What I Found While Hiding
The night I met the stranger in the woods, I was ten-years-old and involved in an intense battle of Kick the Can in my own backyard. Though the sun had gone down, the sky retained remnants of light and would for hours late into that summer night, a spectrum of navy with pinpoints of stars, the trees black against the blue. I felt safe. I’d never felt safer.
We were three houses on a hill, surrounded by miles and miles of forest. Between the three families we were six kids, all boys except me, the youngest. If we rounded up some other neighborhood kids we could have an epic game of Capture the Flag at the Birdwood’s house nearby, but that night it was just us and so we settled for Kick the Can. Our house was built into the backside of the hill, so that when you walked in the front door you were on level ground, but by the time you got to the back of the house on the same floor you were fifteen feet up. We used to place one of my dad’s empty beer cans on the back corner of the porch on the side of the house, about eight above ground, and when you sent that can flying and freed the captives sitting on the steps of the sliding glass door to our living room it was all the more joyful for how high it soared.
There were hundreds of paths in the woods if you knew where to look for them, or even if you didn’t. Once the game started, I found a good hiding spot and hunkered down. Squeezed between two branches of a recently fallen tree, the spot was new enough that no one else had fully explored it yet and small enough that I felt confident I was the only one who could fit into it. Because I was small and quiet, this was generally my strategy in any game—go unnoticed until I was the last man standing.
I lay back and watched all but the blue leach from the sky, listening for nearby footfalls that might signal discovery. I should have been sad summer was almost over, but I wasn’t. And it wasn’t because I was excited to start fifth grade and finally get to be the oldest in the school. No, I was simply content with my company. More than that, overjoyed. I had just spent nearly every day with Bodi, Granger, Seth, Toby, and my brother, TJ. Growing up with them it was like they’d all always been my brothers, but this summer they became something more: my brothers and my friends. I’d been let into the club. And it was fun.
I snapped out of a daydream at one point at the sound of my brother’s voice—my brother was “it”—followed by the triumphant metallic thunk of the can, and Toby’s taunting laughter as he sped back into the woods to my left. Then silence for a long time. TJ must have been hunting the woods at the front of the house which Bodi and Granger favored.
I grew bored and changed my position to see what I could see. Thoroughly dark now, the forest had turned into a theater set of shadows, leaves and branches black against the less black. Where was everyone? I quenched curiosity and boredom and determined to stay still. Lost for the last however many minutes in my own thoughts and staying hidden had been effortless, but now that I was aware of my surroundings again, impatience threatened to get the best of me. There was no movement, almost no noise aside from the occasional hum of a mosquito, a flutter of wings by some unknown bird, or the shifting click of branches in the breeze.
I’m not a screamer. When a neighborhood dog bit my hand the previous spring I just watched it. Fear for me is like hitting pause. So when the blink of eyes only a few feet away from me caught my attention, I didn’t yelp or even squeak. Of course, at first I thought it was Seth, who I hadn’t heard or seen since the game started, and I smiled to myself that he had been so close all this time and I hadn’t noticed. But when I followed the outline of the eyes to the tangled and scraggly beard that covered the lower part of the face, I didn’t scream then either. I think I stopped breathing for a second. My stomach dropped. My heart began to make itself known in my chest. But I never screamed. I never flinched. Instead life stopped and I became the very tree I hid in.
The man put a finger to his lips. The rest of him was covered in dead leaves. He was nearly invisible except that I had chosen the perfect hiding spot, the one place where a person might see him, if that person were very small, determined, and somewhat flexible. The other boys were faster and so I had learned to take advantage of differences—well, if not to win, than at least not to lose. Before this year, Toby, the oldest and fastest and strongest, had always been saddled with me on his team, not that he, my hero, ever showed the least bit of regret. He always put his arm protectively around my shoulder and pretended to be pleased, like he knew the perfect and most strategic way to use me and he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. This summer I’d managed to earn the others’ respect, too. I had grown faster, more cunning. I had a knack for going unseen, even—or especially—in a crowd. But not tonight. Tonight I had definitely been seen.
The man beckoned me to come closer. I didn’t move.
“Do you have any food?” he whispered.
I shook my head ever so slightly. I also had a knack for seeing things, things other people didn’t notice, things I wish I hadn’t seen. Why me? I thought. Why did I have to be the one to see this?
“It’s all I want,” he whispered.
How long had I been hiding there—thirty minutes, an hour? It had probably been no more than fifteen minutes, but suddenly the passing of time seemed a mysterious and impossible thing. How long before TJ gave up and called “Ollie ollie all come free”? How long before someone came looking for me?
This man had had plenty of chances to grab me and make off with me. But he hadn’t. Had he been watching me? Had he chosen me? What I had done?
Ever so slowly I began to disentangle myself from the fallen tree. Each creak of redistributed weight on the branches felt like a siren, each step on the brittle leaves that covered the ground felt like a beacon. I moved in increments of inches. If at any time the man had moved even the least bit I would have frozen. But it was only his eyes, riveted to me, that flickered even the slightest.
Once I’d freed myself from the tree, I paused. I chanced to look away toward the house and at once was flooded with longing for what it promised. The living room windows flickered with light from the television show my parents were watching. It stayed light so late these days they hadn’t gotten up yet to turn on the kitchen lights or anything else. The side deck light spotlighted the prison and the can, but the rest of the outside lights remained off. Light and dark, on and off, knowing and not knowing.
“Will you bring me something?” the man said, his voice slightly louder than a whisper, the desperation evident in that risk of being heard by someone other than me.
I could see my brother at the edge of the yard peering into the depths of trees. I knew instinctively he would head our way, so without looking again at the man I walked out of the forest.
Those hundred yards felt like miles, my heart thudding in my chest and in my head the whole time. I kept waiting for an iron grip to clench my ankle or my arm. I waited for a bullet to pierce my back and knock me to the ground.
But it was only TJ who grabbed me, running up and wrapping his fingers around my wrist.
“What are you doing?” my brother asked, at first delighted to have found me and then disappointed to realize I was letting myself be found.
“This game is boring,” I said and kept walking up the hill, shaking off his grip.
“Come on, Bait. Come back.”
This was not as innocuous a nickname as it sounded. “Bait” was short for “nerd bait,” which at some point had become too cumbersome.
I kept walking. I hopped up onto the deck and slid open the glass door. Most of our house was glass, a contemporary with huge windows in each room and no curtains anywhere. Looking out all you saw was trees. There was nobody around to look in—or so I’d thought. At night in the winter you could see the lights from the Danfield’s and the Sumner’s houses on either side of us blinking through the trees. If I looked out there now it would just be a wall of green. But I couldn’t look out there now. I faced the dark family room and heard the muffled canned laughter coming from the television set in the living room on the other side of the house.
“Teej? Heather?” my mother called.
My mother was the only one who called me Heather.
“It’s just me,” I yelled. I was afraid to move away from the door. What if he was out there watching? What if he thought I was going to tell on him? Were the others in danger? Should I call them in? What would he do to us?
“TJ, that you?” My mother had gotten up from the couch to come investigate, turning on lights as she came: the kitchen, the hall, the family room.
Like I said, I’m quiet, I have a quiet voice. People tend not to hear me. Even when I feel like I’m speaking loudly, people don’t catch all of it. Over the past year we’d slowly been realizing my mother’s hearing was going, even though she was only 40. We kept asking her to get her hearing checked, but she was too vain. Lately when I spoke she didn’t hear me at all, leaving me to sometimes wonder if I’d ever really said anything.
“It’s Heather!” I really screamed it.
The door slid away from me.
“We’re right here, jeez. No need to yell.” This was Bodi, who laughed and messed my hair.
“We know who you are, Heathbar.” Seth then punched me in the shoulder.
They all tumbled past me, the five boys, loud and boisterous, surprising my mother who had just turned the corner.
“Oh, it’s all of you,” she said and smiled. “You want some lemonade or something?”
“What’re you screaming for? You angry or something?” Toby said as he picked me up around my midsection and carried me toward the kitchen.
My mother poured Crystal Light from a red plastic pitcher cold from the refrigerator. TJ pulled a bag of pretzels out of the pantry, Seth and Bodi finished off the plate of brownies I’d helped my mother make the day before, Toby ate an apple down to the core in about three bites, and Granger picked at a little of everything. I tried to eat a pretzel but my mouth was too dry. Mom disappeared back into the living room. I’d have bet twenty dollars my dad had fallen asleep in there, but no one would have taken it.
Eventually, finally, the boys decided to play video games in TJ’s room. No one noticed that I didn’t get up from the kitchen table to join them. Normally this would have sent me to my room to sulk and write mean things about them in my journal. But tonight I was relieved. I waited at the table for a few minutes. I could hear the muffled voices from behind TJ’s closed door upstairs. My dad started snoring. My mom probably thought I was upstairs with the boys. The boys probably thought I was in my room reading or on the phone with one of my lame friends. (All of my friends were lame, hence the nickname “nerd bait.”)
I got up as silently as possible and crept to the pantry. My eyes would barely focus. What was I doing? I grabbed a box of Cheez-Its because I couldn’t decide but I needed to do something and the loud orange and red box cried out from all the rest. They were my brother’s favorites so I knew it was a bad choice, he would notice them missing, but I didn’t want to dawdle any longer. I just had to do it. Or I never would.
I went out by the front door because it didn’t make as much noise. I’d left my sneakers inside so I could walk on bare feet over the gravel walkway and on silent feet over the lawn, around the house, and down the hill to the edge of the wood. From the middle of the back yard a wide path dwindled down to a number of smaller paths into the trees. I stood at that open mouth with the half-empty box in my hands and stared into the darkness. Was he still there?
Then, suddenly panicked, I dashed to a tree stump, left the Cheez-Its hidden behind it, and sprinted back to the house.
Years later I would dwell on that phenomenally stupid choice of food. Zero nutritional value, not very filling, juvenile. The package so bright, flames against the night foliage. But as I snuck back into the house, the fear of discovery was replaced by a growing sense of pride at my small rebellious act. For surely that man in the woods was a criminal and why exactly I had helped him I couldn’t say, except that I knew I probably shouldn’t have and also the small hope that if I did perhaps he wouldn’t murder all of us in our beds that night.
When I crawled under the sheets I still wasn’t sure he wouldn’t. I had changed into my pajamas in the bathroom where the windows faced out over the steepest part of the hill and no one standing on the ground could possibly see in, as opposed to my bedroom which overlooked the side porch and where I felt sure the man now hid in the woods just beyond watching my every movement through the huge plate-glass window. I left the light off even though I wasn’t tired and would have liked to have read a few pages of my book. Instead I lay on my back in the dark, listening.
First my father came up the stairs, his tread slow and muffled by his slippers. I heard the creak of the bathroom door, the water turn on and then off as my father brushed his teeth, the flush of the toilet. He paused in the hallway, presumably looking down the hall at my brother’s closed door, the light still bright underneath it, the ping ping ping of a video game being played just barely audible. But he didn’t go down there and he didn’t even pause outside my door as he passed. No one really thought twice about me, ever.
Next my mother’s footsteps and a series of clicks as she shut off each light behind her. Similar sounds from the bathroom. No pauses in the hallway but straight to bed. There were a few murmurs between my parents that leaked through the doors to me, but then silence. I was still awake when the neighbor boys left. They were too tired to talk much, but too oblivious to tiptoe, their treads heavy down the hall and stairs. The soft thunk of the door being pulled to and then the thud of the second pull necessary to get the door fully shut.
I stared at my ceiling, which slanted down to the outside wall. It had slats of wood about six inches wide. I could see each one clearly and realized I still had my glasses on. When I was first diagnosed as being near-sighted a few years ago, I only needed my glasses for reading the chalkboard from where I sat at the back of the room or when I played sports and the ball coming my way began to feel like a sudden thing. But in the past year I had begun to wear them all the time. And now I thought that if an escaped convict—for I was sure that’s what the man in the woods was—was going to come into my room in the middle of the night and murder me in my sleep, then I’d like to see him coming. I was so tired. But did I really want to sleep through my own death? Wouldn’t I rather be awake, to experience this world as much as possible in the few hours I had left?
I took my glasses off and put them on my bedside table beside my copy of Little Women and a glass of water. I wanted to lie on my side. I could see well enough without them, I decided. I faced the door, thinking I’d like to see my killer coming. Then finally as I felt sleep coming on, I turned my back to the door, thinking I’d rather be stabbed in the back in my sleep than stabbed in my front.
In the morning the box was still there, but the plastic bag filled with the little orange squares of Cheez-Its inside it was gone. Without anyone to confirm what I had seen, years later, I would continue to wonder if it had really happened. I would sleep with my back to the door for the rest of my life.
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