Chapter 32

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With the sun directly overhead, the day's heat, approaching its zenith, lay across the farm like an oppressive haze. The breeze that Stanley hoped would bring rain had ceased and the humidity seemed to have doubled. The boy's forehead beaded with sweat and a trickle broke free, travelled down to the tip of his nose where it hung momentarily before dropping off. He stuffed his hands beneath his tee shirt and wiped his brow with it.

"It's hot, girl," he said. Doris looked up at him and wagged twice. Her long tongue quivered with every pant. "Let's get in the shade."

They left the dirt road and headed down an embankment, just beyond the small bridge that crossed Tinney Creek - which ran through the entire expanse of Reece farm - to a narrow stretch of wooded terrain. This wooded area stretched from the bridge and ran along the creek all the way out to the road. On the opposite side of the bridge, it spread as far as Stanley could see. These woods were populated mostly by birch trees and Stanley loved the contrast the white bark provided in the dead of winter. There was other vegetation closer to the water, just off the bank, like ferns, cattails and lily pads, but nothing could compare with the birch trees. Besides, a lot of the other plants began dying off in the fall, which left the stark white bark against the gold, red and orange leaves when they fell to the ground.

Doris sprinted ahead of Stanley and stopped at the edge of the creek. She eagerly lapped up the mud-colored water. "Get, girl! You'll get sick!" He shooed her away with his foot. "C'mon, Doris."

The dog did as she was commanded and trotted beside the boy. They stayed near the water, but not too close as the bank was muddy. Stanley didn't feel like removing inches of thick, dried mud from his sneakers later. Doris, however, wasn't as cautious and stepped directly into a mound of the brown sludge. Startled by her paw being briefly immobilized, the dog jumped and spun around to stare at her assailant. She kicked wildly behind her in an attempt to remove the mud, then sat down to inspect the rear appendage.

"What'd you do girl, huh?" asked Stanley. He walked toward the dog as she tended to herself. "Got yourself all dirty, didn't you?" Stanley patted her on the head. "Don't worry, I'll squirt you down when we get home, okay?" He noted the mark she had made in the wet mud, closer to the bank. But then he saw something else.

Directly beside Doris's tracks was another set. But these were much wider than the dog's paw. As Stanley inched closer, he squatted and studied the markings more intently. They were larger than a deer's as well...or anything else he'd seen in the woods. In fact, they didn't appear to have been made by an animal...or a person. They were deep, circular holes. Stanley placed his index finger into one of them and it disappeared all the way up to his palm and he still hadn't touched the bottom of the hole.

Must be heavy.

A dull, tingling sensation materialized within the boy, causing him to quickly skim the nearby shrubbery with his eyes. He stood back up and turned in a circle, suddenly feeling as though he and the dog were not alone. The tracks appeared to originate from directly behind the boy, in the general direction of the barn and house, in the dense brush and led into the creek. Doris had finished tending to her paw and assumed a posture of alertness, directing her gaze toward something on the opposite bank, farther down the creek. The hairs on Stanley's arms and the back of his neck stood out and a chill raced along his spine.

Doris issued a soft growl. The opposite bank was concealed in heavy shadow, slivers of sunshine illuminating a branch here, or a patch of ground there, but it was difficult to make out anything that might've startled the dog. Again, she showed her displeasure, this time baring her teeth.

Frozen, Stanley listened to every creaking branch above, to every crackle on the ground. He noted the absence of birds – or at least any chirping - in the trees. Nearby, however, a squirrel began an angry warning cry to its kin.

And then a painfully long moment of stillness ensued. Stanley scanned the varying shades of greenery on the opposite bank. In the shadows were hunter and emerald. In the sunlit areas were kelly and yellow-greens. The colors mingled into a natural camouflage, concealing whatever lurked beneath. Every wave of a wind-strewn leaf or ripple from a leaping insect on the creek's surface carried a threatening but fascinating allure. It was a purely magical and terror-filled series of moments that was suddenly broken by Doris' fit of barking.

Stanley had never seen her so ferocious. As he attempted to console her, something moved in the brush across the creek. It must've been perched by the water's edge, because that's where the initial leaves were still waving. It climbed the slope up to higher ground, bending branches and crushing saplings in its wake. Stanley saw nothing of substance, only the pitching and tossing of brush. After a few seconds, it was over. Then, farther off on the higher plot of ground and out of Stanley's view, a flock of crows squawked and were scattered from their tree.

Stanley, still rooted to his spot, felt moisture penetrate his sneaker as his foot began to sink into the mud. He stirred from his trance and stepped away from the creek, each footfall feeling impossibly light, as though he were not walking, but floating...still in awe – still in some dream world, only moments ago having shared the ground with something strange and wonderful and dreadful all at once.

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