“A great beast haunts this forest,” Nicky said, “they say it takes children.”
The glow of the roaring fire pit cast eerie shadows on his face.
“That’s a load of bull,” Chris answered, “can you prove it?”
“No, but can you prove it’s not haunted?”
“Ghosts and beasts don’t exist,” Chris pouted.
“Oh yeah, so how did Johnny disappear, huh? He vanished from his own room, like magic.”
“My dad says his father killed him and buried the body somewhere,” Jerry, a quiet, buck-toothed, freckled, big-eared boy, spoke up, “he says someday they’ll find him and people will know the truth.
“Your dad also says the moon landing is a fake and that Paul McCartney’s been dead for years,” Nicky retorted. Jerry shrugged.
The boys sat around the fire pit Nicky’s dad had lit for them. It was a warm evening, and the boys were camping out in Nicky’s backyard. They’d set up the tent and sat on camp chairs. Nicky gazed at the sky, the moon a mere sliver while Venus shone bright. Crickets chirped in the trees and the crackling fire made it seem they were somewhere in the wilderness; like Jack London, Nicky thought.
They loved camping at Nicky’s because his house was old and the backyard was unfenced. They could walk past the mown lawn and immerse themselves in the forest. Chris and Jerry lived in new houses, in new subdivisions with felled trees and fenced backyards.
Nicky poked at the fire, despite Dad’s orders.
“What do you think happened to Johnny?” Jerry whispered while Chris stuck a marshmallow on a stick.
“I dunno, maybe the beast took him,” Nicky mumbled through toasted marshmallow stickiness, “he lived down the road, ya know.”
They toasted more marshmallows.
“Dad knew Johnny,” Nicky said after a while, “they were friends.”
“Yeah, he says Johnny called him that day because he wanted to show him his new magic kit, but when he entered Johnny’s room, it was empty. They looked everywhere, but never found him.”
The boys talked and laughed and told ghost stories until the fire died. They put on their pajamas and were unrolling their sleeping bags when a rustle in the trees caught their attention.
“Who’s there?” Nicky called out; he’d heard footsteps.
Jerry trembled beside him; the ghost stories unsettling in the dark night. A crack of twigs and Chris whimpered. The forest was pitch black and the boys couldn’t see beyond their noses. Glowing embers remained of the once roaring campfire and the weak porch light did not illuminate the forest.
The ground shuddered beneath them and the boys huddled together, their gazes trying to pierce the thick darkness. A tall shadow and two glowing yellow eyes appeared in the sky. In the dim light of the gibbous moon, the boys beheld a head towering high above the trees. A dull growl shook the branches.
With one long collective scream, the boys burst through the back door, ran up the stairs and barged into Nicky’s room.
“What is it? Are you all right?” Dad ran in and found the boys huddled on Nicky’s bed.
“The beast! We saw the beast!”
The room filled with voices as they all talked at once, and Dad tried to calm them.
“Listen, guys!” He yelled over the hubbub, “The beast doesn’t exist, it’s just an urban legend. I’ve lived here all my life, I should know.”
“But it came out of the forest, I swear!”
“It’s just your imaginations running wild. Come, I’ll show you there’s no one out there.”
They slunk behind Dad. The fire was out and only the tent and the faint outline of the trees were visible in the pale porch light.
“There’s nothing there,” Dad assured them, “maybe it was a forest animal, and you scared it away with your screams.”
The boys admitted defeat; no glowing eyes, no giant face above the treetops.
“Can we sleep in my room?” Nicky asked while Dad fixed them glasses of warm milk.
The boys glanced at one another and nodded; no one felt like camping now. They wiped their milk mustaches off with their sleeves and shuffled upstairs. Dad walked out onto the porch and gazed towards the woods.
“You ain’t taking these boys, ya hear?” He commanded and stood with arms on his hips in his best Superman pose, “They ain’t for you!”
A grumble in the woods, but Dad stood his ground. He entered the house and locked the door. As he climbed the stairs, he wondered where Johnny was.