The Forest of Stray Dogs
“We’re too old for this, dude,” Hao said. “Seriously. Playing chicken with stray dogs is a game for kiddies. Come on. Don’t go in there.”
The fence creaked in protest, the sun-warped boards threatening to give way beneath all one hundred and ten pounds of anxious thirteen-year-old boy. Navin Noe wouldn’t have climbed the fence for any of his other possessions, the few that he had, but the baseball he couldn’t afford to lose.
“They can probably already smell you.” His buddy, his only pal, Hao Chow, stood beneath the rusted basketball goal, leaning on the post, his hands sunk into the pockets of his oversized Army jacket. “You won’t make it.”
“It’s not that far,” Navin said. “I can see the tree from here. I’ll make it. Anyway, I don’t even hear the dogs.”
“You don’t hear them because they’re hiding in the bushes, waiting to pounce,” Hao said, scuffing the toe of his high-top sneaker on the cracked pavement. “Forget the ball. You can get another one. If those dogs bite you, you’ll get rabies, and then you’ll have to get fifty rabies shots in the stomach. That’s what they do, you know? They put a long silver needle right into your stomach over and over, and even then, you still might go crazy and die.”
Navin tipped over the top of the fence and fell into the grass on the far side. He landed on his belly with a huff and quickly picked himself up, brushing off the front of his t-shirt.
“It’s not just any old baseball,” he said. He could still see Hao through the cracks between fence boards, some of which were two or three inches wide. The fence was weather-damaged and brittle, almost more of a symbolic gesture than a functional fence. “I caught it with my bare hands at a Bruins game. It has the date written on it—April 17, 1987—in permanent marker.”
“It was a high school baseball game,” Hao said, kicking a flattened can so that it skittered across the parking lot. “That hardly even counts as a real sport. It’s not like you went to see the Tulsa Drillers or some other real team. Anyway, it was four years ago. Old news.”
“It was a big deal,” Navin said. “The Bruins crushed the Sandites, and I watched it happen, and I caught a foul ball in the bottom of the eighth. I’m not gonna let those dogs climb the tree and get it. They’ll chew it up. No way. I’m getting it back.”
Hao grunted unhappily. Navin scoped out the forest in front of him, post oak, maple and blackjack trees scattered about, the spaces in between filled with wild grass and weeds. He saw a single strand of a spider’s web running from a nearby branch all the way to the ground. He reached out to flick it, but then thought better of it and moved away.
“If I hear barking, I’m gonna go get your mom,” Hao said, after a moment.
“No, leave my mom out of it. She’s asleep on the couch. It’d be like rousing a sleeping bear.”
Navin looked in the direction of the tree and saw his prized baseball perched in the crook of two branches, half-hidden by fat leaves, beckoning him. He cocked his head to one side and listened for the dogs, but the forest was quiet. He heard people talking somewhere off to his right, the faint sounds of traffic on Tuxedo Boulevard, and a soft sighing of summer wind.
“Okay, here goes,” he said. “I got it. I can do this.” He took a deep breath and held it, shaking his hands, trying anything he could think of to psych himself up.
“Just get it over with,” Hao said. “Hurry up, dude.”
That got him moving. Navin took off running toward the tree. It was a sturdy post oak, weirdly-shaped, with a bulge about halfway up the trunk like some kind of massive tumor. The branches spread up and out, like arms reaching to the sky.
Three steps in, he heard them. The barking came out of the deeper parts of the forest like the echo of a bad dream. Navin had a moment of decision, a split second to turn back or press on. He couldn’t see the dogs, but he heard the scuffing of paws on loose dirt and fallen leaves. In that moment, his gaze fixed upon the cherished baseball, and he plunged onward.
“Navin, get out of there!” The voice of Hao came from somewhere far away.
The first dog appeared in the distance on the left. Boss, as they’d named him, a short-haired mutt with a broad head, a bit of chow mixed with a whole lot of other breeds, he was gray, thick, and muscular. One eye was brown, the other pale blue, and he was splashed with mud, grime, and possibly blood. His bark sounded like sandpaper against concrete.
Navin let out a yelp and took a last leap toward the tree. One foot came down on a root and slipped, and he fell against the trunk. He caught himself, shuffled his feet to keep his balance, and reached up to the lowest branches.
“I hear them,” Hao shouted. “Get out of there!”
The second dog appeared on the right, a lanky creature with shaggy brown fur. Muzzle, a bit of Labrador mingled with something long-limbed and lean, he had a narrow face and a notched left ear. Burrs and twigs were caught in the fur around his belly, and he had a patch of missing fur on one of his back legs.
Navin caught a low branch, but as soon as he put his weight on it, it cracked and swung downward, slamming him into the trunk. The third dog appeared then, loping along behind Boss. The smallest of the three, the one the kids called Rat, was some kind of terrier mix with a crooked tail, sores on her back, and a long tongue that hung from the side of her mouth. When she barked, it sounded like she was being kicked in the ribs.
“I’m gonna get your mom,” Hao screamed. “Are they biting you? What’s happening?”
Navin leaped up and grabbed another branch, just as Boss came around the side of the tree. The broad-headed animal stopped, spread its forepaws wide and bared its teeth, growling at him. Navin put his weight on the second branch, and it held. He scrabbled against the trunk with his tattered old sneakers, scraping off bits of bark. Muzzle came at him from the right, but the bigger dog didn’t wait, take time to growl, or give warning. Instead, he leaped at Navin’s legs, teeth gnashing.
Navin cried out and swung both feet up, hooking them over the top of the branch. He heard Muzzle’s teeth come together with a wet clack mere inches from his right heel. Navin wrapped both arms around the branch and dragged himself up into the tree, even as the dogs gathered, snarling and snapping at him.
“Dude, what’s happening? Are you dead? Tell me if you’re dead!”
“I’m not dead,” Navin said, clawing his way higher into the nest of branches, leaves tickling his face. “It was close, but they didn’t get me. Chill out.”
“Do you want me to go get your mom? What should I do?”
Navin glanced back in the direction of the trailer park and saw Hao’s shadow moving back and forth through the cracks in the fence.
“No, forget about my mom,” he replied. “She’s not an option ever. Let me get the ball. Maybe the dogs will get tired and go away.”
But when he looked at the dogs, they seemed more crazed than before. Rat kept leaping up on her back legs, scratching at the trunk with each attempt, as if she thought she might sink her claws in and climb. Muzzle ran a circle around the tree, alternating between annoyed whimpers and crazed barks. Boss was hunkered down near the roots, those two-toned eyes fixed on Navin, as he growled and slobbered on his own paws.
“Oh, geez,” Navin muttered. “This was a dumb idea.”
He scanned the branches above him until he spotted the baseball, still calmly nestled there as if it had no idea of the doom below. Suddenly, it seemed like such an insignificant thing to risk his life over, and Navin cursed himself for his stupidity. But, no, that ball meant something, and it had little to do with the Bruins stomping the Sandites, no matter what he’d told Hao. He climbed higher, reaching the place where the trunk bulged outward like an enormous hunched back. As he reached around the trunk to steady himself, his right hand slid into a large opening.
He peeked around the side of the trunk and saw that, in fact, the bulge was an enormous hollow space inside the tree. A crescent-shaped opening like a sideways smiling mouth revealed the cavity. Navin cautiously probed inside and felt the slick curve of the inside edge of the tree. Then some small crawling thing tickled its ways across his fingers, and he gasped and pulled his hand out. A fat, green stinkbug was attached to his pinky. He flicked it away, catching a whiff of its rotten banana stench.
“Are you still alive?” Hao shouted.
“Still alive,” Navin replied, but the sound of his voice set the dogs to barking again.
He jammed the toe of his shoe into the hollow space and stretched up, fumbling along the higher branches to get to the baseball. It remained a few inches out of reach, but he managed to hook a finger around the end of a branch. He pulled at it, and the baseball wobbled.
“Almost got it,” Navin said.
He pulled on the branch again, and the baseball tipped to one side and rolled free. Navin saw the catastrophe in the moment that it began, saw how it would unfold, and he realized he could do nothing to stop it. The baseball hit a small knot, bounced, and sailed out of the tree. Navin lunged at it, lost his footing, and tipped forward. He had a quick glimpse of gnashing teeth and wet eyes beneath him, and then he fell.
He managed to grab a branch in passing, stripping leaves as his hands slid down the length of it. The branch broke, and he went into a spin, dizzy, clamping his eyes shut. He hit the ground on his stomach, his face slamming into the back of his arm. A large root jabbed him in the thigh, and the broken branch landed on the back of his head.
For a moment, he went numb, and a violent ringing in his ears drove out the sound of the dogs. Then the numbness passed, and he felt pain sweep through his body. Navin blinked, groaning, and rolled onto his back. Remembering the dogs, he panicked and sat up, looking around wildly.
Boss was hunkered down on his left, all muscle and mud. Muzzle and Rat were on the right, side by side, snarling and snapping. Navin raised his arms, trying to shield his face. In his mind’s eye, he imagined Rat lunging at him, those tiny yellow teeth digging for his eyes.
“No, no, help,” he wailed. “They got me! They got me!”
Somewhere Hao Chow cried out a wordless reply, and Navin heard the scuff of his shoes as his friend took off running into the trailer park. Navin fumbled around and caught hold of the broken branch, taking it in both hands and raising it like a weapon above his head. Only then did he realize that the dogs weren’t looking at him. They continued to bark and snap, long ropes of drool running out of Boss’s mouth, but they were gazing up into the tree. A single leaf fell softly, spinning, and landed on top of Rat’s head, and the scruffy little terrier did nothing about it.
Suddenly, Muzzle whimpered, flinched, and took off running back into the forest. Rat followed a moment after. Only Boss lingered, still growling, tense, the fur along his belly quavering. Navin lifted his gaze to the top of the tree. He couldn’t tell what he was seeing. Some kind of light moving through the branches, pale and soft. Immediately, Navin forgot all about his pain.
“What is it?”
Boss whimpered but stood his ground. Navin eased away from him, his gaze fixed on the light. It seemed to be coming from around the other side of the tree. When he moved around the trunk, he realized it was inside the tree, filling the hollow space and shining through the narrow opening. It reminded him of the fluorescent lights at school, unnatural and flickering. Something about it made his stomach feel strange, made his flesh crawl. Slowly, he stood up, groaning at the pain in his leg, his back, his arms.
Something came out of the light then, some gray thing, long and twisting like a ribbon caught in a breeze. It detached itself from the harsh, white glow and moved through the air, writhing as it went. Navin shuffled backward as it worked its way down through the branches. He wanted to scream, to flee, but somehow he was certain that if he drew attention to himself, it would become aware of him.
Boss managed one throaty bark, flinging saliva. The gray ribbon, translucent as a thin sheet of paper, spiraled down out of the branches and approached the dog. Navin held his breath. He wanted to turn away, sure that some terrible thing was about to happen, but he didn’t dare move now, not even to avert his gaze. Boss tried to bark again, but only the first little expulsion of breath came out before he bit it off.
The dog watched the ribbon approach him. It floated up, then down, and the end touched the dog right between the eyes. And then, to Navin’s horror, it went into the dog, bloodlessly passing through the matted fur until it was gone. As soon as the ribbon disappeared, Boss awoke from his stupor, thrashing and barking, swinging his head from side to side. Navin clutched the tree branch in his hand, ready to defend himself, but the dog gave a throaty growl and took off running. He zigzagged, slamming into trees as he went, still shaking his head, until at last he disappeared in the distance.
Only when the sound of the dog was gone did Navin start away from the tree. He glanced up at the gap in the trunk and noticed that the light was gone.
“What in the heck was that?” he whispered, his heart pounding.
He turned back to the fence, still dazed and out of breath. Had Hao seen the light? He hoped so. If not, he would never believe the story. Hao was a bona fide skeptic of anything he didn’t see with his own eyes, and Navin didn’t relish the thought of trying to prove himself.
But it wasn’t Hao’s face peeking at him over the fence. Instead it was a broad face, pink-cheeked with a shiny forehead, small eyes under untrimmed eyebrows, yellowish hair pulled back in a ponytail. Navin would have ducked out of sight, but she had already spotted him. By the fierceness of her gaze, he knew that she hadn’t seen the light. There was no astonishment, just naked anger. One hand rose above the fence, short, fat fingers, and she beckoned him.
Navin winced and dashed off toward the fence, the light forgotten, the baseball forgotten, all thought of dogs slipping out of his mind. He tried to dust himself off a bit before he got there, but his t-shirt was filthy with grass and dirt. He picked a leaf out of his hair and cast it aside.
“What do you think you’re doing climbing the fence?” she said in that gravelly smoker’s voice. “Are you really that stupid? Get over here right now. Right now!”
“Sorry, Mom. I lost my baseball, and I—”
“I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care what you lost.”
Navin grabbed the top of the fence, but his mom didn’t wait for him to climb over. Instead, she seized his wrists and dragged him up. He scraped his belly on the top of the fence, grunted, and toppled over the other side. She caught him around the chest as he fell, surprisingly strong, and set him on his feet. Then, before he had a chance to recover, she pressed him up against the fence and stuck a finger in his face.
“Now, you listen to me real good.” Her voice was like a knife cutting cloth. “I don’t have the time or money to take you to the hospital. Insurance don’t pay but a portion of the bill, and we can’t afford extra charges. If one of those dogs gets hold of you, you’re sunk. Do you understand me?”
He nodded, staring at his own ratty high tops, suddenly close to tears. “My baseball,” he said. “And I didn’t even get it. It’s still there.”
“Well, it’s lost, then,” she said. “And anything else you throw over the fence is lost. Let it go. Did you get bit?”
He shook his head.
“Good. Go home.”
And with that, she grabbed a handful of his shirt and flung him away from the fence. He took three stumbling steps and caught himself against the basketball goal.
Hao was nowhere in sight. Navin saw two rows of mobile homes stretching off for a good fifty yards toward Tuxedo Boulevard. Traffic slipped past the gap at the end where a gate had once been.
“Where’s Hao?” Navin asked.
“I sent him home.” She jabbed him in the small of his back with her finger. “Get going. Your friend came pounding on the door and woke me up out of a deep sleep. You know I gotta work tonight, and now I won’t be able to fall back asleep. Thanks for nothing.”
“Sorry.” Navin pushed away from the basketball goal and trudged down the line of trailers. He didn’t dare tell her about the light. He didn’t dare tell her anything, not when she was in a mood like this. “I thought I could get to the tree and back before the dogs showed up.”
“Well, I heard ‘em barking, so I guess you were wrong. I scared ‘em off when I showed up, didn’t I?”
“I think so.”
“Of course I did.”
Navin’s home was the third trailer on the left, a little beige box set on cinder blocks. His mom’s car, a ’78 Ford Fairmont station wagon in a hideous yellow hue, sat in the narrow driveway beside it.
“This is why I hate summer,” his mother muttered from behind him, her threadbare shoes slapping the cracked and pitted asphalt of the narrow street that ran down the middle of the trailer park. “Kids can’t find nothin’ to do. Gotta get up to all kinds of trouble.”
“We were just playing around,” Navin said.
“Can’t you go to Hao’s house and play video games? I know they’ve got a nice house just across the street there.”
“We do that sometimes. His dad doesn’t like when he has company, so we don’t hang around there in the afternoon, in case he comes home.”
Navin walked beneath his bedroom window. It was grungy, a large faded poster taped up in place of curtains. He turned the corner. Warped wooden steps led up to the front door, but the original handrail was long gone. It had been replaced by a crude railing made from a length of PVC pipe. He headed up the stairs, careful not to lean on, or even touch, the railing. He worked at the dented doorknob—the door always resisted being opened—and finally shouldered his way into his living room.
“If Mr. Chow thinks he’s too good for us, maybe we shouldn’t let his kid come over here,” Mom said. The steps creaked under her weight.
“It’s not like that, Mom. His dad is just exhausted when he gets home. He’s at his restaurant all day, every day.”
“He’s not the only one who works hard. My goodness!”
The inside of the trailer reeked of old furniture, dust, and garbage. Navin’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, and he saw the orange couch collapsing beside the wall under a flea market painting of happy little trees. Straight ahead was the television, a relic of the late 70s, the faded screen encased in a battered wooden case.
The television was on, Fred Sanford flailing his arms at his son, Lamont, through a scrim of static, though the volume was turned down. Navin headed for the kitchen. A small table sat on the peeling linoleum, covered in a blanket of junk mail, paycheck stubs, and empty food packages. Navin pulled back one of two flimsy chairs. An empty box of Triples cereal fell to the floor as he sat down, a few stray pieces of cereal rattling around inside.
Normally, he would have been whining, pleading, trying to get back outside, but he was afraid. Something had settled in the space between his heart and belly, some cold and quivering thing, and he couldn’t sit still. He fidgeted, fiddling with an envelope on the edge of the table.
“You need better friends,” his mom said, shutting the door. “Why can’t you hang out with kids in the trailer park? Hao shouldn’t be crossing the street and walking through traffic to come over here anyway. It’s not safe.”
“There’s nobody my age in the trailer park. Just a bunch of old people and Teddy Moyer, but Teddy’s sixteen and a bully.”
“You need friends that won’t get you in trouble.”
Navin heard the creak of the couch, the protest of weak wood, as his mother sat down in the living room. He glanced back and saw her lying there, a small knit blanket pulled up to her hips, her head resting against the armrest so that her ponytail dangled over the side.
“I’m going to my room,” Navin said.
“Nuffy, don’t you want to eat something?” Ah, she knew she’d overreacted. She always called him by that baby name when she felt bad. Nuffy.
He rose from the chair, knocking a whole stack of junk mail onto the floor in the process. He took a moment to pick it up. It gave him something to do for a few seconds instead of remembering a little gray ribbon floating through the air.
“I’m not hungry,” he said. “I’m tired.”
“It’s five thirty!”
Navin carefully stacked the fallen papers and slid the chair up under the table.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, trudging through the kitchen, stumbling on a peeled corner of the linoleum.
Ahead, a narrow hallway stretched past the bathroom and gave way to the musty darkness of his bedroom. The floor trembled with every step. He slipped into his room, kicked the door shut and waded through the clutter on the floor, making his way to his bed in the corner, which was only two twin-sized mattresses stacked on top of each other.
There wasn’t much to his room. An old plastic trunk served as a toy box, but it was mostly full of broken Star Wars figures, battered Matchbox vehicles, and trash. The closet door was open, his clothes piled up in a corner there almost all the way to the ceiling. Faded posters hung on the walls, the corners held in place by strips of masking tape—Darth Vader looming over a red Star Wars logo, the yellow-and-black Batman symbol, a small poster for Super Mario Bros. 3 given to him by Hao, Guns N’ Roses with the band members as skulls. Navin didn’t care about any of it. He scarcely saw anything. His backpack sat beside the bed, and he picked it up and put it in his lap. He didn’t need anything inside. He just wanted something to hold onto.
He wouldn’t sleep. That was certain. No sleep, no homework, just sitting and watching sunlight bleed through the poster in the window as it got darker and darker inside, and memories of gray ribbons and thrashing dogs danced through his head.
By Jeffrey Aaron Miller
A destructive force has been set loose in the woods behind Tuxedo Trailer Park. It’s the summer of 1991, and Navin Noe only wants to retrieve his prized baseball before stray dogs chew it up. But his foolish venture into the woods brings him to the hollow tree full of light and the terrible thing that dwells inside. Soon the little town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma is threatened by mysterious forces and strange creatures. Before the end of summer, Navin and his friends, Hao and Jane, will have to delve into their own secrets in order to save the world from the most dangerous power in existence.