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By Josh Bugosh

    Matt sat at a computer in the Crossroads Junior High library, waiting for the bell to ring so he could finally get out of there. He surfed the Internet idly, not really looking for anything more than a way to pass the time. Most of the remaining twenty minutes of school were spent on the forum “Across the Crossroads,” (ATC for short) which was the unofficial discussion site for the kids in the neighborhood. On the forum, they gathered and shared info on events, hang-out spots, and other trivial things.
    Nothing as usual, Matt thought.
    The fact that he and others were spending the last minutes of the day chatting online when they could be talking face-to-face wasn’t lost on Matt. They were in the same building, after all. Plenty of kids were in fact milling around the halls with each other, but Matt didn’t feel like joining them. He was burned out from the day, like always. The eighth grade wasn’t all that hard. It was just painfully boring. Eight hours of useless classes deprived his mind of any sort of stimulation. Halfway through the day, he usually fell into a numb haze, retreating into his head and barely talking to anyone. That was how he became known as “Matt the Mask.” He rarely showed any expression on his face, as if his true person was hidden.
    Not that he was friendless; every school has its circles, and Matt had a close set of good friends. After school, he planned on walking over to Ren’s house, which was up the street and around the corner from his. Matt’s parents wouldn’t be home from work until eight or so, and he couldn’t stand sitting around the house. His parents would have hoped he’d spend the evening studying, but the thought of slogging through half a dozen textbooks made him sleepy already.
    He could hear the voice of his counselor now, telling him that he isn’t “engaged” enough in his studies. She always said that there was an potential for creativity inside of him that he was not using.
    Whatever, he thought as he clicked on a discussion thread. It was some freshman—Matt guessed by the poor grammar, which wasn’t saying much—telling a tall tale about a gorilla that stomped through his backyard one night and ate his pet rabbits. Across the Crossroads was filled with threads like this, and Matt enjoyed reading them the most. Maybe it was his creative side longing for a fantastical story. That’s what his counselor would say.
    The bell rang, and the students in the library sprung into movement like racehorses at the gates. Matt logged off, rose from his seat, and slung his bag over his shoulder.


    The house was empty and dark when the bus dropped him off. It was four o’clock; his parents wouldn’t be home for another four hours at least. Matt dropped off his bag in his room, and quickly left.
    He checked the mail on his way out, and then paused to survey the small street. It was a beautiful August afternoon. The sun was on its way down with both barrels blazing. Lawnmowers hummed and filled the air with the bold scent of fresh-cut grass. He took it all in in a deep breath, and then turned left and headed down the street.
    He and Ren lived in a small mountain community barely big enough to be considered a town. Most kids in the area hated Crossroads. There was no arcade, movie theater, or bowling alley in sight. The nearest hangout of any sort was a place called “Big Reg’s Big Burgers,” but it wasn’t close enough to walk to. Matt didn’t mind, though. He simply enjoyed being free to roam the small community and the surrounding wilderness. The other end of his street led to smaller gravel roads that went farther and farther back into the woods, where he often went to hunt or to simply be alone with his thoughts.


    Ren’s mother answered the door and let him in. She cleaned houses for a living, and was usually home in the evenings when school let out.
    “Hey, Matt, how’re you doing?” she said as he entered.
    “Fine Mrs. Thompson. How ‘bout you?”
    “Slow day. It’s too hot to go out there anyway, though. I can’t wait for the winter.”
    “Oh, I like it. With the sun going down it’s just about perfect out there now.”
    “I’ll trade staying inside from the heat for staying inside from the cold any day.”
    “I hate being inside too long.”
    “Well that’s good for your age. Maybe you can be a good influence on Ren eventually.”
    “I doubt that.”
    Mrs. Thompson laughed merrily at this.
    “Well, anyway,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye “he’s not gonna come out to greet you anytime soon, so you might as well head on in.”
    He turned to head for Ren’s room and she spoke again.
    “You having dinner with us?”
    “I don’t know,” he said, stopping. “Mom left me some stuff to heat up, but I wouldn’t mind eating with you guys.”
    “Well, if you’re still around close to dinnertime, you’re certainly welcome.”
    “Thanks, Mrs. Thompson.”
    Ren was sitting at his computer when Matt entered. The lights were off. He spun around in his swivel chair and pushed up his glasses.
    “’Sup?” he said.
    “Not much. What you up to?”
    “Checkin’ out ATC.”
    “Did you get out early or something? I didn’t see you anywhere after classes.”
    “I was in the library the whole time. Must’ve missed me.”
    Ren turned back to face his computer. The light from the screen cast a glow across the wall. Dying sunlight crept in through the closed slats on the mini blinds, adding their own stripes to the paint. The rest of the room lay in shadow.
    Matt took a seat in the bunk bed that towered next to Ren’s desk. From there it felt as if he were peering out from a cushioned cave.
    “So what’s new at the ATC?”
    “Nuttin’. Big Reg’s has got a new owner now. Remember Rachael?”
    “Yeah, the big girl, right?”
    “Yep. Reggie’s gone. It’s gonna be “Big Rachael’s” now.”
    “Oh, and then some goofball posted a story about a gorilla that came into in his yard at night. A freakin‘ gorilla.”
    “I saw that.”
    “Figured you’d get a kick out of it. Stupid freshman.”
    Ren moved the mouse around and clicked on another link.
    “So,” Matt continued. “Whatcha wanna do?”
    “Mmm, I don’t know. We got a bit until dinner. Just hang out, I guess.”
    Matt shifted around inside the bunk.
    “I was thinking of going down near the creek while it’s still light.”
    “Nah, it’s too hot. I’m still sweating from just getting off of the bus.”
    “It’s not that bad. It’s like eighty-eight degrees out there now.”
    “Too hot.”
    “You’re a wuss.”
    “C’mon, man,” Matt said, getting up. “Let’s go out and wander for a while. We’ve got plenty of time.”
    “I’m gonna post a few topics on the board. Definitely got to rag on the gorilla kid. You can help me come up with something witty. Isn’t Miss Nolan always saying you’re real creative or something?”
    “That’s what she says.”
    “You’re a better writer than me.”
    “Eh, I don’t like it that much, though.”
    “When’s the last time you wrote something, though?”
    “Never, I guess.”
    “Yeah… Look, I’m gonna bow out of this one.”
    “Aww, Mask…”
    “Whatever. I’m going to go wander around the creek. I’ll be back. I’ll probably do dinner, actually. We’ll see.”
    “Dip out and come back when the food’s ready, is that how it is?.”
    “Whatever. I’ll be back.”
    He left Ren in the shadows of his lair. Mrs. Thompson was washing dishes in the kitchen as he passed through.
    “Oh, you’re not staying for dinner?”
    “I might. I’m gonna go out for a bit and come back.”
    “Ren doesn’t want to go?”
    “Nah, he’s sucked into what he’s doing.”
    Mrs. Thompson sighed.
    “What can you do?” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
    Matt mirrored her gesture and then headed for the door.
    “Thanks again, Mrs. Thompson. I’ll be back.”
    “Alright, honey, be careful.”


    Matt turned the corner onto his street. It was early in the evening and there was plenty of light. The smell of cut grass was still in the air, though the mowers were gone.
    He hated to just leave Ren’s house like he did, but after sitting bored behind a desk all day, the last thing he wanted to do was sit bored by a computer all evening. He’d be glad to hang out inside after the sun went down.
    He passed his house and kept going. The street was quiet; not many people were out.
    About fifty yards ahead, Matt took a right onto a smaller street that descended down a hill into the shade. There were less houses here. One family was in their front yard cooking out, and he waved at them.
    The road dwindled on until Matt was by himself, trees crowding on all sides.. He took another right at the next road, a small gravel path, and passed two more quiet houses before the woods began to take over.
    It was nice and cool in the shade. Here trees filtered the sun’s light and dispelled the heat.
    Too hot my butt, he thought, thinking of how weak Ren was to the elements.
    Matt often hiked down this way. He knew that there was an entrance to an old logging trail further down. He’d been through it a couple times before. It ran parallel to the river and ended in a pretty clearing where a stream broke off from the main branch and formed a pond. It was a pleasant route.
    The winding road descended downhill and fell evermore into shade. At the bottom of the hill, Matt stopped to soak in the surroundings.
    A plane passed overhead. It was the only sound.
    He looked at his feet and saw a turtle with a remarkably glossy shell crossing the road. He smiled and crouched down to look at it. It withdrew itself immediately.
    Leaving the creature be, Matt continued on. The road curved to the left and continued downhill. At the bottom the road bended back to the right and up another incline. It was there that the entrance to the logging trail was. Just off the shoulder was a metal gate barring vehicle entrance. Matt walked around it and continued. To his left along the path, the ground dropped off in a steep hill, and fifteen feet below gushed the river.
    The air was crisp and clean. Matt took another deep breath as he casually made his way down the trail. He planned on hiking to the pond and back, and after that he wasn’t sure. Past the trail entrance, the road went uphill and eventually met the paved street again. Maybe he’d go that way back to Ren’s house. It would surely start getting dark by then.
    The gurgling of the river grew louder as Matt reached the clearing. He came out into a bare spot about half the size of a baseball diamond. It was lined with gravel. Logging crews used to stop here to fell trees.
    He stepped up to the edge of the stream that branched off from the river. Fish drifted lazily in the slow-moving water. The main branch of the river traveled on and disappeared in the trees. Matt was never sure where exactly it went; he was ashamed to admit he wasn’t very keen on the area’s geography. All he knew is that it traveled away from the town at this point, beyond which there wasn’t much.
    Kicking a stone, he traveled the edge of the stream towards the pond. It was small and muddy, and not much to look at. He spat into it and turned around.
    If he could ever convince Ren and his other friends to drag their butts out here, it would be great to pitch tents and spend the night. The spot wasn’t too far from home, yet it felt like he was a thousand miles away from town. In fact, Matt was surprised there were never any signs of other people at this spot: no extinguished fires or trash scattered anywhere. Nobody seemed to come out here. While it was a shame, it was nice to know that he had his own private spot.
    Feeling ready to head back, he turned once more to face the pond and again spat in it. His loogie floated on the still surface. He watched it drift out to the center. On the other side of the pond the brush was thick and impassable. Poison ivy twisted along the bank.
    Something in the vines glinted in the low light. Matt squinted but lost sight of the object. He stepped closer to the pond’s edge and scanned the other side. Another dull gleam. Puzzled, he walked to the left where the stream spilled into the body of water. It did little to improve his view. Looking across the stream, Matt saw that the brush was thin enough there for him tromp through. Getting his sneakers wet in the shallow water, he stepped through the creek to the other side, and continued along to the right. At the pond’s edge, the poison ivy threatened with its sting, but the ground farther from the water was surprisingly passable. The thick underbrush had hid this area from his view.
    Careful not to trip into the ivy, he peered down and saw it.
    It was a knife, about eight inches long. He gingerly reached down and, avoiding contact with the vines, plucked it out.
    It looked like a hunting knife. It was not rusted, and didn’t appear to be that old.
    A twinge of disappointment struck his heart. It looked like this area wasn’t so untouched after all. 
    Oh well, he thought. It’s still pretty out of the way. Plus, he had a cool souvenir now. He was sure the owner of the knife wasn’t looking for it.    
    Turning around, he looked at this part of the woods he had never seen; the trees were spaced wide apart and the ground was fairly clear. A beaten path stretched onward, presumably following the river.
    Matt checked his watch; it was six  o‘clock. He had plenty of time.
    Curious, he started on the new trail, knife in hand.
    It did indeed run along the river. He could hear it off to his left, though he couldn’t see it yet.
    It continued on for a good distance, much to his surprise. The woods crowded around thicker now, but the path remained well-beaten. It might have been used by the loggers in the past, he figured, noticing that ground on the trail became bare dirt, as if many tires had passed over it. How they got back here with vehicles, he didn’t know. There must be an entrance on the other side, he figured.
    The path seemed to steer away from the river and deeper into the woods. Just as Matt thought that it could go like this forever, a second branch forked off up ahead to the right. He stopped for a moment.
    What a find, he thought. He could wander around here forever.
    Deciding to save the second trail for another day, he carried on straight ahead. He walked for another five minutes and found another fork on the right. He kept going straight, the path climbing a small hill.
    As he reached the top, he heard the familiar sounds of the river, and found himself in a small paradise.
    The trees here were spaced out fairly distant, and the trail ended at a small room-sized clearing, right on the shore of the river. It was here that there was finally evidence of other people.
    Right off to the side of this spot stood a medium-sized wooden table. Handmade, it looked like. A tarp was strung up above the table as a make-shift canopy.
    Matt entered the clearing, excited at his discovery.
    A fire ring protruded out of the bare earth, and judging by the black soot and burnt-out shells of tin cans, Matt figured that it had been used recently.
    He passed the ring and reached the table. It was old yet sturdy-looking. A rusted metal chair stood beside it. A row of fishing hooks were lodged into the wood at the edge of the table. This was obviously somebody’s private little place away from town, and Matt envied that person.
    The river here was perfect. A giant tree sprouted from the edge out over the water and formed a deep fishing hole. Beyond that, the sun dappled over the rocks. On the other side of the river was a thick line of trees, beyond which Matt had no idea. He wondered, cynically, if Ren could pinpoint this spot on Google Earth.
    Someone rose out of the water.
    The sight made Matt’s heart jump so high it hurt.
    First a head, then shoulders, long wet hair clung to the skin. A bare bottom.
    He couldn’t believe it. There was nothing out there a second ago, and now he watched as a woman rose out of the river. How long had she been holding her breath?
    Oblivious to her company, the woman walked through the water to the other side of the river. Her movements were slow and deliberate. She seemed to drift to shore.
    A slight feeling of guilt nagged at him as he watched the nude swimmer step out of the river. She soon disappeared beyond the trees, probably to grab her towel and head home.
    He sat down in the dirt and waited, half eager to catch a glimpse of the woman getting dressed, but half concerned about moving from where he was. For besides the guilt, a stranger sensation gnawed the pit of his stomach. The absolute silence with which the woman appeared was almost unnatural. He wondered if she may have been the work of his great imagination that his counselor always boasted about.
    He sat and listened for movement. A twig snapping or brush being kicked up. There was nothing but the rushing of the water. Because of the noise, it was unlikely he could hear anything from the opposite side.
    Soon the newly formed memory of the swimmer lost its strangeness, and Matt began to accept that he has simply seen one of the few people that probably enjoyed this hidden spot. He began to relax.
    Well, she had the right idea, he thought.
    With that, he stood up and pulled off his shirt. He ran back into the clearing and slung it over the metal chair. He continued to strip down and piled his clothes on the table, sitting his shoes and the knife next to them. With a running start, he launched himself over the river’s edge and splashed into the cold water.
Man, that’s cold!
The water stung like ice, and he stood up waist-deep in the water, shivering and
regretting his impulsive decision. He knew it would be chilly; it was fast-moving water after all. But he wasn’t expecting it to be this chilly.
    It’s just been a while since I’ve swam anywhere, he figured, and he dunked himself all the way in to get used to the cold. It wasn’t nearly as relaxing as he thought it would be.
    Matt nearly jumped all the way out of the water at the sound. A horrible scream issued forth from the other side of the river. It sounded like a wild cat dying some horrible death.
    He stood with the water near to his waist, frozen, watching the tree line.
    Something rushed from the woods—sailing through the air like a giant bat, screaming that horrible scream.
    Spinning around, he tried to run to the shore. He fell face-first into the water and felt a gust of air rush over his back before he went under. He struggled, pushed his head above the water, and doggy-paddled, nearly choking as the water splashed into his mouth.
    The horrible howl came again and he looked up to see a dark figure against the sky: a monstrous pair of wings, long, outstretched legs, and wild, flailing hair. He could hear the whoosh as the wings beat the air furiously.
    He tore his eyes away from the sight, stood up out of the water, and stumbled over the rocks.
    He reached the edge and pushed himself up onto the muddy slope. A thunderous splash rocked the water behind him. He broke into a sprint. Rushing by the table, he scooped up his clothes and shoes without stopping, and made a mad dash back down the trail. Rocks jabbed his bare feet, but he kept running.
    The banshee howled one more time, but it sounded like it wasn’t giving chase. He didn’t care. His lungs ached and his soles burned as he raced along the winding trail. He nearly tripped and fell end-over-end on the downhill stretch, but he regained his footing and ran faster still.
    The pond lay up ahead, and he had to slow his pace in order to traverse around to the other side. He carefully jogged around thick bushes and avoided the tangled mass of poison ivy. He splashed across the small stream and broke out into the gravel-lined clearing, falling over from exhaustion.
    Panting, he shook out his shorts, pulled them on, and then put his sore feet into his sneakers. He didn’t dare stop long enough to get fully dressed. He tucked his shirt under his arm, got up and continued running.
    The logging trail was wide and flat enough for him to make a mad dash to the gate. He finally slowed to a jog when he reached the road. The uphill climb was steep, but he kept jogging until he got to the top. At last, he saw one of the houses ahead. He slowed to a walk, pulled on his shirt, and broke into another jog.
    He kept that pace all the way to his house—the longest he’d ever ran before¬—and finally stopped at his mailbox. He went to look at his watch, but realized he must have left it sitting on the table. The knife was still there, too.
    It was probably after seven, but not much later. His parents’ car wasn’t in the driveway, and it was barely dark.
    He was glad for that. The thought of reliving that chase under the blanket of night made him shiver. He was definitely having second thoughts about camping out there.
    Safe inside, he locked the doors and went to the bathroom. He pulled off his shoes and looked closer at his feet. They were bruised, but not cut. He got up and looked himself in the mirror. A scared, shaken little boy looked back at him.
    Stripping down again, Matt hopped in the shower and cleaned himself with the curtain open. Every now and then, he shut off the water to listen for anything unusual.
    Clean but not refreshed, Matt paced through the living room, not daring to peek out one of the windows. He made his way to the computer den. Unlike Ren, Matt didn’t have a PC in his room. He sat at the desk and stared at the blank screen for a full minute. Finally, he pressed the power button.
    While the screen steadily grew brighter, he picked up the phone that sat nearby and dialed Ren’s number.
    His mother answered.
    “Oh, hey there, Matt. We’re just about to have dinner ready. Are you gonna make it?”
    “No, I’m sorry. I just got in.”
    “Oh, well we can hold it off for a minute.”
    “That’s okay.”
    “Aww, you sure?”
    “I still need to take a shower,” he lied.
    “Oh, okay. You sound tired.”
    “I am. I got a little lost out there.”
    She laughed at this.
    “Well, do you want to talk to Ren?”
    “Sure, thanks.”
    “Hold on a sec.”
    He waited for a minute in silence and watched the computer load up.
    “Yo,” Ren’s voice came from the other end.
    “You alright? You comin’ over?”
    “Nah, I’m gonna stay home I think. You’re welcome to come on over if you want to.”
    “Well… yeah, I guess I can. What’s up, dude?”
    “I want you to be here when I post my thread on ATC.”
    “Oh really? What about?”
    “Long story, I’ll tell you when you come over.”
    “Don’t worry, it’s worth it.”
    Matt paused for a moment.
    “It definitely beats the gorilla story,” he concluded.