Friday, January 19, 2018

by Nick Medina:

If it hadn’t been for the forest between our homes, Justin West and I wouldn’t have done what we did. And I wouldn’t be in the chains I’m in now. We were just kids when we met; only seven years ago.

Mom and Dad moved me from Marksville to Parsons – one small town to another – the summer after I turned twelve. Most young men would have hated leaving friends behind, but, seeing as though my closest friend was also the biggest bully the seventh grade had ever seen – and by “friend” I mean he was the only one who ever wasted any time on me – I didn’t much mind leaving him behind.

Our new house had a silo that Dad forbade me to enter because it was crumbling and he was convinced the old thing would collapse the minute I stepped foot on one of its rotting planks. I wasn’t allowed in the barn, either, because some rattlesnakes had established a den in there and Mom couldn’t bear to lose me the same way she lost her little brother when he was only eight.

So I turned my attention to the forest that stretched as far as I could see behind the house. Mom and Dad could keep me out of the barn and the silo, but they couldn’t in good conscience deny me the freedom of the forest; not when all I had other than that was the musty house with flowery wallpaper on the walls and dusty old end tables at every turn. The previous owners must have loved end tables because they were everywhere; even where there wasn’t an end to have a table, there was an end table.

While my mornings belonged to Mom – if I wasn’t clearing decaying muck from the gutters for her, then I was burning the empty boxes from our move; and if I wasn’t burning the empty boxes, then I was clearing the cobwebs out of the cellar; and if I wasn’t clearing the cobwebs, then I was dusting the endless end tables – my afternoons belonged to the forest. I took my time exploring it, only venturing a few yards farther each day than I had the day before. There was so much to see, so much to uncover beneath the fallen logs and the mossy rocks.

In between discovering what hid in the moist crevices and getting a tan that turned my pale skin gold, I discovered bugs I’d never seen before. Some were beautiful, covered with intense shades of yellow and red. Others looked like creatures from out of this world. I’d collect them in a box my grandfather made out of an old orange crate and a rusted window screen. Inevitably, though, I’d regret caging my catches because I’d forget them in that box and they’d die in there. But those strange, little creatures taught me the fragility of life. Just a couple of days without food, water or shade and everything came to an end.

Like the bugs, birds were my teachers too. Some days I’d climb into the trees, and, if I kept really quiet and still, the birds would forget I was there. They’d hop about the branches, pecking at gnats and building their nests with random odds and ends – bits of string, scraps of newspaper and even human hair – that they found out on their flights. They made me aware of the silence and the solitude of the forest that existed beneath their twittering and the wind blowing through the leaves. One noise caused by me, the crack of a twig or a particularly loud yawn, and they’d take flight, leaving me all alone.

As far as I knew, I was always the only human in that forest. It wasn’t until early fall, when the first few leaves started to change from green to shades that reminded me of Mom’s pumpkin stew, that I encountered another soul. It was Justin West. I spotted him from the top of a tree where I’d been daydreaming about living in a city like St. Louis or Chicago or any of the other places my parents feared because they thought crime ran rampant in cities bigger than ours.

Naturally, Justin West caught my attention straight away, and not just because he was the only person I’d ever seen in the forest, but because he looked to be just about my age. And although I’d started the eighth grade a month earlier, I still hadn’t made any friends. That’s not to say that I expected to make friends with Justin West. He looked wild, jumping from rock to rock with a stick in his hand. When it wasn’t billowing up around his head, his dark hair hung down to the center of his back, and, despite the chill in the air, he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

I watched him for a while, listening to him grunt each time he came down on one of the rocks. I didn’t know he was aware of me until he hurled the stick like a spear up at my spot in the tree. If it weren’t for the branches around me, the stick would have struck me right in the head.

Without saying a word, Justin eventually waved me forth. If he had picked up another stick I would have refused, but seeing as though his hands were empty, I shimmied down the tree to meet him face to face.

This is West Forest. Those were the first words he spoke. I must have looked confused because he went on to explain that his surname was West and that the forest belonged to him. I told him my name and tried to shake his hand, but his arms were crossed over his birdlike chest and he refused to unfurl them. So I told him that I lived along the forest and pointed in the direction from which I came, thinking that he might see me as something other than a trespasser. But that didn’t work either. He simply repeated the four words he had greeted me with: This is West Forest.

Recalling the wallops I’d endured at the hands of my peers over the years, I shrugged and turned to leave before he’d decide to put me in my place. I took no more than six steps, however, before he called me back.

He told me his name, though he still didn’t offer me his hand. He said that his house was on the other side of the forest and that he’d lived there his entire life. Like me, he’d never seen anyone else among the trees.

When I asked him his age and why I hadn’t seen him in school, he said he was twelve, just like me, and that his mother taught him at the kitchen table with a Bible and a switch. Neither of us had siblings. And neither of us had friends. As such, it seemed only right to align forces, to be best friends. So we did.

Justin West knew everything about the forest; he knew it like the back of his own dirt-covered hand. He’d been exploring it’s every nook and cranny since he was three years old. Seeing as though I was still new, Justin West took it upon himself to show me what the forest had to give.

Every day after school, when I was done with my chores, of course, I’d meet Justin West by a birch tree that seemed oddly out of place among the oaks and the pines. It marked the halfway point between my house and his. He always got there first since his schoolwork and his chores often got rolled into one, which always made me think that Justin West’s mother just wanted him gone.

Justin West amazed me by exposing the secrets that the forest kept. He showed me holes in the earth deeper than the cellar at home and bigger than my bedroom both in width and height. Neither of us knew how the holes got there or what they were for. We liked to think that dinosaurs once walked there or that the craters had been dug by long-extinct mole people. Justin West had been using one of the holes as his secret hideout. It was like a tree house in the ground accessed by a rope ladder he knotted out of an old bed sheet. We’d climb down and pretend we were in a foreign land where he was king and I a loyal subject. We’d spend hours down there, not wanting to leave. Sometimes we fantasized that we’d move into the crater permanently. Or better yet, we thought we’d convert one of the ominous caves tucked beneath the ridge on the east side of the forest into a private lair. He’d never have to go home again and I’d never have to go to school.

One day, just two weeks after I met Justin West, he took me to a clearing. The dense trees surrounding it made it look like a prison yard. The large white stones scattered about the clearing made it look like a graveyard, which – I came to learn – it was.

Justin West told me that he’d buried hundreds of animals out there. I didn’t believe him at first. I didn’t see how he could have done so much digging – there might have been a thousand headstones or more. It didn’t dawn on me at first, however, that he hadn’t just done the digging. It took me a while to realize that he’d done the killing too.

He laughed when I admitted that I thought he’d just been putting to rest the dead creatures he came across in the forest or out on the busy byways; not a night went by without a slew of opossums and raccoons meeting their maker on the grilles of the trucks that barreled down the tree-lined roads. A great part of me wanted to believe that he was just joking about slaying so many animals. I guess he saw the skepticism on my face because he took it upon himself to start digging at one of the fresher graves with a stone. He dug until the earth released the stench of death and the rotting remains of a rabbit appeared. There were other animals out there in the clearing too: birds, snakes, woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, opossums and even a few small deer.

Taking the chance that I might be disturbed even more, I asked him how he did it – how he killed so many. A pellet gun, he said, took care of the smaller game. The bigger ones required the strength of his hands. I tried not to let his honesty bother me. Plenty of country boys killed for sport. I just wasn’t one of them.

Justin West must have sensed my revulsion, though, because the very next day – and every day after that – he didn’t say a single word about the cemetery he had created and filled. Instead, he led me away from my side of the forest to his to show me where there was a lake. It was big and blue and I loved it. Standing on the shore with the waves crashing against the rocks quickly put me at ease.

Soon enough we took to fishing on the lake. It became one of my favorite things to do. Day after day we’d unearth worms and we’d fish, reeling in catfish and crappie – sometimes a bass or a trout – with rods we made from carefully chosen branches and the string from my kite. We did that every day until the cold came and the lake turned to ice.

The winter months erected a wall between Justin West and me. For a while we made snow forts and waged war with snowball bombs, but the cold took its toll, separating us until the spring. I once invited Justin West to the house, but he wouldn’t come. Perhaps my parents were what he wanted to avoid. Whatever the reason, he never returned the invitation. In all the years I knew him I never once stepped foot inside his home. I never met his parents. I never even knew what they looked like.

When the cold went away, spring repaired the damage done by winter, and by summer Justin West and I were nearly inseparable once again. We’d spend all day in the forest: swimming, fishing, swinging from trees, daring each other to eat the berries that grew on the bushes, daydreaming in the caves.

And that’s how our relationship went as the seasons amassed, turning to years. Before we knew it our voices were deeper and our desires were changing. Everything was, actually. The barn behind the house caught fire and burned to the ground. The old silo collapsed just like Dad always said it would. Justin’s mom got cancer when we were fifteen. Dad almost lost his hand trying to fix a tractor the year after that, which put him out of work for the better part of eighteen months. Life was tough, but Justin West and I stuck together, clinging to our youth by doing all of the things we did when we were twelve – everything except returning to the animal cemetery.

We hiked and swam, made improved fishing poles out of whatever we could find and fantasized in our secret spots. As much as I wanted to believe that we were still kids, the things we fantasized about made it pretty clear that we weren’t little boys anymore. Sometimes we talked about enlisting when the time came. Sometimes we talked about girls – we both promised never to bring one to the forest – although that was just bravado since neither of us had ever had a real girlfriend. And other times we talked about death, mostly because Justin West wanted to.

I tried to keep him from dwelling on the thought by keeping him busy at the lake, but when his mother died when we were seventeen, Justin West changed even more. Perhaps changed isn’t the right word. Looking back now, I think the real Justin West was unleashed.

Suddenly he liked to do things to the fish he caught. I didn’t like how he made them bleed, but I didn’t try to stop him either. I guess I thought it was better than when he’d talk about doing those things to himself, which I could only assume came from the pain of losing a mother who had never been the mother he really wanted or needed to begin with. So I turned the other way. I told myself that if I couldn’t see it, it wasn’t really happening. At least the fish couldn’t scream.

But I did avoid going to the lake with him after that. I figured that in time his pain would subside and things would return to normal again. And things did seem pretty normal for a while after that. That is until one day when we were drinking beers I’d smuggled from my Dad’s fridge. My head was spinning. Justin West’s must have been too because he had downed two more beers than me. So when he bet that we could bury someone out there in one of the craters and never get caught, I just laughed, not taking him seriously, and agreed that we probably could.

That was the worst thing I ever could have done. And if I’m guilty of one thing, it’s making a drunken agreement to something so absurd, something so unbelievably heinous that I never once – not even for a fraction of a split second – thought that he’d actually go out and kill someone.

I helped Justin West bury the body of the girl he killed. We put her in one of the smaller craters not far from the one with the bed sheet ladder. I didn’t want to do it. But he was in a panic that made him cry and I couldn’t say no. He said his life was over. Again and again, he sobbed that same line – getting louder and louder each time – and as big as the forest was, I thought for sure that everyone in the world would know what we’d done by the time we were finished kicking dirt over her.

I never saw Justin West again after we put the girl in the ground. He walked through the forest toward his home and I walked toward mine, never wanting to set foot in the forest ever again, nor knowing how my life would be changed. Shameful as it is, I kept quiet until now, only coming forth with the truth because my mind couldn’t handle the horror of the secret I’d burdened it with for one minute more.

I told the authorities all about Justin West and where they would find the girl he killed. And while they found her precisely where I said they would, they found something else in the crater right along with her. Not a mole person or an extraterrestrial bug, but a body. And not one that Justin West is likely to have killed because not long after he retreated from the forest, he did to himself what he used to do to the fish.

I wish I could point to some wild plot cooked up by the bare-chested boy who once cooked up fantasies with me. I wish I could point to the truth about how the dead man ended up with the dead girl. But as it stands, the fingers of justice are pointed at me, and I’ve no defense other than Justin West.

Although we were all each other had, I sometimes wish Justin West and I had never met. Sometimes I even find myself hating my old friend. And although I know he couldn’t have done what I’m accused of doing, I want to blame him for murdering the man the authorities found. After all, he did do things I never could, and the forest belonged to him.


Nick Medina is an author from Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in print, online and audio formats by magazines, journals and anthologies in the United States and the United Kingdom. To contact Nick, or to read more of his work, visit his website or follow him on Twitter: @MedinaNick.

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