It was a rather sunny morning, seemingly perfect other than a thin drapery of clouds around the sun that cast the slightest bit of shadow over the rolling hills. Small groups of hikers crawled over the hills like ant lines and tents speckled the woods with unnaturally bright colors. A small child, only seven or eight years old, was straying from his campsite, chasing the soft colors of a moth’s wings. He was stumbling through the woods, tripping over twigs and pausing every few moments to wave at the campers he passed.
As he ran, giggling, he watched his feet, making sure his boots wouldn’t get tangled up in the brush. While running, the boy tripped, finding himself with his face suddenly pressing against a pair of black leather shoes. It took the boy a moment to realize what had happened and how he had ended up hitting the ground, but he shook it off quickly. The child had already started to push himself up when whomever the shoes belong to offered his hand to him.
The child hesitated, looking at the stranger’s bony hand. His fingernails seemed rather unkempt, and his skin looked too big for his hand, like an oversized glove. The boy shook his head, declining as politely as he knew how, and pushed himself up and into a sitting position, looking at the stranger’s gaunt frame. The man looked as if he hadn’t eaten in quite a long time, and he was very pale, almost as if all of the blood had been drained from his body. He smiled at the boy, showing his surprisingly white teeth. He was wearing a large gray suit, clearly much too big for him. His hand still hung in the air and the boy finally took it after a few more silent moments, pulling himself up with the help of the stranger.
The boy took a step away from the man as soon as he was on his feet. He was clearly frightened, and he shook a bit as he spoke. “Who are you?” he knew about stranger danger, as every small child does, but he was also very curious, perhaps too much for his own good.
“A friend,” the man replied, with a small shrug.
The boy smiled nervously, turning around to go back the way he came. He wanted to hide away in the safety of his mother's arms, somewhere that was familiar to him. Instead, he was stuck in the woods with this frightening stranger.
“Young man,” the stranger said, putting his fail hand on the boy’s shoulder, “I am a bit lost, could you possibly bring me to a campsite with a map?” The man had a strange accent and spoke in a soft kind of lispy way. For some reason, it reminded the child of a snake, which made him even more uncomfortable, as all he could imagine was a snake inside of a much too large human skin whenever he looked at the man.
“Uh, yessir.” the boy replied, shaking the frail hand off of his shoulder. He decided to lead the stranger to the campsite he came from, where his mother or one of the other camper ought to have a map that this man could borrow. Most of all, he wanted to never see this man again.
As they made their way through the woods, the man told stories of his adventure through the woods, but the boy was not truly listening. In fact, the boy was incredibly afraid of the man, but feared saying no even more. When the grassy clearing that held his family’s tent was within view, the boy pointed to it, hoping that the man would go ahead of him. The man smiled and patted the child on the head, murmuring his thanks and making his way to the tent and peering in through the mesh ‘window’ portion.
“Hello?” he spoke into the tent. “I happen to be a bit lost and your son told me that you may have a map?” The boy watched from the slightly beyond treeline, staying as far from the man as he could, but still wanting to see what was going on.
His mother opened the tent and smiled widely, with her straight white toothed grin. “Oh, of course.” she replied, turning to dig around in her bag and pull out a rolled up map. The man took it out of her hands and unrolled it, his fragile-looking hands trembling as he did it. He looked it over and pointed to a seemingly random spot called Canyon Ridge Road.
“Do you think you could drive me here?” he asked, his unsteady hand shaking the paper as the mother looked over it.
“Of course we could, it’s not too far, right Hunter?” she asked, calling out to her son in the woods. “Come over here. Hiding in the trees is rude.”
“Yes, mama.” the boy replied, running over to her and hiding behind her legs.
“Thank you so much, but if it’s too much trouble, I’m sure I can find someone else with a car,” the man said, slowly folding up and handing back the map.
“It’s no problem at all,” Hunter’s mother replied, leading the man to her car, a small silver one with a car seat strapped into the back. “Come on in.” She looked at the man and gestured to the passenger seat. “You too, Hunter,” she said to the boy, who disliked the idea of driving this man home in the first place. Before Hunter got into the car, he pulled on his mother’s pant leg, demanding that she kneel so that he can tell her something. She sighed, bothered, but did it anyway. “What’s wrong, Hunter?”
“I don’t like him,” the child whispered, cupping his hands around his mother’s ear.
“Oh, come on, Hunter.” She put her hand to her forehead and started to stand once again.
“Wait, mama!” The boy grabbed her pant leg again, and pulled. She was almost knocked off balance, and came back to a kneel to collect herself.
“Hunter, sweetie, get in the car. I won’t take your bad attitude.” She scolded him. That’s when Hunter knew that there was nothing he could do to convince his mother to just let the man find someone else with a car, but he still hated the idea of getting in the car with them. “Mama!” he called. “Can I stay behind? I’m big enough.” He stood up real straight and pushed out his chest, trying his best to look as mature as possible, but all his mother did was chuckle.
“No, sweetie. Get in your seat.”
Hunter sighed, his head hanging down as he flopped in his seat. He whined every couple of seconds just to make sure that his mother knew how unhappy he was.
Once everyone was in their place, his mother began driving down the cracked road while the man gave her directions. Hunter watched sadly as they pulled away from their tent, and kept staring out the windows and at the woods and canyons as they drove, but he was terribly bored anyway.
“Are we almost there?” Hunter asked from his car seat. The man nodded, smiling back at the boy.
“Turn here.” he told the boy’s mom, pointing to a dirt and gravel road. They turned onto the road, and everything was suddenly bumpy. The boy complained as he bounced up and down in his seat. He was uncomfortable, the bouncing hurt, and worst of all, the man hadn’t left.
“How much longer?” He whined. His mother sighed loudly and apologized to the man for her son’s bad behavior. She swore that he usually wasn’t like this, and that he must just be having a bad day. The man just reassured her that it was fine and that he really didn’t mind.
Hunter hated it. He hated it when adults talked about him like they knew more about his feelings then he did, which of course was untrue, as he knew how he was feeling and everyone else could just guess. He wanted to tell the man that it was not ‘just a bad day,’ and that he simply didn’t like having this stranger follow him home to his campsite and then ask his mother for help. Of course, being only seven or so, he couldn’t express his feelings in such a way, but it was how he was thinking to himself. After all, he didn’t understand why it was his job to be kind to this stranger that had come into his life so suddenly.
“How about now?” The boy continued to whine. “Are we almost there now?”
His mother very quickly turned to give him a scolding. “Be patient. Do you hear me? Patient.”
Hunter, of course, crossed his arms angrily and started kicking the seat in front of him, but only gently, hoping his mother wouldn’t notice. After about a minute of kicking with no reaction from the man, he stopped. He had hoped that the man would do something in anger, making his mother kick the man out. He knew that his mother would not let the man harm him, but even then he was worried. Shaking his head, Hunter tried to clear his mind, and he rested his chubby arm up against the window and went back to peering out and into the forest. There was nothing interesting there, only the dense trees and dried out brush.
Every once and awhile, he’d spot a rabbit or a deer, but as soon as the creatures heard the hum of the car they’d promptly run back into the woods, disappearing into the bushes. He wished that he could be like them, out there, playing in the woods. That was the plan, at least until this strange man had shown up and ruined his fun. And now his mother expected for him to act like a big kid, since he was only a few years away from being 10, the big double digits. But Hunter didn’t want to act like a big kid yet. Being a big kid means responsibility and having to do more things and have less fun.
Soon after Hunter had begun to slip into a daydream he felt the car jerk to the side and stop abruptly. He lifted his head from the side of the window and looked around, confused. The man in the passenger seat looked confused as well, and mentioned that it was not his stop quite yet, but he would willingly walk from here. His mother began muttering, most of it was things that Hunter couldn’t hear, but he made out a few words here and there. “Old enough…” He heard. “...Hunter..” He leaned forwards as soon as he clearly heard his name.
“You want to make mama proud, right, Hunter? Live up to your name?” she asked, but in a weird voice that Hunter wasn’t used to.
“Mhm,” he replied quietly. He wasn’t at all sure what she meant, but he did want to make his mom proud.
The man interrupted suddenly, his voice very obviously confused. “I’ll just be on my way, alright? Thank you for the ride so far.” He reached for the door handle, leaning to step out.
“Oh it’s no worry at all,” Hunter’s mother said with an unsettling grin. “But I’m afraid that you’ll be staying with us a few moments more, Hunter needs to learn a lesson.”
The man continued to reach for the handle, clearly very uncomfortable, but the door made a faint whirring noise as the lock raised. “Ma’am, I really must be going.”
She did not reply to him, but instead turned to Hunter. “Alright dearie, reach under the seat in front of you, okay?”
The little boy nodded and reached under his mother’s car seat, taking hold of something wrapped in a canvas-like fabric. He was awfully confused, and not sure why his mother wouldn’t just let the man go, but he really did want to make his mother proud of him. “Okay, mama, got it.”
“Good job, Hunts! Now unwrap it. Be careful, please,” she said, in her most encouraging voice. The man had his eyes trained on whatever Hunter was holding, seemingly just as curious about the mysterious package as the boy was. They watched as the boy unwrapped the brown cloth as carefully as he could with his tiny hands. The shine of metal became prominent, peaking the man’s interest, but also his fearfulness. He turned back to the woman, laughing uncomfortably.
“Funny prank.” He forced out a few more fake chuckles. “But seriously, let me out.” His tone of voice darkened and became more serious, but all she did was put her finger to his lips.
“Shh.” She muttered. “Don’t take a learning opportunity from a young boy.”
The man put his hands to his face, rolling his eyes angrily. “Let me out. Now.”
Hunter had finished unwrapping the package, having revealed a medium kitchen knife. “Mama?” He asked softly. He was very confused why his mother would let him handle something as dangerous as this, since he wasn’t even allowed butter knives at home. His mother turned away from the man and back to her son, smiling encouragingly when she saw that he had unwrapped the knife.
“Good boy. Now give it here,” she spoke softly, as if not to startle anyone, though both her son and the stranger were already at least a bit afraid. She put out her hand slowly, holding it open for the knife to be handed to her. Her son passed it to her and she took it in her hands, turning back to the stranger. “Now, Hunter, watch this, okay sweetie?” She took the knife in one hand and thrust it toward the stranger, but Hunter covered his eyes with his hands. He was too confused to say anything, but he knew that this was bad. Hurting people is bad, the teachers at school said so. And his mother looked like she was hurting someone really bad. He heard a scream and then a nasty squelching noise.
Peeking out from behind his fingers, all he saw was red. His mother's hands were covered in blood, more than he had ever seen. And the man was now leaning on the window, hands to his chest where he had been stabbed. His mother turned to him. “Come here, Hunter. Time to be a big kid.” She called him over and set him on her lap, taking his hands from his eyes. “It’s okay, Hunts. Just give it a try. Be a big kid.”
“Okay mama. I’ll be a big kid.”