Living at the end of a dead end road with nothing but pine trees and snow, Ray tended his chores, feeding the horses even in below zero temperatures.
Only tonight something up in the woods made a noise unlike any he knew..
Braving the night, Ray discovers more questions than answers in this dark science fiction story.
Raymond, Ray to his buddies, Anderson walked out of the trailer that December night in 1984 a normal thirteen year old. Brickland, in the northeastern reaches of Washington state, normally saw plenty of snow and cold, but the winter of ’84 was the sort of winter that people would talk about for years to come. No sooner would one day set a record snow fall or a record low temperature — or both — than a new record would be set a day or two later.
Record cold temperatures or not, the horses needed feeding and it fell to Ray to do it that night. It was his turn, lucky him, so he bundled up and braced himself as he opened the door and stepped outside.
His slight frame was hidden in the depths of a puffy green winter coat, hood up around his thin face. The first breath of air outside came like twin ice picks rammed up his nose, sharp and unforgiving. In the pool of light from the open door he saw the rough-hewn boards of the porch, made from half-split logs, caked in ice and frozen mud, but beyond that only dark shapes of snow shrouded pine trees in the darkness.
“Close that door! You’ll let all the heat out!” That was Ray’s mother, huddled inside beside the wood stove.
Obediently, he pulled the door closed, which plunged him into darkness. It wouldn’t be so bad once his eyes adjusted, but right now he couldn’t hardly see anything. He dug into his pockets for his gloves and pulled them on by feel. Next he pulled his flashlight out of his pocket, but didn’t turn it on just yet.
He went down the porch, his boots clumping on the ice-crusted boards, and down to the snow-packed path at the bottom. It made a rubbery sort of noise beneath his boots. So cold now that you couldn’t pack it into a snow ball or anything. It wouldn’t stick together. Even though the sun hadn’t been down long Ray wagered that the temperature was already down below zero. Quite a way below but he didn’t turn on the light to check the thermometer hanging on the post at the bottom of the steps.
Rays eyes started to adjust as he clomped along the path they’d made through the snow. Now that his eyes were adjusting there was just enough light from the moon filtering through the clouds for him to see the path. Of course he had good night vision. He liked playing a game of it and see how far he could go without needing the flashlight. If the moon wasn’t nearly full there wouldn’t be enough light getting through the clouds. He’d been out on other nights when he couldn’t see his hands in front of his face.
On either side the snow rose up nearly to his waist and it was snowing right now, a fine white powder drifting constantly down from the sky. Each flake that hit his cheeks a tiny spark of cold. He caught one on his tongue and it tasted like a pinprick.
The trees around the path stood like dark conical structures in the darks, their branches weighed down by snow. The fine light snow falling made a hissing sound, but otherwise the night was quiet except for the rubbery crunching sound of his footsteps.
Ray was almost to the clearing where the barn was when a new noise rose in the night. He stopped in his tracks to listen. The noise pulsed and throbbed through the night, rising up in intensity.
Womm, womm, womm.
He’d never heard anything quite like it. A machine, obviously, but from where? It didn’t sound like any generator or engine he knew and besides there wasn’t anything nearby. But the sound continued, coming from somewhere ahead.
Womm, womm, womm.
Ray thought about turning around and going back. But he wasn’t a chicken, and didn’t want anyone saying that. His older brother, Pete, would tease him about it for weeks. Ray’s ears burned just thinking about the taunting he’d have to endure if Pete thought he came running back because he was afraid of the dark and a snowmobile engine.
Womm, womm, womm.
Except that wasn’t a snowmobile engine, he knew what they sounded like. This noise was unlike anything that he had heard. It might be best to go back, even at the risk of Pete’s teasing. But the horses still needed feeding. Whatever the noise was it sounded farther away than the clearing. He could go that far at least and feed the horses. If he did that then he wouldn’t need to say anything about the noise. He could go back and pretend that everything was fine. The noise wasn’t loud enough to reach all the way back to the house.
Womm, womm, womm.
Ray flicked on the flashlight. If he was going to do this, he wanted a light on at least. The bright flashlight made the night seem darker. He couldn’t see much of anything outside of the beam of light. The falling snow sparkled in the beam.
Womm, womm, womm.
Squaring his shoulders, the flashlight lighting up the path in front of him, Ray picked up his pace and hurried down the trail to the clearing. He passed the small well shed and came out into the clearing. The barn stood dark and tall ahead. The metal roof white with new snow that hadn’t slid off yet.
Here the noise sounded louder. Ray stopped in the middle of the clearing and aimed his flashlight up, across the snow to the trees on the other side on the hill. From the clearing the hill rose up, all forested and difficult to access. No one lived up there. It was nothing but private property all the way up to the state lands and then state forest on up over the hill and down the other side until Deer Lake.
But something was up there, making that noise. Ray shook his head. It didn’t make any kind of sense. Nothing was going to get up there. The only road came across their property and they had a gate across it. Plus, once you got to the hill it was too steep, rutted and covered in several feet of snow. A snow mobile could make it up the road, maybe, but no trucks, and that machine noise didn’t sound anything like the whine of a snow mobile engine, or a truck engine. And no one had gone up the road anyway. He couldn’t think of another way that anything could be up there in the woods.
Ray shivered, but not from the cold. The noise scared him. He didn’t like admitting it, not even to himself, but there shouldn’t be anything up there and he had never heard anything like that noise.
Best feed the horses, and hightail it back inside. Just keep quiet about it.
As Ray lowered the flashlight, the white circle sliding down across the trees onto the unbroken snow of the clearing, he saw something red. His heart beat faster and the flashlight shook. He steadied it and found the thing he had seen.
There, within the dim white circle of light from his flashlight a red circle lay gleaming on the snow.
Womm, womm, womm.
Ray bit his lip. “What the hell?”
How could there be something lying out there on the snow? It didn’t even have any snow on it and it’d been snowing all evening!
Ray looked at the barn. He still needed to feed the horses. Under the throbbing noise up in the woods he could hear them shuffling and snorting in the dark of the barn. They were probably spooked by the noise, but had seen his light.
Whatever that red circle was it didn’t do anything. It just was there, on the undisturbed snow at the base of the hill.
He had to check it out. He was spooked, alright, but he couldn’t ignore that there was a strange noise in the woods, and now this strange thing just lying out there on the snow. Ray left the path and immediately plunged up past his knees in the snow. Just forcing another step through all the snow was a chore but he did. One step and the next, more wading through the snow than walking. After a couple minutes he was sweating beneath his thermals.
Struggling through the snow it was impossible to keep the flashlight on the red circle but every so often he paused to catch his breath and found the circle with his light. It didn’t move, but the snow also didn’t stick to it. And the noise in the woods above continued.
It took several minutes before Ray reached the red circle and what he saw just made the whole thing feel even stranger. About two feet across, the material was a perfect circle, but the edges were cut into a fringe of small strips, about two inches long, all the way around the circle. It looked very thin lying on the snow. The red color was the color of a bright fresh red rose, shocking against the white snow all around. Snowflakes that hit the surface didn’t stick. He couldn’t see what exactly was happening to them, they just went away but the surface wasn’t covered in water drops either, so it didn’t look like the snowflakes were melting.
Ray hadn’t ever seen anything like it. No feed bags, no packing material, no packaging that he was familiar with looked like this thing. If he had to guess, just looking at it, he’d have called the material plastic. Some kind of plastic anyway, but what was it? There wasn’t any obvious purpose to it. Seeing it up close only added to the strangeness of the situation. Ray couldn’t decide what was stranger between this thing, and the constant thrumming noise up in the woods.
How had it gotten here? If it was plastic it could have blown into the clearing except there wasn’t any wind. The snow drifted about as it fell, but wasn’t blowing. The thing lay on top of the fresh snow so it had to have shown up recently. Like tonight, probably in the last few minutes.
Ray shivered at a sudden thought. What if it had only shown up when he came into the clearing? He turned and aimed the light up at the snow-cone trees, only a short distance away up the hill. What if someone had put this here, seeing him come into the clearing? But why? It looked harmless enough. A marker? A lure? Something else?
One of the horses down in the barn whinnied and he nearly jumped out of his boots. He chuckled when he realized it was only the horse. He still needed to feed them. This strange plastic circle, the noise still going on up in the woods, those were mysteries he didn’t have answers for and should probably ignore. He could walk away, feed the horses, and go back to the house.
Ray shook his head. If he did that wouldn’t he always wonder about this night? He couldn’t leave it, not and just walk away. Whatever this was he wanted to understand, at least enough so that he could go back and prove to Pete and everyone else about what he’d seen. Starting with this thing in the snow.
Carefully he reached out and used the flashlight to probe the edge of the circle. The material moved like plastic, bunching slightly, but seemed inert. Nothing bad happened. Ray transferred the light to his left hand and then reached out with his right. He very carefully pinched one of the little strips on the fringe around the disc. When nothing happened he lifted the circle up.
It weighed nothing. It did nothing, just hung limp from the strip he help between his thumb and finger.
Ray turned the thing around but it just hung limp over his glove. It didn’t do anything. It felt thicker and heavier than it looked, but still seemed like some sort of thick plastic sort of material. The snow falling on his glove stuck around but none of the snow could touch the red circle. That wouldn’t happen if it was just made from plastic.
Womm, womm, womm.
A horse whinnied again at the barn. He couldn’t stay out all night. If he took too long his mother would start worrying. And when his dad finally got home from work in the early hours of the morning there’d be trouble to pay. If he was going to do anything he needed to do it soon.
If he needed any evidence at all of what was going on out here tonight, he was holding it in his hand. He wasn’t sure about bringing it back to the house. He could shove it down into the snow and come back for it in the morning, once it was light. Ray bent down and stopped. He straightened back up. What if it disappeared? He couldn’t explain how it got here, what if he left it outside and it went away? He couldn’t take that chance. He stuffed it in his pocket instead. As big as it was it folded up alright. He got it into his pocket and snapped the flap on the pocket closed.
Womm, womm, womm.
The noise up in the woods worried Ray. Something was definitely up there, he had no idea what, but someone had what sounded like a big machine running up in the snowy woods at night.
He couldn’t go check it out. On foot it’d take forever to get very far through all that unbroken snow. Besides, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to go up there in the dark to find out. He had the red circle in his pocket. That was enough. The horses needed feeding, it was below zero and he was freezing. Time to get back inside.
Retracing his steps wasn’t much easier than breaking the trail through the snow in the first place, but Ray managed to get back to the shoveled path leading to the barn. The odd noise up in the woods continued without pause as he hurried on up to the barn and slipped inside through the side door.
The barn smelled of manure and hay and horses, a rich warm smell. It made Ray feel safer. Plus it was warm in the barn, at least compared to outside thanks to the heat lamps hanging above the stalls. The lamps gave off a red light that made everything look reddish, but it didn’t bother his eyes like the bright flashlight reflecting on the snow. Even the sound of whatever it was up in the woods was muted in the barn. As Ray went about his chores, filling the horses feeders with fresh hay, checking to make sure that their water troughs were full and clean, he talked to the horses as he worked. He patted their soft noses when they pressed close to the stall doors, probably seeking reassurance that everything was alright.
“Shhh,” he said. “It’s fine. Probably just somebody up cutting wood illegally. Most likely they’ve got a generator going, or a log splitter or something.”
Except, Ray told himself, the noise didn’t really sound like a log splitter, did it? He ignored that thought and finished up with the horses as quickly as possible.
When Ray left the barn, stepping back out into the biting cold, the night felt darker than ever. He turned on the flashlight and blinked in the bright light when it hit the snow. Not only darker, but snowing harder than ever. He couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. A slight wind had also come up so the snow moved through the beam of light at an angle. The noise of whatever it was continued up the hill in the dark, but more muffled now.
He hurried back to the house, clomping through the fresh snow on the path that had already turned his old tracks fuzzy. By the time he got back to the trailer he couldn’t hear the noise at all, but it kept playing in his head like when a stuck song.
Ray stomped his feet on the porch steps to knock off what snow and manure he might have tracked back to the house, then opened the door and stepped inside. It felt like he had stepped into an oven. Hot, dry air hit his face, making it hurt after the intense cold outside. His mother looked up from her recliner near the wood stove, facing the TV on its stand against the wall. She was in her early forties, but her craggy face and uncombed hair with its gray streaks made her look even older. Sometimes he thought she was permanently attached to her chair since that’s where he mostly saw her. Her dark eyes narrowed when she saw him standing by the door.
“Took you long enough, thought you might have gotten all hypo-whatever, frostbit or something, froze your ass off.”
Ray pushed back his hood, then shut the flashlight off and put it down by the coat rack next to the door. He started peeling off his gloves, but didn’t respond to his mother. Doing so wouldn’t help anything. He kept waiting for her to say something about what was in his pocket, but of course she didn’t. The TV had already recaptured her attention, even though it was only the news playing.
A giggle threatened to escape from Ray’s lips. He turned and blew into his cold hands instead. Boy, did he have news. Whatever that thing was he found, not to mention the noise outside? Not that he was going to tell his mother about it, she wouldn’t understand. He peeled off his boots and left them by the coat rack, but kept his coat on. He was padding across the room, heading back to the bedroom he shared with Pete, when his mother spoke up again.
“Why’re you still wearing your coat?”
“Haven’t warmed up yet,” Ray said, without stopping.
“I don’t want to find that coat wet on the floor!” His mother called after him. “You put it away right!”
Ray made it down the hallway paneled in fake wood, past the pictures hanging on the walls full of him and Pete with plastered on fake smiles. He hated the pictures, it always felt like their eyes were watching him. Especially right now, sweltering in his coat, knowing that the red thing from the snow was in his pocket.
When he reached his room he opened the door slowly. Pete didn’t like being surprised so Ray called out. “Hey.”
That was Pete, lying on the bottom bunk of their bunk beds, knees up and a comic book open across his legs. Action Comics and Batman were Pete’s favorites and he never let Ray touch them. Of course Ray had taken a look at them Pete was out.
“Nothing.” Ray hurried across the room and jumped up on the ladder, tensing in case Pete tried to hit his feet.
Ray made it up onto his bunk unscathed. Quickly, before he melted any more, he stripped off his coat. Up on the shelf above his bed he had a mason jar for coins. He pulled off his socks, then took down the jar and unscrewed the top. He poured the coins out into his sock.
“What are you doing up there?” Pete asked.
“Nothing.” Ray dropped the sock back onto the shelf. He held the jar, ready to hide it if Pete got up.
“Well keep it down,” Pete said. “I’m trying to read.”
Ray unfastened the snaps on his coat pocket, wincing with each, but Pete didn’t say anything else. The red thing from the snow was still there in his pocket. Ray reached for it, planning to pull it out, but then hesitated before he touched it. He still didn’t know what this thing was. What if it turned out to be toxic or something?
The bed beneath him squeaked as if Pete might be getting up. Ray grabbed the red thing. The piece of material he pinched felt like slick oily plastic, thick to the touch, but it didn’t hurt or anything. He yanked it out of his coat pocket and stuffed it into the mason jar. At first he thought it might not fit but he crammed it down until it filled the jar and only a few of the fringe pieces were sticking up. He grabbed the lid, put it on and spun it closed. The bottom bunk squeaked more, really sounding like Pete was getting up.
Ray stuck the jar up on the shelf next to the sock full of coins. He grabbed his coat and tossed it to the end of the bed so that it landed over the bed post and hung down.
Pete stood up beside the bunk bed. He glared at Ray. “What the hell are you doing? Are you jacking off up there?”
Ray, who only had a vague idea of what jacking off even was shook his head. “Naw, Pete, just getting ready for bed.”
“You should do that, so I can get some peace. And don’t be snoring tonight or I swear I’m going to pound on your throat while you’re sleeping.”
Ray shook his head quickly. “I won’t.”
Still glaring, Pete sank back down to his own bunk. Ray relaxed slightly. Sharing a room and bunk beds with Pete was like trying to sleep over the troll that lived beneath the bridge. Not a good deal. He looked up at the jar on the shelf. Whatever that thing was, he had it in the jar now. It wasn’t going anywhere until he could figure out just what it was. He finished undressing quickly, throwing his pants off the end of the bed, then slipped under the covers and lay down. He just had to wait for his chance, when Pete wasn’t around, and then maybe he could figure it out. Sleep weighed down his eyelids. Ray fought for a few minutes before giving in.
A noise woke Ray, a sort of metallic clatter. He sat up blinked in the dark and rubbed his eyes. It felt late, like middle of the night sort of late. He could see a bit from the night light in the hallway. In the bunk underneath him Pete snored. Whatever had made the noised hadn’t woken up his brother.
So what had made that noise? It wasn’t early enough in the morning for his dad to get home.
Ray sat holding his blankets and listened. He looked around, trying to see anything in the dim light. Then he saw something.
On his shelf. The jar. His heart hammered faster. The jar where he had put the red thing from the snow! The lid was off, and even without much light he could see that the jar was empty.
The thing was gone!
Ray jerked away, pulling his blankets free of the mattress in one jerk. He threw them away onto the floor.
The thing didn’t fall out. He didn’t see it on his bed. Slowly, carefully, he leaned over the bed upside down and looked at Pete. For a second he imagined that he was going to see the red thing stretched tight over Pete’s face like some hideous mask, the small strips around the sides digging into the back of Pete’s head.
But Pete was fine. There wasn’t anything there. Pete was asleep, snoring with his head on his pillow.
Ray pushed himself up, using the ladder as leverage, and saw something move in the hallway. He only saw it for a second but the image burned itself into his mind.
A being stood in their hallway, lit by the night light, its gray skin flat and dull. Big, big dark eyes looked straight at Ray, saw him, and for an instant he forgot to breathe. The being had a narrow mouth, but he could’ve sworn it snarled at him in that moment before it was gone. Had he seen something red in its hand? Ray thought he had.
Whatever the being was, it didn’t make any noise. It was there one moment and gone the next. Ray’s heart beat so fast that he thought it had to wake Pete up. Several minutes passed and he didn’t dare move. He listened with every bit of his attention, and heard nothing. The house felt so quiet that he thought he could have heard something, anything, but nothing happened.
Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. Even though he kept shivering, Ray climbed quietly down the ladder. He wanted to wake Pete up, tell him what he’d seen, but Pete wouldn’t believe him and would probably hit him for his trouble.
Instead Ray tiptoed past his blankets to the doorway. He stopped there and peeked out, listening carefully, ready to jerk back but the hallway was empty. He tiptoed on out to the main room. Nothing except his mom, sound asleep on the fold-out bed. Whatever he had seen, it was gone!
Ray hurried back to his bedroom. He scooped up the blankets, throwing them onto his bed, and bounded up the ladder. When he got to the top he dove beneath the blankets and hid his head. He didn’t think there was any chance that he would sleep, but he did.
When Ray woke the next morning he remembered the events of the night before but he had a hard time believing it was real. A red thing in the snow? The being in the hallway last night? That sound up the hill where there couldn’t have been anything? It all sounded impossible and he didn’t have any evidence to the contrary.
Only his coins were in his sock. And the lid was off the jar, balanced against the wall on the shelf as if it had rolled there, and the jar was empty. That made him think that what happened last night was real but he could hardly point to the jar and say that was evidence of whatever had happened.
Ray had nothing. Nothing, except he believed it had happened. He poured his coins back into the jar. So he couldn’t prove it. Not yet at least, but maybe someday. Maybe when he was older, maybe he could find the being he had seen in the hallway. If he did he’d ask them what they were doing up the hill at night, and what the red thing in the snow was, and like a zillion other questions.
But that was all for later. Ray screwed on the lid of the jar and put it back on the shelf.
This story is the 37th weekly short story release, written in September 2011. It was one of the more autobiographical stories that I’d written. I’ll let you figure out which parts.
Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a science fiction story Eetees.