I was running through the woods, chasing a squirrel. I was fascinated with all creatures back then. A kid. The world was new and everything was fresh. I had the hunting instinct of a hound and a desire to chase, search, find. But once found, I didn’t know what to do with my quarry.
The gray squirrel frantically ran through the tree tops. I ran behind, threw rocks. It lead me to an opening in the thickest part of the woods. The sun dappled the clearing. It was a bright, clear day, and it was startling to suddenly be out of shade. I was hot and was growing tired of the chase. In front of me stood a lopsided old shack. I was immediately intrigued. It barely stood, in a small clearing, uneven and faded as a gray day in December. The partially open door, shed chips of faded white paint. Choking brush wrapped around one side of the building and seemed to be squeezing what little life was left out of the wood.
I stood at the door and peered into the black interior. It was small, about twelve by ten feet. The dank smell of rotting wood, thick and moist. It was an unsettling odor that seemed more like a filthy whisper than a smell. Fresh dirt and decaying leaves. The ancient door scraped the slab as I pried it open. I took a step inside. A chill ran through me. Still, dank, cold. A window in the back let in a bit of sun. Gaps in the roughhewn floorboards widened in spots of light. Vines threaded through the floor, but were dead or dying in the perpetual rankness. A strange chandelier hung down, too low to be of any use. Dirty glass, covered in black mildew and green film. I took another step inside. A damp chill swept over me like a thin blanket. In the far left corner was a small cot. A pillow lay atop the mattress, uncovered and molding. Cigarette butts littered the floor. Below the window was a small brass container. I was intrigued, thinking perhaps some lost treasure lay inside. But as I approached I heard it ring out. Just a small ping, as if something dropped into it. I turned sharply, looking for the safety of the open door. There came a knock on the roof. I looked up and saw a black smoky haze hovering on the ceiling. A low whisper spoke, “Get out.” The voice chilled my spine. I bolted forward, toward the light of the door. I must have been running full force when I hit something hard and fell back. I remember feeling like the floor cradled me, my whole body, like I’d fallen into a rut. A perfect outline of my body. In my mind, I saw a field of black dots, like on a black and white TV screen. People were running. They were far away and small, like a mass of moving shadow, but they were all running in the same direction. A face came close to me. I could see she was a nice old lady. But her mouth opened and she yelled close to my face, “What?” The word was yelled, long, slow, filled with hate, torment, self-pity and regret. Her breath was freezing cold, and had the smell of dead leaves and rotten flesh. The venom in her voice startled me awake. I felt all of these things at once. They clawed into me. I ran like hell. I was myopic and could only see what was directly in front of me. I kept running. Above, in the trees, I heard a squirrel, jumping from tree to tree, as if chasing me, menacing me, wanting me to make me pay for my past transgressions. My stomach churned. My heart exploded in my chest.
I came to the small field adjacent to my back yard, and I stopped. I bent over, my hands on my knees and heaved. My head ached with pounding force. My eyes hurt. My vision slowly started coming back to full color.
My house stood on a small incline against the shadows of the setting sun. A dark outline against orange light. The two story house suddenly seemed foreboding. I shook off the feeling when I saw a light from the kitchen, and my mother’s shape in the window. Thoughts of supper, a warm shower and bed warmed me. But I couldn’t help feeling as if something had changed. There was a heaviness in my heart. A joylessness. Then a yearning to return to the shack came upon me. I saw it clear as day in my mind, the crooked slant of the shack against the night sky, the gray wood, the tree branches squeezing what little life remained there. I turned to the woods and saw a black mist, like a shadow slowly melting into the trees. A calling arose from there, like a cooing. Only more yearning than a coo, yearning like a child might for love. I ran to my house and slammed the door shut. Closing out that shack forever, and knowing I’d never go back. But I was mistaken. I went back every night in my dreams, the old lady’s voice hollow and rancid in my face. I never hunted another living thing after that.