew near his home, he set out to explore the forest that grew around him for miles.
His house stood beside a dirt road that ran in two directions. To the west, it led to Crow Valley, a small East Texas town built alongside an interstate highway. To the east, it led into a deep wilderness that was made up of deer leases and abandoned cattle ranches. The house, a three bedroom ranch style with a yellow brick exterior, sat on top of a small hill surrounded by about five acres of a green pasture. Dustin’s father let some people from town cut and bale the hay it produced in return for a percentage of the sales.
Dustin walked quickly down the dirt road, feeling his feet sink into the thick sand, kicking the occasional rock. After about a quarter mile, the road turned at a ninety degree angle and headed north. At the turn was a driveway with a tiny gravel private road that led to a small mobile home near a deep forest, where Dustin was headed.
It was the first day of summer vacation, and Dustin had decided to explore the woods to the east of his house. He was starting at the property with the mobile home. An older couple, the Carters, bought the land a few years ago with plans to start building a house. They left last summer, but still owned the land. They’d always been nice to Dustin and never cared about him running around in the woods, so long as he didn’t leave any trash.
He passed the mobile home and noticed an early model Ford truck parked beside it. Maybe it was the Carters, back from where ever they’d gone. He didn’t remember them having a truck, but he hadn’t seen them in a year, and they could have bought one. Dustin shrugged his shoulders and continued on.
Every time he stepped into the woods, he felt like he became part of something bigger than himself. Something alive and complex. The bright sunlight faded away as Dustin walked deeper into the dark canopy of trees. Dead, rusty orange pine needles crunched beneath his feet. The smell of rotting wood from fallen trees invaded his nostrils and Dustin breathed deep.
He stopped by the creek that ran through the woods, a narrow brown stream that pooled deeply in some spots and slowed to a trickle in others. This was one of the deeper spots, almost a pond, because of a old beaver dam. The beavers were long gone, and the dam had fallen into severe disrepair. Now it mostly looked like a pile of sticks.
Dustin stood near the dam, counting turtles and keeping an eye on the water moccasin he spotted on the other side of the creek. He searched the ground for some rocks to skip on the water, but couldn’t find any. The soothing sound of the water trickling through the woods made him feel at home, and Dustin wondered why anyone would want to live anywhere else.
As he watched a large turtle slowly open and close its mouth, Dustin became aware of something. At first he wasn’t exactly sure of what the feeling was, but the hair on his neck stood up and goose bumps appeared on his arms. Some instinct told him to stand still. His first thought was to search the ground for snakes, but he didn’t see any. Then he heard the rumble.
Deep and throaty, he knew it was a growl, and it came from behind him. Dustin’s hands began shaking and his breathes became shallow. Slowly turning his head, he saw a dark shadow descend the tree behind him. Though he knew he shouldn’t, Dustin couldn’t help but look. There seemed to be two voices in his head, one screaming to stay completely still and the other screaming to find out what shared these woods with him.
Standing beside the tree was the largest cat he had ever seen. A large, black panther stood staring back at him. His pale yellow eyes flicked side to side quickly, and his nose wiggled slightly as he smelled the air. Dustin could see its muscles rippling in its shoulders and legs. Its yellow eyes watched him intently, waiting for something.
The panther stood there staring for several moments, curious. Dustin’s legs began trembling badly and tears fell down his cheeks. He wanted his father to appear and protect him, and he wanted his mother to hold him and tell him that everything would be okay. He felt tiny and alone, certain that he would die.
But the panther simply growled and slowly walked away, following the creek until he was out of sight. The voices inside started arguing again, one screaming to run home and the other telling him to follow the panther. Either way, Dustin’s legs felt as heavy as stones, and he couldn’t move. He’d always heard of being frozen with fear, and now he was living it.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, but at some point a mockingbird called out, imitating the roar of the panther. The odd sound brought life back to Dustin’s legs, and he lit out for his house, looking back over his shoulder from time to time.